David Lehman speaks with Gabriel Don.
You once translated a book without speaking the language of the original text, how did you go about this?
A reading of poems about New York City’s bridges had been scheduled for Grand Central Station, and the organizers asked me to take part. On the afternoon of the reading I sat down with every translation I could find of Mayakosky’s “Brooklyn Bridge.” This was back in 1999. I had long loved the poem, and felt I had grasped its essence and knew it intimately, intuitively. At the same time I was dissatisfied by all the translations. So, in an inspired frenzy, I forged my translation, read it at the reading, and, in the weeks and months that followed, showed it to two native Russian speakers, both of whom know Mayakovsky’s work very well. They helped me improve the work. Some years later, at the Russian Samovar on 52nd Street, Andrei Gritsman read the poem in Russian, wearing a yellow vest like the one that Mayakovsky sported, and I read my translation. And we drank vodka. That was a night to remember.
When did you conceive of the Best American Poetry Series?
On August 1, 1987.
What does a unicorn represent to you?
One of the first works of art to make a big impression on me was the sequence of unicorn tapestries at the Cloisters Museum in Fort Tryon Park, near where I grew up. I remember the tapestries vividly — for example the one in which the captured unicorn is confined within a wooden fence. The unicorn is exotic, vulnerable, beautiful, virginal, the central character in a religious allegory.
Could you share a favorite line from a poem?
The rhetorician would deceive his neighbors,
The sentimentalist himself; while art
Is but a vision of reality.
What portion in the world can the artist have
Who has awakened from the common dream
But dissipation and despair?
What advice do you have for people who want to be a poet?
Read as much as you can; trust your instincts; go your own way; do not neglect the great poets of the past; be humble but persistent, and don’t depend on poetry to earn you an income.
Tell me about your favorite forms to play with when writing.
I love writing in form. My favorites include the sonnet, sestina, haiku, prose poem, cento, pantoum and villanelle.
What is a muse?
The muse, who has the capacity to stimulate and inspire, remains young, like a Greek god, even while the poet ages.
You frequently quote jazz music, pay homage to Billy Holiday and recently finished a book on Frank Sinatra, where do music and poetry intersect?
Two famous lines about music come to mind. Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” begins, “If music be the food of love, play on. . . ” And, in another register altogether, there is Walter Pater’s proclamation that all the arts aspire to the condition of music.