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  4. Josephine Balmer

Josephine Balmer

Josephine Balmer is a poet, classical translator, scholar and literary critic, whose work has appeared in numerous anthologies. She writes literary reviews for a range of newspapers and journals, and was the reviews editor for Modern Poetry in Translation from 2004-2009. Her volumes of classical translation are: Sappho: Poems and Fragments (1984), Classical Women Poets ( 1996), andCatullus: Poems of Love and Hate (2004), all with Bloodaxe Books. Her poetry collections are Chasing Catullus: Poems, Translations, and Transgressions (2004), and The Word for Sorrow (2009). She has also written on classical translation for academic essay collections and journals, including most recently for Classical Reception Studies Journal. Her book for the Classical Presences series (OUP),  Piecing Together the Fragments: Translating Classical Verse, Creating Contemporary Poetry is published in September 2013. This interview focuses substantially on The Word for Sorrow. It is a conversation between Jo Balmer, Fiona Cox, and Elena Theodorakopoulos and took place at the University of Birmingham on 12 December 2012, when Jo Balmer was a guest speaker at the Annual Meeting of Postgraduates working in the Reception of the Ancient World.


FC:  So we know your classical background I think to a large extent but it'd be really helpful actually if you could outline it.

JB:  I did Classics and Ancient History at UCL, first degree and then, some years later, my PhD in Translation and Creative Writing at UEA. I did Latin in school from the age of eleven and then wanted to do A-Level Greek.  Our teacher could teach Greek but she said: ‘you have to get three people to do it’ and I eventually managed to persuade two other girls to do it. We did the O-Level, in nine months basically. And then I changed schools, to a girls' grammar school and they didn't do Greek at all. So I had to go to the boys' grammar school to do Greek A-Level where they'd been studying Greek for a lot longer. And it was absolutely fascinating, the difference between a boy's education and a girl's education.

FC:  I was going to ask actually about elements of gendering, both within the curriculum but also in the way it was taught

JB:  Absolutely, yes. the way it was taught was very, very different. In the girls' school - I'm sure you both remember this - when we did our set books we would learn the translation by rote and  practically recite it in class. And then when we got our passage in the exam we could just write it off and it would all be the same. But at the boys' school we just went through the books and wrote down vocabulary lists and I was saying: ‘Hang on a minute, hold on a minute, I haven't written down the translation’ and they would say: ‘What are you doing? We don't write down the translation’. And as well as our set book we did about three or four other books; it was really laid back from that point of view.

FC:  And did they do better? Because we certainly...in my girls' school we did better than the boys' school.

JB:  To be honest I have no idea because there was no Greek. But in the Latin I don't know, I should know, but I don't. But there were only two of us doing Latin A-Level anyway. But then the girls' model was to teach by encouragement, so you'd get: ‘Very good effort, you're improving’; the boys' was: ‘F minus, Not very good at all’. I remember I got up to the heady heights of a C, I think a C minus, and the Greek teacher put: ‘Oh, spring is here at last’. So it was completely different.

FC:  That's really interesting. And just turning back to The Word for Sorrow, I was really interested in why we're seeing a sudden renewal of interest in the Tristia. So there's Christoph Ransmayr and David Malouf and Bob Dylan, but they really seem to be appealing greatly to women as well. There's yourWord for Sorrow and then Jo Shapcott's Of Mutability is all underpinned with the Tristia and Jane Alison's Love-Artist. In France, Darrieussecq has translated them and Julia Kristeva has written The Old Man and the Wolves which is all about the Tristia. So there's a real resurgence at the moment.

JB:  It's very interesting, isn't it? And also in scholarship as well you get Jennifer Ingleheart, and Jan Gaertner has done a critical text too.. I think women are very attracted to texts that they can feminise, in a way. I feel that something like Tristia which has been neglected and not just by literary culture but also by scholarly culture as well - I mean it really was considered to be completely terrible and not worth studying and then there was a revisionist view of it probably about the eighties, early eighties - I've often wondered whether that also reflected the fact that there was a lot more interest in it from writers around about that time as well. I think women are very drawn to texts that seem outside the male canon. It's like: ‘We can do something with them’. Do you think there's a case for that?

