Houston poet Julia Guez delves into Costa Rican poetry and receives NEA grant for translation


After spending a few days surfing and doing yoga along the coast of Costa Rica, Julia Guez took a detour on her way to the airport. As she usually does, Guez headed straight for the poetry section of a small San José bookstore. There, she bought as many volumes as she thought she would fit in her suitcase without incurring a charge for the extra weight.

Guez was then a graduate student and had worked for a few years for Circumference, a poetry journal. “I saw a lot of poems from Argentina, Mexico, Spain,” she says. “But it seemed so quiet in Central America.”

When Guez received a Fulbright scholarship in 2011, she spent the research fellowship in Costa Rica, learning about the publishing industry in San José: presses, bookstores, book festivals, universities.

She became friends with the poet Luis Chaves, whom she helped to translate “Equestrian Monuments (A Litany)” into English. The poem was dedicated to María Montero, a name found in some of the books Guez had picked up and a name that continued to circulate in his burgeoning study of Costa Rican poetry.

“A friend who owns a bookstore in San José told me: ‘You need to know this writer,” says Guez.

The Houston native and former Rice University student got to know this writer, offering an English translation of Montero’s “La mano suicida” (“The Suicidal Hand”) for his scholarship. And last week, she was announced as a recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship through its NEA Literature Fellowships. The nearly 1,500 NEA awards this year total more than $33 million.

At Chaves’s request, Guez contacted Montero by email and soon received an invitation to the poet’s house when he next visited Costa Rica. She found Montero at the center of a fervent and thriving art scene.

“I was overwhelmed by all the books and art in his house,” Guez says. “And the house was full of friends. I arrived later in the day, and it was still full of friends who had come to brunch – all journalists, writers and artists. We ended up talking late into the night. She showed me all the books that influenced her. Everything that went into “The Suicidal Hand”.

Montero’s collection is slim at just 67 pages. But Guez describes the thematic weight of the book.

“She’s just fearless,” she said. “She brings this magic and candor to portraying pregnancy, childbirth, this postpartum window. What’s especially cool are the ways she explores this new identity as a mother without completely sacrificing that other invigorating identity. , which is that of artist, writer and academic.

Guez says, “It seems inevitable that our paths will cross.”

Her own path began here in Houston, where she says her interest in poetry began with issues of The New Yorker that her mother and grandmother read. She earned an English degree from Rice and an MFA in poetry from Columbia. She teaches and lectures at New York University and Rutgers University while also working at Teach for America. She shares her hours between poetry and parenthood.

Guez in 2019 published his first collection of poems, “In an invisible glass case which is also a frame”. The book is the result of a painstaking process of writing, editing, rewriting, adding and cutting that lasted nearly a decade. Her second collection, “The Certain Body,” is currently slated for release later this year.

Montero is also familiar with long processes: “La mano suicida” was his second collection of poems, arriving 11 years after the first. Prior to the announcement of Guez’s NEA grant, none of Montero’s work had been translated into English.

Guez says the process of transforming “La mano suicida” into “The Suicidal Hand” was an immersion. She read the book in Spanish dozens of times “to feel the beats,” she said. “I feel like reading those poems in Spanish put them at the bottom of my cells at this point.”

She then crafted literal translations, “putting aside the Spanish and working them into English in a way that could be read around the world. Think about the order of lines in a stanza. Could a small betrayal offer a greater good? They’re not exactly betrayals, I suppose. Rather, it is to move something slightly to the left or right of what she wrote.

Each translation is then sent to Montero, “which is the most important part of the process,” Guez explains.

Having inhaled and exhaled the words so often in two languages, Guez feels like she is working with a crucial voice that should be heard outside of Central America.

“These poems are necessary,” she says. “They needed to write. She wrote them down. Now they need reading. So far, for me, she has no analogues. There is no precedent. I don’t see anyone else doing what she did.

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