What is visual poetry?
An interview with León Muñoz Santini and Shook
Isabella Parlamis: How long have you two been collaborating and what have you produced together thus far?
León Muñoz Santini: I met Shook about six years ago and it was love at first sight. If the permanent conversations we’ve had about the projects that we each work on can count as collaborating then we have been doing so ever since we met. More specifically, we have been working together for a few years on a collection of poetry that we are about to launch called avión. This is a project that follows the effort that Phoneme has set throughout its trajectory with the goal of bringing literature from far away distances into Spanish, building a multi-directional bridge between different languages and poetry.
Shook: I love León’s conception of collaboration, that it includes conversation and community-building. While we are indeed on the verge of launching the new avión imprint at Gato Negro, the Bookshelf Residency at ICA LA was really the first physical manifestation of our work together.
IP: Shook, can you talk about how you got into translation?
S: Growing up between places, languages, and cultures, translation wasn’t something to get into—it was just a fact of life. I didn’t realize that literary translation was a possible vocation until college, when my interests in language, linguistics, and literature led me to experiment with translating poetry. Today I consider my work as a translator an essential part of my work as a writer and artist—I consider my work as an editor and publisher the same way—and the books I choose to translate reflect my current interests and preoccupations.
IP: León, could you talk a bit about how you got into independent publishing and your signature graphic style?
LMS: I got into independent publishing as an obvious and natural unfold of my practice as an editorial designer. It was in the process of finding a space without restrictions, and through the freedom that that allowed, that the possibilities ended up generating a very strict design program, and in this way, our graphic style was born.
IP: You both publish a fair amount of poetry. What difficulties do you encounter when translating non-prose literature?
LMS: The inherent difficulty of literary expression in which the language in itself, and the technologies that are used to disseminate it, condemn it to a failed experiment that is worth trying out again and again.
S: I think the impossible nature of the task at hand can be incredibly liberating if we lean into it. I don’t often conceive of the issues involved in the translation itself as difficulties, because it’s the challenges of translation that make it such an exciting, generative space. The translation of poetry really questions the very concept of accuracy, as so much of a poem’s meaning—the very stuff that makes it a poem—is contained in its extra-semantic content: if you’ve managed to render every word of an Isthmus Zapotec poem into its closest equivalent in English (or Spanish) but ignored its rhythm and soundplay, how can you possibly claim to have “accurately” translated it? I don’t think you can.
Of course there are bigger-picture difficulties we encounter as publishers. Sometimes—as in the case of Lingala or Uyghur, for example—just finding a literary translator can be difficult. This is particularly true when you’re dealing with oppressed or endangered languages. It’s generally the case that there’s not much funding for literary translation, and the full cost of translating a book can be substantial for smaller, independent publishers.
IP: If the concept of “accuracy” in translations of poetry is indeed moot, then perhaps a better question is: how do you maintain authenticity? I’m thinking specifically in the case of languages that frequently use metaphor, proverb, and colloquialism.
S: There’s not an easy answer to this, because it really comes down to the text at hand. One example featured in the residency at ICA LA is the Kirundi-language proverbs that come from Roland Rugero’s novel Baho!, translated by Christopher Schaefer. Though the book—the first novel from Burundi to appear in English—was written primarily in French, the influence of the oral tradition looms large. Each chapter begins with a short Kirundi proverb, and Christopher was very methodical about replicating the oral qualities of the original text, which sometimes reminds me of a story told around a campfire. I think the translation succeeds—and I invite you to read it and decide for yourself!
IP: Given the unique confluence of your two fields—translation of underrepresented literature meets graphic art books—have you found that visual design aids translation and understanding?
LMS: Yes, claro que sí.
S: Part of what makes this collaboration so exciting was the opportunity to experiment visually with translation, to decontextualize and recontextualize texts from the twenty-odd languages of the exhibition, and to invite people into a physical space that somehow exteriorizes the interiority of the reading experience. I’ve also seen that the visual nature of the collaboration—powered by Gato Negro’s iconic risograph-inspired design—attracts new readers, people who might not otherwise be compelled to pick up an anthology of Indigenous Mexican poetry (Like a New Sun) or a polyphonic manifesto about fiestas (ManyFiestas!, Gabriela Jauregui).
IP: Gato Negro Ediciones is about to publish the visual poetry of Peruvian poet and artist Jorge Eduardo Eielson, with translation by Shook. Can you elaborate on this project? What is visual poetry?
LMS: Visual poetry was born out of the exploration of language into new and broader spaces of expression by trying to push the boundaries that used to delimit literature, and break the paradigms that bound it. In the case of Latin America, a lot of this tradition hasn’t been circulated enough, which is something we feel needs to change. The case of Eielson was interesting to us because we felt that the way in which his work had been published didn’t do it the justice we feel it deserves, so we took it as an opportunity to do it with the forcefulness and graphic intention that it is due.
S: I’ve been a disciple of Jorge Eduardo Eielson for some time, and I translated his collection Room in Rome for Cardboard House Press in 2019. León and I have both been interested in visual poetry for years, perhaps because it occupies the overlap between literature and the visual arts, and when I first shared these poems with León I think we both had a sort of a-ha moment, realizing that Gato Negro would be the ideal publisher for such a volume.
IP: To conclude, tell us about your forthcoming project with Víctor Terán.
S: It seems fitting to me that a groundbreaking new imprint of poetry in translation based in Mexico should begin with a collection of Indigenous Mexican poetry, which has been historically marginalized in the Spanish-speaking literary world. Víctor writes in the Isthmus Zapotec language of southern Oaxaca, and has long worked as an advocate for the language and its speakers, which number about 100,000. The Spines of Love features selections from four of Víctor’s books, which are now out of print. Isthmus Zapotec poetry deserves its place among the great literatures of the world, and I’m excited for readers of the series to discover how the imprint’s translations from around the world—its next titles will be translated from Kurdish and Icelandic—converse with each other.
Building on the legacy of radical independent publishing in Mexico, Gato Negro Ediciones, founded by designer León Muñoz Santini in Mexico City in 2013, has published over 170 books exploring the intersections of art, literature, and radical thought. Printed primarily on risograph and featuring the press’ iconic design, Gato Negro’s politically-engaged catalogue now includes the feminist imprint Miau!, edited by Andrea García Flores.
Founded by poet and translator Shook in Los Angeles in 2013, Phoneme has since published award-winning translations from over 30 languages, with a special emphasis on underrepresented literatures from around the world, including the first ever book-length translations from Isthmus Zapotec, Lingala, and Uyghur. Today an imprint of Deep Vellum Publishing, Phoneme’s catalog features primarily poetry, with recent and forthcoming books from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Curação, Cypress, Haiti, and Rojava.
This interview is produced in conjunction with ICA LA’s Bookshelf Residency, made possible with the support of the Human Sustainability Project and Fieldwork.