Lawrence Schimel

Οn the occasion of the 1st Crete International Poetry Festival, read an interesting interview on the significant literary work of one of the festival’s poets, Lawrence Schimel!

Interview Lawrence Schimel

Lawrence Schimel (New York, 1971) writes in both Spanish and English and has published over 100 books in many different genres–including fiction, poetry, non-fiction, and comics–and for both children and adults. He has published two poetry chapbooks written in English: Fairy Tales for Writers and Deleted Names (both from A Midsummer Night’s Press) and one written in Spanish, Desayuno en la cama (Egales). He has also edited various anthologies of poetry, including Ells s’estimen. poemes d’amor entre homes (Llibres de l’Index), Best Gay Poetry 2008 (A Midsummer Night’s Press), and De Chueca al cielo. 100 poemas celebrando la diversidad LGTBI (Transexualia). 

In addition to his own writing, he is a prolific literary translator, contributing regularly to Words Without Borders, Modern Poetry in Translation, Latin American Literature Today, Pleiades, PN Review, and other journals. Recent book translations into English include the poetry collections: Nothing is Lost: Selected Poems by Jordi Doce (Shearsman Books), I’d ask you to join me by the Río Bravo to weep but you should know neither river nor tears remain by Jorge Humberto Chávez (Shearsman Books), Correspondences: An Anthology of Contemporary Spanish LGBT Poetry (Egales), Destruction of the Lover by Luis Panini (Pleiades Press, 2019), Bomarzo by Elsa Cross (Shearsman, 2019), Impure Acts by Ángelo Néstore (Indolent Books, 2019), and I Offer My Heart as a Target by Johanny Vazquez Paz (Akashic, 2019). Recent poetry book translations into Spanish include Geografía del amor by Kätlin Kaldmaa (Cuarto Propio), La caligrafía de la aguja by Arvis Viguls (Valparaíso), and Amnesia colectiva by Koleka Putuma (co-translated with Arrate Hidalgo, Flores Raras). He has lived in Madrid, Spain since 1999.

An author and anthologist, writing both in English and Spanish, in various genres, including poetry collections, graphic novels, fiction, essays, children’s books. What makes you work across so many related but still different fields? Is there a binding thread?

I am a voracious and omnivorous reader, and don’t restrict myself to reading only one genre and the stories I choose to tell reflect this diversity. Each project, of course, is unique and has its own way to be told. Although perhaps one commonality in much of my work is that I look for the stories that are not being told, the voices that have been suppressed, or looking at things from another angle, and try to create cultural space for those alterante viewpoints. For instance, I wrote a children’s book about immigration, ¡VAMOS A VER A PAPÁ!, illustrated by Alba Marina Rivera, but instead of telling the typical story of coming to a new country, it tells the opposite story: that of the people left behind. In this case that of a young girl whose father is in another country working and sending money home to his family. With my anthologies, I try to create an umbrella under which many different experiences can shelter, rather than being dogmatic or uniform or trying to establish a cannon of some sort. The world we live in is so plural and diverse, and I think our literary cultural production should reflect this multiplicity and complexity (although so often this is not the case).

Working as well as a translator, how hard is it to let go of a text written in the original language to be translated into another language? And, in turn, what is a writer’s relationship to one’s own language? After all, what is lost or gained in translation?

This is something I think about a lot as both a bilingual writer, actively creating in both Spanish and English, as well as a translator in both directions: into English and into Spanish. And it was when my own work written in Spanish (what I like to jokingly call my “stepmother tongue”) was translated into English (my mothertongue) by other people that I gained both confidence in the work I was creating in my adopted language as well as confidence in my work as a translator. I had to step back and say: I am just the author of the original in this case, and allow the translators to each create their own version of my text, even if in this case English is a language I speak fluently and have created many works in. This in turn gave me more confidence to trust my own decisions or choices in my translations; I love working with the authors I translate, especially poets, to debate nuances and meanings and ways of expressing things, but in the end, I am the one who is creating this new, related work that is the translation, and while I welcome and am enriched by that dialogue, those final decisions are mine and not the author’s.

