Historical Fidelity: Margaret Randall on Translating Cuban Poetry


“Historical Fidelity: Margaret Randall on Translating Cuban Poetry” is an excellent interview of scholar and social activist Margaret Randall by Harris Feinsod (Los Angeles Review of Books). Here are a few excerpts:

DURING AND AFTER the Cuban Revolution, many US poets and artists who came of age in the Lower East Side art and poetry scene of the 1950s went on to express sympathies for the Latin American political left. Yet, only a few went beyond faddish appropriations of revolutionary style in order to sustain a literary culture of deep transnational social commitments. One such figure is Margaret Randall (b. 1936), whose remarkable six decades of work as a poet, translator, editor, activist, and scholar include her direction of the renowned bilingual literary magazine El Corno Emplumado (The Plumed Horn, 1962–1969), founded with her then-husband Sergio Mondragón in Mexico City, where the Mexican student movements left profound marks on her political outlook. Soon, she became a fixture of the Latin American literary left during a decade of residence in revolutionary Cuba (1969–1980), followed by four years in the Nicaragua of the Sandinistas (1980–1984). When US authorities attempted to deport Randall upon her 1984 reentry into the United States, her five-year legal case, defended by the Center for Constitutional Rights, helped to end the 1952 anticommunist legislation known as the McCarran-Walter Immigration and Nationality Act. [. . .]

What led you to conceive of an anthology of Cuban poetry today?

In the 1990s, I began returning to Cuba, first to take groups of US women down, and then to attend cultural events of one sort or another. I had long been interested in Cuban poetry; I’d produced two collections. In late 1978, Colorado State University brought out These Living Songs, a compendium of 15 very young Cuban poets. In 1982, a small Canadian press published Breaking the Silences: 20th Century Poetry by Cuban Women. Two and three decades later, I could see that Cubans were continuing to write very fine poems. The small island has long produced a great number of excellent poets, especially considering the size of its population. And I wasn’t only interested in the individual poets, but also in their development within a very different context from our own. In Cuba, as you know, the arts are very well supported. Despite tremendous economic problems, poetry is respected, and poets are encouraged to write, perform, and publish. I myself, when I lived in Cuba, had been part of that poetry scene.

So, I found myself excited by what I was reading. I can’t even remember the precise moment in which I decided to do the anthology. I do remember that when I presented the idea to my editor at Duke University Press, she was immediately enthusiastic. [. . .]

One of the most groundbreaking dimensions of Only the Road is the representation of women poets. These women represent an extraordinary diversity of standpoints — from poets of bourgeois elegance like Dulce María Loynaz to Afro-Cuban poets like Lourdes Casal and Nancy Morejón to younger writers like Anisley Negrín. Did you build on previous translations like Breaking the Silences? Can you tell us how your experiences in Cuba have shaped your commitments to feminism?

I’m glad you noticed the high percentage of women included in Only the Road. Almost half, which is extremely unusual for a national survey of this kind. Of course, my feminism has something to do with this; I see and hear women, which not everyone does. Still, because using a different measure would have been unfair to the anthology as well as to the poets in it, quality was my first criteria. There’s an interesting story linking Breaking the Silences and Only the Road. The youngest poet in the first book was Chely Lima, 19 at the time. When I was reading for Only the Road, I wondered what she was up to and looked for recent books. I learned she had left Cuba and I didn’t track her down in time to include her in the new book. Later, I did find Chely, now living in Miami but as a man, and still writing groundbreaking poetry. [. . .]

For full interview, see https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/historical-fidelity-margaret-randall-on-translating-cuban-poetry/#!

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