March 1, 2021
Urayoán Noel’s latest collection, Transversal, takes a disruptive approach to poetic translation, opening up alternative ways of reading as poems get translated or transcreated into entirely new pieces. In this collection, Noel masterfully examines his native Puerto Rico and the broader Caribbean as sites of transversal poetics and politics. Featuring Noel’s bilingual playfulness, intellect, and irreverent political imagination, Transversal contains personal reflections on love, desire, and loss filtered through a queer approach to form, expanding upon Noel’s experiments with self-translation in his celebrated collection Buzzing Hemisphere/Rumor Hemisférico.
Below, read five questions with Urayoán about his latest collection.
What inspired you to write this collection?
There are many ways to answer this question. After the publication of my previous book of poetry, Buzzing Hemisphere/Rumor Hemisférico (2015), also with Camino del Sol, I was interested in getting back to a more imbricated lyric politics, beyond that book’s intra-Americanist politics of page as hemisphere. I was also returning to writing in traditional forms such as the sonnet, partly to rethink the performative and experimental, which have defined my work for so long. At the same time, I wanted to continue my walking improvisation poems (“wokitokitekis”) and the poetics of self-translation from Buzzing Hemisphere/Rumor Hemisférico and some of my earlier work, so I pushed forward on both and thought of the transversal line as a framing device for what I was doing, departing but connecting. A lot of this was about coping, as it tied into a whole process of mourning (the death of my father, the aftermath of Hurricane María) that on the one hand led me back to my native Puerto Rico and on the other made me commit to digging deeper into my writing practice. Paradoxically, this digging deeper manifested itself as two extremes: the formal poems where I could distill this emotional weight through a formal architecture and the improvisational poems where I could cut loose and let my mind (and walking body) wander and go to places my poet’s ego wouldn’t always let me: to be by turns mawkish and brutal, or funny and dark, sometimes in one breath.
How do you think the act of self-translation impacts the poems in this collection?
In Buzzing Hemisphere/Rumor Hemisférico the two languages were often scored as distinct though overlapping hemispheres on the page, and I knew I wanted to do something different here. One thing about hemispheric politics is they tend to privilege the landmass of the Americas as opposed to the islands, the archipelagos, the littorals… the places I come from. I wanted Transversal to be a more defiantly Caribbean book, partly in conversation with the work of Puerto Rican poets such as Raquel Salas Rivera and Nicole Cecilia Delgado, whose work reminds me of poetry’s power to dream of and structure modes of radical community, and partly in conversation with poet-critics like Aimé Césaire and Édouard Glissant, who map the knowledges of poetry. I had audited a poetry seminar with Glissant in the mid-2000s while working on my PhD at NYU, and I carried with me the memory of his discussion of Césaire with us. Rereading both of them as I was starting to conceptualize Transversal led me to the Glissant passage which would become the book’s epigraph and give it its title. I liked the transversal as a way of thinking of how poetry “knows,” as opposed to verticality of empire (and of the corporate university); I liked that it signified both translation and versification; I liked that it worked in both languages, making the “/” in the previous book moot; and I thought it was a great fit in terms of form, since I had been playing around with arranging both languages on the page in a staggered fashion, so that they were always rubbing up against one another but not presented as linear equivalences. In a sense, this was an attempt to move beyond the “galactic” poetics of Buzzing Hemisphere/Rumor Hemisférico, which was partly inspired by the neo-baroque babble/Babel of Brazilian poet Haroldo de Campos, and closer to a Caribbean vernacular, to my life under, across, and beyond imperial English and imperial Spanish, seeking a joy in jamming them up and jamming with them that may and need not render across the Americas. I also went back to Gloria Anzaldúa, whose “conocimiento” operates as a kind of self-translation, somewhere between inexactness and depth, and Julia de Burgos, for whom self-translation is linked to the performative construction and dissolution of the self.
Would you tell us more about the bold, experimental choices you make with poetic form in this collection?
I have always been really interested in the translatability of poetic form. One thing that happened between the previous book and Transversal is that I started getting more seriously into literary translation: publishing it, writing about it, judging it. I learned a lot from translating everything from the vanguardist 1920s sonnets of Chilean poet Pablo de Rokha to the 1970s concrete poems of Amanda Berenguer from Uruguay, written under the shadow of dictatorship, and the contemporary translingual work of Guatemalan Garifuna poet Wingston González. In all three cases, I made the innovative form of the originals central to my translation, often translating for form as much as for content, and it emboldened me even more to self-translate with an eye and ear for form, honoring the distinct properties and architectures of each form, whether an English ode, a villanelle, a concrete poem, or a free-form improvisation. There are also quieter, untranslated poems, which I wanted in order for the book to have room to breathe. Then there’s the contrasting fonts for the English and Spanish, which I had played around with in Buzzing Hemisphere/Rumor Hemisférico but is done a bit more subtly here, as if to insist less on the theatricality of it all. There’s always a lot of performance in my work, but as I’ve gotten used to self-translating (both ways and across forms) I’m less interested in having it be a statement of some kind and just content to let it be, something a poet like Salas Rivera does beautifully. By doing so, I also want to rethink the experimental as a way to center the reader: the experiment not as intent but as relation, where I figure it out for the page and you, the reader, refigure and configure on your terms. There’s one poem in the book that is all homographs (words that look the same but may mean different things in both languages): it’s actually multiple poems depending on how the reader reads. There’s a fair amount in the book that can work in modular fashion: readers can rearrange stuff to fit their layout.
