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Between the Covers Valerie Mejer Caso Interview

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David Naimon: Today’s episode is brought to you by Raymond Antrobus’ All The Names Given, a collection which opens with poems about the author’s surname, one that shouldn’t have survived into modernity and examines the rich and fraught history carried with it. The book is punctuated with caption poems, partially inspired by deaf sound artist, Christine Sun Kim, which speaks to the spaces between the poems, as well as the moments inside them. As Antrobus outlines a childhood caught between intimacy and brutality, sound and silence, and conflicting racial and cultural identities, the poem becomes a space in which the poet reckons with his own ancestry and bears witness to the indelible violence of the legacy wrought by colonialism. Camonghne Felix calls the collection, “Brave, tender, and generous,” and adds that it manages to caption the speaker’s dance with the ghosts of his bloodline, offering us a haunting study on what we can find in the silences of history when history is recognized as more than a noun, when recognized as something alive and kinetic, something constantly in conversation with the present. All The Names Given is out now with Tin House. I’ll add that Raymond Antrobus was the last guest on the show. I’m confident, if you listen to that conversation, that this book will be one of the gifts you send to the poetry lovers in your life this holiday season. Today’s guest is also a poet, Valerie Mejer Caso. As has become a tradition on Between The Covers, when a guest appears on the show for their book in translation—in this case, Valerie’s bilingual edition of Edinburgh Notebook which came out this year from Action Books—I try to also do a companion interview with the translator themselves. In this case, a conversation with Michelle Gil-Montero who is a translator and also a poet, and also an editor of a press of translations of poetry, a press with a particular focus on hybrid genre works and works that have never before appeared in English translation. In the conversation with Michelle, we talk in depth about her approach to translating Valerie; an approach that unexpectedly for me was influenced by Edmond Jabès and his relationship with his translator Rosmarie Waldrop. But we also talk about translating as creative writing about her own writing beyond translation, about her studying under C.D. Wright and Forrest Gander. Michelle also reads some of her own poetry for us. These conversations with translators are usually the most robust additions to the bonus audio archive. Often, they are full-length episodes in and of themselves. My conversation with Michelle joins a quite large and growing archive of translation conversations, ones with Emma Ramadan talking about translating Abdellah Taïa; Suzanne Jill Levine talking about translating Cristina Rivera Garza; Ellen Elias-Bursać talking about Dubravka Ugresić; Sophie Hughes about Fernanda Melchor; and Ly Thuy Nguyen translating Dao Strom, not into English but in the Vietnamese. The bonus audio is only one of the potential benefits of moving from being a listener to a listener-supporter of the show. With every episode, every supporter gets an email, full of resources and references related to the given conversation. Supporters play a big role in helping shape who comes on the show in the future and there are many other potential rewards that past guests of the show have offered, whether it be consultations on your own writing, rare collectibles, broadsides, unusual chapbooks, artwork made by past guests to becoming an early reader for Tin House, receiving 12 books over the course of a year, months before they are available to the general public. But as we launch this last episode of Between The Covers for 2021, as the year turns and we head together into the winter of a new year, perhaps beyond these “rewards” for becoming a supporter, perhaps you found the show or certain conversations on the show, whether with Jorie Graham or Kaveh Akbar or Pádraig Ó Tuama or Teju Cole or others, perhaps you found them edifying or enlightening or heart opening in some way. Right now, about 1 out of every 20 listeners is a supporter. Perhaps, if you are one of the other 19, as we are about to start anew together in 2022, consider being a part of the Between The Covers community going forward. To find out more, head over to Now, for today’s conversation with Valerie Mejer Caso.

These stories are about to get unleashed. They’re about the wildness contained in all of us. “I think stories have some magical effect in the world. I think it’s really hard to live without stories and if somebody tells you this is the way you’re going to end up, you’re lucky if you can forget that.” “There’s me and then there’s writer guy me, and then there’s me working, which is the absence of me. It’s just a story.” “I had no idea how to write a novel. I didn’t know if it would ever come to fruition. I was working at a vet and lint-rolling puppy hair and cat dander off myself.” “They’re almost like really shy animals. They will come out of the woods but you have to stay very still and you have to pretend like you’re not interested in them.” “Artists tend to put their fingers in the wounds in the silences.” “I believe in the role of literature as a catalyst for dialogue and new forms of thinking.” “All the stuff I’m interested in is thrown into the washing machine that is my brain and it’s put on a spin.”

David Naimon: Good morning. Welcome to Between The Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host. Today’s guest is Mexican poet, painter, and translator, Valerie Mejer Caso. Mejer Caso is the author of six collections of poetry, including de la ola, el atajo, Geografías de Niebla, Ante el Ojo de Cíclope. Her book De Elefante a Elefante won the Spanish Government’s Gerardo Diego International Award. Here in the United States, Action Books has published three bilingual editions of her poetry, including Rain of the Future translated by C.D. Wright, Forrest Gander, and Alexandra Zelman with a foreword by the Chilean Poet Raúl Zurita and This Blue Novel, translated by Michelle Gil-Montero. Mejer Caso’s paintings have appeared in Forrest Gander’s 2012 book, Ligaduras or Ligatures, and Antonio Prete’s Menhir and L’imperfection de la Lune. Her etchings have appeared in Raúl Zurita’s Los Boteros de la Noche. She’s also collaborated with photographers, including Barry Shapiro and Russell Monk. Along with photographer D.S Borris and Poet Forrest Gander, she co-authored Time’s Playing Fields, a book that engages with empty football fields in Mexico. She’s also translated poets into Spanish, translating several books by Forrest Gander, as well as poetry by Charles Wright, Les Murray, and Pascale Petit among others. She’s here today on Between The Covers to talk about her latest book to appear in English, her third bilingual collection with Action Books called Cuaderno De Edimburgo or Edinburgh Notebook, a poetry collection that is also a book of image text with collages by Valerie herself and photographs by Barry Shapiro, a work translated by Michelle Gil-Montero for which she won a Pen/Heim award for her translation. Esteban Rodríguez says, “For Valerie Mejer Caso, EDINBURGH NOTEBOOK is a testament to the power of language’s ability to heal and to help come close to answering the questions we thought grief would silence us from asking. Written in the wake of her brother Charlie’s suicide, Mejer Caso’s collection, through honest language and hallucinatory imagery, examines the consequences of uncertainty and sorrow when those we love the most are gone.” Elisa Gabbert says in the New York Times Review, “Any book about overwhelming grief confronts a problem of language: How do we speak or write about feelings that are, on the one hand, nearly incomprehensible, and, on the other, so often reduced to cliché? It’s fitting, in a way, to read about grief in translation — it forces us to contemplate the difficulty of finding original expression. It’s as though being one step further removed from what’s happening in the mind actually helps us understand it. Mejer Caso’s poetry cannot be equal to who is lost, but it can create something out of language that’s immortal, both terrible and precious.” Carmen Giménez Smith adds, “At its best a book of poetry can capture the solitary intellectual vexations we have with memory and death, which live at the center of all our reckoning. EDINBURGH NOTEBOOK is such a book. Valerie Mejer Caso is an exquisite archivist of the evidence we rely on to revisit our histories: stained photographs, bats, and fleeting glimpses, the palimpsests that flitter from gorgeous nocturnes: ‘I’ll wreck the piano, and the dust of its bones will sound mournful, and that possible song will replay like a canon.’ I love the haunted library of this book and the cool blue eye that dizzies then rights me with both heart and head.” Finally, Raúl Zurita says, “The language that emerges is one pierced by the world and by our actions in the world. Constructed from the limit of experience, these poems have relinquished all rhetorical temptation, any purely verbal exploration, in order to insist on an infinitely more risky investigation: that of capturing the instant just before things turn to shadows.” Welcome to Between The Covers, Valerie Mejer Caso.

