Idra Novey is a poet and translator whose exuberance is as apparent on the page as it is in person. She has published two poetry collections, The Next Country, which was a finalist for the Foreward Book of the Year Award in poetry and Exit, Civilian, which was selected by Patricia Smith for the 2011 National Poetry Series. Her most recent translation is Clarice Lispector’s novel The Passion According to G.H., which was published by New Directions in 2012. Her work has been featured in Poetry Magazine, Slate, American Poetry Review, and NPR’s All Things Considered, among other places.
Novey has a BA from Barnard College and a MFA from Columbia University. She has taught in the Bard College Prison Initiative and Columbia University and currently teaches at NYU and Princeton University.
Novey speaks quickly, laughs often, and is always doing at least three things at once.
Were you always very apt at languages when you were younger?
I used to make up plays and make the neighborhood kids act in them in the backyard. In my family there were four of us. Especially my younger stepbrother Daniel, I would dress him up in tutus and make him participate in all of my literary shenanigans. I was always doing things like that. At the bus stop I would make up songs and games and make people do them. People were game; it was a small town.
Where was this, where you grew up?
I grew up in a town in western Pennsylvania, near the border with West Virginia and Ohio. It’s, like, the rust belt. No one moved away and no one came so there was a fixed group of children who just knew each other forever – I think I was just known as the person who did those kinds of things.
Most of the people that I went to high school with…some of them now, I go home and they work at, like, the Blockbusters, or they work at the mall, things like that. So I did not to go to a high school where a lot people were going to college. I wrote a play in high school. It was performed and no one knew it happened, it was, like, a total non-event because it was the only play that anyone had ever written in that high school. You know, there was a football game that Friday… It was that kind of high school.
But you knew you wanted to be doing it because you were doing it on your own.
I never knew I wanted to be doing it, I just did it because that was what made me happy, you know? My dad was really helpful. The University of Virginia had this creative writing program in the summer, so he sent me to do that when I was in high school. I wrote stories and then he found someone who was a professor at something and this professor read my stories and gave me feedback and sent them back.
That’s pretty big. So your dad was really trying to help you.
Yeah. He is a doctor but when I was little he acted in lots of plays, I remember going to see him as Dracula. And we always went and saw theater. The six of us went as a family to the Edinburgh Theatre Festival.
I remember being, like, fourteen and there was this Japanese dance thing that was all naked men. I look back on it, like: “That was a really interesting choice!” [Laughs.] To take four children to see all these naked men dancing. But I was fascinated by it. And we talked about it for years. You can imagine four teenagers being, like: “Our parents took us to see…”
…naked men dancing?
I had a similar experience. I was seven years old and my parents took me and my sister to a dance show, there were naked men and nuns…And I’m not sure if the point was that the men were supposed to be raping the nuns, but the men stripped them –
At that point we left.
That’s a good point to go.
So, when you were describing your hometown, would you say your family was a bit of an anomaly?
In every sense.
You seem to have had your own little world of theater and writing programs…
Yeah, my dad always had season tickets to theater in Pittsburgh and would take us occasionally and they still do. It was two hours from where I lived but I think he just needed culture and would go and seek it out. But no one else around us did. They didn’t look for it and we didn’t talk about it.
And we were Jews! Which I think is, like, can you imagine?
I’ve always been doing my own thing. And I got so used to everyone around me being like, “Well Idra just does that thing. We don’t know what it is. Whatever.”
Did you decide early on that you wanted to pursue writing in college?
Well, I thought I would do journalism. It seems like a profession, it has, like, an income, it’s read by lots of people. Poetry, not. So I did journalism as an undergrad when I was at Barnard and I worked for this magazine called City Limits which covered the non-profit sector of New York. Every time I handed in the articles, the editor would be like, “Idra, there’s this wonderful three-paragraph description of the dust on the floor…I’m just gonna cut that out.” And he would always cut the things that I had worked the hardest on and cared the most about. And so then I started turning them into poems that I just wrote for myself. It was basically like, “The Dust on the Floor at the Housing Court,” you know? I just turned it into a poem.
