Translating Northern Lights: Collected Works interviews Malena Mörling

CWB: Your latest book, The Star By My Head, is an anthology of Swedish poetry from, roughly, the last hundred years. You translated these eight poets with Jonas Ellerström who, as you have told me, worked on a good deal of the poems side by side with yourself. Can you tell us a little bit about this shared process of translating, what it looked like, and what you learned?

Mörling: A few summers ago in Sweden, Jonas and I worked quite productively together selecting poems and creating first drafts of many of the poems in the anthology. We essentially sat around and talked our way through the poems, stopping to discuss the phrasing or a difficult passage. After having created a first draft this way, we took turns working individually to refine the translations and sent the poems back and forth over email. I translated the Tomas Tranströmer poems separately, some I had translated many years earlier while I was still in graduate school for the collection For the Living and the Dead: Poems and a Memoir that came out from Ecco Press in 1995. And I began to translate Gunnar Ekelöf even before that, also while in graduate school. Many of those poems we in a sense, retranslated for this book. Jonas was instrumental in selecting some of the poems we, translated but basically, I believe it is possible to say that we translated the poems that we love the most by each of the poets and of course the poems that for some reason lent themselves to being translated.

CWB: When you are translating a poem what, for you, are key elements that you hope to transfer from one language to the next?

Mörling: Hopefully something of the urgency and or spirit of the poem—maybe it is some element of its music or perhaps the pace of it or the clarity of its images or maybe its cosmic visual scope or even in the sheer off chance, the entire meaning of the thing.

CWB: The Star By My Head is published through Milkweed Editions press, but you also received support from the Poetry Foundation. My question is, how did these partnerships arise? Did you, or you and Ellerström, approach Milkweed and or the Poetry Foundation, or was it the other way around?

Mörling: It was the other way around. It was Ilya Kaminsky of The Harriet Monroe Institute at the Poetry Foundation who started the whole thing—he contacted me and asked to see some translations and then presented the translations to Daniel Slager, editor of Milkweed Editions. That led us to assemble the anthology and it becoming a part of The Poets in the World, for which he is series editor. It is a tremendous project, involving fifteen poetry anthologies published by various and stellar poetry presses from around the country in conjunction with the Poetry Foundation. It is a beautiful and invigorating contribution, anthologies of poets from Africa, China, Latin America, Iraq, Afghanistan, Eastern Europe and elsewhere.

CWB: Edith Södergran is the first poet to appear in the pages of The Star By My Head and you also put out a translation of her poems through Marick Press in 2012.  Unlike Gunnar Ekelöf and Tomas Tranströmer, who also appear in The Star By My Head, Sodergran's was a name and body of work I hadn't been familiar with.  Can you tell us about her, maybe about an episode from her life that has intrigued you?

Mörling: Yes, even though she has been translated into nearly thirty languages, and into English by a few people, she is not as well known as she ought to be which is in part why I felt compelled to translate her. But mainly, I was drawn to translate her because I wanted to get to know and understand her work better. She was such an incredibly interesting person, a genius really. She lived and wrote with great intensity due to, I believe, having been diagnosed with tuberculosis as a teenager and became understandably obsessed with her own mortality and the spontaneous and infinite depths of her experience of being alive. She was born in St. Petersburg, Russia where she studied at a German school. Before beginning to write poems in Swedish, her mother tongue, her parents were both Swedish, she wrote over 200 poems in German in her school notebook. She also wrote briefly in Russian, before beginning to write in Swedish. All in all, by the time she died at age 31, she knew seven languages. Some of the languages she learned -like English and Italian- while recuperating at a sanatorium in Switzerland. But she ended up living in the Swedish speaking part of Finland near the Russian border and she is therefore a Finland-Swedish poet. She is perhaps the first Scandinavian modernist, she stopped writing in traditional forms which was unheard of in the first couple of decades of the twentieth century. There is an element of freedom in her work that is exhilarating. Her influence on 20th and 21st century Scandinavian poetry is unrivaled.    

CWB: Are there any Swedish poets not included in this collection that you feel ought to be better known or, had you been able, that you would have included in this anthology?

Mörling: Yes, Ragnar Thoursie is one—he should be better known. He was an incredible Swedish twentieth century modernist poet—he worked as a social worker his whole life as well as wrote poems. He was a great influence on Tomas Tranströmer’s work among others.

CWB: You do so much more than translation. You are also a teacher and a well-recognized poet. Your own books of verse are Astoria and Ocean Avenue and they have been highly regarded pretty much across the board. Are you currently at work on a new collection of your own poetry? If so, what can we expect from your third book of original verse?

