Poet shares how poetry and translation fueled his passions

Photo courtesy of Tori D'Amico.

Poet and translator Michael Bazzett visited Ramapo College for a reading and group discussion facilitated by Professor James Hoch on March 23 at 4 p.m. in the Adler Theater. The event marked the college’s first live poetry reading since 2020. 

Bazzett has authored four poetry collections, two chapbooks and a translation of the Mayan epic poem, “The Popol Vuh.” He recited poems from his most recent work, “The Echo Chamber,” which centers the myth of Narcissus and Echo, and the ways in which it resonates with contemporary values.

“I think about today [and] the echo chambers we live in,” he said. “I think about the narcissism of just American culture – certainly late stage capitalism.”

His work takes many tonal turns, shifting between humorous and serious, which vary depending on the weight of the content. The wit, Bazzett explains, he takes from the writers he studies, specifically of comics and Eastern European poets – both equally influential.

“I do listen to podcasts, watch every ‘Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee,’ old stand-up folks … whose jokes are very chiseled,” he said. “And then sometimes I’ll take that scaffold and put a very different language on it.”

Though Bazzett regularly employs irony, the emotive qualities of his work are not lost or undermined. Instead, the humor is an entrance point into something more profound and consequential.

He found himself more reluctant than willing to embrace this style when attempting it at first. However, in moments of doubt and self-questioning, Bazzett learned the value of perseverance. 

“You do have to persist,” he said. “It's just trying to hold to that middle line of holding on to the rope.”

Despite having shown an interest in poetry before college, Bazzett’s life had steadied at an early age, both as a parent and a high school English teacher. He explains that experiences collected within these roles have, in part, substituted for an MFA program and enhanced his work. 

“Poetry was something I always returned to,” he said. “I will say that being a parent and being a teacher – the two things that I thought were getting in the way – made me so much better.”

He began writing at 48, and took on a translation project, which Bazzett spent eight years with. The text and its length, he explained, demanded close attention to detail, especially when considering the audience.

“In translation, there's this spectrum where you've got total fidelity, you're just trying to stay what was said at that time. And then there's the folks like, well, here's the experience of having those readers. Now I'm going to try and create that experience in my reader 12,000 years, three years later, or whatever it is,” Bazzett said.

Translators are often met with the challenge of inserting their own style to the poem without interrupting its original reading. “The Popol Vuh” demanded Bazzett to create poetic form through listening to its recitation and searching for rhythm.

The process of it, though, reaffirms the writing experience for many translators, including Bazzett. He describes it to be one of the more invaluable lessons he has applied to his own poetry.

“It demystifies even more of the writing process, but there's times when you just need to grind,” he said. “But I think also just the extent to which every poem is an act of translation. When you're trying to get it out [of your mind] and just trying to minimize the number of imperfect choices.”

This also demands the writer to learn how to embrace agency. Bazzett had particularly found his religious upbringing to both postpone and propel the making of his poetry. It remains a consistent theme, though he finds that it has been useful to the narrative work he structured.

“That idea of the internal editor, it's like that's just something that, to a certain point, you realize your life is your life,” he said. “And no one else can tell your story except you.”