Vanesa Pacheco and T.A. Noonan: On Translation and Erasure

Last year, I edited The Women in Visual Poetry: The Bechdel Test (Essay Press Chapbook 18) which featured conversations about visual poetry between myself, Michelle Detorie, Gillian Devereux, K.S. Ernst, K. Lorraine Graham and Sheila Murphy. When I began the project, I asked for conversations between four pairs of women. The final set was between poets T.A. Noonan and Vanesa Pacheco. Because Essay Press specifically wanted three conversations, this conversation was not included in the chapbook. Please consider it alongside the original chapbook, with which it is in conversation.

T.A. Noonan is the author of several books and chapbooks, most recently Fall (Lucky Bastard Press, 2016) and The Ep[is]odes: a reformulation of Horace (Noctuary Press, forthcoming). Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Whiskey Island, LIT, Reunion: The Dallas Review, Ninth Letter, Phoebe, and Open Letters Monthly, among others. A weightlifter, artist, and priestess, she lives in Florida and serves as an Associate Editor of Sundress Publications, the Development Director of the Sundress Academy for the Arts, and the Founding Editor of Flaming Giblet Press.

Vanesa Pacheco is a Bostonian with wanderlust. She received her BA in Literature and Communications from Wheelock College, and is now pursuing her MFA in poetry from Stonecoast’s creative writing program at the University of Southern Maine. Her poems have appeared in Delirious Hem, The Rain, Party, and Disaster‘s monthly issues, and Velvet-Tail. She currently writes for Bustle’s fashion and beauty section and runs a literary citizenship blog, Better to Begin.

Vané Pacheco – 2:49 PM

Spanish is my first language, although I consider myself stronger in English (both writing, reading, and conversational). However, I speak it at home, which is why I wanted to write a poem in Spanish in the first place. I’m not sure why I chose erasure as my first actual experience, but it was interesting and difficult.

I love erasure in English, but I forgot that grammatical rules aren’t the same in another language, which is where I found obstacles in what to actually erase and keep. It’s much harder to form complete thoughts than it is in English.

T.A. Noonan – 2:54 PM

That makes sense to me, as I often do want—at least with English—form some kind of complete (if fragmented) thought, and I couldn’t do that without some command of the language.

Vané Pacheco – 2:56 PM

Do you think there are other ways to interpret reading (since you said you don’t write in another language?) Some way to not form a complete thought using English?

T.A. Noonan – 2:58 PM

I guess I could split any number of semantic hairs over the idea of “completion,” but I think completion comes from either grammatical structure or aggregated meanings.

Vané Pacheco – 3:00 PM

That makes sense. I did attempt to think that way when I was creating the poem – attempting to just have some meaning come across even if it didn’t make grammatical sense. However, my natural instinct was to “fix” it.  It was also harder not having another poet or someone who could give proper feedback who also spoke Spanish.

T.A. Noonan – 3:01 PM

The words themselves picking up associations based on their proximity or not-proximity to others. I see “red” and “caffeine,” and while that pairing may not evoke the same reaction in me as someone else, it evokes something.  I think that sense of “fixing” also goes back to what we were talking about with fidelity in translation.

Vané Pacheco – 3:02 PM


T.A. Noonan – 3:02 PM

We think, “Oh, I know this language, and that’s not ‘right.'” As if we’re tasking with repairing the text at the same time as we’re erasing/interpreting/translating it.

Vané Pacheco – 3:04 PM

It is much more difficult to write poetry when believing that it is the only way to write, especially in another language. It also becomes harder when attempting to translate it (even your own work). But, then the issue of what is the best way to translate or let it come across to others who can’t read the language of the original piece, has to be considered.

T.A. Noonan – 3:07 PM

I keep thinking of this lesson I tell my students: I draw a red octagon on the board and ask them what it is. They always say it’s a stop sign. And when I correct them and discuss how that combination of color and shape has become a (literal) sign for the concept of stopping, we end up talking about how language isn’t arbitrary. STOP doesn’t equal TOPS or SPOT or OPTS, even though they all have the same letters.

I often use this to talk about word choice and what that means, but I wonder if, in the process of saying that, I’m shutting down association and prescribing a certain kind of meaning-making.

Vané Pacheco – 3:13 PM

I think that, at some point, association is always going to affect reading and writing, but i don’t think that discussing what you’ve mentioned would shut it down completely. It might instead change the way in which your students or people in general might understand a text. Now that they can come up with a meaning beyond a stop sign, they might see one first, then the other, then consider what they actually want to believe. It gives more control.

