11/11/2014 03:47 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Poetry in Translation: A Conversation With Jana Putrle Srdić

Jana Putrle Srdić (1975, Ljubljana) is a poet, art film reviewer, and translator of poetry who lives in Ljubljana, Slovenia, where she works as a visual art producer. She has published three collections of poems to date, and also translates poetry from English, Russian, and Serbian, including collections by Robert Hass, Sapphire, Ana Ristović, and other authors.

Putrle's collection, Anything Could Happen, translated into English by Barbara Jurša, has just been published by A Midsummer Night's Press as a part of its new Periscope imprint. Recently, I talked with Putrle about her work as a poet.


Jana Putrle Srdić

Enszer: Jana, will you begin by telling us a bit about your work as a writer?

Putrle: Being a poet feels to me like an always elusive identity. It's the most meaningful, original and investigative one, but the least-recognized in terms of social security, status and acceptance. It's not even continuous work, rather periods of frustration and breakthrough. I am rarely happy with the finished writing and even less with the process itself. Yet I love to be a poet. Art is the only way for me to deal with the world. Some look to philosophy, theory, or science; for me, the way to actively structure and restructure the always-changing meaning of ourselves and what surrounds us is art.

Writing poems is probably not the same kind of work as writing novels, sitting for hours and typing. I write very little and publish most of what I write. I have to be in constant contact with poetry, read it a lot to be tuned to its special atmosphere, meaning and the openness of the language. Translating poetry also helps in terms of learning how to write. I learned a lot from translating Robert Hass, for example how to make a poem on several levels, from the mundane concrete to philosophically abstract; from slang to academic language. To always be exact and truthful, to name things in nature, like animals and plants.

I feel weird in everyday conversations among people, but at home in some of James Tate's poems, for example. Poetry is my way of thinking. It is also an intimate and social struggle, like it was with Sapphire's poems. Translating them involved spending hours and hours browsing through poetry without understanding or connection, trying to uncode, to enter the poem.

Enszer: Jana, these poems are selected from your first three poetry collections. Could you tell us about each of the collections?

Putrle: I published Quinces (Kutine) in 2003, when I was 27. Quinces are an aromatic fruit; the poems in Quinces are short, simple, sensual. I hate to look back and reread the books, but I think those poems were what some would call lyric, intimate, poems. The images struggle with the world the way you do when you are younger.

Anything Could Happen (Lahko se zgodi karkoli) was published in 2007. Prose poems are one part of this book. Somebody surprised me by saying I write a lot about death and that the reader can feel the existential solitude in my writing. This might be true, I was faced with the death of people close to me when I wrote these poems. I don't love solitude, but I still think we are all born and die alone. So that's probably in my second book.

The third poetry collection, This Night the Beetles Will Come out of the Ground (my titles are getting longer, aren't they?), was just published. I am eager to see it after seven years of silence. This Night is a book about the relationship between nature and culture, observing the world and relationships. It owes a lot to emerging intermedia art, bio art, contemporary philosophy of technology and culture, the themes I have been in constant contact with as an art producer. It's full of awe at the unbelievably fast changes of our world.

Enszer: Tell us a bit about your multi-media work combining poetry and new media.

Putrle: In our cultural production association Gulag we are trying to involve poetry in new media, by which I mean poetry videos, performances with sound art and poetry, poetry art books, teaching poets how to use poetry in other media. I did a staged poetry performance, which was an interesting experience; we wrote the text specifically for it as we were making the piece. Of course, there are different rules in stage art, from movement to choreography and dramaturgy. We also made a poetry animation video, and I am interesting in making more poetry videos. This year we conducted a poetry performance with sound artists from the Theremidi Orchestra, who recently also performed in New York. I love the humming and buzzing sounds they make. In relation to atonal, unharmonious sound, I just started to read Pascal Quignard's La haine de la musique which explains how limiting harmony is to the world (and in consequence the 'lyrical' view of poetry as well - the word coming from 'lyra', the instrument, that 'makes music').

Enszer: In your work, I am enchanted by the insights you draw from quotidian moments. In "Winter Slowness," you note, "Everything is yet to come or is already gone: / love, solitude, work." In the sample poem, "Fish," you deliver insights from the moment of cleaning a fish. Tell me a bit about your encounter as a writer with the lyric moment.

Putrle: I don't like the expression "lyric moments," maybe it reminds me of the poetry of "lyric images," which reminds me of paintings and art from the past. I am all for emerging, virtual space, intermedia art. I am aware that pre-modern art also deals with similar problems (for example the relationship between elements in the visual field), but I'm just not interested in it and the same goes for poetry.

I guess we are still enchanted with the magic that sometimes occur in a poem, only I would no longer call it 'lyric.' It's a sudden shift in understanding how things and events are interconnected. How thought works on different levels. The same action can be concrete and abstract; can happen in the human and the animal world.

Enszer: What is the significance for you of having your work available in English?

Putrle: English is widely understood, so I can give the book to my international friends, to people I meet at festivals and who are interested in what I write. It means my poetry is read more. English is also the language that I like and understand. I don't understand anything from my Hebrew or Albanian translations. So far, I am already surprised by all the places this book has already been in its short life and the reactions that are coming back to me on a daily basis. The publisher is also really great!

Sample Poem

from Anything Could Happen by Jana Putrle Srdić

No matter how carefully you cut into the belly
of this wonderful silver fish and clean
the entrails, wipe the dust from the shelves,
and place fragile objects somewhere high,
safety will not save you from fear.
Misery doesn't ensure a good
poem. The closeness of death only makes you
more alone. Filled with joy, like an aquarium
with spawning fish,
we watch the ducks
follow one another with their shovel-like feet,
one two one two
in a line.
There is an order in everything,
some feathery lightness.

This is the third in a four part series on A Midsummer Night's Press's Periscope imprint. Read the first installment, an interview with publisher and translator Lawrence Schimel here. Read the second installment, an interview with Kätlin Kaldmaa here.