A Vehement Rejoinder: An Interview with Conor Bracken – conducted by Zach Savich


Mohammed Khaïr-Eddine (1941-1995) was an Amazigh Moroccan poet and writer and the co-founder of the avant-garde journal Souffles. The Cleveland State University Poetry Center has recently released his 1969 collection Soleil arachnide as Scorpionic Sun, in Conor Bracken’s translation. In his foreword, Pierre Joris connects Khaïr-Eddine to “a constellation of poet-workers in the French language” that includes Artaud, Michaux, Glissant, and Césaire; he notes the “fierce intensity” or “intense fierceness” of Khaïr-Eddine, which the new translation thrillingly conveys. Bracken and I corresponded about the complexities of translating Khaïr-Eddine, the process of reading the past from the present, and the possibilities of revolt (and the revolting) in politics and poetics.

Zach Savich: Your afterword connects Scorpionic Sun to the author’s lived experience and to Morocco in the ‘60s and ‘70s. It also says that the poems are “indispensable” today. This could suggest two ways of reading poetry in translation: in terms of its context, in terms of ours. Could you say more about how, in Johannes Göransson’s phrase, these poems speak “to the present with urgency”?

Conor Bracken: You’re absolutely right, Zach, about two different possible ways of reading poetry in translation; it creates a kind of internal dissonance, at times, inside one’s head: am I reading this as an artifact of the time and place and political pressures that created it, or as an organic object that, through its versatility, emotional range, formal awareness, and receptivity to interpretation, is a testament to the human condition as it exists both within and beyond spatiotemporal bounds? I think, though, to answer your question, I’m going to offer a bit of an evasive response, since I think that in many ways, the particular social and political pressures that gave rise to Scorpionic Sun still, unfortunately, abide today. Xenophobia, neocolonialism, social inequality, misogyny, and other forms of injustice which seek to categorize and split people into groups who do or do not deserve basic human rights–these are still very relevant today, especially in the context of resurgent right-wing nationalism in North American and Europe, where ultraconservative, often fascistic parties are gaining power based on fearmongering about black and brown immigrant bodies. This fearmongering attempts to flatten a particular kind of person to a set of supposedly predictable, animal-like behaviors, denying them individuality and agency, while asserting their brute, unswerving, almost automatic danger. Where Scorpionic fits into (or rebukes) this is in its explosive insistence on the richly frightening and complex inner landscape of his speakers. Some dumb barbarian wouldn’t be capable of naming the flora and fauna around him in such sophisticated Latin terms, let alone compose a manifesto on the theatrical performance of being. In this way, the book is, still, an historical artifact—a vehement rejoinder to the persistent, dehumanizing legacies of colonialism, which we still contend with today. The pressures, and their sources, and their magnitude, may have altered somewhat, but the need to resist them has not.

ZS: “I write against,” Khaïr-Eddine writes at one point, and the “against” hangs further than the line break. Khaïr-Eddine’s virtuosity seems to include turning against virtuosity (“O poetry gag me now!”). In translating this work, how did your process adapt to these simultaneous needs—for sophistication, for the anarchic? What methods were useful?

CB: You’re totally right! That’s one of the really fascinating lines of tension that run through this book, for me at least: Khaïr-Eddine is capable of moments of almost effortless, transcendent lyricism, but he’s always very suspicious of them. And it makes sense—how many horrible actions and perspectives have been excused due to their sublime and shiny packaging? I’m thinking, for some reason, of Boris Johnson reciting Kipling’s “Mandalay” under his breath while touring Myanmar as Foreign Secretary, its jaunty ballad-y rhythms belying its colonialist/white supremacist perspective.

