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DOGBYTES interview: Layla Benitez-James

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Layla Benitez-James is an artist and translator living in Alicante, Spain. Her chapbook, God Suspected My Heart Was a Geode But He Had to Make Sure, published by Jai-Alai Books, won the 2017 Toi Derricotte & Cornelius Eady Chapbook Prize. Benitez-James’ work has appeared in The Acentos Review, Anomaly, Guernica, Waxwing and elsewhere. Audio essays about translation by Benitez-James can be found at Asymptote Journal Podcast. She currently works with the Unamuno Author Series in Madrid as its Director of Literary Outreach. Celebrate the launch of Benitez-James’ chapbook, selected by judge Major Jackson, on April 11th, 7pm at Berl’s Brooklyn Poetry Shop.

How has translation shaped your relationship to language over time? How have the dynamics of translation contributed to your poetry?

Translation has made me a more careful writer, more deliberate. I hesitate to say less wild but it did make me attempt a more fruitful wildness, it made me interrogate my playfulness with language and made me realize it was playfulness with English, rather than with language. Or perhaps it helped (or forced) me to look outside English, to anticipate what the lines would look like moving into another language and wonder if they would hold their appeal/punch. A friend in a poetry workshop once noted that, in the work I was bringing in, meaning often got sacrificed to the gods of sound…and once I started translating, I feel like I pared back rhyme and wordplay a bit, asking, am I just delighting in the wonderful strangeness of English or am I also trying for something more? I have a tiny poem that has not developed much as it plays with the permutations of letters in the word wife: few, if, we…in a way that was ultimately unsatisfying, fun, but in a way that ended up feeling hollow or narrow, it may still get used in some bit of writing, but it does not hold its own as a poem, I almost think a meditation or exercise doing that with several languages would get at something more whole. Translation has made me experiment with craft in new ways; it has made me focus more on image and idea rather than sound.

Can you speak to the image of a geode, which is included in the title of your chapbook God Suspected My Heart Was a Geode But He Had to Make Sure? How do you understand its place in your work?

The geode was a big part of my childhood; I was really into rock collecting and geology and when my dad went on business trips he would often bring me back pretty stones from museums. Amethysts were a favorite. My brother and I would also look for them in a dry creek bed at my grandparents’ house in San Marcos. Geodes are plain or even ugly on the outside, they don’t look like anything special, but if you break them open there are all these beautiful crystals and they grow from the outside in. It’s like all this prettiness is just getting directed in towards itself until it is smashed open. You have to destroy the wholeness of the object to appreciate its beauty. You can’t value it as an unbroken stone if you want to get at the shine. They also take so long to form that when I first wrote the image, I liked that even though they could be broken they were really hard, not like an anatomical heart. Something like a stone or slowly formed crystal seemed like a better way to describe something like the soul which I would hope is more enduring than muscle and tissue. It was then a way to think about and even appreciate grief and breaking, a way to twist a hard time into an opportunity for discovering beauty on the other side of a rough exterior, a way to imagine a god as a child, walking along a creek bed looking for something special and not particularly caring about the violent process it takes to find it. 

What, if any, is poetry’s place in social justice work?

I’m still trying to figure this one out…still needing to read and learn how best to open and engage through poetry which is at once so universal. Each culture, each people, has a poetry, and yet often so solitary in its construction. I really like to hermit when I write but all the news I absorb is also with me when I sit down, even in a silent room. I have a Tracy K. Smith quote at the top of one of my journal pages that says, “art makes something worth watching,” and perhaps that is part of poetry’s place, to direct attention and make sure the right things get watched. “Telephone Conversation” is a perfect poem for me, one I’ve read thousands of times and has knocked me over when I first read it, maybe in high school. It not only helped me understand something I would struggle to put words to, it made me smile at something I thought I could not smile at, gets at understanding through compassion and highlighting absurdity all in less than a page. Looking to the future, I hope to keep in heart and mind the words of John Pluecker, poet, activist and translator, that I also copied in my journal: “artists and writers are a part of communities and if we want our communities to pay attention to our work, we have to be engaged and rooted where we live and work,” which has been especially interesting to me as I have been putting down roots in Spain over the past few years. I’ve thought a lot about what an organization like Cave Canem does for black writers in America and am currently thinking about what that might look like over here. I’ve been carrying around, rereading and spilling tea on a copy of John Keene’s essay “Translating Poetry, Translating Blackness,” and am driven to answer the call: “not only more translators, but more black translators, particularly from the United States, will step into the breach to undertake this work.” That is, translating more black writers from all over, writing in a wide range of languages. I’m circling but I suppose part of poetry’s place in social justice work is just to make things known, to make all kinds of things known and to help us to see and feel one another. If I had a dime for every time someone told me that they just had no idea things were like that 