It has been argued that translators sometimes hold remarkable power, including the power to produce what will in many cases become the only interpretation of a work of literature available in a given language. In this respect, where does the role and responsibility of the translator lie?

Yes, this is indeed a great responsibility, and that is one reason it is important to see what voices are being translated–and which ones aren’t. As someone who writes in more than one language, I am very aware of how much easier it is for me to present my work to editors in other countries when I write in a dominant (and  often domineering and overpowering) language like English versus when I write in Spanish. If I don’t self-translate my work into English, it is often difficult for the works I write in Spanish to achieve the same international scope and reach. I know this is true working the other way: I am often comissioned by publishers or literary agents to translate samples from Spanish-language books into English. These samples are then used to sell the books–not just into English but into other languages as well. An editor in Hungary, say, who might not read Spanish but can read the sample in English and decide to buy the book based on it, even if they then comission a direct Spanish to Hungarian translation.

But there are also many power dynamics at play as to which countries and languages books get translated from, not to mention the gender, sexuality, and race of the authors whose works get translated, or get governmental or institutional support to subsidize the translations, etc.

While it is often considered a “sin” by many literary purists to translate via what is often called a “bridge” language, I have been fortunate to take part in many international workshops of poets translating one another’s work and talking collectively about the dilemmas and solutions in each of our languages. I have wound up going on to translate full books by some of these writers into Spanish, for instance poetry collections by Kätlin Kaldmaa from Estonia or Arvis Viguls, Karlis Verdins, and Inga Gaile from Latvia or children’s books by Clare Azopardi from Malta, often using English as the bridge but always working together closely with the author to recreate these works in Spanish. Often, these are countries where there are no or very few direct literary translators working from their languages into Spanish.

When I was preparing the first of these projects, by Arvis Viguls, who translates from Spanish into Latvian but isn’t fluent enough to self-translate himself into Spanish, the English bridge was prepared by a philologist, who was faithful to the Latvian, even if not to the poetry. I took a few “poetic liberties” to make the poems work better in Spanish and showed them to the author for approval; he liked some of them so much he changed the English to be faithful to my translation! As a result, I gained much more confidence in both my ability to do this kind of work and also the importance of doing this kind of work––in large part, because nobody else was doing it and Spanish-speaking readers were missing the opportunity to read all of these great voices.

Your work as a publisher contributes to making women’s voices heard in English, while your publishing list includes works that move between different themes, languages and experiences. Tell us a few things about the mission and aesthetics of your publishing venture. 

A Midsummer Night’s Press is a small poetry publisher that publishes in a few specific areas. As a translator, I knew how it was much easier for me to place projects written by male writers with publishers in the English-speaking world, and also much easier for those projects to get supported by government programs. (The penultimate PROTRAD program from Mexico, for instance, only supported 9 books by women writers out of the 60 grants they gave out that year.) At the same time, when I started this imprint in 2014, there was some data analyzed about the publication of translations in the USA: from all languages and all genres (poetry, fiction, essays) only 26% of books in translation were by women writers. This is a huge imbalance, and showed that there were many women’s voices that English-speaking readers weren’t getting a chance to read. So I started this imprint, which has so far published books from Estonia, Slovenia, Spain, Lithuania and Latvia. And these books in English have also resulted in the authors being translated into other languages as well: the Estonian poet as translated into Arabic, based on the English, whereas the Slovenian poet was translated into Spanish, because an editor in Spain read the English and was able to buy her next book and comission a direct Slovenian->Spanish translator. (Ironically, I first read her work in Spanish in a translation that had been published in Argentina, so it was thanks to Spanish that I published her in English and thanks to English that she was published in Spanish.)

Another of our main areas is our Body Language imprint, which publishes LGBT voices. Not only is there a need for these poets to find a publisher who believes their voice is worht being published, but there is a solid readership for these titles, readers who want to see their own lives openly expressed in poetry, not hidden away in euphemisms or classical allusions. So we’ve tried to especially find books that might otherwise slip between the cracks because they straddle multiple identities: we published MUTE by Raymond Luzack, which explores both being gay in the deaf world and also being deaf in the gay world, or MILK & HONEY, an anthology of poems celebrating being Jewish and lesbian.

