Jesse Lee Kercheval: Poet, Translator, Cultural Explorer

Jesse Lee Kercheval has been on a remarkable journey during which she mastered a language and discovered the rich canon of Uruguayan poetry. It all started six years ago when Jesse Lee decided to learn Spanish. Initially, she planned to go to Mexico, but Uruguay’s culture and cuisine appealed more to her 12-year old son who was along for the ride together with Jesse Lee’s husband and the family dog.

Though she claims to be bad at languages, after a seven-month immersion course and extended time spent in Uruguay, Jesse Lee persevered. She went from standing in a bookstore where she couldn’t read a thing to eventually translating the poetry of the country’s greatest poet as well as writing poetry of her own in Spanish. “Initially I found it easier to write in Spanish than writing in English and subsequently translating it into Spanish. I was living in Montevideo and thinking in Spanish. Plus, if you write in a language you’re learning you don’t write something you don’t know how to say.”

According to Jesse Lee, Uruguay produces two things in abundance world-class soccer players and poets. “There is a poetry event or book launch every night, sometimes two or three a night. The country is a country full of poets—it’s part of the national identity.

“I began meeting poets because I’m a poet. People kept saying I would end up translating poetry and that’s in fact what happened.” Her first experience as a translator was translating her own poetry for publication in magazines in the U.S.

Wanting to do something for the poets there, Jesse Lee hatched the idea of pairing 23 young Uruguayan poets with 23 American poet translators to create América Invertida: An Anthology of Younger Uruguayan Poets, which is being published by the University of New Mexico Press in the fall.

She also came under the spell of Circe Maia, Uruguay’s most acclaimed poet. "Everyone in Uruguay says she should win the Nobel Prize," Jesse Lee said. Maia, who is 83, lives in a provincial town five hours from the capital. “Like Eudora Welty, she’s very well known among writers, but doesn’t live in the big city. People make the pilgrimage to see her.”

Jesse Lee was surprised that so few of Maia's poems had been translated or published anthologies. “I got in touch with her and asked if she’d mind if I tried translating her poems and getting them published,” she says. “It’s a small enough country that if you want to get in touch with Circe Maia you ask one person and you get her email address.” Editors of literary magazines that usually take six months to a year to consider work wrote back to Jesse Lee the same day. So she decided it was time for a book. Invisible Bridge/El Puente Invisible: Selected Poems of Circe Maia is coming out from the University of Pittsburgh Press in the fall.

Learning the language the way Jesse Lee did means she picks up nuances of Uruguayan Spanish that elude many fluent Spanish speakers. Uruguayan Spanish, which is called Rioplatense Spanish, has lots of idiosyncrasies, sharing with Argentina the influence of the tango based slang, Lunfardo. The name of every fruit, vegetable, item of clothing differs from what they are called in Spain.

Navigating the cultural and historical references has proved more challenging. Sometimes, Jesse Lee said, she will miss something historical or an obscure allusion by one of the young poets to popular music groups, card games, or soccer chants, but she relies on help from Uruguayan friends to figure it all out.

There is a good deal of serendipity in Jesse Lee’s story. That she, a poet, landed in this rich landscape and that what was a terra incognita opened up in such a marvelous and unexpected way. “It’s something I could never have predicted would turn out to be this wonderful thing.”

Jesse Lee is the author of 15 books of fiction, poetry and nonfiction including the poetry chapbook pair Torres and Towers (Editorial Yaugarú, 2014). Long and skinny, the two volumes reference the World Trade Towers. Torres is the poem Jesse Lee wrote in Spanish about being in Uruguay during the anniversary of 9/11; Towers is her English translation. Her novel My Life as a Silent Movie was published by Indiana University Press in 2013 and her novella Brazil (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2010) won the Ruthanne Wiley Memorial Novella Contest. Her poetry collection Cinema Muto (Southern Illinois University Press, 2009) was selected by David Wojahn for a Crab Orchard Open Selection Award. Her story collection The Alice Stories (University of Nebraska Press, 2007) won the Prairie Schooner Fiction Book Prize. Her first story collection The Dogeater (University of Missouri Press, 1987) won the Associated Writing Programs Award in Short Fiction. Space (Algonquin Books, 1998, reissued by the University of Wisconsin Press, 2014), her memoir about growing up near Cape Kennedy during the moon race, won the Alex Award from the American Library Association. Her novel The Museum of Happiness, set in Paris in 1929, has been reissued with a new afterword by the author by the University of Wisconsin Press as part of the Library of American Fiction. Her popular writing text Building Fiction has also been reissued in trade paperback by UW Press. Her other poetry collections are Dog Angel (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2004) and World as Dictionary (Carnegie-Mellon University Press, 1999).  She is also the author of two poetry chapbooks, Chartreuse (Hollyridge Press, 2005) and Film History as Train Wreck (Center for Book Arts, 2006) which won the 2006 Center for Book Arts Chapbook Prize.  Her stories and her English and Spanish language poems appear regularly in literary magazines in the U.S. and other countries. Her bilingual Spanish/English poetry collection Extranjera/Stranger will be published in Uruguay by Editorial Yaugarú in May, 2015.    

(Photo: JesseLee: left; Circe Maia: right)


Popular posts from this blog

Fellowship Opportunities at VCCA

Open Studios: Avy Claire

Saying goodbye to longtime Fellows