Accents Editor Christopher McCurry interviews Jeremy Paden about his newest collection, ruina montium (Broadstone Books, 2016), which uses poetry to tell the story of 33 miners in a Chilean mine who survived for 69 days before being rescued.
Christopher McCurry: How do you approach disaster/tragedy in a poem?
Jeremy Paden: I approach disaster carefully. Actually, I avoid it. I avoid it and avoid it and avoid it until I can’t. And, I think the only way to answer this question is in the specific way I responded to this unique tragedy. This singular event.
Tragedies and disasters all share pain, all unfold according to a script of grieving and mourning, of anger and loss, of faith and loss of faith. So in that sense they seem universal—everyone has known loss—and our response to tragedy seems also scripted—whether the gawking, or the schadenfreude, the fear and helplessness, or the money given to charities, even the quick forgetting. But each and every one is singular and unique.
As this disaster unfolded, a colleague and good friend of mine kept telling me I should write about it. At the time, and for several weeks, I felt that the most disrespectful thing to do would be to write about it. I thought it would be a form of ambulance chasing, and I wanted nothing to do with ambulance chasing because that seems so self-involved.
But the days dragged on. And contact was established. And letters and food and videos were sent back and forth. And then on the night of October 13 they were brought up one by one. I didn’t write a poem that night. But, when I saw Byron, the son of the foreman, breakdown crying as his father stepped out of the capsule, I started voraciously reading all I could about the men and about the rescue. And I began to write, compelled. It was that hug. That young boy sobbing in his father’s arms told me, you can write about this, about them, just stay true to that moment.
Of course there are parallels to Kentucky, we aren’t strangers to the grief of mining and mining disasters. Did your writing or research of this story bring you back in some way, tangibly or otherwise?
Yes, coal mining and Appalachia was very present on my mind as I was writing these.
April of 2010 saw two Kentucky miners die in a collapse at the Dotiki Mine, and also the Upper Big Branch disaster in West Virginia, with 29 dead. But, I didn’t sit down and try to write about Appalachia also. In fact, I felt I couldn’t write about Kentucky. I told the story of the Chileans, because it called to me. I thought, who here will tell this story if not me?
I did, though, allude to other disasters in Latin America. The poem titled “baptismal waters” acknowledges other Latin American mining disasters. In fact, disasters that happened right around the same time as the Chilean one but were ignored by the media—specifically a Venezuelan gold-mining disaster and a Colombian coal-mining disaster. All these incidents—in Appalachia, in Latin America—were on my mind, even though I didn’t write about them.
My not having written about Kentucky or West Virginia goes back to respect. There are those here who can and should and do tell these stories. I feel it is my place to stand in solidarity with them, and to be a quiet witness to their testimony.
The collection alternates between poems that sit with the men in the dark, some that work almost as persona poems—except I don’t ventriloquize, the speaker of these poems is that of a limited omniscience that addresses the miners in the second person—and poems that take place above ground and recount in a lyrical and fragmented manner the aspects of the history of mining as it relates to the Hispanic world in general, and to Chile in particular. Some of the things, like Pliny’s description of Roman hydraulic mining in northwest Spain, which he talks about in his Natural History, or like the disastrous excursion of Almagro into Chile as he searched for gold, I already knew. Some of the things, like the myth of the alicanto bird, I discovered while reading up on the history of mining Chile.
As to the writing of the poems, once I started, I wrote for a month or two straight. I woke up at 4 a.m. and wrote and read and wrote and reread and rewrote.
I sense the anxiety of a parent in what motivated you begin writing these poems. Am I writing that right? In what other ways did this story speak to you personally?
Also, to continue the connections to Kentucky, many of these miners, as is the case with Appalachian mining, come from mining families. And not only did a number of these men grow up in the mines, this collapse was not their first experience with disaster. In fact, the poem “the taken & the left,” which is about the miner nicknamed “The Pastor,” because he was an evangelical preacher, references the fact that he and his father and his brothers had, many years before, all survived a collapse by running out of a collapsing tunnel in their underwear. Their fellow miners who, concerned about modesty, had run back to get their clothes ended up trapped.
There were, at least, two other connections that spoke to me early on. One of the first stories I read as a young MA student was a story by Baldomero Lillo called Compuerta Número 12 about a young boy on his first day in the mines. So, this theme and concern for miners been part of my career as a scholar of Latin American literature.
The other connection to this topic that’s been with me for a long time is Neruda and his epic 15 book poem Canto General. This is a classic of Latin American poetry and leftist politics. His poems “La United Fruit Company,” “La Standard Oil,” and “La Anaconda Mining Company” are all canonical poems that critique North American colonial/extractive practices. Yet, Neruda’s sexual politics, as well as his ecopolitics, have always bothered me.
This problem with Neruda is staged in the poem “this stain of want,” which is characterized as being after and against Neruda. It’s against Neruda because of Neruda’s sexual politics as well as his ecopolitics. So, almost right in the middle of the collection, I’ve placed a poem that’s an oblique criticism of his eco and his sexual politics.
