The strangest epic poem you’ve never heard of

Linfield professor Sonia Ticas is part of the team translating a 456-page work by Costa Rican poet Eunice Odio for Portland’s Tavern Books

Nothing was foreseen.
All was imminent.

— “The Fire’s Journey, Part I: The Integration of the Parents”

With offices tucked away in Union Station, Portland-based Tavern Books is in the home stretch of an ambitious project that began more than five years ago: the translation and publication of more than 400 pages of the strangest epic poem you’ve never heard of. Written in the mid-20th century by Costa Rican poet Eunice Odio (a poet you’ve also probably never heard of), it’s called The Fire’s Journey. Tavern Books claims that it is the first book-length translation into English of the work of any Costa Rican woman poet.

Eunice Odio (1919-1974) is considered the leading Costa Rican poet of the 20th-century, according to Tavern Books, which is publishing “The Fire’s Journey” in four volumes.

The idea to bring this mysterious and complex work to English-speaking readers was the brainchild of Keith Ekiss. A Stegner Fellow in Poetry at Stanford (where he still lectures) from 2005-07, Ekiss is the author of Pima Road Notebook, a poetry collection published in 2010 by New Issues Poetry & Prose.

Ekiss had help on this epic literary excavation, and as Tavern was preparing to release the third of what ultimately will be four volumes, I sat down with one of his collaborators, Yamhill County resident Sonia Ticas.

Since 2001, Ticas has taught Spanish at Linfield College in McMinnville, along with classes in Latin American literature and culture, women writers, and history. Before we dive into my conversation with her, an introduction to Odio is in order, because she’s an obscure figure who has only in the past couple of decades started getting attention in the poetry world. Let’s start with an excerpt from the introduction Ekiss wrote for Vol. 1: Integration of the Parents, which Tavern published in 2013. After noting that Costa Rica is largely viewed as the “Switzerland of Central America,” with a prosperous democracy, high literacy, and national health care, Ekiss continues:

But when it comes to the arts, and poetry in particular, English-speaking readers and literary translators have mostly turned their attention elsewhere in Central America, gravitating to the more politically-charged writers of war-torn Nicaragua and El Salvador, to the poetry of Rubén Dario, Ernesto Cardenal, Claribel Alegría and Roque Dalton. Eunice Odio’s poetry has thus remained almost wholly unknown to readers outside Latin America, obscured on the margins of the region’s avant-garde and proletarian-poet traditions.

Odio was born in 1919 in San Jose, Costa Rica. According to Spanish American Women Writers, she learned to read when she was very young and gravitated to science-fiction writers such as Jules Verne and Emilio Salgari, preferring getting lost in a book to paying attention to her classroom teacher. She wasn’t much for hobnobbing with the region’s literary and publishing world, and while she associated with the political left early in her life, Odio eventually fell out with them. She was clearly a fiercely independent woman, and what little I read about her made me want to know more. Her letters must be fascinating.

She began her literary career in the 1940s by reading poems on the radio, limiting herself to the domestic themes then common among poets. That didn’t last long. As she gravitated to spiritual concerns, Odio’s work became “increasingly hermetic,” according to Ekiss. In 1947, her book-length poem, Earthly Elements, was published in Guatemala, where she moved and took a job with the Ministry of Education. While there (and traveling around Central America), Odio wrote The Fire’s Journey, which was published in 1957 and ran 456 pages.

Even readers accustomed to the sometimes strangeness of poetry will be tempted (given that it is an epic) to seek a narrative, to discern what The Fire’s Journey is “about.” As I was reading it, I recalled French poet Paul Valéry’s assertion that “A poem is really kind of a machine for producing the poetic state of mind by means of words.”

Read slowly and aloud, a narrative does emerge. Ekiss gives the reader all the explanation necessary. As in many creation myths, from Genesis and the Greek to Ainulindalë in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion, the poem begins in chaos, a “proto-world,” from which a hero emerges: Ion, a poet savior. In Part II: Creation of Myself, Ion (and the world) begins to assume physicality, and using poetry as his weapon, combats the Void that threatens to pull all of creation into darkness. In Part III: The Cathedral’s Work, Ion urges men to build a cathedral to house the light that can both combat the Void and honor the supreme God. Much of the story is told as a dialogue that includes a chorus.

Marisel Jiménez’s bronze sculpture of Eunice Odio is part of the artists’ walk at the National Theater of Costa Rica in San José.

It’s strange stuff, but Ekiss offers the reader good advice. “Odio asks for our willingness to experience, rather than explain, this strangeness,” he writes. “Don’t look for too much sense and you won’t miss it.”

