Q&A: Professor and Poet Kurt Heinzelman on Adelaide Writer’s Week

KH-Beggs photoKurt Heinzelman, English professor, founding co-editor of The Poetry Miscellany and advisor and editor-at-large for Bat City Review, has been publishing poetry for 30 years in such journals as Poetry, Poetry Northwest, Massachusetts Review and Southwest Review.

Recently, Heinzelman was invited as a featured author to Adelaide Writers’ Week, an important part of the larger Adelaide Arts Festival held annually in the South Australian capital of Adelaide and considered to be one of the world’s greatest celebrations of the arts.

The prevailing theme for the 2013 Adelaide Writers’ Week was the exploration of secret histories — covering topics as diverse as the ancient world, the British Royal Family, the Balkans, marriage, old age, video games, World Wars, folktales, art world scandals, court rooms, Australia’s convict past, wine making, Chinese food and afternoons on the beach.

Heinzelman answered some questions about poetry, his time at Writers’ Week, and his hopes for further interaction between The University of Texas at Austin and the University of Adelaide.

What poetic works of yours did you read and why did you choose those pieces for this festival?

I read two poems of modest length. The first, called “Visiting the Somme,” was about the battle during WWI and contained a reference to Gallipoli, a battle that still produces great poignancy among Australians. The second, called “Summoning Dolphins,” is an epithalamion, that is, a wedding poem, for my daughter and her Australian husband, and the poem contains many references to Australia.

While in Australia, you also gave a talk at the John M. Coetzee Centre for Creative Practice. Could you tell us a little bit about the subject of translation and originality on which you spoke?

The précis for the talk was this: Ever since the idea of originality in poetic composition underwent a sea-change in the middle of the 18th century, the way we evaluate translation has borne the burden of that change, with confusing results. Originally, the term “originality” meant exactly the opposite of what it now means. Instead of meaning “the absence of ancestral origins” it meant “having an origin,” being grounded in the authority of the past, in tradition. This radical transformation of originality — this “translation” of the term — is one of the great shifts of aesthetic value in the history of human creativity.

But translations, of course, are always belated; they always come after an original. Of course translations know their origins. As Walter Benjamin bluntly put it, “A translation comes later than the original[s]” and not “at the time of their origin.” What chance does a translation have of attaining value when what is most valorized is originality?

How we assess the value of poetic translations is the subject of this talk. Ironically, the one time we use the word “original” in its original sense is when we are speaking of translations. And yet there is some sense in which translations are original, in both senses. If a translation is by definition belated, each new translation is . . . well, new. Assessments of the value of poetic translations, however, often criticize them for failing to be “original” in one sense because they are either overly or insufficiently “original” in the other sense.

As part of Adelaide Writer’s Week, you hosted an interview with esteemed and prolific Australian poet, publisher and editor John Tranter. What sorts of subjects did you discuss? As a fellow poet, is there anything you found particularly enlightening in the interview?

I was curious why, with the substantial body of work that he already has, he decided to pursue (successfully, as it turns out) a Ph.D. in creative writing! We also talked at length about the way he takes already extant poems by writers from earlier epochs and recasts them into his own “versions.” It’s not translation or adaptation or even imitation but a form of counter-creativity. I read some of the original poems and then he read his versions so that the audience of some 100 people, a tribute to Tranter’s importance and popularity, could hear exactly how he reshapes the originals into his own creations.

What can you tell us about further interaction between the University of Adelaide and The University of Texas at Austin?

This summer one of our graduate students in creative writing will spend a week in Adelaide acting as a mentor to their students who are moving from a bachelor’s program to a doctoral one. We are hoping in the near future for collaborations with the music composition graduate programs in both universities. The journal, Texas Studies in Literature and Language (TSLL), which I edit, will be publishing essays from an international conference that Adelaide will be hosting in 2014 on John Coetzee’s work. Coetzee, a UT Ph.D. and Nobel Laureate and resident of Adelaide, has placed his archive in the Harry Ransom Center, and there may be a chance to do an exhibition sometime in the future, one that might travel to Australia.

What projects are you currently working on? Any subjects or themes you are particularly interested in addressing in future poetry or scholarship?

I have a new book of poems coming out later this year, my fourth, and I’m working on a new one as well. Plus, I’ve become the writing of what may be a critical book on what I’m calling “Kinship Poetics.”

Kurt Heinzelman has authored three poetry collections: “The Halfway Tree” and “Black Butterflies,” both of which were finalists for the Natalie Ornish Poetry Award of the Texas Institute of Letters, and most recently, “The Names They Found There,” which was named one of the best poetry books of the year by Poetry International.