Triplets and Translation in the Republic of Georgia with Poet Timothy Kercher

Timothy Kercher and daughters

Interview by Tania Pryputniewicz

“My Brothers’ Egg” opens with these lovely lines: “You can’t birth triplets / without some divinity. / You can’t be a triplet / without being one third / a god.” Can you talk to us about the process of writing this poem and how you arrived at those opening lines?

I’m one of five brothers, my three being identical triplets ten years my junior (Kerchertriplets.com). In a family with five boys and no girls, our mom was a saint to put up with all of us, which is certainly, at least in part, where this idea of our mother as divine comes from; moreover, everyone knows about the number three and its mystical associations—and it seems to follow that a woman who gives birth to three is something special. Even so, having triplet brothers has been my normal, but as I’ve gotten older, I realize more and more how improbable an experience this is—I’ve always watched on with something akin to wonder at my brothers’ lives, and as I’ve watched their special bond, feel they are extremely fortunate to be part of a triumvirate where each truly understands the others. And maybe, in some sense, have got experience at least one living example of how mystical the number three truly is.

 “Visit Number Two” reveals the braid of a present situation – a wife pregnant with triplets, paralleling an earlier reality of the husband narrator’s experience of having “lost” a triplet sibling. Can you talk about the psychological and emotional layers you were exploring in this poem?

I never lost a triplet sibling, but for a while we believed that my wife Allison was pregnant with triplets. I digress: growing up with triplets, I had a lot of responsibility in raising them—I took on a lot of fatherly roles, such as waking up to help my mom feed them, changing diapers, watching them, helping them with homework, playing ball with them, and coaching them, and, until my daughters were born, my single greatest fear was losing one of my brothers. Just about a year ago while living in the Republic of Georgia, when we went in to a clinic for Allison to get an ultrasound, we saw that she was carrying three embryos. For me, I immediately identified myself with my own parents, who were 39, the age I am now, when they had my brothers. When I first saw what looked like three peas in a pod in ultrasound of my wife Allison’s belly, I could think of nothing but my brothers.

A few weeks later, we went to see another doctor in Georgia, which “Visit Number Two” is about, and the first thing the doctor told us during the ultrasound when she found out that the third embryo had no heartbeat was, “I am glad this one has no heartbeat. In Georgia, we would terminate one, anyways.” And although this reflects the reality of the Georgian medical system, the bluntness of this doctor combined with my own history with triplets, this was quite a blow (I think at this point Allison and I were still in a state of shock over the whole prospect of having triplets)—to hear, for the first time ever, the heartbeats of our first two children was amazing, but then to hear the third, who we’d know about for several weeks, was no longer growing, was hard to take.  Especially hard since I wasn’t just thinking of embryos, but of my brothers—it was like Shawn and Kelly were alive and Joey had died. Neither my wife or I knew how to feel when we left the office.

Also in “Visit Number Two” the lost triplet is named “Baby Nobody.” The narrator, “think [s] of lost sheep, the one / that wanders away and will not / bleat.” This tenderness is in such contrast to the nurse in “Third Visit,” who doesn’t even listen any longer for the third heartbeat. How does poetry lend itself to exploring such a tension?

A Georgian poet I’ve worked with and translated, Zviad Ratiani, told me once that he writes poetry, “to understand [his] life.” This may be the best justification for poetry I’ve heard. These first few months of pregnancy were a roller-coaster ride for my wife and I, and something I needed to deliberately flesh out in writing. As I explained before, the idea of losing one of the three was not easy, and this against a backdrop of different medical system, a different way of communicating, and different understanding of the possibility of having healthy triplets, it became something not that I wanted to write about, but something I needed to write about.

You shared with us in your cover letter that you are now accompanied in your marriage and life by newborn twin daughters. How has their arrival, and fatherhood, affected your writing life?

Having the girls has affected my writing in many ways. First and foremost, I have much less time to write, which has been a struggle (even though I know that my two daughters are far better creations than anything I’ve ever written). Secondly, when I do write now, more often than not I’m writing about this experience in some way. Fatherhood is a wonderful subject for poetry—for isn’t poetry an attempt to give voice to something for which there are no words? The experience of seeing your children for the first time, the sinking in of the realization that you’ve taken part in the creation of two beautiful beings and that you are now completely responsible for them goes beyond language. It is these ideas I find myself exploring most anytime I sit down to write recently.

