Featured Poet: James Reidel


“I still align with my dead friends who are poets. This makes me sound old, and I could be from certain angles and for certain tastes. But I really do think about the dead when I contemplate the night sky, moon, and the pink moon that will begin to wax in a few days (at this writing, which comes around the time of my birthday). . .”


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James Reidel, Catalyst Syzygyan


Interviewed by: Emeniano Somoza


Emeniano Somoza:

Welcome to The Syzygy Poetry Journal, James. For someone who has graced the hallowed pages of The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Poetry Magazine, the list goes on, it’s fantastically superlative an honor and privilege to introduce you to the young and fast-growing universe of The Syz readers. So, without much ado, how did you find us? Were you looking for anything poetic in particular when you bumped into our journal?

James Reidel:

At least once a month, or every other month, I look at the new magazine listings at Poets & Writers. “New” doesn’t always mean the journal is new, however. It can also be like a “call for papers.” So, I answer the call when I see a certain theme or request that either appeals to me or when the mission is shared, so to speak. Naturally, the Franz Werfel translations fit Syzygy’s theme of astronomical events and Werfel was obsessed with the dichotomy of above and below. He was a stargazer and fascinated by those religions that looked to the sky for answers and directions.

Emeniano Somoza:

How old or young were you when you started poetry? Did you know early on this was your calling?

James Reidel:

In regard to my own poems, I began in high school, in a Western Civ course, passing notes. Barb K. would write a verse and let me write another. I kept going and wrote prose as well. Translation came later, for I saw this as a proper vocation for a poet. Most of the great poets translated. Longfellow translated The Inferno as a way to get over his wife having died from setting herself on fire with sealing wax for envelopes containing lockets of their children’s hair. In my case, I was fascinated by what surfaced because I had to rely a great deal on a dictionary. Thus, even a short lyric took form slowly. I more exposed the poem than read it. The experience was more akin to archaeology, digging up some ancient text. To some degree that experience is still there for me given the hidden meanings, the Janus words, and the like.


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“. . .I try to continue on their course, on meeting up with them in this way, in the sky. It’s healthier. You don’t have to die, so to speak. I do so with an eye on lasting a little longer, as there are so many younger poets and readers on earth.”


Emeniano Somoza:

Have your experiences changed your view of poetry -how so and why? Can you share with us an unforgettable experience related to poetry?

James Reidel:

Even now, I can never be sure if a poem is really a secret prose work or a prose piece a lyric. This came about when I took this three-hour Master’s examination years ago and the poem that the test-takers had to write about was obviously a James Merrill poem —an incredibly formal poet whose work scanned and rhymed. I recall the mimeograph to this day: the blue ink still had that acrid smell that you could inhale, no, huff. I recall, too, the missing commas that changed some meaning and I raised my hand. It forced a half-hour delay to prove my allegation that the poem had errors. The poor proctors even chalked up the correct stanza on the blackboard. Then I wrote my essay. It just came to me: that most modern poetry, that is free verse, merely symbolized a poem. That such poems were not poems at all but simulacra. I got an A … but another grade came in just weak enough to deduct from my average by a decimal or two and I was freed, albeit unwillingly, from academia.


“As far as advice goes, I would say never give up on a poem. I would feel quite accomplished having files of rejected poems, artistic failures, unresolved verse, and the like. It means you could not translate yourself at a given time. . .”


Emeniano Somoza:

Interestingly, you said in an interview that neglect is the focus of your creative endeavors, or at least in the field of translation, your main gig…

James Reidel:

Translation is not my main gig, but it takes up the most time. And neglect is an important criterion. The person doesn’t have to be neglected, either. In the case of Thomas Bernhard, it is his poetry. You will find plenty of secondary literature on his fiction, but very little on his poetry. It is very personal and hermetic. So, in his case, my addressing the neglect feels a little transgressive.

Emeniano Somoza:

Do you have a favorite poet in particular that nobody generally doesn’t know of but think we all should at this point in the history of man?

James Reidel:

. . . and the history of woman, too, I hope? I have on my desk a copy of a book of which only a hundred copies were printed by Yale University Press in 1935. Sonnets by Jane Du Bois. The book is thin, with sixteen metaphysical sonnets that are incredibly wrought for a woman who was only twenty when she died earlier that same year, she and her older sister (a card reader and astrologer) booked all six seats on a small airliner and jumped hand in hand to their deaths in  a cabbage field outside London.

Emeniano Somoza:

Do you do Facebook, Twitter, stuff? What do you think of the current state of the Everyday Poet huddling together in their social cell groups or poetry communities?

James Reidel:

Facebook for occasional pronouncements, announcements, and humor. Twitter for something I published of interest. I don’t know what Everyday Poet is? I’m more the pillar saint kind, sitting on my broken pillar for lack of an ivory tower.


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“. . .You can come back to these years later and, knowing your own language better, can actually translate the rejected poems, the artistic failures, the unresolved verse into something that is a pleasure to read, a success. Some would call it ‘delayed revision,’ but it really is like translating someone else.”


 

Emeniano Somoza:

You have any current work in progress? Where can readers catch or reach you? Word of advice to the young or aspiring poet –

James Reidel:

I am working on a book of prose poems. (Poems here.) These are getting published here and there, so they must hit the mark a little. I just finished a volume of Georg Trakl’s early, middle, and late uncollected work and am finalizing my renderings of Thomas Bernhard’s poems. As far as advice goes, I would say never give up on a poem. Indeed, I would feel quite accomplished having files of rejected poems, artistic failures, unresolved verse, and the like. It means you could not translate yourself at a given time. You can come back to these years later and, knowing your own language better, can actually translate the rejected poems, the artistic failures, the unresolved verse into something that is a pleasure to read, a success. Some would call it ‘delayed revision,’ but it really is like translating someone else.

Emeniano Somoza:

In light of Syzygy being a rare natural celestial phenomenon itself –do you believe poets can actually align to achieve something of higher purpose? How?

James Reidel:

Perhaps. I still align with my dead friends who are poets. This makes me sound old, and I could be from certain angles and for certain tastes. But I really do think about the dead when I contemplate the night sky, moon, and the pink moon that will begin to wax in a few days (at this writing, which comes around the time of my birthday). I try to continue on their course, on meeting up with them in this way, in the sky. It’s healthier. You don’t have to die, so to speak. I do so with an eye on lasting a little longer, as there are so many younger poets and readers on earth.


BIOGRAPHY

James Reidel is the author of the poetry collections Jim’s Book (Black Lawrence Press, 2013) and My Window Seat for Arlena Twigg (Black Lawrence Press, 2006). He wrote the definitive and only biography on Weldon Kees, Vanished Act: The Life and Work of Weldon Kees (University of Nebraska Press, 2003), and edited 3 Entertainments (Knives Forks Spoons Press, 2012), which features three of Kees’s works for film and television.

Reidel received a National Endowment for the Arts translation fellowship in 2009. In 2013 he was a resident poet at the James Merrill House in Stonington, Connecticut. Reidel’s poems have appeared in numerous journals, including The New Yorker, The Paris Review, TriQuarterly, The New Criterion, The Adirondack Review, DMQ Review, and the inaugural issue of (ĕm). Reidel’s translations of Franz Werfel’sThe Forty Days of Musa Dagh and Pale Blue Ink in a Lady’s Hand were published by Godine in 2012. His translations of Thomas Bernhard’s In Horas Mortis and Under the Iron of the Moon were published as a single volume by Princeton University Press in 2006. Reidel lives in Cincinnati, Ohio. –Poetry Foundation

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