PC: When did you start writing?

JR: In June 1949, my friend Dan Pletsch and I graduated from Flintridge Prep School for Boys in La Cañada. We made a pact: he would write poems over the summer and I would write short stories.

By September, when we were heading "Back East" (where the best colleges were said to be), he had been transformed into a pre-med not a poet, and I had begun writing poems, partly encouraged to it by my summer job as Manuscripts stack-boy at the Huntington Library. Pulling a folder with an autograph manuscript of a poem I had read in our English Literature class, Robert Louis Stevenson's "Requiem," for example, handling the sheet that had been blank until RLS put ink to it, the poem and his signature, was a revelation and an inspiration.

PC: What did you write?

JR: Very bad poems. One lunch hour I sat outdoors and wrote an "Ode to a Statue," probably one of those that J. V. Cunningham strips of its fig leaf in "I, Too, Have Been to the Huntington," which ends:

Where David, equally with Venus,
Has no penis.

Another began "A palm stands there, close by the shore," (it is blown down: end of poem), totally worthless, but it became my first publication, issued by what I thought must be a prestigious publisher, the self-anointed "National Poetry Association." It was a rip-off anthology of beginners' verse by ignorant college students, like me, who paid $3 for our copy of America Sings. And when it came in the mail: thin cover stock, cheap paper, shabby mimeograph layout, poems stacked like lumber four to a page, obviously chosen for their brevity, not their wit. To crown it all, the books were bound with thin red plastic rings of the kind we slipped on our hens' legs during the War to tell them apart. Among the five hundred of us dupes squeezed in like little chickens, I don't see a single one that has gone on laying poems to some level of recognition (except the author of "The Palm"). Although abashed at the time and ashamed for decades after, I recently realized that this puny (but national!) publication entitled me to make the outrageous. mathematically impossible claim that I have had poems published in each of the last eight decades, even though I only turned 80 last year.

PC: When did you start translating?

JR: Seriously, aside from a couple of classroom exercises, only when I undertook to make an English poem out of Sándor Petöfi's János Vitéz, one of Hungary's best-loved stories. ("Scratch any true Hungarian and he or she will bleed Petöfi," I have written, although I've also heard that there are Hungarians who don't care for him. It might be safer to say " a majority of Hungarians would bleed Petöfi.")

PC: What was the impulse behind that translation?

JR: In two of the three editions of my John the Valiant, I have described my serendipitous discovery of the poem's existence, in pairs of stanzas painted under flamboyant murals on the walls of a basement restaurant ("Pince") in Budapest named for its hero, the "János Pince" ("the John Cellar"). The murals were dashing in an unusually fanciful way: over our table a hussar (one of the few Hungarian words to be found in an English dictionary) was flying on the back of a griffin towards the white church spire of a distant village. I wrote down the names of poem and poet, and once home again, found in the UCSB library a flat-footed prose version of the story. I thought, That is a lot of fun, but it needs to be done in verse.

PC: How is it possible to translate from a language you don't know?

JR: Arduously, on your own, and much more smoothly with a collaborator who knows Hungarian as well as he (and you) know English.

PC: Can you describe the process that you go through in doing that?

JR: For John the Valiant, I copied the entire text (1480 lines), a quatrain to a page with four empty lines below each of the stanza's lines. I had a prose crib in the book I mentioned, clumsy and, like any prose translation of poetry, especially metrical rhyming verse, without the music. Also, it was without lineation, so the Hungarian lines I had copied still hung there with no way of being connected to the English. I needed an accurate, line-for-line translation, and there was only one in English, from 1913, so flowery it was utterly useless. What I needed I found in a French translation by Guy Turbet-Delof. (The only copy in all nine University of California Libraries was in ours at Santa Barbara: more serendipity.) It seemed to follow the original line for line, so I copied each line under the corresponding Hungarian, and with my journeyman French and a good dictionary, I could place the English prose clauses under both the other languages. Then, the most arduous step, I looked up the Hungarian words in Országh's Magyar-Angol dictionary to see what overtones of meaning the definitions might suggest, and wrote these above and around the original's words.