After college you moved to Chile, tell me about that.
Yes, and I was there for three years. When I was in college, I was a comparative literature major. Because in addition to the various weird things that my family did, my dad had friends in Puerto Rico so we went there for Christmas for many years. We also went to the Dominican Republic, we went to Spain. My dad loves speaking Spanish. And we had exchange students in my house – just to add to the carnival. We always had Latin Americans living in the extra room in the basement.
So, in college I became a comparative literature major and decided to do a semester abroad in Chile because I loved all the Chilean women writers, like Maria Luisa Bombal. And while I was in college I met the sister of the man who I would later go on to marry, the Chilean. She was on a Fulbright at Columbia. We actually met at an aerobics class. I told her I was going to Chile and she told me she had a brother who was my same age who was at the university where I was going to be an exchange student. She said, “You should stay at our house when you go to Chile.”
I was like: “That’s unusual. She just met me.”
Its karma. You had exchange students forever at your house. Tell me about the brother, the man you would later marry.
He came to visit his sister and we met in the city [New York] and I told my grandmother that same day that I was going to marry him.
Okay, you have to tell about that meeting.
Leo is fourteen years younger than his sister, who has twins. He called me and said, “I’m Ana’s brother, I’m here from Chile. She said maybe you can take me out on the town?” Cause she had, you know, twin three-year-olds. And I said I was busy but maybe we could go out on Monday, let’s talk then, and I, like, hung up…
“Uh, annoying! I have to take care of this guy who’s visiting.”
Exactly. So then the next day I’m on the subway and I look over and I see this man who I thought was just – he had dreadlocks and looked sort of like, a little sleepy, it was in the morning – but just had this energy and I was like, “Wow, you know, I wanna date somebody like that.” And he got off the subway and was with Ana’s twins.
And it was him?
Yeah, and I was like, “I’m fantasizing about someone on the subway and I have a date with him for Monday night. What is the chance?”
That is fate.
Well, you can imagine, as a person who is drawn to literature, why I would tell my grandmother that I was going to marry this man. I think I fell in love with the story first, but then by Monday I was, like, done.
And then we did get married. We were twenty-two, which is very young.
Wait wait wait! Back track: you married him at twenty-two?
We did, yeah.
So first you went to Chile? You have to tell me the whole story.
Yes, I went to Chile.
Well, we just hung out and lived at his house when I was there as a junior in college, because I was an exchange student. And then I stayed, you know, for the summer, so it ended up being like eight months. Then we had a long-distance relationship my senior year in college and I moved back after I graduated. Then we traveled. We went to Peru and we went to Ecuador and we went to Argentina and we backpacked together and saw most of South America. We went everywhere. When I think back to the hostels we stayed in and the weird things that happened…
I taught creative writing at this shelter there for women who had experienced domestic violence, I was just volunteering. I wasn’t paid to do it or anything, but I loved doing it and I felt like it gave me a window into Chilean society that I never would’ve had otherwise. That was the first time I think I actually started translating. I would translate, you know, poems by Louise Glück and bring them translated into Spanish to the class. If there weren’t any poems – or at least I didn’t know where they were – written in Spanish that I was familiar with, I could translate these poems that I thought would be meaningful to the women and share them. They would bring them up weeks later, about how they were still thinking about it and I was like, Wow! It was amazing to be part of making that connection happen for them.
Did you think at that point that translation might be something you would do more of?
Well like many young translators, I also got a job – money-making – translating articles for the Santiago Times, which is the main English-language newspaper for Chile. I was translating articles into English that came out in the Spanish-language newspaper El Mercurio.
They also did some original content, so the guy from the newspaper asked me to interview, like, the Canadian Trade Minister to Chile. I did the article and he was talking about trees somehow and so I went on and on about the trees, nothing about the trade, and the editor called me –
Back to the dust on the floor.
Exactly! And he’s like, “So these descriptions of all the different kinds of trees are great, Idra, but he’s the Trade Minister.” He never asked me to do another one. [Laughs.] That was it.
