By Robert Lowes
“I have so many projects going on right now that if I say them all, I’ll sound like a crazy person.”
So says Jesse Lee Kercheval, a frequent contributor to december. She’s published two novels (The Museum of Happiness and My Life as a Silent Movie); a novella (Brazil); two collections of short stories (The Dogeater and The Alice Stories); four books of poetry (World as Dictionary, Dog Angel, Cinema Muto, and Extranjera) with another (America that Island Off the Coast of France) coming soon; a memoir (Space); and a popular textbook (Building Fiction) that encapsulates what she teaches creative-writing students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. It’s not only Kercheval’s words that have spread across the literary world, but also her literary DNA. She is a mother of writers, or una madre de escritores, as she might say in Spanish. She writes poems in that language, too.
When I interviewed Kercheval for december, I found her in Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay. That Latin American country has become a second home over the past eight years, and the setting for her all-consuming passion now — translating Uruguayan poetry into English, which has added to her list of published books. Her ambition goes beyond ego. What helps keep her so crazy-busy is connecting Uruguayan poets to U.S. counterparts who will translate their work. To wind down, Kercheval plays the accordion. “I need some things in life that don’t involve words,” she says.
During our Skype interview, Kercheval left the same impression as her writing — a self-effacing calmness, a sweetness like honey, and a stinging wit. Those qualities have endeared her to countless students, such as poet James Crews, who received his MFA at the University of Wisconsin in 2007. “She is one of the most encouraging and supportive teachers I’ve ever had,” said Crews, author of The Book of What Stays and Telling My Father. “She always has time for younger writers. She creates a community wherever she goes.”
“Wherever she goes” has a special meaning for the peripatetic author and teacher. Kercheval was born in Fontainebleau, France, and she was a budding francophone (as she was told) before her family moved to the United States when she was two years old. She came of age in Cocoa, Florida, within earshot of spacecraft launched from Cape Canaveral during the race to the moon in the 1960s. Those years are chronicled in her 1998 memoir Space, which marked a turn toward the autobiographical in her fiction and poetry as well. A dysfunctional yet beloved family (addict mom; workaholic dad) is one thing, but what if it’s not altogether your real family in the first place? Kercheval still isn’t sure who her biological mother is, but she’s asked the question in veiled and not-so-veiled ways repeatedly in her work, characterized by the theme of disconnected people finding new connections.
France. Florida. Wisconsin. And now, for significant stretches every year, Uruguay. Every locale has shaped Kercheval’s personal and literary voice in some fashion. december was lucky to catch up with her and hear that voice unmediated by text as it reflected on her multi-faceted life as a writer, and a mother of writers. — Robert Lowes
KERCHEVAL: Hello, Robert! Are you there?
DECEMBER: Jesse Lee! Hi! I’m looking for your picture on my screen.
KERCHEVAL: Here I am!
DECEMBER: Ola! Como esta?
KERCHEVAL: Bien, bien. When I live in the United States, I hardly get the chance to speak Spanish, as strange as that seems.
DECEMBER: Why don’t you give a thumbnail sketch of your life and your family?
KERCHEVAL: I was born in France and raised in Washington D.C. and Florida. I went to the Iowa’s Writers Workshop in fiction. And then I taught one year at DePauw University in Indiana and then I went to the University of Wisconsin. I’ve been in Wisconsin since 1987. I have a son, Max, who is a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin, studying history and Chinese. And a daughter, Magdalena, who is teaching in Japan.
DECEMBER: And your husband, Dan Fuller, also teaches at the University of Wisconsin?
KERCHEVAL: Yes, he is a lecturer in art history. He teaches the history of photography and works as a special librarian.
DECEMBER: He’s the one who introduced you to silent film.
KERCHEVAL: Absolutely. He was invited to go to this annual silent film conference in Italy called the “Le Giornate del Cinema Muto” in 2000. I imagined going and just sitting in a café writing poetry and not watching movies. But I fell in love with them. I’m more hardcore about it than he is. It’s hard to get me out of the theatre to go eat. It’s eight days of movies from 9 in the morning to 1 or 2 in the morning, with live music.
DECEMBER: You need some exercise after a day like that. What fascination does silent film have for you?
KERCHEVAL: In the sense that it’s a lost world. I’m constantly aware of seeing things that are gone. They are filming people that are gone, cultures that are gone. And often we see (a film) in quite bad shape. We’ll see a few feet of it, and then a few feet of something that looks like mud.
DECEMBER: Sounds tragic.