Can you talk about the work you are doing with translations (I’m thinking specifically of your translation of Besik Kharanauli’s long poem, “The Lame Doll,”), how you became interested in translation, and how you find your way to the essence of someone else’s poem?

I have three large projects that I’ve spent the last two years working on—they are all translations of contemporary poetry from the Republic of Georgia. I lived in Tbilisi from 2006 to 2010, and during this time I earned an MFA from Vermont College for which I undertook a translation project for my critical thesis. It was an amazing experience. I’ve worked with over twenty poets and translators and really had the opportunity to experience Georgian culture in a different, deeper way.

One of the manuscripts I’m nearly done with is Besik Kharanauli’s “The Lame Doll,” which was first published in Soviet Georgia in 1972. This was a groundbreaking collection for both its use of free verse and its inclusion of an everyman persona, two things that were not done in Georgian poetry before this. Kharanauli is considered one of the greatest living poets in Georgia, and his work, and my co-translator Ani Kopaliani have had the privilege to bring a complete work of his to English readers.

Another manuscript that I am nearly done with is Maya Sarishvili’s “Microscope,” which I believe is a collection that would appeal to readers of “A Fertile Source.” Sarishvili is a third grade teacher and a mother to four young children. Her poems are an exploration of her experiences—strange and dark, with surprising, visceral imagery. She explores motherhood and the changes it brings to the body, the birthing experience, and her own childhood with a unique Georgian sensibility. She is one of the most prominent woman poets writing in Georgia today, and, really, I chose to translate this manuscript because I’m great fan of her work. In fact, my co-translator Nene Giorgadze and I translated the bulk of this manuscript while my wife was pregnant through the first few months following the birth of my girls, and Sarishvili’s poems have been a great companion.

Can you also tell us about your manuscript “Nobody’s Odyssey” (recently selected as a finalist for the John Ciardi Prize for Poetry)?

For the most part, this is the manuscript I wrote for my creative thesis. As the title suggests, it’s really an exploration of identity, both from a poetic and human point of view. I’ve lived much of my of my adult life away from my home, Colorado—a place I love and miss immensely, but for the love of travel and experience, I don’t live there. I allude to The Odyssey in this manuscript often, and especially to Odysseus, as many of the poems reflect either Eastern European or American influences, and I try to make sense of why I travel, the feeling of always being an “outsider,” and where my place is in the world. A number of the poems explore my experiences in Bosnia as a relief worker right after the war there in 90’s, and a good many others explore my time in Georgia.

I would imagine your travels have you put you in the company of a great variety of other writers. Anyone in particular who has inspired you?

Many. As I mentioned before, I’ve worked with a great number of Georgian poets, and this experience has impacted me in many ways. My faculty advisor at the time, poet Richard Jackson, after I had given him a long list of possible critical thesis ideas, told me to forget every one of them but the Georgian translation idea, because, as he said, “It’s what the world needs.” This is the kick I needed to get started with what I’ve spent a lot of time doing the last several years, an experience that has been rewarding. I believe that writing is a form of advocacy, and translating voices from a group of poets virtually unknown in the west, is important. Beyond this, just the experience of meeting and talking with the poets themselves has inspired quite a few poems—life in Tbilisi can be absurd, and this absurdity offers itself well to post-modern poetry.

For example, I have one poem in “Nobody’s Odyssey” called “Meeting Yevtushenko’s Translator” that tells the story of how I drove 22 kilometers across town to meet a poet friend who was going to introduce me to another writing friend of his, and I left my car in front of my friend’s apartment building, and we took a taxi to what turned out to be my next door neighbor’s house. Certainly, I’ve met and worked with some great people and poets, too—from Besik Kharanauli, Shota Iatashvili, Maya Sarishvili, Zviad Ratiani, Gaga Nakhutsrishvili and others, who have welcomed me into their community. Beyond this, I believe the act of translation is an intimate one, perhaps the most intimate act a poet can have with another poet’s work. And working with some many different poets on so many poems has been a boon for my own writing, helping to deepen and expand the range of my writing.

Any projects in the wings?

I’m working on a collection of poems, many that deal with our experiences with having twins and living overseas, that I hope to start putting into a manuscript this summer. Me and my co-translator Ani Kopaliani have plans to begin translating Besik Kharanauli’s novel “The Book of Father Besarion” in the near future. And finally, I’m hoping to put together an anthology of contemporary poetry from Georgian women in the near future. I usually have more ideas than I can possibly work on at one time, a problem exacerbated by having two infants at home.

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