It All Coheres: An Interview with Dan Beachy-Quick & a Portfolio of New Translations — curated by Nancy Naomi Carlson

Dan Beachy-Quick is a poet, essayist, and translator, author most recently of Arrows (Tupelo) and a translation from the Ancient Greek, Stone-Garland (Milkweed Editions). Recently long-listed for the National Book Award in Poetry, his work has been supported by the Monfort, Lannan, and Guggenheim Foundations. He teaches at Colorado State University, where he is a University Distinguished Teaching Scholar.

Nancy Naomi Carlson:I feel we are related from a literary point of view, being part of the same Tupelo family for over fourteen years, ever since Tupelo Press brought out Mulberry, in 2006. And now, four Tupelo Press books later, Arrows was released in 2020. I have been savoring each poem in your new book, and reading it along with your Sappho translations. I am struck by the almost symbiotic relationship the two have in regard to your “trademark classicism” (a quote from a review by G.C. Waldrep), as well as the music flowing through each. Could you describe how your Sappho translations have influenced your own poetry?

Dan Beachy-Quick: It’s strange, and happy, to be asked this question just this very minute, having just put down a new book of criticism by W. Travis Helms, Blowing Clover, Falling Rain, which begins by explicitly turning toward Harold Bloom, and his anxieties of influence. It makes a question of influence feel most pressing, most on my mind, as well. I think it’s fair to say I’ve been for many years now a poet who seeks influence, whose main curiosity, whose major labor, is figuring out what kind of work might be done, or must be done, to let the flow of another’s mind enter into the more meager flow of my own. In this way, I imagine the poems I’ve written that I’m most endeared to as a kind of confluence, that place of increased flow and troubled waters, place where one must learn to navigate again a terrain suddenly strange, suddenly more than it was before, that agon of merging. I think it keeps me in a tradition of American verse typified by Robert Duncan, who has become more and more important to me, a poet of “derivative soul.” Mystic who learns to see with another’s eyes; poet who learns to sing with another’s mouth.

I’ve only begun the work of translating over the last three years—ancient Greek lyric poets, earliest philosophers of the Milesian school, and now Sappho. It’s hard for me to exactly say what the influence is—which I guess makes sense, given the metaphor above: how trace the shape of water within a flow of water; where is it exactly the two become one? From the pre-Socratic philosophers I feel this encouragement to abandon myself to the claims of the senses as universal in implication, a willingness to keep error and fact wedded together, to keep paradox intact for as long as possible in a poem, as paradox is a place of primary revelation. And I mean revelation in a simple way, something Wallace Stevens gets at when he says “description is revelation”—the revealed-ness of the world, that shining out and shining forth that is our oldest sense of truth. From Sappho, I keep feeling the sheer astonishment that song can bind together into a coherent whole work that time has torn to tatters. It’s given me a courage in my poems not only to let the daily in, as she so wonderfully does, not only to let music thrill through the mundane, as she teaches us to do, but to trust that invisible threads of care and attention can cross large abysses in a poem, and still make them deeply felt. So it is now that the poems I’m most invested in (a series for now called Cantos, re-working Pound’s ambitions into poems of humble, moral tenderness) leap wildly from the ancient to the moment, yoke together vastly disparate fields into one, not as a pastiche of Modernist technique, but as a loving atavism turned back to Sappho, Alcman, Theognis, Simonides, Anacreon. Deep under the immediacy of the conscious mind, Sappho teaches us it all is one, it all coheres.

NNC: How lovely that my question on influence “confluenced” with your just having finished Helms’ new book of criticism. I’m wondering what of Dan might Sappho have seen in your translations?

DBQ: That feels harder to say. These days, though I’m not sure why, I have my doubts about how well I can see myself. “See” probably isn’t the right word. “Know” might be the truer confession. Mostly I feel blind to myself, a surface that seems to be me, but what is in the depth goes deeper into hiding. I think it might be reading too much ancient philosophy...I guess that’s an overly complicated way of saying “I don’t know.” Sappho could tell, I imagine. She could parse out where the particular helpless pattern of my mind steps into the fluency of her song. I suspect it would be tied to words and music and thought, I searching trust I’ve long held, that music is the poem’s undergirding structure, a wordless realm of thought’s deeper order, to which we gain access only through the words of the poem, arranged together so as to fall apart, giving us a glimpse of the world as it is. That thinking music. Maybe that’s what she’d sense.

NNC: Ahh...the music of the poem...something I, too, am passionate about. Can you please talk a little about your relationship with music? Do you sing or play any musical instruments? What kinds of music do you enjoy listening to? 