I had listened to a recording of the original poem and very clearly its meter was four-beat, like so many folk poems in other languages. I counted twelve syllables per line, four of them taking an accent, making a metrical pattern not anapestic/iambic (as mine turned out to be) but dactylic since all Hungarian words are accented on the first syllable, and they have relatively few one-syllable words. The syntax is called "agglutinative," with add-ons that we would separate as prepositions, as well as indications of singular or plural, and various other possibilities.

The rhymes, I could see without hearing or understanding, were in couplets, and looked rather loose or half-/off-/slant--later I learned this is a solution to the accent problem (Hungarian words invariably bear their strongest stress on the first syllable), producing multi-syllabic rhymes, "feminine" endings, as we call them, which I seldom attempted to replicate in English.

Now that the form was clearly outlined, I could begin making English couplet-rhyming quatrains which said much the same thing and in very much the same form as the original. By fax I ran this first draft past Marta Egri-Richardson in London, a Hungarian-born English translator whom I met through Professor Tibor Frank, one of my prime supporters. Marta caught me in many misunderstandings of the Hungarian words, which she helped me to adjust.

In recent years, with Peter Czipott as collaborator, we have agreed to indicate who deserves credit for the major part of the final product by claiming it as "by PVC and JMR" or "by JMR and PVC." This began with our first translation, Faludy's "Ode to Hungarian," where I checked the final lines against Peter's first version, and found the ratio of 60% JMR to 40% PVC. Sometimes these proportions are reversed, sometimes they are so near fifty-fifty a coin flip would be needed, especially since Peter has been mastering iambic meter in English, whose flexibility at first he had not completely understood.

PC: What appeals to you about translating? Was there a particular experience you can point to?

JR: There's an inevitable loneliness when you are writing your own poems, but when you translate one, you have at least one collaborator, the original poet. Then, if you're lucky, you pick up a hitch-hiker like Marta Egri, or a fellow-driver like Peter Czipott, who can oversee your attempt to carry the poem across what I called the high, precarious rope bridge over the deep chasm between Hungarian and English. Many little details must fall off along the way, but with hard, imaginative work, you bring enough of the original into your own language for readers to say they can see why Hungarians love, admire, respect, memorize, and are moved by that poem. If I'd been twenty years younger and if there were a good teacher nearby, I might have resolved to study the language. There wasn't and I didn't.

So the appeal, especially in a language you don't know at all, is the challenge to make as much sense and music in English as exist in the original--impossible, but a goal to strive for. The basic test is simple: have you written a good English poem?

PC: How did you decide that you wanted to make it a life work?

JR: Did I? Not really. But as long as Peter Cz. keeps bringing great poems to the Translation Department, it will stay open.

But wait! Charles Martin is editing a Translation Issue of The Able Muse Review, which I learned just as I had turned, for the third time in fifty years, to Paul Valéry's "Le cimetière marin." Unlike the Hungarian poems, this one I could make sense of, at least mostly, with the Collins Robert French-English dictionary at hand, and suddenly I began to hear an English equivalent of the vibrating, eloquent, marine richness of Valéry's famous style. So I went for it. Having finished a draft or two, I looked up an old friend, retired French Professor (and translator) Anne Hyde Greet (now Cotton). She declared herself ravished by my work--and then proceeded to ravish word after word, even whole lines, which would have been quite different, either meaningless or wrong-headed, without her. She, like Marta and Peter, knew how to encourage a writer while strictly monitoring the product.

And we had a ghostly collaborator.

In 1964, Anne and I had met through a graduate student of hers, Hermione Chevallier, who was renting a room on the same avocado ranch where my wife and I rented a house. Hermione died tragically young, only thirty-three, of a raging cancer. Her mother gave me half a shelf of her French textbooks, one of which was the Larousse edition of Valéry's Charmes. The seaside cemetery glittered there (it even had a pencil drawing Valéry himself had made of the scene), with printed Notes and notes on those Notes penciled lightly in by Hermione.

With Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, help came to me from a small Southern town, Maplesville, Alabama, where Mary Veazey edited a little magazine ironically called Sticks. When I told her what I was working on, she expressed her love of Middle English and pleaded to let her see my translation as it went along. See it she did, and more. She scrutinized, over and over, every line of Parts I to III, at one point becoming so impatient with me that she stopped communicating for a year. Then she got on board again. And then she died, also at a young age (mid-50's), leaving Part IV all on my shoulders.

The printer of Gawain, Juan Pascoe at Taller Martín Pescador, made some useful suggestions, and then inadvertently dropped another translation project into my lap: Tacámbaro, by José Rubén Romero, a book of short, rhymed poems presenting vignettes of the town of that name, near both Juan Pascoe and Artémio Rodriguez, the illustrator of my Gawain. (More on that later.) Juan and Artemio had worked on an edition of the book, which had first been published in 1922, and Juan gave me a copy. The poems were short enough for my soldier Spanish to make pretty good sense of, and since they rhymed, as my own poems have done in recent years, that upped the challenge, raising the degree of difficulty, as they say at diving competitions. Even when your approach and execution are less than perfect, your entry into the water, if clean and splashless, hitting the rhymes, can multiply your score, as a free verse poem cannot offer to do. (Blank verse is like the swimming races, churning straight forward for whatever distance.) A rhyming poem, especially in stanzas, is like a series of dives, each with particular requirements--full twist, double somersault, etc.--but connected by the structure of the sequence in which they are performed: the ladder, the board, the deep pool in which they finish like a stanza break, holding their breath until surfacing to applause or shock (if they belly-flopped) or silence, and the judges' scores.

PC: You translate poetry rather than fiction, yes? Is that because you prefer to write poetry?

JR: Ever since that summer of 1949 when I failed to write stories, I have written poems, filing them first by year and lately, as the folders grew too fat, by individual title. I have tried my hand at fiction now and then, and soon after retirement from teaching (in 2005), I began what I then thought of as "Something like a novel,"[1] chapters based on incidents from, or nearly from, my own experience, which might not be interesting enough in a memoir or autobiography--or again, they might. At this point I'm not sure which of the two roads that diverge in this yellow wood I will take. Autobiography may be the one less traveled by--"Though as for that, the passing there/ [Has] worn them really about the same."

So, yes. I haven't written enough prose fiction to dream of translating it. (See Peter Czipott for translating Hungarian prose: diaries, essays, fiction-- superbly.)

PC: What are some of the conflicts or tensions that may arise between the native speaker and the speaker of the target language? How have you resolved them?

JR: Luckily, Peter is a scientist, a practical not theoretical physicist, who is used to writing collaborative papers. He knows and loves classical music well enough to have served on the San Diego Symphony Board of Directors. And since his parents were Hungarian, and all Hungarians love poetry, he has loved poetry and translated some on his own before we met (at a Master Class by the Takács Quartet). We both love to watch top tennis players, and have been admirers of Roger Federer's smooth, clear style, full of surprises--the style we try to achieve in our translations.

In other words, no. There have been no conflicts or tensions between us.

PC: Do you have a set process that you use, or does it vary from poem to poem?

