November 15th 2015 marks the one-year anniversary of our very own poetry editor, Jordi Alonso’s first publication, gloriously entitled Honeyvoiced. The publication itself is stunning, and showcases both Alonso’s extensive knowledge of classical poetry and innovative translations of Sappho’s sensuality through life and language. He is what every poet strives to be: a studied intellectual and a lingual conduit of the sensate beauty threaded through daily existence.
Naturally, we thought it would be fitting to celebrate this momentous occasion with a special editor-to-editor interview on The Whale. Here is a conversation between editor-in-chief R. Bell and author, poetry editor Jordi Alonso, on the genesis of his 2014 publication, Honeyvoiced.
What or who turned you onto Sappho’s fragments? The way you write about her, the way you talk about her, the reverence your poetry allows her words is almost religious. Can you expand upon this reverence for Sappho?
Really it was while reading Ovid’s Heroides, a series of epistolary poems supposedly written by mythological heroines to their lovers that summer that I found my way to her. Those poems are filled with familiar mythological characters. There are letters from Helen to Paris, from Penelope to Odysseus, Briseïs to Achilles, from a clearly mythological heroine to her equally mythological lover, suddenly, in the poem titled “Letter 15”, we find a letter ostensibly written by Sappho to Phaon. “Hold on,” I thought to myself––“Sappho wasn’t mythological, was she?” I remembered her as a name in Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poems, and as the author of the original Greek version of “Catullus 51” (which, for those of you wondering is “Fragment 31”.)
One thing led to another, and I ended up reading her in a bilingual parallel English Greek edition by Willis Barnstone called Sweetbitter Love. I didn’t even know the full Greek alphabet at that time, let alone any ancient Greek beyond the etymological components of words like democracy and polyglot, but there was something about that translation which was so captivating that made me vow to myself that I would learn Greek, and read her in the original. Little did I know that I would meet Willis Barnstone in a Literary Translation class I took in the spring of 2014 as part of my last semester at Kenyon. There, after a suitable amount of time spent hanging on his every word, I mentioned that I was writing a book of poems based on Sappho’s fragments, but that’s another story.
Do you think Sappho would have appreciated the piecemeal manner in which we have integrated her words? Upon further speculation, do you believe she would have appreciated the aesthetic purposes of the fragment?
I would like to think she would have appreciated it. There was a mystery tradition in Greece (much like a secret society) where fragments that were said to be written by Orpheus, the poet who allegedly went down to Hades in search of his lover Eurydice, were recited and thought to be pathways into a higher plane of thought. Since Orpheus is said to have been buried in the Bay of Antissa, on Lesbos, Sappho would have likely visited that site and tried to commune with him, just as I have attempted communion with my poetic ancestors, Ginsberg, Dickinson, and, though I have yet to visit Greece myself, Sappho.
Thankfully, I don’t have to speculate. Sappho herself said in one of her surviving fragments: “Someone, I say, will remember us in the future.” Here I am, two thousand, five hundred years later, embodying her wishes.
What, to you, is the beauty of a fragment? What do fragments allow for that a complete narrative might not?
Poetry is just as much about what we say than what we don’t say.
The fragmented nature of Sappho as we have her in the present invites us to explore her silences and try to fill them in ourselves. In another world, where Sappho is whole, and Shakespeare, say, is fragmented, I would have played around with his words rather than hers.
You write that you order your fragments according to an emotional trajectory. For those who haven’t yet read Honeyvoiced, how would you characterize the persona’s affective trajectory throughout, and can you pinpoint a poem you consider the apex of this? How does it compare to the traditional romantic arc in popular culture?
The speaker of the fragments, part Sappho, part me, part poet steeped in classical wine and honey, goes through various relationships, tentatively seeking companionship, erotic and otherwise, finding it, and drawing away from it. Since these relationships, like the speaker’s lovers, come and go, I don’t think there is an emotional apex to the entire book, but rather to each arc comprising it.
I very deliberately structured Honeyvoiced so that as long as you read the all the fragments in order, you can start anywhere, and you will put down the book with the same feelings of joy, loss, and longing than if you read from the first to the last page.
The last poem of the book, “Fragment 67” ends “I swore I did not love, / but again the thrill is much too near. / I swore I would not love // till now.” This, I hope, shows that love, like many things, is cyclical, unlike the popular cultural conception of it, where the girl gets the girl, the boy gets the girl, or any permutation of those things. Granted, my slight pagan leanings may show through the text, but remember that Sappho too, was a pagan.
