Like many bookish kids with literary aspirations, I originally planned to be an English major. Since it was the 1970s, I also got caught up in the prevalent enthusiasm surrounding Spanish-language poetry the magical realism of Gabriel García Márquez and other novelists of the Latin American “Boom.” After spending my junior year studying in Madrid, I completed a major in Comparative Literature with a concentration in Spanish. Graduating from the University of California at Davis, I enrolled in the PhD Program at Stanford, with the idea of being a specialist in modernist poetry. I ended up devoting my dissertation—and my entire career—to twentieth-century Spanish poetry, but I never abandoned my interest in English.
As an assistant professor I was able to publish in the most prestigious journals in my field. I also published my dissertation, on the contemporary Spanish poet Claudio Rodríguez, as a book, with minimal revisions. Before tenure I wrote a second book, The Poetics of Self-Consciousness: Twentieth Century Spanish Poetry, with the aid of my first NEH Fellowship. One of the secrets of my early success was that I had somewhat of a head start: I went into the field because of my interest in poetry, and began to study it in earnest during that year in Madrid. My single-minded focus on a relatively narrow field of study made me an expert at a relatively early stage in my career. I found extra time to write by teaching short summer sessions at Ohio State in exchange for quarters off during the regular academic year.
My agenda during this first phase of my career was to use the insights of poststructuralist literary theory to elucidate the implicit theories of language in modern Spanish poetry. My particular generation of Hispanists was the first to see theoretical sophistication as the gold standard by which to judge scholarship. I found myself in an ideal position to take advantage of this development, since I had a rigorous training in theory through the Comparative Literature Program at Stanford. My particular contribution was unique, I felt, in that I saw the literary text itself as theoretical in its own right, rather than “applying” a theory to the text in a mechanical or arbitrary way. While my scholarship has changed in several ways over the decades, I continue in my attempts to understand poetry from the “inside,” as it were, rather than subjecting it to agendas imposed from the outside.
After being awarded tenure at the Ohio State University in 1994, I was offered a job at one of the premier Spanish and Portuguese departments in the US, at the University of Kansas, where I continue to work. It was not immediately clear what my next project would be, so I worked on articles on a variety of topics until I decided to focus on recent developments in Spanish poetry. In my third book, The Twilight of the Avant-Garde: Spanish Poetry 1980-2000(Liverpool, 2009), my focus shifted to the question of the cultural legitimation of poetry. The critical problem I was addressing was why the paradigm that had governed poetry from romanticism through modernism had fallen in disfavor among a younger generation of Spanish poets, who disdained the intellectual seriousness and ambition that had characterized Spanish poetry for most of the twentieth century.
The articles that I wrote leading up to The Twilight of the Avant-Gardemade me well known among poets in Spain, inserting me in a polemic between those who remained faithful to the avant-garde agenda and those that had broken with it. The result was that I was invited frequently to Spain to lecture about contemporary Spanish poetry, becoming friends with many of the most prominent poets in the avant-garde camp. Although I was not averse to polemics, at some point I began to feel that didn’t want to be known mostly for my position in this particular debate. I turned my attention to one of the figures who had first inspired me to go into the field: Federico García Lorca.
My fourth book, Apocryphal Lorca: Translation, Parody, Kitsch(Chicago, 2009) had a transformative effect on my career, while also obliging me to look at the period in which I first developed my interest in Spanish literature. My own decision to enter the field was the result of the interest in Spanish-language poetry in the US, but this episode in literary history had not received a rigorous scholarly treatment. Coincidentally enough, my first published poem, written thirty years earlier when I was an undergraduate, addressed the issue of “apocryphal translation” that I address in my book: It was a response to Kenneth Koch’s parody of translations from the Spanish, “Some South American Poets.” It began like this: “There is no need to invent imaginary / Latin American poets! Real poets exist, / Waiting to be translated!” I was interested in the multiple ways that Lorca had been translated into an American cultural context, but I was particularly interested in poems, like those of Koch, Robert Creeley, and Jack Spicer, that purport to be translations but are really not. This is a well-known trope in literary history: think of Cervantes’s conceit that Don Quijotehas been translated from the Arabic, or Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese. A large number of American poets translated Lorca, but I was especially fascinated by the idea of creating new Lorca translations that had no original texts behind them. This seemed to be a way of accessing the cultural image of Spain in its purest form, without the interference of actual works of Spanish literature.