But in terms of my translation process, it did have to adapt to Khaïr-Eddine’s resistance to loftier moments. The most evident way I altered my process to accommodate this was by trusting myself less, and running each poem through at least five drafts, at least three of which were looking specifically at how Khaïr-Eddine was modulating tone (by which I mean the speaker’s relationship to the words they’re saying–ironic? Ecstatic? Sincere? Snarling? Etc.). I found myself resisting an impulse, early in the process, to pacify or domesticate the text, to sand off some of its more grating edges. Why did I feel this way? I think I was worried about how the text would connect with its readers—21st century US poetry readers accustomed to a certain kind of inviting surface texture that gives onto more complicated, but not immediately apparent, psychological and cultural depths. Quickly, I realized that would be an enormous disservice to the text, which is built, as you’ve noted, to resist that very kind of inviting surface texture. And so any time I found myself smoothing a line out or working a metrical lilt into it, I perked up and returned to the text, ensuring that this motivation emerged from the source and not some lyrical coward hunched in my brain, hissing that this will bring more people in. That kind of concession—to the larger bourgeois public—is exactly what Khaïr-Eddine and his confreres were resisting so vehemently.

When checking myself, to be sure that I wasn’t translating a texture over one that Khaïr-Eddine had generated in his own text, I then checked to see how sound was helping convey these contrasting modes of sophistication and anarchy. Diction, rhythm, assonance and consonance, smooth or jammed-up feet, were all formal elements that helped. This could be tricky, here and there, though, because in English, particularly in the realm of diction, we’ve got more choices available to us than the French, thanks to the Norman conquest of Britain in the 11th century, which braided into English the Latinate diction that we now associate with the elite (as the Britons did with their new rulers), which then made any Saxon words seem rougher, cruder, more chthonic. So, for instance, in the example you provided—“O poetry gag me now!”—one of the ways to translate the word ‘bâillonner’ is as ‘to silence.’ But you’d probably agree that ‘to silence someone’ doesn’t have the same sonic punch as ‘to gag,’ let alone in how it lacks the immediate visual quality of ‘gagging.’ There are assonant and rhythmic reasons that reinforce this choice as well, but suffice it to say that in moments of resistance, anarchy, and/or rebuke, I sought the rougher choices available. Conversely, for moments of sophistication, I looked for what would provide a more sonorous, flowing, read: lyrical, texture (I’m thinking of the line in “Memorandum,” “through the air as if by miracle,” with longer more open vowels and the polysyllabic “miracle” emphasizing itself against the six prior monosyllables enacting the buoyancy the line is pointing towards).

ZS: In emphasizing contemporary relevance, is there a danger of misunderstanding the poems’ context? Is that danger one to avoid or to engage with?

CB: This is a great question, because I think that danger is always present, especially in translation, since the act of translation is an intimate act of interpretation by a single person (or small group of people). Despite our best intentions, it’s impossible not to let our subjectivity, as well as our reasons for wanting to bring a particular work into a different target language, from intruding on the text. This danger, though, is an invitation, I hope, to others to engage with the work in its original language, and to bring out their own translations. There are always different choices to be made, at the word level (definite or indefinite article? Latinate or Saxon synonym? etc.) to the level of idiom and phrasing, all the way up to which of Dryden’s three types of translation do we use as a lodestar: imitation, paraphrase, or metaphrase? The different possibilities inherent in a text being translated are rich, multifarious, and cause for excitement (and also something for which I’ve seen Göransson advocate, in what I’ve seen from Transgressive Circulation, since each translation is simply another version of the source text, and never a definitive take).

To talk a little bit more about the danger, though, about losing the poems’ context, I think that engaging them as artifacts of the human condition, particularly in response to colonial legacies, does run a couple risks. The first that comes to mind is pigeonholing them: not poems, but “poems by a postcolonial subject”; not literature, but “world literature.” I chafe at the resiliency of the canon, how even as it’s being dismantled, it’s found a way to make sure that American literature, say, doesn’t include African-American literature, even though it obviously does. What do we do with this danger, in terms of Scorpionic? Can it be seen as an invitation, as above? Can it be alleviated by having others translate the work in their own way? I’m not so sure, at least not insofar as this can happen at the level of an individual text. Khaïr-Eddine wrote over a dozen books, and I think one of the ways by which we avoid flattening his context and the way his work engages with it is by having more of his work in English. Thankfully, that’s in the works: his first novel, Agadir, is slated to be out in English translation in the next year or so, and I know of at least two other translators working to bring more of his poetry into English as well. The more of his work we have talking to itself in the target language, the more the work will be able to advocate for its own complexity.

