The following is the second half of Tenaya Nasser-Frederick’s interview with David Larsen. Find Part I here.
Having discussed the techne of poetic craft as it relates rhyme, translation, personae, and other practical matters, my conversation with US poet and scholar-translator David Larsen begins to stray into questions of inspiration, spirituality, and white shame.
I’m beginning to wonder if there is more to this David Larsen than meets the eye . . .
Tenaya Nasser-Frederick: I wanna ask about distortion and translation, when you’re translating from a tradition with an intricate web of stock images, patterns of motif and form, where you can’t take for granted the vague or unexpected things you find as being what’s intended—where what might seem vague or distorted or obscure could in fact be some lost reference to place, or to the patron in a panegyric form, or even depicting perhaps opaque cultural prohibitions—or in the sense that the poets you are translating, such as Jamil, come down in fragments. They might be sutured into some sort of continuity—the suturing being a form of distortion—but I want to ask about the kind of distortion that comes from imperfect information, and whether or not that noise or feedback that attends moments of translation informs your own lines on a level of information, or in the sense of fragmentation of ideas, tone and form.
David Larsen: Well, maybe this is where I make the most shameful admission of all. As a translator, I’m a positivist. “The untranslatable” is not an analytical category for me. It’s a challenge, it’s something you gotta surmount, and always that’s a process of elimination. How many features of the original can one bring into the target language? Sometimes they’re very few. And in that sense translation really is a tragic art.
When the original is itself subject to breakage and splicing, yeah. You mention Jamil. I’m really confronting that, because I’m editing and translating the complete works of Jamil ibn Maʿmar, AKA Jamil Buthaynah, for the Library of Arabic Literature. That’s a poet of the seventh century, the first century of Islam, whose poems were collected but did not survive in that collected form, as many other poets’ works did from that period.
I don’t want this to all be about editorial policy, but . . . Let me just say I don’t paper things over. Where there’s a seam that’s evident to any reader of the original, there should be a seam in translation. Even just today, I had to deal with this, following my great predecessor Husayn Nassar, whose edition of Jamil’s collected poems came out in 1955. He does some suturing, but at least he showed his work. So that’s one answer to the question of how to preserve the noise: through scholarly apparatus.
One thing I wouldn’t do is to play on the noise, even though there are experimental-procedural poets going way back, doing what we now call the cut-up and the fold-in. You had people doing that in ninth-century Baghdad. That said, you have to be loyal to mainstream source tradition—or I have to, since with Arabic that source tradition is so thinly translated, and hard to create a relationship with if you only know English. You’re stuck with a pretty small pool of work. And not every translation that’s available is well done. I’d love to do nothing but bandit poets, and paupers and winos and madmen of Kufa. It would be a fun specialty. But how do you put that into context for the English-language reader? So I have to do some very mainstream genres, like hunting poetry. Or this one I just found, by Abu ‘l-Najm al-ʿIjli, that I know I’m going to have to do: ninety-one lines describing a horse race. Rajaz lines, a very hard form to translate. It’s in fragments too, cobbled together from different sources. I’ve got to do it, not because I love horses, but because it’s a tremendous poem, and a popular favorite, quoted by everyone, and not to have any replica of it in English is a damn shame.
So that’s what I mean by loyalty to source tradition. Which is such an unappealing word, tradition. Call it “the generative matrix”: not just poets, but rhapsodes and scholars and singers and everyone who kept the work alive from then til now. As a theoretical concept, “tradition” is deeply interesting, and there will definitely have to be an article at some point about that too.
Ninth-century cut-ups do sound dangerously seductive.
Sinan Antoon was first to write about them in English, in his book Poetics of the Obscene. Abu ‘l-ʿIbar, I think the guy’s name was, writing down the obscenities he overheard from the porters and boatmen of Baghdad, and then folding the sheet and gluing it to another piece of writing.
