Rachel Hadas is a poet, essayist, memoirist, and translator whose most recent books include Poems for Camilla, Piece by Piece, and Love and Dread, as well as the forthcoming Pandemic Almanac. Interviewed here by translator and scholar Paschalis Nikolaou, Hadas discusses the ongoing relevance of ancient texts, the relationship between the past and present in her work, and the act of translation as a pathway to discovery on and off the page, among several other topics. Thanks are due to the Fulbright Program and Fulbright Foundation Greece for the grant that enabled the interview to take place. We are pleased to present this rich and wide-ranging conversation between Paschalis Nikolaou and Rachel Hadas in Literary Matters.
PN: You have long been involved with teaching the Classics at the university level. Have things changed during the nearly four decades that you have been active in the field? Has your teaching experience at Rutgers been similar to or different from your experience at other universities?
RH: Because I’ve taught at Rutgers since 1981, I can’t easily compare it to other places. But I’m old enough, and have been teaching classics (in both senses of that word) long enough, to realize the truth in the notion that a classic retains its power and relevance, even though it might mean different things to different readers and different generations. My students really enjoy the opportunity to read these texts. If there’s one thing I feel about Rutgers undergraduates, it’s that they don’t resent reading texts by dead white males [sic]. On the contrary, they appreciate the opportunity to read works that they might not otherwise read, since many of them are headed toward other fields such as business and medicine. It’s sometimes said that the humanities are perceived as the realm of the elite, but in my experience students don’t feel that way at all. Also I give them writing exercises along with our reading assignments because they always need to write more and better. We all do.
PN: This brings me to a question about the perceived and real distances between translation and more creative practices, distances for which classical texts can sometimes serve as a bridge. Your recent collection Poems for Camilla draws extensively on the Aeneid, for example. How did this relationship begin, and do you remember your first encounter with Virgil?
RH: My first encounter with Virgil occurred when my small high school class read several books of the Aeneid. The Latin teacher was excellent in many ways, but it seems to me now that she could have done more to connect Virgil with Homer, or even with Greek mythology in a broader sense. I made that connection later with help from other teachers. For many years I didn’t give much thought to the Aeneid until before our granddaughter’s birth in January 2017. I helped to suggest a name for her. We knew the baby was going to be a girl, and we agreed that her name should begin with a C. I remembered Camilla as a warrior maiden in the Aeneid, and after our own Camilla was born I began to look through the poem again.
Trump had just been inaugurated. It was a strange, frightening time. I was on sabbatical, and I had the time and space to think about this rich poem, which didn’t feel terribly remote. Every morning I’d toggle back and forth between Sarah Ruden’s very good and accurate translation and the original Latin. Whenever a passage, or even a phrase, stopped me in the English, I’d look it up in Latin, and I was frequently transported by what I found. The Aeneid is a very dark poem, and the portions one tends to read in high school are far less foreboding than what one finds in the second half of the poem, which is devoted to civil war. The poem is full of darkness and fear, another example of how the classics remain relevant in often unexpected ways.
PN: Was all of this moving between the original and translation, though you could read and understand the poem in Latin, a mode of gauging its current impact? I’m thinking about how layers of language continue to accrue, and how those English layers can impact one’s understanding of the originals.
RH: I used Sarah Ruden’s translation as a point of departure. Her excellent Aeneid has recently been reissued by Yale University Press. Yet I’m told it wasn’t treated kindly when it first came out in 2008. Whether that treatment happened because Ruden is a woman or for other reasons, I don’t know. Her English rendering of the Aeneid, a text that is notoriously resistant to translation (far more than any work by Homer), is tight and clear. As I say, if I found something in Ruden that I liked, I went straight to the Latin. Sometimes these textual journeys took me to places I hadn’t planned to go. For example, I’d find myself transported to Riverside Park, immersed in memories of my father, and from there the text would carry me to Troy and Rome. Many unexpected trajectories unfolded as I worked on this project.
PN: So your engagement with the Aeneid also triggered more personal, autobiographical elements?
RH: Oh yes.
PN: The resulting collection of poems strikes me as containing an integration of classical and personal elements that isn’t as prominent in your earlier work. That is, even though you have translated classical literature in the past, here that material frequently serves as a starting point for your own verse. In comparison with your previous collections, Poems for Camilla represents a more sustained engagement with the relationship between literary heritage and individual experience. It’s clear as well that you felt this was a necessary and urgent book to write because of the climate in the United States at the time. Three years after its publication, what are your thoughts on its reception?
RH: Some beautiful reviews of Poems for Camilla came out after its publication, including the one you wrote and a piece by Kjerstin Kaufman in Literary Matters. In addition, A.E. Stallings featured some comments about the book in the TLS. The collection comes from a very small publisher, so I didn’t expect a great deal of attention. People who follow my work (and how grateful I am to those readers!) mostly know about this book, or so I presume. My modus operandi has always been to write poems and then try to shape a book out of the work that has accumulated. At any given time, I’ve tended to have more poems than can fit into a single book. Poems for Camilla was therefore something of a departure.