KERCHEVAL: And then something else that looks like mud. And then a few more frames. As a poet, I was fascinated by imagining what was there. It’s like looking at an abstract painting and saying, “Oh, what does that remind me of?” I wrote a lot of poems about the films that were in the worst shape because they allowed you to fill in the story.
The thing about silent film is that it’s cheap. You know what a hand-cranked silent camera looks like? You would get one with an instruction manual and start to make movies. So very obscure places had quite good films. We’ll get a film made in Lapland. When you exported silent films, you didn’t have to subtitle them. You just change the title cards. So it’s a much more universal medium. And then sound came. It’s much more expensive. So the production gets to be very concentrated.
DECEMBER: Talk a bit about your life in Uruguay. La vida en Uruguay.
KERCHEVAL: It’s my big thing now, translation. But it was completely by accident. My last sabbatical, I wanted to go someplace to learn Spanish. I had the whole mid-life crisis thing where I thought, “How could I’ve grown up in Florida and never learned Spanish?” Uruguay came up because my son, who was then 12, had to go to school. And we said, “Oh, Montevideo, it’s small and laid-back. He can go to school there easily.” We came, and my son was the first person who fell in love with it, because Uruguay is not that odd to him. It’s very European, so people eat all the same foods that we do. A third of them are Italian, so they eat pasta. I got down here and started learning Spanish and I had no intention of translating poetry.
But two things led to it. One is that it’s a very odd kind of Spanish, so it gives you a particular niche as a translator. The other thing is that Uruguay is full of poets. My joke is that it produces two things in great abundance — poets and world-class soccer players. There are only 3.3 million people here.
DECEMBER: What’s the unusual aspect of Spanish in Uruguay that you mentioned?
KERCHEVAL: If you stepped off a plane here, you’d think you were in Poland if you have any idea what a Slavic language sounds like. The y’s and double l’s, which are pronounced “yuh” in Spanish, are “shuh” sounds in Uruguay. It’s called sheismo. Also, they have this well-developed slang called Lunfardo, which is like 1930s gangster slang. They have a different word for every item of clothing, every item of food pretty much.
DECEMBER: How would you describe your everyday life in Uruguay?
KERCHEVAL: It’s been very quiet these past three months because it has been summer here. The entire city shuts down, and everyone goes to the beach. There are times when it seems like you could stretch out in the street and go to sleep. I’ve been quietly working on my translations, having folks over for dinner, going over to their house for dinner. And then there is usually a reading or two at night.
When I’m not translating, I’m trying to hook people up with other translators. My goal is for every Uruguayan poet to have his or her own American poet translator. And I hope that they would fall in love with each other and go on and translate more work. And it’s worked. There are about 21 or 22 poets in America Invertida (an anthology of young Uruguayan poets edited by Kercheval) and there are about 10 books that have come out of it, or translated and looking for publishers.
DECEMBER: Do you still play the accordion?
KERCHEVAL: Yes, I do. I made the decision not to bring it down with me this time. You’re never sure what type of apartment you are going to rent, and it’s not the quietest instrument.
DECEMBER: Do you ever perform for groups?
KERCHEVAL: No, I’m quite a secret accordion player. I’m so shy that when I’m playing in our house, if my husband walks in, it makes me nervous.
DECEMBER: Music is all about sounds and rhythms. Has playing the accordion influenced your writing?
KERCHEVAL: I don’t know. I need some things in my life that don’t involve words. I just like the rhythm of playing it. You need an activity that sets your mind free. When I play songs, I can be thinking of poems. But mostly I’m just trying to hit the right buttons with my fingers.
DECEMBER: Talk about your translation work.
KERCHEVAL: I have so many projects going on right now that if I say them all, I’ll sound like a crazy person. I have a book of poems, The Arms of the Saguaro, that I just translated coming out next year by a wonderful Uruguayan poet named Laura Cesarco Eglin. Her grandparents were Holocaust survivors. And I finished a book by Idea Vilariño. I’m looking for a publisher. I have a couple of other manuscripts that I’ve done of individual poets. But I’m also working on about five anthologies, which is just crazy. There’s one of Uruguayan poems of place — locations, cities, rivers — called Taken by Light: Poems of Uruguay. It will be published here in December, and in the United States in April.
DECEMBER: What about your own fiction and poetry?
