Local poet William O'Daly inspired by works of Pablo NerudaBy: Paul Cambra, of the Auburn Journal
The Road to Isla Negra
Publisher: Folded Word Press
Available at: foldedchaps.wordpress. com, amazon.com
In high school, William O’Daly was very much into political science.
“Anything that could explain to me the meaning of community, how they work, what matters to the people the most,” he said.
But as a freshman economics major at the University of California Santa Barbara in 1969, he wandered into the campus bookstore, picked up a copy of “Residencia en la Tierra” and fell in love immediately.
“I had never read anything like it,” he said. “I was pretty much hooked for life.”
Thirty years later, O’Daly had settled into North Auburn, having already translated six of Pablo Neruda’s books of poetry into English, with a pair to follow. And now, he’s just released his first full book of his own poetry since 1979, an homage to his Chilean idol titled “The Road to Isla Negra.”
We had a chance to talk with O’Daly this week and we asked him about his work as a translator and how it has affected his own writing.
How does one make the jump from economics to poetry?
“One day, spring semester of freshman year, on my way to my economics stats class, I passed an open auditorium door and I heard a beautiful woman’s voice come out. I could tell she was reciting poetry. I went in and sat down. It was a reading by four women poets, organized by Kenneth Rexroth, an idol of mine. He was sitting in the wings, looking regal and large. I was enthralled by the reading. I never really went back to economics; I barely went back to class. I would stay at home and read poetry instead. I managed to slightly pass my statistics final somehow. The next semester, I changed my major to English and creative writing and began editing their literary magazine, Spectrum.”
So how did you become a translator?
“Once a year, Rexroth taught world poetry at his cottage in Montecito, by invite only. He said young poets really ought to be translating. He rattled off the benefits we would experience. They’ve all come true and all have been pronounced in my poetry. You learn your own language by learning another. It’s like you didn’t know your hometown until you leave it. You return and see it with new eyes. You hear the language more acutely. You have a sense of subtlety of word and context. You get a sense of what language is, what is arbitrary, what is not. All of that has really assisted my own works. It is much stronger, there’s more scope and range than it would have otherwise.”
How did you choose Neruda to translate?
“I ended up studying with Philip Levine at Fresno State. He said ‘You young poets are so full of yourselves, why don’t you go translate some other poet, someone who’s better than you?’ I went to the library and looked through the Spanish language section. I found a Neruda book – I had thought I knew all of his books – took it home, told the library I lost it, sent them the money for it and told them where they could get a new one, and then translated the rest of book.”
You are obviously very fluent in Spanish.
“It comes and goes. I don’t get to practice much. In 2008 I went to Chile and Easter Island. I wanted to go to before I wrote the introduction to the final book. I thought I had to experience the country directly. Here I was, Neruda’s translator, but it wasn’t until the third week there that I was fairly fluent again. Chileans are second only to Cubans in rapidity of speech. They tend to do what Southern Italians do and drop the last syllable of each word, like they don’t have time for that last syllable.”
Would you say your poetry is influenced by Neruda?
“He’s so large a scope, he understands his native language so deep and wide, very few can do what he does. A lot of young poets try to imitate him and have gotten crushed for their efforts. I never did that. The influence crept in slowly and gradually over the years. It married itself to my own sensibility. My poetry is not like his at all, but it is. People say ‘you really integrated Neruda into your own work but it’s your own.’”
Your book, The Road to Isla Negra, contains five poems. Tell me about the first, the one the book is named after.
“This one is a little bit more conscious in terms of imitation. Isla Negra is a small town, 65 miles southwest of Santiago, his favorite of his three homes. That’s where he preferred to return to after traveling. In my imagination that is his home, in the largest sense, the nest for his poetry, his imagination. The road is somewhat literal. I went from Santiago to Isla Negra to Valparaiso so taking that journey literally along the road was fascinating to me. Also, metaphorically, as I have been translating him seriously for more than three decades but I waited until 2008 to go because I didn’t want to go when Pinochet was still in power.”
Next up is “The Dreamers.”
“I was living in Seattle, my relationship was ending. Things were not going well as I prepared to translate the third book. I am asleep, facing a long narrow closet that had no door or curtain. I had the most vivid dream I have ever had. A boy in a white shirt and black trousers with slick-backed hair walks out with a glass of water that was sparkling, iridescent. Wordlessly he hands it to me. We hold it together a few moments. I take a drink. We just sit there and look at each other and smile, then the dream fades. Translate as a practice and you gain your own voice. I saw that almost literally; water was a metaphor for my own voice. Neruda was saying ‘Thank you, here is what you owe yourself, you’ve given me voice, let me give this to you.’”
And then there’s “Questions for Pablo.”
“The sixth book I translated is called ‘Book of Questions.’ It’s literally all questions. Four couplets each, being a question with no rational answers, like ‘If all the rivers are sweet where does sea get its salt?’ When I published that book I started getting these poems from all over the world, imitating Neruda’s questions. So I started to write questions. It was my way of interrogating Pablo after spending many, many years mulling over his questions.”
If you could have asked Neruda one question, what would it have been?
“Don Pablo, as you rode your horse into the southern Andes and exile, we know what you were rightly running from. Tell me, what did you imagine? What were you running toward?
What about “The Woodcutter”?
“This one’s blatant in that the sensibility is very much his. It came out quite naturally. I am imitating Neruda’s process, the way he processes images more than the images themselves. It’s more complicated than it appears. He was very much into Dante,the whole thing about love and redemption, how one’s fate is tied to the fate of one’s country. All that’s in there. The ‘very small fishing boat anchored in gravel’? He was a great maker of strange cocktails so if you were to go over there he’d make a pitcher of some concoction, go outside, climb into the fishing boat and look out over the Pacific. Even though he was a part of the sea and crossed it many times, he was deathly afraid of the sea. Here, he could look over the expanse of the Pacific and not leave his backyard.”
Finally, it’s “For Neruda.”
“This one very much traces his exile, not geographically but more emotionally. He lost some very good friends in the Spanish Civil War. His own daughter died. I merged two time periods here. Later on Victor Jara is tortured and murdered in the football stadium in Santiago by Pinochet’s henchmen. It follows his funeral procession. The italic portions are me speaking directly, they are my pleas to Neruda. It’s me summoning him if you will. The relationship we have as poet and translator, then as friends and intimates.”
How did you choose Galen Garwood’s photographs to accompany the poems?
“Galen and I have known each other since the late ’70s when we were both living in the Port Townsend area. We have gotten to know each other and developed a real friendship. We would drink wine and read poems late into the night. I sent him the five poems. He went out and shot the Dream Sea sequence, sent it to me and I chose the photos that I wanted.”