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A few months ago, I interviewed Mark Spitzer for Big Other about his new environmental eco-criticism adventure narrative: Season of the Gar: Adventures in Pursuit of America’s Most Misunderstood Fish (U of Arkansas Press).
I noted that Spitzer was a polymath—provocateur, Hunter S. Thompson fan, outdoorsman, conservationist, editor, author, etc.
Spitzer’s also the provocative force behind the Exquisite Corpse annual from the University of Central Arkansas. Bonus: The Corpse annual secured covers from Ralph Steadman and R. Crumb for the first two issues.
Spitzer watched George Whitman of Paris’ famed Shakespeare and Co. eat a stick of butter on the day Spitzer became their Writer-In-Residence.
Spitzer’s website isn’t afraid to leave out the vowels: sptzr.net.
Now, he’s back with The Genet Translations, a pirate translation of Jean Genet’s poetry and two posthumous plays. For those who don’t know Genet, it’s time to get acquainted.
Despite Spitzer’s condemnation of the flowery prose of some current Genet translations, I suggest you rush out and read any of the plays (for instance, “The Screens” or “The Blacks”) and the fantastic prose works. They are a small number, but I am partial to Funeral Rites, which includes sex with Hitler and someone eating a cat.
Spitzer, on the occasions of this landmark release, submitted once again to the grueling endurance test known as The Big Other Interview.
Davis: This is an outlaw book in many ways—and I can imagine Jean Genet secretly thrilled with the lengths you had to go to publish these translations. Can you provide some insight into the history of this edition?
Mark: Back in 1992 when I first started translating Genet, the estate—which is represented by one of the most cut-throat agents in the literary biz—was open to me translating the entire book of poetry into English. They said we’d talk turkey when the time came, but when the time came they wouldn’t talk. I had spent years translating the poems, I had gone thousands of dollars into debt, I had worked with Edmund White, the world expert on Genet (who wrote an intro for the book), but the estate wouldn’t go there, girlfriend.
They were offered good money by two good presses, but I don’t know what their problem was. I think they just wanted to do business with the Old Boys, being Faber & Faber, and I was just a punk to them. So then there were lawyers and arbitrators and that got me nowhere. So in 2000 I decided to put the translations online and give them away for free. They were up for 10 years. Then I got invited by the Federation of International Translators to take part in a Genet conference on censorship in Paris, so I decided it was time to finally put the poems out as a book, along with the two posthumous plays.
The problems I ran into with the plays is a whole ‘nuther story, but the point is there was this publisher who loved my translations and he wanted to do a Genet book, so we put the thing together, and it was published through print-on-demand technology with a big skull and crossbones on the cover to indicate that it’s a pirated tradition—which is nothing new in the literary history of Genet’s poems in English.
Davis: Is that why the book is “free,” for $22 shipping and handling?
Mark: The book is free because it is an “educational tool” meant for scholarship and it’s protected under the Fair Use terms of US Copyright Law, title 17. Since the book is not for profit, it won’t interfere with any other sales of any other books, etc. Sure, shipping and handling costs a bit, but that’s what the ding-dang estate forced me to do because they wouldn’t accept any of the offers from any of the publishers and they even refused to work with me. They even told me that if I had any respect for Genet I’d stop asking for rights. Well, why would a Jew who’s not gay translate an anti-Semite like Genet if he didn’t respect him? Screw the estate, I published it! So maybe there’s some vengeance involved, or at least a strong desire to see the stuff in print. But they did censor me for 17 years, and there’s a lot of people who wanted to see it as a book. So now it’s free. For $22.
Davis: Tell us about the quality of the pieces? Is this Genet’s detritus?
Mark: The poems are some of his earliest works, but they’re important because the first one got him out of a life-sentence in prison. When the Existentialists discovered that the author of this poem was locked up for petty crimes, they got a petition together to the President of France claiming that Genet was Rimbaud, and therefore a genius, and so should therefore be free to create other great works of lit.
Granted, that poem was a plagiarism of Rimbaud, Mallermé, Ronsard and a bunch of others, but it was highly visionary, colorful, powerful, and an in-your-face gay piece—which the French really respected. The poems get more mature as the book progresses. But the plays at the end are Genet’s most mature works. They’re of the highest intellectual quality and a blast to read. So no, it’s not detritus. It’s a portrait of the artist as a young thief evolving into one of the greatest literary innovators of twentieth-century France.
Davis: We don’t often think of Genet as a poet, per se. Are we wrong?
Mark: We usually think of Genet as a playwright and political muckraker, an essayist, and a novelist. But he was also the spokesperson for the Black Panther movement in America, as well as an Arab sympathizer and the only white European to witness the massacre in Chatilla (Ed. note: 1982, during the Lebanese Civil War). But like many writers, he was a poet first, an idealist first, someone with an aptitude for creating verse. People don’t think of Jimi Hendrix as a poet. People don’t think of Shakespeare as a poet. It’s not that people are wrong, it’s just that their impressions are formed by the last and most successful things that these artists did rather than the most formative experiences in the artists’ lives.
Davis: How did you come to get involved with Genet translations?
Mark: I had to satisfy a foreign-language requirement for my MA in Creative Writing at the University of Colorado. I couldn’t sit through those classes talking about moms and dads and cats and dogs, so I set up an independent study to translate these poems I found in the library. I could tell that the other translations sucked, and I often translated French comic books and poets to see what the text meant. It was just this thing I had always done since I was 12. It was like doing a crossword puzzle. After I started that work on Genet, though, I couldn’t stop, had to know what the rest said. So I sold my van for $600 and flew off to France where I found asylum in a bookstore for two-and-a-half years and translated my ass off.
Davis: Wait, how’s your French? And how long did it take you to do the work?
Mark: I don’t speak or understand spoken French very well. I read it and I read it well. Translating Genet led me to translate Bataille, Rimbaud, Céline and Cendrars, whose books I have also published. So I’d say my French is damn good. In fact, I’d say I’m the best damn translator of French lit in America, and there’s some critics who agree. I quit doing that, though, so as to concentrate on writing my own books. As for how long the Genet book took, it took 18 years. I was always revising it.
Davis: What’s the best Genet work not included here? I’m partial to Funeral Rites.
Mark: I’ve always found the novels problematic. All that Nazi violence buggery and betrayal never really turned my crank. The Thief’s Journal, though, is a pretty fun read, but my favorite piece is the long essay Prisoner of Love, which is about the Black Panthers and Palestinians.
Davis: Did George Whitman, of Shakespeare and Co, really eat a stick of butter on the day you met?
Mark: Yes, George Whitman, proprietor of the legendary Shakespeare and Co. bookstore in Paris, where I lived for almost three years as Writer in Residence, and who is now 99.99 years old, eats pure butter. He also makes dogfood meatloaf.
Davis: What is Polemic Press? Can’t find much on them.
Mark: That’s because they are really another press, but they don’t want to make themselves known…because what if the lady who runs the estate comes after them? But if she does, Polemic Press will just stop printing the Genet book and vanish like they were never there. For now, they just want to put the stuff out… to give people an alternative to the sloppy inaccurate translations that bring Genet down and make his words seem more flowery than they really are. And that’s my main motive… to add my years of study to the conversation so that readers can make up their own minds about the intention of the writer.
To order: To order send a PayPal payment of $22 for shipping and handling to firstname.lastname@example.org
For orders outside the USA
send $33 US!!!