Posted by Zane Koss – PhD Candidate in English Literature at NYU
On June 11th, I had the pleasure of meeting with Sergio Mondragón in the Coyoacán neighbourhood of Mexico City. My dissertation focuses on Mexican and Canadian poetry in the 1960s and 1970s, searching for meaningful connections between poets and means of reading comparatively that are able to situate these poets both within their own complex national contexts and within broader transnational poetic movements. From 1962 to 1969, Mondragón co-edited and co-published El corno emplumado / The Plumed Horn, a bilingual magazine of poetry and the arts in Mexico City with Margaret Randall, a young poet who had recently arrived in Mexico from New York. The magazine was a flashpoint of transnational literary and cultural exchange, publishing young and established poets from across the Americas, translated into both Spanish and English whenever possible. Our conversation that day covered a wide array of subjects, but – as the sprightly 82-year-old warned me beforehand – his memories of the 1960s were “borrosos o entremezclados.”
The day after our meeting, I received an unexpected phone call from Sergio. At his request, I had sent him a couple of my own poems, and he wanted to return his compliments by inviting me for a meal at his home in the hills west of Coyoacán and San Ángel. When I had asked Sergio about the work he performed translating the Canadian poet George Bowering’s 1964 book of poems, The Man in the Yellow Boots / El hombre de las botas amarillas – published as the sixteenth issue of El corno – he had quickly pointed out that Margaret Randall, who edited magazine’s English-language portions, had likely done most of the work in selecting poems and corresponding with Bowering. He insisted further that she had probably helped extensively with the translations. I failed to register the full importance of this comment at the time, considering it more of a polite nudge from Sergio to redirect my inquiries to Randall. But visiting Sergio in his home revealed the deeper truth of his statement.
When I arrived, Sergio asked if I would want to translate one of my poems together during lunch. I was thrilled! The co-editor and co-translator of the most important poetry magazine of the 1960s – and an important Mexican poet in his own right – wanted to translate one of my poems. We began working together, tripped up by a rural colloquialism I attempted to explain with my novice Spanish. Sergio picked a potential translation, and consulted his wife Marie, reading the first lines of the poem to her in Spanish, and then asking me to read it again in English. As lunch was served –gorditas, soup, salad, tacos and freshly-made lemonade – Sergio continued at the table, reading his translation and asking for suggestions from his younger sister Lourdes, who had arrived to join us. Between bites, Sergio would confirm the meaning of different phrases with me and discuss possible translations of them with Marie and Lourdes. As we finished lunch, Sergio finished the translation, and we gathered in the living room to read the two versions to the small audience of Marie and Lourdes. It was then that something clicked. For Sergio, translating a poem isn’t a solitary act removed from daily life. To translate a poem is to work collaboratively, amidst the other quotidian activities– having a beer, cooking lunch, gossiping with family, entertaining company – a collective effort embedded in the warp and weft of everyday living, helped and assisted by whoever was close at hand.
I had been interested in Bowering’s book of poems – which the editorial preface suggests is influenced by Charles Olson’s directive to “get the poet’s own voice on the page” – by questioning exactly whose voice is captured in a document that was a collaborative, bilingual work from it’s inception as a book. Having the privilege of seeing Sergio at work confirmed this intuition. The book wasn’t collaborative only because two poets (and, Roy Kiyooka, a visual artist who provided collages for the volume) were listed on the title page, but because behind every poem stands a lifetime of collaborative labour – with Margaret Randall, with George Bowering, with Marie and Lourdes, and with me. I am grateful and humbled to have seen Sergio at work firsthand and to have played even the smallest part in that history.