Odio died, destitute, in 1974, virtually unknown outside of Central America. Her rehabilitation has, obviously, taken decades, with various Spanish writers taking the lead in introducing her work. A few years after Tavern began publishing The Fire’s Journey in 2013, she got a lengthy treatment in The American Poetry Review by teacher and poet Sharon Mesmer. As to why Odio’s work has remained largely unknown, a quotation from Mexican poet Octavio Paz, 1990 winner of the Nobel Prize Winner for Literature, is helpful. Ekiss quotes him in the first volume of The Fire’s Journey:

Octavio Paz once told (Odio) that she was “of that line of poets who invent their own mythology, like Blake, like St. John Perse, like Ezra Pound: And they are rubbed out, because no one understands them until years or even centuries after their death.”

Before discussing Odio, I wanted to find out a little more about Ticas, to learn about the background of someone willing and able to tackle such a monumental work. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and conciseness.

Let’s start with you, where you’re from, and how you came to be at Linfield.

Sonia Ticas: I am originally from El Salvador, from a family of refugees. We came to California in 1980. I worked my way up north, did graduate school in Berkeley. Part of my family had already moved to Bend, so when I was in the job market and Linfield had an opening, this was the best possibility for me to be close to family. And I’ve been here since 2001.

You studied at UC Berkeley?

I had done my undergraduate work. Two degrees, one in French and one in Spanish. I spent a year abroad studying in France, and it just completely opened up my world — everything, being in Europe, really becoming more of a global citizen. I came back from that experience with this thirst for knowledge. A professor encouraged me to apply for a Master’s. Since I had done a double major in French and Spanish, Berkeley offered me a Ph.D in Romance languages and literature, so I added Italian to the mix.

I assume you’ve always been a reader?

No! I guess you could say I came from a very humble background. My parents only read the Bible, so I grew up pretty much reading that. I was in a small village where there was one book for the entire class. We had to take turns reading it. So in the U.S., I was learning English as a second language as a teenager, and I really didn’t read much until I got to high school. It was in college when my education takes flight.

Do you remember a particular book?

I did read poetry as a child, and we read it in school. In Central America, we come from a very rich tradition of poets. For any public event, they would choose students to read for the entire school, and I was always very theatrical and dramatic, so I got chosen often. My fifth-grade teacher introduced me to a number of Central American poets, Gabriela Mistral and Pablo Neruda, both from Chile. So when I went to college, those were familiar names for me.

Linfield College Professor Sonia Ticas says everything in Odio’s “The Fire’s Journey” is about language, and the creative power of language.

How did you come across Eunice Odio?

I did my research and dissertation on Central American women poets in the late 1990s. She really didn’t fit the ideal of the “poetess” at the time. Other writers were inclined to write about domesticity, experiences about motherhood, an intimate, nature-based type of poetry. I was looking at how they would break from those traditions to become more politically and socially engaged. And that was definitely not Eunice Odio. So I pushed her aside. I was intrigued, but it didn’t fit the scope of my work.

Then, as I’m finishing up my Ph.D and getting ready to move to Oregon, I saw a flier on one of the bulletin boards seeking fellow translators for Eunice Odio. His name was Keith Ekiss. He said, “Look, I’ve come across this wonderful poet, and there isn’t much translation into English. Would you be interested in helping me?” And I said, “Yes, that sounds exciting!” And so that’s how our collaboration began. Then in 2003, Mauricio Espinoza contacts us and he says, ”Look, I’m Costa Rican, I’m so excited about what you’re doing, can I join you in some fashion?”

This is the third translator?

Yes. Since the very beginning, Keith had been serving as the coordinator of the entire project. We translated pieces from her earlier work. A couple of pieces from The Fire’s Journey, but just because the work is so involved and so intellectually rigorous, we really didn’t get beyond it in those early years until we came across Tavern Books. They had read some of the selections, and they wanted to translate the entire poem.

Researching online, I found what was clearly intended to be a comprehensive list of Latin American poets, and Odio was not on it.

I’m not surprised.

Why is that? Why is she not better known?

She’s a woman poet, to begin with. If you see any women on the list, you must have seen Gabriela Mistral, who was our first Nobel literary prize winner in 1945. She was Chilean. That’s the one name that will come up. Maybe a few others, the feminist Alfonsina Storni from Argentina, but generally, women writers and poets have been marginalized from this canon of Latin American writers. Especially somebody like Odio, who didn’t fit the parameters of what feminine literature was considered at the time. Also, her poetry is not the political, socially engaged poetry that many writers were writing in the 1940s and 1950s, when she started publishing. So she is marginalized in several ways from that canon.

Do we know what inspired her, where her poetry came from? Do we know what she read? What was going in, that The Fire’s Journey was able to come out?

Certainly, she was reading some of those other feminine poets that I mentioned. Her first pieces are very much in line with the lullabies, the cradle songs, we called them. Her husband’s family had a wonderful library, so she was reading the classics. She was reading the Spanish mystics. She’s reading a lot about spirituality and theosophy. A lot of the writers from the 1920s and 1930s were imbued in theosophy, this search for an immaterial world, this search for spirituality, for secret wisdoms that were lost to humanity.

