Tuesday, June 07, 2005


Thanks y'all, for your feedback on my preface to the bilingual edition of Undressing the Night, selected poetry of Francisco Santo. I thank particularly Stuart in blogland and three friends here in Montreal who responded by e-mail. Several of your suggestions were useful; even those ideas I rejected were well worth considering. Indeed, before I received responses at all, it was an extremely valuable experience for me just to see the work posted in a different font and context (a public one, at that). It refreshed my critical eye, I caught a couple glitchy errors I had missed in previous proof-readings, and made two or three improvements in turns of phrase besides. Makes me reflect upon the usefulness of the blogging medium as a way of creating one's own "trial proofs" for work before submitting or publishing or whatever... Below is a revised version of the preface posted earlier. I'm still open to comments & suggestions, of course.


If I could sum up my response to Francisco Santos' poetry in a brainstorm list of phrases, that list would include: word alchemist; painted eggs that reveal whole worlds; harrowing; lucid; finely honed; surreal; virile; whimsical; political; romantic; mind moving at a million miles an hour. For me his poems compel both as artistic creations and wholly authentic expressions of the passionate, mercurial bundle of contradictions that is the man.

I first met Francisco Santos in Toronto in 1988. Francisco had dropped into a local poetry workshop to get an idea of what was happening in the literary scene here in Canada, this new country of his. None of the workshop members understood Spanish, but they were impressed by his sensibility, and as one of them happened to be an acquaintance of mine, Francisco was fortunately referred to me.

At the time, I was at the height of my Hispanophilia. I had completed a long journey through Mexico and Guatemala just two years before, was reading Pablo Neruda and César Vallejo, translating the Spanish poet Gabriel Celaya, and listening ardently to singer-songwriters like Victor Jara and Pablo Milanéz. On that first visit to my apartment, he told me later, he found my love of Spanish and tastes in music both charming and somewhat quaint. I suppose for me it would be rather like going to Madrid and meeting an ardent Spanish aficionado of folk from the summer of love. Although his English was rudimentary at the time, he also liked, however, what he understood of my poetry. I could see that his poetry breathed and had promise of being the "real thing", but I would have to translate it to be really sure. After those first translations were done, it became clear that he was a very considerable poet, and on a personal level, we hit it off.

Initially, I translated his work for pure pleasure, to benefit friends, and to give Francisco a chance to share his work with other Toronto poets. It wasn't long, though, before we entertained the idea of a bilingual book. He became an integral participant in a group of poets that first met at my apartment and later at the Art Bar at the Gladstone Hotel, where public readings took place. My move to Montreal in 1990 made my relationship with Francisco more occasional, however. Perhaps half of these translations were done on train rides or at get-togethers at his place during twice- or thrice-a-year visits to my hometown. There was a long period where my energies were mainly dedicated to song writing and recording. Meanwhile, Francisco's book became one more unfinished oeuvre on my (rather our) back burner, a long thwarted ambition that only now sees its realization.

The general outlines of Francisco Santos' life are these: He was born in Managua, Nicaragua in 1948 to what could be described as a lower-middle-class family. He went to Universidad Centroamericana in Managua, where he attended courses in literature and poetics taught by one of Nicaragua's eminent poets, Pablo Antonio Cuadra. During that time, he developed his poetic voice, steeping himself in the best of Latin America's surrealists. He also read whatever literature in translation he could get his hands on, including T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and key writers of the beat generation. Pound he considers to this day his greatest influence in English. He and his brother Mario (also a poet, as well as short story writer) became part of a group of writers and artists that frequented the La India, a café-bar in Managua where readings and cultural conversation took place. There he became friends with such poets as Edwin Yllescas, Franklin Caldera, Iván Uriarte, and the famous Sandinista guerrilla poet, Leonel Rugama. In 1973, his first collection, Chichigalpa & otros poemas, was published to considerable critical success. Over the next two years he was included in three prestigious anthologies. It was about this time that he married Maria Eugenia Cuarezma, a painter and sculptress he had known since childhood; they soon had two sons, Rudolfo and Rodrigo. During the turmoil of the Sandinista revolution and the bloody war with the Contras, many poets of his generation, known in Nicaraguan cultural circles as the "generación del 60", dispersed, most of them emigrating to Costa Rica, Mexico and the United States. Francisco was no exception. First he left for neighbouring Costa Rica, and eventually chose to move his family to Toronto, Canada.

