A product of an ethnically diverse family, David Bowles has lived most of his life in the Río Grande Valley of south Texas, where he divides his time between writing, translating, and teaching at the University of Texas Pan American. The Texas Institute of Letters recently awarded his book Flower, Song, Dance: Aztec and Mayan Poetry the Soeurette Diehl Fraser Award for Best Translation. He is the author of several other books, among them Mexican Bestiary and The Seed. April will see the publication of The Smoking Mirror, his first young-adult fantasy novel, and Border Lore, a volume of his retellings of south Texas folktales.
Additionally, David’s work has been published or is forthcoming in various periodicals, including Apex Magazine, Metamorphoses, RattleTranslation Review, Eye to the Telescope, Concho River Review, Interstice, Huizache, BorderSenses, Illya’s Honey, James Gunn’s Ad Astra, and Red River Review.
Geosi Gyasi: You’re a translator, poet and author. Could we begin with your work as a translator? What does it entail?
David Bowles: I mostly translate poetry, but I have worked rendering plays, short stories and various documents into English. Though I do more lucrative free-lance translating from Spanish to English (the two languages I speak daily), my literary translations have tended to be from Japanese and Nahuatl, two of my favorite languages.
Geosi Gyasi: How long does it take you to translate a poem?
David Bowles: That depends on several factors, including length of the poem, the language of the original, its form, etc. For example, I can translate a free-verse Spanish poem in about an hour; a haiku by Bashō (whom I’ve been reading for decades) might take me a little less, especially since I have used the form extensively over the years; an eight-stanza Aztec poem, however, might take me three or four days.
Geosi Gyasi: How long does it take you to translate a novel or short story?
David Bowles: I’m pretty fast translating Spanish to English. I can translate nearly as fast as I would write an original story, about 250 to 500 words an hour.
Geosi Gyasi: How lucrative is the work of a translator? In other sense, do you earn a living as a translator?
David Bowles: Literary translation is the diametric opposite of lucrative work, believe me. However, the freelance translation I have done (government documents, bank records, other mundane documents) pays okay. I do not, mind you, translate for a living. I teach at university and head a public-school bilingual education department.
Geosi Gyasi: At what age did you start writing?
David Bowles: When I was fourteen.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you remember your first piece of writing?
David Bowles: Yes, it was a poem called “Deluge.” That year in school my English teacher William Hetrick helped me perceive poetry in a way I never had before, and after a few failed attempts, I produce this bit of verse. The piece took the form of a series of quatrains written in loose ballad-like trimeter, full of flood-related themes and imagery. Its predictable and weak rhymes seem balanced to my present ears by effective internal alliteration.
Geosi Gyasi: When and where do you often write?
David Bowles: I write in my study at home, mostly. I wake up early each morning, at about 5 am, and write for an hour to an hour and a half before going to work. Then, in the evenings, I spend about a half hour or so reading and revising what I have written.
Geosi Gyasi: What’s the best part of writing?
David Bowles: Well, every element or stage has its reward. The hardest part is the actual writing; thinking or researching what you’re about to write and then seeing it completed or published is lovely. Writing itself, however, is grueling work for the most part, though some poems and stories do seem to appear fully formed in a writer’s mind. Those don’t come often, though.
Geosi Gyasi: What’s the most difficult story or poem you’ve ever worked on?
David Bowles: In writing my poetry book Shattering and Bricolage, I had emotional difficulty with several very personal poems, like “I Wish I Could Remember,” dealing with my father’s abandoning my brothers and me when I was a teenager and “Dark Blot,” about the fear my wife and I went through during her third pregnancy. Last year, after the suicide of someone close to the family, I penned a piece titled “Ashen Boy” that nearly broke my heart. Of course, sometimes there are technical difficulties, as in my recent translation of the Nahuatl “Flower Song Convocation” cycle of poems or in writing the short story “Wildcat” that will be published in Apex Magazine this summer. The latter was rejected from many magazines before an editor took the time to show me I had ended the narrative too early; when I took his advice seriously, I was able to take the protagonist to a place that I would never had dared to before, and the result is very powerful.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you have a target audience when you write?
David Bowles: Sometimes, sure. The Smoking Mirror, out in April from IFWG Publishing, is a young-adult fantasy novel, so I was clearly writing with 10- to 18-year-olds in mind. I’ve also written darker fiction meant especially for adults. However, most of the time I write what I feel compelled to write, and then I sort out the audience later.
