Q&A with Willard Bohn

By | March 29, 2017

Willard Bohn answered some questions for us about editing the new anthology Surrealist Poetry.

Tell us a bit about a significant piece in the collection and why you selected it.

I selected “When I Sleep I See Clearly,” by J. V. Foix, for two reasons. Since Barcelona was, and continues to be, a hotbed of artistic experimentation, I wanted to include works by someone from Catalonia. Although Spanish is the dominant language spoken in Spain, it is not the only language. Foix was not only the most talented poet writing in Catalan but also one of the finest Surrealist poets in any language. The whimsical play of his imagination is both immensely entertaining and totally original. Since the poem attempts to describe the nature of Surrealist inspiration, it constitutes an important theoretical statement as well as a delightful lyrical exercize.

What made you realize this kind of collection was missing from the field?

Historically anthologies of Surrealist poetry have been few and far between. In general, they consist of texts in the original language or translations into English. Although bilingual anthologies present a rare opportunity to compare the original poems with their English versions, they are exceedingly rare. Bilingual translations of Surrealist poems taken from more than one language do not exist at all. Combining texts translated from French, Spanish, and Catalan, the present volume attempts to partially remedy this situation. Readers are able to compare texts composed in different languages and to note the various ways they exemplify Surrealism.             

Did you begin compiling the anthology with a certain piece or pieces in mind?

The volume was initially conceived as a companion to an earlier anthology entitled The Dada Market. As such, it represents a further investigation into the twentieth century avant-garde. Since André Breton was the leader of the French Surrealists, who were the first to experiment with automatic procedures, I began by choosing a selection of his poems. The names of other prominent Surrealists came to mind as well but not particular works. My goal was to present a broad selection of the most significant members of the French and Spanish groups. The twenty-three writers chosen for comparison are not limited to just France and Spain, but also come from Belgium, Egypt, Martinique, Mauritius, Mexico, Chile, and Peru.

What do you think is the most unusual piece in the collection?

Among the most unusual works are those composed by three individuals simultaneously. In “Out for a Stroll,” for example, André Breton, Paul Eluard, and René Char describe an imaginary walk through mysterious city streets, where they encounter an anonymous woman singing in a deserted public square, a group of gypsies, and a paralyzed train. Framed by images of a crumbling coral pharmacy, the poem contains numerous examples of the Surrealist marvelous (le merveilleux). Although the latter includes such notions as the uncanny and the peculiar, it may be defined essentially as exacerbated beauty.    

What are the benefits and challenges of editing a collection?

Editing an anthology is a challenging task and certainly not for the faint-hearted. Most of the problems encountered by anyone seeking to publish a collection of poems are associated with copyright law, which sorely needs to be overhauled and standardized from one nation to the next. That an author deserves to reap the fruits of his or her labor is indisputable. That his grand-nephew deserves to reap the same fruits is not. In general, the sums involved are modest, and most of the authors’ heirs or rights holders are usually cooperative. However, the present project was delayed for years by the incompetent editorial staff of a prominent French publisher. My initial contact person took a leave of absence after one year to have a baby, ushering in a series of inept (or worse) replacements with some very strange ideas. Two or three years later, she returned, resumed the permissions process, and left a year later to have a second baby. Ironically, in a few years the poems will all be in the public domain, and anyone will be able to quote them without permission!       

Given unlimited space, what would you have added to the collection?

As it stands, I believe the anthology is a well-balanced and representative example of Surrealist poetry. For one thing, the contributions in Spanish are about as numerous as those in French. For another, the principal genres and styles are illustrated by a number of different works. Thus adding more poets and more examples of Surrealist poetry would not have substantially improved the volume.   

Tell us one new thing you learned from editing this volume.

I learned to be incredibly patient as the years passed. The copyright process doesn’t have to be cumbersome and unpleasant, but it certainly can be. As my case illustrates, permissions that should only require two or three months to obtain can drag on forever.

What do you hope readers will take away from this collection?

I hope my readers will gain a better understanding of Surrealism, of its principal methods, goals, and accomplishments. I also hope they will gain a new appreciation for the poets who appear in this volume, who were incredibly inventive and creative. More than anything, perhaps, I hope I have succeeded in conveying the tremendous excitement that accompanied the Surrealist adventure. André Breton and his colleagues were basically engaged in a voyage of discovery. They sought to shed new light not only on the workings of the Freudian unconscious but also on the creative act itself.  


Bohn_Surrealist PoetryWillard Bohn is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of French and Comparative Literature at Illinois State University, USA. He is the author or editor of sixteen books, including The Avant-Garde Imperative (2013); Marvelous Encounters: Surrealist Responses to Film, Art, Poetry and Architecture (2005), Italian Futurist Poetry (2005), The Dada Market: An Anthology of Poetry (1993), and The Aesthetics of Visual Poetry, 1914-1928 (1993). He is the editor of the new collection Surrealist Poetry: An Anthology, now available from Bloomsbury.

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