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10 Questions for Caelan Tree

Lord, let me understand this barter of essences. You’ve taken my bohemian soul and left me another, strange, cold as a distant star. I look within and don’t recognize myself. Have I spent the magic dust of my previous life? Where are my fits, my excesses, Lord? —from “The New Skin” by Matilde Casazola, translated by Caelan Tree, Volume 60, Issue 3 (Fall 2019)

Tell us about one of the first pieces you translated.
One of my favorite undergraduate professors, translator Charles Cutler, introduced me to the Argentine poet Alfonsina Storni. We chatted after class about “Voy a dormir,” which Prof. Cutler said was one of those rare poems that is utterly untranslatable; of course, I then tried to translate it and had no success at all. That poem is a legend—often regarded to be Storni’s suicide note, which preceded an equally legendary death—and I was nineteen years old and had too many feelings about it.

What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
Yvette Siegert, who translates Alejandra Pizarnik, immediately comes to mind. I’ve been lucky enough to work with poet-translators Ellen Doré Watson and Mihaela Moscaliuc, who helped me shape my translations of Matilde Casazola’s work, and whose work I return to often. Matilde herself, of course, and other writers whose poems/essays seem to come from wild other universes; I think of Sarah Vap and Kristen Stone, among others. So many others—but never too many.

What other professions have you worked in?
I’ve worked mainly with animals. I’m a veterinary technician at a private practice now, but I have also worked in city shelters.

What did you want to be when you were young?
I wanted to be a veterinarian. I’m moving in that direction now—I’m taking undergraduate science classes, accumulating the credits I need to pursue (I hope) an eventual veterinary degree. I love the fascinating grossness of the animal body.

What drew you to write a translation of this piece in particular?
I’ve translated a lot of Matilde’s work, but what drew me to this poem was its last line—what a bizarre, beautiful metaphor. The setting is not quite of this earth. The subject of the soul is a difficult one. It’s hard for me to write organically about the intangible, but Matilde does so deftly and with great precision. I wanted to know what it’s like in that brainspace.

Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
Lately I’ve been interested in the Quabbin Reservoir and its history. I’ve been writing a lot about the underwater towns. Maybe this is Matilde’s influence—thinking about what it’s like to inhabit the uninhabitable.

Who typically gets the first read of your work?
Often, my wife, who is also a poet. Once or twice a year, some poet friends and I will start up a huge generative email thread where we respond with new work and tell each other how great the poems are and (sometimes) offer criticism. We all reach out to each other for critical feedback. I never take my poetry community for granted.

If you could work in another art form what would it be?
I wish I could play the guitar. I have tried many times to learn, but my very tiny hands get cramped.

What are you working on currently?
The last few years have mostly seen poems about gross animal things (my favorite subject matter). I’ve been plodding along, on and off, with the aforementioned Quabbin project. This probably isn’t what you were asking, but I do enjoy writing biology lab reports about yeast and bacteria.

What are you reading right now?
I spend several months at a time reading nonfiction about gruesome subject matter; lately, I’ve been hunting down sensationalist memoirs and journalist reports about mountain climbers dying at high altitudes, starting with Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air and proceeding from there. Before that, I read everything I could find about zoonotic diseases, especially as dramatized by Richard Preston.

CAELAN TREE is a poet, translator, and veterinary nurse living in the Pioneer Valley, MA. She holds an MFA in Poetry and Poetry in Translation from Drew University and is the author of the chapbook Quiet in the Body. Her work has appeared in The Healing Muse, Animal Literary Magazine, and others.

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