Communication through taste, or this notion that our primal receptors can tell stories our words cannot seems to be an important theme throughout your work, which seems particularly ironic because you communicate through words. Do you believe poetry is the closest access we have to our primal communication? How do you access the sensual self in your work?
I think poetry is at once both raw and distilled, primal and sophisticated.
Percy Bysshe Shelley, writing about translation in particular says in one of my favorite statements of literary theory:
The language of poets has ever affected a certain uniform and harmonious
recurrence of sound, without which it were not poetry, and which is
scarcely less indispensable to the communication of its influence, than the
words themselves, without reference to that peculiar order. Hence the
vanity of translation; it were as wise to cast a violet into a crucible that you
might discover the formal principle of its color and odor, as seek to
transfuse from one language into another the creations of a poet. The plant
must spring again from its seed, or it will bear no flower—and this is the
burden of the curse of Babel.
All good poetry, I think, does what good translation does for Shelley. Plants must spring again from their seeds. What the seeds of the poem were for the poet must be there for the reader too––even if there is no literal translation happening, there is a translation of emotion, of experience, in every poem. My experiences might as well be in ancient Greek to a reader who doesn’t know the language if I do not get my point across. Even if I do get my point across––say in “Fragment 140”, where I write of a failed relationship, subsuming that passion into the successful baking of bread, sprinkled with sea salt––it is, I feel, that anchoring of feelings into something concrete, the translation of the metaphorical into the physical object, if you will, that enables something as abstract and personal as sensuality to function in a poem that does for other people what the initial experience did for the poet.
In your process, it’s clear you luxuriate. What was your favorite part of writing Honeyvoiced? How are you able to find such enjoyment in your work?
I love to indulge, and even though I don’t always give in to those desires, my persona does. My favorite part of writing Honeyvoiced, aside from getting to commune with Sappho on a daily basis for two years (more on that later) was exploring the senses. This exploration of sensuality eventually led me to see that, based on the scraps of Sappho that we have today, she and I might have shared a fascination with food––especially food as a vehicle for sexual expression. When I realized this, I researched attitudes towards food in 5th century BCE Lesbos, the Greek island where Sappho was born, and found a lot of information that backed up my initial feeling. For example, I came across a custom of the time period that I bring up whenever I can at readings, because it makes people realize that the Greeks, even though 25 centuries separate us from them temporally, were just as consumed by Eros and as childish and playful as we can be.
Flirting then, it seems, had high stakes, just as it has now.
Tradition held that, if you liked someone and weren’t sure if the feeling was mutual, all you had to do was take an apple––it doesn’t say why an apple, particularly, but I have ideas––and throw that apple towards the object of your affection or desire. If the recipient caught the apple, that meant they felt equally about you. If they didn’t––well, the book I learned this from didn’t say, but I’d like to imagine that pelting somebody with an apple would help anyone, then or now, deal with feelings of unrequited love. That the apple is the most-often mentioned fruit in Sappho definitely makes sense.
Do you always have a muse when writing poetry? What separates muse from persona?
Generally, yes. I tend to write to people, even if I don’t expressly indicate that with a dedication after the title of the poem. Desire tends to be one of the driving forces of my poems at the moment, both in Honeyvoiced and in the collection that I’m planning to turn in as my MFA thesis and turn into my second book, which I’ve tentatively titled Epicurerotica.
You might see a theme here.
What separates muses from personae in my poetry is that while my personae might change from poem to poem, my muses are very much real. They are friends, women I’m attracted to, some of my closest editors, or all three at the same time.
I currently don’t have nine, so there are spots open, if anyone would like to claim them.
What did you intuit from reading the fragments in Greek as opposed to English? If you could write your fragments in any other language, what language, in your opinion, would be the most appropriate to translate the sensual experience?
I would be beside myself if somebody were to translate Honeyvoiced into modern Greek. I’m haltingly teaching myself modern Greek by using Rosetta Stone and a bilingual edition of Cavafy’s poems, but grad school got in my way. Even though Spanish is one of my native languages, I don’t feel comfortable writing poetry in it, which means that if a poet would translate my fragments into a Nerudan brand of Spanish, I wouldn’t object.
In reading Sappho, once she had taken me by the hands and refused to let go, I wanted to get as close an experience as I could to that of a fifth century Greek, hearing one of her songs. While I couldn’t step into a time machine and teleport myself to Mytilini, where she lived, or Sicily, where she was exiled to hear a full poem sung and accompanied by her lyre, I could learn her particular dialect of Greek–– Aeolic––and familiarize myself with its poetics. Some ancient grammarian or another tells us that Sappho’s best word is μελίφωονοι (melífōnoi) and I did my best to be guided by that word in experiencing Sappho.