FC:  Well I do think so and I wonder as well that the fact that it's focused so heavily on exile and outsiders...

JB:  ...and displacement. Brodsky, I think it was, said that displacement is the commonplace now of our century, that's why so many writers were drawn to Ovid, the Tristia in particular. But I think yes, exactly, women feel that they are exiled from the mainstream literary culture and they are exiled also from the male literary Western canon. So yes, there's a huge pull. But Tristia is such a slippery, fluid text, it has so many levels that it appeals because there's so much that you can do with it. If you're going to be transgressional, if you're looking for new ways of entering into the text and of working with it and of transforming it, there is so much there in Tristia. That's one of the reasons why it was out of fashion because it was very hard for people to deal with the high arts of Ovid and then suddenly the sort of bathos and then the repetitions. And so much of it in a rather self-pitying tone.

FC:  And it is repetitive. You do sort of think: ‘Oh, please...’

JB:  ‘...shut up now’. The same bits keep coming round again.

ET:  And he also goes back to things like Metamorphoses quite a lot and Fasti too and there's something... I think that's also quite appealing to contemporary writers that he is looking back at himself.

JB:  Well, I think writers are drawn to texts about writers. And when I first started, as I say in the introduction, my first thought was: here was a text which was about being a writer in the ancient world which is very, very rare. But in fact when you start to unpick it, it's far more artificial than that. But my first thought was: ‘Goodness, Ovid is actually telling us what it was like to be a writer and to fall out of favour; the dangers of writing’ and that seemed quite appealing. But then of course, you realise there's a lot more going on.

FC:  I wonder if part of the appeal for readers as well at the moment is that it is such a frightening story; that fortune changes overnight and you can't understand why and it's riches to rags. Just like as it could be now with things crashing.... and it's losing everything in a night, almost [1].

JB:  I think so, yes. It is, very much so. There's that element about it and there's also the element that the narrator, the poet's ‘I’,  seems very real, doesn't it? We get this autobiography in it, which is fairly rare.

ET:  It's very appealing having that personal voice come through so strongly, it's what appeals about Catullus as well.

JB:  Definitely. But I wonder how, now that Tristia's been subsumed back into the mainstream, how women will be relating to it in the future and I think that will be very interesting because the relationship of women with Catullus is very much more difficult.

FC:  What about the relationship of women with the Metamorphoses?

JB:  Again, yes, that's another one, isn't it? It's quite interesting that in [the anthology of contemporary poets’ versions] After Ovid, about half [of the poets] or 30% of them were women. But the people who went on actually to take it on were male, well obviously Ted Hughes is an example. But I thought some of the women's poems in that were some of the best but they didn't carry it on. It's very hard for women to engage with the huge monolithic text: the canon.

FC:  Yes it is, though it's interesting as well, I don't know if you've seen the book of poetry that's connected to the Titian? It was just interesting that I think no men went for the Callisto picture, only the women did. If you look at the division of the pictures that were chosen it was quite telling.

ET:  I just always wonder with the Metamorphoses also about all that sexual violence, it's very difficult.

JB:  That's very true. I mean there's quite a lot written in translation studies about how women deal with translating texts that are anti-women and whether your aim is to subvert them. Or is the mere act of translating them and then revoicing through a woman's voice, as a transvestite, almost a transgender approach, is that subverting it in itself? Or whether you do something with the text that is, perhaps in a very subtle way, subverting it. So there's quite a lot of discussion about that.

ET:  Which is, I think, similar to the discussion in Ovidian scholarship that came out of some branches of feminist scholarship, things like Amy Richlin's 'Reading Ovid's Rapes'.

JB:  Definitely and I do think that is why Catullus is so difficult for women because there's so much sexual violence there. The energy is sexual and it's quite often violent, if mostly towards other men, it's still very off-putting.

FC:  What is really distinctive and interesting is the way you overlay the Tristia with these First World War testimonies. When Alice Oswald was talking about Memorial she was saying she was really keen to wrest the Iliad away from the public school ethos that had informed its receptions in the UK and I was just wondering whether you had a similar feeling towards...?