DBQ: It seems like something I should have known long before, it’s so obvious, but it comes as new realization in just the last few months—probably from working on Sappho, who so often addresses the Muses—that music is muse-ic is of the Muses. I feel a little embarrassed to say it in the 21st century, but I do think often about the Muses as a fundamental ground from which poetry as I hope to practice it emerges. An ongoing refrain in my recent poems is that Memory (Mnemosyne) is Mother of us all—and one feels that in words, that they are born of memory, or bearers of it. And more, that all nine Muses, from Astronomy to Love Poems, are sisters, speak together, are pictured holding hands as they walk down from Parnassus each morning. I take from this the music implies that at some originary level all that seems to us as vastly separate are actually not separate at all, but coherent and cohering, unified. It’s in this sense of music that Poetry for me takes on its deepest cosmological importance—an affirmation of, creation of, participation in, order. 

All that said, I so sadly cannot even carry a tune, not to mention play any instrument. I seem to be wholly devoid of actual musical talent, though I’d trade teeth to have a smidgen of the gift. I listen to a wide array of music. Some years ago we inherited my grandparents’ record player and collection, and so we have this vast collection of classical music, opera, and show tunes. I tend to listen to Bach and Chopin when I’m writing or wanting to think. But when I’m cooking dinner, or just with family and friends, I give in to my love of early country music, or Motown, or more current alt-country—Gram Parsons, Gillian Welch—and music I listened to in high school, The Beatles, The Smiths, music that felt somehow tied to those years where things began to make some kind of beautiful, weird sense to me. 

NNC: So now I really understand what we can learn from Sappho: “it all is one, it all coheres.” Picking up the thread of music, it’s fascinating how our brains seem to instinctively prefer one kind of music over another, depending on what we find ourselves engaged in. I find the order and clarity of classical/romantic symphonies most conducive to clearing and settling my mind.

Speaking of music, you mentioned your Cantos project—“canto” derived from the Latin “cantus” (“song”) and the infinitive “canere” (“to sing”), though probably unrelated to our “canary” in English. Can you talk more about the project—your goals, what drew you to it? 

DBQ: I think I can answer this question, though in many ways, I feel like I’m still learning what’s drawn me to these poems, often long and complicated and rife with history, philosophy, other poets’ poems. The seed of it might well be my long, troubled draw to Ezra Pound’s work. There are moments in his Cantos that do for me what very little else can manage—they pull the husk away from the germ, and reveal it. Then, of course, there is so much that is impenetrable, that brings little, if any, pleasure to a reader. And more obviously, the profound trouble of the man himself, the politics, the prejudice, the madness and arrogance. I was teaching Modern American Poetry to undergrads in 2016 or 2017, and we spent time with Pound’s Pisan Cantos. “What the lovest well remains” has been a refrain in my mind for decades. The final lines of Canto 81 have been an ongoing guide for keeping at work despite the abundant reasons to walk away from it, to do something else:

But to have done instead of not doing

                     this is not vanity

To have, with decency, knocked

That a Blunt should open

               To have gathered from the air a live tradition

or from a fine old eye the unconquered flame

This is not vanity.

         Here error is all in the not done,

all in the diffidence that faltered  .  .  .

To do instead of not doing...that was on my mind, is on my mind. I decided that what I most wanted to do was to write the Cantos again, to repeat but to alter, to work within the same methods, to work in proximity to the same ambitions, but to let the poems seek humility in the most ambitious of ways, to find clarity, sanity, acceptance in the confusions the poems gather, rather than the opposite. So now I have these poems, in the sequence in which they were written, 41 of them, not all of which are good, but some of which, I hope, are. I have no idea if they hold together, if they cohere, if there’s a motion that mines through the whole and brings the poems to something larger than each of them, than all of them. I think I need to get to the summer, print all of them out, and see what it is they actually are. I also need to call them something other than Cantos, I know—the word is too fraught by Pound’s history. But I don’t know what to call them. I had a notion, but I forgot it. Lost in the drift.

NNC: As you do instead of not doing, what aspects of your translation process impact this work?

DBQ: These are the poems I’ve been most actively writing while also translating, so much so, they seem parallel or simultaneous acts. The impacts are many. Fragments of early philosophy are shards embedded in the poems. Aspects of the lives of those I’ve translated offer themselves as guides to a certain way of being—Alcman learning to sing from the partridges and doves; Diogenes learning his philosophy from a mouse eating a crumb. But far beyond content, the deeper influence is on structure. So much of the ancient work I’ve been immersed in comes to us across thousands of years in tatters. One knows there is a whole but has no access to it. Yet, the fragments are charged with the sense of the larger consideration of which they’re a part, so much so, that it is as if one can feel the invisible, tense threads linking the disparate points together. It is like being in a ruins, seeing the grandeur of the whole in the damage that remains. Feeling that has let me trust to larger gaps in my own work, has given me a kind of courage to leap where before I might avoid going or carefully construct a logic to get there. It’s helped me to trust to the apophatic as one of lyric poetry’s potencies—to let the reader feel what isn’t there as a method of discovering what is. 

