Interview with K. T. Billey, translator and poet

1) You come from Alberta, Canada originally. You describe it as “the Texas of Canada”. Did you feel at odds with your society? Was there a sense of alienation?
I did feel at odds. It is a very conservative place in terms of politics and gender roles. I was lucky to have some incredible mentors, classic life-changing high school teachers and a supportive if intense family that included very strong women. I always knew I’d leave that town, yet I didn’t feel alienated insofar as I was always in love with the landscape. Whether I’m in Alberta, New York City, Spain or Iceland, the prairie, the big sky, and the river across the field from our back door are really the foundation of my life.
2) What role can alienation play in a poet’s discovery of him/herself?
 
Well, it gets you reading! Books were the place I withdrew to, and how I came to understand myself as a writer The sense that one doesn’t totally belong feeds a person’s—a poet’s—curiosity. What poet doesn’t thrive on alone time? 
3) I sometimes wonder if poverty and humiliation fuel a poet’s passions. Do either of these things factor into your writing? Would it be a bold statement to say poets are the ascetics of the writing world?
It would be bold, but it would ring a bell. I do think poets abstain from much of the world’s goings-on, whether by choice, a tendency towards observing others, or sensitivity-based aversion. That said, poetry has appetites. I am certainly fueled by a kind of hedonism—a need to live fully. If I get humiliated in the process, at least I wasn’t a coward. And it does all becomes writing material.
4) Some writers move to more conventional modes of expression later in their lives. What do you think makes a mature poet? Do you think younger poets play a positive role in the craft in keeping it alive?
Absolutely, younger poets bring a zeal and belief that is vital for art, a counter to the despair that comes from being aware in the world. More than age, I think a mature poet is one who comes to know themselves, their tics and devices, and the particular thorns they’re always prodding and trying to articulate, if not remove. Self-recognition is an ongoing event. I definitely reject idea that youth is poetic and impassioned, and as we age or calm down, we turn to other modes. Blessing or curse, it’s not a phase. 
5) What is your work as a translator like? Do you feel the words ‘lost in translation’? What are the rewards of translating a poem? What are translation’s goals?
I don’t feel the words lost so much as multiplied—under the microscope of a translating mindset, I try to pull out every possible shade of a word, image, or idea. Everything expands, and it’s a challenge, but also a thrill to realize how rich even the simplest turn can be. I think it’s impossible to produce a replica. And really, that idea is absurd. Two readings of the same poem, even in the same language and by the same person, can range all over the place. I try to offer something as rich as the original, communicating the sense and tone. Priorities differ according to the priorities of the original—some focus more on sound, or form, or ambiguity, etc. Soledad Marambio’s project is interesting because our books (her second, my first) are both about our parents’ fraught personal and political moments—her father under Chile’s dictatorship, my mother in an abusive rural atmosphere. I’m looking forward to comparing notes when all is said and done.
 
6) You are a poet yourself. What subjects do you grapple with most? Do you have a favorite form you apply? What interests you in those subjects?
 
I grapple most with bodies, naturally. Everything I’ve ever written about—grief, desire, identity, place, beauty, aches and pains—it all leads back to our physicality, the fact that we are linguistic animals. I insist on being part of the physical environment. I think constantly about how we’re losing touch with dirt and rocks and the air, turning instead to pills, virtual realities, and intellectual, abstract living. Health becomes a struggle, time fritters by. How can we experience or communicate anything if we can’t place our own bodies in space? These subjects invite sprawling form, so I’m experimenting, though I like constraint and structure.
7) Are there specific literary techniques you employ often, and who taught them to you?
It’s not deliberate, but I am rather elliptical. I like to come at ideas repeatedly, from different angles and through various images, taking repeated stabs at what I’m trying to get at. That results in loops of metaphors and almost free association that I’ve been especially excited about lately. Timothy Donnelly and Lucie-Brock Broido had a lot to do with recognizing and informing that tendency. I also apply a formal discipline that I gained by studying with Derek Walcott years ago.
8) What sparks the creation of a poem for you? How do you feel, what are the initial sensations?
 
Language is always the spark. My mind takes a phrase or word of context and turns it over, unwrapping it, like examining a stone before skipping it across the river. Sometimes they stall, sometimes they fly. There’s also circumstance, and reading! The best books make me need to stop and make notes. I am also a major semiotic and etymology nerd. The notes build up into a restlessness or an emotion—usually anger, hurt, or being generally fed up—and that leads to the spilling out of lines.  
9) Now for a mystical question: is the “Muse” a real being to you? If so, what is a Muse, where does she come from? What else can inspire a poet deeply?
The Muse is real, and she broke my heart! 
 
Really, key people and places have been Muses for me, or some kind of Muse-conduit in my life. Full of feeling in a beautiful, confusing, heart-wrenching way, those moments have been my most keenly suffered. They’re also what I’m most grateful to experience, not just as a poet, but as a person.
 
That spirit (beyond a ‘she’ for me, something Romantic with capital R) comes from a mysterious connection between people, or moments of experiencing ourselves in a vast, stunning way. For me it’s usually on the cusp of understanding—a grasping, a violent blossoming, or a push off an edge, seeing what happens when everything flings open. The Sublime, basically.
 
Of course this becomes a giant metaphor. If we could explain it, there wouldn’t be any art!
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