Zoland correspondent P. Scott Cunningham, the director of the O, Miami Poetry Festival and the author of Chapbook of Poems for Morton Feldman (Floating Wolf Quarterly, 2011) sat down with Stuart Krimko and Arlo Haskell of Sand Paper Press to bring us an in-depth look at their new translation title, The Last Books of Héctor Viel Temperley. Enjoy!
PSC: I met poets Stuart Krimko and Arlo Haskell in 2010 at the Key West Literary Seminar, where Haskell lives full-time and serves as the festival’s Media Director. Krimko, the Director of David Kordansky Gallery in Los Angeles, was in town for the Seminar and to help with release of three new titles by the publishing imprint they run together: Sand Paper Press. Last year marked a milestone for Sand Paper; they published the first collection in twenty years by American Oulipo legend Harry Mathews, and now Haskell and Krimko have just released The Last Books of Héctor Viel Temperley, the press’s first book in translation. Krimko, who travels each year to Buenos Aires, translated the poems, while Haskell served as editor and publisher. The following exchange took place over email during the first few days of 2012.
PSC: I don’t think it makes any sense to talk about this book without first talking about Sand Paper Press and, by extension, small presses in general. Tell me how you two met, and how that led to the creation of Sand Paper Press.
AH: Stuart and I met at Bard College in the fall of 1996. The following year we both took Ann Lauterbach’s class on 20th-century American poetics. I think for both of us this was a transformative experience, the first time either of us had read in a serious and substantive way poets like Wallace Stevens and Charles Olson, John Berryman, Elizabeth Bishop, Ezra Pound, then up through so-called New York schoolers like Frank O’Hara, Ron Padgett, John Ashbery, and James Schuyler, as well as the writings of influential non-literary types like John Cage. By the next semester we were pretty hooked, and we ended up in Ashbery’s poetry workshop together, where we learned about obscurer writers like Pierre Martory and Carl Martin, and were given assignments to write poems based on Oulipo constraints and zodiac signs. As a result of both of these classes, and I suppose as a result of being 20 and in that first flush of adulthood, we developed a great sense of camaraderie among poets, a great feel for an audience and the impact a poem could have one one’s life and one’s friendships. Stuart was living off campus with David Janik, who is now our designer, and they’d invite a bunch of us over to share a handle or two of cheap wine and we’d sit around and read poetry in their living room. It was an amazing group of poets, and when Ashbery showed up and shared some jug wine and read some new work with us, you know I think we felt like “we can do this. We are doing this.” As the years went on we kept doing it, kept wanting to do it, and it turned into making books, small ones at first, my Fool Proof, Stuart’s Not That Light, handmade things that took incredible amounts of time to fold and stitch and assemble, and then we decided we wanted to step it up, print more copies, save ourselves the work of assembly, and keep pushing the work out there. The Press is an extension of our friendship, really, and it’s an effort to make more friends out there in the world, to find a handful of like minds and do something cool that they will like and that may form the basis for new friendships. It’s all about living, and living a satisfied life, and for both of us I think the key to that is in placing art at the center of one’s life and one’s relationships.
PSC: Tell me about who Héctor Viel Temperley was, both as a person and as a poet, and how you, Stuart, discovered his work and took an interest in it.
SK: I learned about Viel Temperley’s work when I studied at the Universidad de Buenos Aires en 1999. Hospital Británico was assigned reading for the Literary Theory and Analysis course I did there; the Argentine educational system is modeled after the French, Napoleonic model, so this incredibly rich and complex course, in which there were three simultaneous sections devoted to completely different sets of readings, was what the first thing that first-year students encountered. In addition to high level theory (the Russian Formalists through Derrida, and at breakneck speed), students were introduced to literature chosen especially to challenge them. I describe this scene because it gives you an idea of Viel Temperley’s reputation in Argentina. He is beloved by a knowledgeable few, considered outside the mainstream in every way, and yet for all its strangeness, the poetry is open and accessible enough for first-year literature students to approach it.
Viel Temperley himself came from a prominent family. His first book, published in the mid 1950s when he was in his early 20s, won an award, and his second was published by the same house that was publishing Borges at the time. However, he never joined Argentine literary society as such. This must have been a conscious decision, as he seemed to be set up for success, and there has long been a remarkably active literary community in Buenos Aires. He made his living as the owner of an advertising firm, he fathered seven children, and he continued to write poetry. But he also developed a highly personal brand of faith that cannot be considered either purely poetic or purely religious; by the beginning of the 1980s, he lived in his own apartment and spent much of his time in solitude, writing and praying, occasionally making a trip to a monastery outside of Buenos Aires, where he had a number of friends who were monks. The late books, for which he is best, known, were essentially self-published. Though he was a dedicated athlete he also smoked, and by the mid 80s he had developed lung cancer, which spread to his brain. He died in 1987, just after publishing Hospital Británico, which, because it draws text from each of his previous books, is a kind of cathedral-like summation.