KERCHEVAL: It’s kind of been pushed out. I’ve written a few poems, but not many. I keep thinking that I’ll get tired of translation and go back to non-fiction or fiction or poetry. But so far, I’m loving translation. It’s a wonderful vacation from ego. I was running around at the AWP (Association of Writers & Writing Programs) conference in March trying to twist arms and get people to publish Uruguayan poets. That’s my new life. I’m having fun.
DECEMBER: When I read Space, Jesse Lee, it was clear that you were a big reader as a child. But I didn’t see references to you writing poetry or fiction. How did you start to write?
KERCHEVAL: I wrote some bad poetry in high school, but my most successful moment as a writer early on was a fantasy novel in middle school. I would type up a page or two and bring it to the cafeteria every day, and people would pass it around. If I showed up without it, people would be upset with me. I still have it in a binder. That was my first sense of having an audience. And probably if I’d gone that way, I’d have millions of dollars.
DECEMBER: Were there any books or authors that got you excited about writing?
KERCHEVAL: Because of where I went to college, Florida State University, I read a lot of Southern writers. William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, and Flannery O’Connor were big influences. I’ve always felt a deep kinship with Dickens. I love odd, extra characters.
DECEMBER: Like Jingle? Remember Jingle from Pickwick Papers?
KERCHEVAL: Yes. We read a lot of Southern writers, but we also were beginning to read books that were not by white men. Like Toni Morrison. I was in that generation where One Hundred Years of Solitude hit hard. For poetry, I would say my rock, my Dickens on the poetry side, is Whitman. I always go back to Whitman.
DECEMBER: Is it accurate to say that starting over and making new connections are important themes in your writing?
KERCHEVAL: Yes. I think that’s inherent in fiction. Someone said to me years ago that in a novel, someone steps off the curb and everything changes. A novel starts with some person under pressure, so things can’t be the same. When I was a young mother, I’d noticed all the children’s books start with the parents being killed off. In James and the Giant Peach, his parents are killed by a rhino on a beach. It’s because you have to take someone who’s lived this sheltered, set existence and put them at risk, and so by killing off characters — what am I up to in my fiction, (three) husbands and a child? I have to be careful not to do it next time. But it’s a way to put somebody under pressure, to see how you can continue to live the life you’re living.
DECEMBER: It struck me that your first novel, The Museum of Happiness, could qualify as magical realism.
KERCHEVAL: I think so. I was mad for magical realism then. I wanted to have amazing things happen. There’s the part at the end where one character is literally pulled through a movie screen into another location. I still love that. But I moved away from magical realism.
DECEMBER: Why was that? I thoroughly enjoyed The Museum of Happiness.
KERCHEVAL: I don’t know. It just seemed like life got realer to me.
DECEMBER: After Space, there’s not only a move toward realism in your fiction and poetry, but also autobiographical elements — where you were born, and who your mother really was.
KERCHEVAL: I know from years of teaching that young writers are very autobiographical. I wasn’t. The Museum of Happiness, set in Paris in 1929, is not autobiographical. But I was writing autobiographical poems in World as Dictionary before the memoir. The thing about poetry — your aunt doesn’t pick a poetry book at the supermarket. You don’t have to worry about it much. People can be remarkably honest in poems. On the other hand, they’re not memoirs. So if I need to tweak some fact, it doesn’t have to be literally true. It just needs to make emotional sense. For example, in a poem, I wanted to combine my feelings about two friends who died and I made them one person. I wouldn’t do that in a memoir.
Space was the most painful book I ever wrote. If I hadn’t had a contract to honor, I’m not sure I would have finished it.
DECEMBER: Why was it the most painful? The subject matter?
KERCHEVAL: It’s subject matter, true. And a memoir is hard because you have to be ruthlessly honest and show that you are not always doing the right thing. I remember writing some of that memoir kind of hunched over and holding my stomach because I was physically in pain about it. Even though, as memoirs go, I didn’t have a horrific childhood. It’s just revisiting things in an honest way I found painful.
DECEMBER: I think about Mary Karr’s first memoir, The Liars’ Club, and all the chaotic dangerous situations she described. Her mother threatened to kill her with a knife. Your childhood wasn’t like that. You described a slow emotional freezing where your mother became more and more addicted to alcohol and Valium, and your father remained a distant workaholic, signing his full name on a card to you. It was a different kind of pain.
