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Erin Mouré discusses Sheep's Vigil by a Fervent Person

Sheep's Vigil by Erin Moure

Canada Reads Poetry is a three-week online initiative presented by CBC Books and the National Post. Inspired by the original Canada Reads format, Canada Reads Poetry features five panelists defending five collections of poetry. That's where the similarities end; while Canada Reads plays out on-air, Canada Reads Poetry plays out online.

We're exploring the Canada Reads Poetry contenders one collection at a time, and we've reached the final contender, Sheep's Vigil by a Fervent Person by Erin Mouré.

Erin Mouré is a poet and translator, with 15 collections under her belt. Her Canada Reads Poetry selection, Sheep's Vigil by a Fervent Person, brings both of Erin's worlds together: it is a translation, but Mouré takes considerable liberties, making it very much a work of her own.

Q: For readers not familiar with Sheep's Vigil by a Fervent Person, tell us what it is about.

A: It is an altered but true translation of a work by the great modernist Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa, called O Guardador de Rebanhos, and attributed to one of his most famed heteronyms, Alberto Caeiro. It proclaims a philosophy of direct response to the material world in front of us, and argues with all other types of poetry, and with transcendence...and it's just a joyful book.

Q: This collection is called a "transelation" of Alberto Caeiro/Fernando Pessoa's O Guardador de Rebanhos. What is a "transelation"?

A: In this case, it is a translation that lays bare the elation of the project...it is a way of foregrounding the translator's presence instead of pretending to disappear...my little e (objet petit e, to slide-elide a Lacanian reference — objet petit a, the unattainable object of desire — that it doesn't matter if the reader gets, but was part of the movement of creation), e for Erín, is inserted right into the word translation. You can see the translator squirm as you read Pessoa's book...


Q: What attracted you to this project?

A: When I learned to read Galician, I realized I could read Portuguese, and re-read Caeiro's book, but in Portuguese! In so doing, I realized it was funny, and yet — its humour is lost in normative translation. I wanted people to see the humour in it! Humour is contextual, so I altered the context slightly, kept the humour and pacing and philosophy and movement and "story" of the original intact...it is a book that loves being alive.

Q: Why did you decide to publish the collection under your Gaelic name, "Eirin"?

A: Because translation alters the translator, as well as the text...and Erín is often spelled Eirin in Galicia... and I told Fred Wah that and he thought I should stick my I into Erín.... Also because people misspell and mispronounce my name all the time, so really, in my view, I could be anybody with any name!

Q: Jacob McArthur Mooney is defending your book in Canada Reads Poetry. What advice would you give him?

A: Excellent! Jake, enjoy yourself and say whatever you like!

Q: What the biggest challenge you faced working on Sheep's Vigil by a Fervent Person?

A: Time. I realized I had to translate the whole thing quickly before I left Toronto (I was there for three months in 2000 as writer in residence at the University of Toronto, and started the translation as part of an exercise I gave to students in my workshop... but I only had a month left at that point)...as I was afraid I would lose the environment that was compelling the work.

Q: How did you get started writing poetry?

A: I liked Mother Goose an awful lot...and we couldn't afford comic books, so I wrote poems and made them into books. I loved the mystery of Mother Goose: Ride a bay horse to Banbury Cross...what bigger mystery could you hand a kid in 1960s Calgary? I thought the horse came from The Hudson's Bay Company...amazing...and hot cross buns! and such rhythms!

Q: If you weren't a poet, what would you be doing?

A: Plumbing! I like water and its rhythms where it moves...and how it helps us. Plus I like working with my hands, and with materials. If not words, then pipes and water, I say.

Q: Do you have a day job? If so, what is it?

A: Of course I have a day job! I like to eat! I'm a translator. I do commercial and business-type translation, while wandering all over the place (I'm answering this in L'viv, Ukraine).

Q: Where do you write most of your poetry? What is it about that space that works for you?

A: In my head, fortunately (for other people). It works for me coz it's portable, I never go anywhere without my head, even when I'm sleeping, it's working...A lesser amount of poetry I write in notebooks, on my laptop, dictate into my iPod, etc.

Q: Who are the poets you return to again and again? Why?

A: Federico García Lorca, Sappho, Paul Celan, Chus Pato, Baudelaire, Lisa Robertson, the medieval Galego-Portuguese trobadors, Norma Cole, Susan Howe, Nazim Hikmet, Andrés Ajens...I could name many more. The ones who do things in form and with the textures, sounds, and movements of language and languages that I would never have believed possible before reading them. But I like a wide wide variety of poetry, and enjoy my Canadian contemporaries a lot.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Yet another revision (tweak, tweak) of The Unmemntioable, a poetic investigation into subjectivity, immigration and the western borderlands of Ukraine, due out from Anansi in mid February 2012. And then a dramatic poem, a long one, about my grandmother and her stove, more or less. And a translation from Galician of Chus Pato's Secession.

Well, that's it! Come back tomorrow at 2 p.m. ET when the panelists will duke it out online in an effort to win your vote and crown their book the Canada Reads Poetry champion!

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