Valerie Mejer Caso: Thank you, David.

DN: When you were at Notre Dame University a while ago to read from Rain of the Future, Johannes Göransson gave a really interesting introduction to you that I thought framed your work in an interesting way. He talked at first about the American distrust of works in translation. That’s something that I want to return to later with you, but then he moved to discuss his skepticism of the notion of global literature where we might have an anthology where we’d pick one poet from each country, then call that good as if the best way a writer could be described is by the borders of their country, as if their culture and language could be delimited by that national border. He was interested in language and in poets that cross boundaries, and that move across language. Instead of a poetry defined by nation, he put forth the notion of the global uncanny, poets who move in the peripheries, who move across boundaries and borders, and languages and poets who might not know themselves what home is, and what foreign is. He felt like your work in particular reflected this instability that so appealed to him. Given that your work engages with your own biography and with your own complex family history, one that doesn’t fit into the story of a country, I was thinking maybe we could start there if you could talk to us about home in relation to ancestry, nation, and language.

VC: My first contact with poetry was that my grandmother was from a Spanish descent and in that generation, the 1900s, she was born exactly in the 1900s. The memory was very important, knowing things by heart. It’s not that she taught me anything. It was part of their everyday life [foreign language] the first feminist poem, [foreign language] Dante which I have in common with Zurita, that his grandmother knew most Dante by heart. Because of their poverty and their physical limitations, those were the children’s stories. In my case, it was just contemplating someone and their habits. That was pretty constant, together with incredible stories about what happened, how they lost most of what they had in the revolution. They were born in La Calle de Donceles. I don’t know if you have ever been to the center of Mexico.

DN: I have.

VC: So you’ve been to the excavation where there’s the cathedral. That’s the street they were born in and where they grew up. La Calle de Donceles. When the revolution came, those streets were gated. The stories of the revolution were incredible. Most of my cousins left the table and I stayed thinking, “Oh my God, these stories are incredible,” how they brought a cow to feed, all the street or things like that. Later in life when I had already published This Blue Novel in Spanish and other books, I was estranged from my family for a long time because of complicated stories of violence and regained contact with one of my aunts. I had an incredible memory. She started saying, “Oh, these that you wrote must be this object,” and gave it to me or “The complete story of what you said was this.” Most of these came from immigrants, two generations ago for whom it was more or less not so easy to adapt to Mexico. They create a lot of wealth, then lose it for different reasons, that’s why I have that quote from Eliot in This Blue Novel, “The houses are all gone under the sea.” I knew those houses were full of objects and incredible things, and also I saw them disappear. But my identification of Mexico is profound in different ways. For example, I live across from a creek that I would love to be able to show you but maybe we can’t. The creek is almost dry but it can get very full, coming from the [0:17:26]. It’s full of mud but right now, it’s completely crystalline, so you can see the frogs, the fishes. One of my neighbors is a waiter that creates things out of metal. The other one is an American. I identified with the materials of my country. I lived in New York for three years and when I came back, I thought it was the materials. The rocks, the thick walls, the kindness of people naturally.

DN: Let’s stay with that identification a little longer. With your ancestry being, as you mentioned, from Spain but also from England and Germany, you’ve talked about how, despite being born in Mexico and your family being there for many generations, no one would look at you and ask, “Are you from here?” That there are ways you are a stranger in your own country, that, for instance, when you went to an English language school, you were the only person who looked like an English language speaker.

VC: How did you know that?

DN: Just listening to you talk in interviews but also how, while Spanish is your mother tongue, your father spoke to you in English. I wanted to ask you a variation of a question that Forrest Gander asked Raúl Zurita when he interviewed Zurita in 2012. In Forrest’s introduction of Zurita, he referred to him as a Chilean poet. But then in their conversation, Forrest wondered if Zurita thinks of the contemporary poets he loves in Latin America in terms of their countries of origin. He noted how many of these poets were mobile, not living in their countries of origin. I’d also add that in my recent conversation with the Palestinian novelist, Adania Shibli, she says she doesn’t think of writers in relation to nation states but rather for her, what is important is the language that one’s writing in. That, at least, for herself, she’s participating in a conversation with Arabic literature through Arabic. I wondered about these questions for you. Do you think of the work you’re doing as being in conversation with other Mexican writers living or from the past, then by extension, with the Mexican literary tradition or is there another way you would place yourself, perhaps more broadly in dialogue with Spanish language literature or the Spanish language or as Johannes might suggest with the poets of the periphery, the boundary crossers?

VC: When I was part of the Biennale of Kochi musicians in India, I had an incredible opportunity, I hope I can send you an image, to create flags of my imaginary countries. Together with these flags of imaginary countries, I created poems for those imaginary countries. Of course, it is loosely based on a country. For example, there’s two for Chile, loosely based. Another book I wrote about it after the Edinburgh Notebook that is about to come in Spain, Sin República. It’s very appropriate to your question, which will appear as without a republic. It’s not that I feel painfully exiled for my country. It’s just that of course, I’ve read them all, all the great ones, especially in my teen years. Of course, Octavio Paz, of his essays, Rulfo many times. All of them, Aridjis, Pacheco, all their novels, all that. I cannot deny I have received three grants from the Mexican government so kindly but it’s very different that once I arrive at the grant, they don’t see me and say, “What is she doing here?” Because it’s more that I love their work but they don’t even identify me as one of them. I don’t blame them. The audiences that I have in Spain, I don’t know how they’re completely aware of my work. In Mexico, I think I’m almost unknown.

DN: Oh, really?

VC: I’m exaggerating but yeah.

DN: But you’re more known in Spain than in Mexico.

