Two New Cappello Translations Out in Transom

Read "Nocturn" and "That nullity cloaking your shoulders" in issue 10 of Transom:

 . . . along with a brief interview:

Is it possible for the original text to be reborn through the translator? 
The term reborn I think presumes some kind of propriety, that the poem translated would now be my poem, my child, something I generated. I don’t think of it that way. I think of the poem as belonging very much to its original author, in whatever language it ends up in. If a poem is something born by the author, a translator’s job, as I see it, would be more akin to the art of portraiture, to portraying that “child,” not conceiving it over again—the poems sits for you, finicky as any subject, and you try to get it right, to capture its features, its shape, its lineaments . . . 

On Translating Pierluigi Cappello @AGNI Blog

My measure, for better or worse, of a good poem in Italian is whether or not halfway through I begin translating it in my head. With Pierluigi Cappello it took only the first two lines of the first poem of his I read: “Così come oggi tanti anni fa / mandate a dire all’imperatore” (“As long ago, so too today / go tell it to the emperor”). I had to know the answer, to unravel the knot of the opening line, and to figure out how, if it all, it related to the second . . . continue reading

2015 Raiziss/de Palchi Fellowship

I am thrilled to have received the 2015 Raiziss/de Palchi Fellowship from the Academy of American Poets—judged by Adria Bernardi, Giuseppe Lepoarce, and Luigi Fontanella—to complete my manuscript of translations of Pierluigi Cappello. 

See the official announcement here.

See judge Giuseppe Leporace's comments on Cappello's work and my translations.

Read a brief interview in the Italian newspaper, the Messaggero Veneto - "Cappello va alla conquista dell'America"

Todd Portnowitz has won the 2015 RAIZISS/DE PALCHI FELLOWSHIP for his translation of Pierluigi Cappello’s Go Tell It to the Emperor: Selected Poems. Established in 1995, this prize recognizes outstanding translations of modern Italian poetry into English through an award of $25,000 and a five-week residency at the American Academy in Rome. The judges were Adria Bernardi, Luigi Fontanella, and Giuseppe Leporace.
Todd Portnowitz is the translator of two novels with the Italian publisher Mondadori. His poetry, essays, and poetry translations from and into Italian have appeared widely in literary reviews and journals, including PoesiaLe parole e le cosePN ReviewAGNIAsymptoteGuernicaVirginia Quarterly Review, and Southwest Review. His honors include scholarships from the New York State Summer Writers Institute and the Bread Loaf Translators’ Conference. An editor with Sheep Meadow Press, he is also a cofounder and editor of the Italian poetry blog Formavera. He lives and works in New York City.
Judge Giuseppe Leporace said of Todd Portnowitz’s winning translation: “The poetic word of Pierluigi Cappello is choreographed by images not seen or observed, but rather understood: images which accompany and show a world for what it is. ‘Mandate a dire all’imperatore,’ more than any other work by Cappello, is the manifest of the tools employed as well as the mastery accomplished by the author in his poetic quest. Because of the unique creative process employed by the poet, the translation of this work would be an extraordinary challenge for any expert translator; and Todd Portnowitz, in his tireless and remarkably refined effort, has brilliantly grasped and then seamlessly transposed into English all the imagery and linguistic complexities contained in the work at hand.”

Us&Them #2 – Fall 2015

Join us on Friday, October 2nd at Molasses Books in Bushwick
for the second iteration of Us&Them. 

Us&Them is a Brooklyn-based reading series
developed as a platform for writer-translators
to reveal their two faces
and read from original work and work in translation. 
Contact Todd Portnowitz or Sam Bett for more info or to help spread the word.

Recording Pierluigi Cappello's "The Highway" - published in Asymptote

While in Siena, Italy this past November, I stopped by the apartment of Alessandro Fo, a Latin professor at the Università degli studi di Siena, the most recent translator of the Aeneid (Einaudi 2012) into Italian, and author of Mancanze (Einaudi 2014) which took the 2014 Viareggio-Rèpaci prize in poetry. The purpose was to record him reading Pierluigi Cappello's poem, "L'autostrada" ("The Highway") my English translation of which was slated for publication in the online journal Asymptote. Fo, after all, had introduced me to Cappello's work the year before—and Cappello himself, in the city of Tricesimo, situated in the far northeastern corner of Italy, was well beyond the reach of my Garageband microphone.  

Fo's apartment, as he warned me, was all in boxes. After numerous years living within the city walls, he'd decided to venture to Siena's outskirts, where he'd at least have more space for his gargantuan library. I first met Alessandro Fo in 2011, when a friend invited me to a late-night literary gathering held in the offices of the University of Siena's literature department. More than a gathering it was a literary group, under the name of Le mille giubbe blu (The Thousand Blue Coats), which had been meeting in Siena for more than a decade. Though the constituent members changed, the basic principle remained: 10-20 people meet after dark to share literary passages around a selected theme. I could go on about the group, its pleasures and its intricacies, but the point is, presiding over the Giubbe blu in 2011 was Alessandro Fo. And so we met. We kept in touch after I'd left Italy and reconnected in 2012, but when I arrived to his boxed up house in 2014, it'd been two years since I'd seen him in person. 