JB:  Definitely yes, it did all happen by chance but actually the more I got into it I realised that the First World War and actually Gallipoli itself is, in the literary sense and also obviously in a participant sense, very much a male field. And as a woman you feel that you almost don't have the right to engage with it. I think one woman stepped foot on Gallipoli the whole time and she was veiled and coming to visit a grave.. So yes, by having that dialogue between a Latin text, an ancient text, and this source material from the First World War, I think again that enabled me to enter into it as a woman. I think that's one of the really interesting things Alice does with Memorial. She makes it like a Village War Memorial. For me there was a class thing as well, because my own family were very much servants who went in the firing line,  miners and labourers. So our family history - everyone has a family history that goes back to the First World War, all of us can uncover it - but my history was so different to this chap whose dictionary I had. I think there was gender and class as well.

FC:  Yes, you have it, you say: 'for whom Latin meant status, gender, but never learning, love, literature'.

JB:  Exactly and I thought about this person who had this dictionary and how hard I'd had to struggle to get to having my own dictionary. And this was just thrown out with the house contents when they sold their big house after the war. I think that again, it's another layer.

FC:   It is, yes. Could you say more about how you made the selections from the Tristia, but also the way in which you select the passages from Voices of Gallipoli In 'Knocking at the Door', and 'Second Quarter' as well, where you have Naso speaking and Geoffrey...

JB:  I did an awful lot of work actually before I started writing so that I had taken copious notes from say, Carlyon's [history of] Gallipoli, [Maurice Shadbolt’s anthology of interviews] Gallipoli Voices, and so much source material. And I was very lucky that the guy whose dictionary it was, that his very small unit actually had records, diary records online. So people mentioned him and also quite a lot of characters who reoccur throughout the book in different poems. And so a lot of that source material actually comes from letters home and diaries.. So I collated all of that together. I also did an awful lot of [Tristia] translation that isn't in the book and sometimes I think I actually cut too much out. I did this classic women's thing of thinking: ‘Oh I can't have too much of this, I'm going on too much’, but it would have been quite nice to have a bit more of the translations. And then it was just a case of working out which sparked off the other. ..

For example in [the poem] 'Landed', the end quote came from Akenfield, you know Ronald Blythe's Akenfield, which isn’t actually about Gallipoli, of course, but somebody that he knew in the village had said it, and it was so extraordinary... I mean none of the quotes are verbatim, they're transformed into poetry through my own filter... But [in ‘Landed’] there's such an extraordinary image of the soldiers coming across all these bodies piled up on the beach in marquees and how it seemed almost like a village fair. And so often you were reading and reading and reading and suddenly something would leap out at you and you'd just think: ‘Yes, I've got to use that’. And then what I wanted to do was to make the sequence almost like, I suppose, a novel . It had to have a dramatic and a narrative impetus as I wanted the poems to mesh into each other. And that's how I chose what I used from the Tristia, so the last line of an original poem then automatically leads on to a poem from the Ovid.

FC:  Yes and it's extraordinary the way in which they do link together and Ovid's story becomes part of that experience.

JB:  Yes, I wanted them to talk to each other because in a way you get to this stage with 'versioning', I suppose rather than translation, and you think: ‘Where am I going to go now with it? I could do this very impressionistic translation, I could do something very wacky, I could do something very political, gender driven’. I was thinking ‘Where else can it go?’, And one way was where the translations are part of a narrative and enact the narrative yet remain, for the most part, what you would call translation rather than version or imitation although there are some of those in the book. I think that that is actually one of the most subversive things: translation per se.

FC:  In the preface, you say: 'My aim was that the present of the Ovid poem should seem like pages from a translator's notebook, detailed sketches before the finished original to present snapshots of a work in progress'.

JB:  Definitely, yes. I was thinking: We've got Peter Green's translation, which is amazing ,and it's this big ... So the rationale of not using all of that translation was because we have [Green’s] book with them all in, so these are like the little bits, like you might have in an occasion book, that I've chosen out to focus on.

FC:  So were they your favourites or the ones that fitted the purpose best?

