Interview with Ellen Doré Watson

Ellen Doré Watson is the author is five poetry books, including pray me stay eager, published in 2018. She is also a well-known translator, most notably from the Portuguese of Brazilian poet Adélia Prado, for which she received a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, among other honors. Watson’s work has appeared widely, from The New Yorker to American Poetry Review, and other distinctions include a Rona Jaffe Writers Award and a Massachusetts Cultural Council Artists Grant. Poetry and translation editor of The Massachusetts Review, she directed the Poetry Center at Smith College for two decades and currently serves as Conkling Visiting Poet at Smith. Watson lives in Massachusetts but recently visited San Diego State University as part of the Hugh C. Hyde Living Writers Series. She sat down with second-year MFA student Betsy Littrell and had an energetic and passionate conversation.

I would like to start the conversation with a question about your translation work. Do you speak fluent Portuguese and any other languages?

I took Spanish and French in high school and college and translated some Peninsular Spanish in grad school and traveled widely in Latin America. Years later, when I was living in Brazil (with my husband at the time, who was on a Fulbright), Portuguese took over. I never studied formally, though before leaving the U.S. I worked with a Smith professor to help me make the transition from Spanish to Portuguese.  He was then first person I met from Smith, and later became my colleague. Anyway, once in Brazil, it was total immersion: furnishing an apartment, reading the paper, talking to neighbors, watching TV. I get along fine in Brazil, but on the phone it’s more difficult, and of course I read and understand at a much higher level than when I’m just trying to get my point across. Adélia loves to poke fun at my mistakes. So yeah, I’m quite fluent in a funky kind of way.

But you’ve lost the other languages?

I can still read them fairly well, but I think I have a sort of two-track brain when it comes to languages. Anything outside of the basics, and it gets scrambled. On a trip to Argentina while living in Brazil, I discovered that no one understood my “Spanish.” So, I got up the next day and thought, okay try Brazilian–and people could understand me.  I think it’s because I’d been speaking Spanish with an American/Brazilian accent, and probably using false cognates from both languages. So once I switched to Portuguese, which I’d been living in for months and months, it was less of a mish-mash.  I’ve been speaking Portuguese for forty years now. Within a couple of days of arriving in Brazil, I’m dreaming in Portuguese, which is a thrill every single time. It’s securely lodged deep in my brain, while bits of the other languages are hanging around in the periphery.

Do you translate in anything besides Portuguese?

No, not recently. I translated a few poems from Polish with a friend of mine, and I did a fair amount of Arabic with a co-translator early on during the Iraq War, back when there weren’t a lot of native speakers of Arabic translating. Thankfully, now there are terrific native poets translating Arabic—like Fady Joudah and Khaled Mattawa.

What other authors besides Adélia Prado are you translating?

Well, for a long time Adélia’s been my one and only. For about 10 or 12 years after returning from Brazil, I translated prose: a biography, a YA book, and a slew of novels. It was the tail end of what was called “the Boom,” when most all the contemporary Latin American fiction in Spanish had been translated, but there was still a hunger for more, so publishers were looking for translators from Portuguese, and somewhat improbably I got hired. I thought maybe I’d learn to write novels but that was not to be—I’m a condenser not an expander. I really enjoyed the work for a number of years, and then finally realized I was desperate to get back to my own work, to all poetry. Recently I’ve become interested a Portuguese poet who has asked me to do a few things, and I’ve started working on poems by Mia Couto, a Mozambican writer mostly known as a novelist. But it’s funny; I kind of feel like I’m “cheating” on Adélia whenever I translate anybody else!  She’s put out two new books since the work I’ve done (which are drawn from her first six), and she’s in her eighties, so it’s time for me dive back into her poems before getting serious about anyone else.

How did you first come to translate Adélia?