KERCHEVAL: Yeah, I think you’re right. I actually wrote Space before Mary Karr’s book came out. It was early in the childhood memoir business. Now, when my students say they are going to write a memoir, there are stacks of childhood memoirs I can recommend. There are (also) adult memoirs, there are travel memoirs, there are illness memoirs, there are “taking care of your parents with Alzheimer’s” memoirs. Space was at the beginning of that. So much so, that a couple of chapters were published pretty much as stories. And it isn’t because I thought they were short stories. Literary magazines didn’t have a separate section for non-fiction. One chapter was published in American Short Fiction. They knew the story was true, but it was like, “Okay, it doesn’t make any difference to us.” It was before there was this third genre — creative nonfiction.
DECEMBER: What I appreciated about Space was that you stayed in the moment of a child becoming an adolescent. It was light on analysis.
KERCHEVAL: Yeah, I tried hard to do that. I had this phrase for myself called “porpoising.” I used to think at the beginning of each chapter that I would take a deep breath of oxygen and try to stay underwater. If there’s any adult voice, it tends to be at the very beginning and the very end of a chapter. I felt it would weaken the strength of what I was trying to get across if I’m constantly saying, “Little did I know then,” or, “As it would turn out…” I just wanted to make the reader be there. That was not always easy. You have to limit your vocabulary some, and your perceptions of what a historic event means.
DECEMBER: In Space, you almost qualify as a character in a Flannery O’Connor story because you were a child bride.
KERCHEVAL: Yes, very much so.
DECEMBER: At age 17, you married a Methodist student minister, and you were divorced at age 20. What legacy did those three years give you, negative, positive or both?
KERCHEVAL: Mostly positive. That was when I was not in sync with the rest of my generation. Anyone else would just live with their college boyfriend. You didn’t get married to someone if they were a Methodist minister. And as I said in the memoir, I wasn’t religious at all. It helped me to realize there are a lot of different ways of living in this world. Getting divorced at 20 makes you feel old for a bit, but it was an important experience.
We had a church in Wakulla County, which was this poor — less poor now — rural county south of Tallahassee. We lived in the church and I was in charge of a youth group. A couple of the people were older than I was. I had to sing in the choir and be in the women’s group. It was a very Southern place, racially divided. Everyone in my church was white in a majority-black county. It would be an interesting memoir.
DECEMBER: Some things in your writing suggest a legacy from that period in your life. In America that Island Off the Coast of France, there’s a poem that addresses Jesus, and the speaker says that each book she’s published is “about me thinking about you.” Then you have the scene in My Life as a Silent Movie where Emma is vandalizing a Catholic church and sees a crucifix, Christ on the cross, and imagines her brother Ilya up there, the addicted brother whom she fears is dying. She reaches out to him as if he’s a Christ figure. Is each of your books “about me thinking about you” in terms of God?
KERCHEVAL: I think about God a great deal, but not about Jesus in a conventional sense. My most religious book is probably my poetry book Dog Angel. There’s a lot about morality, the reason for goodness. Whether God exists. There’s a poem about a professor at Florida State who was famous for writing a “God is Dead” book. I encounter him in a café, and I’m thinking,
“How can you say God is dead while you sit there eating a tuna sandwich?” When my children were little we used to go to a Unitarian church. My impression of being a Unitarian is that you sing the same hymns you do in the Methodist church, but with the word “God” taken out and the word “light” put in. I can make fun of that, but that’s probably where I am, thinking about how the universe works without having come up with any conclusions.
DECEMBER: How did you come to wonder whether the woman who raised you was not your biological mother?
KERCHEVAL: I received a letter after I published Space that implied that yes, I had been adopted, that my father had had a relationship with another woman whom I knew later in our life. And I still don’t know. I think, but I don’t know, that my birth mother was Jewish, and I don’t know if she was given up for an orphanage in the Second World War. So it’s interesting question to me, but it wouldn’t be easy to find the exact answer, and I’ve gotten far enough to puzzle about what it means in my life without having gone through the trouble of finding anything out. Both my mothers, if they’re both mothers, are dead, and none of the documentation from that period is good, and to get a DNA sample, I would have to chase my sister around without telling her why I’m doing it. I haven’t gone to France and written a memoir about trying to find the truth. It feels pretty far from me now to think about the French thing, because I’m obsessed with Uruguay. I’ve gone in a different direction.
DECEMBER: One of the things that fascinated me, Jesse Lee, is that when I read your work, certain incidents and narratives kept cropping up. You take material that appears in a poem and later put it in a novel. An example is “Life Considered as the 13 Locks of Le Canal St-Martin.” It was first published in the Malahat Review. Passages of that poem appear as prose in the novel My Life as a Silent Movie.
