H E R M E N E U T I C C H A O S J O U R N A L
I N T E R V I E W E D B Y S H I N J I N I B H A T T A C H A R J E E
The Lovers' Phrasebook can be purchased here.
Jordi Alonso graduated with an AB in English with an emphasis in Creative Writing from Kenyon College in the spring of 2014, where he studied poetry and literary translation. He was the first Turner Fellow in Poetry at SUNY Stony Brook where he received his MFA, and is now a Gus T. Ridgel Fellow at the University of Missouri, Columbia where he is a PhD candidate. He has been published or has work forthcoming in Kenyon Review Online, Noble/Gas Qtrly, Roanoke Review, Edible East End, and Fulcrum among other journals. His first book, a collection of erotic poems inspired by Sappho entitled Honeyvoiced was published by XOXOX Press in November of 2014. His latest collection, The Lovers' Phrasebook, is available from Red Flag Press. We are so excited to learn more about it from him.
We found the title of your forthcoming book The Lovers' Phrasebook quite haunting and compelling, as it combines relationships with the language that often helps to lift them into their identities. How did you conceive the chapbook and its title?
JA: The original inspiration for the project was a list of “untranslatable words”, which is to say, words that don’t have a direct correspondence in English, that Phoebe and I started keeping in the hopes that we’d use those words, whether together with one another or separately, in some sort of creative project. I wrote the bulk of the poems in a couple of frenzied snowbound weeks in the winter of 2014-2015 but I didn’t really have a concept of the manuscript as a whole until the end of that period when I noticed that I had enough words to organize the manuscript as a sort of phrasebook––a good model, I think, given the nature of the poems and how they flirt with translation and multiculturalism. One day I was working on something completely unrelated when the idea of titling this project The Lovers’ Phrasebook came to me. I toyed around with the apostrophe placement: “The Lover’s Phrasebook” versus “The Lovers’ Phrasebook.” Ultimately, I decided on the latter since I didn’t want to restrict the Phrasebook to one lover, but rather open it to as many as possible, just as how I hope the Phrasebook itself opens up other ways to think about love as a concept and as a daily action to its readers.
Something that we find very intriguing about the book is the illustration that accompanies every poem in it. We really admire the way Phoebe Carter’s illustrations complement the poetic pieces by honoring your poetic detail and vision, and carve a new narrative out of it that lends a richer texture to the poems. How did your collaboration come into being, and how did your unique perspectives meet each other in the chapbook?
JA: Like I said earlier, the expiration for this project was collaborative in the first place. Most, if not all of Phoebe’s illustrations were done with my poems in front of her; she was at times, aside from my illustrator, my editor––asking me to clarify a scene here, a line there. In an early draft of “Epiberen”, I made a terrible pun on the phrase “mystery baker”. After having to explain the pun countless times (and so sucking out whatever grain of cleverness it had in the first place) I sent the poem to Phoebe, who said something along the lines of “do we really need that line?” The answer to that turned out to be a resounding “no” and it gave me more space to explore the idea behind that word: "to go off and engage in unspecified, usually bureaucratic or administrative activities that seem highly important but, in fact, are not” and resulted in Phoebe’s great illustration of a shifty-eyed office worker surreptitiously eating doughnuts.
One of the primary thematic intentions of The Lovers' Phrasebook is to explore the cultivation of languages in different cultures, and the way they rear certain words/phrases that cannot be directly translated into English. Some of my favorite poems in the collection are “Hanyauku” (the act of walking on one’s tiptoes on warm sand), “Forelsket” (the euphoric feeling of first falling in love) and “Gumusservi” (the reflection of moonlight on water). It is indeed quite surreal to discover words in other cultures that directly describe some our emotions and actions that we struggle to define in English. How did you first respond to this realization?
JA: I’ve been familiar with the grey spaces between languages for as long as I can remember. I grew up speaking English and Spanish. Since then, I’ve become fluent in French and I’m familiar to varying degrees with ancient Greek, Latin, Provençal, Anglo-Saxon, Italian, and I’m currently studying modern Greek and Catalan.
I reacted (and still do) to the bounty in other languages with good-natured envy. Yes, the Brazilians have enriched their Portuguese with cafuné, the act of running one’s fingers through a lover’s hair, but that doesn’t mean that someone, as a speaker of a language other than Brazilian Portuguese, doesn't participate in the action signified by that word. Finding out that another culture has deemed a concept important enough to give it a name lets us, as lovers of language, enrich our cultural consciousness.
What is your relationship with language as a poet? How has it evolved over the years?
JA: I went from being bilingual by chance as a child to my current tetralingual stage––do we stop counting after three and just say ‘polyglot’?––and along the way I’ve become enthralled by the smallest variations between languages even at the grammatical level. Not all languages function equally even at the grammatical level, therefore grammar shapes the way one expresses oneself and by extension, one’s personality. That seems enthralling to me, and through The Lovers' Phrasebook one could say that I take a linguistic-philosophical hypothesis––the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis––and put it to the test through poetry.
The poems in your collection incorporate a lot of vivid visual, tactile and auditory imagery. Is it one of the methods that you use to capture the nuances of the different words that otherwise can’t be properly absorbed in English?
JA: I can’t in good conscience say that I intended to use the sensual imagery to make up for any deficits in our vocabulary. I happen to write sensually. My poems have been described as the “balm and thrill that philia and eros promise" and as “a delicious, erotic, and poignant multicultural feast” by Tyler Meier, the executive director of the Arizona Poetry Center and Aliki Barnstone, the Poet Laureate of Missouri, respectively.
Could you tell us about your upcoming projects?
JA: I’d love to. I’m currently editing a larger manuscript of poems focusing on desire in all its forms (from the domestic to the culinary to the sexual) that I’m calling Epicurerotica and a chapbook of erasure poems crafted from interviews that Björk has done in the last decade or so. I have yet to send those out, but I’m looking forward to submitting again. At the moment, I’m planning a collaborative book of poems with Mara Vulgamore, a wonderful poet, visual artist, and dancer, who, thanks to the limitations of the English language and its lack of words describing relationships, I’ll call my best friend––though that doesn’t do her justice. The Lovers’ Phrasebook is dedicated to her in the hope that its readers will be as enriched by the poems between its covers as I am by her love and her presence every day.
Copyright © 2014-2017, Hermeneutic Chaos Literary Journal. All rights reserved.