And for me, at least, in a strange way they come together in certain sections of Canto General. Neruda’s love often turns the body of woman into some aspect of the earth, for a plot of land, that he as lover works, tills, and controls. The active male speaker, then, objectifies woman and possesses her. While in Canto General Neruda often (and Spanish makes this easy for him since the noun earth in Spanish is already gendered female) turns the earth into a woman that needs the protection of a man. And, while in poems like “Standard Oil” or “Anaconda Mining Co.” Neruda might catalogue the violence and destruction brought about by mining, the complaint isn’t one of destruction, but one of someone other than the sovereign nation that owns these lands is benefiting. And, while this is always a problem with extractive economies, from an ecological point of view, his paternalistic protection isn’t really protection, but lament that someone else is mining.
The difficulty this poem presented was that to have made it specifically address the sexual politics would have possibly pulled it out of the mining focus and would have made the poem fall into a self-righteous preachiness. Much better, it seemed, to write a poem that implicated the speaker and contemporary society and it’s desires, wants, and acquisitiveness in this violence and destruction. And, given that the collection is male centered, one that put on display male paternalism and possessiveness without giving an out.
Still, given Neruda’s role, not just as poet of Chile, but also senator to the mining districts of Chile, it seemed impossible to write a collection of mining poems about Chile and ignore him. He did, after all, become a political pariah and had to leave Chile under cover of night because he denounced president Videla from the floor of the senate after a state sanctioned massacre of miners in 1947. But I’m afraid I’ve wandered too far afield.
What were your considerations when writing these poems in terms of language. I mean, at times were you reading about this story in Spanish and then translating ideas and thoughts to English? What words did you need from the Spanish that you couldn’t be translated to English?
Well, the greatest difference, difficulty, I would say, is not in terms of words. It’s true, languages have words that do not translate, expressions that are unique and can only be rendered in another language via circumlocution.
But, English, at least what has come down to us, was forged in the encounter between Anglo-Saxon and Norman, a Romance dialect. Not only this, but Early Modern English, the language used and formed by Wyatt and Shakespeare and Donne and Milton, was heavily indebted to both Latin and to contemporary Romance languages. So there are a lot of connections.
In terms of language, that is, word choice, I took a certain freedom. What I mean by that is this, I gave myself permission to use Latinate words. While I am not a roots purist, that is one of those who thinks that the true poetry of English lies in Anglo-Saxon and Germanic words, I do think that much of the music of English lies in the play of consonants and in the clipped rhythm of shorter words. Latinate words, on the other hand, tend to be longer and slow a line down because of that. Normally I would shy away from a word like scintillate for sparkle, shine, or shimmer. But when drafting the poem, the Spanish centella is what kept coming to mind, so I allowed the Latin in and did not try to censor those words.
I don’t know now how much of that remains after the various edits, I’m still too close to judge, but another thing that I did was not fear Spanish structure. English, even poetry, likes direct expression, even when working in and with the ambiguity of metaphor and indirect speech, English seems not to prefer a proliferation of interrupting clauses. Spanish does. The rhythm of expression in Spanish is one that allows clauses embedded into clauses and grammatical subjects displaced from verbs and adjectives. Given the subject matter, I played some with that as well.
In the end, the use of Spanish in the poems is minimal. It comes in when naming proper things—Ciudad de los Césares (the Chilean version of El Dorado), pata de guanaco, gara de león (flowers), etc.—when citing Pablo Neruda’s poetry, when meditating on specific words, like the poem “yacicmiento.”
Despite all of the above, there were two places, both in the poem that’s dedicated to Neruda, where I used untranslatable puns. The speaker in the first stanza is looking for a gem to call dije mío. Dije in Spanish, when it’s a noun, refers to a gem or a pendant on a string. It’s also the past tense, first person translation of decir, the verb to say. The poem ends with the speaker calling everything mine—a word that is both the possessive pronoun and the noun for that site from which humans extract minerals.
I just picked up your third book Delicate Matters / Asuntos Delicados (Argus House Press), a book of translations, at Holler last week. You’re working in Spanish here, too, so I assume you run into the same issues of “untranslatable puns” and idioms. Are there other language issues that arise when translating?
Yes, there are. Music is the principle difference. Each language has a different music. And by this I mean both the sounds that each language likes and prefers and what each allows as it relates to syntax. There is, I think, a music, and if not a music, certainly a rhythm to thought. Some languages allow, even like, clauses within clauses, and clauses that interrupt other clauses. Wrestling syntax from one language into another in such a way meaning and poetry is preserved is a principal challenge when translating.
Are you currently working on other translation projects? Do these and future projects have a shared vision? Can we anticipate a full-length collection, translations or otherwise?
I am. I am working on two translation projects, a full-length volume of poems of Domínguez and a full-length selected poems of Mestre. And, slowly but surely, I’m getting a full-length of my own. Whether they share anything or not, I suppose they might. Working with Mestre and Domínguez, who are at home and quite at ease in surrealism—each rather well connected to the well established surrealist traditions of their own countries of origin—has made me more comfortable with strange and surprising imagery and language.