PN: So you had formulated a frame and structure for Poems for Camilla from the outset?
RH: I didn’t think I was writing a book when I started, but soon I seemed to be writing poems that clearly belonged together. I found myself writing them in bed every morning, and Shalom, my husband, would bring me coffee while I wrote. Almost every morning, something in the Aeneid surprised me. While working on Poems for Camilla, I was also influenced by the fact that, the older I get, the more I like the idea of a small book. A Collected or a New and Selected feel overwhelming.
PN: There is a lot to recommend in a book of smaller size, or a brief sequence. Shorter formats allow the poems to breathe.
RH: Yes, and they allow the reader to breathe as well!
PN: I see some poetry books, in Britain especially, that are 80-100 pages in length. At that point, you’re reaching the size of a novella. I think that kind of approach rarely benefits a poetry collection in terms of structure and consistency.
RH: The older I get, the more I think about the kind of special attention that a really good poem demands. What are we truly asking of the reader? Let’s give them one good poem. I also try to not write too much these days. I’m working on a poem right now that I started after our second vaccination a few weeks ago, and I thought it was ready to go. But I looked at it today and it’s a mess. If a student wrote it, I would say it needs more work. Overall, I’m not very good at structure, when it comes to the shape of a collection, but I’m getting better at knowing what belongs in a book and what doesn’t. My new collection Love and Dread, which was published in July 2021, feels pretty focused.
PN: Are there similarities between Love and Dread and Poems for Camilla? A shared emphasis on classical references, for example?
RH: There’s plenty of political trepidation in Love and Dread, perhaps an extension of the foreboding that shadows the Camilla book, but there’s not a shared emphasis on classical material in the two collections. Love and Dread contains work about many different subjects, including love, death, and dreams, as well as poems about New York and Vermont. More classical references can be found in my prose collection Piece by Piece, also published in the summer of 2021. Piece by Piece comprises essays about both of my parents, about growing up near the Columbia College campus, about teaching, and about reading. Inevitably, classical references thread themselves among the memories explored in all of the essays. The book also possesses a good deal of reflection on the art of translation; for example, there’s an essay about guest teaching one of your classes. That was a memorable visit!
I have a new book, a slim volume of Covid-19 poems titled Pandemic Almanac, due out in the spring of 2022. I’m far from the only person to have been coping with the past year and a half by keeping track. Similar to how I felt when putting together Poems for Camilla, I felt as though I was forming a discrete collection while shaping Pandemic Almanac. I wanted the book to possess a chronological thread. It was important to me that the poems wouldn’t end up buried in some other collection, as if what we have all been living through could be relegated to a section in a book.
PN: I’m curious for your thoughts on whether you think that it often takes a momentous (if traumatic) sociopolitical circumstance in the present to spur a writer’s imagination back to the classics. Is it then that we most tend to reach for the accumulated wisdom of the past?
RH: It’s hard to say. One can’t predict this. But a lot of poetry, not only mine and not only now, is in dialogue with other texts, especially work by poets who are at or beyond the mid-career stage. Of course, young poets are (or I hope they are) influenced by what they read, but I think their personal lives loom larger than it does for older poets. The years go by, and one is no longer writing one’s first love poem. Other presences, voices, and ghosts seem to come forward.
PN: This brings me to another question. Are you aware of other writers who are currently producing poetry and prose that attempts a similar connection with the classical world, perhaps work that may prove useful when it comes to teaching the Classics to undergraduates?
RH: It’s an interesting question. I can’t say that I am seeing this approach in any systematic way as a trend among writers at the moment. But there are quite a few good poets at present who are, or who have been, classicists, and they carry on a dialogue with classical texts in their own work. A.E. Stallings is a great example, as is Rosanna Warren. Carl Phillips also comes to mind as a poet with classicist roots who frequently references the classics in his work. About twenty or thirty years ago, there were people writing a lot about mythology. Poets continually rediscover the classics in every time period. I might add to this list the names of two other fine poets, Rowan Ricardo Phillips and Henry Walters.
As for students today, because they haven’t read very much, everything is a discovery for them. Homer and Sappho are completely new to them, and you share their excitement. Anybody reading Homer or Sappho with sincere attention is probably going to want to write his or her own poems, so students often enter into an inevitable conversation with the past when they start producing their own work. Of course, there are also translation projects that engage poets in an exchange with classical texts, such as the forthcoming Nonnus’ Dionysiaca. Stanley Lombardo, one of the editors, approached me last year and asked if I might have an interest in translating a book from the Dionysiaca. The idea behind the project is to have a different person translate each of the forty-eight books.
PN: That is a fascinating project.
