Poet’s Platform: Lisa Allen Ortiz

This recurring column highlights the work and lives of our poets beyond their Perugia Press books, whether it be teaching or other creative professional pursuits, visual artistry, community involvements, activism, their reading suggestions, and/or their current writing projects, processes, and proclivities. The second installment comes from Lisa Allen Ortiz (Guide to the Exhibit, 2016), who writes about a new book she co-translated with Sara Daniele Rivera: The Blinding Star: Selected Poems by Blanca Varela (Tolsun Books, 2021).

The Beauty of Being—Lost

All the me’s and I’s of poetry. Makes a girl blush. By a girl I mean this girl. The one typing. And maybe the one reading too. Me. You. Aren’t both of us blushing, being named this way. So much self-exposure in poetry, sometimes it’s like going to a party without pants or without a shirt and not always knowing which one is not wearing what. As often as poetry makes me feel alive, it makes me feel shy. Eschewal of self and its obsessions was the incitement of Guide to the Exhibit. I thought I found a wormhole out of the me’s and the I’s—if a girl, this girl, wrote a few days a week in the natural history museum of her town, this girl might avoid writing about herself. Spotlighting museum exhibits, a girl might avoid exhibiting herself. Instead of confessing her own sins, she’d shake down the community for their sins, what we all together choose to admit and decide leave out. So this girl looked at the taxidermy animals, the fossils, the bones, the biographical notes of naturalists and the illustrations of butterfly species—yet in looking and naming and describing this girl kept writing: me and I. What Guide to the Exhibit finally says (spoiler alert) is that there’s no escaping the self. The self is not separate from the world but an incarnation of the world and the world an incarnation of self. Ah, poetry, you slippery fish.

Still, I struggle with it. How can I be quiet and still write? How can I listen to the world and still participate in this urge I have to narrate? The practice of poetry calls us to name the world, to slice it open and then rename the parts. But the poking and naming sometimes makes me feel ashamed. I feel like I’m breaking things. I feel as if I’m making a scene. I want to be transparent and kind. I want to write invisible poetry. I want the part of the page that is blank. Yet writing: I want to be quiet makes such a racket! What a puzzle.

But I found a solution—Friend, I found translation! ( And if you have not yet found translation, please look around and pick it up right away. Because I know already you’re a poet, reading this essay on a poetry website, and I’ll whisper the secret here: translating poetry is all the fun parts with none of the struggle. Don’t worry about meaning or message. Just say what the other one said. Translating poetry is like sudoku for nonlinear thinkers. Translate one poem every evening and call me in the morning. If you’re still feeling down, I’ll prescribe two. You’ll feel better, I’m sure.)

A translator strives to be transparent, indiscernible. The translator is all senses, all eyes and ears, but without the me or the I clanging around and taking off her shirt or her pants.

There is a phrase “lost in translation” that means that some parts of the meaning can’t get through the border from one language to the next. But I’m here to tell you, the border is not a wall. The border is an idea. It’s an idea about place, just a kind of weird political generalization. The border is a west Texas wasteland. It’s a river and mountains and a desert and jungle, and there are animals and plants and other things there you’ll need a dictionary and a thesaurus to name. Friends, if you translate you get to work in that lost place, in that wide unmapped border where everything’s random and wild and free. There’s no me there. There’s no you. There’s hardly an up or a down. There’s just an in-between place, and if you say the magic words translation or translator and furthermore if you’re a card-carrying poet, well, you get to move in and out. You get to travel across.

And I’ll tell you something about Blanca Varela who was the poet who wrote the poems I took back and forth. She’s crazy and huge, and she growls and she bites. She’s ponderous. She’s literally surreal. She has a universe inside her, galaxies upon galaxies of planets and planes and animals and dust and holes where the bottom of the earth is the top of her head, and I went inside that universe and came out with black holes under my eyes and nebula contusions along my arms—and then I went back in for more.

Furthermore, in the project of The Blinding Star, I found a friend. I was invited to collaborate with the brilliant Sara Daniele Rivera, so then there were two of us translating the third of us. I recommend this. If you’re going to fool around with wormholes and lost lands and the meaning of nothingness and the nothingness of meaning, it’s very nice to hold someone’s hand. And thank God for Zoom which we used and that’s funny too—for a girl to see herself next to another girl talking in two languages about the language of a third passed-away girl and none of us were anywhere. We were all in between (plus, no worry about the pants). Collaborating translation is a lot of talking about words with words, naming language with language, and finding together the nothingness we are in the everything we named. It was fun! And nobody cared who I was or could be or am. Translating, I am transparent, yet still able to hold and to name—for an immeasurable iota of time—the incomprehensible and just-gorgeous world.

Here’s a teaser:

El dolor entre dos paredes ya no es el dolor. Ponemos
el día y la noche entre nosotros. Todo nos une y nos
separa. Tanto olvido es otra vez descubrirse, evitarse, 
girar en redondo. Estrella invisible fuera de órbita. 
Órbita que fue o es la memoria. Lado de sombra, la 
memoria crece y se devora, y la luz está cerrada y vacía 
como un estuche inútil donde alguna vez algo brilló 
hasta consumirse. 

Extrañeza de la propia mano, la que toco. La ajena 
mía. Eso existe. Zona inexplorada de la carne 
íntima. Otra tierra en la tierra. Eso en la soledad 
del cuerpo tendido bajo la noche.

Pain between two walls is no longer pain. Let’s put
the day and the night between us. All that unites
and separates us. So much forgetting described
and evaded, such spinning. An invisible star leaves 
its orbit, an orbit that was or is the memory. On 
the shaded side, memory grows and devours itself, 
its brilliance is closed and empty like a broken 
cabinet that held something once blazing. 

The surprising touch of one’s own hand.
The otherness of me. This exists. Unexplored place 
of intimate flesh. Another earth inside the earth. 
The body’s solitude unfolded in the dark.