Monday, September 18, 2023

Q&A with Dan Beachy-Quick



Dan Beachy-Quick is the author of a new translation of the poet Sappho's work, Wind-Mountain-Oak: The Poems of Sappho. Beachy-Quick's other books include the collection Of Silence & Song. He teaches in the MFA Writing Program at Colorado State University.


Q: Why did you decide to translate these fragments of Sappho's work?


A: I think of myself essentially as a lyric poet, and much of my work over the past decade or more is simply trying to understand what that means.


That the poem is a song sung to the tune of the lyre. That the word must be understood as caught in time in ways we ourselves are—subject to a coming silence. That someone is near enough to listen—the implied intimacy of that you, whoever it is you are.


I think of Sappho as the mother of the art I want to practice. I also think lyric practice is peculiarly attuned to asking questions about origins, and so I wanted to get as close as I possibly could to the source.


I think of the work of translation, those many quiet morning hours, as both an honoring and an offering. Work one does to be worthy enough to do the work.


Q: You begin the book by writing, “These are the songs she sang.” Why did you choose to start with that idea, and how would you connect song and poetry in her work--and in the work of others as well?


A: As I hinted at above, the sung word hides its nearly human mortality in the guise of the printed word’s immortality, and part of the deep emotion we feel in Sappho is time’s work tattering the whole poems into fragments.


To remember that here the written poem is a vestigial remnant of the actual poem, one that is sung, that dies in the air after the one it’s being sung to has heard—that intimately loved one, that you.


I started with that sentence in hopes it would initiate the reader immediately into the deeply human dimension Sappho’s poems flourish within, the heart’s fervent desires that tat the day’s full cloth into lace.


Song sings its utmost now forever if it can—something found only in time but snatched by love-of-a-kind into timelessness. Or if not timelessness, into time so far removed from the sing’s utterance, into the time that is our own life—as if we’re the ones being sung to, and we are.


So an ankle below a purple hem, a white goat, a chickpea—they come to us as a revelation of the actual.

If that’s true of Sappho, I suspect it’s true of lyric poetry in larger ways, an archetype of the form.


I keep thinking about the strange kindness a poem is, the compassion it comes to us with, mirroring our condition it shares in one sense, and is free of another—this being caught in time. The song ends before we end, and we carry its memory, its tune, its words, within us, hardly every remembering the whole, as if the mind is its own archive filled with the fragments of songs.


And yet, written down, the song gets sung again by any given reader, who in reading—if doing so most fully—becomes not the one listening, but the one singing. To read Sappho fully is to sing her songs with her, or as her.


Q: What kind of research did you do before beginning this book, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?


A: The only real research I did was learning Ancient Greek. That’s a continually surprising work.


That the verb “to read” essentially means “to know again.”


That the words for “hero,” “love,” and “limping” or being “lame” are all nearly homonyms—and then one thinks about all the Greek heroes wounded in the foot (Achilles, Oedipus, Philoctetes), and one thinks about the metrical fact that epic verse is written in hexameters, and erotic verse is written in hendecasyllabics, that is, a love poem has a wounded foot.


You learn that the word “poet” simply means “maker, doer”; and the verb cognate with it means “to do or make.” But in the middle voice, where the action of the verb is performed against itself—a grammatical equivalent of Keats’s “diligent indolence,” active and passive at once—the word means “to consider.”


That the poem is something that must be written before the thinking it contains can be thought—this never ceases to surprise me.


Q: You’ve said, “I’ve also veered away from the various traditions of ordering the poems.” How did you decide on the best way to order them in this book?


A: I wanted to find a way to foreground the sense of Sappho as an actual human who lived a life much like our own, that there’s a story there, a kind of novel, a bildungsroman.


And poring over the translation I could see various themes emerge over the course of the whole, poems about being a child in her mother’s care, all the way to being an older woman, jealous of the charms of younger women, the very women she herself loved.


So I arranged the poem to move from childhood to life’s end, hoping that the book would read almost compulsively, like a novel, even as any given poem might stop you in your tracks for days.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: In my non-translating life, I’m working—as always—on trying to write a poem. Sounds so simple…In my translating life I’m more than 800 lines into Sophocles’ Philoctetes. In. my essay-writing life I’m at work on essays on Forrest Gander and the artist Charles Ross.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Maybe just this lovely thought I just found in reading on ancient matriarchal societies and where Lesbos came up. There’s a tale that Orpheus’s lyre and severed head, still singing as it floated down a river, was found by the women of Lesbos, and that’s how Sappho learned her art—from listening to Orpheus, from playing his lyre.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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