Evening Will Come: A Monthly Journal of Poetics (Tribute to Tomaž Šalamun—Issue 50, February 2015)

Brian Henry
Tomaž Šalamun: Faith/Friendship/Translation

Tomaž often seemed like a child, in awe of and deeply interested in everything around him, but also like a conduit to something no one else could see but could sense in his presence and in his poems. He seemed to be in contact with some else, and he was passionate about sharing his findings—in his poems, in his pronouncements, in his predictions. He treated everything with such reverence and intensity, his faith was contagious. When Tomaž writes (in “Pisanje”), “Pisanje poezije je najbolj resno dejanje na svetu” (“Writing poetry is the most serious act in the world”), I believe him. When he claims (in the introduction to Peter Richards’ first book Oubliette) that “It is better to be a new young god in American poetry than to be President of the United States,” I believe him. And whenever I spent any amount of time with Tomaž, I felt better about the world and my place in it, the scuzziness of reality pushed back just enough for me to see (always) more light. When he lived in Richmond for a few months, we had dinner every week. Afterward, on my drive home, I’d feel so buoyed, so fortunate, that I frequently felt something—a frisson, an inkling—when I passed the MegaMillions billboard and I’d stop at a gas station to buy lottery tickets, which is something that I never do otherwise. Just being with Tomaž made irrational belief seem entirely normal.


A few years ago, I started working on a book about translation. In it, I explain why I translate poems only by living poets:

For me, the only way to overcome the difficulty of translation is to approach it as an act of friendship, a living act. Every translation I do makes its way to the original author, which is an essential part of the process. This is the crucial difference between writing poems and translating poems. Many of my own poems remain with me for weeks, months, even years before venturing out; some are never seen by anyone else. My poems are guaranteed only one reader. But my translations are guaranteed to have two readers. They’re a gesture of friendship in and through the word.

In late 2013, I started translating some of Tomaž’s poems for the first time in a couple of years, and we began to correspond about them in our usual way (I translated a poem, had questions, emailed my questions to him, he responded, I sent a revised translation, and so on), but we didn’t get very far with them because of Tomaž’s health. The week after his death, I found myself translating his poems like mad, even though I knew I couldn’t ask him questions or share my translations with him. At first, I thought I was doing this for only two reasons: to cope with his death via productive distraction and to help put more of his poems into the world in English, which was very important to him. But after translating 20+ poems, I realized that I might have been doing this for another reason: to deny that Tomaž was actually gone (as if engaging in what I considered “an act of friendship, a living act” meant that he was still here). It feels stupid to view my translations this way, but why does my hyper-productivity that week, my desperate, frantic need to carry his poems into English while knowing that for the first time he would not see them need to have a rational source?