VC: Compared to Spain, yeah. Spain is a real crowd and Mexico it’s–

DN: Oh, that’s interesting.

VC: For me, it’s interesting and it’s not unfamiliar. It’s also part of my experience of my life here. Also, I have to acknowledge that most of the poems I heard when I was growing up were Spanish poems. I don’t think it’s so accidental. Even when I read all the important Mexican ones, the tradition I grew up with when I was little, the things I heard were either English or Spanish. [foreign language] Those are the ones that I incidentally learned by heart.

DN: Thinking about how in Edinburgh Notebook, it contains photographs by Barry Shapiro and it also contains collages by you but unlike Rain of the Future and This Blue Novel, these pictures are not of your own family, even though the new book, like the others, is also very much engaged with your own family. Even though the material from which your poems arise is often your family history or from your family history, and you’ve said sometimes, you will sit facing one of these family photographs, staring at it as you write, the resulting poems move beyond realism and representation. They become something very different. This speaks to the question that Forrest Gander has for you. This is from Forrest: “Your work most often has biographical contexts and sources. You write out of your experience what has happened to you. In that sense, your poetry might be said to be grounded in reality or truth telling but at the same time, your poems can be dreamy, hermetic, associative, even surreal. How do you think about the tension between those trajectories and your poetics?”

VC: Forrest has a very specific way that I wish I could remember in an interview I made to him of how there was a conversation, not with one single person but with a wall of interlocutors, of people you’re speaking to. When I was writing This Blue Novel, yes, my ancestry was the main people that I was talking to. Here, in the collaboration with Barry Shapiro that appears strange I imagine, that is dedicated to the death of my cousin, Pedro. You see that it appears in photographs. You’ve seen it. You’ve seen them. Photographs that are non-related with my family. Really this is connected with a story in a very specific way with the death of Charlie, but also not connected. It’s like an incident that happened inside of a [0:25:58]. This is the biographical one. When my brother Charlie died in Edinburgh, I hadn’t seen him in a long time. Mainly, I wonder about his children. He was affected, disturbed by our childhood. The last time I saw him was incidental, then I learned he was in England and he was in Edinburgh. When I learned he died, I received a call from Scotland Yard. The kindest person on Earth is a member of Scotland Yard, can you believe it? So sweet in the way he talks. The same day or a day after, being estranged from my family, my cousin, Pedro, showed up at the time when I’m back in San Miguel de Allende. I thought his presence was about Charlie. He said, “No, I just wanted to see you after 20 years.” A few years later, he died from very severe cancer. Michelle and I have been waiting for the book to come out. Because of several things that happened with book houses, personal tragedy, events in Action Books, that one we wanted to be loyal to, etc. We had the opportunity to have an epilog and really thought this conversation is not only with him but he closes what happened in the sequence of today’s, then knowing Charlie died, he reappeared, he disappeared. Suddenly, those four years we waited for the book to come out made sense because he was an integral part of the book now. I asked Barry Shapiro to say, “Give me your most lonely pictures,” then he sent me a file with this but you see mostly all people, landscapes, all of that. I added them as one part of the conversation, naturally, I’m talking to Pedro, to myself. I’m allowing myself to play, to talk also to toys, to converse with more elements in a way like maybe Marosa di Giorgio did but also with the elements of these photographs that encapsulated with me, loneliness, solitude in a profound way.

DN: I was hoping we could hear three things in reverse order to the way they appear in the book. The poem December, 5 p.m., Edinburgh, then the unnamed prose poem right before it, then the epigraph right before the prose poem. I know you were going to read December, 5 p.m in English, then the unnamed prose poem you were going to read in Spanish, then I’ll play the English version of the unnamed one. I’ll just say in advance that the English participation we’re hearing is from the translator, Michelle Gil-Montero. She’s joining us, not just in spirit but her voice will be part of this reading too.

VC: Michelle has been incredible with her participation. This one I want to say that one of the authors of this poem is my brother because in reality, when I say lucid thoughts, this is his suicidal note. I felt he never had an opportunity to be seen or participate in his thoughts. It was a way of making his last thoughts part of something bigger.

[Valerie Mejer Caso and Michelle Gil-Montero read from Edinburgh Notebook]

DN: We’ve been listening to Valerie Mejer Caso and Michelle Gil-Montero read from Edinburgh Notebook. Both of these poems we just heard, right before then, we get an epigraph from Ernest Hemingway from The Old Man and the Sea that goes, “Most people were heartless about turtles because a turtle’s heart will beat for hours after it has been cut up and butchered.” In the light of these three things, this poem you read in English to begin about Charlie’s suicide, then this more of a fantastical fable that includes a blonde boy but also includes this turtle, then this mysterious Hemingway epigraph around the turtle’s heart beating, I wanted to think of those three things as I ask you the next question. When you were at the Kochi Biennale in 2016 in India—which I was also at coincidentally and very accidentally—you spoke about a conversation you had with the Italian writer and critic Antonio Prete where he was talking about the word uncanny in German, how the German word for uncanny contains the word for home but means being at home but not quite. Then you mention to him Freud’s dream where Freud is having breakfast with his family, exactly as every other day that he has breakfast except that they’re all speaking Japanese and you say that poetry is like this for you. I was thinking of this notion of the uncanny, then a Freud’s dream. It feels like a good segue into another question from someone else for you. I was talking with poet, translator, and Action Books editor, Joyelle McSweeney about your work. She was mentioning the intersection of your poetry with your painting and both your poetry, and painting intersecting with the work that you do outside of the world of art and writing, and how it all made her think of surrealism, much as it makes Forrest think of it too. She wondered if you yourself would consider your work surreal.

VC: Putting this together with Mexico, I think Breton of Dictionary of Surrealism said that Mexico was a surrealistic country by excellence. Maybe it’s just because if you read the manifest, the incidental connection with things, you just have to go out of the street one second and there’s a scene like that but it’s for real. I feel like when they asked, for example, Isabel García Lorca wrote about the images his brother used in the poems with really revealing everything really happened. The [0:37:03] really were under the mop. All of this really actually happened. She goes one image after the other after the other. But I love for example, when I was studying, I loved reading Freud because in contrast with what most people that probably never read Freud directly think, he was very inventive, very adventurous, and not at all the terrible ones. He was really trying to explain in people, of course, being a man of his time I’m not saying that, but for example, because he was taking care of the thing of [foreign language] where women could not move their legs, if there was a ball where someone finally was able to dance, he would assist to the ball. I work coming from many fields but I think that he can be a big inspiration, especially in the ways he went lengths into finding ways to his pain, in his concern to his pain or listen to pain. 