KERCHEVAL: That would be typical of me. When I wrote the poem, it was a real event. I was in Paris with my children and I had a little bag around my neck to put passports in along with a little notebook. I was writing poems while they were doing things. A number of years later when I was casting around for things for my characters to do in My Life as a Silent Movie, I had Emma’s brother Ilya be the person who works on the boat (going through the locks) and there are no children in that. You could say I wanted to get extra use out of the material. But in some ways, poetry is almost a sketch, like a diary entry, and it’s changed into something else.
DECEMBER: Then there’s an incident that first appears in a poem titled “Kindness of Strangers” in which the speaker is accosted by a crazed woman with a gun — a complete stranger — who wrongly accuses her of stealing her lover.
KERCHEVAL: The shooting, yes, yes.
DECEMBER: The would-be victim falls on her knees and prays the Lord’s Prayer and the person with the gun breaks down and falls on her knees, and they hug each other in a peaceful resolution. Another version of that appears in The Alice Stories and there’s yet another version in Brazil. What’s going on? Why does that incident mean so much to you?
KERCHEVAL: It was a real thing. It sticks with me because it was the only time in my life when I was menaced by a gun. The first version would have been the poem, where you do a sketch. The way it appears in Brazil is quite altered. It’s the piece of fiction that’s most not me. It has a young boy for a narrator. I was drawing on my experience to come up with a gun incident that felt real to me.
We see so much fiction that involves guns and doesn’t seem real. I always tell my students the “sacred bodily fluids rule.” In real life, if someone at our table in a workshop were shot or began bleeding, or any fluid was coming from their body, we would be seriously upset. In serious fiction, you’re not allowed to have people doing any of those things in a casual way as they do in TV shows. Someone’s head explodes and no one cares.
Also, over time, when something happens to you, you think of it differently as you get older. So I keep revisiting the time I was threatened by a gun.
DECEMBER: How old were you when that happened?
KERCHEVAL: I was still at Florida State, so I would have been somewhere between 20 and 25. I could have gotten killed for pretty much no reason, by a person who didn’t know who I was and didn’t really mean to hurt anyone. It’s much more of a Florida story. There’s casual violence in Florida that just doesn’t happen in Wisconsin as much. In Wisconsin, you are killed by the people you know and love, and “stranger” murder is much rarer. Florida is full of strangers.
DECEMBER: I want to get back to poetry. I sometimes lose patience with long poems. That may reflect poorly on me. However, I found your long poems hard to put down. You have some structured numerically, like Life Considered as the 13 Locks of Le Canal St-Martin, or 49 Answers to 50 Questions. It gives me the sense of taking baby steps as opposed to running a marathon.
KERCHEVAL: The reason they’re numbered sections is to give you time to think between the sections, the way you would between novel chapters.
DECEMBER: What advice, if any, do you give students about a poem’s length?
KERCHEVAL: Sometimes I’ll try to get someone to write a short or long poem because one of the effects of us publishing individual poems in literary magazines is that generally speaking, none of them are really, really short, and none of them are really, really long. They’re all about a page or a half a page. They feel too much the same.
In France, poems are not usually published in magazines. In Uruguay, they’re not usually published in magazines. You’re writing for the book. And if someone wants to, they’ll write a two-line poem. It’s going to move you from one place in the book to the next. But we tend not to write two-line poems, because “it’s not really a poem.” What’s your class going say about it in a workshop? If you send it to an editor, why are they publishing a two-line poem? The same thing is true for really long poems.
So I say, maybe try not ending something so soon. Try taking a deep breath and go on with the theme. I’ve written about my mother; in the same poem, let me write about my grandmother. Or let me write a tiny poem that’s just an image. It doesn’t get pushed any further.
DECEMBER: It occurs to me that a literary journal might be leery of a poem that takes up five or six printed pages because the editors want to make room for more writers.
KERCHEVAL: If it’s a 10-page poem, they have to like it 10-poems’ worth. And editors like the poem that comes to a point. When you reach the bottom of the poem, you say “ah.” But when you read a book of poems, a particular poem can be more
DECEMBER: How about the issue of accessibility — giving the reader an idea of who’s speaking, and where, and when? Is that something you talk to your poetry students about?
KERCHEVAL: I talk to them about it. I talk to myself about it. I have a wide taste in poetry. From the most obscure to the most narrative. I tend to push myself to read someone like Carl Phillips, because he has such a beautiful sense of line, very spare. It’s a corrective for me. It’s going to cut a little prosy explanation out of my voice. My tendency is to be other way — very narrative, long lines, not a sense of tautness. With my own students, if someone is writing difficult, oblique poetry, or very voicey, jazzy, slangy poetry, I give them a prescription to read someone who’s doing the opposite. They don’t know enough to have consciously chosen their style.