JR: Well, yes, but I am tired of describing it, which I did for John the Valiant in both the Corvina and the Hesperus Press editions, and to some extent elsewhere, including in this interview. Which has also described the method Peter and I have developed to the point where I wonder if we might not copyright it. We describe it in a "Translators' Note" in the back of The Withered World from Alma Classics, and will again in All That Still Matters at All, our Radnóti selection, forthcoming from the New American Press. It all depends upon Peter's willingness to undertake the painstaking stages of (1) copying out the Hungarian text, (2) making a morpheme-for-morpheme translation, and (3) turning those into readable English syntax, usually line-for-line. Here's a current example, as Peter laid it out: line 3 from Dezsö Kosztolányi's "The Savage Blacksmith"

szikrázva visszanézek és
sparkingly back-at-it-look-I and
throwing sparks, I look back at him

This has to rhyme with line 1, which ended with a personification, szenvedés, Suffering. After several rallies, we are going with a very rare (for us, though common in Hungarian) double rhyme, having shifted blacksmith to the end of the first line ("Suffering, that wanton, savage blacksmith"):

striking sparks, I glare right back, with

This has the advantage of forcing a strong grammatical run-on, as does the original.

PC: In your translations, what do you do about rhyme and meter? What balance do you make between the demands of vocabulary and the sonic requirements of a poem? Can you tell us how you decide where to make such trade-offs—and are you willing/able to give an example of one such?

JR: Find a way to accommodate them both without distorting the meaning. (I do believe that words have meanings, and that even when assembled unto poems they continue to carry their semantic content.) As translators I feel we are obliged to step into the original poet's footsteps in the snow, even if our feet are like a child's by comparison.

Specifically, Hungarian meters appear to be differently organized than ours, but it is amazing to see how readily lines of 10-11 syllables can be filled by an equal number of English syllables into iambic pentameter, making a line-for-line equivalency.

Then, with rhyme comes the extra push, the challenge, daring us to find, in our comparatively rhyme-poor English, words that will match the original pattern. It surprises and delights me how often that can be done.

PC: You translate both from languages that you know and those with which you are less familiar (e.g., Hungarian). How are these different for you in the process?

JR: It's more of a challenge with Magyar. More relaxed with French or Spanish, though I'm still dictionary-dependent, running the risk of missing some colloquialisms a fluent speaker would catch. I still go out on a limb.

PC: Without knowing the language, how do you deal with the cultural nuances?

JR: When I read John the Valiant to a meeting of the Friends of the UCSB English Department, a Hungarian rocket engineer I had met through an old friend, Tony Béjczy, drove up from Pasadena. I'll never forget the glow I felt when he stood up at the end of my reading (90 minutes, with a snack break in the middle) and declared, "I have heard Petöfi in English." From many other Hungarians who speak English well, I have been told that I have captured the spirit of the work completely. Since that poem is a touchstone for every Hungarian, I think these responses answer your questions about cultural nuances. Also, I spent a lot of time with Hungarian Fulbright Exchange scholars at UCSB in 1985-6, Gyula and María Kodolaányi and Tibor and Zsuzsa Frank in particular. The reason we got on is that the Hungarian sense of humor is compatible with my own sense of the absurd. My wife and I have visited Hungary five times since 1987 (when it was still behind the Iron Curtain).

PC: How did the Sir Gawain and the Green Knight project come about?

JR: The poem had been close to my heart, one of my favorite stories, ever since I first read it in graduate school and taught it later. I first taught it for my wife's class at California State University, Los Angeles, while she was in New Zealand, ministering to her dying mother. I also taught it to my UCSB classes, using the Everyman edition which presents the original Middle English with all the least penetrable lines and phrases translated in full, which allowed the students and me, though mostly me, to read it aloud.

At first I thought it should be a movie, and even picked out the setting for the climactic scene, among the mounds in the rain-green foothills above Claremont, California. No producer came forward, despite our nearness to Hollywood. Then, in a note from 1966, I see that I thought of, but did not pursue, another kind of "translation:"

Gawain in Bercelak's Castle-- a play
Plot: She was your sworn enemy!

In 1990, I was in England visiting our daughter, and stopped by Ross-on-Wye to check the location of a piece of church statuary for my colleague Steve Allaback (a real short story writer, but in this case editor of the travel diaries of Mrs. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow), and found that this small village is renowned for its used book stores. In one I picked up a copy of the Early English Text Society's 1897 Revised Edition of Richard Moore's 1864 printing, based on the earliest publication of the poem in 1839 by Sir Frederic Madden.

