The Ardors of the World Will Speak to Us: A Conversation With Dan Beachy-Quick

Yamini Pathak

I was introduced to Sappho by Dan Beachy-Quick at Kenyon Review’s Residential Adult Writers Workshops in June 2023, the same month that his translation of Sappho’s poems, Wind—Mountain—Oak: The Poems of Sappho (Tupelo Press), was released into the world. During that summer a group of eleven poets came together for a week with Dan, our workshop leader, on the serene Kenyon College campus in Gambier, Ohio. A professor and Distinguished Teaching Scholar at Colorado State University—having previously taught at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Grinnell College, and School of the Art Institute of Chicago—Dan led our class with curiosity and self-deprecating humor, not to mention his stock of poetry games, which were the cause of much laughter and camaraderie. Enthusiastic about ancient Greek myths and philosophy, Melville, Thoreau, Keats, and Dickinson, Dan shared his epistemological and literary loves with contagious delight, as well as his considerable talent as a storyteller.

Wind—Mountain—Oak: The Poems of Sappho (Tupelo Press, 2023) by Dan Beachy-Quick  

I came to Sappho, the much lauded poet and songwriter of ancient Greece, almost accidentally when I picked one of several writing prompts Dan offered to the class. An investigation of absence and presence, the prompt required choosing a translation of one of Sappho’s fragments, writing lines to fill in the poetry that was missing, and finally erasing Sappho’s lines. From that writing exercise Sappho’s voice became a portal into a world vibrant with color for me, as though “sprung up from wet dirt, gold chickpeas,” to quote one of Dan’s translations, scented with altar smoke and wildflowers, a world where the drape of a dress had the erotic potential to make you stumble in your tracks. Though during the third century BCE nine volumes of Sappho’s work were available in the Great Library of Alexandria, the eventual burning of the library destroyed these works, such that they are now available to us mostly in the the form of torn papyruses.

As a writer, translator, and teacher, Dan inhabits language—or perhaps it is the other way around—in ways that I have rarely encountered. I can best explain this by quoting from the translation note that prefaces Wind—Mountain—Oak: “One of the words for word in Ancient Greek is έπος. It is from it we get epic. So it might be seen that every word is in and of itself an epic poem, one we could read, if only we could fully enter the word.” Readers of Wind—Mountain—Oak will encounter this close reading of Sappho’s words throughout the translation and feel invited into the wonder and layers held in the compound language of ancient Greece. Dan’s translations give a surprisingly contemporary shape to Sappho’s preoccupations of beauty, girlfriends, love, weddings, family, and children—fascinations that have remained unchanged through the millennia—by using innovative combinations of words. For instance, I laughed out loud at a fragment that read simply, “purse / vainbag.” Elsewhere in the book I recognized my irresponsible teenage self described in the lines, “earthly bliss / for Sappho / reckless / her prayer.” Yet there is also a generosity in Dan’s reimagining of Sappho’s fragments that allows the reader’s creativity and senses to fill in the spaces and be transported to another time, another place.

Born in Chicago and raised in Colorado and upstate New York, Dan Beachy-Quick attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop after graduating from the University of Denver. He is the author or coauthor of more than fifteen books of poetry, exploratory prose, and fiction and has published works in collaboration with poets Bruce Bond and Srikanth Reddy as well as nonfiction writer Matthew Goulish. His fourth poetry collection, Circle’s Apprentice (Tupelo Press, 2011), won the Colorado Book Award in Poetry, and one of his more recent collections, Variations on Dawn and Dusk (Omnidawn, 2019), was longlisted for a National Book Award. Dan’s poetry has also been a finalist for the William Carlos Williams Award and the PEN/USA Literary Award in Poetry and has been included in a Best American Poetry anthology. Among his many honors and awards are a Lannan Foundation residency and a Guggenheim Fellowship. Dan has been a Woodberry Poetry Room Creative fellow at Harvard University, and he is a contributing editor of the literary journal West Branch.

Dan and I had a Zoom conversation about his process of translating Sappho, the lessons that ancient poetry holds for contemporary life, and the gifts of a life steeped in practicing poetry and translation.

Dan Beachy-Quick in Marfa, Texas. Credit: Kristy Beachy-Quick.