JB:  Some of them. As we were saying earlier, some were actually quite hard to engage with. I mean I didn't really do anything at all with Book Two. It's like anything, isn't it? Whether you're translating or writing an original poem, you have to have a creative relationship with the text, it has to inspire you in some way. So I think they were the ones that I thought did that and that I could do the best with because I felt inspired by them.

FC:  I really liked the poem 'Dictionary Definitions' which seems to be about the process of translation.

JB:  Yes it is.This was the point where the dictionary started to appear as a character. I mean it was already but suddenly there was another thread coming in, the idea of using a gloss in a poetic way, or a definition in a poetic way... because that's what we're doing all the time and you have to have a creative relationship with your dictionary as much as anything. It's like Anne Carson’s Nox. I hadn't actually read Nox at that stage -, I don't think actually it was out - but when you read it you think: "Oh, these [definitions] are [from] Lewis and Short or the Latin Dictionary or whatever and then you realise that they're not at all. I very much admired that.

ET:  It reminds me of Sarah Ruden talking about looking things up in the dictionary and it being quite a female thing to do. I thought it was lovely.

JB:  It is lovely because you're less confident, aren't you? You think: ‘I don't really know that, I've got to look up the whole thing and make sure’. But I think she's quite right because my Latin was never sight reading perfect in any way and when she said it was actually an advantage because you go back to the dictionary, I thought ‘Yes’, and felt like punching the air.

ET:  And she also said people who think their Latin is sight reading perfect which is usually men of a certain age/generation...that's how you make mistakes.

JB:  Definitely- but also that's not a very good way to translate.

ET:  Yes, because you make assumptions...

JB:   What I do when I translate say Catullus, or Sappho or whoever, is that, in a big A4 book I'll put the Latin and then leave two lines blank between each line. In the first line I will look up [definitions] in the dictionary and think about the literal meaning. And then in the line underneath I will start writing in ideas for what I might do with it. And on the facing page, while I'm looking in the dictionary, I will be noting: ‘Ah, this word, which is being used in a love poem, is used in a court of law’, which I wouldn't have known if I hadn't looked in the dictionary and saw all the different meanings of it. And maybe Catullus wasn't using it in that way but it's terribly interesting when you see all the different ways a word might be used and its semantic overtones.

FC:  Yes it would have had an overtone for him...

JB:  Exactly  It's only when you go down to the very bottom of that dictionary entry that you start seeing.... And what happens sometimes is that you notice that in certain poems and again, maybe it's just coincidence, that in certain poems lots and lots of words are being used that, maybe, have legal overtones. And you're thinking: ‘Is this deliberate? Have we missed out on this?’ And then you can incorporate that in your translation. So I think it's really important.

ET:  They are like little stories the dictionaries and that's what I got in Nox...

JB:  She did make that connection very well.

FC:  You're right about lugubria being almost comic in English [in the poem ‘Dictionary Definitions’]. Makes me think of a dog's face.

JB:  And I think it's nice being able to have little poems based just on a definition, especially as a translator, because this is what you're constantly working with.

FC:  But you really catch that chilling fear at the end, that sort of horror.

JB:  Yes. And they're just little words.

FC:  But also the way in which language is contaminated by being used in certain ways.

JB:  Absolutely and increasingly so. I have no idea where that came from, it just came. One of those ones where you don't think: ‘Oh I'm going to sit down and write a poem about this passage or about’...just thinking of the passage and suddenly it comes. That doesn't happen very often, that one did.

FC:  I was really interested as well in the last pairing where you've got the passage from Tristia 4.9 about being read from sunrise to sunset, dawn to dusk, East to West, paired with this comment from the Voices of Gallipoli where the memories are fading. It was a very striking way to end a book that's all about memories surviving and the power of memory. In fact, Ovid has survived in the most surprising ways and you write really beautifully about the serendipity of survival. The fact of finding this book in a village fete - a whole project flourished from that.

