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10 Questions for Alex de Voogt

One candle will suffice.      The light somewhat subdued
will be better suited,      will be more agreeable
as Love is drawing closer,     as its Shadows arrive.

One candle will suffice.      The room should not indulge
in too much light tonight.
—from "For them to arrive" by C.P. Cavafy, Translated by Alex de Voogt

Tell us about one of the first pieces you translated.
When I was studying an East African board game, known as bao, for my thesis, I encountered a poem on the subject. Muyaka bin Haji, a famous Swahili poet of the early nineteenth century had written a poem about the game and the more I got into translating his poem, the more I realized that he had an intimate knowledge of the game’s strategies and specific vocabulary. Since then, I looked for poems about board games that provide early historic references but that did not yet have literary translations.

What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
Perhaps Georges Perec is the most influential as he used to create a puzzle, a game if you like, that he used to propel his writing. It got me interested in hidden or intricate forms that are mostly there for the poet and difficult to discover as a reader.

What did you want to be when you were young?
Explorer was one of them but mostly I wanted to pursue what I found interesting rather than claim a certain profession or trade. So far academia has offered me generous opportunities to explore.

What drew you to write a translation of this piece in particular?
For the first time, I started concentrating on a specific poet rather than a topic or theme, such as board games. I had been drawn to the poems of Constantine Cavafy that are set in antiquity. Soon I found that Cavafy had been experimenting with form, in his case syllabics. The form he used the most, eighteen times, had syllabics and hemistiches. They were not necessarily set in antiquity but the form intrigued me. While Cavafy had been translated many times in English and in several other languages, syllabics were rarely if ever given any attention. So I started to explore syllabics in my translations, trying to discover how syllabics and half-lines affect the workings of a poem. This specific poem is one of those eighteen. It has half-lines that create complex enjambments, syllabics that provide a mostly iambic rhythm and since the original Greek features some end-rhyme there is some rhyme in the translation as well. In short, the translation celebrates several aspects of Cavafy’s form that can be found in his poetry.

Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
This depends on the poetry. When translating Cavafy’s poems that are set in antiquity, I am reminded of my own archaeological exploits in the Sudan and of visits to Palmyra in Syria, for instance. But when I translate Muyaka, it is the island of Zanzibar where I did my games research that consistently comes to mind. They help to create a frame of reference, which is particularly helpful when you are trying to capture a historically or culturally distant setting.

Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?
Usually, I need to be in a specific mood. It happens when I am bored with everything else I am doing and need a change. Other times I do so as a celebration, as a special treat because I enjoy the work.

Who typically gets the first read of your work?
I have a couple of very good friends whom I ask to read it first. Sometimes they check for errors or issues, other times they just enjoy the poem. Since I occasionally translate to Dutch, they include Dutch friends. None of them claim to be poets or writers but many of them have a great ear or a love for poetry.

If you could work in another art form what would it be?
Photography. But the photographers I know are so much more talented and dedicated that I am not sure it will ever happen.

What are you working on currently?
I returned to Muyaka bin Haji but now the poet is central, not his one game poem. He uses half-lines and syllabics so it feels like a seamless transition after Cavafy’s eighteen. There is also a great contrast as Cavafy has been translated many times while few poems from Africa have seen literary translations. Several of Cavafy’s poems are rhyming but in the case of Muyaka all his poems have a strict rhyme scheme that includes every half-line. It creates a very different task where adhering to form is much more likely to hinder the translation. I look for a balance in which form is not ignored but not dominating either. Then the historical and cultural contexts create additional complications. It is an intimidating but enjoyable puzzle.

What are you reading right now?
Upstart Crow by Ben Elton, an annotated script of a television series. It is a comedy about Shakespeare’s life. It has amused me tremendously at a time when world affairs give little comic relief.

ALEX DE VOOGT is an associate professor at Drew University and a candidate in their Poetry-in-Translation MFA program. He was trained as a linguist and translates poetry from a variety of languages to English and Dutch. At present, he has taken a particular interest in Constantine Cavafy’s innovations in poetic form.

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