Some people stick with that style and they perfect it, and that’s great. And some people make a 180-degree turn. Poets tend to change markedly in their career. Fiction is a naturally conservative art form and I don’t mean politically. There’s only so far that narrative can go, which is just about up to Gertrude Stein, and then it stops being narrative and it becomes something else. Novels can be experimental. But it’s a pretty small box, whereas poetry has followed the visual arts all the way from beautiful Renaissance-style oil paintings to abstraction and conceptual art, like why-are-these-socks-on-the-floor art. Poetry can choose all those things, but you have to know why you’re doing it, what the history of it is. When people talk about fiction, they say, “Does this short story work? Does this novel work?” It’s like they are pulling a car apart and saying “What’s wrong with this transmission?” With the poem, when people are writing criticism of it in a poetry magazine, or in a workshop, they’re asking, “Is it a poem?” By saying, “Is it a poem?” you’re questioning what a poem could be. It’s always a fight over what a poem is, what poetry is, what the future of poetry is. Whereas with a novel, it’s “I think the third chapter is too slow.”
DECEMBER: Who are the some of the poets that you turn to again and again?
KERCHEVAL: I mentioned Walt Whitman. I have a long running joke with my colleague. Ron Wallace, who’s retired, that he represents Emily Dickinson and I represent Walt Whitman. They are the mother and father of American poetry. I always go back to Whitman. And Guillaume Apollinaire, all the surrealists. I love Kenneth Koch, who is someone in the New York School. He’s disappeared a little now. Anne Carson is a Canadian poet who writes novel-length poems. And someone I find myself going back to is Wislawa Szymborksa, whom I really love.
But I’m reading a lot of new stuff, too. One young poet I’m excited about is a Wisconsin alum, Danez Smith. He’s this young African-American poet who was a finalist for the National Book Award last year. Astounding. There’s an amazing Argentinean poet, Alejandra Pizarnik, who was kind of the Sylvia Plath of Argentina. There’s a wonderful new translation of her work out by Yvette Siegert titled Extracting the Stone of Madness.
I’m more and more influenced by poets from other countries now that I hang out with translators. Translators of poetry are generally poets, because there’s no money in it. I’m not only the unpaid agent of Uruguayan poetry, I am the money-losing agent of Uruguayan poetry.
DECEMBER: Jesse Lee, maybe we should wrap up today and finish our conversation tomorrow. I feel like I’ve gotten to know you, even though you don’t know me.
KERCHEVAL: You may know me better than I do!
SKYPE INTERVIEW, PART II
KERCHEVAL: Hello! Sorry, I’m running a little late.
DECEMBER: How are you doing?
KERCHEVAL: Good, It’s been a very busy day. I had a coffee this morning with a poet, and then my husband Dan and I went to the farmer’s market to buy vegetables and had lunch, and then I went off to see another poet, and now I’m back here. Then Dan and I are going to an opening at the photography museum here. I’m going to a late-night reading. It’s supposed to start at 10, but it really starts about midnight.
DECEMBER: Is that typical of Latin American culture — more events late at night?
KERCHEVAL: Dinner is like 9 or 10 at night. People here think that if you eat before the sun goes down, you would die.
DECEMBER: You’ve published a book of poems titled Extranjera, or Stranger, in Spanish. You must think in Spanish, right?
KERCHEVAL: Yes, yes. I wrote Extranjera in Spanish because it seemed ridiculous to write poems in English about being in Uruguay. But I would dare say they are simpler than my English language poems. You don’t write something in Spanish you don’t know how to write.
DECEMBER: I saw your translation of this poem titled Alms by Idea Vilariño in a recent issue of The New Yorker. You said in another interview that she was writing confessional, erotic, feminist poetry before Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. What does that tell you?
KERCHEVAL: We think that Americans got there first with that — the voice talking about a woman’s desires, a woman’s relationships. Vilariño’s in this great tradition of women’s poetry in Uruguay. A lot of it is openly sexual. Uruguay is not a religious country. It’s not fully bound by Catholic mores in the same way you’d think of another Latin American country. Vilariño’s book Poemas de Amor — Love Poems — was first published in 1957 but she kept putting out new editions with new poems.