I want to follow up about what you just mentioned, that there is a lack of context for having translations of classical Arabic “outsider poets” (if you will) for the English language reader. When I met you, in 2016 or 2017, you had your hang-ups about Sufism; I assume this had something to do with the problematic circumstances by which Western scholars might seize upon Christian resemblances within the Islamic world—as with al-Hallaj, who gets compared to Christ—in a process which obscures or eschews Islam and over-emphasizes whatever might resemble an alternative “counterculture.” I assume that you didn’t want to fall into that trap as an academic and an Arabic scholar. But something’s changed in your outlook, because you do engage a lot with Sufi material.
It’s true that I had a disinclination when I was starting out, toward working on Sufi material and answering the popular Western demand. I’m surprised to hear that I would have said so as late as 2016. Because, at a certain point, the fourteenth century, say, or the eighth century of Islam, just about all language art has Sufi coloring. And in terms of social history, it is a major structuring—I don’t want to call it a system, exactly, but Sufism is arranged into orders and fraternal lodges. And there’s the wonderful Dervish movement, which is an antinomian backlash to Sufism, which you wouldn’t have without Sufism in the first place.
Misrecognition is a risk that you have to take, no matter what your research is on. If al-Hallaj gets misconstrued as a Christian or pseudo-Christian figure, that’s easy to understand. I don’t think it’s endemic to Islamic Studies in our day. Lately, I’ve fallen in with Suhrawardi, another mystic who got crucified. “Suhrawardi the Murdered,” they call him, al-Maqtul. His major stuff’s in Persian, which I don’t read well. I’m just reading his Arabic poems. But I guess I’ll say this out loud, and you and I have discussed this: I’m not a person of faith, or any religious conviction, but I really am persuaded by the—I don’t know want to call it. . . . It’s not an order, it’s not a path. Or maybe it is a path. It’s Malamatiyya, which basically means “assuming blame.” The opposite of virtue signaling, if that makes sense. Not to endorse the vulgar critique of quote-unquote “virtue signaling.” But whatever we understand by the impulse to appear virtuous, Malamatiyya is the exact opposite. It’s where you say, “The devil is my friend, I drink wine every night,” when those things aren’t even true. The idea is that, if you really loved the Lord—not because you want to get in to Heaven, but for the Lord’s own sake—you wouldn’t care what people thought. You’d actively court their hatred. Like, “Whatever else I am, I’m not a hypocrite.” And that’s a risky path to take. I’m a great admirer of ancient Cynicism, which is risky too. But Malamatiyya is even harder. I don’t even think it’s something you can even study, though there are books about it.
Well, the Malamatiyya shows up in Zeroes in pretty direct ways, where your definition of persona is very wrapped up in shame, and the idea of a persona or a mask is the actual face of stigma, or the stigmatized face. And that jack-o’-lantern that shows up, which I’m going on a tangent now, but it’s very much like that Robert Creeley line, “—I would split open your head and put a candle in behind the eyes.” . . . I don’t have anywhere to go with that.
I do! You’re dancing around what the line is really about. It’s about white fragility. Which a number of poets that we know, white men, have written poems about, as if it was something completely external to them. The way of Malamatiyya is to admit that “Yeah, I have bursts of white fragility, I don’t like being called on my failings.” Who does? And that’s exactly where shame comes up, specifically as white shame: “By the light of the pumpkin / from inside its flame / I see the fragility / and call it white shame.” That’s not even very gutsy. A real Malamati would confess to far worse.
Now, that flame being inside the mask, which is one’s own face, I have a question about how can one see—I guess by looking in that mirror, which you say at another point is where you write your poetry—but it’s a funny thing, seeing the inner flame and seeing white fragility. Both seem, on a material level, like impossibilities, if you are that flame, if the mask is what is protecting that shame, which you are, and if white fragility is not just something that you distance yourself from, but something that you can see and accept as a quality or essence within yourself.
Protecting or projecting? Because this mask gives no protection, believe me. I think I was thinking more about the experience of shame in general, because when one feels shame . . . Now I wish I had the Sylvan Tomkins omnibus handy. But shame is internal condemnation of the self, that evolves from external condemnation by the other. Which is why it feels like being burned at the stake. And that’s where the flame comes inside.