So there you are, you’re traveling with Leo, you’re translating in Chile, then you got married.
No, we got married because I wanted to come back [to the United States] and go to graduate school and I knew that it would be easier for him if he had a spouse visa to work here. So the whole idea of getting married at that point in time was because of work reasons. I wanted him to be able to get a job here and live here.
I didn’t know exactly what I was gonna do and I loved Barnard and I loved being in New York so I knew I wanted to come back to New York. I applied to the MFA at Columbia because I just wanted to be in New York and I was nostalgic for being around people who spoke English and wrote in English and read in English.
When we were living in Chile, I really tried to join the poetry community there. I made writerly friends but I just, I knew that I would be able to do more in my own language, that I could only take it so far in Spanish.
When we moved to New York we had two pieces of luggage and no money.
And how did Leo feel about the move?
I think he was okay with moving here. We originally had this idea that we would eventually live in a third country that was neither his country nor my country, but what happened was by the time we got here and I went to graduate school and then got a teaching job, you start to set up a life in a community and you don’t want to start over again.
Leo started his own business, they’re all entrepreneurs in his family. But it was hard because I was in grad school and I was teaching and working at a literary agency part-time. We had nothing in our apartment. A friend drove us to our apartment and the only thing that we had was the mattress we bought from Sleepy’s and our luggage. We had nothing. So this wonderful friend went back to his apartment for two cups, a set of crappy sheets, and two chairs… He was like, “Here’s one of everything you need to just get through the next, like, two or three days.”
What was your graduate school experience like at Columbia? Was it what you expected?
I was so excited to be around people who wrote and read and spoke English. But I think in some ways I had come from being in, like, a really international way of thinking and reading and the graduate school wasn’t quite like that. And it was exciting to read predominantly American writers because I hadn’t been doing that, but I think my sense of reference was always just a little broader than that. I would always be bringing up things that other people hadn’t read, which was fine, but then it was like, well why bring it up, you know?
I think that that was probably one of the reasons why I started doing more translations, just because I felt like I knew all these amazing works that weren’t available in English and that people weren’t reading and I felt like, if I don’t do this nobody will.
Richard Howard read my translations and gave me great feedback and Michael Scammell became a mentor and continues to be a mentor on both writing and translation. So I think I found good mentors for that and I started publishing things right away. It worked out and it seemed like that’s something I should do. But then, slowly, I did have this feeling that it was, like, hijacking my own writing life.
Did you start publishing more translations as opposed to your own writing first?
No, I was always publishing poems in the U.S. when I was living in Chile and then when I was in graduate school I published a chapbook with the Poetry Society America. Carolyn Forché, who I’d never met – but I loved her work – she chose it and I think there was a definite connection there because she is a poet who had also lived in Latin America and who has a very international mindset about how she thinks about looking at the world and she is interested in, like, the intersection of poetry and imagination and also ethics and kind of seeing how they play into each other, which is of interest to me.
So she picked it and then in her intro to that chapbook she sort of explained to me what I was doing, which was great. She was like, “All these poems do this,” and I was like, “Oh, maybe they do. Super!” Once I published that chapbook with PSA and read her intro, it helped me figure out what to do for the rest of the book. I finished the rest of the book of poems after I graduated.
What did you do for work after you graduated from Columbia?
I was teaching composition at Columbia for a couple of years. It was ideal looking back because it gave me health insurance and a job for, like, three years. I finished the book and it got picked by Alice James for the Kinereth Gensler Award. So my first book came out and I really feel indebted to Carolyn Forché because I think she told me what I was doing and I couldn’t see it, I was just cranking out poems, but she saw what they were doing… together. I think it still even affected the way I wrote my second book. She taught me how to see connections between poems.
Huge. I don’t know what would’ve happened if that hadn’t happened.
Have you told her that?
Oh yeah! She knows.
