Poet Ariana Reines earned her B.A. from Barnard and went on to Columbia for graduate work. She has written several books, including The Cow, which won the Alberta Prize from Fence Books. She is also well known for her work translating French texts, such as Charles Baudelaire’s My Heart Laid Bare. Reines’ subject matter ranges from the occult to performance art, reflecting her diverse and conflicted reactions to her profession. Michael Silverblatt of NPR’s Bookworm has described her as “one of the crucial voices of her generation.” She is currently teaching a poetry seminar at Columbia’s School of the Arts. The Eye sat down with Reines to talk about the creative process, the art of translation, and her experience at Barnard.
What draws you to poetry?
I ask myself this a lot. Do I even know what poetry is? How strange is it to become a poet? I had a hard time admitting it. I felt I couldn’t say it out loud—it’s a feeling of essence. I love all kinds of literature. I read a lot of stuff that’s not poetry. I love all kinds of language and hearing people talk and all sorts of accents. I hope to live long enough to make all sorts of things—plays, screenplays. But there is something about poetry. It’s super corny, but it’s the heart of literature. I’m not interested in an intellectual virtuosity without a heart. It just excites me. It’s romantic. It’s a little bit of a delusion, but an attractive one. It makes me weak in the knees.
You once wrote of your book, The Cow, “I wrote it and a lot of other things. It has many big ideas inside of it. It quotes from many sources.” How important is it for you that literature look back to the past?
It was very important to me with my first book. I felt like I had to pass all of history, especially literary history, through my body. That’s ambitious. There was no way I could do it. I had wanted to be a writer since I was very young. I didn’t want my writing to be what I ended up doing, but I wanted to do wonderful, beautiful things with language. The quotations [in The Cow] are very angry. It’s not quotation in the fully respectful sense, it’s passing all of literature through a hamburger helper. It’s an expression of grief and mourning. I feel less dependent on quotations now.
How do you feel about translating?
Translating came first out of love, then necessity, then guilt. Otherwise I’d do nothing. There’s a part of me that is totally lazy and a part of me that loves working. I love to joke that translating is like doing ecstasy. It drives your brain, but it isn’t fun. It fries your brain. I don’t have very much patience for it. But it is a way to get intimate with a text that you love. It’s like sex. It is a much deeper reading. You get closer to the mind and body of the writer. That’s an intimacy that is really powerful. In that sense, I think it’s rapture. But translating texts that are problematic is painful. Translation is awesome and amazing [but] I’d be glad to never do it again unless it’s something that I really love. I thought I could be a half-translator as my job, but maybe I’m not literary enough to do it. Or maybe I don’t like being a servant.
You also wrote, “I am not a Francophile. I do not like cheese. I do not like the Champs-Élysées.” So why do other people like French culture so much?
For a lot of Americans, France has a bourgeois attraction. It can be argued that it always had it— that’s why we have the lingua franca, the language of currency ... that used to be French. Everyone spoke French. It was a cultural force across Europe. It has a snotty, bougie, problematic colonial and cultural history. No matter how many memoirs there are about eating pastries, people still write them. I [do] like thinking about the origins of the novel, a phenomenon that happened in France.
You’ve written about your time at Barnard as very difficult, with your mother and brother having to move in with you. Do you think you got the “college experience”?
I don’t think I had the typical college experience. I had lots of jobs, lots of on-campus jobs and lots of disgusting things. But my dad was hostile to me attending Barnard. And most parents like their children going to these kinds of schools. But the more you meet people, you see that they had harder experiences. Maybe the majority had to hide it. Maybe there were a lot of people at Barnard at the time who had experiences as dire as mine. I feel like I envied a lot of people. For a lot of people, college is a great time and can be lots of fun. It was fun for me, but it wasn’t easy. It seemed like a totally awesome party for some people. There is all kind[s] of privilege in the Seven Sisters and Ivy League. Barnard’s administration and the people I met were all extraordinary though. I’m not a ra-ra school spirit type of person, but I have a lot of respect for Barnard. All institutions have their problems, but Barnard is focused on empowering women. I’m teaching a class now [at Columbia]. I’ve only had one class, and it’s very eerie. My memories are still embedded in this place. A lot of good things and a lot of bad. I’ve been thinking a lot about institutions and if this is the best way to educate people.
So how did you go from student to poet? What is the transition like and do you have any advice for aspiring poets at Barnard and Columbia?
What forced me to be a poet? I took a poetry class at Columbia. I hated it, but it was a great classic poetry college experience. I also took a class called Imaginative Writing at Columbia. While I was a student, I was dealing with all this shit that I didn’t know how to handle. There are some real freaks to spend time with and share writing with at Columbia. That’s a beautiful thing. I became a poet when my brother went to the mental hospital, and I freaked out. I quit the Ph.D. program. I was trying to have a good experience at Columbia, but it was shattered. I wanted to become the artist I dreamed of becoming. A Proust without the pain. A girl Nabokov. I don’t know what I was thinking. I had to accept that I might never fit my ideal and maybe I was deluding myself. It was also luck and chance—I sent it [The Cow] out to friends, and it won an award. Then I became a poet, not somebody with a hobby. For anyone who thinks nobody will understand what they are doing, you never really know. There is something incredible about surrendering to the possibility. No matter how much you might doubt yourself, you never know what will happen. There’s no one way for a writer to be.