I’m curious about what it’s like being both a poet and translator of religious material, how you maintain a healthy or unhealthy distance from vision, ecstatic vision, and ecstasy, etc. There’s a reference in Zeroes—and I might be reading too much into it—when you say, “I’d like to thank the jellyfish that gave its cap / so I could write the song I waited to invade me / I waited and waited”. Is that at all a reference to H.D.’s Visions and Ecstasies?
Because H.D. talks about the jellyfish, and that as a writer writing poetry, when vision strikes, there’s a jellyfish either attached to her brow or her hip.
Really? Yeah, no. I was literally eating jellyfish when I had that thought.
But your relationship to the ecstatic and visions is what I meant to ask about.
Yeah, well, I can’t deny that. There are poets that hear unseen voices, and poets that don’t. I’m definitely in the former category.
I hear things. In the poem you just quoted, about “the song I waited to invade me,” that’s a passive state of being a hearer. You know that whole Lyric Theory Reader that came out, edited by Yopie Prins and Victoria Jackson? One of the things they were trying to get past was Northrop Frye’s definition of lyric as “overheard utterance.” His point, I think, was that lyric poetry has no “audience” in the sense of assembled hearers at a performance, and that readers of lyric are in the position of eavesdroppers. It’s a cute idea that doesn’t work in practice or theory. But for compositional technique, it’s the best I know. Overhearing yourself, I mean. I can’t control most of what goes through my mind, but I can certainly write it down, and like any stand-up comedian will tell you, “I think about weird things.” Or I’ll overhear something weird that I legitimately overhear, and I’ll be like, “Did I hear that, or?” And I don’t have—like, for me, the demonic isn’t a major thing. And I don’t mean radio transmissions, either, like in Orphée (Godard’s Orphée), although I adore Jack Spicer.
So how do I put this . . . ? You know, in many ways I have a low-risk lifestyle, but in some ways I have kind of a medium-risk lifestyle. And in those ways, I’m open to all kinds of crazy stuff. That’s not actually the word I’m looking for. Here is the word I mean: hatif, which in Arabic is any speaker that you can’t see. Famously, this is the modern standard word for the telephone. Get it? But in the early period it means “a voice unseen.” It could be the booming voice of an angel, it could be a jinn, or somebody standing behind a hill, shouting at you, and as a poet I don’t discriminate too much. I just need the raw material.
Well, with that motivation, as a poet being indiscriminate towards the material, perhaps even thrifty, willing to use whatever voice comes along, do you declare any kinship with the radio frequencies of Satan?
Well, I played with that, obviously, in “Hoofprints in the Snow.” You find it in Sufism—the tradition of tawhid Iblis, which is hard to translate. “Satan’s monotheistic piety” is what it literally means, but “Sympathy for the Devil” comes closer. A major trope of Malamatiyya, and heavy metal too. But as a rational thinker, I’m impervious. In terms of, like, the world’s characters of delusion, the devil is easy to see around. You know what I mean? The devil is not too complicated.
That’s great, I love that.
I can back it up! It says in “Hoofprints” that the devil is the spirit of error, “Who makes us glad to miss / and skews our aims.” I’m always sharing this with people: the situation that’s narrated twice in the Bible, first in Samuel [2 Sam 24:1-2], then in Chronicles [1 Chron 21:1-2], where King David has the bad idea of calling a census, which is always a mistake in the Bible, because everyone has to travel back to their village, and plague breaks out. So where in Samuel, the narrator says: “God punished Israel, by giving David the idea to hold a census,” in Chronicles it says: “Satan gave David the idea to hold a census.” Now what do you do with that? God equals Satan? Of course not. Samuel and the Chronicler are using different religious idioms to say that David had a bad idea. And that’s what Satan is. Like, “Satan got ahold of my tongue!” That’s either a way of evading responsibility for saying something regrettable, or saying sorry for it. Either way, it’s nothing mysterious. I am afraid of lots of things, but not the Light Bringer.
Tenaya Nasser-Frederick is a poet from San Francisco currently based in Brooklyn. He is the author of the chapbooks Lavender Cats (1080 press, 2020) and Penumbra Highway (Gas Meter, 2018).
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