Other People’s Voices

PIOnline staff writer Zach Bernstein talks to Paisley Rekdal about her digital project West: A Translation 

I FIRST ENCOUNTERED Paisley Rekdal’s lyrical poems before West: A Translation, particularly some of her early work as well as one of her newest books, Nightingale. This book is partly about violence, but it is more interested in the pain of utterance in the wake of trauma. Whether this breach of silence is the gentle voice of Philomela compared to the nightingale or the “high requiem” of Keats, Rekdal seems to continue this idea of the voiceless finding a way to speak and, mostly importantly, finding a listener in West: A Translation. While Nightingale locates universal suffering through a reinterpretation of myth, West looks no further than into the annals of American history by showing us that the Chinese immigrants who built the railroads in America were far from voiceless. 

West is a venture into documentary poetics, I suppose an epic genre of the digital humanities. Her digital collection is a sequence of persona poems that oscillates between historical narratives and contemporary political underpinnings that we see differently when we consider the historical context of Chinese immigrants with which they are juxtaposed. This work is a portrait of America through the lens of a particularized historical backdrop. The reader (or viewer in this case) is implicated by scrolling through the text, feeling the freedom to jump around through the work’s idiosyncratic organization. Rekdal allows us to create our own journey through the work by not tying us down to a specific order and encouraging us to peek into the different sights, sounds, time periods, and poems that are present throughout the epic. 

Our discussion of West is framed through a brief consideration of her early work and how this is a departure for Rekdal. Even a radical departure doesn’t feel unexpected from a writer as daring or a writer with as many interests as Paisley Rekdal. I was really interested and somewhat baffled by the fact that the digital project is going to be constructed into a collection of poems published by Copper Canyon Press; in response, a decent portion of our conversation works to unpack the nuances of shifting the same material to a different genre with an entirely different reading experience and audience. 

The following interview is also based on a virtual reading Rekdal offered at San Diego State University through the reading series offered throughout the semester. I hope you enjoy our conversation and enjoy not only the unique experience of reading West: A Translation, but also the wealth of diversity present in the rest of Paisley Rekdal’s oeuvre–Zach Bernstein, PIOnline Staff Writer


Zach Bernstein: West: A Translation sounds different to me in comparison with the earlier work you’ve written throughout your career. What is it about this project that alters your prosody?

Paisley Rekdal: Two things: first, I’m working with other people’s language, whether that’s oral histories or 19th century memoirs, etiquette guidebooks, travelogues or newspapers. Second, I’m trying to create a lot of “space” on the page so that the language feels more direct and accessible. I’m not writing as myself, basically, so it’s not a surprise that I don’t sound like myself.

ZB: I liken the project to persona poems, yet this is the embodying of a self or selves on the page tied to the tangible reality of American history, so how do you think sound and history are playing with each other to create a unique soundscape in these poems?

PR: I’m definitely trying to drill down into the “voice” of each person I’m writing through or around, which means trying to capture how they sound—the little stylistic or verbal tics that characterize their own voice. These tics aren’t there for show, at least I hope they aren’t. These tics to me say something about how they were perceived or socialized in the poems. For instance, in my poem “Your,” I wanted to emphasize how Sir Richard Burton—himself a noted translator and linguist, but also a notorious Orientalist—kept comparing Mormons and Utah to people and places in the Middle East. This wasn’t an accident or fabrication: Burton wanted to racially exoticize Mormons because of their practice of polygamy. Burton’s references are like little musical or stylistic phrases that get repeated in my poem to highlight another argument about history and culture that Burton was making, and to emphasize the interesting fact that, to many people, Mormons weren’t considered exactly white. In this case, this repetition of imagery is there to create character and argument.

ZB: How does the audio play into the sound of the poems? Is this a means of mimesis, a way of pulling the reader into the world you have created, a kind of bridge between our present moment and the past? Or do you think the audio symbolizes a sense of conflict or disruption? Perhaps these two opposing interpretations work together in some way as well.

PR: Sound in the videos works to bridge past and present, as you noted, but also to draw together different kinds of arguments and histories of the railroad. After the Civil War, a lot of soldiers went to work on the transcontinental. In my lyric essay that accompanies the poem “Homeward-Gazing,” I ask whether the transcontinental was finally a martial, not technological, project. In the video poem, you can hear the sounds of hammering the rails which turn, over the course of the video, to gunfire. Likewise in “Pass,” the sound of hammering the rails becomes the sound of hammering a gavel on a judicial desk. Sound reminds us that the railroad had a lot of different cultural meanings and origins. Finally, in “Not,” the sound of the Charleston white supremacists ends a video that focuses on the speeches of Denis Kearney, the Irish labor union organizer. The point was to bring Kearney’s argument about whiteness and labor and fears of disenfranchisement into today’s world. Culturally, we’re still reeling from Kearney’s rhetoric and ideas.

ZB: I’d like to hear more about how the project will change as it develops into a book published next year by Copper Canyon. The rhizomatic structure of the work, or the encouragement of reading the poem out of order and creating one’s own experience while immersing oneself in the text seems integral to this project in its current form. I’m wondering how you will translate this aspect of the work into a print version? Are you going to signal to the reader in some way that one has to find one’s own journey through the text rather than reading the pages straight through from start to finish?