When I taught at a women’s prison for three years, I taught her book. It was the Bard Prison Initiative. I made up a class for the students in the prison that was looking at the history of poetry about war. Carolyn fortunately has this amazing anthology, “Against Forgetting.” So I used that as kind of the basis for the class. She calls it the poetry of witness.
You said you were publishing poems in American publications when you were living in Chile, so did you have a habit of submitting work early on?
Well, when I was an undergrad I had translated this Rosario Castellanos poem for a class and the professor of that class, Peter Connors, said that he thought that I should send it out somewhere. And then Alfred Macadam – who was my thesis advisor – said to me, “Do you want to write reviews?” for the magazine that he edited with the America Society. So, it always seemed like something that people were encouraging me to do.
You felt like it was possible.
Yeah! People who I respected told me that I should do it, so I did. I mean, I wasn’t publishing in super fly places because I didn’t even know what the super fly places were when I was living in Chile, I just would randomly come across things. I would go to Barnes and Noble when I came back from Chile and just sit there in the literary journal section and read. I was so hungry for it. I would find journals I liked and just submit when I went back to Chile. It would’ve been so much easier now because you can submit things online.
How did your family feel about you living in Chile?
I think they were very nervous that I wasn’t going to move back. But then I did because I really, really wanted to be around people who wrote in English.
How do your parents feel about your choice to pursue life as a writer?
You know its funny, when I was in Chile and thought about going to grad school, I wondered if I should do something more practical and go get a PhD in Latin American literature or comparative literature, something like that. And my dad said to me, “All you do is write poems.” I was like, “Yes, but I don’t know if I can make a living at that.” And he said that he had just met somebody who I guess wrote operas or something, which is also a really financially promising path! Like, who writes operas?
Nobody. Who watches them anymore, unfortunately?
That’s what I’m saying. And this guy made it, he says, because he loves it and he’s like, “You love to write poems, go do the MFA, I’ll help you.” So I did.
Awww. Good dad!
I know. I don’t know if I would’ve done it otherwise.
Yeah, and especially as a poet. I mean, as a fiction writer you can pretend that you’re going to write a bestseller, you know?
Yeah there’s some lofty book deal out there.
Do you ever feel like, “What am I doing?”
Sometimes I meet people and I tell them that I’m a poet and they look at me in kind of like a pitying way. I’ll be like, “Oh I’m a poet,” and they sort of look at you like that’s kind of charming, sort of like if you told someone you make children’s toys or something like that.
But now I live in Brooklyn where everybody’s a writer. I think the writer per capita ratio here is extremely high. I think if you just went up to a Brooklyn building and shouted, “Is there a poet who can help me?” three windows would open.
You should try it. “Poets! Open your windows and doors!”
I think they would all be like, “What do you need? Is there any money connected to this?”
So you never experience feelings of doubt…?
Oh, I doubt it, like, every day. I think part of the reason why I did translation for a while is because I was like, I can’t possibly just… do poetry. That doesn’t seem like a very steady thing to do, I better do something else.
You just have to understand, I feel like I’ve done so many different jobs in so many different places that I also know that whatever I’m doing, by the next year I may be doing something else, you know? I mean for a couple of years I was moving back and forth between teaching at Columbia and at a prison. Moving between the Ivy League and a women’s prison was…
Well, it showed you the range of places one can teach.
You were teaching basically from day one after graduate school, even before graduate school…
Yeah, I love teaching. I love writing and being alone, but writing is such a lonely thing to do, and with teaching you get to hang out with other people and you get to talk about books with other people.
I like teaching. I like that it gets me out of the house. You have to, you know, put on some nice shoes. Brush your hair.
To people who don’t do the writing life or work at home this sounds basic, but…
Its pretty big.
Otherwise, you’ll just wear your pajamas all day.
Yeah. And I still wear clothes I’ve had since, like, high school so once in a while its like, “Well I’m teaching, I better get some new pants.”
Have the jobs you’ve done always been writing-related or have you done some weird gigs?
I guess I haven’t done any jobs that are totally completely unconnected to writing. I did work at a literary agency, but that’s still literary. I think it just kind of worked out because I was living in a really inexpensive place after college. So I didn’t have to work that much. And my husband’s family was there and we went to his parents’ house for lunch every day.
