After his moustache, it’s hard to say what David Shook is best known for; this multimedia, multilingual Renaissance man films documentaries, writes and translates poetry, contributes to periodicals far and wide, and mans the helm of world literature and film organizations molossus and Phoneme Media.
A student of endangered languages, Shook has translated not only from the French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Russian but also from the Kirundi and Kinyarwanda (dialects of Rwanda-Runi spoken in Burundi and Rwanda respectively) and the indigenous Mexican languages Isthmus Zapotec, Zoque, and Nahuatl. His English translations of Víctor Terán’s selected poetry appear in The Spines of Love, which has been released this week from Restless Books. He is currently completing Like a New Sun, a documentary about Terán’s efforts to preserve the Isthmus Zapotec language.
After interviewing Restless publisher Ilan Stavans for molossus, he took his own turn fielding questions over email and discussed Los Angeles culture, the bearing of travel on his work, and his most recent book of poetry. Upon reading about his crafty methods of literary borrowing, it occurs to me that Shook can be classified as, in only the most positive sense of the word, an appropriator—of other poets’ verse and language for his own usage, of military technology for peaceful means. Ultimately, this global citizen brings it all home to us.
JS: You’ve translated Roberto Bolaño’s “Infrarealist Manifesto” and spoken publicly about his work. Your documentary Kilometer Zero follows you as you try to track down poet Marcelo Ensema Nsang in Equatorial Guinea, a mission that, at least on the surface, reflects the quest that sets The Savage Detectives into motion. Your poetry drone project is reminiscent not only of Raúl Zurita but also Carlos Wieder of Distant Star. Did you have Bolaño in mind at all during these two projects? As a globetrotting poet, do you consider yourself an adherent to Bolaño’s instruction to “hit the road”?
DS: Traveling is a very important part of my literary development, and one that's come about quite naturally. I suppose I am an adherent to Bolaño's "hit-the-road" school of relentless curiosity. Bolaño, in his manifesto, is actually quoting Breton, in what is likely his own translation from the French. I wouldn't be surprised if he's also referencing the Nicaraguan poet Joaquín Pasos, posthumously championed by Ernesto Cardenal—another Nicaraguan that Bolaño explicitly engages with in his own poetry, who wrote, before his premature death at age 32 in 1947, a poem called "Leave It All," almost certainly in conversation with the Breton quote Bolaño cribs his excellent advice from. In that poem Pasos ends with the image of sorting through the flotsam of shipwrecks to "[recover] the shoes of the dead." Maybe that's a morbid way to explain my own work chasing poets and writers I admire, scanning the wreckage that I might try on their shoes, whether by visiting their homeland, in the case of Marcelo Ensema Nsang's Equatorial Guinea or Pasos' Nicaragua, or inhabiting their language and work as translator, the most closest and most intimate variety of reader there is. That's the curiosity that attracted me to Víctor's work, and which eventually led me to Juchitan's humidity, and one of the first things I noticed in Víctor's own work, which compelled me to translate it.
New York likes to give Los Angeles a hard time about (among other things) its claims to a literary culture. How would you describe LA’s lit scene? How would you say it compares to that of New York’s? Why base molossus and Phoneme Media there, rather than anywhere else?
I think the great thing about Los Angeles is that it doesn't give a shit what New York thinks. We've been there: it's cold, the rats are the size of small deer, and the only way people can survive the high rent and miserable conditions is by telling anyone that will listen how New York is the greatest city in the world. Sure, there's some great stuff happening, and some really great people there. But the lady doth protest too much, methinks. LA is an incredibly collaborative space where almost anything you can dream up you can make happen. I'll take Brecht over Brodsky, and raise you Caceido.
You’re a poet yourself, and your debut collection Our Obsidian Tongues (2013) was longlisted for the Dylan Thomas prize last year. How has your work as a translator influenced your work as a poet?
My work as a translator is my work as a poet, I think. I really don't think of myself as working in two separate fields. At the end of the day, I consider myself a poet, and my translations reflect that. My own poems, and especially those in Our Obsidian Tongues, do engage heavily with the many poets whose work I feel I'm in conversation with, often using experimental forms of translation to incorporate work by poets like Eduardo Lizalde and Tedi López Mills and even Víctor. I'm a fan of the literary cannibalism espoused by Oswald de Andrade, and Jack Spicer's ingeniously reimagined Lorca. If you really want to know, though, you can read the book!
Is your mustache really sponsored by Oregon Wild Hair Mustache Wax? Did President Carter really compliment it? Are questions about your mustache annoying?
Yes, yeah, and no, I think they're flattering. My moustache is meant to inspire a brief, fleeting experience of happiness, and I think it works—at least it did for ol' Jimmy, who has written a few poems himself, when I saw him at the Houses of Parliament in London.
But here's something I haven't told anyone yet, a Restless blog exclusive: after almost five years, I shaved off my moustache last night. It's not forever, just a brief intermission, but it is good to remember that I have an upper lip! I want to focus on grooming the Platonic ideal of a moustache, so I thought I'd start from scratch.