RH: Yes. Every translator involved in the project possesses his or her own ideas about translation, and each one brings a unique stylistic approach to the page. Some of us are poets. Some of us are more scholarly in orientation.
The editor asked me to write a brief essay about how I approached translating my portion of the epic. It’s a very politically incorrect poem. I was finishing my translation in February 2020, right at the end of the Harvey Weinstein trial, and I kept thinking about the trial as I worked on the part where Dionysus stalks a young woman. He rapes her while she’s sleeping, and she ends up becoming pregnant. I couldn’t help seeing a parallel between the world of the poem and our current climate.
PN: Do you think that parallels between the current climate and the world rendered in works of classical literature impact how living audiences understand those works in contemporary translation?
RH: Yes, inevitably. Also, it’s important to emphasize that we are living through an unprecedented or at least rare situation, an actual pandemic that has turned everybody’s lives upside down. Everything you read, no matter when it was written, seems to be about the pandemic. Translation offers ways of relating to the present. For instance, A.E. Stallings recently translated a passage from Virgil’s Georgics about the Plague, a story Virgil himself lifted from Lucretius. She’s now under contract to translate all of the Georgics. This is a fortunate turn of events since she is a superb translator, and since Virgil, as I’ve said, isn’t easy to translate well. Stallings’s Georgics will have come into being because of the pandemic, which I’m certain is a pattern that’s being replicated all over the world. I could give many examples. Fred D’Aguiar’s and Gabriel Josipovici’s excellent new books, both of them prose works, are two that come to mind.
PN: To return to our discussion of poetry that references classical material, I’m curious to hear your thoughts on how such a practice complicates the reader’s response. Does a layer of intertextuality tend to prompt readers to engage in further study of classical writers and sources? Or does this kind of layering more often inhibit readers’ enjoyment of the material because, unless they already possess knowledge of the classical sources, they have to do additional work to understand what they’re encountering on the page?
RH: I think that both things are probably true. In my case, while writing Poems for Camilla, I chose to include the epigraphs in Latin because I didn’t want to use any translations. A few people said, well, the epigraphs are in Latin, and I didn’t know what to do, so I had to look up translations. But that was an education for them. They also had the option of progressing through the poem without reading the epigraphs, of course.
I think, in general, that people are curious enough to look up language that they don’t understand. Human beings like to learn. For example, when it comes to that essay of mine that I sent you, which appeared in The Conversation in 2021, I can imagine that some of the people reading it might not be familiar with the allegory of the cave or Iphigenia Among the Taurians. But it’s a bit like reading Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” or for that matter, The Waste Land. Readers say, “there’s some Baudelaire here, and some Dante,” and they realize that this is another way to learn something about those authors.
A similar thing often happens in my own work. For example, in my poem “The Neurology Floor’” (from my 2012 collection The Golden Road), Elizabeth Bishop has a small disagreement with Heraclitus. Frost, Emily Dickinson, Cavafy, Euripides, and Homer might all appear in one of my essays. Of course, this phenomenon is not restricted to my work. One of the most delicious features of writing is the way that the boundaries of time and space can dissolve.
PN: The dissolving of such boundaries allows the modern poet to speak through the dead and enables the voices of the past to inhabit the consciousness of the present. I see this as a simultaneously critical and creative act. It is also part of how poets relate to their contemporaries, though I think that works from the past usually comprise the larger share of a poet’s formative reading experience.
PN: Learning how to navigate the dissolving of these boundaries in a literary work does perhaps necessitate an augmented set of skills from the reader. Some readers may have a bit of work to do before arriving at a full understanding of what they’re reading, and they may choose to go back to the ancient texts that a contemporary author references. Other readers might have a more simultaneous reading experience in which a classical source and its modern re-positioning come closer to each other.
RH: I’m sure that’s true. At this point in my career, I don’t really worry about my readers as much as I did in the past. I have a feeling that if somebody looked at my whole oeuvre, Poems for Camilla would seem like a significant detour. They might say, okay, she always liked the classics, but here she’s engaging with them in a far more personal way, and here she’s asking different things from us as readers as we move between the past and present.
PN: This reader, for one, is enormously grateful for the invitation that you extend to me throughout Poems for Camilla to arrive at a richer understanding of both the Classics and our current moment, and I know that I am far from alone in that gratitude. It has been a pleasure to converse with you about your work, and I’m happy to be among the many readers eagerly anticipating the release of your new collection Pandemic Almanac this spring.
Rachel Hadas is the author of numerous books of poetry, memoir, and translation. Her most recent books are Piece by Piece (prose) and Love and Dread (poetry), both published in the summer of 2021. Pandemic Almanac, a new collection of poems, is due out in March 2022. Her translation of Nonnus will appear in Tales of Dionysus, edited by William Levitan and Stanley Lombardo, in the summer of 2022 (University Michigan Press). She is Board of Governors Professor of English at Rutgers University-Newark, where she has taught for many years.