The point has to be stressed: here was a great poem, written in the mid-14th Century, at the same time as Chaucer's early poems, completely unknown to scholars and poets until the mid-19th Century. It had survived precariously in a single manuscript book, erratically copied by someone other than the author, who remains anonymous. Along with it were three other long poems, two of which interpret Biblical stories, while one, The Pearl, which only Marie Boroff has had the nerves to translate, is considered by many Medievalists at least the equal of Gawain. The poems are accompanied by some very amateurish illustrations. Its bibliographic name is "Ms. Cotton Nero A. x." since it was the tenth book on shelf "A" in a bookcase topped by a bust of the Emperor Nero in the library of Sir William Cotton. Other cases were watched over by other Roman Emperors. The volume was spared by a fire which destroyed much of the collection--which has little to do with the poem, except to stress the fragile vulnerability of books: this was the only manuscript of all four poems to come down to us.)

Once it began to become known, translations were needed because of the far greater degree of difficulty in this poem's dialect, over Chaucer's London-based one, which fed into the mainstream of modern English. Perhaps as a result of the degree of difficulty, there are now a couple of dozen recent translations, including a dreadful one by the famous J. R. R. Tolkien, who did, however, produce a far fuller edition of the poem than Moore's, with a Glossary I found essential until, in a London bookshop, I picked up a better one in what became my working text, The Poems of the Pearl Manuscript, edited by Malcolm Andrew and Ronald Waldron for the University of Exeter Press in 2002.

Why this explosion of interest? Speaking for myself, I find it is such a good story, and so contemporary that I can now imagine my movie version with characters in modern leather jackets, and the Green Knight roaring into Camelot on a huge green motorcycle. Everything works in the poem: the plot's intricacies, the characters' lifelikeness, the convincing settings, especially of the winter season. The morality is strict but not prissy, and the Lady gives an Oscar-worthy performance, directed by her Lord, though the producer is another character, Morgan La Fey. Near the end a guide taking Gawain to meet his doom turns on a wonderful show, apparently to save Gawain's life, but surely damning his soul if his advice should be followed. The whole plot is Morgan's orchestrated attempt to destroy the high reputation of her half-brother King Arthur's Knights of the Round Table. Once you get past the obstacle of the poem's northern Midlands dialect, everything is accessible. Hence the numerous recent translations into modern English.

As for form: my attempt at reproducing the original's alliterative accentuals migrated into seven-beat lines, rhythmically similar to the notorious "Fourteeners" of the 16th Century, but without end-rhyme and with the alliterations ad lib. (I'd have said rhyming Fourteeners today would be an impossibly awkward form, except that A. E. Stallings has carried it off in her translation of Lucretius's De Rerum Natura.) Each long paragraph of long lines closes with what the scholars call a "bob and wheel," a solidly iambic stanza of short rhyming lines. Most recent translators have tried to revive the alliterative accentual meter of the original, as I started to do myself, but I thought it was awkward in itself, and for a present-day reader, since very few of our own recent poems have tried to use it. It seems to me, therefore, too much an academic exercise to read, and therefore not enough fun.

Enough on the metrical technicalities. The publication of my translation in a hand-press edition of 200 copies by what some might most inadequately call "a printer in Mexico." Juan Pascoe is a master printer of fine books, whose bibliography runs to more than 500 items, including "ephemera" like broadsheet poems. A retrospective of his work was shown in Mexico City during the years we were working on "the Gawain project," and he was honored at one of the Codex Conventions of fine printers in San Francisco. Like his mentor, the late Harry Duncan of the Cummington Press and Abattoir Editions, he believes that books are meant to be read, not admired as works of art. The printer's aim is to serve the written work as faithfully as the writer or translator has done. If we are approaching the end of the Era of Printed Books, Juan told me, this would be a monument to the Art that is being cast away, and thereby an argument in favor of retaining it. An appreciation of this book by a knowledgeable collector appears on a website called "Books and Vines." This reviewer declares, in passing, that at $450 this work is "a bargain." But I would feel terrible if an edition so expensive had put my translation out of reach for students and most teachers, and other potential readers. Fortunately, it can be read entire online, for free, at Mike Burch's the hypertexts.com, thus bridging the gap between the old and the new technologies.