DN: Let’s hear you read and also listen to others read two earlier poems, which I was reminded of with this discussion of the uncanny in German being home but not quite. The first one is Uncanny #5, which I’ll play first in English, then you can read in Spanish. This is read by Forrest Gander and was translated by both Forrest and C.D. Wright.

[Valerie Mejer Caso and Forrest Gander read Valerie’s poems from Rain of the Future]

DN: We’ve been listening to both Valerie Mejer Caso and Forrest Gander read Valerie’s poems from Rain of the Future. 

VC: I want to just interrupt to say thank you to Forrest. When I hear how Forrest is reading in English and how he also devoted so much of his time to translate me, and he reads me so well, I feel intimidated reading myself in English. [laughter]

DN: You sound great in reading yourself in English. It’s nice to hear you, Michelle, and Forrest, all reading your work in English to hear the different ways it’s sounding.

VC: You can convey it in so many ways.

DN: Yeah. I want to return to the first three things we read. I read the epigraph from Hemingway, then Michelle read that strange, almost fable that includes your brother and a turtle, then you read the poem about Charlie’s suicide. I wanted to ask you about the presence of sea creatures and Hemingway as they reoccur through the Edinburgh Notebook. The opening epigraph to the book is also from The Old Man and the Sea. The one that I read earlier, most people are heartless about turtles because a turtle’s heart will beat for hours after he’s been cut up and butchered but the opening epigraph, “The fish is my friend too,” he said aloud. “I have never seen or heard of such a fish. But I must kill him. I am glad we do not have to try to kill the stars,” then again, Hemingway, at the opening of your poem, the creature that goes, “He lay in the stern in the sun, compact and bullet shaped, his big, unintelligent eyes staring as he thumped his life out against the planking of the boat.” Talk to us about these non-human creatures beyond language and also about how or why or to what end Hemingway enters Edinburgh Notebook.

VC: I grew up going to the tropics a lot because my German grandfather had, among all his wealth, five houses in Acapulco. Acapulco is surrealistic by itself, there is this incredible cliff that divers go in and they have such a narrow space. It’s like representations of potential suicide. One of these buitres, I don’t know how you say buitres in Spanish, the birds that eat their bodies, I wrote a poem about that. One day, I was on the roof trying to get away from everything, then one of those buitres came flying really slowly, then we had a chance to see each other eye to eye. All of these were images and actually things that happened that had to do with fear but on the roads, and also in the roads to the Ruta Maya, the Southeast of Mexico, you often find upside down turtles that nobody will ever, unless they stop the car and they have the kindness to turn them around, they’re left there in the middle of the road. That was very powerful for me. When I was a child, I was an avid reader and I read The Old Man and the Sea, not in this version. This version when I was living in Brooklyn, it was for $1 on the street, so I got it. It has all the original drawings of The Old Man and the Sea. Then I found the turtle again. Not only the turtle. There was one of the not even an epigraph, I think Michelle mentions in the end that is part of the book but in December, 5 p.m, there’s one of the lines that is from Hemingway, one of the lines that I got insight, that is, “Trace a radius that see from sun. [0:47:18] asked the old man. But leaves purple streaks on the golden fish.” 

DN: So that’s an imported Hemingway line within your poem?

VC: It’s an imported line, then yes, I was thinking of that moment when he’s hunting the fish, then in that moment when he’s about to die, his colors are transformed. It’s a book I went over and over again, and in the moment that my brother died, resonated with me enormously. It’s a form of consolation. I read it again and again, and again. Somehow, he started being so together with the turtles and the fish. Often, I have talked here and there about my father as a hunter (cazador) in some of the poems. I guess this is more like a childhood in Texas but we made a trip to Texas when I was around 12 that appears in This Blue Novel that says, “Texas this planet.” That was translated by Michelle. It was a trip to buy guns, of all things.

DN: To buy guns?

VC: To buy guns, rifles. It’s one of those paradoxical things because he had a very sophisticated education. He could sing opera. He could play the piano. Suddenly, someday, he gave up all reference to civilization. He became someone that was just interested in guns and rifles. I remember that street as a terrifying one. There is also something terrifying in The Old Man and the Sea. Even when a Hemingway portrays it as dignified, the old man goes back and this is his antagonist but both of them are heroes, and worthy of something, which I would like to think of my brother as [0:49:25]. There’s also the image of a hunter.

DN: There’s a recurring motif in all of your books of blueness and the color blue, and there’s many ways we could think of this recurring motif. One being the ocean, the sea, the place where from which we extract these creatures that we don’t understand and murder them, even as their hearts continue to beat after their deaths, or the way C.D. Wright spoke of your work when she translated it, “The sensation is of drowning. The effort is toward ascent.” This sense of both water, death, and attempt back toward the sky. But blue goes beyond this, I think we get blue intelligence, bluish light, bluish dove, wounded in blue, blue canary. In life, they were blue and piercing. The line from Uncanny #5, “Prehistoric as I was and blue eyed.” When I think of blue, not only in let’s say the most obviously, the title, This Blue Novel, I think of sadness in English when I think of the word blue, to be blue but I also think of blue eyes as the marker of not belonging as the visible marker of someone being other, perhaps in Mexico, like this line in This Blue Novel, “A bevy of blue eyes open and close from end to end in the architecture of his back, heart to femur, femur to main, he’s all eyelids.” I guess I wondered if it would be too reductive to connect  any sense of otherness that you experience to these creatures with blue eyes along their backs or creatures with hearts speeding beyond death, but either way, talk to us about blue and blueness, which goes through your work so much. [laughter]

VC: I know. As an aftermath, I ended up finding incredible points, especially that one, that moment in [0:51:53] but especially the one of Jean Michel Maulpoix where he is completely devoted to blue, but that’s an aftermath. The rest of the things I want to say were really blue. When I was in that house in Acapulco where most tragedies have happened, like in [0:52:11] where the Christmas tree flies three stories down, everything that’s around the last was the ocean and there’s something in Mexico called La Hora Azul. I don’t know if you’ve had that in the states, the blue hour, but it’s several hours, I would say an hour and a half. Maybe I experienced it like that where it’s an intense cobalt blue. But most of my relatives, especially the older ones, the storytellers have blue eyes. My daughter’s canary was really blue. I don’t know what else I said it was blue but I’m looking at a blue base, as 150 years old, that was a present to my great-grandparents. It’s an incident that all these things were blue because natural light, I’m influenced by other [0:53:16] but we can say that by accident, I was surrounded by this car in the power of their eyes but also in the incident around, then when I decided to call This Blue Novel, by force of accumulation, there was so much blue. I was definitely not thinking of the reference in English or how it could be translated.

DN: It gains another meaning in English when it’s brought up in English.

