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Exclusive Interview With Poet Helene Cardona

It sometimes seems like all published poets wear many different hats in addition to their poetry cap. Helene Cardona exemplifies this as much (if not more) than any poet. When she's not a poet, she's an actress with credits in movies such as Chocolat and Mumford. She's also an equestrian, dancer, dream analyst, and yoga practitioner. When she's not speaking English, she's speaking one of a handful of other languages--and has worked as a translator/interpreter for several different groups.

For her collection, The Astonished Universe (Red Hen Press), Cardona put together a wonderful group of poems--written in both English and French (of course). After all, where's the challenge in writing a collection of poems in only one language. (Note: During some of these interviews, I feel like Wayne from Wayne's World--ready to fall to my knees and say, "I'm not worthy; I'm not worthy.")

Here is the interview.

The Astonished Universe is an intentionally bilingual collection of poetry. Why did you decide to do this?

I wrote The Astonished Universe in English. I did not originally intend it to be a bilingual collection. English is my fifth language, but it has been my language of choice for a long time now. I can say it chose me. I presented the manuscript, in English, to the publisher. They came back to me and said they would be interested in publishing it as a bilingual collection in French and English. At the time they had a collection in Spanish and English, and one in German and English, but none in French. So I went back to work and translated it into French. It was fascinating for me, because it rekindled my love of the French language and of writing in French again. The French translation absolutely informed the English version. As I was making discoveries with the French, I came to realize that some of the English could be improved. It became a dance between the two languages. I also felt more freedom than if I were translating someone else, because it was my own text.

Your father is a poet. How did he influence you as a writer?

My father is a Spanish poet. He was born on the island of Ibiza. His mother was from Madrid, and his father from Barcelona. He was nicknamed “el cisne vallisoletano”, the swan from Valladolid. This is because they say that the Spanish from Valladolid is the purest. His command of the Spanish language is extraordinary. I could say he instilled in me a love for words.

You’re an actress. Do you find that helps or hinders the poetic process?

It helps. Acting and poetry are simply two different forms of artistic expression. As an actress I am very drawn to films that are visually beautiful and poetic. At the same time, I always pay close attention to the screenplay. It is the backbone of the film. I was lucky to work with Lawrence Kasdan (Mumford). He writes all his screenplays, and they’re usually original screenplays. He’s a terrific writer and director. I was also lucky to work on Lasse Hallström’s Chocolat. Robert Nelson Jacobs’s screenplay was nominated for an Oscar and won the BAFTA award. Great writing helps the actor. To go back to your question, they both raise your consciousness and in that sense, enhance one another.

You’re a very well-traveled poet who is able to speak several languages. Which languages can you speak? Do you think travel and a knowledge of languages helps your poetry?

I was born in Paris. French is my mother tongue. I learned Spanish at home before I went on to study it more formally at the Sorbonne and the universities of Santander and Baeza. My mother was Greek and taught me her language. I started learning German when I lived in Geneva, and studied it more thoroughly at the Goethe Institutes in Paris and Bremen, Germany. Switzerland is a tri-lingual country, so I picked up Italian there, and then studied it more when I decided to work as a tour guide in Italy. Of course knowing multiple languages is a great advantage to writing poetry. It develops a musical ear for sounds, and gives flexibility with words and the thoughts that underlie them. Travel opens your mind and imagination.

How did you go about getting The Astonished Universe published?

It all started when I met Red Hen’s managing editor at a PEN USA event. We had a subsequent meeting at a restaurant and she suggested I send her the manuscript.

If you could share only one piece of advice with other poets, what would that advice be?

Do things that inspire you. 

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To check out more information on Helene Cardona, visit her Web site at www.helenecardona.com.

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If you're interested in checking out other exclusive interviews with poets, including Dorianne Laux, Julianna Baggott, Jillian Weise, and more, just check 'em out here.

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If you're a publisher or well-published poet who's interested in giving an interview, check out my Call for Poets here.

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