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Interview with Lynn Levin
by Zofia Provizer

Discuss your new book, Birds on the Kiswar Tree.

Birds on the Kiswar Tree

Birds on the Kiswar Tree is my translation from the Spanish of a collection of poems by the contemporary Peruvian Andean poet Odi Gonzales. The book was published this year in a bilingual Spanish/English edition by 2Leaf Press. The poems in Birds on the Kiswar Tree are based on church art painted by devout but subversive indigenous and mestizo Quechua painters during Peru's colonial era. In their paintings, these Andean fine artists expressed their sincere Catholic faith as well as their ardent opposition to the Spanish destruction of the Inca empire. The paintings and the poems that describe them depict both familiar and exotic scenes: for example, the Last Supper and the nativity but also a warrior angel hidden in a church and the marriage of an Inca princess with a Spanish aristocrat.

Most of the poems in Birds on the Kiswar Tree have several literary speakers. The cast includes figures depicted in the paintings: saints, angels, members of the Holy Family, a powerful Spanish cleric, and many others. Gonzales himself interjects observations, and, most importantly, he gives voice to the painters. Many of the painters were anonymous, and many, although accomplished painters, were illiterate. Gonzales gives them words. In the poems, they express their artistic independence, their devotion to their art, the censorship they endured, the threats they suffered, and their religious faith.

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How did these indigenous and mestizo artists come to paint their works?

During the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, Spain sent accomplished painters to the Andes, some of them painter-priests, to evangelize the Quechua people through art. The Andean artists received expert art instruction and produced remarkable canvases in the then-current Mannerist style of painting. The painters were, however, commanded by the ruling Spaniards to paint only religious subjects on pain of excommunication. The Andean painters honored their own culture by painting native flora, fauna, foods, and landscapes in their paintings. For example, instead of depicting a lamb at the Last Supper, the anonymous Quechua artist sets before the disciples a typical Andean dish of roasted guinea pig.

Because many of the painters were working in studios in Cusco, the capital of the former Inca empire, their artistic movement came to be known as the School of Cusco. In fact, La Escuela de Cusco [The School of Cusco] was the title of the original edition of this book, which was published in Peru in 2005. We titled the bilingual edition Birds on the Kiswar Tree because of the wealth of bird imagery in the poems.

How long did it take you to do the translation?

I spent six years translating the poems and another three years seeing the book to publication. So nine years start to finish. I translated intermittently, between teaching, various projects, and my own writing. Translating these poems required a good deal of research into Peruvian history, art history, culture, and geography... and many consultations with Gonzales. I learned a lot along the way.

Then this was a collaborative translation.

Very much so. After translating a small batch of poems, I would email my translations to Gonzales, who was sometimes in Peru and sometimes in the States. He would write me back with approvals and corrections or clarifications. Then I would make the appropriate changes and send out the translations to literary journals. Editors accepted the translations quickly. It was so gratifying to put Gonzales's work out there, and to see it recognized. Gonzales currently teaches at NYU, so he and I had a number of face-to-face meetings as we polished the manuscript for 2Leaf Press. It is a huge privilege to be able to work directly with the poet.

Odi Gonzales one of the most important Peruvian poets of his generation, and he is also a specialist in Quechua language and culture and prehispanic literature of the Andean region, a preeminent scholar in his field. I was able to go right to the source for help with cultural terms and so much more.

How long have you been writing poems?

I have been writing poems ever since I learned how to read and write. I was lucky enough to have teachers who assigned creative writing and who encouraged me. In fact, I dedicated my newest collection of poems, Miss Plastique (Ragged Sky Press, 2013) to my ninth-grade English teacher and all the other teachers who had faith in me as a poet.

Who are some of your favorite poets and why?

I love Pablo Neruda, especially, his book Elemental Odes. I adore the way he choses an ordinary object like a pair of socks or a bicycle and then expands on it with luxurious descriptions and a sense of awe. B. H. Fairchild, an American narrative poet, is a special favorite. Fairchild shows tremendous respect and sympathy for the people he writes about. There's Kenneth Koch, especially the Koch of New Addresses; I savor those poems time and again for humor and wit. Likewise the work of Tony Hoagland. Also high on my list of favorites are Robert Lowell and A. E. Stallings, whom I admire for their elegant melancholy. I love Elizabeth Bishop for her precision and descriptions, and Edna St. Vincent Millay for her frankness and formal grace. Lately I've been a big fan of the Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva. Her work is steeped in passion and torment. When I was in Prague a few years ago, I even visited the house she lived in during her years there.

Where is your favorite place to write?

Believe it or not, I like writing on an airplane. There are no distractions, except for my own wandering mind. Maybe I should park a little airplane in my backyard. That way I could always write in an airplane.

What do you try to teach your students about writing?

I encourage them to be emotionally sincere, to be clear, and to engage the things that haunt them. I am a big believer in both showing and telling, and I urge students to think on the page, to include turns of thought, to surprise the reader with unexpected insights. I tell students that is it also great to be funny in poems, but not cute. It is important to nudge students out of their old writing habits. I find that poetry prompts help a lot. My friend and colleague Valerie Fox and I co-wrote a text, Poems for the Writing: Prompts for Poets, and we are always amazed at the work students produce when prompted to write an unanswerable-letter poem or a poem with lines organized according to the Fibonacci numerical sequence. Most of all, art breeds art. I always assign collections of poems by established and sometimes less-established poets. I love to see another poet light a fire in a student's soul.

Zofia, thank you, for asking me all these great questions.

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