You’ve translated several early lyric poets and philosophers from ancient Greece. What especially drew you to Sappho?
On a fundamental level I think of myself as a lyric poet and have spent decades trying to understand what that might mean. As I let myself become immersed in lyric work, I’ve felt more and more how truly Sappho lives at the very root of that question I’m asking about my own poetic nature. At the time that I was working on Sappho, off and on I was also translating the pre-Socratic philosophers. One of the things that I love about ancient Greek literary and philosophical history is that the first philosopher in the Greek tradition, Thales, lived in Miletus, a city on the coast of Turkey. Not too far away was the island of Lesbos, where Sappho was teaching other young women how to sing in her school. They were doing their work contemporaneously—the birth of lyric poetry and the birth of philosophy, as I understand them, happened simultaneously in the Western tradition. I wanted to have this root-level experience of what that poetry and that thinking was like, how they twined around each other.

Do you then see your poetry as following the lineage of Sappho?
It makes me fearful to agree, but I think in the end I do. I’m trying to practice lyric poetry that is in some ways obedient to the laws that Sappho herself was obedient to, though here poetic obedience doesn’t necessarily look like proper behavior. It’s some other kind of patterning, something larger that includes all kinds of wildness and breaking of so-called rules. One of the things that feels so keenly alive in Sappho even now, and that I first learned by reading and thinking about John Keats, is that lyric poetry writ large possesses an erotic epistemology. It’s not just poems of love and desire and intimacy as subject matter. It’s that love and desire and intimacy are ways of coming to the work, a result of learning how one is in the world and what the world is. That feeling of desire isn’t simply a passionate emotion that can put one outside of oneself, but a way of thinking deeply and dearly about the nature of the world—that is what I want to practice.

That’s a beautiful response, and it brings me to your translation note in the book; the very first sentence captured me with your unique way of thinking about voice. “The voice is a ritual only epochs can reveal.” And then you go on to write, “Because it is a ritual, another may learn the rites, may perform them.” In your note you mention staying true to sapphic meter while translating, but what are some other ways that you’ve practiced and performed the rites of Sappho’s voice?
I don’t think I’m alone in thinking in such ways. I’m not speaking simply about becoming an initiate to the rites of Sappho’s voice. It’s about becoming an initiate to the rites of voice that Sappho herself was initiate to—remembering that Sappho came to her voice by initiation into the same ritual that is somehow still an initiation for us now. In the mythology it said that Orpheus’s head, after it was torn off by the maenads, floated down the river, continuing to sing. It was found by the women of Lesbos. And Orpheus’s head is the one that taught Sappho how to sing, which is simply to say that she herself was an apprentice to some mythical origin of what lyric voicing might be.

With that in mind I make the claim in the note to the translation that somehow the deepest intimacy of lyric voice is found outside of the self that sings it more than it’s found within the self that sings. Though certainly the poem is a made-thing—a made-song, a sung-song—that merges the utmost interior and the truly exterior into something that belongs to both, but not quite to either at the same time. It’s as Gertrude Stein had it: The poet is tormented by inners and outers.

Lyric introduces us to the ritual of finding a voice that is both ours and not ours at the same time. It liberates us from many of the ways we’ve come to think about poetry in the last one hundred or seventy-five years, maybe. Exacerbated by the beginning of the MFA program, we might have been taught to assume too easily that the power of saying I in a poem is a form of self-expression or identity. Certainly an aspect of that has to be true, but to say I in such a poem as Sappho sings means that every other person who says I finds some way to fit inside that syllable. What could seem like a very narrow realm opens itself up into a manifold expanse. I love that about poetry. I love feeling as if the voice isn’t simply my own, but my voice has to learn to do something, to humble itself to be worthy of the voice that speaks the poem.

There’s so much emphasis in America on originality and being different, so this kind of thinking sounds quite revolutionary to me!
In the graduate workshop I’m teaching now, but also [during] the class we had [for] those wonderful six days together at Kenyon, I’ve become much more concerned with origin than with originality. Sometimes I think privileging originality becomes an obstacle to nearing origin. It stops you from asking certain kinds of questions that might threaten the notion of one’s own originality. You avoid the trite, the cliché. You think moons and roses have no more to say.

And to pick up on a thread of your earlier question that I didn’t get to, regarding Sappho’s metrics, I think very few people think directly about metrics in their work. In some ways I don’t think directly about it myself, though musicality and the meter undergirding that music is always foremost [in] my mind when I’m writing a poem. Metrics are one of the forms in which origin exerts itself on originality, an anonymous force tunes personal experience into the larger music.

We’ve lost a sense of the anonymous power that metrics have. We feel it sometimes in grammar, that the order undergirding what the words are saying has as profound a meaning as any meaning a poem reveals, is as profound as anything that the language accomplishes in more obvious ways: the meaning of words, the beauty of an image. But more beautiful by far is the possibility of such meaning, the possibility of such beauty, which the deep logics of grammar make possible.

