The Scattered Papers of Penelope

Introduction by Jeff Shotts, Graywolf Press

It’s a strange thing to be speaking as part of this panel and reading, as I often believe it’s the editor’s job to shut the hell up. But I’m grateful to be here. Thank you to Karen Van Dyck, the champion and consummate genius behind The Scattered Papers of Penelope, Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke’s New and Selected Poems. Thank you too to the Program in Hellenic Studies. As a former Classics major, it means a lot to be here, and it’s a rare thing to be in a place that so supports the pursuit of literary translation. And thank you, of course, to Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke, who at last I got to meet in person about a half hour ago. It’s wonderful to be sitting beside you both, Katerina and Karen. And thanks to all of you for being here. This feels like a real celebration of The Scattered Papers of Penelope.

I work for Karen Van Dyck’s and Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke’s publisher, Graywolf Press, an independent publisher of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, located in Minneapolis and this year celebrating its thirty-fifth anniversary. I edit the poetry list for Graywolf, as well as works of literary criticism, lyric essay, some narrative nonfiction, and works in translation. I’ve had the opportunity to work with translations from Greek, Hebrew, Catalan, Spanish, Serbian, Arabic, Swedish, French, Chinese, Basque, and other languages. But before that starts to sound impressive, let me admit here my complete ignorance of most of those languages, and the others I know the way we know how to repair a small, household appliance—we learn what we have to know to remedy a situation, and then the knowledge leaves us out of lack of use, need, if not desire.

So, how does a Minneapolis-based press acquire a book of translations of a contemporary Greek poet? It seems unlikely, given that the northern, Minnesotan culture of seemingly perpetual winter and steely Scandinavian reserve is perhaps in direct opposition to the culture of the Greek islands where Katerina lives and writes. Sometimes Minnesota can seem very far from one of the cradles of Western philosophy, government, art, and poetry.

It takes a great deal of support to publish literary works in translation in this country, given that so few works in other languages get translated into English at all, given that even fewer works in translation then get published, in large part because so few American publishers support translations, and as a result, so few American readers seek out and read literary works in translation. Most large trade publishers, with some exceptions, have ceded translation almost entirely to the independent and university presses. Graywolf sees this as an opportunity, as a vital part of our mission to offer major poets and fiction writers in English translation, as an important act of and contribution to global conversation. At this point I would like to acknowledge the Lannan Foundation, based in Santa Fe, which has provided multi-year grants to publish translation, not only at Graywolf but also at Copper Canyon Press, BOA Editions, Curbstone Press, and elsewhere.

With that funding support, I am free as an editor to seek out poetry in translation that has never been published in the United States. More often than not, I find those translations—in literary magazines like Circumference and World Literature Today and through online sources, and through PEN and other organizations. But sometimes those translations find us.

Which brings me to over two years ago, when Karen Van Dyck’s submission of The Scattered Papers of Penelope hit my desk after receiving a wildly enthusiastic reader’s report from a student intern, herself a Classics major with a concentration in Women’s Studies. How appropriate, given Katerina’s career of reimagining Classical myth and the role of women in Greece’s historical and contemporary culture. I was then myself immediately taken with Katerina’s work, as Karen had presented it—at first, for its sensual lyricism, its beauty in the face of seemingly ordinary domesticity, its powerful rewriting of the female body, its keen observation of Greek island life and the natural world. Yes, that is all there, but what makes Katerina’s poetry memorable upon multiple readings, for me—and here, I admit my own derangement, perhaps—is its wildness, its subversiveness, its obscenity. For example, one poem begins: “Angels are the whores of heaven; / with their wings they caress the most peculiar psychologies….” Another imagines another angel with a menthol cigarette, in an ultramarine haze. And by the time I reached her prose poem titled “My Plastic Thing” that begins, “It was plastic. That member, that foreign organ. It wore it and felt nothing. I just shoved. The world was hard and elastic at the same time.”—I recognized a poetry whole-heartedly surprising in its stark admittance of the ugly, the false, the explicit. Even the angels smoke in Katerina’s imagination, and the poem’s speaker might wear a strap-on dildo, and sex is both a source of ecstasy and a source of violence, of falsity.

In other words, the registers of the poetry are peculiar and vast—and, to my way of thinking, very accessible and interesting to the American reader, in the way that another poet’s work might not be.

I contacted Karen, addressing her at the time as “Professor,” and soon after we met in her office at Columbia, and then again in Minneapolis as Karen came through on her family’s way to Otter Tail Lake in northern Minnesota. It was clear from these meetings that this was an invaluable project, one that would rightly put this major global voice into the hands of readers in this country. Karen has been the tireless and brilliant expert that we have relied on to make the book a success, and the reason that we are all here today to celebrate this collaboration.

On a personal note, I’d like to mention here that in the course of the selection, acquisition, editing, and publication of The Scattered Papers of Penelope, my wife and I welcomed our son into our lives. I want to tell Katerina and Karen how meaningful it was for me to have these two things occurring, at times, in parallel. In Katerina’s later poems collected in the book, she increasingly grapples with language itself, and poetry’s relationship with silence. She begins one poem:

                   As with love

                   poems are born

                   in silence

                   only that unfeeling silence

                   has a habit

                   of giving birth

                   and swallowing its young.

That birthing, that silence, even that swallowing, seem to be what Katerina’s work hastens us to, what the best poetry points us toward, and it seems to me essential to the art of translation, the art of literature, the art of parenthood, to admit that silence as an utmost destination. We named our son Beckett.

Jeff Shotts

Talk on Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke

Barnard College, October 13, 2009

To purchase the book, click here.