In this issue:

Roubaud's Third Night from Exchanges of Light

Exchanges on Light is forthcoming in March, 2008 from La Presse.


Eleni's poetry


Melissa's chapbook Arc



Interview with

Eleni Sikelianos

Eleni Sikelianos


Melissa Buckheit

Melissa Buckheit

Eleni Sikelianos is the author of one book of nonfiction and five books of poetry, including The California Poem and The Book of Jon. Her poems have been translated into French, Spanish, Catalan, German, Arabic, Romanian, Croatian, Slovenian, and Serbian, and a selected poems (De L'histoire, du soleil, de la vision) appeared in French this fall. Forthcoming in the fall of 2008 is a new book of poems, Body Clock. Sikelianos has translated poems from the Greek and the French, as well as, in with scholars or native-language poets, the Chinese and the Russian. Among the numerous awards she has received for her poetry, nonfiction and translations are a National Endowment for the Arts Award, a Fulbright Arts Fellowship, The National Poetry Series, and a New York Foundation for the Arts Award. Sikelianos received her MFA in 1991 from what was then The Naropa Institute, where she studied with many of the most exuberant living poets of our times. She currently lives in Colorado with the novelist Laird Hunt and their daughter Eva Grace; and she teaches in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Denver.


Melissa Buckheit: Hi, Eleni. I was excited when I saw that Exchanges on Light was slated to be released in fall of 2007. I knew you had been working on these translations for many years, with earlier versions of some published online, as well. Roubaud is one of my favorite poets, as well as one of yours; it was in one of your classes in graduate school where I first encountered Roubaud. My first introduction was Quelque chose noir, which came out in 1986, translated into the English by Rosmarie Waldrop as Some Thing Black. A 'sequel' to that book was La pluralité des mondes de Lewis, or The Plurality of Worlds of Lewis, also translated by Waldrop. Roubaud has published many other books, particularly his extremely popular Hortense series (of novels), as well as some historical and mathematical texts. What was your first encounter with Roubaud as a reader, and how was that experience?

Eleni Sikelianos: The first book I read by Roubaud was probably La pluralité des mondes de Lewis, which came out in 1991. A bit out of sequence, since, as you note, it's an extension of Some Thing Black. I may have first come across a poem from La pluralité at Claude Royet-Journoud's house, maybe in an edition of Claude's totally lovely magazine Zuk, but that may be a mis-memory.

The immediate affinity I felt for Roubaud's work was most certainly due to the marriage between science and lyric that so appeals to me — how science becomes a further force both for understanding and, very powerfully, for mystery in the poem.

Melissa Buckheit: Yes, the sense of what is absent or unsaid in poetry vibrates exquisitely with what is unknown in science, what is 'dark' in the universe, so to speak. What is the movement between these two other books and Exchanges? The former specifically deal with the death of his wife, Alix Cleo Roubaud. All three seem to explore, enact and play with ideas and theories surrounding existence, experience, perception: light, dark, vision, multiple worlds, energy, the intersection of philosophy and modern science, death/loss, the body, God. Roubaud seems to create a spatial and emotional landscape in the syntax, form and intimacy of his poetry—one of reality but which also defies the permanency of what we might (think of as) call reality. I always feel like I could reach my hand through a mirror into the space of his world(s).

Eleni Sikelianos: I suppose the clearest connection between those two books and this one is the exploration of presence and loss. Communication between bodies, transmutation. Where do bodies go, how do they travel, how is darkness (absence) illuminated? If we want to link these three books, we can see Exchanges as a continuing examination of, in a sense, the after-life (both of the body that's left behind in the presence of a body's absence, and the body that has itself disappeared). We can extend the trope of light/dark to animate/inanimate bodies, and to the great mystery of what happens to bodies — bodies of light, and by extension, humans. The living body is illuminated, and it illuminates those around it, the dead body falls into darkness. How does the movement between these states occur?

Exchanges is also, as you note, an inquiry into the divine (especially by the voices of Basil de C. and Dennis Ps.), which is of course one of the primary questions that arises when humans consider death. The infinite, too, is explored, now in relation to light's capacity to distribute itself. Although the human factor is not really considered in the text (except in that human voices are “speaking” it and it is in some ways a history of human thought), the question(s) extend into that big one: what is the human place in the history, present, and future of a possibly infinite, possibly finite universe?

Melissa Buckheit: What does Exchanges attempt or traverse, that these earlier two works do not? Roubaud is a mathematician and has published non-literary work in his field. Do you feel that Exchanges is in some way a melding of both experience and concepts, much more directly linked to mathematics? But with a new form, and thus, sensibility? Is that sensibility something you can even name?