PSC: “I am the place where the Lord spreads out the Light that he is,” Viel Temperley says in Hospital Británico, a phrase that could come right out of a Baptist service in Mississippi. Are we more tolerant of Viel Temperley’s religiosity because he’s dead? Because he’s Argentinian? Do you think that an extremely well-written, formally ambitious book of poems would have less value if it espoused the values of Pentacostalism or another far right Christian sect? Or is it the strangeness of H.V.T’s Christianity that makes such statements tolerable to non-believing liberal poetry readers like myself?
SK: Poetry to me is religiosity. Some of my favorite poets are manifestly religious. I named one of my own collections after George Herbert, who was a pastor and only wrote about religious themes. In the interview I translated as an appendix to his books of poems, Viel Temperley insists that he is not a religious poet, by which I think he means that he is not espousing anything. This is investigative work, full of shades and mysteries and questions rather than assertions or claims to visions. So for me his poetry does not require tolerance, it elicits desire –– it is full, after all, of hookers and pregnancy and sex. The strangeness comes from the unity of desire and sanctity, passions we are not accustomed enough to describing in the same breath. But think of someone like Judee Sill, or St. John of the Cross, whose embodied, nervous Christianities are forms of mysticism. Also, art, like mysticism, is designed to topple any sense of right and left.
PSC: I love Herbert, too, particularly because I think he is trying to convert me, a condition I tolerate (1) because he’s dead and (2) because he lived in a world very, very different from my own. No matter how hard I try I cannot replicate the degree of faith Herbert possessed, and so I find him interesting specifically because of how differently he organizes his passion.
SK: Essentially I think that what separates the bad Bible-thumpers from the good ones is the presence of hubris. The best poetry dismantles hubris. If you can preach me your God and make me feel the debilitating and dwarfing sense of the arbitrary that even the archest atheist must also share, then I will pull up my chair and listen. That said, I disagree about the intentionality of Herbert’s poetry. He was trying to convert himself, which is a different thing. Herbert, like Wallace Stevens, for instance, lived at the precipice of disbelief but could never quite throw himself over. In the poetry he challenges God –– actually I think he tries to throw himself over, but each time a gust in the shape of a hand or a poem puts him back up on the cliff. Regarding living proselytizers, I have a distinct weakness for Christian-period Bob Dylan, so perhaps I’m not the best person to judge here. I was also going to mention the Ol’ Dirty Bastard of songs like ‘I Can’t Wait,’ but then I remembered that he too is no longer with us. Doesn’t seem possible.
PSC: Despite the formal range of contemporary American poetry, there’s a few topics that dominate: the self, art for art’s sake, the trap of language, etc. and when a book breaks out of this theoretical vortex, it immediately becomes recognizable. I feel that way about Viel Temperley and his Christianity—is that part of what drew you to this project?
SK: Yes, what you describe is very much part of what draws me to Viel Temperley’s poetry. Perhaps not his Christianity per se, though that too, but his spiritual openness; the willingness to put real faith up against original formal structures; the over lit, beachy surrealism, its visionary reverberations; the sense that this man was writing for his life, not out of despair or desperation, but out of ecstatic sensitivity to the potential for the world to be miraculous. The work is also full of humility: this is what might set it apart more than anything else. I won’t go so far as to make sweeping judgments about American poetry, except to say that among poets there are too many artists and not enough practitioners of radical and generous humility. That said, God, or at least divinity, appears in some of the most interesting poetry being written in the United States. I’m thinking of people like Dorothea Lasky and Ariana Reines.
PSC: Reines is a great comparison. “God” is a very complicated character in her work, and certainly mixed up with desire. Do you see any specific affinities between her and Viel Temperley?
SK: For me they’re two poets who are current ‘favorites’ in the sense that Elizabeth Bishop describes in the stunning fragment called “Writing poetry is an unnatural act…”: “…not [necessarily] the best poets, whom we all admire, but favorite in the sense of one’s ‘best friends’…” Interestingly, one of Bishop’s ‘best friends’ was Herbert. In the same piece, she says that the three qualities she most admires in poetry are “Accuracy, Spontaneity, Mystery.” (Italics are hers.) That seems about right to me; Viel Temperley and Reines have these. Bishop’s “The Roosters” is a great Christian poem, by the way.