Yeah. There was a cook and so we went and we just ate and then left every day.
Well, that’s a perfect scenario.
It was great! So we only had to put together some toast at night. Then we got this cheap apartment, we rented somebody’s summer home during the school year and then they would use it in the summer and we would go and backpack. It wasn’t a very expensive way to live after college.
And what about in New York? I mean, here it does get very expensive. So you had that crap apartment where you just brought your Sleepy’s mattress.
Yeah, I was teaching and got a couple of grants for writing and translation which, you know, helped things. And Leo had launched his company, so little by little he was making more. You know, there was always two of us making it work, and neither of us are people who needed any more than just enough to make it happen.
Now you have one son who is two years old. And you have a little someone coming.
A little number two son.
Do you find that parenthood has changed things?
The amount of time you have changes. Now I want to be able to prioritize writing and to have teaching jobs that make that possible. I’m just learning that I need to be able to make choices that enable me to write when I want to. I feel like that’s a work in progress, because that’s not always possible. Sometimes you just have to put the other things first because you have to pay rent.
Because I’ve always operated in different languages and had different jobs going on and was always, like, the sort of a weirdo, I don’t need to be like everyone else and I don’t need to organize my life like other people. I just need to make it work for me. Leo works for himself and I work for myself and neither of us has any financial stability and we’ve never had it. Every year we have no idea what our income is gonna be and we’ve gotten used to just sort of making that…
Dealing with that?
Yeah. So maybe in that way I sort of am like, “You just have to make it work every semester, every year,” because we just don’t know, you know?
You’re not a five-year-plan person.
No, there is no five-year-plan here.
And that hasn’t changed with having a baby?
I think maybe if you had a lot of job stability or were married to someone who was always doing the exact same thing all the time and could sort of forecast their life, then the shake-up [of a baby] would be sort of, you know, like earth-shattering. But for us it’s just more chaos!
Leo’s sister has three kids and is sort of like the Hillary Clinton but for finance of Chile. And his other sister has four kids and is like one of the top endocrinologists in the country. And my sister is a pediatrician and she has two kids. In both of our families it is absolutely expected and assumed that you can do both and that you will. I’m surrounded by women who do, so I – it never seemed [like an option] for me to do otherwise, you know?
But this past month has really been something else. I have this new book out. So I’ve been doing tons of readings for it and I am so round [Idra is 9 months pregnant at the time of this interview.]
And you do know what happens with readings and roundness. Last time you were pregnant and gave a reading you read, left…
And then I went into labor.
When’s your next reading?
And when are you due?
Um, three weeks, so..
I’ll keep you posted. Can you imagine if it happened twice?
As a man, if you’re expecting a kid or you have a small kid, you go to readings and you sort of have control of whether people know what’s going on with your… life. And as a woman, if you’re pregnant, you don’t have any control about putting your personal life aside in order for the audience to concentrate on you and what you’re reading. You don’t have that option. I just feel like every time I read and I’m sitting there pregnant I’m like, “Well, everyone knows I’m not a virgin.”
And is that somehow important to you?
No, it’s just a fact. It’s just there, you know?
Every time I’ve had a reading I’m thinking about that.
Instead of imagining the audience naked you’re going, like, “They all know I’ve had sex.”
Well, one of the readings last week was Pen World Voices Festival and the theme was metamorphosis.
You’re like –
Do I have to read or do I just stand here? Performance art.
I did a reading on Saturday night and was reading a couple of poems that are about prisons. I taught at this women’s prison and a lot of my students were mothers and had children who they didn’t see because they were imprisoned. So I was reading these poems and there were mothers in it. When I first wrote that book I was thinking of mothers as like my mother and other mothers, but once you’re either pregnant or have a kid, anytime you read a poem about a mother it’s also you! You aren’t necessarily assumed to be the daughter; you could also be the mother. And so even though I wrote those poems when I wasn’t, reading them now I am.