It’s a very frank work about her love affair with this novelist, Juan Carlos Onetti. The poems are not like, “Oh, I love you, my sweetie.” They’re like, “You bastard, where are you, and why aren’t you in my bed?” Or “I was thinking of you, but I was sleeping with someone else” poems. She was a very independent woman. She never married.
DECEMBER: I discovered there is a female poet on Uruguay’s thousand-peso note — Juana de Ibarbourou.
KERCHEVAL: Yeah, she was the first famous Uruguayan poet. She’s known as Juana de las Americas.
DECEMBER: We don’t have dollar bills with faces of poets on them.
KERCHEVAL: No, no. It’s the equivalent of having Emily Dickinson on a hundred-dollar bill. We haven’t gotten there yet.
DECEMBER: You translated a collection of poems (The Invisible Bridge) by the Uruguayan poet Circe Maia. What attracted you to her work?
KERCHEVAL: I was down here visiting friends, and I was given her book Obra Poetica (Poetic Work) as a present for Epiphany. We were at the beach, and I started reading it in my hammock and finished all 400 pages in a couple of days. I just fell in love with it. These deceptively simple poems seem to be about small things in nature, and really, they’re about huge philosophical questions. It isn’t the way I write poems. They seemed to speak to my soul. A little bit like Szymborska. Or like Mary Oliver. Then I met Circe, who is the most luminous, lovely person in the world, and I wanted to translate her. She’s completely without ego about her own work.
DECEMBER: Did she help you with the translation?
KERCHEVAL: No. She could have, because I’ve sat with her while she was translating poetry from English into Spanish. She’s translated Shakespeare. She translates from ancient Greek. But we always speak in Spanish, and from the beginning she would just say, well, it was my project. When the book was out, she would never respond to how I’d translated the poems. She said to me, “Oh, you really captured my voice.” But no criticisms. I never asked her any questions either.
DECEMBER: What can U.S. poets appreciate about the poets that you’ve been translating? The political themes certainly stand out. Uruguay was under a military dictatorship from 1973 to 1985.
KERCHEVAL: Uruguayan poetry is not that different (from US poetry). Uruguayan poets write free verse, for the most part. A few people write sonnets. When they’re translated, if you took the name off, you wouldn’t necessarily know it wasn’t an American poet. I mean that in a good way.
But the political poetry — it’s about what’s important without directly addressing it, without being polemic.
I’ve had more conversations about Circe Maia about the poems she wrote during the dictatorship. Her husband was sent to prison and she’d been thrown out of her job, and things were very tough. She didn’t know if she’d ever see him. She has a whole series of poems that, if you know what was going on, silence is never just silence.
One of Maia’s poems, Por Detrás de Mi Voz (Behind My Voice) is about “the Disappeared.” It was put to music by a musician called Daniel Viglietti, who’s called the Bob Dylan of South America. It’s enormously popular across Latin America.
DECEMBER: Idea Vilariño also encountered political oppression, right?
KERCHEVAL: Yes. Vilariño stayed in Montevideo, but her great love, Juan Carlos Onetti, went to Spain and never came back. And a lot of other poets of that generation went outside and never came back. The ones who stayed in Montevideo, that’s a kind of internal exile, right? You can write, you can think, but you can’t say anything in public and you can’t talk to anybody. It wasn’t a joke. You’ve not only lost your job, but no one would give you a job. It makes you realize that we’re lucky it hasn’t happened to this extent in the United States.
DECEMBER: The US government supported the Uruguayan military dictatorship, right?
KERCHEVAL: Yes, it did.
DECEMBER: Have you ever felt any animosity directed toward you because of that?
KERCHEVAL: Surprisingly not. They’re also not angry at the United States. It has to do with them being so far away. Every time I bring up, “Oh, well the United States government had a lot to do with the dictatorship,” they’ll just go, “Eh…” They even have warmer feelings towards George Bush, Sr. than I do because he came to Uruguay and had barbeque beef with the then-president. What can I say?
DECEMBER: We’re dealing with political and social issues in the United States more than we did 10 or 15 years ago. We’ve had massive marches about gun violence. We’ve had the Women’s March. Black Lives Matter. There’s deep anxiety about our government. You must be seeing more poetry in your MFA program that’s grappling with those concerns.
KERCHEVAL: It’s a huge resurgence. People are going back and reading poetry from the Vietnam War era that had fallen by the wayside. Everyone feels that they’re living in a moment when poetry is engaging more in political discourse. Danez Smith, one of my former students, wrote several poems that were everywhere during the Black Lives Matter movement. Nick Lantz, another MFA graduate, wrote a book of poems (We Don’t Know We Don’t Know) about Donald Rumsfeld and torture. That communication between poets and the state of the world had been pretty dormant before this latest surge.
