In our inaugural “Questions & Answers” interview, we query translator Kristin Dykstra on her work with Cuban poetry.

Kristin has recently translated four books of Cuban poetry for the University of Alabama Press, Other Letters to Milena / Otras cartas a Milena,  The Counterpunch (and other Horizontal Poems) / El contragolpe (y otros poema horizontales), Breach of Trust / Abuso de confianza, and The World As Presence / El mundo como ser (coming Fall 2016). Kristin was the recipient of the 2012 National Endowment for the Arts Literature Translation Fellowship.

Q: How did you get started with translating Cuban poetry?

A: In the mid-1990s I took a class in Mérida, Venezuela. The professor, Arnaldo Valero, gave me some contemporary Cuban work and offhandedly remarked to me at the end that I should translate poems by Reina María Rodríguez into English. He then forgot what he said. Back in Buffalo, I started working on some translations and was soon taken with the challenge.

By chance, shortly afterwards SUNY–Buffalo offered its first study trip to Cuba, and suddenly I had a way to get there despite the embargo and its travel restrictions for US citizens. I convinced a friend working on her PhD in Spanish to join me. It turned out that our program director knew Reina. Reina gave us a disk with an anthology of her writing and her permission to translate it. Most of those poems, along with some others I selected for their experimental bent, went into the anthology Violet Island and Other Poems, which I co-translated with Nancy Gates Madsen (Green Integer, 2004).

Afterwards I continued to translate work by Reina. She also pointed me in the direction of numerous other writers. With time I’ve become more interested in translation as a way to explore the fabric not only of a single poem, book, or writer, but of a poetry community. Elements of chance and pattern together create a trajectory for my translations.

I enjoy sending each bilingual edition to Arnaldo as a reminder of what he accidentally started. He just taught the UAP bilingual edition Other Letters to Milena to his own graduate students in Venezuela, where he had never had access to the Spanish edition before. Afterwards they did a Skype session with Reina, who told me it was an incredibly powerful conversation.

Q: Angel Escobar has several poetry books. What made you choose Abuso de confianza?

A: I noticed that I kept hearing about this book from other poets. I was curious about why people who wrote such different work amongst themselves would recommend the same book. And these recommendations were often emphatic—some people, including Reina María Rodríguez, have called Escobar (1957-1997) the greatest writer of his generation.

I became intrigued by the contrast between this profound respect granted to Escobar on the island and his near-total invisibility outside. Then, the poetry itself is so mesmerizing in its particular way of confronting pain and struggle, the sense of being cast out from even one’s self, that I began to understand the loyalty it inspires.

Q: If you had to choose a single poem to recommend to a reader, which would it be and why?

A: Marcelo Morales (b.1977) is the youngest of these UAP writers so far, taking up subjects like the current climate of change in Cuba directly in prose poetry. He refers to contemporary details like Facebook, which is easily accessible in the US but not in Cuba, which currently has the most limited internet connectivity in our hemisphere. In Havana he has been able to read things on Facebook a little bit, but he generally can’t put up his own posts. In his Alabama book, Marcelo has a two-part piece that we informally call “the Facebook poem.” It starts in section 21 with the prompt “What’s on your mind?” (which is, at least as of right now, the actual prompt you get as a Facebook user). Marcelo’s poem is framed as a set of answers to that prompt: long personal reflections that he couldn’t actually type from Cuba at the time of the book’s composition. So the setup will be accessible to many different kinds of readers here in the US. Yet it’s a more poetic sort of response than one normally finds in the Facebook venue, and that too may appeal to readers here who don’t always see the same reflective use of a service that is, for us, just another everyday e-space.

Juan Carlos Flores maneuvers short prose poems to do all kinds of different things at once. His pacing and use of repetition stand out immediately on the page. For starting points, “The tempest” brings in a John Lennon reference that English speakers often find interesting, whereas “The blender” shows how Flores uses visual art as an inspiration for his minimalist poems, which he arranges inside five Pea-Nut Galleries in his book.

Ángel Escobar’s famous “Hospitals” has been reprinted in many collections organized by Spanish-language writers. It’s short, presenting a brief scene of explosion and calm. Yet that scene suggests themes with a greater significance in the book, such as tensions regarding illness and treatment, and it openly invokes Arthur Rimbaud as a ghost in Escobar’s poetry machine.

The UAP book from Reina María Rodríguez is a mixed-genre book, so instead of isolating a poem I’d say: try out her blending of poetry and prose.

Q: Are there significant themes that you see repeated in several of the authors’ works?

A: Up front I would actually emphasize the diversity of these books, in both style and content. But there’s a common need for the introductions I provide with all of them. These contemporary poetry collections were written in Cuba during a period of time that our media insistently glosses over, by falling back onto the clichéd statement that “Time stopped in Cuba” after 1959.

While some Cuban theorists have made complex uses of that notion (which can be kaleidoscopic when run through the perspectives of people with a deep knowledge of Cuban culture and society), my observation is that its mass media usage in English is quite different. Simplistic applications of the cliché through the prism of English-language media produce only one narrow idea: a repetitive judgment with one primary function, which is to aggravate an effect of the economic embargo, our own lack of knowledge about Cuba. The cliché becomes an excuse for learning nothing about what has happened in Cuba during more than 50 years—because if nothing happened while time stopped, those of us in the US haven’t missed anything worth knowing about, right?

I see the Alabama reader as someone who brings real curiosity to the table, someone who will eventually buck against entrapment inside a little embargoed headspace decorated with posters of old cars.

For that reader, the introductions present the unique writers whose work I’ve translated for UAP and generally explore one or more key themes in the book at hand. All of the poets were either born after the Revolution or were very small children when it took place, so their collections necessarily refer to events and phenomena from the post-1959 period.

Q: Why do you think it’s important for this poetry to be available to an English-speaking audience?

A: First of all, it’s strong writing.

Second, in the context of the polarized and limited coverage that tends to take place with current US/Cuba relations, other kinds of “knowledge” from Cuba disappear. Most people encounter a limited range of topics, which tend to cycle around politics. Literature can be political in a lot of ways—I don’t believe clear lines can be drawn on that matter—but as a way of using language, poetry provides freedoms of speaking and envisioning the world that rely on nobody’s president or governing political party. None of these writers use literature in order to deliver the usual talking points. They generally want to explore other dimensions of life, and they do so with consummate poetic skills.

These are also writers who care a lot about reading. Although translations and even Spanish-language editions have not always been easy for them to get from other parts of the world for economic reasons, Cuban writers tend to have a very deep knowledge of literary history. They will tell you that they’ve shared books, passed them hand to hand, looked for ways to get more. Other countries, meanwhile, have not restricted travel to Cuba for their citizens, so even during these decades that have often been truly difficult for islanders for various reasons, describing Cuba as “closed” can mislead readers and writers here in the US. Active Cuban writers have still had visits from and exchanges with colleagues from other parts of the world. They are sophisticated.

As a result, I often find that poets in the United States discover unexpected aesthetic affinities with their contemporaries in Cuba. Eventually some are stunned to find out that the Cubans—including the auto-didacts who represent an interesting swath of the current scene—are better read in international poetry than most writers here in the US. While I can only share anecdotes (no statistical findings for comparison), I think those incidents are provocative when it comes to reflecting on values and culture.