 Fulbright spouses were not allowed to work, lest they take work away from the people who live there, which was quite a great thing! My plan was to write and translate, so I combed though bookstores and libraries everywhere I went, looking for a poet whose work called to me, but most of the books of contemporary poetry were by men—whose work I couldn’t relate to and who were already appearing in English. Very frustrating!  One day my husband brought home the literary magazine that grad students in English had produced, and there was a tiny poem of Adelia’s—the first poem of hers I read, “Day,” badly translated (because of course they were translating in the wrong direction, into their acquired language), but still it was wonderful. And spoke to me like nothing else I’d seen since beginning my search. I’ll read it tonight. I ordered her books and fell in love! I was such a novice, though—I sent some of my early translations to Field magazine and StuartFriebert wrote back to say he was very interested and did I have rights to publish her? Uh-oh, “the rights”? I wrote to Adélia’s publisher multiple times. They didn’t respond. Months and months. So I just kept translating, and sending letters to Rio. Finally I got a letter back, saying that an option for her work had been bought by a N.Y. publisher.  For a couple days I was deflated. Demolished.  Then one morning I woke up and realized it had to be a lie: nobody buys an “option” on an unknown foreign poet. Hope! At the end of our stay, I went to the office of the publisher and asked why he wouldn’t let me translate Adélia’s work, or at least send my letter to her to consider. The guy let loose a torrent of complaints—did I know how much it cost him to publish a translation of a Flannery O’Connor story in an anthology?! etc.—and after he finished I said, okay, that’s outrageous, but this is poetry. There’s no money in it for anybody and I’m doing it out of love. I want to share Adélia with English readers.  Eventually, he said that I should show my translations to Tom Colchie, an agent in NY that he worked with, and if Tom thought it was good he would arrange the rights.  Tom said he’d pave the way for my Adélia translations, but didn’t I want to earn some money translating?  And that’s how I became a translator of novels. Which paid the bills for quite a while before and after the NEA fellowship to go to Brazil and work with Adélia. Quite a circuitous route! It just goes to show, if you want something really badly, keep on knocking at the door.

That’s a good lesson. It worked for you, didn’t it?

 It doesn’t always, but it did in that case. And changed my life in so many ways.

What about some of the challenges of translating? It’s not easy.

No. Of course translating is hard; so is writing. But when I’m knocking my head against the wall trying to fix a poem—whether mine or someone else’s—I’m happy, even when it’s not working. I probably don’t look happy but I feel like I’m doing what I should be doing. What I’m built to do and I love to do. What more can we ask?  I didn’t feel the same way about translating prose—that was more like w-o-r-k. And when I quit, it was: never again. Too many words!  And it’s not as though any poetry would be a good match for me. Adélia’s work is different enough from mine but so fresh and surprising—after all these years very, familiar and yet still exciting. And I love translating an author who’s alive and can answer my questions, we sit at the table and discuss—debate!—shades of meaning.  The syntax and vocabulary are mostly very straightforward—but I need to know what’s behind the words to make the right choices, create analogous affects for the English reader.

There’s getting the music right…

And the music is so different because romance languages make music so beautifully and easily. I’d never translate formal verse—it’s not in my wheelhouse. Adélia says she doesn’t think about, much less plan out musicality, but it’s there in her work because it’s in her ear. In Portuguese, as in Spanish, the vowels do a lot. In English relying too much on vowels can get sing-songy, so it’s good to use consonants and slant rhyme.  Nothing good is too easy—but this work is so satisfying to me.  And Adélia loves to hear her poems out loud in English, despite not understanding a word. I really can’t believe my luck to have found her, and not just the poems but her and her family: husband José, their five kids, their kids’ kids, the whole clan. I’m very close with her daughter Ana, who’s in her forties, and lives in Sao Paulo. Sometimes I consult her about a line of poetry, which has occasionally led to a hilarious debate between mother and daughter about exactly what it means.

Does Ana speak English?

Ana, yes, has pretty good English, but when first met her Adélia had no conception of what translation was. I mean, she knows Latin from church, but that’s memorized ritual, not translation. The first time I went to Divinópolis, she pulled out the special section of the American Poetry Review with thirteen of her poems, and asked me to  translate them each back into Portuguese without looking at the original, “so I can tell what you did.” Man, was I scared!  Once minute she’d be saying, “Hmm,” and the next: “What did you do there? You changed the image! Why did you do that?” I doubt my explanations were very articulate. But a few days later she wondered if I had any of my work translated into Portuguese. I had one poem, translated by Ivan Angelo, a novelist I’d worked with, so I gave it to her, and she read it over a couple of times. “What’s going on in this line here,” she asked, and once I’d explained it she blurted out, “Oh, he translated exactly what the words say, but that’s not what you said it meant.” Her mouth fell open. “Oh! I get it. Sometimes you have to change things in order to get it right!” She took this in and we talked about tone and word associations and in the end she proclaimed: “Well then, if you remain loyal to my intention and the feeling of the poem then change whatever you need to change to get it right.”

