By Myra Saturen, Photo by Karen Paddock
April 03, 2014
Fans of Professor of English Javier Ávila's poetry will be excited to know that 120 of his poems are now available in the first dual-language collection of his work, Vapor (Poesía selecta/Selected Poems). The handsomely formatted volume includes verse from four previously published award-winning collections, displayed in Spanish and English on facing pages.
The poems' themes of mortality, love and time have roots in Ávila's early life. Open heart surgery at the age of eight impressed Ávila with a sense of urgency, of life happening now and of the need to do what one values in the present. His father's death in 1996, when Ávila was in his early twenties, impelled him to begin writing poetry to deal with emotional pain of great magnitude.
Having grown up in a Spanish-speaking home but attending an English-speaking school in Puerto Rico, the poet is thoroughly bilingual. When it came to writing poetry about his father, his native language, Spanish, emerged. "I had to find a voice," he says. "And nothing could replace my mother tongue," he says.
Poetry, written well, Ávila believes, expresses grief more faithfully than prose because poetry is a more intense genre. And like grief, poetry is introspective. Ávila's imagery captures the grip of emotion--"whirling traffic of time," "wearing an old man's skin," "the ferocity of time and its symmetry." He finds a "hunchbacked safety pin" in his recently deceased grandfather's medicine cabinet. A clock is an "obsessive calligrapher" in the poem Countdown. "Poetry must engage the emotions first; the intellect is secondary," Ávila says. He values economy, authenticity, wonder, beauty, and clarity.
The title of the collection, Vapor, conjures life's volatility, human beings facing some kind of transformative pressure, the poet says. "We don't see the vapor coming until it is too late to ignore it. Realities are invisible but can still puncture. All of my work examines realities that go unseen."
Ávila draws inspiration from the "simple, clear and profound" verse of Jorge Luis Borges, Charles Bukowski and Fernando Pessoa. In translating his poetry from Spanish to English, he aims to re-invent sounds so that the poems seem as if they were originally written in English. Rhythm, cadence and meaning had to work in the translation. If a similar word could not be found in English, the translation was set aside. Any translation that seemed forced or didn't do justice to the original did not make it into the book. As a result of this meticulous reading and writing, the poems took shape more as versions than as strict translations, although the essence of the poem remained.
"Poetry is a natural experience. Sounds are more important than meaning. We feel emotion through our senses," Ávila says. He believes that poetry should be accessible to the average reader.
In translating his poetry the poet spent 12-14 hours a day during his fall 2013 sabbatical, probing each poem word by word, line by line with his editor and other readers. Ávila, who writes every day without exception, credits his discipline in part to his education at the military school in Puerto Rico he attended from the age of seven. He also learned to write in English at this school.
Ávila holds that the act of reading is in itself a translation in which readers filter art through their experiences and abilities.
Ávila's poetry is widely anthologized and is on school reading lists. Two of his novels, the thriller The Professor in Ruins and the bestseller Different have been published in English. La profesión más antigua (The Oldest Profession) is published in Spanish. Different was adapted into the movie Miente. Ávila is the recipient of numerous awards, such as the Outstanding Latino Cultural Arts and Publications Award, given by the American Association of Hispanics in Higher Education; the Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña Award; and the Pen Club Poetry Award.
Ávila joined the NCC faculty in 2006 and teaches a variety of English courses. Next semester he will be teaching modern poetry and creative writing.
He earned a Ph.D. in literature and literary criticism from Indiana University of Pennsylvania and master's and bachelor's degrees in English from the University of Puerto Rico.
Vapor is published by Libros AC, San Juan, Puerto Rico. To obtain a copy, contact Professor Ávila at email@example.com or call him at 610- 861-5546. The book will be on sale through Amazon in late April.
"Doing good work is what's important, not the poet," Ávila says, in sum. "A great writer's life may be forgotten, but people will remember the writer's work."
Two of Javier Ávila's poems, in Spanish and English:
gota a gota
las más alta
we will write little
drop by drop
we will paint anguish
we will embrace
the highest brevity
and we will die
dejar atrás la vida familiar,
sumarase a un mar de pérdidas,
acoplarse al papel de antagonista,
acariciar lo incierto,
reconocer la urgencia
de este instante,
mercerer el olvido.
Es lo que le debemos
to leave behind the life
we know, to join the sea
of loss, to earn oblivion,
to taste uncertainty,
to pierce it,
to recognize the urgency
is what we owe the future.
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