Being known as a specialist on a very well-known writer brings certain advantages. Apocryphal Lorcawas published by a more prestigious press and was much more widely reviewed than any of my previous work. Because Twilight of the Avant-Gardetook a long time to write and suffered delays on the part of my publisher, both books appeared the same year, and I was promoted to the rank of professor that year. Once again, I searched for a new project. I didn’t intend to write another book on Lorca, and began working instead on a sequel to Twilight of the Avant-Garde. At some point, however, I decided I had many more things to say about Lorca. In 2018 I published a second book on Federico García Lorca: Lorca’s Legacy: Essays in Interpretation, in which I extended my insights of Apocryphal Lorcainto other areas and solidified my knowledge of Lorca himself.
In 2015, I began to teach myself jazz piano and to write songs, without any thought of connecting these interests with my scholarship. I have played drums for many years, and had always been an avid listener of music. I discovered that I had also, over the years, learned enough harmony to compose music, despite my lack of proficiency on the keyboard. A few years later, this avocation led to the birth of a third projected book on Lorca, focusing on musical adaptations of his work. The title will be Lorca: The Musical Imagination. I am not a musicologist and the focus of his book is not the technical analysis of music. My musical literacy, however, has given me the confidence to look at scores, to read the secondary literature on the composers I will be studying, and to write cogently about music for the general public. When I realized how much music Lorca had inspired, in both classical and vernacular genres, I realized that there was a book here and that I was the one to write it. I began to explore the field of “word and music studies” and found that there was a genre of books devoted to musical settings of poets like Baudelaire, Whitman, or Celan. A book about Lorca could be groundbreaking in this field, since his poetry has inspired both classical composers and performers in vernacular genres like folk, rock, and flamenco. (Almost all previous work in word and music studies, in contrast, has been restricted to the world of classical music.)
The intellectual interest of this material, for me, is analogous to the texts I considered in Apocryphal Lorca. Instead of using translations, adaptations, and parodies to study Lorca’s cultural influence, I am now looking at musical settings and homages from Spain, other European countries, and the Americas. A musical setting, ultimately, is a kind of translationthat provides a window on the cultural imagination. What turns out to be most compelling about this music is the way in which both classical and vernacular musicians use Lorca to convey their vision of the persistent cultural archetypes associated with Spanish culture.
When I reflect back on my career I can see that my agenda has remained constant in one fundamental respect: I have always attempted to understand the mystery of poetry itself. What has changed over the course of the years is an inevitable broadening and deepening of perspective. Like most young scholars, I had a relatively narrow range of expertise at the beginning of my career: I was a specialist on Claudio Rodríguez, a poet who was not particularly well known at the time, even in departments of Spanish. My work on Lorca has given me a far broader scholarly base, making my knowledgeable about translation theory and word and music studies. I am still, essentially, a specialist on a single author, but to be a competent Lorca scholar requires a vast amount of expertise. In fact, I did not consider myself a true specialist on Lorca until I finished my second book on him.
At the current stage of my career, I want my work to reflect four major values: depth of engagement, intellectual curiosity, humor, and accessibility. Depth is the product of sustained, focused attention over the course of several decades. Curiosity is the willingness to grow intellectually through exploring new ways of looking at familiar materials. Humor involves a sense of humility about the ultimate limits of understanding something as mysterious as poetry. As Kenneth Koch wrote, “The very existence of poetry should make us laugh. What is it all about? What is it for?” Finally, I now place higher premium on accessibility than I did at the beginning of my career. Whenever I have gone back to read something I wrote twenty-five years ago, I have concluded that I was not particularly focused on communicating my ideas to the reader. For the most part my prose was not unclear, but I can see now that I was more interested in mounting a display of my own intelligence. The audience for the kind of scholarly books I am interested in writing is inherently modest in size, but precisely for this reason no reader should be turned away by an off-putting style. Writing for a few hundred interested readers now seems preferable than addressing myself to a dozen scholars in my own field. To this end, I have devoted a lot effort into defining and putting into practice my ideas about accessible scholarly prose.