The way that sapphic meter, that hendecasyllabic line, moves loosely from very heavy stresses into steadier rhythm, veering towards what we’d call iambs, it is as if the heart has just reacted to something immediately seen—the very shock of appearance—and then regulates itself back to a steady pulse. The beginning of the next line picks up that same startle, that feeling in the sapphic of being shocked and needing to recover, then shocked again, as if the beginning of a new line is also the opening of a new world. This is Sappho’s deepest kind of beauty. It’s part of that ritual of voice that we’re talking about. To feel these patterns in the language itself that language can reveal but doesn’t know how to speak.

In thinking about the individual voice joining in a ritual of voices, it makes sense to me now that you chose to translate Sappho even though many previous translations of her fragments exist. What were the challenges of translating a work that has already been translated? Did that deter you in any way?
That’s such a pragmatic question, and one of the things that sometimes worries me about my own nature, primarily when it comes to poetry, is that I never stop to ask that question, ever! I know Anne Carson’s translations very well, and love them, and have taught them. They’ve been real companions, and I know a few others as well. Guy Davenport’s in particular come to mind, and all his translations from the Greek have been inspirations. But it does tie back to what we were talking about—the ritual of voice.

The point isn’t that the thing has been done before many times, and likely better than I can ever manage to do in my translations, or in the poems I write. But to go back to your beautiful point, the question isn’t originality. The question is getting closer to a source, an origin, as near as you can to things that matter absolutely to you. To me it’s a question of how any one of us wants to live our life, and doing so in ways that one of the natural outcomes of living it is the need to write a poem. The need to translate a poem.

My instinct is very personal, and also very anonymous. I feel moved by the thought of entering a place that many, many before me, for millennia, have entered. There is to me a sacredness in that. It isn’t to make my version better or different, but to put myself on the same ground many have stood on before and make what meaning I can.

I’m not going to keep comparing, but I noticed that you don’t have extensive notes at the back of the book, which the Anne Carson translation does. You simply offer the poems without providing commentary. I’m wondering, how do you want your work to be read?
In this and in my other translations—The Thinking Root [Milkweed Editions, 2023], which features writings of pre-Socratic philosophers, and Stone-Garland [Milkweed Editions, 2020], which features six writers, from those almost as ancient as Homer to librarians in the Great Library of Alexandria—I got rid of all the academic scaffolding. My hope was to offer an accessible, immediate experience of what the poetry might be. It is helpful for me to know that there are so many other wonderful translations with notes for anyone who wants to dive deeper. Translation is a kind of obedience to language that comes to me in ways I can’t change, like finding a stone. Part of the joy I take in doing this work is that I get to be very irresponsible in how I might approach it and how I might open it up to others, as I figure out how to open it up for myself. I wanted to find ways to make you feel as if you’re picking up a book which is almost contemporary and enter it as a direct experience, as best as that is possible.

The one thing that does make my version different from others is that I undid the typical ways of ordering the fragments and grouped them so that, ideally, the book reads almost as a novel. I almost wanted to write a page-turner, like a very fragmented postmodern bildungsroman, where we move from girlhood and motherhood to track Sappho’s life all the way to the end, where she’s thinking about the consequences of getting older, thinking towards death. These are questions I think we’re still asking.

Wow. I love the idea of creating a page-turner. Arranging the fragments must have been very challenging because there are, how many fragments? What was your process to arrive at a coherent arrangement?
[Laughter.] It was crazy and stupid. I printed them out, nearly two hundred of them, and I spread them all over the floor of my house, living room into kitchen. Every surface was covered with Sappho’s poems. And I walked around looking at each and making connection to connection to connection. It felt like a kind of reverie or madness. I just put poem to poem. I’d make these large groupings and then go back to each grouping. There were ways that you could take these fragments that sometimes are just a person’s name, sometimes one or two words, and juxtapose them or place them next to others to create these waves of consciousness. One builds on the other in a way that recognizes the isolation of the fragment but puts it into a larger context where you feel a larger emotional recognition building. That’s how I went about it, finding these larger clusters and then painstakingly trying to make out of each one of those clusters a poem in itself, a serial poem in a way.

While translating did you set any rules for yourself? What sort of freedom did you give yourself to break lines or space out poems, or to add various typographical symbols—brackets, ellipses, and so on?
Well, more than rules set, I allowed myself certain liberties. I did try, as Anne Carson did, to hold to the shape of the fragments as we’ve received them, those gaps in the papyrus, torn edges, the material reality of the poems. Where you see brackets, or sometimes slashes, those mark words in ancient Greek that English can’t translate precisely with any one term. Often when I’d get to lines that seemed legitimately to have a complexity or a polysemic value, where one word has two or three or more meanings, I would let myself translate those places over and over again until one could get the kind of feeling a native hearer might, and so feel the whole complexity.

