Office Hours: Seth Michelson The assistant professor of Spanish, who devotes time both inside and outside the classroom to writing and translating poetry, recently compiled a book of poems written by incarcerated undocumented teens.
What sparked your interest in Latin American studies?
I grew up on the U.S.-Mexico border and lived in San Diego, California, and my father worked in Tijuana, Mexico. I was always fascinated by the overlapping cultures, languages and identities composing the 500-year-old San Diego-Tijuana conurbation, not to mention the rhetoric and legislation used variously to separate and connect the communities. I loved each side, as well as their entanglements, and it seemed both amazing and commonplace to me that we lived these transnational lives in constant motion, with friends, neighbors, classmates, coworkers and family members continuously migrating back and forth across the construct of the international border, both with and without documentation, and for a diversity of reasons. And I couldn’t help but notice, even as a child, the seeming caprice, cruelty and injustice of many of the impediments to and permissions for crossing.
Why does poetry translation matter to you?
It’s important to me that I use my linguistic and literary skills and privileges in the service of helping others to share their voices and diversify the literary landscape. For this reason, I’m specifically committed to translating feminist poetry into English. Also, in the U.S., literature in translation composes a mere 3 percent of the literature being read, so I’m concerned that we’re unintentionally pre-selecting, endorsing and perpetuating an isolationist worldview via our national literary culture. As a translator, I can work actively against this.
I also find the process of translating to be a deep pleasure. As a poet myself, I enjoy working intimately with and learning from the original texts of other writers. Less selfishly, I take pleasure, too, in helping monolingual-Spanish poets, for example, to reach previously inaccessible readers, such as my non-Spanish-speaking friends, whom I often know would love the work of certain poets if only able to read it. So I’m motivated by a desire to connect writers and readers, which also happens to motivate my teaching and writing, meaning those three interests nourish one another.
What is the most important lesson you want to teach your W&L students?
One of my most important aims in the classroom is to encourage each student’s intellectual passions. To that end, I try to help them to learn to read more slowly, broadly and rigorously; to listen more attentively, critically and generously; and to cultivate the courage to raise their voices whenever necessary.
What have you learned in your work with undocumented teens that you wish you could share with everyone in America?
Among other things, I’d try to emphasize the power of a bureaucratic adjective like “undocumented” to influence individual and collective life. For example, the ascription of the adjective to a child can drive her to suicide, and the ascription of the adjective to communities can mobilize racism in all of our lives. So perhaps it’s a crucial misstep to begin conversations today about the 17,000-year-old story of human migration up and down the hemispheric Americas with adjectives like “illegal,” “alien” and “undocumented.” Perhaps they toxify the waters before we can even enter them to try to swim? Against such nullity, we need language helping us to conceive of alternative ways of living well together, and the beautiful poetry of the incarcerated teens with whom I’ve worked might exemplify this.
To read more about Michelson’s book, “Dreaming America: Voices of Undocumented Youth in Maximum-Security Detention,” click here.
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OUTSIDE THE CLASSROOM
When I’m not working: I enjoy cooking, traveling and camping with my sons.
If I hadn’t become a Spanish professor: I might have become an immigration lawyer, an astrophysicist or a chef.
My favorite place: Is impossible to choose. I’ve loved living in and visiting many different places. Recently, I’ve enjoyed my time in Mexico, Germany, Kenya and India.