An interview with Lawrence Schimel

Lawrence Schimel is an award-winning multi-lingual author and anthologist working in many genres (poetry, children’s books, fiction, essays, graphic novels, etc.) whose work frequently deals with gay and lesbian or Jewish themes. […]

Posted by Nia Davies on 19 June 2014 Features

Lawrence Schimel is an award-winning multi-lingual author and anthologist working in many genres (poetry, children’s books, fiction, essays, graphic novels, etc.) whose work frequently deals with gay and lesbian or Jewish themes. Born in New York in 1971, he studied at Yale University, and has lived in Madrid, Spain since 1999, where he works as a Spanish->English translator. He has twice won the Lambda Literary Award, the ‘Lammys’, for PoMoSexuals: Challenging Assumptions About Gender and Sexuality (with Carol Queen; Cleis) and First Person Queer (with Richard Labonté; Arsenal Pulp). With some 100 books to his name in various genres, he is always busy working on multiple projects.

You are one of the great literary multi-taskers: poet, writer of children’s books, translator from Spanish and a one-man publisher. What makes you work across so many related but still different fields?

I would also add: reader, since that is what I am first and foremost! I am a voracious and omnivorous reader, reading across genres and categories (not to mention languages). I love books (physical books that is, I am of an age where while I use a computer and can even create on a computer, I prefer my books as physical objects for reading pleasure) and matching the right book to the people around me. Bookselling is not just a question of pushing your favorites, although your enthusiasm for a title can be contagious, but of finding the book that a given reader wants–and there is a book waiting for everyone, even someone who doesn’t think of themself as a reader.

Years ago, when I lived in NYC, I worked at a children’s bookstore, Books of Wonder, and while I might not be interested in ballet or football, I tried to recommend titles that matched the interests of the young readers (or their relatives) who came in. And for me, the best moment came when some young reader came back and asked for something else like the book I had recommended for them.

Trying to get people to read (in general, not just something I’ve written or translated or published myself, although obviously I stand behind all of those products) is, I think, at the heart of all the various publishing-related activities I’m involved in.

Tell us something about the combination of being a writer and translator – it is not exactly common in the English-speaking world for a writer to translate as well? What are the challenges? Does translation distract you from your own work or does it enrich it?

The wording of your question presupposes an antagonistic approach to those two facets (writer and translator) rather than a more complimentary one (more yin yang or at least push-pull). Yes, the constraints of time do come into play: there is only so much typing or word-work that one can do in a day before one’s fingers (and brain!) are worn out. But the two are more like heads and tails of the same coin for me, rather than one taking away from the other, and unquestionably the translation I do enriches my writing (in both English and Spanish, which are the two languages I create in and the primary languages I translate between) and hopefully my experience as a writer adds nuance and texture to the translations I create.

Translating is one of the most intimate ways of reading, and also writing, or better yet re-writing, because you’re not some passive participant when translating, a conduit for words to enter in one language and flow out in another in some automatic substitution process.

Some writing teachers recommend reading your text aloud as a way of self-editing. Self-translation takes this a step further. When I’ve created bilingual children’s books, for instance, I’ve always gone back and re-written the original text (whatever language I wrote it in) after I’d self-translated it into the other language, and this always improved the originals. And for poetry, writing something that’s untranslatable between the two languages I work in is, for me, one of the best moments — certainly, a vindication of my creating differently in each language, actually thinking in each language and not just translating in my head before writing it down in one or the other.

Thinking in another language changes your entire worldview.

And one of the things I love about translating is how with each project you wind up learning about something new, investigating a new set of vocabulary or ideas. For me, translating is more like solving a sudoku  puzzle — challenging, stimulating, but fun — whereas creating something, writing, can be much more draining, at least for me.

In terms of the writer/translator balance, a lot depends on where each individual is in their life. At this point, having published over 100 books now as an author and anthologist, I am at a stage where I don’t need to prove anything — to myself or to anyone else — any longer, as I might’ve sometimes felt when I was much younger and wanting to tackle everything. So I have the ‘luxury’ perhaps of being able to devote more time to helping bring other voices to an English-reading audience, instead of feeling like the sands of time were running out and that I should instead be producing my own books or texts.  And as my income sources have shifted, where I now earn more money from translating instead of writing, this allows me the freedom to write less commercial things (poetry, say) than when I was keeping a roof over my head exclusively through my own writing.

Can you tell us about the two anthologies of gay and lesbian poetry you are editing respectively for Arc Publications in the UK?

The project is an offshoot of the LAF workshops on translating gay poetry between small and large languages, but is not limited only to poets who took part in the workshops (nor can all of the participants be included, for reasons of space and the fact that some countries, often coinciding with countries with greater legal rights for homosexuals, have a higher number of poets writing about these concerns… We’re still determining how to approach the anthology. While some arguments could be made for including both gay and lesbian poets in the same volume, to explore the similarities and differences between those non-heterosexual identities, from the point of view of bringing world gay or lesbian voices to a larger readership, it is probably best to split the project into separate volumes. While there is often common political cause among LGBT people and in fighting homophobia and transphobia, when it comes to reading tastes, experience has often proven that the market for a separate gay or lesbian book is larger than for a co-gendered project. So that seems to make more sense, both from a publishing standpoint (trying to make the project not lose money) as well as from the point of view of getting these voices to as broad an English-language readership as possible.