Eleni Sikelianos: Well, the most notable difference here is form. The other two books are clearly poetry, and this is not. What it is is hard to pin down—a conversation between six characters, one of whom speaks in poetry, a philosophical exploration, a history of thought (a number of the characters are drawn from historical figures and their writings on light), a play, a mystery? Roubaud is, among other things, a formalist—not in the conservative American sense of that—but in the OuLiPian sense, a player among forms; his broad swathe of possibilities includes novels, literary and scientific essays, sestinas, dramatic dialogues, “prose orale”—I can't even begin to list them all. He knows, very intimately I imagine, the possibilities of exploration one form allows that another doesn't. Here, in Exchanges, we see a more historical and scientific investigation of a subject (light) that touches on some of the aforementioned questions (of the divine, loss, etc.).

I should mention dates here: as you noted, Quelque chose noir appeared in 1986; Èchanges appeared in 1990, and La pluralité appeared in 1991, so it makes chronological sense that Roubaud is working out similar questions in these books.

Melissa Buckheit: Why do you feel Roubaud chose to have these different male speakers 'exchange' perspectives, experiences, etc., on light? Who are the voices and how do they connect with the form?

Eleni Sikelianos: There is a word play in the French that we can't quite get in English, which is the sense that light itself is being exchanged (propagated) as these six voices exchange ideas among themselves. They speak in the order of a sestina (with six voices speaking over six nights), so there is the sense of a mathematical formulation, just as our understanding of how light travels involves a formula. The sestina is, of course, simultaneously a literary formula, so math and the literary are automatically linked in the form (which is one of Roubaud's favorites).

I don't know who all of the speakers are (we would have to ask M Roubaud), but I do have an inkling of who some of them are, and I certainly gained a sense of each of their personalities and preoccupations through translating the text. M Goodman seems to be a kind of alter ego, a character born around the same year as his author, who has appeared in other of Roubaud's texts (Monsieur Goodman Dreams of Cats, 1994; Ciel et terre et ciel et terre, et ciel, 1997). As a character, he occupies a plurality of worlds in terms of his biographical facts. Sometimes (as in Exchanges), he appears to be a native Englishman, while in other texts he's an adoptive Englishman, originally German. In all texts (as far as I know), he has somehow been marked by the Second World War. Dennis Ps. is drawn from Pseudo-Dionysius the Aeropagite (also known as Pseudo-Denys), a fifth century mystic who wrote wild theological texts. He, too, occupies a plurality of worlds, in that he's been identified or confused with at least three historical figures.

Melissa Buckheit: What do you feel Roubaud is ultimately attempting in Exchanges? What is his proof, so to speak?

Eleni Sikelianos: Hmm. If attempting to touch any kind of “ultimately” or ultimatum beyond our own experiences as readers, I think we'd have to ask Roubaud!

Melissa Buckheit: I love the luminous presence of space, astronomy, origin—“the red arc/ the large solar halo/. . .the parahelia on each side of the sun”—in Exchanges. His language is gorgeous and evanescent, a light/energy hidden by apparent 'emptiness,' like dark matter. It is a complete world which brings language, human passion and science (the colors and ages of stars), into echo and dialogue with one another. On the edge is that sense of flux inside what is seen and unseen. Those realms have inhabited much of my poetry, and I know they are foundations—especially in Earliest Worlds—of your own poetics. What is your experience of this 'multi-world,' in Exchanges, and in your work?

Eleni Sikelianos: The language of science, and the concomitant worlds it proposes, has always provided inspiration for me. As you know, I was ever so briefly a biology major, and although I wanted to be a writer from a very young age, was inspired to come back to literature in part through a biology teacher who combined literature and since in his courses. Scientific study offers, in even a very basic way, parallel worlds—as we are encouraged to think about chemical interactions and events that are invisible to the naked eye but occurring right in front of us. Let us consider population dynamics in the local moth community! It encourages an attentiveness to the many simultaneous worlds around us, and while the human observer's limitation as a human is always in place, we can begin to recognize these other realities. Beyond these simple wake-up calls to our plural planetary condition, there are the very sophisticated possibilities of plural worlds (temporal and perhaps beyond), which Roubaud explores in The Plurality of Worlds, coming to us from philosophy (Lewis is the theorist David Lewis), as well as physics.

Poetry occupies a very similar space for me—inhabiting both the foreground “reality” as well as all the dark creases and folds of possibility between (linguistic and other) realities. It is itself a parallel universe (universes), although one that doesn't require mathematical formulae, i.e., I didn't have to do all the math to get to it. . .and I can misapprehend the science in my apprehension of language and the world. Like science, it is both theoretical and real (and is not so concerned with the division between these states—actually, poetry seeks to collapse that division).

Melissa Buckheit: What was your experience translating this text; when did you begin and how long did it take you? What caused you to become interested in translating Exchanges?

