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Artists in their Own Words: Elizabeth Gross

Elizabeth Gross

(photo: David Gross)

Who: Elizabeth Gross

What: poet, translator

Where: Mid-City

Artist’s Chosen Location for Interview: her living room

Q: What’s the most crucial sense to have when you first meet someone?

A: Probably sound. Quality of voice and the words people say. The quality of voice is something you notice more when it doesn’t work for you. I think there’s actually an individual range of frequencies that work well for people. It could be very technical, but I don’t know much about that side. I’m thinking more word choice… that kind of thing.

Again, it’s hard to describe what I don’t like to hear because I feel like I might incriminate myself by doing impressions. A friend of mine was doing an impression of someone that we both know, and I couldn’t even listen to the impression because of the quality of voice and the word choice.

The poet Yusef Komunyakaa has this melted, deep voice. It makes it hard to stay awake, but he’s such a fine poet that you stay awake.

[Pause in interview while we listened to a reading by Yusef Komunyakaa]

He has a very special quality.

Q: What’s something strange that you’re allergic to?

A: It’s strange when I’m not allergic to something. I mean, you can pick so many things. My allergist once described me as “the most allergic person she’d ever met.” There was this allergy scale where the ‘non-allergic’ range is between three and thirteen. People who are above thirteen are allergic to something. I was around 692. That’s a true story about my blood test.

I mostly have the typical allergies. It’s just a little atypical to have them all.

Q: What’s something that surprised you in the last few days?

A: There have been a lot of surprises in rehearsals. I don’t know how to describe it, but some of the movement has really surprised me in the way that it seems to translate moments that I cut out from the text we’re using for The Bakkhai. It still communicates aspects of the choral odes that I had to cut down, and that happened organically.

I’ve played with keeping some elements of the refrain for The Bakkhai but not much.

The Greek language is quite repetitive. In the presentation that we’re doing for The Bakkhai, I’m trying to keep as much as possible the way that the words themselves kind of morph form, but keep the same root so you get this repetition of sound. It makes a sensible sentence, and it’s hard to think of an example in English because the language doesn’t work the same way.

In terms of my translation of the Greek choruses for The Bakkhai, I want to bring into English this strange return of sound that exists in the Greek language. Even more, though, I’m responsible for the syntax for the Greek itself. Preserving word order wherever possible within reason because if you compare the way the Greek chorus speaks to the way other characters in the play speak, their syntax is garbled and strange. I’m trying to keep that in English.

My translation isn’t entirely in sentences. It’s in poetic fragments at times. I’m trying to keep the tension between the lines.

There was one line that I ended up cutting because it just didn’t work in English. The direct translation would be ‘innumerable numberless,’ but what’s coded in that is ‘numberless men and innumerable hopes.’ So: ‘for numberless men innumerable hopes exist’. The same word in two different forms are right next to each other in the text. The vocal effect, then, is strong, and since in Greek every part of the line can be coded to attach to something else, you can have this crunched up repetition of sound and still get to a sensible sentence. That doesn’t always translate to English, though.

And I’ve also been surprised with the people that are supporting The Bakkhai and donating. My dentist gave us money. It’s very sweet.

 Q: If someone had to play you in a play about your life, who would you trust to portray you accurately?

A: I wouldn’t trust anybody, and I wouldn’t want to go to see that play. It sounds really hard to watch. I would feel very exposed, and I hope that no one ever does that.

I’m not interested in having anyone else in control of my story. It wouldn’t even matter if they portrayed me accurately or poorly. It wouldn’t match anything about my experiences. It would be alienating to then feel that difference. I think that we can understand each other as humans. We can communicate. Sometimes. With varying degrees of success.

But there’s a big difference between understanding each other and making a play about someone else’s life that accurately portrays their life to that person. I mean, that’s a range right there.

If I were to portray someone, I think I could maybe do a good job with playing my mom, but not in a way that could be satisfying to her. I don’t think I could portray anyone else’s life that would be satisfying to them.

It’s interesting because Greek tragedies tell the stories of the myth, which include some history, but not recent history. At the same time, because attending the festival of Dionysus and going to see tragedies and comedies was part of everyone’s civic duty as a member of democracy — part of the requirement in order to vote — there’s lots of theories about what specific political circumstances are being commented on. That includes comments on leaders within the assembly.

Q: When do you feel very aware of your existence?

A: When I’m swimming. When else are you actively receiving sensory information from the entire surface of your skin? If you’re really hot, really cold, or it’s really windy. Also, if you’re buried alive. We didn’t throw that in, but we can. Then we can make a complete set of earth, wind, water and fire.

Elizabeth Gross’s poetry and current projects can be viewed on her website. She curated Waterlines—Poetry and Spoken Word , and she also runs The Waves Reading Series. The Bakkhai — translated by Ned Moore and Elizabeth Gross — will be performed at the Marigny Opera House on June 12 and 13.


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