I do know that, because I can read, write, and speak another language, that even if I see or hear something in English, if I am thinking in Spanish, it sometimes means I won’t understand. even if I know what is being said in English. My first thought of whatever is said might be what is kind of sounds like in Spanish, and that is usually wrong hah!

T.A. Noonan – 3:17 PM

Yes, exactly. Once you’ve tuned your brain to think in a certain pattern—linguistic or otherwise—you find yourself interpreting in that pattern, even if it has nothing to do with the “text” you’re engaging. I get stuck in these loops, too, especially when I’m translating or working in erasure. I see everything the way I’ve been seeing the text I’m working with.

Vané Pacheco – 3:18 PM

Are you able to switch between your ways of thinking or viewing?

T.A. Noonan – 3:19 PM

I can, but it takes conscious effort. It’s like tunnel vision. I get hyper-focused and only see what I want to see. I have to remind myself to open up my view.

Vané Pacheco – 3:22 PM

Yeah, I think that happens to me more often when erasing a text versus writing a poem from a blank page. I concentrate on one way of erasing or understanding and than I have to remind myself to stop and change.

However, when I wrote in Spanish, while I was concerned about the grammatical understanding of the poem itself, I tended not to focus as much on what I do focus on when erasing in English (where the words would fall on the page, what I was saying etc.)

T.A. Noonan – 3:24 PM

That difference is striking to me. So, would you say you felt like you had more control over the process?

Vané Pacheco – 3:25 PM

I felt I had different control. I chose words for different reasons. There is one word, agrisa, which means graying. I kept it because I liked how it was pronounced out loud and how the letters looked themselves together, but not so much, the meaning. I never feel entirely in control over my erasure poetry, but somehow love the feeling of trying to overcome that to continue writing it. Do you feel control over your erasures?

T.A. Noonan – 3:29 PM

You know, I was going to write something about control being this essential thing, but the more I think about it, the more I realize that it’s not like I feel a sense of control over the erasure so much as a control over the source.

Vané Pacheco – 3:29 PM

I was about to ask if that had something to do with how you chose the source!

T.A. Noonan – 3:31 PM

It does! I tend to choose source texts that I feel like I have some kind of “mastery” over—an understanding of the subject matter, knowledge of the author, something.

Vané Pacheco – 3:31 PM

I tend to do the opposite.

T.A. Noonan – 3:32 PM

Why is that?

Vané Pacheco – 3:34 PM

I think that when finding text to use, if I have too close of a connection or know too much, it affects what I actually erase. I have tried to write with texts I know about and would consider myself knowledgeable on the text or author, but I struggled with erasing actual words to create something.

What is the reason for your need to have “mastery” over your texts?

T.A. Noonan – 3:36 PM

I like to start from a place of comfort, of feeling like I know the text, so that I’m surprised by what I discover through the erasure process. It’s not always successful, but when I find something I didn’t expect or see before, I get so excited and want to dive in even further and see what else I “didn’t know.”

Vané Pacheco – 3:39 PM

That sounds so cool! It makes me want to reattempt using texts I know more about. Although, I also enjoy the idea of finding a text based on some reason (title or author name) and then picking a word I like the sound of, searching the text and using wherever that words is as my beginning text. It is scary, but maybe I like being scared.

T.A. Noonan – 3:40 PM

And I want to try it the other way now, play with unfamiliar texts and see what I end up discovering in the process.

Vané Pacheco – 3:41 PM

I think, in some way, I am comfortable in feeling scared. I would consider myself a baby when it comes to writing. The idea of insecurities and self-doubt in writing itself are very present in my mind.

T.A. Noonan – 3:41 PM

I like that, especially this idea of erasure as scary. Maybe it’s the season for it, but I keep thinking of the missing texts of erasures as little horror movies. What’s there? Who knows? It could be something really dangerous and frightening!

Vané Pacheco – 3:42 PM

And my attraction to horror probably adds to being seeking scary stuff.

T.A. Noonan – 3:42 PM

I don’t know that the insecurities ever completely go away. I have my moments where I go, “What am I doing? I’m a fraud!”

Vané Pacheco – 3:45 PM

You’re probably right, I’m sure they won’t go away entirely. Writing is hard, but strangely, I have attached myself to the idea of erasures as being scary to begin with, so I have to begin with unknown texts. I want to see what happens if I have a different mindset going into using a text I know about. how that will affect my writing process and mind.

T.A. Noonan – 3:47 PM

Yes, I definitely agree that the process is scary—haunted, even—because you’re grappling with another text and trying to figure out what’s going on behind the scenes. Erasures feel like ghost stories to me.

There’s always this sense of seeing “beyond the veil” to something that’s just outside the edges of consciousness, if that makes sense.