The other risk that comes to mind emerges from the desire to taxonomize, and how anything in the text that falls outside the particular taxon gets elided. These poems are violent, rapid-fire, and ravenous—there are few things that escape their ire. But if we read them with a view towards their denunciations of French imperialism, for instance we may miss some of the subtler ways they denounce domestic Moroccan politics, or resist pan-Arabism, or even express some affection and/or respect for the French language. It’s important to remain open to the text’s possibilities, how they resist categorization, and extol language even as they seek to break it.

ZS: The poems can seem “difficult” or “experimental.” But my understanding of those terms is based in a different time and place than Khaïr-Eddine’s. If this were a new book by a poet living in the US, I would read it in particular ways, as I would if I had the French edition or knew more about North African literary history. As it is, for me, the book’s language (your translation) is often its primary context. How would you help a reader like me think about what may be “difficult” in Scorpionic Sun?

CB: One of the more significant difficulties, for me as a translator and for readers as well, is the poems’ density. There’s a profusion to the work, on the level of syntax (right-branching sentences that don’t stop branching until the end), image (one after the other after the other, none allowed to settle or be considered for more than the time it takes to produce them), allusion (many deployed, few ‘explained’), metaphor (extended to the breaking point), and more. To my understanding, what might help in illuminating or contextualizing this difficulty, especially in terms of Khaïr-Eddine’s personal experiences and time period, is his relationship with the French language itself. On a national level, French is the unofficial official language of government, business, medicine, science, and education. Arabic (specifically Darija, the Moroccan dialect) and Tamazight (the language of the Amazigh, or Berbers) are official languages, but don’t command the same kind of cachet as French. The Francophone Maghreb zeitgeist response to this dichotomy, post-independence, was to devalue French and promote Arabic as the language of culture. However, Khaïr-Eddine and his compatriots (Abdellatif Laâbi, Mostafa Nissabouri, Tahar Ben Jelloun, among others), despite feeling similarly rancorous towards the history built into the French language, were ambivalent about this revaluation of Arabic, a language in which they did not express themselves as frequently or with as much aplomb and vigor. Out of this ambivalence (as well as other factors) was born Souffles, a literary periodical promoting new approaches to Maghreb art, literature, politics, and culture, specifically in French. The catch with this—and with Khaïr-Eddine’s work as well—is that French, in the context of literature, could not be deployed as some language free of historical usage, though. After all, it was the language in which colonization and its attendant repression, violence, dehumanization, etc. was conducted. It was a language that Khaïr-Eddine learned in school, instead of the Tamazight of his Amazigh/Berber family. But it was still his language. So, he and his compatriots needed to work the language over so it could be theirs. They needed to “disarticulate” it, as Laâbi says. And so a lot of what we’re seeing in Khaïr-Eddine’s poems is him carrying out a somewhat paradoxical project: to cultivate and deploy an ethos of linguistic mastery that demonstrates his deep familiarity with the language and thus meriting respect from ‘natural’ speakers, while also breaking and reshaping the language so that it no longer reflects the values and experiences of the colonizer, but of the postcolonial subject, who has so often lived inside of and been erased by this language. The difficulty we encounter is aesthetic as well as political (if those are really even separable). And it’s an ingenious way for Khaïr-Eddine to demonstrate mastery and contempt, while also provide an important service to his community: a language restored (not reset) and with which he and others can build a new way towards cultural identity. At least, that’s how I’ve seen some of the difficulty in the text.