PSC: Speaking of “best friends” versus “best poets,” there’s a certain sexiness to those “undiscovered” poets and to “lost” books in general. Why is that?
SK: It’s important to note that amongst poets in Argentina these books are not lost. Thanks to the people at Ediciones del Dock, who were also supportive of this project, the complete works were brought out in 2003. So Viel Temperley is read and known. Poetry being poetry, most poets are in some way undiscovered. But of course there’s a thrill in being able to introduce a writer to new audiences, for whom he’s certainly undiscovered because they can’t read the language he wrote in. The sexiness must come from the happy feeling that there was someone doing something you care a great deal about, even though you didn’t know about it. It’s like they were thinking of you without having met you, which is like hearing from a friend that a person you find attractive has been mentioning your name. In this case the translator and editor are that gossiping friend.
PSC: Do you find these books to be formally inventive? If so, how? And if so, why is that important to their value? For instance, could you talk about the organization of “Crawl” and its relation to Viel Temperley’s passion for swimming?
SK: Yes, I think the books are formally inventive. Particularly Hospital Británico, in which Viel Temperley makes use of self-appropriation in a way that feels inevitable and necessary. But for the reasons discussed above, they don’t rely upon formal invention. In some basic way poetry at its best is about the integration of both accepted and idiosyncratic forms. The idea that one might take lineated verse, haul it over the line into the world of prose, and then use it to built this stunning edifice that allows you to reassess the way you lived and wrote your life––it’s a quietly radical and iconoclastic thing to do. Crawl too is quite particular, formally speaking. As you note, Viel Temperley was a dedicated swimmer. He arranged the lines on the page, and the breath of the poem in sonic terms, according to the rhythm of swimming the crawl. I think he was interested in placing his experience of his body, in action, in the midst of the poem. The book’s refrain (‘I come straight from communion and I’m in ecstasy’), however, suggests a more profound reason for using the breath as a structural element. For Viel Temperley, a single moment of ecstatic revelation can be repeated in the framework of poetry. Each time he revisits this moment, it leads him through a different chain of images. As I mentioned earlier, Viel Temperley was not interested in a definitive religious experience. Even a standalone instance of communion with God had to be reimagined and relived. Formal innovation allowed him to do this.
PSC: In the short bio of Viel Temperley you mention that he never gave readings, yet the poems sound gorgeous when read aloud. Do you know if he ever composed aloud?
SK: In the interview Viel Temperley describes the composition of Crawl, part of which involved laying fragments of text out on the floor and standing on a chair to see how they looked and felt from above. And Hospital Británico is such a readerly act of literature. This leads me to believe that his mode of composition mostly involved written text.
PSC: “…water so blue that the moon / entered into it and breathed.” Despite being gorgeous, this line struck me as descriptive of the writing of poetry itself, or rather, how poets themselves feel about it: that if we can just get the words to be clear enough we can live inside of them and thereby, they’ll save us. Was ars poetica one of Viel Temperley’s concerns?
SK: Inasmuch as he recognized the difference between poetic and religious experience, yes. In other words, there was something particular to poetry that he felt it was crucial to enact. Given that he included religious imagery and sentiment in his poetry but went out of his way to assert that he wasn’t an explicitly religious writer, he must have felt that the attention to language brought about by poetry itself added something important to his life. I don’t get the sense that he thought poetry would save him, just as I don’t think David wrote the Psalms to avoid God’s wrath. If poetry spares us pain, it is only because of its role as entertainment. And in the array of entertainments available to us, certainly poetry is one that has been historically linked to the divine. But that’s just because it entertains God too. When Leonard Cohen sings ‘I’ve heard there was a secret chord that David played, and it pleased the Lord, but you don’t really care for music do you?’, I think the you he refers is the Lord, who can take the chord or leave it, even though he does find it pleasing to hear.
PSC: There are a few very strange figures in Hospital Británico, including a dwarf and a character named “Christus Pantokrator.” Could you explain their presence in the poems?
SK: If we take Viel Temperley at his word, the dwarf is a surreal figure who functions momentarily as his guardian angel because he allows him to see a crusader (it’s only the dwarf’s ring) making his way through a spiritually destitute world. As I explain briefly in the introduction, Christus Pantokrator is a depiction of Christ often found in Byzantine churches. As opposed to the wounded Man of Sorrows, the Pantokrator is understood to be omnipotent; he is often shown holding a book, so he represents knowledge too. This is a stern, hyper-masculine Christ, so he fits in with the boxers and sailors that populate Hospital Británico.