Transitions such as these are never easy. For a number of years Santos worked as a Grolier encyclopaedia salesman serving Canada's growing Hispanic communities. This job took him on bus rides across the country, to Montreal, Winnipeg and Calgary. After the market for encyclopaedias dried up, Francisco took whatever jobs he could find: in factories, as an apartment superintendent, in the laundry service of a major hotel, etc. He and his wife also divorced, María Eugenia going back to Costa Rica. Through all these vicissitudes, however, Santos has always been writing, frequently finding undiminished joy in his most recent creation. "There's never time to write," he would say. "You can't find it, you can't even make it: you have to steal it." He almost always carries a notebook, jotting down poems while riding in the subway, on coffee breaks, or sitting in a cafe waiting for a friend. On weekends, he refines his writings, usually in the wee hours of the morning. Many of his poems are so short at least partially because they were written quite literally on the run. If Ezra Pound remains one of Santo's strongest influences, it is perhaps not so much the Pound of the Cantos, but In a Station At the Metro.

Of all the literary pursuits I have undertaken, the translation of poetry has provided some of my richest moments. In the process of immersing myself in the sensibilities of another, the ego is quite set aside; my literary skills are brought to bear on fresh matters, and through this I grow as a writer.

My constant aim in translation is to produce as good a poem in English as in the original Spanish, if not better (so much the better!), while being faithful to the intent, meaning and feeling of the original. Of course, in translating poetry many linguistic dimensions are involved besides the literal, including sound, nuance, length of line, etc. Very frequently I - like any translator - am forced to choose, to sacrifice one value for another. If a literal translation of a word or phrase has turned out so trite or flatfooted as to violate the beauty of the poem, I have occasionally chosen to go with a word or inspired phrase of my own. Usually this word or phrase rings well and is faithful to some dimension of the original, or to that mysterious, impalpable thing I feel to be the "essence" of the poem. Here of course things get dicey. Every translator has his own limit as to how far he is willing to stray from the literal. The poems of Santos that translated easily and well were generally those where the juxtapositions of image or idea were startling in themselves, or where an appropriate sonority could be retained. Poems that did not translate so well generally depended on wordplays or rhymes or other effects impossible to render into English. These I simply abandoned or, for the most part, didn't attempt at all. The translation of the poems in this collection offered unique opportunities because the poet was present to respond, usually to a finished result, but often during the process as well. With the title poem "Media noche desnuda", for instance, a curious interaction took place, where the translation spurred the poet to try to change the original to conform to the translation, because he liked aspects of the latter better (it soon became clear this didn't work, however). Francisco is a compulsive reviser, sometimes by his own admission overworking his poems. Some poems he reworked after I had translated earlier versions. Some of the new versions I find quite untranslatable, or just don't work as well in my view as the previous ones. A number of these have been published in his third collection, Media noche desnuda. Readers of Spanish can compare them with the versions in this book and judge for themselves.

I remember Francisco once saying, "Don't just describe your feeling, express it. Don't just say 'I love you', express it. If something is horrible, don't say it, express it, evoke it with words. Don't just state who you are, express who you are, evoke who you are." This, of course, is a rephrasing of the old chestnut, "Show, don't tell", but Francisco put it with such passion and urgency that I somehow feel he lead me to a special insight into that poetic credo. A poet is compelled to seek original combinations of words, surprising juxtapositions of images. When a poem works, the sensation is of synapses that have previously remained far apart being brought into contact for the first time. The brain feels different, perceptions are cleansed, and ultimately a deep healing has been undergone.

-- Brian Campbell, Montreal, April, 2005

© Brian Campbell 2005

NB, For readers new or infrequent to this blog,"Undressing the Night", the bilingual edition of poems by Francisco Santos (translated by yours truly) is in the next year or so to to be published by Editorial Lunes, Costa Rica. I've already posted translations of Francisco here, here, here, and here.

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