Does that answer your questions on Gawain? No!

You also asked:

PC: Did you work with the illustrator on images? Any surprises?

JR: Artemio Rodriguez is an artist of sufficient stature in Mexico that it would have been presumptuous to try to give him directions or suggestions (although I think Juan Pascoe and I did veto one of his images that was not an illustration). The result of Artemio's work is a series of illustrations which my wife thought look both "Mexican" and "Medieval English"--this was the main "Surprise": how well they fitted together. If you want to see them without buying the book you can go to the Philadelphia Rare Books and Manuscripts Company's online catalogue and find several spreads of pages. PRBM are the sole U.S. distributors, so that's the place for you, or your Special Collections Librarian, to order a copy before they're sold out. Remember: "A bargain!"

PC: Is this the first time you've had work illustrated?

JR: How lucky I am to be able to answer No to this one. The first Corvina edition of John the Valiant was honored with thirty original, very "Middle European" black-and-white illustrations by the late Peter Meller. Meller had become an art historian after escaping from Soviet-controlled Hungary in 1956, but was at heart a serious, if secretive artist (even his original techniques for making prints, involving white-out fluid, black marking pens, and photocopy machines, were not revealed)[2].

John the Valiant was given a second Hungarian publication in 2001, by the Dévi Foundation of Pécs, a lovely small city southwest of Budapest, untouched by World War II. In this extraordinary tri-lingual edition, my English runs down the pages between the original Hungarian János Vitéz and a translation into the Beash Roma ("gypsy") dialect (but that "g-word" is as rude as our "N-word"). Roma children, I was told, had no other book length texts to read, and this being a story they already know in Hungarian, it was expected to be a revelation. And it was, to the three or four Roma high school students in the back of the room when I went to read portions of my version, with a well-known actor ("the Hungarian Tom Cruise") and the high school teacher of German who had done the Roma translation. Those students were, I was told, astonished and delighted to hear a work of such literary magnitude in Hungary spoken in their despised street-language.

The book was the brainchild of Ildikó Fodor, who had been teaching mentally retarded or disturbed children to paint in watercolor of astounding brilliance in color, and complexity in design. They are zany, and beyond zany. tragic, when you hear the stories of the young artists' lives. For example, one master of multiple fine-lined drawing so detailed as to be suggestive of an autistic obsessiveness, was given a set of paints to take home with him from school. They were stolen by members of his family, probably sold, and any working space for drawing was denied him. Ildikó had never heard him talk, and a poster-sized picture he drew of his life, included many guns and knives.

PC . What are some of the ways in which translating projects have come to you?

JR: I've mentioned my discovery of John the Valiant on the walls of a basement restaurant in Budapest. The publication of my version, the first in English since an incompetent translation in 1913, was greeted warmly, for putting this Favorite Poem of theirs into "the world language," which English has become. It has led to numerous readings to Hungarians, -born or -bred, in California, Australia, New Zealand, and Cleveland, Ohio, where I received a Gold Medal from the Arpad Academy. Later I received an award for the same reason from the Balassi Foundation: the Balassi Sword, a genuine, very sharp but brittle replica of the sword that Bálint Balassi, Hungary's soldier-poet like England's Philip Sidney in the same half-century, fought with against the Turks.

Then I met Peter Czipott, and we seem to have an extended limitless unsigned agreement to go on translating as many good or great Hungarian poems as we can. So the answer here is that Peter brings poems to my attention, and fortunately his taste and judgment are superb.

PC: How do you see translation in relation to writing your own poetry?