VC: Exactly, that’s the great thing about translation, that it adds something. The only great book that we can reference that has the word blue as a title is Rubén Darío, Azul…  I think they say the ones that know this, it marks modernism. But in Mexico, there are so many incredible blue things. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to the Laguna de Bacalar, one lagoon after the other, after the others. Great sequence of lagoons. They’re all from a different quality of blue. You feel truly that you’re inside of paradise.

DN: Inside of?

VC: In paradise. Like one of those images, all the oceans have different matisses, different qualities. The streets are covered by blue houses. It’s more that it started coming in naturally, then I was able to recognize the accumulation of that. Then in the translation into English, it added the element of sorrow that naturally, unfortunately, my work is completely packed by. Like it says in the review of the New York Times, that should be so kind to say I picked this one because I’m in the mood.

DN: You wrote a series of prose pieces for the Poetry Foundation website years ago now. In one of them, you’re recounting going to South Korea to meet the poet Kim Hyesoon for a meal, but it too becomes surreal. You’re recounting. It’s unclear what happened and what did not, perhaps your daughter’s blue canary, we don’t know whether the canary is really blue and it turns out really being blue but in this meeting in South Korea, there’s ghosts of the dead visiting. When Kim Hyesoon arrives, she’s answering anything asked to her with lines of her own poems. It feels very much like we’re in a fantastical space in your story of this moment. Perhaps, the most uncanny part of Edinburgh Notebook is a short section where we get three of your collages. I have another question for you. This one from Don Mee Choi, the poet and translator, and now, MacArthur Genius Grant recipient. She said she would love to hear you talk about the one drawing photo collage and the two painting collages you created, so these three collages. She says, “What struck me was the small child appearing in the photo, then ‘A woman, Japanese appearing, riding the crocodile. The child is also with an animal-human.’ I would like to hear Valerie talk about the animals, horse, human crocodile, turtle in relation to the poems that she placed in between these collages.”

VC: Oh, my captain. I call her my captain because she saved my life once. I was super sick and gave me tons of instructions. From there on, that was the first day I called her my captain. [laughter] I’m so proud of her. It’s also incidental. I was surviving the death of my brother and I was in the museum of Santa Barbara in California with my then young daughter on my knees, and I found this postcard of this woman riding the crocodile. I was also on the verge of losing my marriage that is also in the book, finding out this monumental truth of an adorable life that happened for a long time. The image was inspiring of survival, then I thought that she was really like when you’re in Santa Barbara, you see a lot of surfers. There are boards. Suddenly, seeing someone surfing an animal, it makes you feel like life is an animal. You tame or not tame that. You find a way to stand up on it and mostly tame it, and survive it somehow. Of course, I was not thinking that far. Collage is one of the most significant mediums I work in. I think I made the collage first, then from the collage, the events became even more serious, then they gave me the opportunity to talk about that, but in Español, animal, it also contains the word anima. It’s contradictory because we think of animals as instincts and ánima as a soul. The great thing about poetry is that we don’t have to resolve that contradiction. We just have to present it. There is a contradiction here brought by the language.

DN: And by the images in this case.

VC: And by the images. I integrated her as an inspiration. Of course, Michelle Gil-Montero that researches everything found out that the image that I got into the collage, thinking it was a woman and with whom I identify, it ended up being a man. She was going to put it in the book. I don’t know if she did or not clarify the preference. It really was a man. In the other one where I’m young, I’m looking at the Christmas tree and I’m seeing the creature, just the collage, I made this spontaneously. I think I did it before I wrote the poem or long before. I have very few pictures of my childhood because of the nature in which I left my home, so I had very few and never recovered anyone. I left and never came back. Naturally, the creature, in a sense you could say in that moment, was the death of my brother. One of the things that happens when somebody commits suicide—I don’t know if everywhere in the world but in Edinburgh, I’m so grateful but that’s the police procedure—is that they keep the body for a few days. When you’re on the other side of the world, you know that your brother is in a refrigerator. That created one of the most particular forms of pains I ever had to go through and made me understand many things that Zurita writes, [foreign language] the one that has been found, you know how he writes about las fosas comunes, bodies that were thrown from the sky and many things that he had to witness that he has told me very few of because once he tells you one, then he’s quite left for few minutes and I understand. For me, everything is more individual. The book itself was in a way, I found the resources in these animals, in these images to give a grave to my brother and wrote many of them while he was not having a grave and while he was in a refrigerator.

DN: Let’s hear the two poems that reside among these collages that Don Mee is referring to. You were going to read Riding the Crocodile in English, then Michelle is going to read In White in English, then we’ll hear you read In White in Spanish.

[Valerie Mejer Caso and Michelle Gil-Montero read from Edinburgh Notebook]

DN: We’ve been listening to Valerie Mejer Caso and Michelle Gil-Montero read from Edinburgh Notebook. One of the elements of your books, Valerie, that is often mentioned is the way you engage with time. I think the way you engage with time is part of how you create an unsettling uncanny atmosphere. The new book has a section called Before Is Forever. In the poem that you read earlier, Uncanny #5, there’s the line, “Prehistoric as I was,” and in Elisa Gabbert’s review of your books, she says, “If grief warps language it also warps time, and therefore reality,” and the poem From the Mountain begins, “Its pages tear / or are torn, / or they are not pages but wings. / The landscape is a woman dying. I read it. / Because I suffer, it makes sense.” “These ‘pages’, says Gabbert, seem to belong to her brother’s notebook, a journal found after his death at a hostel in Edinburgh, as well as to the book we are now reading, a book called Edinburgh Notebook. The pages of the journal and the poem, both offer passage to the past, yet ‘To return / would mean that no time has passed, / that nothing happened. / But yes, it did happen.’ The paradox is possible because the ‘landscape’ of the poem is outside time.” She then goes on to talk about how the tenses in your poems get confused, much as memory tends to blur into the present and in your poems, the past seems to know the future. Talk to us about time in this light.

VC: First, I appreciate so much how she went in depth into that and also into Michelle’s work, which is so great she paid attention to that. I remember reading a French book years ago, a book by a French man. It’s going to come to my mind. I’m not sure but he describes something that they do in China that in the past, to understand the passage of time, they keep someone walking across a room. I don’t know how to do it or they are really keeping this man always walking, so he could sustain the passage of time and the seasons. Historias El Tiempo, [foreign language]. I’m not sure that really happens or not but I took it as a truth, then that sense that you can walk forward or in reverse because these walks, you do it in the writing where hopefully there’s a constriction because once you start with words, the words constrict how far you can move but you’re moving in time and you’re moving in the space.

DN: Yeah, time has a landscape in a way.

VC: Time has landscape, like when Zurita blends the sky and the sea.  In that sense, he’s such a big inspiration because in reality, he does whatever he wants with that. But let’s say in time, there are tragic events that are recurrent but as much as you want to leave behind, you truly can’t.