Geosi Gyasi: What do you hope to achieve with your writing?
David Bowles: I could pretend that I’m writing just for the writing, and there certainly is an aspect of just enjoying the creation of literary worlds, but the truth, of course, is that I do have goals. I want, for example, to promote the culture, history and language of indigenous Mesoamerican people. I want to preserve the legends and folktales my grandmother Marie Garza used to tell me as a child. I want to contribute to diversity in young adult writing in the US. I want to make present and vibrant to modern readers the literature of certain ancient peoples, especially the Nahuas (Aztecs). Above all, I want to guide others through the nooks and crannies of the human heart and how it struggles to find meaning in the world.
Geosi Gyasi: Are there times you feel like not writing?
David Bowles: Yes, definitely. And sometimes I allow myself that luxury. Perhaps a week or two with no writing at all. But when faced with deadlines, that self-pampering goes out the window. I don’t believe in writer’s block. When it’s time to write, I sit down and do it.
Geosi Gyasi: Could you distinguish between haiku and poetry?
David Bowles: Basically, haiku is a very compressed type of poetry originally intended to spark a round of collaborative writing called renga. Setting aside the formal rules of medieval Japanese, the modern form uses roughly 17 syllables, normally in 3 lines, to juxtapose two images or events in a way that stirs an epiphany in the reader.
Geosi Gyasi: Could you share with us anything about Asian poetical forms?
David Bowles: There’s so much to say! I’ll limit myself to telling you that I find the constraints of waka, renga, senryu, sijo and other Asian forms paradoxically liberating in a way that is impossible with free verse.
Geosi Gyasi: Which writers have most influenced you as a writer?
David Bowles: Nnedi Okorafor, Ted Hughes, Robert Fagles, Cormac McCarthy, Isabel Allende, Stephen R. Donaldson
Geosi Gyasi: Do you have any favourite books?
David Bowles: Sure. My top six would be Moby Dick, Blood Meridian, Things Fall Apart, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, The Tale of Genji and Beloved.
Geosi Gyasi: Does your family approve of your writing?
David Bowles: My children are very supportive, and my wife…tolerates it, heh. Just kidding!
Geosi Gyasi: What do you do to relax when not writing?
David Bowles: I’m a musician, so I often spend time playing instruments. Books and cinema, however, are my mainstay.
Geosi Gyasi: What are you currently working on?
David Bowles: I’m about done with A Mythological History of Mexico, an illustrated synthesis of Aztec and Mayan myth and history. Next I’ve got to wrap up A Kingdom Beneath the Waves, the sequel to The Smoking Mirror and the second in my Garza Twins YA fantasy series. This summer I should be done with the first English verse translation ever of the Aztec codex Ballads of the Lords of New Spain. So I’m keeping busy!
Geosi Gyasi: Do you care about what critics say when you write?
David Bowles: I think if we’re truthful all writers care what critics say, because they are essentially the most vocal and famous members of our audience. Their opinions matter to many readers. That said, I don’t think about them when I write: I’m focused on the integrity of the story or poem at hand, and I trust my instincts (and those of my editors) enough that possible censure from critics isn’t a concern for me.
Geosi Gyasi: The Texas Institute of Letters recently awarded your book, “Flower, Song, Dance: Aztec and Mayan Poetry the Soeurette Diehl Fraser Award for Best Translation. Could you spend some time to talk about this award?
David Bowles: It was definitely a big honor for me, being recognized by the most august literary body in this state. Poetry has a limited audience, and poetry in translation even more so; as a result, awards can open up a readership one might not otherwise reach. It is gratifying and humbling that some of the greatest writers of my region should consider my work significant enough to merit singling out. Getting up to receive the prize and being able to address hundreds of people in Nahuatl, the former lingua franca of a sizeable chunk of North America… that was powerful
Geosi Gyasi: I am tempted to believe that you have something to say to end the interview?
David Bowles: Just that I encourage readers to push beyond their comfort zones, to explore broadly in genre and culture, to really explore the nature of humans and our place in the world by reading what people across the world and all through time have had to say about the big themes of existence. There is nothing like such exploration. It gives real meaning to our lives.