It’s hard to say what’s the most prominent occupation David Shook has: poet, translator and editor in Phoneme Media who also makes films sometimes. Growing up in Mexico, he lived together not only with Spanish and English, but also with some other old native languages. That might have been the first spark that would later become his profession. He studied endangered languages and poetry. Ever since, he has translated Roberto Bolaño’s Infrarealist manifesto, experimental indigenous Mexican poets and oral Burundian poetry. He has also written poetry of his own–see Our Obsidian Tongues–, and filmed a short documentary called Kilómetro Cero. We had a talk with him and discussed his views on language, contemporary poetry and drones.
How come you’ve learned native Mexican languages such as Nahuatl or Zapotec? Aren’t they very difficult minority languages? Why did you want to learn them?
I grew up in Mexico, and I had been fascinated by its indigenous languages since childhood. When I had the opportunity to live in a Nahuatl village in Guerrero with my partner Syd, I jumped at it. I’m not sure that I have a rational reason for wanting to learn the language. It largely comes down to the relentless curiosity that I think drives so many of us writers. I am especially interested in languages outside the Indoeuropean family, and Nahuatl is one of the largest indigenous languages of the Americas, with 1.5 million speakers. I think there’s another element of that curiosity as well: even as a child in Mexico, I understood that there were other cultures beneath the surface of mainstream Mexican culture, with its dominant language of Spanish. I felt that Mexican culture was itself marbled with a wide range of indigenous influences, often suppressed and unacknowledged.
My introduction to Isthmus Zapotec was more purely literary: I read a poem, a translation into Spanish by the poet himself, that bowled me over, and I had to know more. The poem was Your Name, by Víctor Terán. I don’t actually speak Zapotec, but I have translated from it quite extensively, working closely with poets like Víctor and asking an annoying abundance of questions. 
Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein said the limits of his language were the limits of his world. Besides indigenous Mexican languages, you know (and work with) many other major languages. How do you think this shaped your brain in terms of language?
I’m not sure that I’m the right person to answer that question. I think that the relationship between our thinking and the languages we speak to varying degrees is too complex for us to understand completely. But with that caveat I do think that my world has been expanded by my exploration of other languages, literatures, and cultures. And that’s a big part of my day job, as the Founding Editor of Phoneme Media, a non-profit publishing house that publishes books translated from languages like Uyghur and Zoque. Because my own world has been so enriched by my interactions with other languages and cultures, I believe that others’ worlds can be too, and I’m using books and film to that end.
You say that when you read a poem what catches your eye the most is the language, the words themselves. What is it that fascinates you so much about language?
I think there are two things that most fascinate me about language. The first is its political dimension. When I say that I don’t mean its use as an instrument of political discourse, but rather its use as an instrument of interpersonal communication, especially in regards to the social power dynamics between individuals and groups. That’s something that I find endlessly fascinating– language can be both incredibly empowering and incredibly disenfranchising, oppressive. We use it to whisper silly songs to our lovers and to denigrate entire people groups, to speak truth to power and to manipulate the masses.
The second thing that endlessly fascinates me about language is its evolution. Language evolves at the speed of speech – or Facebook meme, if you prefer. As a poet it’s exciting to feel like I can be a part of that evolution.
I love living on the outer edges of the borderlands here in LA, where we also have the interplay of English and Spanish and so many other languages; here we have sandwicherías, yonke yards, and sushi burritos.
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You have this project called The Poetry Drone, which consists in dropping pieces of paper from a drone with poetry written on them. It’s kind of an allegory for what our governments are doing militarily, isn’t it? Where did the idea come from? Can you tell us a bit more about this and what the aim of the project is?
The idea comes from the biblical image of beating swords into plowshares, but it came to me when a friend made a joke about how ridiculous it would be for a drone to drop poetry rather than bombs. It occurred to me then, at a moment when I’d been thinking a lot about the mutual dehumanization of contemporary warfare, that that was exactly the sort of thing that a drone should be used for. That sharing poetry was a radical alternative to ending life. So I began collecting poems to be dropped from the drone, by poets from the places where we actively use drones and by Americans and other poets as well. I printed them on paper embedded with flower seeds, so that they would blossom if left on the ground.
Unfortunately, The Poetry Drone never took off –literally– but I still feel like the project was a success in terms of using poetry as a form of civic engagement. I wrote a poem to be dropped from the drone myself, after Neruda’s poem about the bombing of Guernica. Kanye had just done a song featuring Otis Redding, and I told my friend, the musician Kennedy, that if Kanye could feature Redding, I wanted to feature Neruda on my poem. So we recorded a version with music, and sampled clips of Neruda reading his poem that inspired mine, as well as recordings of Predator drones taking off from military bases. It recently aired on BBC4, which gives me hope that The Poetry Drone might take off at some point in the future.
As a translator you take on a role that is kind of curatorial. You meet a writer, enjoy his or her work and decide you’re going to make it possible for people to read it, for example, in English. How does this work? Do you think you’re doing a curator’s job?
I definitely see the translator’s role as a curatorial one. Especially in the world of international publishing, it’s often the translator who brings a worthy project to an editor’s attention. So many of the books that I’ve published –whether as a translator or as an editor at Phoneme Media– are by poets and writers that I’ve met on my travels, people whose work I felt was so essential I had to share it with English-language readers. If you look at Phoneme’s forthcoming books, it’s often the case that translators brought the books to my attention: our forthcoming novel from Esperanto, for example, by the Croatian writer Spomenka Štimec, which was pitched to me by her translator Sebastian Schulman, or “galactic poet” and science fiction filmmaker David Avidan, whose work was introduced to me by his translator Tsipi Keller.