JB:  Something just suddenly happens, yes. Which actually reflects the sequence I'm working on at the moment, about the survival of [Aeschylus’s]Myrmidons. There are ten fragments and the sequence follows different stories and voices over the centuries that might have had something to do with that survival. It's all completely serendipity so that the whole of reception, the whole of the transmission of the text, is a bit like The Word for Sorrow -going in to a hospital fete and picking up a dictionary. I mean, that's practically how it happened with the survival of ancient texts, people found them on stalls in Istanbul and so on . It is just extraordinary.... The [anthology] Voices of Gallipoli, that was an extraordinary book, which a friend gave to me as it was completely out of print, . There were interviews with about 20 very ordinary private soldiers, and many of them didn't want to talk about Gallipoli and had never talked about it until those interviews. Many said: ’I want it to go, I don't want to remember it’. Just sometimes again, when I was looking through and collating all this information, things just leapt out and you thought: ‘Yes, this needs to go with that’.

FC:  Yes it's very effective with Ovid, absolutely terrified that this might happen to him.

JB:  I think it's the same with a lot of things, it looks maybe even a bit glib. But actually you've spent months and months doing boring things, writing stuff in note books and then going through them, and then sometimes they spark off each other and it just falls into place.

FC:  My husband would say: ‘Fortune favours the prepared mind’.

JB:  As they always say 90% hard work and 10% inspiration, I think that's true.

ET:  I would like to know more about this Mrymidons sequence...

JB:  It started in a roundabout way because I was thinking about doing Cavafy-esque, dramatic monologues - you know, freeing yourself a bit from the prison of the self which is very difficult in poetry because you're always writing about yourself and your own voice. Then I was thinking about theMyrmidons and reading about how the various different fragments had survived. There were some quite interesting stories, one tiny fragment survived an air raid in Florence in 1945, one word came from Archbishop Photios of Byzantium's lexicon, where the pages with the Aeschylus quote, just one word, had disappeared for centuries and were then found again in1959 in a monastery in Thessaly.  Interesting things like that. Then I was just thinking that I'd like to write in the voices of the characters that are copying Aeschylus. Say for Lycurgus, or taking the text to Alexandria, you know, when they got all the texts from the boats for the library and refused to give them back. That sort of thing. Little characters who are having very different interactions with this text. So there's going to be quite a lot of different voices and some of them might be very tangential and some of them are becoming very straightforward. Starting in the modern day, I thought I might do it as a Time's Arrow, I'm not sure, start now and go right back. I've just written the very last poem, quite a long poem, about the sort of length of the title poem in The Word of Sorrow , or longer, which is Aeschylus revising the text on Sicily just before he dies. So we're going right back. I'm hoping it's going to work but you never know. It's very difficult because it's quite obscure and a lot of the history is quite obscure and people don't really know much about Myrmidons.

The biggest challenge actually I think is: ‘How do you make this accessible without lots of notes or head quotes?’. That, I think, is one of the hardest things. It's interesting, in the last edition of Modern Poetry for Translation they published one [of the new sequence] with no note at all. And also Agenda, another poetry volume, has published two or three recently with no note at all, just a little head quote from a historian or something that explains what's going on. But I think that's quite difficult to do so I'm sort of working through that. The whole concept of framing is very interesting and important, I think. With The Word for Sorrow some of the critics, poetry critics, as opposed to classicists, did not like the fact that there was a preface and notes. They felt that this poetry should not be explained and if you need to put a preface in then the poem isn't working.

FC:  T. S. Eliot would have been in great trouble with his Wasteland, wouldn't he? All the notes there!

JB:  But then they come after really, don't they? A lot of them.

FC:  A lot of your notes come after.

JB:  Yes, I suppose so.

FC:  I find that extraordinary. Seamus Heaney writes prefaces...

JB:  He doesn't actually. At a [translation] conference we were discussing this and since then I've been looking at it. Carol Ann Duffy for example, when her laureate poems are published in the Guardian or somewhere, they come with a little explanation, you know: ‘This is 'Achilles' Heel’, this is [about] David Beckham and this is the reason, this is the myth’. When I reviewed her book, The Bees, for the Times I noticed very particularly that when she collected those poems in a poetry volume, there was no note, no explanation at all. So it's just: 'Achilles Heel', you don't know that it's about David Beckham. It's almost like in a poetry volume there's not going to be any explanation or any kind of annotation, any framing.

