If a stroll through the Luxembourg Gardens seems like poetry itself, in July of 2010 it led to actual poetry, a reading by a French poet sous l’arbre, under a tree, in the gardens. Cheyne éditeur, a small poetry publishing house founded by Jean-François Manier and his wife Martine Mellinette, was celebrating its 30th anniversary with a three-week exhibition in the Luxembourg’s Orangerie. Every evening during those three weeks, Jean-François led a group of thirty or so poetry lovers, all of them carrying folding chairs from the Orangerie, to a different tree and a different poet.
The exhibit of Cheyne’s books was inside the Orangerie, extremely hot some July days despite white tenting below the ceiling. When I first visited the exhibit, I walked around admiring the books, all of them beautifully made. I’d never heard of the press or of any of the poets, so I asked the young clerk to recommend a book. Smiling, she led me to her favorite, Je sais, by Ito Naga, explaining that Ito Naga wasn’t Japanese; he’d taken the pseudonym from his Japanese wife.
By the time of Ito Naga’s reading, under a tree near Delacroix’s fountain, I’d read Je sais several times. It’s a quirky, literally wonder-full collection of 469 observations on life and the universe by an astrophysicist whose eye for detail is keen and whose sense of humor is refreshing. It’s profound without being ponderous, instructive without being pedantic, and engaging even at its most serious.
When Jean-François Manier introduced Ito Naga that evening, he said that he knew immediately he would publish his manuscript when he read, in No. 42, “I know that in Japanese, plagiarism is translated as ‘a second infusion.’”
The reading was terrific. Like his book, Ito Naga radiates intelligence and wit. Afterward, I told him I loved his book so much that I’d tried to imitate it. “Ah,” he said. “You were making a second infusion!” I said I’d made at least ten, and they just got weaker and weaker. He laughed and asked where he might read my poems, so I gave him my card from Sixteen Rivers Press.
Fast-forward to February, 2011, when Ito Naga’s English translation of Je sais arrived unexpectedly at Sixteen Rivers Press, with a letter saying that he would be pleased to have us publish it. But since we’re a collective that requires a three-year work commitment from our poets, and since Ito Naga lives in Paris, publishing his book seemed impossible.
Although Ito Naga is fluent in English, having worked for NASA for three years, his translation needed some tweaking, so in a letter saying we were sorry we couldn’t publish his book, I offered to tweak the translation for the sheer pleasure of working with the text. I said I was sure he would find a publisher, and I offered to help him there, too; the book had appeared in 2006 in France and was already in its fourth edition (as of 2013, it’s in its seventh), so I assumed it would have a similar appeal here.
Ito and I began our collaboration. I kept being sure we’d find a publisher, but it was 2011, the middle of the recession, and small publishers were reluctant to take a chance on anything, let alone, it seemed, on something French.
If only the press could publish it, I would think. Many of us had wanted to do a bilingual book, but we hadn’t found the right project, and now that we’d found one, we didn’t have the money. I mentioned our dilemma to a poet from Washington, Ross Whitney, who has long been a generous supporter of Sixteen Rivers, and asked if he and the Howard S. Whitney Foundation that he oversees would be willing to support the publication of a bilingual book. Yes, he would, in exchange for critiques from press members for a project he was working on. Not only would his foundation support the project; it would fund it entirely.
When sorrows come, they come not single spies but in battalions, Claudius says in Hamlet. The same seems to be true of windfalls. Because just when we were wondering how we would find the funds to promote I Know (Je sais) once it was published, we received a generous grant from the Yellow House Foundation, which could be used for just that purpose.
Ito Naga and I kept refining the translation, and then it was refined some more with the help of Sixteen Rivers poet Carolyn Miller, who is also an artist and book designer (see below), as well as the official copy editor for Sixteen Rivers Press.
Like all the Cheyne éditeur books, the cover of the French Je sais is austerely elegant. We wanted a cover that would respect the French version yet be distinctly our own. Finding the right image for it was another windfall. Ito Naga’s mother had bought, some years before her death, a painting from the Portuguese artist Manuel Amorim. Ito thought the image would be suitable: it’s a figure alone in the universe. But in the end, we decided that its tones were too somber for a cover. We found another work by Amorim, a woodcut called Deux Têtes, an image of two heads—a perfect illustration for a bilingual book, especially one that we think of as a gift book with brains.
And that’s how meeting Ito Naga under a tree by Delacroix’s fountain in the Luxembourg Gardens led, improbably, to Sixteen Rivers’ first bi-lingual book, beautifully designed by Carolyn Miller.