NNC: Yes, I was struck by the syntactic and semantic disruptions throughout your poetry, and how music helps hold them together. Getting back to your translations, can you walk us through your process of translating Sappho?

DBQ: In most ways, the process is quite rote. But it is also a ritual. I wake up before my family, go to my desk with coffee in hand, and pull out the needed books: the Sappho, the Liddell & Scott Greek Lexicon, notes on grammar from my studies, and a journal of blank pages. I write out the Greek by hand, leaving ample space underneath each line for notes and translation, and simply immerse myself in the puzzle of a line, and a next line, until the poem is done. 

That said, I sense, too, that there is a ritual aspect of voice, not a self exactly, but the rites of a self, that I need to capture—as if a life gathers around a voice, more than a life utters one. At one level, I feel this in the metrics, and so—in the poem extant enough to make this possible—worked loosely but faithfully to stay in sapphics—three lines of hendecasyllabic lines, heavily stressed at the front of the line, and then calming into a more iambic-like pattern at the lines end, as if the heart is startled at the beginning of every line, and then slowly calms, and then a last five syllable line, the adonic

Greek is also a radically compound language, not only at the level of how certain words are constructed, but this deep adhesiveness of many words, where one can feel the overlap between heart and mind (phrenes), the way a certain kind of thinking is also a grasping is also a receiving (lambanow). I wanted to offer the reader some access to those hidden depths in poems, and so would occasionally translate a moment in a poem twice, offer a simultaneous alternate, meant not to distract or diverge, but deepen how the poem might be encountered if one was fluent in the language. For example, the word donew, means to shake, to agitate, to disturb, attributed famously to Eros. But it also describes the sound of a bee in the blossom, and so I err my way here:

Love, now again, limb-loosener, shakes my mind, 

     [ a bee in a blossom buzzes [

that sweet-bitter beast no one can battle

NNC: Your rote ritual sounds painstakingly slow and exact, not to mention doing your translation in the early morning. As a card-carrying night owl, I can honestly tell you, “I could never do that!” 

Can you tell our readers a little more about this selection of ten Sappho translations? How did you come to grouping them together? Do you have suggestions about how to best appreciate them? Can you show examples of the music and metrics in your translations? And finally, can you talk about the place of “arrows” in #71, as well as in your own poems?

DBQ: There wasn’t any real design in the grouping of the ten poems, just certain hopes of what might be shown. I wanted a few poems that have come to us almost whole, and of those, some are poems for which Sappho is most renowned: “Some say cavalry, some spears” and “I honestly wish I’d died.” I suppose it felt important to include those two so readers of Sappho who have turned to many translations can get a sense of the flavor of this new one. (It’s probably in the differences, in those small gaps, between all the translations that our truest Sappho can be found.) I also wanted to have an array of poems from those most complete to those most fragmented by time. There feels to me something both beautiful and useful in that contrast, as if the whole poet can be heard whispering inside the broken poems. And lastly, I wanted a loosely binding theme, violets held together by a bit of twine, to let us feel how her imagination stretches across a concern, a life invested in a way of paying attention, so here, predominantly, Aphrodite and love. The poems give us a glimpse into a life we must imagine to make real—her lovers and friends, her jealousy, her sensitivity, the interweaving into one the sacred and the profane.

I also chose poems where the sapphics can be felt, perhaps most distinctly in the first poem here, “Come here to me” in which I both strive to stay within in the hendecasyllabics as well as experiment in each line with a subtle shift from heavily accented openings to more regular, nearly iambic, closes. In some of the more fragmented poems that follow, some stanzas maintain their metrical wholeness, and that gives a haunted completeness to the stanzas time has broken. Absence and presence feel at play with one another. The music, I hope, is throughout—a palpably sensuous quality of how word offers itself to the next word, and line to next line. Inner modulations of sound and sense—that old ritual. 

And of that final word in 71:

     this you were...


  but I will love...


      is better

than arrows

I’m mostly heaving all my poet’s faith into the homonymic pun of arrows and eros, simply to suggest to the ear Sappho’s sense of love as wounding, love as a wound. The word in the Greek, in the singular, is βέλος, which means anything flung that is sharp, from darts to arrows to spears to Zeus’s lightning. Nicely enough, and unlike other places in which translation required me to make a hard choice, the word I most wanted was immediately at hand—like an arrow in Love’s quiver.

NNC: Thank you so much, Dan, for letting us into your poet-translator life in such a beautiful and articulate way. And now, ten poems aimed at the heart from Sappho’s quiver.

Dan Beachy-Quick’s Translations of Sappho