DECEMBER: You and I grew up with typewriters and Wite-Out, right?
DECEMBER: You were established as a writer before the Internet and iPhone. Now, there are MFA students who grew up with this technology. How does that generation compare to previous ones in terms of their reading and writing habits?
KERCHEVAL: I’ve seen less change than you would think. I know there are some changes. The first time someone read a poem off their iPhone at a reading, my jaw dropped. Now I have trouble imagining my life before a computer. Students sometimes buy a typewriter with the intention of typing a novel or book of poems on it. I’ll say, “If you’re going to use a typewriter, you’re still going to have to enter it into a computer!” It doesn’t exist until it’s a file.
My students write longer novels than I think they used to. Everybody thought things would shrink because of the digital form. But it hasn’t.
DECEMBER: We’re in a golden age of television with shows like Mad Men, The Handmaid’s Tale, and The Crown that are superbly written. I’ve wondered whether TV is siphoning off people that might otherwise have gone into fiction. You can reach a bigger audience.
KERCHEVAL: I think television sets up people who are sometimes doing both. One of my undergraduates, Patrick Somerville, who has two or three well-received novels, was one of the writers on The Bridge and works on high-end television shows. He’s doing that instead of being a professor of creative writing.
When you’re able to see your vision on the small screen or the big screen, it’s very rewarding. It’s also not accessible to everyone. Anyone with a computer or a pen can write a novel. You can’t just show up in Hollywood and get a job with these high-end TV programs. There’s a limited market.
DECEMBER: Has anybody approached you about turning one of your novels or short stories into a film?
KERCHEVAL: Several of my novels have been optioned at one time or another. This is the great thing with writers, when you get a check — sometimes a check for a number of years — because they own the option to your novel. But no one’s ever made a movie. Maybe one of these days something will happen, but it’s unpredictable.
DECEMBER: Then you’ll have new challenges because maybe you won’t like how people want to adapt your book.
KERCHEVAL: I remember my agent having me on the phone when The Museum of Happiness came out. My agent said, “I’m sitting here with this person who might want to option your novel, and I’m telling her, ‘It doesn’t have to be set in France; it doesn’t have to be set in the past.’ ”
My reaction was, “Oh my God, what are you telling them?!? Oh my God!”
DECEMBER: Has it been possible to support yourself financially as just a writer?
KERCHEVAL: Absolutely not. There have been years where between the books and maybe some grants or awards it might have been possible, but basically, it’s why people teach creative writing — for the health insurance. To have a life. Writing isn’t enough, even if you get a big advance for a book. Pretty much in every MFA class, or every other class we graduate, somebody will get a whopping advance, somewhere between half a million dollars and three quarters of a million dollars. But he or she may never get that kind of money again. It’s like, “Oh, I got that big advance and then the book didn’t sell very well. Now I’ve written a second book and I’m having trouble publishing it. Besides, it took me longer to write my second book because I had twins.” Life likes a regular paycheck.
In some ways, it’s easier for poets because they know there will never be money in it. For fiction writers, there’s always the lure that someone could make enough to live.
DECEMBER: A poet I esteem suggested a question for you — how would you describe your role in society as a writer?
KERCHEVAL: I think of it less in terms of influencing society. I almost think of it as a kind of religion. That to write is to live an aware life. You’re always examining your life and writing about it. If someone told me today I would never publish another word, I would not stop writing. That seems more inner-directed.
One of my lessons for writers is to not feel like other people are in charge of their artistic destiny. Just start a magazine. Start a reading series. Mentor other writers. Start a writing group. Wherever you are, you’re the Bloomsbury group. Make it happen. Don’t wait for someone to say you’re brilliant. Just do your art. And that will affect society. But I don’t think I’ve ever felt I had a message to send out.
You could probably say that I have a philosophy to share. I tell my students that I think you should be kind and helpful to other people. In the end, that’s always the best thing to do, but not necessarily the first impulse of writers — to help others. There’s probably — I hope — a thread of that in my writing. I’ve always had a thing against writers who are sarcastic and cruel to their own characters. I love my characters. I try to be kind to them. The world isn’t always kind to them.
DECEMBER: Is there anything that I haven’t asked about that you want to say? A final word on something?
KERCHEVAL: I just want to thank you for going through all this trouble, for reading all my books. I’m really touched and pleased. Thank you very much. It’s been fun!