He met me on the spiral staircase—shorter than I remembered him, with the same round-framed eyeglasses, salt-and-pepper scruff, and two or three frail hairs on his head—and invited me in. We began things, of course, with an espresso at the kitchen table. As we caught up, he asked if I'd heard from Mr. Cappello himself, who knew I'd been translating his poetry and who'd asked Alessandro for my phone number. No, I hadn't. So we decided to telephone him then and there.   

Pierluigi responded in excellent spirits, and when we told him what we were up to he offered to read the poem over the telephone from Tricesimo. So I put him on hold, prepped Garageband, and placed the receiver before the microphone. The result, I'm happy to say, has just been published by the journal Asymptote, along with the English translation and the original Italian. I think it makes for an exceptional reading experience to listen to Pierluigi's recording while going through the English text, and I thank the editors at Asymptote for dreaming up just such a feature. Happy reading and listening.

Pierluigi Cappello's "The Highway", published in the January 2015 issue of Asymptote

Just now it was spoken
                                          look, a hare
in the thickest patch of forest where it was,
only the hunch of a reflection,
that height of happiness at which it snaps
and bolts, far from us.        continue reading—> 

PN Review 221: Seven translations of Pierluigi Cappello & critical note

Out this month in Issue 221 of PN Review is a selection of my translations of Pierluigi Cappello, along with a brief critical note. See the issue's contents, featuring work by Marilyn Hacker and Yusef Komunyakaa, here

[This poem is taken from PN Review 221, Volume 41 Number 3, January - February 2015.]

‘Rain’ and Other Poems, translated by Todd Portnowitz
Translated from the Italian

Pierluigi Cappello


Rain, and if it were to rain forever 
it would be your long caress 
come to a stop here at my chest, my temples; 
right here, glimmering sister, 
encircled in this good moment, in this hour guessed at 
we exist, two gazes poured into a body, 
an existence without residence, and so we are 
untouchable, as thin as a path penciled 
from me to you, no further, in no place, my love, 
in this moment’s passing 
when you ask me to look at you, and look hard: 
the tree is upside down, its roots are in the air. 


An Evening at San Colombano

Alessandro, at the bar in Padova

Alessandro, at the bar in Padova

If a tiny Sicialian girl hadn't come to bum some tobacco from our friend Alessandro to mix in with the spliff she was rolling, Simone and I would have never made our reading the next morning in Bologna. We were planning to take the train from Padua, sometime around noon. The reading was scheduled for 5:45pm, so we figured we'd have two hours or so once we'd made it there to check in at the hotel and print the poems we were to read. But somewhere in the midst of the necessary two minute chat every Italian cigarette lender has with his cigarette borrower, which Alessandro extended into a ten minute conversation (Ma dai, sei siciliana! My mom is Sicilian but I was raised in Puglia...), the Sicilian casually mentioned the TrenItalia strike scheduled for the next day, which was news to us. Important news. Immediately we scrapped the train plans, bought tickets for a 9:20am bus the next morning, and made it to Bologna just before noon on the 14th.

In Bologna was the chocolate fair, to which they've given the slightly annoying and technically incorrect name of "Chocoshow"—though pronouncing it in Italian is somewhat addicting. Simone and I wandered in search of a copisteria to print the poems and sat down for some tagliatelle al ragù. The reading was held at the Oratorio di S. Colombano, a splendid room filled with antique instruments. Paolo Valesio, who runs the study center responsible for the event—Centro Studi Sara Valesio—brought us down into the crypt beforehand to observe its unattributed fresco. Then at last we read from our translations of Donald Justice, Amy Clampitt, Debora Greger, Emilio Rentocchini, and Wallace Stevens. 

Molasses Books, 9.26.2014

A few stills from Friday night's reading at Molasses Books. Thank you again to Jackie Clark, Anna McDonald, Paige Taggart, and Franke Varca for sharing their work, to Mattew Winn at Molasses for the space, and to the friends, family and strangers who attended. 

Neruda - XVI, Men, from The Separate Rose



The weary one, orphan
of the masses, the self,
the crushed one, the one made of concrete,
the one without a country in crowded restaurants,
he who wanted to go far away, always farther away,
didn't know what to do there, whether he wanted
or didn't want to leave or remain on the island,
the hesitant one, the hybrid, entangled in himself,
had no place here: the straight-angled stone,
the infinite look of the granite prism,
the circular solitude all banished him:
he went somewhere else with his sorrows,
he returned to the agony of his native land,
to his indecisions, of winter and summer.



Los Hombres

El fatigado, el huérfano
de las multitudes, el yo,
el triturado, el del cemento,
el apátrida de los restaurantes repletos,
el que quería irse más lejos, siempre,
no sabía qué hacer en la isla, quería
y no quería quedarse o volver,
el vacilante, el híbrido, el enredado en sí mismo
aquí no tuvo sitio: la rectitud de piedra,
la mirada infinita del prisma de granito,
la soledad redonda lo expulsaron:
se fue con sus tristezas a otra parte,
regresó a sus natales agonías,
a las indecisiones del frío y del verano.

