Poet and professor Terry Hermsen has returned to Columbus from a whirlwind trip to windswept Chile. Though Hermsen has always been fascinated with place, the natural world and language, he has more recently discovered a love of translation. In addition to translating a book of poems by a Chilean poet, Hermsen is currently working on a book of creative nonfiction about travel, identity, culture and poetry.
My trip was a continuation of a trip I took four years ago, which was focused on Neruda. He’s sort of the doorway into world poetry for many people ... he was my first introduction to a poet I really liked from another culture.
On this trip, a group of college students and I went around the streets of Santiago and interviewed 70 people on their thoughts about poetry, Neruda and Chile. My big question was, “Has Chile changed as a country?” I mean, I’m a stranger ... but it’s thought of as a country of poets. It seems that Chile is becoming a bit like the U.S. ... economically savvy, stuffed to the gills with advertising, very Western. It’s none of my business, but I’m a little worried that a country of poets is becoming less and less so.
There’s a strong dynamic between the sense of poetry, the sense of place and history as it changes. As a culture gets more economically vibrant, what happens to that sense of place? To that sense of belonging?
I think poetry grows out of a sense of wanting something real that goes deeper than the quick buck, the quick economic flash. If a country like Chile loses it, this could be a symbol for other places.
I’m translating a book of poems right now (“El Cementerio Mas Hermoso de Chile” by Christian Formoso). It’s definitely a book about place (a cemetery in Punta Arenas, on the Straits of Magellan). I have never been anywhere like [the cemetery]. It’s like a miniature town, with each little gravesite like a tiny house.
In Punta Arenas, it is incredibly windy. The best thing is this huge swath of the Straits of Magellan. It’s like the Mississippi river ... it looks endless. You see Magellan’s statue there — it almost looks like he is both elated and totally afraid of what he’s doing.
For students and writers, it’s good to know at least one other language, and play with translating a little. Translating is close reading, the closest reading there is.