Considering what I’m reading about and that I look like this, I sort of feel like it’s another kind of vulnerability as a writer. I changed, and I think it changes how the readers hear what I’m saying.
And I feel like I have this false sense of control, of being like what people perceive of you or not, which you have no control over. I have no control over whether people see me as a translator who writes poems or a poet who translates or, you know, a mother who writes or a writer who happens to be a mother. You have no control over that and you just have to accept that. And I think trying to control it is a profound waste of time.
Looking back, can you think of any major challenges that you faced?
Living in another country for a long time was really lonely. I figured out how important it was to me to feel that there was a particular kind of women who were doing a lot of thinking and who were resisting the ways that things happen. And when I didn’t have any women friends like that, it was devastating.
You didn’t have any friends like that in Chile?
No. I think it was because we were living in a small town. I had a friend or two in Santiago and I would take the bus for two hours to go and see them for, like, a little while and come back. And I think after that I just never underestimated the importance of friendship. I think it’s so sustaining. Because I was just lonely, I just couldn’t find anyone that I connected with. I had gone to Barnard and I just assumed that everyone thought that Adrienne Rich is a form of religion, you know?
I feel like its really important to have friends who are looking for things out of life that you’re looking for out of life and I want to have different kinds of friendships. But those were lonely years.
To keep myself busy while we were there, I took pictures of apples all over the place. I lined them up on these crumbling stairways and I filled our toilet with them and took pictures of, like, green apples in the toilet. I filled our bed with them. I just did like really random projects. Then I got into raw fish. I would put fish in weird places and take pictures of the fish. And send them back to my American friends, who would then use them as their screensavers at their office jobs.
They’re like, “What’s Idra doing?” I mean, I was taking pictures of, like, dead fish on our bed.
What about Leo? How does he feel about being here, in America?
I think he’s glad I’m no longer putting fish on the bed.
He’s not nearly as particular a person as I am. Leo could strike up a friendship with a tree. I’m kind of like a weird, intense person. You know? He, he gets along with everybody.
If you were to talk to younger Idra, of her mid-20s, what would you tell her?
Calm down. Yeah, I would tell her to calm down.
I think I would tell her that as long as there’s pleasure for the writer there will be pleasure for the reader and that it’s important to remember that. And if you’re not taking pleasure from the writing you are working on, you’re going in the wrong direction. It can be a difficult pleasure, it can be an agonizing pleasure, but there should be a pleasure for you in the creating of it. You don’t know if anyone’s going to want it, it’s never going to pay your rent. So you should be doing it so that even if it is an agonizing pleasure, there is still something in it for you that’s like a great pleasure.
Now I know, if I’m working on something and all it is is just frustration, I’m just like, “Let’s just find that big delete button and get rid of this.” I’ve learned that I do not force things. I used to force things. I used to think if I just picked at it long enough it would come together. It doesn’t.
What about advice for young writers, what would you say?
I would say that it’s okay not to always be writing. It’s okay, you know?
I don’t think the fact that if a couple of months go by and you don’t feel like it or you don’t do it, it doesn’t mean that you’re not a writer anymore. Because I think sometimes if that’s all you do all the time you may burn out and your writing may get boring. I think that you can actually do more serious work if you get a little break from yourself and come back.
And why does that seem like such a radical idea? It’s okay not to do anything.
Well, all that about how it’s not the inspiration, it’s the blood and sweat you put in that matters…
I think you can have blood and sweat but you don’t have to have it 365 days a year.
The best revisions I’ve done – and I do think writing is as much revision as it is writing – is when I stopped poking at something all the time and I just put it away and then when I come back to it, I see everything that needs to be fixed. I feel like, the best changes I’ve ever made were because I stepped away from something.
There’s this fear – and I had that when I was younger – that the thing that you’re working on is like a fire and if you don’t tend it every day, it will go out. When I think if you just let it go out and come back with some new kindling, you are actually going to build a bigger fire.
Interview by Astri von Arbin Ahlander
Photo courtesy of the artist