Friday, September 11, 2009

Idra Novey

Idra Novey's first book of poems The Next Country received the 2007 Kinereth Gensler Award from Alice James Books. Her poems appear in Slate, A Public Space, and The Paris Review. She’s received awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Poetry Society of America, and the PEN Translation Fund. Her translations include two books of poetry and a novel in prose poems by Uruguayan writer Lascano Tegui forthcoming from Dalkey Archive in 2010. Novey teaches in the School of the Arts at Columbia University where she is director of Columbia’s Center for Literary Translation.



To speak of origins requires mastery
of the verb to be. I used to be, for example,
a little unwieldy. What an organ,
people said. To play me well
demanded both hands and feet.


After a time I accepted
certain people were shy about sex
and I was one of them—at least
in English. This poem
may be sponsored
by the Society
of American Linguists.


If I had to be a city, I’d wish it
like Chichén Itzá, with no river
to give me away. And for water,
only the deepest clear pools—
leaping wells to the underworld.


More dreams: an island given to cliffs,
a swift language I can’t comprehend
except in the hush after a monsoon
when all of us appear at once, flushed
and bewildered from too much
of our own company.


If you’re quiet long enough,
the whole of a life fits in a coconut
and you can whittle out the slivers
of its immaculate inner meat.

When was this poem composed? How did it start?

This poem started over a milkshake. A friend and I were discussing the possible contents of the milkshakes we were sipping and one of us brought up transaturated fats and why it had the prefix “trans.” My friend said she could see me writing a poem about various words that begin with “trans.” Usually, if someone suggests an idea for a poem, it guarantees the poem will never happen. For some reason, this case was an exception.

How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?

I worked on “Trans” for about two years before it appeared in a journal and then reworked it again the summer before it went into my first book. I kept coming up with new sections and deleting the ones I’d written before. At the time, I wouldn’t have been able to explain what I was after. In hindsight, I think I was trying to get to poems that really unsettled or embarrassed me no matter how many times I read them. The Chilean poet Nicanor Parra calls his poems anti-poetry. I liked the idea of attempting some kind of trans-poem, but didn’t want to be too intentional about it either.

How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?

I knew the poem would have sections, but it didn’t occur to me for several drafts to see what would happen if I took “trans” out of the poem and let it become a phantom prefix. As soon as I did, it was clear that was the key to the poem. After that, I just kept experimenting until the sections started to add up to something larger.

How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?

This poem came out in LIT about two years after I started working on it. I wasn’t sure if the poem was done, but also worried it might be one of those poems I could pick at forever, so I decided to try it out at a reading. You learn so much about a poem when you share it out loud with strangers. If a poem really intrigues people, you can see it immediately in their body language.

When I got to the section about sex and the Society of American Linguists, I sensed a flicker of surprise and unease move through the audience, that rewarding kind of unease that might—for a minute—make you transition from thinking about what you need at the supermarket to whether sex in another language might change you to some degree, or if that’s just pure ridiculousness.

After the reading, the poet who ran the series told me she was working as an editor for LIT and was interested in showing “Trans” to the other editors. The poem came out in their next issue, that spring.

Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?

I like finding ways to work facts into poems, even if they gradually evolve into fiction. In my early twenties, I thought I was going to be a journalist, but had this problem where I would get caught up in long descriptive scenes my editors would cut to make more room for the facts. I knew the facts were the point of the article, but I couldn’t stand to have those descriptions just vanish, so I turned them into poems.

After that foray in journalism, I’ve continued to be interested in what facts reveal about a place and the people in it, like the fact in “Trans” about Chichén Itzá and how its inhabitants got their water from underground reservoirs. It’s one of the few early cities that wasn’t built along a river, and being in a less obvious location made it less vulnerable to attacks. A number of images in my first book came from facts like this, but as the poems changed, they gave way to fiction. As George Oppen says in his Daybooks, “One does what he is most moved to do.”

Is this a narrative poem?

It’s more of a narrator poem. I’m interested in what the narrator in a poem might be hiding, what weird thing she might be doing with her feet under the table, or when she might lose her composure and drop the sugar bowl in her hand.

Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?

I was reading and translating the Brazilian poet Manoel de Barros while I was working on the first drafts of this poem. I love how uninhibited his poems are, and right from the beginning. One of his poems starts: “With pieces of Manoel I assemble an astonished being.”

Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?

I don’t think about audience when I’m first writing a poem. Sometimes in later drafts, or when I’m ready to send a poem out, I try to imagine how it might sound to someone who used to love poetry but hasn’t read it in years. I ask myself where that reader might tune out and what I could do to keep that reader in the poem. I would like to write for that reader, a person who’s open to poetry but hasn’t sat down with a poem in years.

Did you let anyone see drafts of this poem before you finished it? Is there an individual or a group of individuals with whom you regularly share work?

There are three poets I share poems with fairly regularly. We recognize each other’s tricks immediately, those maneuvers one learns to do well and may do too often, instead of pushing toward something new.

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?

The poems in my first book move between North and South America, but tend to stick to one hemisphere within a given poem. This poem jumps all over the place. If I was going to call the poem “Trans,” something had to happen I hadn’t tried in other poems.

What is American about this poem?

Its obsession with embarrassment seems American to me. And its fear of giving too much away.


  1. Thanks for this. I recently received a copy of Idra Novey's book and am very happy to have this window of insight into the work. (Really, the whole series of interviews is terrific!)