DN: You’ve quoted before the line by Pacheco that you learned from Zurita, “The past is a foreign country, the people there do strange things,” which I think is so great.

VC: If you could see the context where he told me that, it’s super funny because it’s always when we’re trying to explain ourselves the behavior of someone, he comes up with that quote. [foreign language]. You’re making sense of that. You’re making sense of the context but it’s also you’re haunted by that and it’s coming back. I would say I’m a person that accepts that life will proceed by accumulation and that these tremendous waves will come back. In my work, I’m not expecting them to go away. That’s part of the notion of time and just the ambition to crystallize it in a given moment, and to not know everything. Like in This Blue Novel, it was strange for my family, so I couldn’t verify many of the things I said. They were verified later but what is called the ellipses, it’s okay if you don’t know everything. Those blank spaces will be filled somehow and in the end, the truth, it’s relatively not so important. On the contrary, it can work against you when you’re writing. What else can I say about time? One thing that is important but it’s a personal experience that I never told. I have an uncle that was a melómano. Do you know what melómano is? A music listener. That’s what he did with his life. The father who was a significant man, who came from Spain that founded hospitals, schools, railroads, all of that, died alone in Veracruz that is portrayed in the poem [foreign language] His children, as they grew up and became [1:12:30], they got together just to remember their father under his portrait, a painting. For me, it was like a presence that never left and was always referred to, they say he died saying, “Pobres en mis hijos.” (My poor children). Really they live from the incredible strength and all of that but they lived locked in a house. That’s what happens in This Blue Novel. Just retelling those stories. For a child that grew up like that, what is time? It’s completely full stop. Then somehow I think that is translated in the [1:13:10].

DN: Let me ask you another question about time in this light too because in a conversation you were having about This Blue Novel for the Letras Latinas Blog, you were asked about how you visualized time in the scope of your book, and you brought up two things. I want to bring them up now to see if they spark further thought for you. In your answer then, you quoted a line from the Forrest Gander novel, As a Friend. That quote is, “Time is what the stars shine through,” and the other thing you brought up is a book by the filmmaker Tarkovsky that you called one of the most important books of your life, at least, at the time which is called–

VC: It’s true, looking at it. [laughter]

DN: It’s called Sculpting in Time, which you said seemed more about how poetry works than any theories that you’ve read, directly addressing poetry because his book, even though his father was a poet, was not about poetry, this book Sculpting in Time. Interestingly, given our discussion of the ocean, you said, “I think it is a way of flooding. I think it is a way of tackling how life, like cinema, occurs in a medium time, which we’re ignorant of,” and Zurita himself says, Tarkovsky’s conception of film as a Sculpting in Time would apply to your poetry as well. I’m curious if rehearing the Gander quote or rehearing your response to the Tarkovsky book, if that brings up any or sparks any more thoughts on time for you.

VC: I was telling you about the melómano, my uncle, and I didn’t finish telling you because he was a melómano and he spent from twelve to two before [foreign language] before lunch. He listened to a whole opera. He would let you stay in the room if you would still and not bother him. This was a gigantic room that was devoted just for the single purpose of listening to an opera. When you really immerse yourself in just listening for a couple of hours to a whole piece of work, you have this sense of, “If I could only be the witness of my own life, like you witness an opera with all these tragedies, I would really experience the expansion of time,” but it’s because of tragedy and this is something I have written to Zurita often, is when we talk about tragedies that we hear that happen and all that, we say, it’s dolor menos tiempo. It’s a pain with time subtracted from that. Like in the story of Romeo and Juliet, when the letters are coming, one of the things that happens is that there’s a misunderstanding happening because there was not enough time for them to communicate. That ends up in a tragedy or just in terms of physics, when there’s a crash between cars, you need a little bit of more time unless you’re listening to the opera of your own life, then time is preventing tragedy and it’s expanding. But these are little theories that I started developing when I was forced to not say anything, and just listen. I guess they developed in my work and in my reflection of time. But as you can see, they’re less philosophical than concrete. I think I would be a terrible philosopher.

DN: [laughs] But sitting in that room, if you’re quiet for the several hours of listening to your relative listening to an opera, it does make me think of certain scenes in Tarkovsky films which feel more like durational time than representational time. Even though the scene might only be let’s say nine minutes long, those nine minutes feel very expanded in one of those films where they feel like you’re experiencing the real nine minutes, not the representation of nine minutes but those nine minutes might feel like 30 minutes sometimes. [laughs]

VC: Totally. That’s the films that people are not watching now because they want something so instantaneous. I’m so grateful I didn’t have that upbringing. Also, there’s the experience of time in the midst of tragedy or pain that feels so compact, that you say in English, momentous?

DN: Momentous. Let’s stay with Raúl Zurita some more around questions of language in relation to grief and death. I’m going to again return to Forrest Gander’s interview of Raúl Zurita. In that interview, Zurita said, “Poetry exists before writing. Poetry is birthed with the birth of the human. Surely at the moment when someone realized that the person who was next to him was going to die and that would happen to him as well, at that moment, that person understands death, and then they must immediately develop an answer. That is the first poem. And since we are made of the same elements that stars are made of, the human, death, poetry, that is what we are made of,” and you’ve quoted others in ways that resonate with this notion of Zuritas I think. You’ve quoted Octavio Paz from his book Pasado en Claro where he says, “In my house there were more dead than living,” and Gloria Gervitz, writing about her mother in Migraciones, “She is real only to the point where I can imagine her.” In that spirit, I wanted to talk to you about how you imagine into grief and death through language, and poetry. Your translator, Michelle, who’s been so great at participating today—and we’re going to also have a separate conversation about her relationship to Edinburgh Notebook, and her translation of it—she’s written quite a bit about her process of translating you. To prepare for translating this book, she chased down the references from Hemingway, the references from Pound, from Camus, and Duras but she said it was the epigraph to the section called Movements in your book by Edmond Jabès that was the key for her to understanding how to enter your writing, then to translate your writing. That reading Jabès for her and reading more Jabès for her, then also reading his translator, Rosmarie Waldrop, about him, all of this was part of the key to unlocking your writing in a sense. That epigraph she’s referring to is, “All shattered writing has the form of a key,” and Gil-Montero says, understanding this section of the book, Movements, that begins with this, “As shattered writing,” helped her to understand the rest of the book. This notion of Jabès makes me think of his response to Adorno when Adorno said, “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,” then Jabès replied, “After Auschwitz we must write poetry, but with wounded words.” Thinking of Zurita’s answer to Gander of poetry existing before writing and it’s our first answer to death, then your translators weigh into your work through this notion of Jabès’ shattered writing or wounded words, talk to us about writing into death or what shattered writing or wounded words mean to you in doing so.

