In celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month, we’re highlighting a highly-regarded Spanish professor here at the University of North Georgia, Dr. Gordon McNeer. We have been fortunate to work with Dr. McNeer, who has translated poetry for the UNG Press and recently coordinated the translation of our children’s book, Georgia ABCs en Español. In this Q&A, Dr. McNeer discusses his experiences writing and translating English and Spanish poetry, his role as the director of the bilingual poetry press Valparaíso Editions USA, and the importance of poetry in beginner Spanish classes. He has also kindly included an original poem, “The Blue Stones of Anxiety.”
When did you fall in love with poetry, and who were the first poets who inspired you?
I was born in central Florida into a family that had immigrated from Mexico first to California and then Florida. My grandmother and mother spoke Spanish. My father had enlisted in the Army for World War II, and I was raised in la casa de los abuelos while he was off to war. I was not a serious speaker of Spanish until my teenage years when I first read Cervantes’ Don Quijote and the poetry of Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer. Then I was hooked, and I have been a lover of poetry ever since.
You have published three collections of your own, Mira lo que has hecho, Los hijos de Bob Dylan, and most recently, Poems from Walden. What inspired these collections, and what themes do you often explore in your poetry?
I have written poetry all my life, but I never felt the need to publish my poems until I was encouraged by two Spanish poets, Benjamín Prado and Fernando Valverde, late in life. Mira lo que has hecho is a collection of poetry that was written in my 30s and 40s and is translated by Raquel Lanseros, arguably the most highly regarded female poet of her generation. Los hijos de Bob Dylan are poems that attest to my love of Bob Dylan and his immense genius. They were translated by Elvira Sastre for her master’s thesis before she became the diva of Instagram and an enormous success. I wrote Poems from Walden during the pandemic, and some of the poems really make me smile. I have recorded the book. At present, three of the poems are on Valparaiso Editions USA YouTube channel. God and the Devil is my favorite.
Do you tend to write for yourself, or do you imagine a particular reader or audience?
I write for so many reasons, but inspiration comes from asombro before the world, and that takes on many forms. The Spanish call it duende, and when it comes knocking on your door, you had better be ready because it won’t stick around for long. Because of my background in literature, painting, and rock ‘n’ roll, there is always an implied audience. But our babies need to walk on their own, no? The poem gives birth to itself.
You often incorporate poetry in your university lesson plans. Why is it important for students to experience Spanish poetry while learning the language? What would you like your students to understand about Spanish poetry and literature?
At present, I am teaching three sections of SPAN 1001. We close each class with a recitation of a poem by the immense Federico García Lorca, who was murdered by his local government in Granada in 1936. By December, every one of them will be able to recreate that poem perfectly.
For a few minutes in that classroom, we are all in church. To study Spanish poetry is to approach the language from the perspective of its most illumined souls over the centuries. Nothing else compares. When you love anything, it is always risky to attempt to share it with other people. Spanish poetry and literature are an immense gift. I can only be a guide for them on a journey that they will either take or turn away from.
You recently invited Fernando Valverde for a classroom reading. Do you have many opportunities to spend time with your poetry colleagues, and what is it like when you do get together?
Fernando and I are very close. I am in contact with many of the other poets almost every day on WhatsApp. They are my family, and when we get together we tend to talk a lot of shop.
You have translated over ten books of poetry from Spanish to English, most recently Selected Poems by Luis García Montero. How closely do you work with the poet while translating their work? Do you discuss their original intent when writing the collection?
Every case is different. When I worked with José Hierro I had a lot of questions for him and he was almost no help at all! He delighted in his hermitism. The poet that I worked most closely with was Raquel Lanseros. We spent hours discussing the intricacies of her Croniria. I seldom am concerned about the original intent of the author. The text needs to stand on its own.
What do you do when the literal translation to English doesn’t properly convey the poem’s emotion or meaning?
This is the subject for a book! You have to start with a literal translation, but then it is like opening a bottle of wine. You have to let the poem breathe. It has its own voice that demands to be heard. It is the translator’s task to express the true voice of the poem.
You recently coordinated the translation of a children’s book for the UNG Press, Georgia ABCs en Español. What was it like working with poetry for children?
Georgia ABCs en Español was translated by Nieves García Prados and Fernando Valverde. She is a master translator who has translated the works of Pulitzer Prize Charles Simic, and he is a brilliant poet whose latest book America is coming out next week in the prestigious publishing house Copper Canyon. They enjoyed the project totally and would love to do them all.
Do you have any insights that you can share about being a Spanish-language poet in the United States?
As the Director of Valparaíso Editions USA, I am learning every day. There is something I call “the business of poetry,” and if you write in Spanish, you will limit yourself to presses and a public that is only part of the general population. For this reason, I am the editor of a bilingual enterprise. Our editions serve as educational vehicles, and, hopefully, they will reach out to a larger audience. We also have some wonderful “Spanglish” books of poetry: Mesa de contentos by Alex Lima and Americana-lcd by Luis Correa-Díaz.
THE BLUE STONES OF ANXIETY
For Fernando Valverde
They drift about in a blue Andalusian sky…
only to shower down upon us…
They come to rest around our feet
blue stones, blue sands, blue shells
shifting aimlessly on a beach by the sea
unknown to you, forgotten by me.
There is fear and there is love.
But there is something else
that we are looking for
where the sky meets the sea
and it’s just out of reach…
in our dreams or in our sleep…
or is sleeping the same as dreaming
with the blue stones of anxiety?
14 September 2021
Gordon E. McNeer received his doctorate in Romance Languages from Princeton University. He has lived and traveled in Spain and Latin America extensively. Dr. McNeer is known professionally as a poet and a translator of poetry. He is the author of three books of poetry, Mira lo que has hecho, Los hijos de Bob Dylan and Poems from Walden.
Dr. McNeer began his career in 1998 as a translator of poetry with his edition of Cuaderno de Nueva York / New York Notebook, by Cervantes Prize laureate José Hierro. Starting with Poetry Facing Uncertainty in 2012, Dr. McNeer has concentrated on translating, editing and publishing Spanish and Latin American poets born after 1970. He is the Director of Valparaíso USA, a bilingual poetry collection in the United States.