Translating doesn’t seem like an easy job. It is about destroying someone else’s work and building it again with your own words. How do you deal with this?
Translation isn’t easy, but it’s a lot of fun, and its incredibly rewarding. I feel like it’s a much more generative process than it is a destructive one, although I do enjoy employing the occasional wrecking ball.
“Because my own world has been so enriched by my interactions with other languages and cultures, I believe that others’ worlds can be too, and I’m using books and film to that end.”
Our Obsidian Tongues was your debut as a poet. The critics absolutely loved it. What many of them liked, besides the use of words, was that it is visceral and political all at once, two things that hardly ever go together. Did it come to you naturally or did you think and plan about it? What do you think are the book’s strengths?
I find it difficult to analyze my own work objectively. Our Obsidian Tongues was very much planned, in terms of structure and theme, but its contents are mostly organic, culled from a larger pool of poems that reflect my intellectual and emotional concerns over the course of its composition: primarily the competing and overlapping voices that inhabit the city. I’m very detail oriented in my poetry –much more so, perhaps, than in my life– and everything in Our Obsidian Tongues –every date and name in the addresses that title some of the poems, for example– was selected for a reason, has some meaning. I tend to think of books as books, rather than an anthology of my best individual poems. More like a concept album than a greatest hits. Now that I’m a few years removed from its publication, it’s a book that I’m still proud of, and I feel grateful for that. I hope it continues to resonate with new readers, and I’m especially excited that it’s being translated into new languages – most recently Arabic, Japanese, Mandarin, Swedish, and Uyghur.
As a writer, where do you get your inspiration? What are the topics you enjoy writing about the most? Are you afraid sometimes of being over-exposed?
I get a lot of my inspiration from everyday life, from listening to people, from their stories. Right now I’m writing a series of poems that use lines from other poems as their first lines: Michaux, de Andrade, Parra. Poets like that. I don’t know that there are certain topics I most enjoy writing about, but there are definitely topics that recur: cities, relationships, decay. Lately I’ve been writing a lot about borders, the desert. I don’t worry about being over-exposed – but maybe I should. I think most of us are more exposed on Facebook than I ever am in my poetry – and in front of a wider audience, too.
You’re also a filmmaker. Do you think there are some things that need images to be told properly? Are words not enough sometimes?
I don’t consider myself a filmmaker. I’m a poet that sometimes makes films. Most of my work, even my short-subject documentaries, is experimental in nature. I don’t think that words aren’t enough, just that they aren’t everything. I enjoy watching films, and I enjoy experimenting with the form.
Film is a great way to present literature in translation. Subtitles allow the viewer to read the work while they listen to it in the original language, which is incredibly powerful. That’s what makes Kilómetro Cero, the short documentary I made covertly in Equatorial Guinea, so compelling, I think. You get to hear Guinean poets like Marcelo Ensema Nsang and Recaredo Silebo Boturu read their work in Spanish, but you can read along in English. When you add in the visual element –the landscape of Equatorial Guinea, the rich facial expressions of Ensema Nsang, who was incarcerated and tortured under the Macías regime– it makes for a powerful experience.
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Do you think of your different works as isolated or, for instance, you think you wouldn’t be a poet if you weren’t a translator? How do they influence each other?
I don’t distinguish much between my work in different genres. In my mind I’m a poet, period. The forms I work in are inseparable to me. Of course I go about each project in its own way, each with its own rules and opportunities, but the boundaries are blurred. My work is just that – it’s not something I set out to do strategically in various genres or forms. It’s just a reflection of my curiosity, my interests, my interior life.
What poetry would you recommend for us to read?
Recently I’ve been re-reading Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, which I think ought to be required reading for all Americans. I’ve enjoyed Solmaz Sharif’s book Look, Adam O’Riordan’s In the Flesh, and Chelsea Bayouth’s Beaus & Eros. Lizzie Davis’s translation of My First Bikini, by Elena Medel, just came out with Jai-Alai Books. The current issue of Poetry is amazing, and has a lengthy review of two Phoneme Media books, which I’m grateful for. And finally, I think that Anthony Seidman’s latest book of poems, A Sleepless Man Sits Up in Bed, is really wonderful.
Finally, can you tell us what current projects are you working on? And what about the future?
I’m working on a book of poems about traveling, called Pasport, with one “s”, as a nod to the Nicaraguan poet Joaquín Pasos, whose work obsesses me. I’m also working on a novel called White Lobster, about an ambitious plan to sabotage the Nicaragua Canal, and a memoir called Mega, about my family, which is famous for leading evangelical Texas megachurches. On the translation side of things, I’m working on books by the Mexican Mario Bellatin and the Peruvian Jorge Eduardo Eielson, selected poems by the Santomean Conceição Lima, and some of the Paraguayan poet Jorge Canese’s later works. I’d like to make a film about Canese, a doctor who was incarcerated under Stroessner. On the Phoneme Media side of things, I’m about to publish the first book of Mongolian poetry to appear in the United States, and we’ve got books from the Farsi, Lingala, and Spanish coming out soon.