(Neruda, Pablo, and William O'Daly. The Separate Rose = La Rosa Separada. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon, 2005.)


This canto is the highest point of the five-canto high point at the center of Neruda's book-length poem, The Separate Rose, extending from cantos XIII to XVII. In all, the poem contains twenty-four cantos, alternating between the perspectives of "Men" and "The Island."

"Men" is Neruda—all men, hungry men, bored men, gathered men, man the poet, man the imperialist—Neruda come to the island to reflect. "The Island" is Easter Island—all islands, the separate island, the edenic island, the primitive island, the dazzling island— desired, populated, christianized and inevitably ruined. The reader can guess Neruda's take on the whole thing without much effort—if you give an old poet an eden, he's going to want a serpent. And he does, after all, defend the island's solitary beauty and scorn muddy men for soiling it. What's less predictable (though more obvious) is how vehemently Neruda includes himself among the race--a man, a piggish man, another tourist come to "suckle and raise the ruins" of the island. (But I protest! He's Pablo Neruda! A poet! A soaring soul! No mere man!) What's least predictable of all is Neruda's equation of the island with universal knowledge--this lily pad far off where, if we could only stay there, coiled in rapturous thought, we'd know everything forever. What makes us "men," what makes Neruda a man, is that he must return, he must end his isolation, abandon his pure thought, sail 2,300 miles back to Chile.



We went a long way, a long way
to understand the orbits of stone,
the extinguished eyes still gazing out,
the gigantic faces ready to enter eternity.

The island a long way away. Our knowledge of the "orbits of stone," (las órbitas de piedra) a long way from Ptolemy. The construction of the stone statues on Easter Island— the famous moai, begun around 1250—a long way back. Man has traveled far through time and space to know what he knows, to have seen what he's seen. And yet, Neruda insists, man must return (the verb 'regresar' appears in almost every canto of the poem) must come back from the island and from all knowledge.  He must die, in other words, and his brain with him. Again, fairly predictable in the world of poetry, the old 'we all die eventually' argument, which tends to hold true. Neruda himself is pretty close to proving it while he's writing this—he makes the trip in 1971 and dies two years later of cancer.



Such a long, long way we have to go,
even farther from the stone masks
standing erect, in utter silence, and we'll go
wrapped in their pride, in their distance.

What brought us to the island?
It won't be the smile of flowering men,
or the crackling waist of lovely Ataroa,
or the boys on horseback, with their rude eyes,
that we'll take home with us:
just an oceanic emptiness, a poor question
with a thousand answers on contemptuous lips.

We return from the island not with details--the "smile," the "crackling waist," the "rude eyes" of the boys on horseback--but with bloated generalizations, "oceanic emptiness," death. To covet the island, to covet universal knowledge, is to betray detail, to make oneself the old vast excuses. Precisely the two things a poet can't afford to do: abandon detail and make an excuse of death/space/time. And yet that's exactly what Neruda struggles to do throughout this poem, and still call it poetry.

We're a long way from early Neruda: the romantic surrealist, his poems full of detail and free of excuse. The traveling Neruda in his twenties, in Burma, Siam, China, Japan, India. Is it he that Neruda berates in canto XVI? His own younger self? "The one without a country in crowded restaurants, / he who wanted to go far away, always farther away, / didn't know what to do there, whether he wanted / or didn't want to leave . . . " The boy who sobbed at the smell of barbershops; the felt swan, steering his way through origin and ash; "el vacilante, el híbrido, el enredado en sí mismo"? Neruda's early poems presume to know. Old Neruda wants to know for real--and though he's tired of presumption, he recognizes that all pure knowledge is isolated and temporary. If canto XVI is truly old Neruda wrestling young Neruda, then nobody wins. Young Neruda goes on presuming in print; old Neruda goes home to Chile, knowing nothing for sure.

he returned to the agony of his native land,
to his indecisions, of winter and summer.

The canto's last line, with its built in uncertainty, is stunning: are they indecisions of winter or indecisions of summer? It's as if Neruda's revealing his own magic, admitting the poet's hesitation that lurks behind every printed word: the poet trying to know, even as he dismisses all certain knowledge.

The whole canto reminds me of a verse in Bob Dylan's "Visions of Johanna," another detached scolding of a younger, idealistic, wavering, presumptuous self:

Now, little boy lost, he takes himself so seriously
He brags of his misery, he likes to live dangerously
And when bringing her name up
He speaks of a farewell kiss to me
He’s sure got a lotta gall to be so useless and all
Muttering small talk at the wall while I’m in the hall . . .

Of course, Blonde on Blonde marks the third and last of the three great young, "presumptuous" records of Dylan's career. The ones for which he'll be most remembered, as Neruda will be remembered for his Residencia En La Tierra. Must a poet presume, then? Is to do away with presumption—to call the world unknowable, to say 'we all die eventually,' to raise the white flag of the expanding universe—fatal to creativity?

The straight-angled stone,
the infinite look of the granite prism,
the circular solitude all banished him.

Knowledge is not a cloying, aspiring, presuming to know, says a dying Neruda, but a stone cold stare.