Eleni Sikelianos: I bought the book about eight years ago, at the once wonderful Divan bookstore (which used to have a fabulous poetry section). (Entering the doors of, spending time in a good French bookstore is a very pleasurable activity.) I began translating the book soon after, but other projects took over. I had drafts of the first two nights hanging around for probably six years before taking up the project again in earnest. That revisiting was instigated by Cole Swensen, who recently founded La Press, a publishing venture dedicated to French literature in translation. About a year ago, she asked me to finish the Roubaud (and has been very patient with how long it's taken me).

The beautiful effervescence and strange formality of the work caught my fancy. It simply seemed the right text for me to do—its mix of passion and intellect and its wonderment in science and the stars.

Melissa Buckheit: What was your personal process of translation? Did you speak to Roubaud about the text at any point, for feedback, questions or perspectives on his work?

Eleni Sikelianos: I met Roubaud just once, I think (I had him read at the Poetry Project, when I co-curated the Wednesday night series there), maybe twice. When I first started working on the translation, Rosmarie [Waldrop] counseled me to try calling him early in the morning (5 am), since he doesn't generally answer mail (or now that he has it, email). After a few tries, I gave up and accepted that I was on my own on translating the text. There's a certain liberty, and a certain terror involved in that.

I have had lots of help from Cole (who's great at taking the text closer to English), and invaluable comments from Jean-Jacques Poucel, a wonderful Roubaud scholar who offered insight into how this text, and some of the snarly passages in it, relate to Roubaud's oeuvre.

I had the strange and useful experience of having a book of mine be translated into French as I was translating Roubaud into English. I capitalized on the event, sending my translator, Béatrice Trotignon, questions along with my answers to her questions. You can see that even in describing it, it's circular. Both books would have come out in the same week if I were as industrious as Béatrice.

Melissa Buckheit: I love that avowal—of both the liberty and terror inherent in translating alone. The process of translation requires a delicate balance between music, sensibility and meaning. I wonder if you began with a particular intention, to favor one more than another? I think that most texts dictate priority from what leads—music, meaning, etc—in the original text, and it is simply a case of listening. Did you feel that you had to sacrifice anything. . .

Eleni Sikelianos: You always have to sacrifice. That is the nature of translation. That is its heartbreak. Word play is perhaps the hardest. For example, there's a play with the sound of the word “air” being contained in “lumière,” just as, proposes the speaker, light is carried through air. But you just can't get (or I just couldn't get) light and air to rhyme. In terms of what one goes for, I think it depends on the text. Although there is indeed sound play in this one, it's not its primary poiea, so to speak. The delicacy of meaning, the clarity of the logic or illogic are the primary forces here. But music, image, history—so many of the muses are here, and you can't neglect any of them.

I'm a messy translator in that I'm not particularly methodical in my habits. (Living with a two year-old doesn't allow it.) That means I trundle blindly through the text, trying to make sense of it, going through it again and again, spending weeks on one passage, returning to it. After the “rough,” there is the comb-through process, which takes uncountable passes. I am still coming up against little tangles here and there, where the meaning won't unsnarl or turn itself into an English I'm happy with. The language, being steeped in physics and mathematics, as well as the history of thought on optics and luminous bodies, isn't always easy. I would say translation is one of the most painful literary activities I have engaged in.

Melissa Buckheit: There are many methods of translating out there. I have always felt that translation was in some way a collaboration, if done properly and strictly, without too much liberty. There is always that knowledge that the text does not belong to the translator, and at the same time, a new text is being made. What is that collaboration? Is it like stepping inside another mind or body for a duration of time? Do you adopt another tongue and syntax or can you remain separate?

Eleni Sikelianos: It is a dance between haunting another text and being haunted by it. I would say it saves you the trouble of writing a book (about light, say) from scratch, except that translating a book is harder than writing it from scratch. You are not just a ghost, you are a ghost with chains. You rattle them around in the text, trying to get somewhere, but the text itself is the semi-elastic bondage you're in. It's really only for masochists, translation.

But: you do get to inhabit a mind and its thoughts and imaginings that are not yours. That is a fantastic thing. The game (the frustration and joy) is trying to figure out how the synapses fire, as represented article to noun, passage to passage, page to page, working between the nodes to re-convey the constellation that is the poem.

What I have learned, besides the anguish of trying to carry a long text from language to language, which is something like trying to carry a handful of water over rough terrain—it just keeps leaking—is that translating or being translated is one of the most intimate conversations one can have about poetry. As a translator, you learn more about the poem than you could in any other way. As a translatee, likewise, you explain things about the poem you would never otherwise explain to anyone, even yourself. In either position, you feel you've written a whole new poem, a whole new book on top of the poem or the book that was written.

