A prolific writer and translator of poetry, W.S. Merwin was appointed Poet Laureate of the United States of America on October 25, 2010. Because he lives in Hawaii, on an old pineapple plantation which he restored to its original rainforest state (the 83-year-old Buddhist ascribes to deep ecology), Merwin will not be making many public appearances during his tenure.
But on April 30, he will give a reading at the New World Center in Miami Beach to close the month-long O, Miami poetry festival. O, Miami organizers P. Scott Cunningham and Peter Borrebach recently spoke to Merwin over the phone in advance of his visit. This is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Mr. Merwin, what’s your knowledge of Miami? Have you been here before?
WSM: I have been there, several times. [Miami’s] a paradoxical town in a lot of ways. I know Fairchild [Tropical Botanic Garden] very well.
We made a conservancy of our land here [in Maui]. We live on 19 acres, where I’ve planted over 850 species of palm. We’ve even been credited with saving one species of palm, hypon indica. You know, the whole planet is being paved under tarmac and asphalt, traded back and forth, so I’ve always wanted to save a bit of the earth’s surface.
And that’s what brought you to Fairchild?
WSM: Yes, I’ve been to Fairchild a number of times, and they’ve given me seed, which is one link between the gardens here and there. But there are all kinds of tie-ups that are important. William Kline used to be at Fairchild before he came to National Tropical Botanical Garden [on the island of Hawaii].
You graciously lent us your poem, “On the Old Way”, for the “One Poem, One Community Project” we’re producing with our friends at Florida Center for the Literary Arts. How’d you choose that poem for us?
WSM: It’s a poem that seemed the right length to start with. But more importantly, it’s a poem about returning to a place I was very fond of, which seemed appropriate for my return to Miami.
The translation of the poem [into Spanish, also for the project] is by Alberto Blanco. How did this translation come about?
WSM: I’ve known Alberto for many years. We’ve done many translations of each other’s work. Our friendship goes back to when he interviewed Octavio Paz and me together. Spanish was my first love of the foreign languages I didn’t know very well. I love Mexico and Spain, and I’ve lived in both of them. There’s a link with Cuba too. My wife spent her adolescence in Cuba, though she was born in Argentina. We feel very fond of the language. It’s lovely to have things translated into Spanish.
You can view the rest of this interview on Beached Miami, where it originally appeared on March 11.