JR: As reinforcing each other. To get inside a poem of Radnóti's is like trying on the famous great-coat in which he was murdered and buried and in a pocket of which his final, great poems were found when his body was exhumed. It chills you, it appalls you, but it enlarges your mind's sense of its possibilities, and the range of your poetry's concerns.

The translated poem contains subjects and forms, images and imaginative leaps, which can be more, or less, accurately carried over. And the spirit of the work, its feelings and overtones, can be conveyed if you've chosen a sympathetic author and a collaborator who can help you think you are writing both what the original poet should have done if he had written in English, and a poem of your own that you might have written if you'd had his or her occasion to.

PC: Some translators write their own poetry in addition to translations and others don't. Do you think that makes a difference?

JR: I find it strange to think of any translators of poems not writing their own poems, but it must happen or the Hudson Review would not have thought it necessary to title its splendid recent anthology Poets Translate Poets (which includes one of the two Parts of my Gawain the Hudson had previously published. In the same way, I often felt that my English Department colleagues whose specialty was criticism ought to be required to write something in the genre and forms they are teaching or engaging with.

PC: Do you think of a translation as less yours than some of your other work?

JR: Unfortunately, I have to say Yes. I've already indicated that about half of every Hungarian translation I've put my name to also bears Peter Czipott's name. And neither of us is the true author, who is the person who first wrote it in that very strange, beautiful, and sonically rich language. I will, however, surely put several of these into any volume of Selected Poems I may publish.

PC: Have you ever decided to write a poem in response to one of the pieces that you translated?

JR: Nice question. Here's one answer, from my 2004 book, A Brahms Card Ballad:

On Translating János Vitez

Forgive me, Petöfi, my fibrillations
Against the steady ground bass of your pulse.
All of us undertaking true translations
Will find them turning into something else:
At best alert, agile approximations,
Eclectic beepers miming the sound of bells,
Bow Bells tied up in knots, clear intimations
Blurred in a muddy fog no sun dispels.

The sun your nap still blazes, searing hot
At noontime
                        when I nod and fall asleep
You wake me up
                               I hear my straying sheep's
Bells clatter distantly.
                                    I kept your plot?
I did my best?
                        My best is good enough?
I pray you'll sift the impure from pure guff.

(I hope "pure guff" is still a slang phrase meaning "utterly worthless nonsense" which would bring "impure guff" to mean something closer to the sense of the original, though never identical.)

JR: Here's another answer: working with Peter on Sándor Márai's poems, we hit a string of seventy-two eight-line poems, titled Book of Verses, and identified only by their number. Harper's picked up one of these--you know they don't accept submissions of poetry but choose it wherever they find it, in this case in the PN Review--and left its title as we had, "Sixteen." People have told us they thought this meant sixteen years old, and tried to fit that to a poem with lines like "The lust that tied my body in a knot."

Anyway, Márai ranged all over in place and time, from the year in which he was writing, 1944, when Budapest was occupied by the Nazis and nearly destroyed during the Soviet invasion[3], to his youthful travels in the Middle East, London, and Paris. Always octaves (sometimes feeling like the first part of a sonnet that wasn't finished), and in a meter that corresponded to our iambic tetrameter, but with the rhyme scheme changing unpredictably, to avoid monotony. So I set out to follow his model, and completed twenty-one in this form for a Booklet of Verses, or Versicles of my own.

I have tried to write poems in honor of Miklós Radnóti and his widow (still living at over 100), but his bar is set so high, I have not yet cleared it.

PC: Do you work on translations in tandem with your own poetry or serially?

I have never stopped writing my own poems since that summer of 1949, but tandem is a good metaphor, describing the "bicycle built for two," a song my mother used to sing. Although both riders are pumping as equally as they can, the one in front has the handlebars, and steers. Or better, since the bike metaphor would require stopping and changing seats, think of two runners doing a long workout together, first one, then the other, taking the lead.

PC: What are you working on now?