Have you translated your poems from English, or anybody else’s, over to Portuguese?

I translated a poem I wrote for her, “Barefoot Girl,” which is in pray me stay eager, so that she would have access to it. I got help a Brazilian American colleague who teaches Portuguese language and literature, and I thought we’d got it down pretty well. But, as is my wont, there was lots of enjambment, and Adélia’s a phrase-based line breaker. She was totally thrown by the line breaks. She cried on hearing the poem out loud, but when she saw it on paper, she got out her pen and happily scratched away those weird line endings!

At least you got the emotional reaction first!

Oh it was great—a big family gathering. Everybody weeping.

Does being a poet yourself help with translation? Do you think would be much harder if it was somebody off the street who could speak Portuguese but doesn’t know anything about poetry?

Well, I know a couple of people who are really good translators of poetry who are not poets, like my friend Alexis Levitin, who also translates poetry from Portuguese. He’s really good at recreating more formal music which, as I said, I’d never attempt. He has a facility for at making subtle music. As a literature professor, he knows the canon upside down and sideways and, even though he’s not a creative writer, the music of English is in his very fabric. But someone who knows the language without living inside literature at that level, no way.

 It must be so hard to translate formal or metrical poetry.

Contemporary work in Portuguese doesn’t tend to be rigidly metrical, but Alexis  translates poems that require facility and subtlety, rhythmically and musically, and does an amazing job. They’re not the kind of work I’m most drawn to, but they’re quite lovely.  And there’s the whole question of which elements in a given work are most crucial to privilege, to preserve. How far can we go to make a poem the best it can be in contemporary American English without violating it? There are times I think I’ve pushed a bit too far. It’s key to discuss such instances with her, to see whether what I’m tempted to do is in the spirit of her poem or not. There’s a poem of hers that has two rather similar adjectives in the last line—I would have suggested a student poet decide between them. I asked her whether it would be okay to use the stronger one and leave it at that, and was delighted that she agreed it would be better that way, and wondered why she’d used them both. We always want to make the best poem possible, but we have to remember who it belongs to. If I hadn’t known her as well as I do, I might not have had the cheek to ask!

So you work pretty closely with her most of the time, physically alongside her?

Oh, yes, side by side at a table.

 So it’s never just a phone conversation. You just always go to Brazil?

I have phone conversations with her occasionally. Not often. She’s definitely not a phone person. I talk more with Ana.

 So you need to plan some trips down there.

 Yes, this summer or fall. So far I only have drafts of maybe half a dozen poems, so there’s lots of prep to do; I need to be ready with my barrage of questions, because she gets very impatient. She enjoys it for a while, but then tries to get me to put work aside and watch a video or go for a walk. It’s understandable—she’s already written the poems once and knows what they mean!  So sometimes I say, ok, you’ve given a lot to work with, why don’t you take a break; other times I say yes to the video!

It would take a lot of patience on both parts, for sure. Let’s talk a little bit more about your work now. Next year is our manuscript for third years and every time you read a book, you’re looking at how somebody put it together, how it works, how you can learn from its construction. And one of the things I took away from your pray me stay eageris how well it’s put together, the way it’s woven together so nicely. When you sit down to write a poem, do you think about it in terms of a manuscript, or in terms of the poem, and then later come back and maybe work it in?

