Eureka!: 60 Seconds

60 Seconds with Douglas Basford

Douglas Basford, a poet, translator and lecturer in UB’s English department, recently won a Literature Translation Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts to support his translation of sonnets by the 15th-century Italian poet Domenico di Giovanni. It seems this 600-year-old poet, popularly known as “Il Burchiello” (the Little Barge) for the way he piled up images like merchandise on a boat, could still teach us a thing or two.

Interview by Michael Flatt

Why Il Burchiello?

I was casting about for something unusual. Wanting to avoid rights issues, I went back to the 15th century, to a vein of colloquial, satirical poetry called the “comicorealist” tradition. Burchiello’s sonnets often read like an absurd catalog of things he had “seen,” like peasants standing on a roof manufacturing air. Since his own time, critics have dismissed his work as nonsensical. On first reading him, I wasn’t so sure.

What makes his poetry relevant to today’s readers?

Literature, for much of history, has hovered around courtly or elite atmospheres. Burchiello’s work comes instead from a highly charged, diverse social space—he owned a barbershop in the epicenter of Florence, where people of all stripes came by to hear him recite his poems. He could help us reimagine poetry in less formalized spaces than the academy. And his poems about exile, prison, poverty and social exclusion have a lot to say.

Apparently, he held improvised insult-sonnet matches, which sounds a lot like present-day freestyle battles in hip-hop. Is that just a bizarre coincidence?

Not at all! There’s resonance in the desire to make one’s presence and skills known. Both the “burchielleschi” and rappers, I think, know how language can enrich our lives and give a voice to the voiceless.

Burchiello was popular in his day, and his poetic style was imitated long after his death. Why do you think he isn’t more of a household name now?

He’s infamous in Italy. But generally it has to do with a long neglect of oral and satirical poetry. Anything other than the dolce stil novo (“sweet, new style”) of Dante and Petrarch, the romantics, modernists and the like, has been labeled unserious. Only oddballs like me have picked up comico-realists.

As a translator, how do you maintain the integrity of a poem in a different language?

To start, I read the original over and over, to the point I hear the poet’s voice inside me. But to maintain integrity is also to make your purposes seen—[renowned translator] Lawrence Venuti is right that the translator being “invisible” is a myth. My era has shaped my being as much as the poets’ shaped theirs. The key is to be honest about where one’s words come from.