A good final question, to which I reply with another question, and a series of answers, not entirely in order of priority:

What am I not working on?

Let me list some projects:

1. Peter's and my immediate translation venture is a selection of poems by Dezsö Kosztolányi, a charming writer of fiction and poetry in quite a different key from either Márai's or Radnóti's. At times he seems to be writing shallow light verse, when you hit a submerged rock, and are tossed into deep water over your head, as in the "Hundred Lines about Suffering" in this Number of Per Contra. (Kosztolányi died a cruel, lingering death from cancer of the tongue.)

2. A manuscript of poems about the little boy mentioned in "El Día del Muerto" and dreamed of in "The Night that He Is Five Tomorrow," which gives the title to Happy in an Ordinary Thing. Its working title is Little John's Book. My wife and I published a collage-like biography, And Say What He Is: The Life of a Special Child, in 1975 at the MIT Press. Recent readers we have lent it to have wished it could be put back into print by a more literary press.

3. Obits, a manuscript of obituary poems including a "Crown" of seven sonnets, supposedly accepted by the North Dakota Institute, but apparently the funds aren't coming in, as with

4. Mountain Music, a chapbook sadly accepted in 1989 by one printer who went out of business due to ill health, and taken on by another who has been too busy to finish it.

And I have several manuscripts finished and ready for publication, if anyone wants them:

5. A nifty short monograph on teaching poetry, called Not Missing the Fun (its main thesis being that poetry is fun, whatever its subject).

6. A bundle of Travesties of Famous Poems, one of which was a finalist in the X. J. Kennedy parody contest at Measure, where it will be published. Kennedy himself read it and said it should be done as a chapbook.

7. A sequence written mostly during my nearly three years in Australia working for the University of California Education Abroad Program, titled: Burson a Poet? Burson was a fictitious doppelganger who followed me around Australia. He was born from a miserable typo in a blurb on an Australian poet's book: referring to the Japanese haiku master and Zen painter Buson (both vowels long), the printer had slipped a little "r" into the first syllable, making it an Aussie name, as I found out when a truck pulled alongside me, with "Burson's Auto Parts" painted on its door. Burson! The great Zen painter and haiku poet?

8. Thirty-Two Short Pieces about Alan Stephens. These are a tribute to my closest colleague-friend for thirty years, one of the finest poets, and the finest judge of poetry, I have known. Stephens made his way from an irrigated farm in Colorado, thanks to World War II service in the Air Corps, to the University of Colorado in Boulder, then to the University of Denver, and Missouri for a Ph. D., after which he spent a year absorbing and then working his way out from under the influence of Yvor Winters. At UCSB he assisted Marvin Mudrick in founding the College of Creative Studies, teaching there until his early retirement, when he intended "to write more," only to find that spring was drying up. His son Alan, Jr., has issued three beautiful volumes of his father's verse, a Collected, a Selected, and Running at Hendry's, a sequence of seventy-one sonnets written when he came home from his daily run at this well-known beach in Santa Barbara. My title deliberately plays off that of the lovely movie, "Thirty-Two Short Films about Glenn Gould," because Stephens, like Gould, withdrew himself from the performance stage, and wrote a heartfelt elegy, "The Morning of Glenn Gould's Funeral." It was a case of genius recognizing genius.

And there may be others, but that's enough of those, and of me.

[1] I've since given the work a different title: A Swimmer and a Dreamer, which is what my dunderheaded Army sergeant called me when I ducked out of my duties in the Public Information Office to join the Camp's swimming team for a couple of months. How he added the dreamer I don't know. But he was right. My own family used to call me dreamy when I was a boy.

[2] His works have been shown at UCSB and in London, with shows in Hungary and Paris in the offing. His life and methods of working are explained in a brilliantly laid-out monograph by Robert Williams, The Zodiac of Wit.

[3] Or "Liberation," as it was christened--now a highly ironic term in any of the Soviet bloc countries.