Cheryl Collins Isaac speaks to managing editor Emily Everett about her story “Spin,” which appears in The Common’s new spring issue. “Spin” is about two Liberian immigrants making a new life in Appalachia. In this conversation, Cheryl talks about the inspiration behind this story: writing from music and toward beautiful, sensual language. She also discusses Liberia’s interesting cultural history, her writing and revision process, and what it’s like to do a writing residency in Edith Wharton’s bedroom.
Translation is home. Whenever I travel, I seek it either by reading translations, or by translating as a grounding exercise. Lately I have been translating into English poems from Jewish Latin American poets, specifically works by conversos or those written in Yiddish and Ladino by immigrants and their offspring. And—in a room of her own—Alejandra Pizarnik, whose life makes me think of Emily Dickinson. I recreated these two poems while visiting my mother, who has been suffering from Alzheimer’s. Pizarnik distills the fibers of existence so as to reveal the madness that palpitates underneath. Her poetry is contagious. The toughest part is to convey her silences. I wish I had met her.
Every day at four, my grandmother listened to the radio, as her enemies died around her one by one. The disembodied voice on the radio shared in her delight, singing to the next world those who had departed us.
It has become the first ritual of morning to throw the door open, welcoming the breeze now free of evening’s biting insects, another in a long line of self-justifications: it will arrive whether it’s welcome or not. As will the birds, who know when you breakfast and on what, who are generous with suggestions, whether here, in your dishabille, or at the seasonal cafe, in not much else. There is a three-sided varnished pine box with a plexiglass front, like a bird feeder or diorama or, in traditions less eager to let go or get rid, a coffin, scale being trivial to all species but those least likely to accept it, though the slot on top and slips of paper on display suggest a raffle or ballot, a variation on a theme performed in a tiny theater, and the blanks and golf pencil at the side are, in combination and without need to announce itself with embossed lettering or miniature reply envelope—scale, again—an invitation. At this suggestion, you suggest: The history of our times betrays the stupid arrogance of this and so many other definite articles, symptomatic of these times and others. It might be noticed and echoed and yet go unchallenged on social media, but here it could ignite a sudden change, a contemplative pleasure, and be forgotten all in the span of a few moments, like rain in the green season. It means something to us, this refusal to admit our visceral understanding of the unity of space and time, when, honestly, we know them in no other way. Whereas your ruminations on what memory means to the birds have proven inconclusive. Like you, they’re as routinized in their offices as offices. Like you, they celebrate the light that breaks the rain, throughout the day and without memory, as the arrival of a god.
On May 4th at 5pm EDT, join The Common for the virtual celebration of Issue 23! We welcome fiction writer Fernando Flores, poet Tina Cane, Palestinian writer Eyad Barghuthy, and Arabic translator Nashwa Gowanlock for brief readings and conversation about place, culture, and translation. The event will be hosted by the magazine’s editor in chief Jennifer Acker, in partnership with the Amherst College Creative Writing Center and Arts at Amherst Initiative.
“Moss on a Smooth Rock” is from Un mar en madrugada (A Sea at Dawn), by the Uruguayan poet Silvia Guerra, published in 2018 by Hilos Editora, Buenos Aires, Argentina. The English version of this book is forthcoming from Eulalia Books in 2022.
Guerra’s work is notorious for its complexity, its concreteness of image and abstraction of thought, and its convention-defying syntax, capitalization and punctuation. With a long-standing interest in linguistics and psychology as well as a deep affinity for the natural world, Guerra’s poems go beyond the self in an effort to imagine the world from the standpoint of other beings, living and nonliving. For centuries, humans have assumed a monopoly on consciousness, even arrogantly denying the subjective experience of other mammals. But scientists are at last confirming what any dog or cat owner has always known: animals are not unfeeling automata any more than we are. But while only some creatures are proven to be sentient, can we be so certain that others are not? “How can we be so sure that plants feel no pain?” asks Polish poet Wisława Szymborska. What about rocks? Guerra dares to imagine they are.