It’s always just a poem. But pray me stay eageris a more intentional book than my others. Different books present different kinds of needs and problems in terms of ordering.  Some, like This Sharpening, which focused on my divorce and my mother’sdementia, required strategies around narrative threads and the different characters the poems were addressed to. Dogged Hearts had three distinct sections, so I knew sometimes I was writing for the varied speakers and characters in the first part, sometimes for the couple in the second section, and then there were the autobiographically-based poems in section three. But you don’t know how things will fit together—or at least I don’t—until pretty far down the road.  At the beginning, I just write poems. Things might get too wooden, too stiff, if I were writing to an outline or something. I need to mess around and gradually discover what I’m thinking about and how the poems might talk to one another. With pray me stay eager, somewhere along the way I got into thinking about abstractions—how I’m always telling students to avoid them and meanwhile how much fun they were to explore and interrogate. And then I got the idea of field guides as a way to think about abstractions. That in turn led to a series of odes to abstractions. And then you need pieces that aren’t so directly linked but somehow reflect the voice and moment of the speaker; some already written, others to allow to happen.  Every time I put a book together there are poems that don’t fit, that just refuse to live with the others. A poem that didn’t get into the first book or the second book maybe one day squeezes into the third. Some remain orphans. This book seemed to ask more and more to become a whole, and that meant it needed to cook a little bit longer—ten years.  After it had been scheduled for publication, I got a call from Alice James. There was a sudden opening in the queue and if could I get the finished manuscript to them in a month or two it would come out nearly a year earlier than planned. I was with my friend Barbara Ras at an artist  retreat. She heard me sputter a bit, and eventually say I was grateful for the offer but that I needed more time. When I got off the phone, Barbara said, “That’s the most un-Watson thing I’ve ever heard you do.”  It was! But I just knew I needed to write more poems and that I hadn’t solved the ordering, and that trying to do all that in a couple of months would not be the best thing for the book.  Sometimes we fly on instinct. Poems fell out of the book and new things got written, and I’m glad I had the space to see it more clearly.

You can tell. As a writer, I can see how the themes and ordering work. I just sit and write poems, but I think nowadays we’re all looking more how it’s themed and ordered. A lot of poems have themes and you don’t even realize it. A lot of mine are motherhood or women type of themes, done in different forms.

I don’t think every book needs that kind of weaving. Some stick to a theme or a time period and dig deep, as it seems maybe you’re doing. My first, We Live in Bodies, reflected my life at the time: infertility,miscarriage, motherhood, being an EMT.  Everything I did or thought or wrote seemed to be about the body. I didn’t have to think about it; that’s what I was living and writing. The second book is my weakest book because it really doesn’t have enough holding it together. It’s my little orphan book. There are a couple of poems I’m still proud of, but it makes me a little sad because I rushed it. Haha, right now, no doubt because I’m getting older, I feel pressure to write faster. Not to shape a book, but to produce a big pile of poems and see what I have. It’s probably also a reaction to the eight months or so after the new book came out, when I didn’t write at all.  I’m finding it useful to write in series now, because one poem kind of births another. Of course they may not stay in the lanes they’re in, but all I aim to do is keep the pen moving. As long as we do that, then our concerns and obsessions and questions show themselves—and may turn out to be the glue. Or not. So I’m willing to let things come willy-nilly. But I’m in a hurry. I don’t want to wait another 10 years for the next book.

Some of the themes I see in your work are interesting to me, like women in power. “Women For the World” really stood out and when reading it, you don’t know that it’s about all these different women until you get to the notes in the back. I thought this was a great poem, and then I got to the notes in the back and I was blown away. All of these amazing women are packed into this poem. This is so great. How did you decide which women to choose?

 That’s one of the only commissioned poems I’ve ever written. The illustrator and printer Barry Moser makes these incredibly gorgeous broadsides of poems by some of the readers in the Poetry Center reading series. Smith Advancement’s capital campaign at the time was “Women for the World,” and they wanted a Moser broadside with a poem on that theme to give to the million-dollar donors. So they asked me if I’d write it! I was terrified, but it was a terrific theme and they pretty much gave me carte blanche—who wouldn’t want a Moser broadside of their poem? But they needed it fast. I usually I write many drafts, critiqued by many poet friends and revised over a long period. I’ll often make changes in a poem even after it has appeared in a journal. I had to shrink that process down into just a few months. And so I went to town, madly excavating for ideas and approaches, stories of women heroes, famous and little known. Notes upon notes upon notes.  Finally I began the actual writing and produced a dozen successive drafts that a dozen or so generous readers critiqued as the poem took shape. It was a compressed version of my process. I hardly did anything else for much of that time. A wonderful obsession! Of course the stories were fascinating and complex and it was hard to decide how much detail would sink the ship. It was a relief to realize that at least when it appeared in a book I’d be able to include notes in the badk of the book with particulars about the women who made it into the poem.