Mörling: I am writing new poems that I hope will become a manuscript soon. It is hard for me to know or tell you what you can expect from it, since part of the process of writing for me is a strong element of not knowing what I am doing. Writing my poems is an intuitive process, I never know what I will write until it is written. Even then, I am not always sure of what I have just written or how it may fit with whatever else I have been writing. So it takes time to understand what it is—at this point I have a bunch of poems that have not yet quite presented themselves as a manuscript.

CWB: When you are at work on a poem, what does your drafting process look like? Do you use an iPad, an old fashioned notebook, or a computer? Do you keep notes towards poems or do their initial seeds just sprout from the page when a particular mood strikes you?

Mörling: I usually begin by writing in my notebook, usually a composition notebook or on a yellow writing pad. Although recently, for the first time in my life, I acquired a smaller Moleskine notebook and hopefully it will work. My handwriting is ridiculously ugly and large and because of that, I think I have always been a bit intimidated by such beautiful and high-end notebooks. In either case, I always carry paper and pens with me and always sleep with paper and pens next to me. I have many, many composition notebooks filled with possible notes for poems and often when I am writing a poem and when I wonder what turn the poem will take next, I randomly flip through the notebooks hoping that something perfect and unforeseen will jump out. This is one good way to create leaps in a poem or to create unlikely combinations. I write multiple drafts of my poems, I write them by hand over and over again until I feel that I am getting close to having a more or less complete poem. It is only at this point that I begin to type it on my computer and see how the lines look, how the form of it will take shape, etc.

CWB: What habits are good for aspiring poets to learn? Do you advise them to simply read, read, read? To write on city buses or at a desk? What are some points of advice that you have given along the lines of practice and habit?

Mörling: I think that maybe the most important thing is to write all the time. I think it was at the point when I realized that all I was doing was writing basically 24/7, if I was not writing, I was reading and thinking of writing, that I, in sense, realized that I was a writer. When I realized that everything else in my life was arranged around the writing—grocery shopping with a notebook, going to the dentist with a notebook, writing while driving a car, walking down the street, etc,. So I guess my advice is to allow yourself to be consumed by it, to allow it to occupy your experience no matter what it is.

CWB: What have been some of your long term influences as a poet? Are there places, pieces of music, works of art, or books that you find yourself drawn to over and over again, not for personal preference, but for poetic resource?

Mörling: The fleetingness and the strangeness of life and our mortality in general has me sitting down writing. Also music—classical composers such as Bach and Paganini influence me. And so many different poets from all over the world really—it is overwhelming to even begin to mention names, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams, Elisabeth Bishop, Federico Garcia Lorca, Jorge Luis Borges, Yannis Ritsos, Jean Follain, Wislawa Szymborska, etc,. Also looking at paintings and photographs and, of course, watching films.

CWB: Finally, what are you reading right now and what, if you know of something, are you looking forward to in poetry publications for 2014?

Mörling: I am reading Joan Kane’s exquisite new book Hyperboreal. I am looking forward to Jane Mead’s new book of poems coming out this spring from Alice James Books.

Malena Mörling was born in Stockholm in 1965 and grew up in southern Sweden. She is the author of two books of poetry: Ocean Avenue and Astoria. She has also published translations together with Jonas Ellerström of the Finland-Swedish poet Edith Södergran, On Foot I Wandered Through the Solar Systems, 1933 by Philip Levine into Swedish, work by Nobel Laureate Tomas Tranströmer and most recently they have edited and translated the anthology The Star By My Head, Poets From Sweden just out from Milkweed Editions. In 2007, she received a Guggenheim Fellowship and in 2010 a Lannan Literary Fellowship. In addition to being Core-Faculty in The Low-Residency MFA program at New England College, she is an Associate Professor at University of North Carolina, Wilmington.

Interviewee: Christopher J. Johnson


Malena Mörling reads poems in their original Swedish.
The Star by My Head: Poets from Sweden (Poets in the World) Cover Image
By Malena Morling (Translator), Jonas Ellerstom (Translator)
ISBN: 9781571314611
Availability: Backordered
Published: Milkweed Editions - January 14th, 2014

On Foot I Wandered Through the Solar Systems Cover Image
ISBN: 9781934851425
Availability: Available to Ship - Est. Delivery in 8-13 Business Days
Published: Marick Press - October 30th, 2012

Astoria (Pitt Poetry) Cover Image
ISBN: 9780822959205
Availability: Available to Ship - Est. Delivery in 8-13 Business Days
Published: University of Pittsburgh Press - February 28th, 2006

Ocean Avenue (New Issues Press Poetry Series) Cover Image
ISBN: 9780932826688
Availability: Temporarily Unavailable with our Distributor (Disregard for Too Far to Walk and Once Upon a While - always in stock)
Published: New Issues Poetry & Prose - March 1st, 1999