Going Abroad — Poet, Novelist, Translator and Editor David Constantine

Nine Fathom Deep

Nine Fathom Deep
BY David Constantine
(Bloodaxe, 2009)

The Shieling

The Shieling
BY David Constantine
(Comma Press 2009)

Collected Poems

Collected Poems
BY David Constantine
(Bloodaxe, 2004)

In the Introduction to Footsteps, you touch on the question of “how shall scholarship and imagination mix?” Doesn’t the book itself become an answer to that question? And if so, what kind of answer does it provide?

Most of the travellers were themselves imaginative men. But I was especially interested in what poets – Hölderlin and others – made of their accounts. Myself, I wanted to be there – knowing both the poems and the firsthand descriptions. And I have been very lucky: I was a university teacher for 31 years and most of what I taught, read and wrote about in that capacity worked in me imaginatively and contributed to the life out of which came my poems and stories.

What qualities of Hölderlin, in particular, left traces in your poems and stories? Which other Hellenist poets influenced your work?

I admire the luminous presence of his imagery, especially in his later poems: it is as closely substantial as late paintings by Van Gogh. And I admire the nervousness, reach and tension of his syntax — long sentences developing over many lines and, often, from stanza to stanza. Strictness of form engendering an extraordinary fluency. By continually translating him, I have begun to understand what my own English might be capable of. He is a Romantic Hellenist — a great (and eccentric) translator of Pindar and Sophocles. That whole period is very congenial to me — Wordsworth, Byron, Keats, Shelley… There’s a story called “Romantic” in my next collection (to be published end of June this year).

Are you a traveler yourself? To be more precise, are you a scholarly traveler? How do your scholarly (or imaginative) interests shape the way you travel?

I have travelled a good deal, in Europe at least, and with the greatest pleasure on foot. The displacement is good for me, things occur. Especially walking, the rhythm of it excites and shapes the imagination. And I like to be a passer-by, people talk to you very candidly if you are passing through and they will never see you again.

Do you keep a journal of such encounters? If so, do you ever discover poems in its pages?

Yes, I always carry a notebook. I note things that matter and perhaps one day will matter more or differently to me. I hope I don’t collect impressions in order to make poems of them. I don’t like that predatory way of being in the world. But I note things as exactly as I can.

As an editor of the journal Modern Poetry in Translation, is your intense involvement with translation an aspect of the traveler’s impulse?

I believe that “going abroad,” both literally and figuratively, is very necessary for a poet. You come better into your own language — into “the free use of your own,” as Hölderlin puts it — by passing through the foreign. English is my language, but I have got better at it by studying closely how two or three other languages work, how foreign writers deploy their own native resources.

Would you give a specific example of “deploying native resources”? How does such deployment in another language give you clues to deploying resources in English?

See above, Hölderlin’s syntax. And Brecht’s lineation would be another: how often he ends a line with “but” or some other qualification so that you can’t rest there but must go over into a more tense and unsettling state. That, and much else, is imitable. You can learn for your own good by translating.

Would you say that many of the poems in Nine Fathom Deep offer other kinds of views on the scholarship/imagination question?

As I said, I have been very lucky: I never had cause to feel that scholarship and literature would not mix. Similarly, I have written a good deal of criticism, knowing it to be different from poetry but not feeling that the two kinds of writing are enemies. I don’t like binary opposites: feeling/intellect, body/spirit etc. They seem to me unreal (and dangerous) and I don’t live like that.

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