Meryl Natchez

Contributor Spotlight: Interview with Meryl Natchez

Rappahannock Review Poetry Editors: We love the richness and complexity of the natural imagery in these poems. Is there a particular place outside that you go to write, or another way you connect with the natural world?

Meryl Natchez: I grew up in suburban New York State, but behind my house was miles of swamp, which are now a nature preserve. For my entire childhood, that was my main escape—into the tidal flats. Then I went to high school in Vermont, and the intense beauty of the landscape was a balm to my adolescent angst. My love of the rural became a critical problem between my husband and me. He was a city boy. After years of his being unhappy on the Mendocino Coast of California and in Oregon, we finally compromised on the east bay of San Francisco.

Where we live now, I don’t need to go outside to connect with the natural world. The oak in these poems is part of my daily landscape, tucked into the North Berkeley hills. I often write sitting at my kitchen table, which looks out over it. I am immersed in landscape daily, whether in my little urban farm surrounded by oaks, on the trails of Tilden Park or the extensive trails around the bay. It nourishes and sustains me.

RR: You mentioned on your blog that your poems were inspired by Carlo Rovelli’s books. Can you speak more to this inspiration and the connection to his work?

MN: Carlo Rovelli’s book, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, drew me in not only by his clear explanations but also by his elegant prose. He manages to write about the unity and mystery of the world in a way that deeply resonates with me. I was initially reading the book while visiting my daughter in LA, and the first poem came to me while reading his book at a bus stop (“Thinking about Einstein while waiting for the Big Blue Bus,” in Volume Four of Journal of American Poetry).

Not only the altered perception of reality, but the form of these prose poems was inspired by the language and vision of Rovelli’s work. I’d never written in this form before, but the ideas his work inspired seemed to require something new, something breathless, something that broke poetic rules. After I finished the first, fairly short book, I found a CD set of Rovelli reading his longer book, Reality is Not What It Seems, and I listened to it while driving around doing errands. That led to my seeing everyday reality through a layer of almost mystical understanding of the way the most mundane activity fits into an unknowable whole. I was very sad to be done with those books. I actually emailed the first two poems they inspired to Carlo Rovelli in France and got a very generous note of praise from him, which meant a lot to me.

RR: Do you have any scientific background with relation to physics or is it something you recently became interested in?

MN: I have almost no background in the sciences—I was a literature major all the way, but I have always been attracted to science writers who help me understand the natural world. Loren Eisley’s The Immense Journey, Schrödinger’s book, What is Life, even Eugène Marais’ The Soul of the White Ant, have inspired me over the years. “More About the Oak” takes some imagery from Helen Czerski’s Storm in a Teacup: The Physics of Everyday Life. For me, poetry is about making sense of the world, and prose that focuses on that fuels my work.  

RR: In addition to writing poems, you have also translated poetry. Can you explain some of the process and work that goes into that? Does your work as a translator inflect your own poetry?

MN: I started translating the summer before my senior year in high school. I was taking Russian in a program at Harvard for High School students, and I stumbled on Osip Mandelstam’s poetry in the Widener stacks. His early work felt so immediate to me, his struggle to find meaning, to articulate some kind of belief, his focus on the simplicity of the word itself. At that time, his work had not been translated into English, and I began working on translating the poems that most moved me.

I had no training at all in translation but focused on trying to convey the music and the spirit of the originals. That is still my focus, years and a fair amount of instruction in translation later. The conflict between literal rendering and musical sense is the very essence of the problem of translation, and I think working with these constraints enhances my own work.

As for the process, I usually start by making as literal a translation as possible and then moving from there to a freer, more interpretive version that I believe does justice to the original. I often read other translations of a poem (if they exist) and see what choices the translator made compared to mine.

That said, as a translator, I am absolutely a novice, not an expert like Eliot Weinberger or Forrest Gander. Forrest gave a talk at Squaw Valley Community of Writers about translation once, and he discussed how he chose whether to use the Latinate or the Anglo Saxon word in a translation, something I’d never even considered. He also mentioned that his Russian friends mocked translators of Russian verse who “mindlessly rhymed the nouns” in English. After the talk, I rushed back and paged through my book, relieved to find I hadn’t done that—but I could have! It was also something I’d never thought about.

Aside from the two book projects, which were marathons, I often use translation as a way to keep writing when I have no inspiration of my own. I read a poem that interests me and try to convey it in English merely for my own pleasure. When I translate, I really inhabit the original work, and that amplifies my own imagery and syntax. It’s a great practice to stay supple as a writer.

RR: What have you been reading lately?

MN: This is a great question. I am lucky to be in an occasional workshop with David St. John, and he said that all his life, any time he meets someone, that’s the first question he asks.

I tend to have a lot of books around me all the time. In poetry, I just finished reading William Brewer’s, I Know Your Kind, a book rooted in the physical and spiritual landscape of West Virginia that tackles the opioid epidemic in verse and Mary Ruefle’s pamphlet, On Imagination. I’d read anything of hers and loved especially her essays in Madness, Rack, and Honey. Three other open books are Mouth to Mouth: Poems by Twelve Contemporary Mexican Women edited by Forrest Gander; Postwar Polish Poetry edited by Czesław Miłosz; and Bullets into Bells: Poets and Citizens Respond to Gun Violence edited by Brian Clements, Alexandra Teague, and Dean Rader, all amazing anthologies that I read a poem or two in at a time. I recently went back to Marie Howe’s What the Living Do and Sharon Old’s The Gold Cell, two of my favorites, to copy out a few poems for a friend. I just started Li Young Li’s new book, The Undressing, which has some truly breathtaking passages. I recently finished reading through C. K. Williams’ Selected Later Poems, which I read slowly over about a year and a half. The same with C. D. Wright’s selected poems, Steal Away. Two writers who couldn’t be more different!

I read poetry as part of my ongoing home-schooling, I love it, but it requires concentration. I read fiction for fun, everything from a Michael Connelly mystery (he can really draw you in) to Julie Orringer’s The Invisible Bridge, to Philip K. Dick’s Man in the High Castle. I loved Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet. I’m always looking for a new good book. And I’m still only part way through Storm in a Teacup. I often quote from what I’m reading on my blog—I copied Mark Doty’s theme, The Exemplary Sentence, and I love sharing some of the best sentences I read, either poetry or prose.

Meryl Natchez’s work appears in Issue 5.3 here.