Why gay and lesbian poetry? What characterizes gay poetry? Sexual orientation of the poet or content? Does gay and lesbian poetry mostly equal homoerotic poetry?

A lot depends on whether one looks at the question from the point of view of the author or the reader. Hence some of our questions as to how we wish to frame these collections. This is one of the reasons I love anthologies, as a vehicle for bringing together a diversity of voices, issues, point of view, all under a common theme or umbrella, whether this is thematic, geographic, linguistic, etc.

And questions of our identities, sexual and otherwise, affect both how we write and who we are writing for. And who we are writing for will also often affect how we write — especially when it comes to non-mainstream identities.

Many gay or lesbian writers do censor themselves, in what they choose to write about and how they choose to write it, in order to appease or not offend the heteronormative critical gaze.

Or for fear of their very lives and livelihoods in many countries with repressive attitudes toward homosexuals, like present day Russia.

Others, in turn, use poetry to rebel openly against heteronormativity — whether using patriarchal forms to express very queer content, or breaking down patriarchal language and forms with new queer poetics.

All these myriad gay and lesbian poetries are interesting for so many different reasons.

And then there is, of course, the lesbian or gay reader, who is eager to find themselves reflected in the poems they read — and might not know where to look, to find the occasional poem by a poet who otherwise doesn’t dwell unduly on homosexual topics to avoid a dismissive, negative review, such as the one Gregory Woods received by John Greening in London Magazine: “I suppose a Professor of Gay and Lesbian Studies has a professional obligation to write about these areas, but I’d have welcomed a few poems about trees or fly-fishing.”

This is, alas, far too common an occurrence. When my first collection of short stories was published in Spain, a reviewer in El País wrote that they were “crafted with skill, but it was tiresome that all of the characters were gay or lesbian.” No heterosexual writer is ever taken to task for all their characters being straight.

And many gay or lesbian writers, in the search for mainstream success, acceptance, sales etc, avoid writing about such personal or intimate subjects so as not to jeopardize their careers — or even the chance of publication itself.

You specifically mention homoerotic poetry, and sex is often one of the subjects that still often divides mainstream success from marginalization.

Sex is a normal part of our lives, and it should be a normal part of our literatures — whatever our identities. However, in the sex-negative mainstream of society, we don’t (in general) demand better representations of sex in culture. At the same time, those of us who are so often attacked and vilified for our sexuality do tend to vindicate the sex we have and our sexualities as part of our identities, and in our literatures. Gay and lesbian poetry does not have to be about sex, of course, although homoerotic poetry could be a subset of gay and lesbian poetry.

All too often, however, any poem about gay subjects is automatically considered to be homoerotic (or even pornographic) regardless of its actual level of erotic content — or intent. For a piece of writing can be about sex without being erotic at all (and I am referring to intent, here, rather than entries nominated for the Bad Sex Award).

And what about your children’s books and publishing?

I love writing the children’s books, I think youth are much more appreciative readers than adults, perhaps because they’re struggling so hard to be able to read, and they still so actively take pleasure in stories.

Reading, for many adults, is an activity that’s become marginalized; they read on the commute to or from work (maybe with LAF’s LitNav app!) or if they’re eating alone or for a few minutes before bed. But we don’t often devote prime time hours to reading, showing it to be an activity that’s worth doing in and of itself — the way it still is for children.

With my children’s books I often try and write the other side of a story, or about the characters that are not usually given a voice, absences I recognize from my own personal experiences of exclusion and marginality: because of my sexuality, my religion, my living in another country and speaking and writing in its language.

So in writing a story about immigration, instead of focusing on arriving in a new country as almost all books on the subject do, I wrote about the people who are left behind, in this case a young girl in Latin America whose father is in another country, working and sending money home to his family (Vamos a Ver a Papá, Ekaré). One of my picture books, ¿Lees un libro conmigo? (Panamericana) was chosen by IBBY for Outstanding Books for Young People with Disabilities 2007, for its inclusion of a blind character in a book that was not about being blind.

No matter what other social element one might wish to convey, the most important thing is to offer kids a good story, something with humor or adventure, poetry or emotion, for them to take pleasure in reading.

As for the publishing I do, I run a small poetry publisher called A Midsummer Night’s Press. We publish small trim-sized collections, aiming to produce volumes that are attractive and also affordable — which can be enjoyed by poetry afficionados but which are not threatening to readers who might otherwise be leery of poetry (having had bad experiences in school, being forced to dissect a poem and sometimes killing the magic of poetry). One of our imprints is Body Language, which publishes work by LGBT authors, voices which don’t always find a place at other houses.

And our newest endeavor is a translation series, which to begin with is focusing on translating women writers, as it is much harder for women writers (in general, and poets in particular) to be translated into English than male writers. The first few books in this series will be: One is None by Estonian poet Kätlin Kaldmaa (translated by Miriam McIlfatrick), Anything Could Happen by Slovenian poet Jana Putrle (translated by Barbara Jursa), and Dissection by Spanish poet Care Santos (which I have translated).

Lawrence Schimel with Slovene edition

Lawrence Schimel with Slovene edition of ‘Just like them’