Daniel Borzutzky is a poet and translator, and the author of The Performance of Becoming Human, winner of the 2016 National Book Award for Poetry. His other books include In the Murmurs of the Rotten Carcass Economy, Memories of My Overdevelopment, and The Book of Interfering Bodies. His translation of Galo Ghigliotto’s Valdivia won the 2017 National Translation Award. Other translations include Raúl Zurita’s The Country of Planks and Song for His Disappeared Love, and JaimeLuis Huenún’s Port Trakl. He lives in Chicago and teaches in the English and Latin American and Latino Studies Departments at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
His latest book, Lake Michigan, is on the 2019 Griffin Poetry Prize International shortlist.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
It didn’t change my life much. I suppose it helped me justify the impression I had of myself as a writer. My work now feels far more serious and far more important to me.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I started out writing fiction, though I had always read widely in poetry as well. My fiction turned into weird things that looked like prose poems. The prose poems turned into poem-poems. I started translating around the same time I started writing seriously. My writing and translation practice evolved together.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
Some projects happen quickly, some don’t. Some projects evolve from several pieces of ‘failed’ writing that need to be composed in order to get to the actual projects. I tend to write in short spurts. I’ll have a few weeks of a time of being very productive, and then I won’t write for a while. I really like revising once I have a draft of a book. At that point, the manuscript and the individual poems in it generally change in ways I don’t anticipate. And this to do with finding rhythms I wasn’t yet aware of.
4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
My last 4 books are all 1 book.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I like doing readings quite a bit. I don’t ever take for granted the idea that someone would take the time to come and listen to me read poems and I feel incredibly grateful for the invitations I receive. More and more I care about poetry as a way of connecting with other humans, as a way of having conversations with them. I wouldn’t have said that at the beginning of my writing life.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
How do we live with violence? How do we live with violence in our communities? How do we live with violence we witness up close and at a distance? How do we live with state terror? How do we live with violences across borders? How do we survive? How do we not drown in despair? How do we find the ability to love in worlds that are always on fire?
I could go on….
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
The writer is mostly ignored in the larger culture. I write as if this were not true. I write as if I were always writing in relation to a public who might care. I write so as to imagine a world in which writing is meaningful. I might say: a writer should document the worst of reality. I’d like to believe that this might help us propose the opposite. I don’t. But I write as if I did. Writers should cause trouble, take risks, have the ambition to believe that their work can be transformative.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
A good editor is a joy.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
To not speak.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to translation)? What do you see as the appeal?
I see poetry and translation as two interconnected parts of my practice.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I don’t really have a routine. I used to write late at night when I finally got all the day’s duties done. For the most part, I haven’t had a life that’s allowed me to have many free days devoted to writing. But such open spaces may not even work so well for me. I feel best when my writing is assimilated into all the other things that I have to do. I like to write on airplanes when I’m trapped and have nowhere to go. I like to write when I have twenty free minutes before an appointment. I like to write when my car is getting an oil change. I like to write on trains or when I’m on hold with People’s Gas.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Cesár Vallejo, CNN, Lucrecia Martel’s La Ciénega, and Soccer.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
Sometimes I watch movies, turn off the volume, and narrate everything I see and this becomes a poem.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
In past years I return often to Vallejo, Duras, Césaire, Zurita, Vicuña, James Baldwin, Lispector, Tropicalía, Juan Rulfo, Gwendolyn Brooks’s “Riot”, Sara Uribe’s Antigona Gonzalez, Patricio Guzman’s Nostalgia for the Light, and on.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I wrote in order to survive all the other things.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
20 - What are you currently working on?
I have a few translation projects. Most immediately, Chilean poet Paula Ilabaca’s La Perla Suelta.