We also co-publish a series called Sapphic Classic which reprints important lesbian feminist texts and introduces them to a new audience.

Questions of our identities, sexual and otherwise, affect both how we write and who we are writing for. And who we are writing for will also often affect how we write — especially when it comes to non-mainstream identities“. What makes gay and lesbian poetry, your work often deals with, so interesting to delve into? How easy is to find publishers to trust this theme?

This is an interesting question to address, especially in the Greek context, where two poets (Sappho and Kavafis) have been so influential on the world poetry scene, in general, while writing about queer desire (even where other, more modern Greek poets, from Dinos Christianopolus to Kallia Papadaki, are unfortunately not as widely known yet outside of Greece.)

Even though I was raised as “heterosexual by default”, it is as natural for me to explore my gay experience in my work as it is for a heterosexual writer to explore theirs. The question then becomes one of whether I am explaining my life to people who don’t share those experiences, a sort of armchair tourism of gay life, or whether I write for an audience of people who share my experience, and let others who don’t get a glimpse of what that life is actually like (rather than an explanation or reflection of it written specificially for those not-in-the-know).

Maybe it is easier to explain with how multiple identities overlap. There are four ways to write gay or lesbian science fiction: 1) I can write for an audience of heterosexual science fiction readers, in which case I don’t need to explain how a rocket ship works but I would need to explain what a butch-femme lesbian relationship was, 2) I can write for an LGBT audience who are not science fiction fans, in which case I could take for granted that they would know scenarios from the queer world but would need to explain all the science fiction, 3) I could write for an audience of say, my parents, and explain both the gay life and the science fiction elements or 4) I could write for an audience of queer fans and not have to explain anything at all.

To illustrate what I mean when I say “explain”: I write about Spain very differently in English and Spanish: in Spanish, I could just say that two people were eating “merienda” and everyone knows what it is, whereas in English I would need to establish that this is a mid-afternoon snack, between lunch and dinner. I can’t take for granted in English that my readership will know these details of Spanish life, and thus must “explain” them.

I think there is a big difference in each country as to how “easy” it is for gay and lesbian themes to be accepted, and which publishers are willing to publish the same. In Spain, where so many books are published through contests, which are sponsored by some regional government or other institution, very often the poems have to pass through a “heterosexual filter”: the judges are often eminent straight white men, whether these are themselves poets or just the politicans who are sponsoring the prize. As a result, often a lot of the gay or lesbian poets wrote in a way to please these heterosexual readers, or perhaps I should say: to not offend them. As a result, there was for a long time a very “quiet” sort of gay publishing here in Spain, one whose content did not “rock the boat” or “make any waves”.

Fortunately, with the changes in technology, it is now easier for a small or independent publishing house to be run, often with very few resources, and there is more chance for these voices that challenge the status quo of the old regime. And there are also more presses run by gay and lesbian editors, where the writers can just write about their lives without needing to justify themselves. In Greece,  there is the bookshop and publishing house Colourful Planet, which has published two of my short story collections: Σε χρόνο αόριστο & Δύο αγόρια ερωτευμένα.

There are not enough titles about LGBT lives published by Greek publishing houses, so they started publishing as well in order to make sure these voices are published and part of the cultural production.

What is the relation of literature to the world it inhabits? Could literature be used to debunk stereotypes and offer new ways to imagine what can be radically different realities?

In the children’s book world, we often talk about how books serve as both mirrors and windows: all children need to be able to see themselves reflected in our cultural production (especially those whose stories are often not told in the mainstream production) but these stories are not ONLY for children who live in a family with two fathers or only one mother or are adopted or etc. Just the same way that society takes for granted that a story about a boy can be read by both boys and girls, etc. It is important for *all* children to be able to have access to these stories, to learn about their fellow humans in the diverse and plural world they live in, and thereby cultivate empathy.

If one consumes only books about people just like oneself, or only books by people from your own country, this is an impoverished diet, and one which results in a warped worldview of what the world–which is vast and global and full of a rich array of experiences and histories, whether heartbreaking or inspiring, uplifting or infuriating–is really like.