I didn’t realize until well into my conversation with Kim Addonizio that she’d written (but never published) a full-length memoir, a straightforward narrative about the breakup of a longterm relationship, before Bukowski in a Sundress, the collection of autobiographical essays that we’d met to discuss. That got us to talking about rejection and failure, which dovetailed nicely into some of the larger themes we’d been pursuing about finding the right voice for each of these essays—some of which deal with personal relationships, some of which tackle the writing process, some of which play directly with her reputation as a “confessional” poet—and about claiming her space as a woman dealing with all the things women have to deal with in literary culture. The “Bukowski in a Sundress” tag, for example, had been pinned on her condescendingly by a male critic, and she came to embrace it ironically… then we got to talking about other writers who’d been a much stronger influence on her:
“When I was just starting out as a poet, Sharon Olds was very important to me, because she said things in poems that I didn’t know you could say, and that opened up a lot for me in terms of realizing you could actually talk about things that I thought weren’t supposed to be in serious poetry. And in prose, people like Kathy Acker, for example—at one point, I was reading a lot of [Henry] Miller and Jean Genet and Kathy Acker and Georges Bataille… and Susan Sontag’s essay ‘The Pornographic Imagination,’ and thinking about all those things as modes of writing, expanding the possibilities of what could be said and understanding that writing is about being human, so nothing about being human should be off limits to us as writers.
And for some reason, for some people that seemed to be a new idea in poetry, which makes no sense to me. We’ve got Catullus, we’ve got all sorts of people throughout history who’ve been doing this, and yet I got called ‘edgy’ a lot of times, and I thought, well, I don’t really understand what’s edgy about it. It’s human experience and so why not talk about anything that we are obsessed with or interested in or thinking about or experiencing? And I guess I’ve just always been drawn to a certain aspect of experience. I’m always sort of going down rather than looking up.
I’m not sure why; I mean I could have some sort of therapeutic, psychological reasons why that’s true, but I’ve just been drawn more to the margins and the stuff that is maybe not as talked about in polite conversation. I mean, if I go to a dinner party and people are sitting there stiffly, my first reaction is I want to fuck this up somehow. I want to make some trouble here. Not out of disrespect, but because it’s just hard for me to tolerate a certain kind of decorum… I guess it just goes back to what your character is.”
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photo: via KimAddonizio.com
22 September 2016 | life stories |
photo: courtesy Peter Bush
Black Bread is one of those novels that builds slowly, through the accrued detail of seemingly disconnected scenes… or, let’s say, a string of scenes where the narrative throughline is not immediately apparent to the reader. It attracted my attention because I know very little about Catalan culture beyond the fact of its existence, and I wanted to learn. And, too, I wanted to hear from its translator, Peter Bush—who wound up explaining how a novel about rural Catalonia stirred up memories of his own English childhood.
My very first memories are of a sow with the litter of piglets she’d just farrowed. Her sty was in our backyard and she was my first pet. On a Saturday morning in September, 1950, my elder sister walked me up to the Odeon to the kids’ session; when I came back, sections of the sow were hanging from our clothesline and the kitchen was full of blood and entrails. Cousin Ray the butcher had paid us a visit. (In post-war, still rationing Britain, it wasn’t unusual for people to keep pigs and chickens in their backyards, but by 1950, that era was coming to an end.)
Our domestic scene was gloomy for other reasons. My mother had arranged for us to move to a new council house with large gardens and light in a leafier part of town, from anonymous Seventh Avenue to a more optimistic Queen’s Road in the run up to a coronation, and my father had opposed this from the start. He didn’t want to leave the house my battling grandmother had forced out of the council when her husband, a village shepherd, fell ill one Christmas and was evicted along with his family from their tied-cottage by the Tory landowner. (As they bickered, I enjoyed the haslets, chitterlings, black puddings and pork-pies Ray had made from my pet.)
Many other memories, family stories and bits of our rural dialect and oral history kept flooding back as I translated Emili Teixidor’s Black Bread. Of course, pork and pig slaughtering have a different history in Catalunya and the whole of the Iberian Peninsula. The autumn pig slaughter is a time for festivities that are part pagan and part the legacy of an Inquisitional anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim tradition. But that’s not on the mind of the adolescents in Black Bread, as they hear about the deaths of those surplus to the litter, the runts, ‘the no-hope piglets, the no-hope sucklers’ who reach the tit too late: “Cry-baby and I shuddered when we heard those curious details, as if nature had also got it wrong with us, who through lack of tit and lack of parents were also destined to be abandoned and forgotten. No-hope children.”
11 September 2016 | in translation |