Your voice notes poems, as well as other poems in the collection, feel rooted in specific moments. Could you tell us about the importance of place and observation in your work?
As I mentioned, Transversal was meant to be a Caribbean book. It’s ethos and concept are Glissantian, right down to the striking cover image by the artist Beatriz Santiago Muñoz, who is a great reader of Glissant. The book grew out of my return to the Caribbean, not only Puerto Rico, but also the Dominican Republic, where one of the earliest poems in the book is set, and Cuba, where I began the first draft of what would become the long poem “Periodo Espacial Spatial Period.” While some poems in the second section are ten or even 15 years years old, the book was conceived and largely written after my move to a waterfront area of the South Bronx in late 2016. Much of the improvisational poetry comes from walking along or around nearby Randalls Island Park, recording myself on video as I improvise, and then transcribing the improvisations with no editing. I noticed that after a while the islands of the Caribbean would blend with Randalls Island and Manhattan in my improvisations, all one sedimented archipelago poetics. This seemed like coming full circle, since the first of these wokitokiteki video improvisations were done while walking on a beach in Puerto Rico in early 2012. Before that, I was doing voice notes transcriptions only, since that’s what my phone at the time could handle: the poem “Unstatements,” composed while I was living and teaching in Albany, New York, is one of these early, voice-only improvisations. At some point, the poetics of statelessness (a word I play around with a lot and that resonates as a Puerto Rican) and the poetics of (un)statement just began to blur, and I went with it, letting poems become voice and movement exercises, become political or theoretical statements or meditations on the state of things (or “no state” of things, to echo the poet Victor Hernández Cruz). As a poet who plays with language a lot, I value how these durational language and walking exercises (a typical wokitokiteki is between 15 and 35 minutes with no pauses in the recording) allow for language to exhaust itself and something else to happen: a stutter, a confession, or just silence and listening to my surroundings, which generates observations or reactions that keep the exercise going. I have even applied this compositional method to conventional poems in the book, such as “Soverano,” written after I participated in the summer 2019 protests in Puerto Rico. A few days after attending the protests I was at the Macondo Writers Workshop in San Antonio studying creative nonfiction, and I wanted a more nonfictional and less conventionally poetic way to tell the story of what I saw at the protests, so I walked around my room and improvised, then transcribed and edited and added as minimally as possible. The result was “Soverano,” something like a prose poem but hopefully conveying a bit of the rawness of the experience of what I saw and felt at the event as I processed it a few days later.
Many of the poems in Transversal are rhythmic and musical, as if they are begging to be performed. Is speaking your poetry aloud a large part of your work?
Music, and the musicality of language in particular, are really important to me and to my sense of what poetry is and does. Poetry does not need to be super rhythmic (it does not need to be anything in particular) but my sense of the musicality of language is tied to how words are haunted by other words and worlds, by wordless sounds, bodies, silences. I have different influences as a performer, from the Puerto Rican décima tradition I grew up with to that of the Nuyorican poets, which I claim and write about in my critical work. I have also worked with bands and more recently incorporated phone apps into my performances: sometimes to create sound textures or loops but other times to create deliberate mistranslations, to generate found poems (anagrams, for instance), or to introduce multiple voices into my work and to complicate the immediacy of the relationship between performer and audience. As a poet and critic, I’m very interested in mediated performance, in how it shapes the politics of empire (as in the previous president) but can also sometimes unsettle them, in how the hyper-mediation and gadget-ification of everything is both a challenge and an opportunity for poetry. Poems for Transversal evolved as I performed them everywhere from the Poesiefestival Berlin and the Toronto Biennial of Art to colleges and community gardens in the South Bronx. I think of these performances as extending the sedimentation of the poems, their symbiotic relationships to the environments that birthed them. In our pandemic context, I have explored different approaches to digital performance that highlight but also push against the screened-ness of our present, whether by highlighting the space between my body and the screen, using my phone and computer simultaneously to create more weirdly stereophonic performances, or reclaiming analog forms such as the postcard. I have also done “live” wokitokiteki improvisations in my backyard over Zoom. Increasingly, all my longer readings and performances include at least a brief component of improvisation, and I anticipate that I will continue doing so for Transversal, partly to underscore that what’s in a book is not the end but just another beginning.
Okay, I know I said five questions… but I have one more. What are you working on now?
I’m researching the history of Latinx social media, translating two artist books by Nicole Cecilia Delgado, and editing a couple of long poetic sequences, including one based on the sequence of covid-19 (the latter build off two poems in Transversal). I’m also exploring the question of mediated and found language through experiments with media art: I turned one of the anagram poems from Transversal into a series of GIFs currently on display at the Museum of the City of New York as part of its New York Responds exhibition.
Urayoán Noel is a Puerto Rican poet, performer, translator, and critic living in the Bronx, New York. He has published seven books of poetry and the prize-winning study In Visible Movement: Nuyorican Poetry from the Sixties to Slam, and he edited and translated Architecture of Dispersed Life: Selected Poetry by Pablo de Rokha, which was a finalist for the National Translation Award. Noel teaches at New York University and at Stetson University’s MFA of the Americas.