VC: I think that what he’s saying of course is like always in Zurita, not only so brilliant but so true. I’m thinking of experiences that he had of death, like when he was two years and a half, his father died but then they left, somehow, in this house, the photograph of the father. The mother went to work and the grandmother was supposed to raise them. When they were behaving poorly, she sent them, he and Anna Maria to the portrait to be scolded, then when they were good, he sent them to the portrait to be congratulated. Just like that in itself, it took the development of that to become writing but that was already poetry. We’re talking about one of the lives that is so specifically poetic that had all the ingredients for him becoming the incredible poet he wants but the thing about death was what marked him. Someone with his same name died, Raúl Zurita Inostroza but then he had an additional name that he didn’t share because he’s Raúl Zurita Canessa. Did I die? It’s the same name, but now I have an additional name. Then he’s taken when he’s five by a nanny, the grandmother, to watch one of the first Fellini movies. His first movie ever is five but I don’t know if it’s one of the early Fellini’s movies. The one where there is a circus, La Strada.

DN: Yeah, La Strada.

VC: There is Anthony Quinn, which I think is Mexican integrated, the image of Zampanò torturing the wife of Fellini, this poor woman that is so full of life. All those events and the way we chain them, I think they’re originally poetry, especially if we’re crossed by death. I remember when a great aunt of mine died, they didn’t notice that I was in the room. In my family, they are very protective of children and they would say, “Oh no, this is not an appropriate experience for a child, let her go.” They wouldn’t let me in but I remember the moment, I don’t know if you know this, that [1:25:29] people would suddenly sit down. Even being dead, they can have a movement. I remember [1:25:42]. It was such an important death for the family because she was like the saint of the family, the one that looked after everyone. The sorrow was monumental. Suddenly, she was not dead. I just wanted to say to the first part of your question in Zurita’s affirmation, yes, I agree, poetry precedes writing but then there was a second part of your question. Remind me. What was it?

DN: This notion of Edmond Jabès that opens your Movements series, which felt like the way in for Gil-Montero to translate you, this notion of shattered writing and wounded words.

VC: Also his answer to this thing of Auschwitz and his affirmation, and all that. Look, this is coincidental with my getting to know Antonio Prete. I don’t know if you know that but Prete is one of the biggest translators of Jabès into Italian.

DN: Oh, I didn’t know that.

VC: They were really close friends. I have this Libro de las preguntas very close to me. It’s a gift he gave me. The way he worked with thinking, with essays, and all that was this image of Baudelaire, a procedure Baudelaire developed images, had to do with poetry. Unfortunately, I cannot remember exactly the word he used, so we call it shattered writing. I have heard other people call it shattered writing but really when I received the Edinburgh Notebook, I reread it again last night because I just got it unfortunately. We say in Spanish, en casa del ario, cuchara de palo, that means the house of the Aryan man, the spoon is made of wood. Too late, I got myself this and I read it again, and I said, “I guess this is shattered writing for other people.” For me, it is the progression of one story. For me, it’s like one novel on that last one page. If you can grab with your face something, everything that happened in your life, I mean it’s called Movements because it’s everything that happened in your life in a certain direction, then you move to a different direction or to move in direction. All these I wrote in Brooklyn. It was really a moment in which I was thinking in this way. This is something that is in the Bible that is also in the book where there’s the image, of course, of Jesus or whatever but instead of him saying that he loves with all his heart, he’s saying he loves with all his mind. Once that he’s in Bethania, that image struck me incredibly. There’s also a quote in the Bible, when you end the Old Testament, before you started the New Testament, there’s a part that is almost impossible to understand that is about substitution. You’ve seen that it’s a big part of my work, how the moon will be substituted by a coin and all that. Then the last thing they say in the Old Testament is all about sounds substituting themselves. I think it’s one of the epigraphs in [foreign language] or something like that. I think one of my understandings of time, of poetry and all that, is in the mechanism of repetition, substitution. All of that resembles the nature of encapsulated life.

DN: Can we hear one of the Movements we had talked about, perhaps the Fifth Movement in Michelle’s translation?

[Valerie Mejer Caso reads from Edinburgh Notebook]

DN: We’ve been listening to Valerie Mejer Caso read from Edinburgh Notebook. I want to return to Johannes Göransson’s introduction from many years ago. He began that introduction of your reading with the American distrust of translation. He felt like it was based on the presumption that the poem written in its original language is best read by an ideal reader who is fluent in that language and has a stable sense of self within a well-defined group identity, and that ideal reader has a perfect understanding of their own language that they’re fluent in. He was skeptical of all of this notion of a perfect understanding of any language, whether you’re fluent or not, or of an ideal reader or even that an ideal reader would be defined by their relationship to their fluency of a language or even that an ideal reader would necessarily come from the same country as the writer. That brings me to a question from Elisa Gaberrt to you that points to a very different orientation to language, and languages in your work. She says, “I found many instances in Edinburgh Notebook of what I started thinking of as ‘useful misreadings,’ places where the context or subject matter of the larger poem primed me to see words and meanings that weren’t quite there but almost there. For example, in the poem Quicksand, I first read ‘I race across the sheet’ as ‘I race across the street.’ In the poem Third, I read ‘spurious mourning’ as ‘spurious morning,’ and I’m curious about the origin of these blips, which feel like a cross-linguistic pun. Did they emerge organically in translation as pure serendipity or were they snuck in with intention, like booby traps? Were there similar moments in the Spanish originals that could not be directly translated? How did you and Michelle collaborate on these mirage-like extratextual meanings if indeed you agree that they’re there in the first place?”

VC: Wow, what a question. I’m trying to think about how I think at that moment. As you have seen, I’m anchored in something that actually happened. I know Jaime Gil de Biedma, the Catalan poet in a different way but I think that because I was bilingual, maybe there’s a background of my mind where I’m thinking of duelo. I know it’s mourning. It could be mourning of grief and mourning of mourning because I leave that question to myself if I’m really not thinking into languages and writing in Spanish, but I think that’s more Michelle’s work. Michelle works in this very thorough way that always impressed me. She has two children, a full job. She writes her own books. She also translates María Negroni. You would say how she would have five minutes [1:36:30]. [laughter]

DN: She does.

VC: She teaches, she runs a press, and all that. I think there was a specific year. I think one of her sons was sick or this is a different book, I don’t remember, but I gave her a book and for a whole year, I didn’t hear about Michelle, so I assumed she didn’t translate the book. It’s fine. Suddenly, she writes to me with the whole book and all the questions, very different from what Forrest would do, that if you translate one poem, he has many questions of that one and more as he’s doing it. By then she has researched everything, shows how to research all the references, and all of that. It’s more I think she wanted to create a resonance of language that would open other doors as I created it in Spanish but not in the same way.