ZS: I feel this “mastery and contempt,” perhaps, throughout the poems. Their language can be exact and exacting, while also resisting the exactitude of proverb, aphorism, emblematic quotation. That is, the language is riotously idiomatic (“lousy time to be in business with abysses”) but it doesn’t resolve into easy idioms. Were there passages that were key to your understanding of these dynamics in Scorpionic Sun?

CB: Most of the key passages that helped guide my understanding of Scorpionic came early, in “Black Nausea,” the book’s first poem and longest sequence. This is partially because my process was linear—for each draft I started at the beginning and ended at the end—so “Black Nausea” was the poem that introduced me to the book. This is also due in part, I’d say, to its availability—the poem is, in many ways, the more accessible of the collection, in its pacing (stately, deliberate), its development of a handful of images and symbols, and its tone, which is remote, and indicative of a desire to communicate the themes and tenor of the poems, the seeds of the vibrant and waving emotional foliage we’ll hack our way through for the rest of the collection. This is a little ironic, I guess, since “Black Nausea” doesn’t really have as many areas of ”riotous idiomaticity,” though it does provide some of the rationale behind that impulse.

The first passage is at the end of section II of the poem, where the speaker talks about “the figs / of barbarism” that fall into his hands, as if into “a gap in the rocks it’s said were once inhabited.” One of the key things here is how the speaker identifies themselves with the landscape (Morocco itself)—their body as a kind of rocky outcropping, fissured but empty, evacuated some time ago. Like the land, the speaker is currently (and perhaps has always been) uninhabited. So whatever happens, to the land or to them, affects nobody (or at least nobody of consequence). Quickly, Khaïr-Eddine establishes a deep union between people and the land that supports them, as well as a suspicion of anybody who looks upon either of these and thinks them empty (as we’ve been conditioned to do, vis-a-vis deserts and whoever inhabits them). In this passage, too, though, we see Khaïr-Eddine’s mistrust of language (“…it’s said...”) and the uses it’s been put to. A lot is hidden inside language (here, dehumanization) and it’s often through his wry and violent playfulness with metaphor and idiom that we see him scrutinizing the innards that constant, thoughtless use helps obscure. Because inside that language could be an entire people, living in the strange but knowable aridity. Or it could be the desire to erase that people, the fact the land is inhabitable, so that it can be subjugated without anyone else caring.

The other moment that informed a lot of my understanding is in section XI, where the speaker is addressing death as a putrid hyena, promising to “vomit all / of [it] out.” This phrasing recurs throughout the book, and is lifted from Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth (“In the period of decolonization the colonized masses thumb their noses at these very values, shower them with insults and vomit them up” (8)). This helps point, in one way, to the theoretical lineage of this text, as well as some of its deeper intentions: as a kind of emetic, purging the colonialist residues (identified with death and scavenging in this particular formulation, a referential set that also recurs throughout Khaïr-Eddine’s entire oeuvre) from the body—individual, politic, linguistic—of the postcolonial subject. What I found particularly interesting in this passage is the restraint with which this affirmation is made. It’s a threat, and implies the visceral, polychromatic chaos of vomiting (spatter and splash etc.), but delivers it with an eerie calm, like someone grooming their nails as they say what torment they’re about to subject their interlocutor to. This ability—to see the abject as a tactic, the use of bodily disgust as a method towards liberation, to disturb one’s way towards the light—is central to my understanding of this text (not to mention my own poetics), and helped me grasp some of the intention behind the constant instability of Khaïr-Eddine’s language, which always seems to be hurtling towards but resisting resolution.

ZS: How has translating this book hurtled into other parts of your life as a writer, translator, teacher, person?

CB: Oh lots, to be sure. It’s hard not to feel your nose seized by Khaïr-Eddine’s work and have your head yanked around so you see what’s been swept under the carpet or into a corner. Since finishing this translation, I’ve continued working with francophone poetry from the Maghreb, looking into translating another collection of Khaïr-Eddine’s, as well as the work of Tahar Ben Jelloun, whom we know stateside as a novelist, though he’s also a poet (and began as one: his first writings were poems on toilet paper in the bathroom of the reeducation camp he was sent to after protesting in the ‘60s).