Was this work part of her own search, do you think? There’s a lot of exploration in it.

There is a lot, but it was an ongoing search. After the completion of this work in 1957, she becomes more and more imbued in these philosophies and even joins the Order of the Rosicrucians in Mexico City. She’s a very close friend of Claudia Lars, the Salvadoran poet, who is the one who actually publishes this work.

She writes to her friend and says, “Claudia, I can only tell you this, I cannot tell anyone else these things. I’m starting to see these luminescent beings around me, and they visit me.” So this search was really ongoing, and in the last few years of her life, she became more and more self-exiled, marginalized from the rest of society. So much so that for days, she wouldn’t eat. She would forget completely about the world. So yes, this is an ongoing journey for her, from very early on all the way to her death. She died destitute, alone really, in her own spiritual world.

I was struck reading the first volume how it seems both very intimate and very epic.

It’s grand!

It’s hard to find the words to describe it. It’s very strange.

A lot of it is the style. She’s very much a surrealist. She’s with the avant-garde. That’s a break from the tradition of other female poets of her time. She’s the avant-garde artist and writer who is trying to defamiliarize us, to take language in a different context, away from the familiar. It’s a dislocation to unsettle us, to help us see things in a different perspective. That’s why the language is often so incongruent. That’s why it’s such a difficult work to translate, because she takes all these liberties. She breaks with syntax. The Spanish is such a difficult piece of work! It is so hermetic, she’s just so into this world, that at times I had to read three, four times… what is going on here? It is very erudite, the level of language that she uses, the myths that she’s drawing from, the different traditions.

So you were translating a work from Spanish where the author was experimenting with the Spanish language in a way that … well, James Joyce had done with English?

Other Latin American poets had done this, but she’s doing it in the story itself. The story itself is the story of language, it’s the story of us coming into life because of language. Ion himself is Logos. It’s language. It represents the Word. There’s a lot of biblical overtones there, but it’s also the beginning of what makes us human through the gift of language.

That becomes obvious pretty quickly, reading the first volume. She keeps using words like “syllable” and “verb” and “the Word.” It keeps coming back to words that refer to language itself.

Oh yes, everything’s about language. One of the lines I like the most in one of the first poems is “rivers conjugating in syllables.” I think of the word “fluency,” how in English you say you’re “fluent,” like a “flow,” right? Syllables and rivers. Everything is about language; the whole world is language. The poet’s role is to name things, and as he names them, they come alive. So it’s completely about language and the creative power of language.

Do you need more than one translator to translate a work like this?

I made the case for that, yes. Linguistically, you need a grammarian to translate this work, and that’s part of my role. You want to stay faithful to the original, but translation itself is a creative process. It’s a reinvention. Keith is the poet. He’s the native speaker of English, and Spanish is not his first language, so by no means would he have been able to do this on his own. We needed a team, that’s for sure. I’d read over and make lots of comments on what Keith does, and he comes back and looks at what I’ve translated, and then Mauricio comes in, and he says, “Look, this is reminiscent of a character who grew up in Costa Rica, so maybe that’s what she means.” So it’s very enriching that way, a very involved process. It is so enriching to do this collaboratively.

Are you teaching this poem in any of your classes?

I do not teach The Fire’s Journey due to its high level of difficulty, both for students learning Spanish and for native speakers. I sometimes bring one of her earlier poems to share with students to give them a little taste. The scope of her work, however, requires an in-depth analysis which can only be done with significant time over the course of a semester.

How long before the fourth volume is out?

We have submitted the final installment to Tavern Books, and it’s scheduled to be published in the spring. Odio is coming up for celebrations of her centenary in 2019. I love Part IV. You know, when you’ve been immersed in this work for so long, it’s a journey for us. We’ve been traveling through this journey of fire with the poet, and when you get to this moment, it’s … ineffable. You can’t describe it.
Odio’s poem “To W.C.W.” was translated by modernist American poet – and fellow thinker on the power of language — William Carlos Williams.

YOU’LL FIND A DIFFERENT KIND OF NUTCRACKER IN TOWN THIS WEEKEND at Linfield College when students perform The Jazz Nutcracker: Clara’s Dream for the Fall Dance Showcase. Dancers will perform the classic Nutcracker story in the styles of ballet and jazz with Tchaikovsky’s original score arranged by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. Under the direction of Eve Brindis, adjunct professor of dance, Clara’s Dream infuses tradition with modern jazz, themes and bright colors. The array of ballet and jazz choreography draws influence from George Balanchine’s Nutcracker. That’s Friday, Nov. 30, and Saturday, Dec. 1, in Marshall Theatre in Ford Hall. The event is free, and showtime for both performances is 7 p.m.

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