PSC: What were the technical challenges in translating Viel Temperley?
SK: I don’t think the poems presented any severe technical challenges. I was grateful for the luxury of time––I’ve been working on drafts of these poems since I was a student at Bard College in 1999––as well as Arlo’s collaboration and close reading, which allowed me to develop ever-clearer translations in many passages. I was surprised to note that as I read and reread the poems over the last decade, each time they felt plainer, simpler, and more forthright. I’m thinking particularly of Hospital Británico, which is the work of a dying man coming to terms with his vanishing place in the world. So I wanted to make sure my translations reflected that evolving sense of the work as nothing more than writing. I found myself stripping away ‘creative’ or ‘poetic’ solutions that had some whiff of my own invention attached to them. I feel that the current vogue is for translations that tend toward the literal, and I agree with it (Lydia Davis is the most eloquent recent proponent of this). I am adding nothing to the conversation by saying so, but I want to point out that even the literal has its limits, and, though I tried my best to avoid them, there are numerous instances in which I was forced to rely on my creativity to render the text fluently in English.
PSC: Tell me about the poet Cecilia Pavón assisted in this book, and how Argentina itself plays into the narrative.
SK: Cecilia is a great friend, an excellent poet, and a professional and gifted translator. So her assistance was indispensable. There is nothing like having such a person show up as a convenient green dot in the chat feature of Gmail when you are racking your brain over a translation problem. Not only can you discuss the problem immediately, but it’s fun and collegial, and it often leads to delightful conversation about any number of other topics. I also relied on the advice and knowledge of Francisco Garamona on many occasions. He knows Viel Temperley’s work inside and out, owns all of the rare first editions, and is himself a poet and editor, as well as the publisher of Mansalva, in my mind the best Argentine literary imprint. Soledad Viel Temperley, the poet’s daughter, was a great resource, and answered many of our questions about his life and the way he worked. A project like is a great way to collaborate with far-flung friends and make new ones. It provides an excuse to travel. In this sense, Argentina is everywhere in this book. In terms of Argentine writers in general, Viel Temperley is atypical, but exceptions prove the rule. With regards to Cecilia in particular, it’s interesting to think about Viel Temperley as an important precursor to the mysticism and spirituality that appears both in her own poetry and in the collaborative Belleza y Felicidad project she shared with Fernanda Laguna. God appears in their work with some frequency, and though it’s not the Christian God that Viel Temperley evokes, their willingness to confront the divine in explicit terms would probably have intrigued him.
PSC: Tell me about your upcoming projects, and the future of Sand Paper.
AH: The next book is Belleza y Felicidad, a collaboration between Fernanda Laguna and Cecilia Pavón, the two Argentine women Stuart was just talking about. It’s a sort of anthology, with poems, stories, and other texts, and is loosely modeled on a zine that Cecilia and Fernanda put out called Ceci y Fer. The two are close friends and frequent collaborators—the title draws from the name of a gallery they ran together for several years in Buenos Aires which is also the name of the small press they run (an outfit that publishes tiny photocopied editions of incredible Argentine writers, including César Aira). They often reference one another as characters in their poetry and fiction, both of which have an amazing transparency and directness. I think this book is going to be pretty revelatory for people. We were talking about Ariana earlier, and I think there’s a parallel between her work and theirs—in terms of putting the heart into it, and of restoring the idea of direct communication to lyric poetry. It’s also a very fitting project for Stuart and me, as it was the Viel Temperley book that brought us into Cecilia’s and Fernanda’s orbit in the first place. So it’s a manifestation of what I was saying in the beginning, about using the work as a starting point for new relationships.
Beyond that, the first thing on the horizon is a book of essays by poet Christopher Stackhouse. Beyond that, who knows exactly? We’re in conversations with a few other people but nothing’s for sure yet. We take the books one or two or three at a time—Stuart and I both work full-time in addition to the press, and we both have busy lives, friends, a fiancée, a girlfriend, the 162-game baseball season, etc., so it’s an ongoing struggle to strike the right balance. But we’ll be here making books for years to come, so long as we both may live, I hope. Sand Paper is what we do; it’s who we are.
Translator Stuart Krimko is the author of three collections of poetry, including The Sweetness of Herbert (Sand Paper Press, 2009) and Hymns and Essays (Mal-O-Mar, 2012).
Arlo Haskell is the publisher of Sand Paper Press and the author of the poetry collection Joker (2009), as well as a director of the Key West Literary Seminar and author of their online journal and podcast series.