I loved having those notes. When you read it, it could potentially be one woman, but probably not one, but you don’t necessarily know who it’s about.

Ha! Yes, it is a lot for one woman to do!

But then when you read in the back, it’s wow, look at all these women and most of them you’ve never even heard of. It was an education.

I wanted a couple of people that would be recognizable but mostly not.

Which is great. I loved that. So you write in a lot of different forms. Does it usually come out in the form or do you sometimes go back and change the form after you start writing?

Sometimes I have a sense of—oh, this one is going to need a long line to propel it forward, or mysteriously atypical short, lingering lines just start to happen in the first drafting, but mostly for me the shape comes later, in revision. I mean, who doesn’t love the miracles, when a poem drops down like a gift from heaven, but I also love revision. I scribble bits or long rants or whatever in a notebook, often sparked by the prompts I give students, and then I just instinctively pick a form when I move to the keyboard. I like symmetrical stanzas unless the poem asks for something different. So that’s my way of revising. I’ll start with a certain line length, and I’ll write push the material around a while typing it in a long slug and see how many line I have when it seems to reach a stopping point. If the number is divisible, I try various stanza lengths. Then something might strike me that needs to be added, which screws up the form and I have to start over.  But each time, in the process of trying to make things come out even, I have to either choose what’s extraneous or come up with something to add that the poem has added value. So it goes.  On and on. In the end, the poem might end up a block or have irregular stanzas or indented lines, but what I learn by playing with the form helps me find the poem. I do a lot of this on my own, but I also have a group of poet friends who help me see what I’m blind to, what I’m saying without meaning to, prod me to be more concrete or less bossy.  I definitely need and am grateful for outside eyes on the poem at a certain point, before I get too used to it.

Do you have a favorite form, or a few different forms that you go back to?

Well,  I do love tercets, their lovely instability. And couplets, for opposite reasons, as if they’re meant to be. Sometimes a poem refuses to settle, never seems comfortable, and I need to try something new—something jagged, or with spaces, words spread across the page, enforcing a kind of stutter, a reluctance.  Or wants to be claustrophobic, like it needs to not let you breathe.  In addition to help from others, I have two other strategies when a poem seems unhappy or just plain wrong in its shape: one is to leave it be (out of sight) for a long while. Another is to read it out loud slower, then faster or with pauses in different places. So yeah, I probably work in stanzaic structures more than anything else, but sometimes it’s not the right thing, so I end up going a different direction.

 Do you have a list of favorite poets or authors that you recommend that we all need to read?

 Oh, God, it’s always changing because we all need to discover new voices. This year Ada Limón is one of my big ones. Oh my God, I liked her earlier books, but this new one, The Carrying! Read it. It’s fantastic. Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas is phenomenal, unlike anything you’ve ever read. Not that it’s similar to Ilya Kaminsky’s incredible new book, but it’s as much itself as his book is. Aracelis Girmay’s Kingdom Animalia is one I return to. ChenChen.  Ocean Vuong. Ross Gay. Danez Smith came to Smith this fall—when someone is that much of a performance poet, I’m always a little dubious, but those poems are crafted, they’re honed.  I love Ellen Bass. And I read a lot of translation, especially those I go back and back and back to— Szymborska, Hikmet, Darwish. Patty Crane just put out a new volume of Transtromer translations that are wonderful. And on and on with the banquet!


About the interviewer: Betsy Littrell is a whimsical soccer mom to four boys, working on her MFA in creative writing at San Diego State University. Her recent publications include The Write Launch, The Road Not Taken, and Prometheus Dreaming. In addition to her poetry writing, she is a journalist at KGTV, and a volunteer with Poetic Youth, teaching poetry to underserved youth from San Diego area elementary schools.


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