PR: Books of poetry are like websites in that readers can, if they want, enter and read the book as they like. Unlike books of prose, poetry collections allow for people to create their own organization as they dip in and out of the book at will. But my book will be based around the theme of mirroring. The Angel Island poem I translate is actually part of a dialogic pair of poems that both elegize the same suicide and which were carved on the wall to be read together. I don’t translate both poems on the site, but in the book, I divide my translation between the poems that translate all the Chinese characters and a series of short lyric/historical essays that accompany my poems. The essays can be read altogether as one long lyric essay, or they can be read against their accompanying poems, or they can just be read on their own. But in effect, I create the dialogic effect of the original Chinese poems in the book, since there are now two translations effectively “facing” each other between the covers. But the book also mirrors the website: there are some notable differences in the poems’ arrangement and inclusions, if one cares to look closely. They both act as different translations, effectively. On top of that, only a few images from the website will be included in the book: most of the images I’ve selected from the book, and many of the other languages I include, are not on the website.

ZB: How do you think a contemporary reader benefits from a digital project such as West: A Translation? Do you think there is something specific about how collectively we seem to have changed as readers? I’m thinking of the structure of the piece and how it is presented to the reader or listener, but I am also thinking about the audible aspect as well.

PR: I think people are more and more comfortable reading digitally, but I designed the site more for educational purposes—I see the site as something that is more approachable for people who are younger or who are normally afraid of poems. The digital and visual help locate argument, story, and character for readers who might be scared off from poems on the page. But it also helps make history more immediately vibrant to them as well: the images are quite striking at times. That said, I do think we’ve changed collectively as readers, and not for the better. We have shorter attention spans, we like more direct language and imagery, we tend to get bored by nuance. For me, I’m hoping the visual tricks people into staying for what is, in reality, a tricky reading experience. As they randomly pull up videos, they start making connections that I can’t control or account for finally. They translate the railroad, too, via the associations they are able to make through their own selections. I don’t know if this benefits readers, exactly, but I believe the history and cultural impact of the transcontinental is significant enough that readers should have as much access as they can to the various documents and ideas that compose the railroad. We’re still living in the shadow of the railroad, in particular its ideas of what comprises Americanness.

ZB: Going off of the idea of history and its relationship with your work, how does the fact that the personal accounts of the Chinese workers are so poorly documented influence your work? Is this a kind of constraint, not having enough documents to grapple onto for a sense of historical accuracy, or is there a sense of liberty in that you can pave the way and build this narrative largely yourself?

PR: Both, really. It forced me to be creative since it made me seek out different ways that the Chinese workers *weren’t* voiceless. For instance, Chinese-English phrase books contain what would be considered “common” phrases needed by Chinese immigrants and sojourners based on experiences they were likely to encounter. By seeking these out and sampling from these phrase books, I had a communal record that talked about racist violence, dangerous encounters with police, employment patterns and opportunities, loneliness, and attempting to make a life in America. At the same time, I found some records of Chinese workers that were mentioned in Paiute and Ute oral histories: some of these men, it seems, either were adopted or intermarried into these tribes. I talk about this in one of my lyric essays that will appear in the book. Essentially, I found that we remember via a variety of forms and communities—even if we lose our individual voice, there is still a trace of who we are or were in the collected memories of other people and in other records. I found this very moving, even as it was so frustrating for my research.

ZB: What is it like to write about people who were laborers, who worked with their hands and created physical objects? I am thinking of the first stanza of Yeats’s poem “Adam’s Curse.”

We sat together at one summer’s end,
That beautiful mild woman, your close friend,
And you and I, and talked of poetry.
I said, ‘A line will take us hours maybe;
Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,
Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.
Better go down upon your marrow-bones
And scrub a kitchen pavement, or break stones
Like an old pauper, in all kinds of weather;
For to articulate sweet sounds together
Is to work harder than all these, and yet
Be thought an idler by the noisy set
Of bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen
The martyrs call the world.’

Is there a comparison between creating something physical, whether it be scrubbing a kitchen floor or building a railroad as a worker amongst many, and creating a poem? Perhaps this is altered by the fact that your project is digital, but it is still something material and something made out of language. So I suppose I am also wondering if this made you feel close to the workers and helped bridge the gap of time between you and the people about whom you are writing?

PR: I don’t think I feel at all close to the workers, since I don’t have any experience like theirs. That’s not to say, however, that I don’t feel as if my project isn’t connected to theirs. From the very start of the transcontinental’s genesis and building, it was a project made of words as much as of physical material: the transcontinental is a metaphor, an idea of America, a fantasy of empire and power and of endlessly renewable resources that can fuel national progress. This fantasy was fed by newspaper accounts and political rhetoric, as well as travelogues and poems. As much as I wanted to write a poem that was anti-propagandistic or at least critical of the transcontinental’s meaning, my poem is still clearly a reconstruction (and dismantling of) the narratives that fueled it and, in that, a kind of ode to the railroad itself. I’m still building the railroad, effectively, in words and images. We all are. That said, the closest I ever felt to the railroaders was on the “dead” transcontinental line that skirts the Great Salt Lake. When you see the enormity of the task—every trestle had to be built by hand, every grade dug out shovel by shovel and all of it done in the most extreme landscape and weather—you start to see the transcontinental as the most terrifyingly human relic ever produced and preserved. You can actually—if momentarily—imagine all the labor that went into it. It’s awe-inspiring to realize humans, and not machines, built it all. It’s almost too much to comprehend. It makes you feel so many contradictory things, which is another way in which the transcontinental reminds me of a poem, as it allows for a reader to have a number of conflicting responses. Do I disdain the railroad? Do I admire it? Do I benefit from the railroad? Do I stand apart from it? Yes to all these questions.

Read more about Paisley Rekdal’s West: A Translation 

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