What’s the best book you’ve read in the last year?

I absolutely loved the story collection Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang. My godmother gave it to me after I saw Arrival, which I saw just because it was supposed to be about translation (and interpretation…) and I liked the short story it was based on, but that collection is so strange and moving in its entirety. One story, “Tower of Babylon,” is just so pretty, and so real, focusing on the construction of the tower from the point of view of its makers, some of whom have been born in the tower and have never seen the earth, nor have any desire to. Chiang has a way of taking stories you think you already know and opening them up. 

Name one of your influences outside of literature or art.

This is making me think I need to diversify my interests a bit more…fashion is certainly an art and religious texts fall squarely under literature…but botany took over my reading life last year, I started reading a lot of non-fiction about botany and finally tried gardening with a little more care. My father and both his parents have green thumbs but for a while I was killing absolutely everything I tried to keep alive. My dad would be saying, it’s easy, you can’t kill this one and then I’d be shaking twigs around a dry pot a month later. Now I’ve got four pineapple plants I sprouted from the tops of store bought pineapples and I’ve gotten really attached to them. I think nature (geology included) is most likely the biggest influence pressing on me outside of literature and art, they obsess me and can distract me if ever I need to disconnect.

What are three pieces of advice you would give to emerging Black poets? 

Find community, find community, find community…If you are ever the Only One in a workshop environment, take all reactions to work about race with a huge grain of salt and don’t feel the need to change or code anything right away if people are stumbling over this or that. Read everyone.

What’s something you tried recently for the first time? 

Visual art and running are two things I’ve recently tried in earnest for the first time that has had similar and positive effects on my writing life. Both were things I felt ok to be bad at or struggle with in a way that shut down the inner critic. Last year I made a rule for myself that I had to draw or paint something every day and in February I ran my first 10K. I also took a stamp making workshop in Alicante, where I’m living now, and just doing something completely new, really learning from square one and having the pressure taken off which is very much there with writing. It’s something I need to keep trying to do.

When you’re not reading, writing, or working, how do you spend your time, energy, and money?

Train tickets, plane tickets, food…nice olive oil, sweet treats like turrón at Christmas.

What is the strongest influence your child-self contributes to your poetry?

Being a collector and having this compulsion to gather, to save little pretty things that spill over into my writing life where I want to list and stack up images. Part of that is a love of nature that I never lost from my child-self, but it’s a possessive love, one that wants to collect rocks and press flowers and gather pine cones and pretty bits of moss.

Besides language, what are two of the biggest differences between the literary community you are involved with in Spain, and those you’re affiliated with in the United States?

Size and funding are a huge difference, because Spain is so much smaller, the community is more insular, not that absolutely everyone knows everyone else but the US is just so huge, has so many writers…you can’t quite compare it to all of Europe either but it’s a giant machine and the culture of writing programs and being a poetry professor as your main profession…that same system is not in place and I feel like the hugeness of the US allows for more funding opportunities etc. But, perhaps because of its size, Spain is also really outward reading and I would say the “average” person here has a healthy respect for poetry and literature. I was luckily thrown into a really amazing creative community in Murcia, and the poets I met there had such a love and respect for American poetry and had read contemporary American poets (and had a lot of love for Mary Jo Bang) on a level that I don’t think the average American poet could live up to. I would say the biggest difference is diversity. Again, it’s difficult to compare as the two countries are so different, but I have come across countless all white catalogues here from different publishers and most surveys or anthologies or issues of journals with “new writing from Spain” don’t reflect what a diverse country it is.  Though I’m happily going to try and make sure that keeps changing for the better.