Another area where his work influenced me was in my writing of Henry Kissinger, Mon Amour, a chapbook about my abusive romantic relationship with the former Director of National Intelligence and Secretary of State, but evergreen Sinologist, war criminal, and ghoul. Not perhaps as visceral or dexterous as Scorpionic, but it does insert the body of the self into the firing lanes of American foreign policy, as a means of registering the impersonal shocks and spasms of history onto a body that has benefitted from them. Khaïr-Eddine’s reclamation of power from the repressor has been and continues to be inspirational to me—on the underside of political powerlessness is an asymmetric but larger power to be found. To repulse, to lay bare, to invoke and weaponize shame.

ZS: Do you see this book as being in conversation with dynamics/trends/tendencies in other poetry in translation that has recently been published in the US?

CB: I would like to think so, yeah. Three books in particular come to mind (though I’m sure there are many more recent collections in translation that would resonate as well): Kim Kyung Ju’s I Am a Season That Does Not Exist in the World (translated by Jake Levine and published by Black Ocean), Kim Hyesoon’s Sorrowtoothpaste Mirrorcream (translated by Don Mee Choi and published by Action Books), and Raul Zurita’s The Country of Planks (translated by Daniel Borzutzky and published by Action Books). They’re all three of them iconoclastic, openly political, and, in their own ways, disturbing. The first two in particular share a commitment to the visceral, grotesque, absurd, and surreal (in differing proportions, though: Kim Kyung Ju seems most methodologically and aesthetically near to Khaïr-Eddine—rapid, unrestrained, snarling—while Kim Hyesoon allows setting and narrative some more stability). This drew me to Scorpionic in the first place, and seems like an important, radical, unapologetic approach to throwing over bourgeois niceties. It’s exciting to see it popping up rhizomatically in the world. As for Zurita’s work—which works more elliptically, building sense and dawning horror through the accretion of stark, plainspoken images and tropes—Scorpionicshares similar motivations (to jam open history and set one’s own marginalized experiences in—Zurita was imprisoned and tortured by the Pinochet regime), and a similar emotional range. My translation of “Black Nausea” took some cues from Borzutzky’s approach to Zurita, too, I’d say, due to shared tone, numbness, and restrained grandiloquence.

There’s also the exciting fact that Scorpionic will soon be in conversation with other translated works of Khaïr-Eddine. I mentioned earlier that his first novel, Agadir, should be out sometime next year, as well as a later collection of poems, Ce Maroc!. Also, there’s a chapbook which selects some of his poems, translated by Jake Syersak, titled First Breaths, available from OOMPH! Press.

And really, I’d say that any work, in translation or otherwise, that focuses on the body as a site of political resistance and operation, shares a lot with Khaïr-Eddine. “My skin…becomes theater itself,” he writes in “Manifesto,” which starts off by asserting that “everything is theater, even the tiniest writing” and that if it’s going to be effective, this “drama [must be elaborated] via transgressive gestures and impulsions.” It reminds me of Camus saying that (I paraphrase) in an unfree world, you must become so free that your very existence is a revolt/revolting. Whoever delights in the pun inside the word ‘revolting’ is a friend and ally to Khaïr-Eddine.
Zach Savich is the author of six books of poetry, including Daybed (Black Ocean, 2018). He directs the BFA Program in Creative Writing at the University of the Arts and co-edits Rescue Press’s Open Prose Series.

Conor Bracken is the author of Henry Kissinger, Mon Amour (Bull City Press, 2017), chosen by Diane Seuss as winner of the fifth annual Frost Place Chapbook Competition, and translator of Mohammed Khaïr-Eddine’s Scorpionic Sun (CSU Poetry Center, 2019). Poems and translations appear or will soon in places like 32 Poems, BOMB, The New Yorker, Ploughshares, Waxwing, and elsewhere. An assistant editor of poetry at Four Way Review, he is on the English faculty at the University of Findlay.