But you are not working from scratch, you are beholden to what's there on the page, and to the target language simultaneously. The new poem has to resemble its original, but it must carry resonance in its new language. You are in between a rock and a hard place.

By the way, besides the famous texts on translation (like Benjamin's “The Task of the Translator”), Rosmarie's book Lavish Absence, on translating Jabès, is wonderful.

Melissa Buckheit: Your last two books—The California Poem and The Book of Jon—both came out in 2004. I'm curious what the influence of this translation—your first full book of translation published—is on your own writing. Is there any correlation, or is it a separate movement but sharing a mutual kinship?

Eleni Sikelianos: In a strange way, I would say the influence is retroactive, in that some of my earlier texts (like Earliest Worlds), which I wrote before encountering Echanges de la lumière, feel more influenced by it. Just as the OuLiPians have anticipatory members, I would hazard that there is also anticipatory influence. That said, there are a few passages in The Book of Jon that came from purposeful mistranslations of Echanges. Strange, since that book is probably the furthest from Echanges than anything I've written.

The language of the Roubaud text (and also the research I did into some of his references, like, say Iblis or the Barzahks or Newton's light experiments) has probably seeped in in ways I don't yet know.

Melissa Buckheit: The California Poem was a book-length poem exploring, creating and co-mingling with many realms of what we could call, 'the state of California.' I loved its adventure, associative play, its ferocity and unabashed pulse, that sense of all that is alive, the many worlds in and around us. I saw many influences, but particularly Niedecker, in your sense of exploring a deep tie to one place, of animals, plants and protozoans, little snippets of history, your own and of California. But most immediate is a sort of joy that vibrates in the midst of the flux of the world, like the many-faceted compound eye of the fly, allowing so many planes. I love that entrance—what do you think?

Eleni Sikelianos: I think that's a lovely description.

The poem, which is really a plurality of poems, was driven by (among other things) the sense of joy and wonder and loss of all the flora and fauna of my home state, the delirious and deliri-fying beauty there. The poem revels in a kind of excess that is much of what California is or was to me. The pornographic flowers growing in the middle of winter, the vast ocean lapping a 1,000-mile long coast, the earthquakes and the fortified rains, not to mention the people and their various affects. The language partakes in that exuberance even when it's investigating loss or absence. On the other side of Niedecker in the list of writers I've loved are those writers of extreme ebullience—Vallejo, Salamun, O'Hara. I'd even put Bernadette Mayer's name on the exuberant side of the page, and, strangely, probably even Paul Celan. (“Exuberance is beauty,” says Blake.) All those symbionts inhabiting planet earth and their symmetries and asymmetries and the attendant languages around them can drive me into that ecstatic state.

Melissa Buckheit: Yes, I can feel the language carrying. Moving on from The California Poem, what are you writing or inhabiting now?

Eleni Sikelianos: I'm currently finishing a manuscript called Body Clock, which explores the sense of time in the pregnant and mothering body on the one hand and the invasion of public language in private mind space, on the other. At the moment, it alternates between these Home and World states, but I'm not sure what final form it will take. Another part of its gesture is occupying a non-poem, non-professional space via very amateur drawings. I needed to find a way to make small, unskilled things, something like at the beginning of knowledge, or the beginning of training, before we know how to handle the tools—and these bad drawings helped me do that.

Melissa Buckheit: Interesting—art or 'things' created when we are 'still beginning' do have a particular, specific immediacy and naturalness, in the sense of being not learned, or conceptualized yet. Even unlearned—“Some of us give our lives/ to study/ the rate at which an animal can unlearn fear,” as Olga Broumas once wrote. I love that possibility, which you say the act of making the drawings allowed. Lastly, have you thought of translating Roubaud or anyone else in the future?

Eleni Sikelianos:I have been tempted by a couple of Roubaud's related texts. Maybe in another eight years I'll have translated one. . . In the meantime, I'm working on a few scattered poems from the Greek, in collaboration with Karen Van Dyck There are lots of interesting things out there, but I would have to find a very good temperamental match. I think it would have to be a coup de foudre (an expression I've always loved), considering what an enormous commitment it is to translate a book; and much of what is interesting is already being translated—there's a voluble conversation between French and English poetry right now, if anyone besides the translators takes the time to listen.

Melissa Buckheit: Thanks so much, Eleni. It is a pleasure—the interview and your translation of Roubaud's lumescent book.


Exchanges on Light

Paperback: 80 pages
Publisher: LaPresse
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1934200026
ISBN-13: 978-1934200025


Editor's Note:

The correct title for this volume is Exchanges on Light though the cover image sent out by the publisher, and used in this issue, has the erratum of 'Exchanges of Light.' Exchanges on Light is forthcoming in March, 2008 from La Presse.