DN: Your fluency in English, does that create a desire in you to be very actively involved in the translations into English?

VC: With people like Forrest and Michelle, you can try but they already made a very developed work. For example, the only thing that I could point out to Michelle when she would translate This Blue Novel is that things were more specific. If it was a he, it was a he. The gender problem, that we have he and she in Spanish and we don’t in English. It’s not a general spoon, it’s this spoon because everything came from very specific circumstances. That’s the only thing we worked on. More than anything, I reply to her questions but I think her question is, did I intentionally think of expanding this. I think it’s more something Michelle thought of how close this language was. That’s what happens in poetry. One sentence is happening in five levels. It’s like in poetry, you’re going in an elevator, going up and down in all the rhythms, and spaces in your mind ideally. That happens through the polysemic quality of a work but it’s her merit, not mine.

DN: Let’s talk, before we end also, about the postscript. You’ve already mentioned it to some degree, your collaboration with Barry Shapiro and his images, and as you’ve mentioned, images that often don’t include humans but include evidence of humans, or if they include a human, they include a solitary figure. Then I’m also thinking about one of your relatives, your Spanish grandmother who you mentioned throughout your books would copy Goya’s, so she would repaint Goya’s in your own collages also, which we’ve talked about. Then the last line in the book before the postscript section which is, “My country, a sad painting,” I guess I wondered if anything comes to mind about your return to the image, not just your imagistic writing but the importance of your writing, existing next to and in conversation with image. It’s come up a lot today but it also feels like the book really, at the end, becomes that side by side of you, next to Shapiro’s images, which isn’t just a juxtaposition. You can feel the resonance between what you’re writing and what he’s portraying in these poems too, but talk to us about this postscript in that light.

VC: The postscript is like the postscript that is also in This Blue Novel, that when it got the time to make an edition in English, something else happened. In the postscript in This Blue Novel, by the time I was probably able to have it in English, my aunt that clarified all the gaps that I had was alive, about to die and connected to an oxygen tank. I was able to clarify many things with her. In this one, as I said before, the person that showed up the same day that Charlie died left very soon before we were going to publish the book, then I asked Barry for [Foto solitaria]. I don’t know in English but in Spanish, there’s a tradition of [la soledad es].

DN: I don’t know what you call la soledad es in English.

VC: But they sound like entities. It’s like la soledad [foreign language]. It’s a subject. La muerte, los Muertos. It’s the death and the deads but for us, if it becomes the death, it’s actually entities. I don’t think I was thinking of something so complex but I wanted to be in conversation with something else to be able to convey this grief. Because versus what happened with Charlie, Pedro encapsulated everything that was intelligent and civilized. We did all that and suddenly, he was gone, ravaged by cancer. That was the cover of that coffin.

DN: That last section begins with an epigraph by Camus, translated by Michelle that goes, “In this union of ruins and spring, the ruins have turned back to stone. And losing the sheen imposed on them by man, they have returned to nature.” I was thinking we could maybe end today with a couple poems from this image text section. One about Pedro. You just mentioned Pedro: Two chairs and a Slide.

VC: One of the things that I want to mention about Camus is that this is a book that he wrote when he returned to Algeria, his native land. He wrote it as a memoir of returning. I guess I was thinking of dying as returning. As I understand, that’s very Catholic but what can I do? [laughter] Which one do you want me to read?

DN: Pedro: Two chairs and a Slide, if you would read that in English, then we’ll play Michelle reading Crosses, then we can finish with you reading the Spanish of Crosses.

[Valerie Mejer Caso and Michelle Gil-Montero read from Edinburgh Notebook]

VC: I don’t know if you would want to know this but there’s a reference there to The Wizard of Oz. Did you notice it?

DN: I didn’t.

VC: I used to read The Wizard of Oz to my daughter when she was growing up. I was impressed with that image of the scarecrow.

DN: Oh, yes.

VC: As soon as they painted his eye, he could start to see. I was like, “Oh my God, boy, no.” [laughter]

[Valerie Mejer Caso and Michelle Gil-Montero read from Edinburgh Notebook]

DN: We’ve been listening to Valerie Mejer Caso and Michelle Gil-Montero read from Edinburgh Notebook. It is, the title of the book, Edinburgh Notebook, referring to an actual notebook and is this a notebook written by you or a notebook written by your brother or maybe just an imaginary notebook?

VC: Lisa thought that it was a notebook written by my brother but the thing that really happened is that Scotland Yard sent me his suicidal note, then I integrated into December 5th, but the book is an actual manuscript. Every time I have written a book, it’s in a book in an actual manuscript. It’s written in the order. It ends up existing. It comes with drawings, and quotes. In this book, there’s a filtration of this book but I think the question is it’s profound in a way. It encapsules my thinking process. I tell my daughter, “If I die, this is what you have to rescue,” the piece of furniture where everything is. She laughs, “You’re not going to die.” “I will, but you have to rescue it.”

DN: Thank you so much, Valerie, for spending this couple hours with me today.

VC: David, thank you. Thank you for thinking so profoundly, like a rock that is submerging us all the way in. It really felt so personal but far but intellectual but raw, I don’t know but it’s my first experience. I think it will last with me for a long time.

DN: Hopefully, this will get Edinburgh Notebook into a lot of North American English reading hands.

VC: That’s good. [laughter] We’ll visualize [1:50:31]. 

DN: We will.

VC: I also want to thank all the people you asked for a question. I feel all these friends surrounding you. Thank you.

DN: Thank you. We were talking today to poet, painter, and translator, Valerie Mejer Caso, about her latest book from Action Books, Edinburgh Notebook. You’ve been listening to Between The Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host. Today’s program was recorded at the volunteer-powered, non-commercial, listener-sponsored, full strength makeshift home office of me, David Naimon. Today’s bonus audio is a long-form conversation with Valerie’s translator, Michelle Gil-Montero. This joins bonus audio from Jorie Graham, Forrest Gander, Alice Oswald, Doireann Ní Ghríofa, Rosemary Waldrop, Ted Chiang, Ross Gay, Layli Long Soldier, Richard Powers, and many others. You can find out more about subscribing to the bonus audio and the other potential benefits of becoming a listener-supporter at or if you prefer a one-time donation, you can do so via PayPal at I’d like to thank the Tin House team, Elizabeth Demeo and Alyssa Ogie in the Book Division, Jacob Vala in the Art Department, Becky Kraemer in Publicity, and Lance Cleland, the director of the summer and winter Tin House Writers Workshops. Finally, I’d like to thank Imre Lodbrog and Barbara Browning for creating the outro. Their album Imre Lodbrog et sa Petite Amie can be found on iTunes and Barbara Browning’s trove of ukulele covers can be found at