For instance, the word phren, which typically would be translated as heart also means mind, but [it] also means the midriff of the body from where you breathe, the bottom of the lungs from where singers sing. This, of course, in our lyric, oral tradition is so powerful—that the mind and the heart and the base of the lungs that gives the voice its power are all spoken by the same word. Or a word like deinos, which means, depending on the context, awe or marvel or wonder. But it also means fear and terror and danger. I tried to find ways to capture those myriad, simultaneous meanings.

Sometimes I created compounds to try to do it. Other times I translated the same line multiple times. And I feel like those things are okay because part of the deep logic of Greek is that it’s a profoundly compound language. They’re always smashing various words together, reassembling bits of words into other words. It is in the spirit of ancient Greek as I’ve come to understand it that makes it feel not a luxury, but an honest form of excess.

That makes me think of Emily Dickinson with her different versions of the same line.
Yeah, absolutely. And Dickinson is our Sappho. I have no question about that.

What gifts has this work, specifically translation, brought to you?
I’ve never thought about this, and the answer that comes most immediately to mind feels unexpected. I wake up every morning about an hour, an hour and a half, before my family and let myself translate, then read for what time remains, before the chaos of the day requires my attention. It’s become a meditative practice of a kind, a way to start my day where I’m paying attention with my mind and senses, trying to deeply imagine a world that isn’t wholly mine, but isn’t exactly not mine either. I think it opens me to the day in a way where I enter it not so stressed but interested in any given thing that might happen, even as it might be filled with trivial administrative duties. It slows me down, lets love and attention adhere to minor moments. Somehow this being at work in translation makes all the parts of life that seem so not poem-like, part of some larger poem. There’s some sense of bigger concern, a cosmic order without which I’d be much more anxious and neurotic. It’s very good for my mental and spiritual health. I’ve been doing this for a decade now with that kind of daily regularity.

Sappho in particular has given me an exquisite sense of the wondrous detail that fills the world. That a ring on someone’s finger is worthy of pause and honor. The hem of a dress, the hem of a sleeve, the frayed collar on a shirt that’s been worn for twenty years. All of these things are our proper introductions to what love might be. This idea of feeling cosmic importance in such minor things exists in the ancient Greek. Far down in the definition of cosmos in the Liddell and Scott Dictionary, it reminds you that the cosmic is also an adornment, an ornament—a wedding ring is a form of cosmos. An earring, a form of cosmos. How one dresses is a form of cosmos. Sappho reminds me of how easily, if we’re properly open, the ardors of the world will speak to us.

Yes, there’s a deep attention to things with Sappho. Do you think doing this translation has impacted your own writing?
Yes, I think it has deeply, in all kinds of ways, for the last decade, and [it] has affected my teaching in profound ways as well.

It’s changed the shape and content of my poems. But I think it’s also changed me as a poet. It’s made me so much more patient than I ever was as a younger writer. I don’t feel overly compelled to write a poem. I just need to wait until the gift of it comes. When I hear a line or see an image, however encountered—walking through the day or found in another poet’s work—it’s then [that] I let myself get to work. And my relationship to the language of the poems I’m writing feels much closer, much more intimate, than I ever could have imagined it would, like I’m listening to it rather than making it.

Certainly I think it’s impacted my writing these poems that I’ve been calling Cantos, that I’ve been writing for, God, I think, about seven years now. I can’t bring myself to order them into a [full-length] collection because in my heart I don’t feel like it’s quite done. The final notes of it, in some way, are liberated into different kinds of fragmentariness—little bursts of thinking that don’t feel overly compelled to come to consequence in a logical next thinking—of trusting that things can fit together in different ways. And the shocking startle of that thing which is in front of me and unable to be denied, whatever that thing might be: the family dog, the child, the hot cup of tea getting cooler as the day goes along. That all these things, properly seen, are worthy of the honor of a poem.


Yamini Pathak is the author of the poetry chapbooks Atlas of Lost Places (Milk and Cake Press, 2020) and Breath Fire Water Song (Ghost City Press, 2021). Her poems are forthcoming or have appeared in Sierra, Poetry Northwest, Waxwing, Tupelo Quarterly, and elsewhere. She is a Poet in Schools for the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation and serves as the poetry editor for Inch, micro-chapbooks published by Bull City Press. Yamini received her MFA in poetry from Antioch University in Los Angeles and has received support from Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation, Community of Writers, the Tin House Workshop, and Kenyon Review’s Writers Workshop. Born in India, she lives with her family in New Jersey.