Vané Pacheco – 3:49 PM

I like thinking of it that way! Your comment on erasures as ghost stories reminds me of people asking if using someone else’s text is wrong because I’ve manipulated it. How would you teach it so that it seems like you’re writing a poem?

T.A. Noonan – 3:51 PM

When I’ve taught erasures in the past, I take two approaches. For students who feel really uncomfortable with it because they have hang-ups about originality or what have you, I tell them to treat it as an exploratory game, not unlike Mad Libs. Find the language that interests you and focus on that. Archaeology analogies work for that, too. “You’re excavating fossils. You won’t find the whole body. Start from there.” I’ve used that with a lot of different students, though—not just resistant ones.

Vané Pacheco – 3:56 PM

Do you think that the already idea of erasure (how it is taught) affects erasures in other languages? At least for teaching? I know you mentioned not using a German textbook.

T.A. Noonan – 3:57 PM

Actually, students who are on board with erasure as a mode of (de)/(re)composition are harder to work with in some ways because they often get stuck on making the text completely unrecognizable. But that’s a different series of lessons.

Vané Pacheco – 3:59 PM

Really? That’s actually very interesting. I’m not sure where I would fall in that category. But I think it stems back to the idea that erasing, even if you’re on board, is still using someone else’s text. I definitely used to treat the text differently when I began (simply taking away words and just making sentences). But I am not sure if I made it unrecognizable— but it could be that my choice in text affects me understanding whether I did or not. I don’t know if I have certain rules I must keep when erasing.

T.A. Noonan – 4:02 PM

As I’ve worked more and more with erasure, I’ve found that I like having the actual source text barely visible in my final versions. It draws attention to the erasing in a way I like, and I suspect that change has influenced my idea that there should be some sense of the original. Even if I change the subject/focus/whatever completely, I enjoy the idea of showing the ghost of the original. The more I think about this, the more I feel like I’m arguing in favor of non-English source texts!

Vané Pacheco – 4:06 PM

They definitely make for creative writing! I would like to come across a text that has both of my languages in it and try to make some poem using English and Spanish. I know I write in both languages for my other poetry, but attempting it in erasure sounds fun and also very difficult.

T.A. Noonan – 4:08 PM

Agreed. And now I’m thinking about a parallel-text translation as a possible source.

Vané Pacheco – 4:09 PM

I actually hope you do that, because that sounds like it would be great and might produce a very interesting erasure. There are also so many ways to use it and create something!

T.A. Noonan – 4:12 PM

I could see this going a lot of ways: playing off some of those so-called pitfalls of translation, responding to the translation provided, etc.

Vané Pacheco – 4:14 PM

It would be interesting, visually, as well, depending on what you decided you were going to do. Mimicking the visual idea or focusing on something else entirely.

T.A. Noonan – 4:15 PM

The more I think about it, the more interesting it sounds to work in a language that one doesn’t know because there’s even more unpredictability. And that’s even scarier.

Vané Pacheco – 4:17 PM

The idea of control goes completely out the window in terms of grammatical rules and understanding, at least for me. I would love to attempt that and see what I end up with afterwards. It would seem fitting to do that scary task before October ends. Then I can be thankful for November.

T.A. Noonan – 4:18 PM

Ha! Love it! November is also NaNoWriMo. Sounds like a good time to meditate on it! (Just what I need, another project! Ha!)

Vané Pacheco – 4:20 PM

I forgot completely! I am working on a short story right now, which I wouldn’t say can be considered a part of NaNoWriMo, but maybe I can get away with it.  Too many projects and ideas! Too little time. I wish I could do it all and still sleep a lot.

T.A. Noonan – 4:21 PM

Exactly. But I love this idea too much to go, “Nah, let’s leave that alone.”

Vané Pacheco – 4:22 PM

Please do it! And I hope you will feel comfortable showing me the end result! It seems great.

T.A. Noonan – 4:23 PM

You got it! And that goes for you, too, if you decide to try something similar or find a Spanish-English text for erasing.

Vané Pacheco – 4:24 PM

Will do! If I am confident enough, I might post it on my blog as well, though I still get hesitant doing that.

T.A. Noonan – 4:24 PM

My brain immediately jumped to Anzaldúa, but I don’t know if that’s the right text. Ahh, that makes sense. Stupid “previously published” rules.

Vané Pacheco – 4:27 PM

You should keep that it mind, and maybe you might end up using it, even if it is not erasure. I like to think the first thoughts are the ones that I actually should do, but I might still be thinking like a teenager. It lingers.

T.A. Noonan – 4:29 PM

It’s good to trust your instincts, at least at the start, because it’s what gets you started.

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