ET:  She didn't do it before she was poet laureate?

JB:  No, she didn't, I think. But the ones that came out singly, as it were, they had explanations. You get that in translation as well. Do you know Diane Raynor? She's translated Greek lyric poetry for the University of California press. She wrote a lovely piece for Translation Review on translating fragments, ( I'm going back quite a long time now back to the end of the 90s I think). But when the book came out her introduction was about the poets. She mentioned nothing about the translation per se.

ET:  Because she wanted to be an invisible translator?

FC:  I love prefaces. It doesn't mean that you don't interpret the poem nevertheless...

JB:  Michael Longley throws you quite a few bones, doesn't he? Not just in his classical translations, actually he'll say: ‘This is a Belfast word for this’, he does a few little notes.

ET:  It's something to do, I suppose, with wanting to create the illusion of the poem as a thing that exists on its own in a creative sort of moment.

JB:  I know, I think it is. Some people see poetry like it's a shamanistic thing that has nothing to do with the intellectual world whatsoever. So we don't need to know what the source material is or we don't need a little preface. I mean I would have felt that I was cheating if I hadn't referenced the sources in [The Word for Sorrow].

FC:  It's so fascinating to see the way in which you're linking yourself to this tradition and how it's shaped the way you think.

JB:  Definitely.

FC:  I just find it very odd that anyone would want to object to seeing that.

JB:  Well I think there's quite a movement in poetry that it should not be explained, that it does sort of come down on high to you, it almost possesses you and you write the poem. And if you read a poem you experience it, you don't experience it in an intellectual way, you experience it in perhaps an emotional way or a spiritual way.

ET:  You can have both.

JB:  Of course you can, absolutely. I think I was lucky with Salt that they were quite happy to have the preface because I think a few publishers would not have wanted that at all but they just let me sort get on with it.

FC:  Well I'm glad they did, it really enriches it I think.

JB:  Well for my money I would always want to be able to read [a preface]...

FC:  So would I. I would like to set AS Byatt on those critics. She would have something to say to them.

JB:  Well I think, Anne Carson's really quite interesting because she actually subsumes it all into the poetry, doesn't she? Maybe that's why?

ET:  I just wonder if there is a gender thing that one could say is going on there. Certainly with Anne Carson it's one of the ways in which she brings herself into all of her writing by this reflecting as she writes on what she's doing. And you do that in prefaces and in notes as a translator, by not being invisible by explaining what you're doing. And I don't know if that's a woman's game or if that's...

JB:  In another way she has this confidence, so, for example, she doesn't feel that she needs to explain with Catullus 70, you know, 'River river river river river river' or with Sappho 31, 'Sappho looks into the camera'....

FC:  Well this is true and some of us might welcome a little more explanation.

JB:  Exactly. And she's completely confident about that. I'm always quite surprised in a way that she is so popular because that's terribly difficult if you're not a classicist.

ET:  Even if you are. I mean some of her Catullus translations in Men in the Off Hours are completely impenetrable. Her version of 58 for example: 'Nuns coated in silver were not so naked...'.

JB:  Exactly, it's completely off the wall.

ET:  There aren't any nuns anywhere near Catullus 58, I still don't know what she means, but it's really beautiful.

JB:  Yes, you think: ‘What is she on?’, don't you? I think that she has an incredible confidence about it but I'd really like it if she would include, perhaps she'd think it was too literal, but if she would include, a scholarly essay that actually related to the work. (She does include her scholarly essays sometimes but on different subjects.)

FC:  That would be nice. I think Nox might be the closest.

JB:  I think Nox is going to be the closest. I mean, Antigonick is more impenetrable,

ET:  I couldn't get very far with it.

JB:  In the illustrations, one of the chorus is wearing a Star Trek shirt, there are mad horses all over the place... Very odd. I reviewed it and was trying desperately to tell people how the pictures related to the text but I couldn't really come up with anything. I love her work, but that's a tough one.

[1] See the interview with Marie Darrieussecq in this issue. See also Darrieussecq's Preface to Tristes Pontiques.