INTERVIEW WITH Amanda Murphy and Carrie Chappell

/ / Interview, ISSUE 26

Winner of the 2022 Théophile Gautier Prize in Poetry from the French Academy, Sandra Moussempès’ collection Cassandre à bout portant (Flammarion, January 2021) explores the haunted aesthetics and violent dialects attributed to women’s lives. Raw and rigorous, the poems in this collection channel women’s voices as they disembody and re-embody in language, tapping poetry’s potential as a space of rebellious empowerment.

FWR: How did you both (or each, if separately!) stumble across Sandra Moussempès’ book, and what about it called out to you? Was there a particular quality about it—or even a particular poem within it—that led to the “coup de coeur,” the lovestrike, the desire to rebirth it in your mother tongue?

Amanda: That’s what usually happens to me when I really love a poet or author whose work is not yet translated, but in this case, Sandra actually reached out to me through a friend in common. I dove into Cassandre à bout portant with the idea of translating it and it became immediately apparent to me that these poems needed to exist in English. They often rely on imagery associated with the United States, Hollywood cinema, advertising, and the stereotypically feminine that we can trace to those spaces, so it just seemed logical to me to bring the poems into the language of that world. I would say that my reading experience was already infused with the idea of a translation to come, and that for me, these poems have a particular call to be translated into English that I felt I could respond to. But I didn’t think I should translate them alone. So I reached out to Carrie, a friend and poet I admire greatly. 

Carrie: For me, there was a bit of stumbling across the book. The day after I spoke with Amanda about the possibility of working on a co-translation of Cassandre à bout portant, a book I did not know by a writer I had not heard of yet, I assisted an old professor of mine in finalizing a large order of his at the Tschann Libraire on Boulevard du Montparnasse. While waiting on him, I drifted towards the poetry section, and, there, in a face-out display, was Sandra’s collection. Because I had already been clutched by the conjurations of the title (a linguistic pull which remains rather undiminished for me when I think of this work) and because the object itself was so electrically pink, I found myself rapturous to pick it up. I already knew this was my copy. I bought it. It felt like a big yes. It felt like good chemistry. It felt like the best kind of adventure to embark on with fellow writers and feminists. 

Like Amanda, when I read the poems, I had translation in mind and felt quickly how their lines contained refractions of my homeland, elements that had romanced and troubled me. The book seems to be particularly infatuated with women who have in their enshrinement been ensnared. And Sandra traces that through, yes, cinema but also very surely through the “tragic” women — Emily, Virginia, Sylvia (for within the work they are almost always invoked by first name) — of English literary tradition. I felt, then, that Sandra’s project, while certainly moving to me, could also speak to a larger audience.


FWR: What led you to decide to undertake this project together? What is the process of co-translating like for you, and what do you think are some of the unique boons and challenges of having a companion in this kind of experience?

Amanda: Sandra Moussempès’ poems speak of and to women. They inspire sorority and solidarity, which is actually an approach to translation that I had already studied in particular among women translators in Québec. It seemed to me that this was a unique opportunity to put it to practice, precisely because the work seemed to call for women to come together in language, to find a common voice that contests the norms usually imposed on it, which translates in the poetry to a kind of paragrammaticality and awareness of being a woman in language that I think Carrie and I both identify with. For me, the positive elements of this experience with Carrie are so overwhelmingly dominant. Getting to have a second set of eyes and ears, a second experience with the text to compare to, and a larger sounding board for ideas while translating is such a rich experience.

Carrie: The plurality of women’s voices, what feels like archive at the same time as new utterance, in Cassandre à bout portant is what has made me feel that this work in particular necessitates more than just one mind considering its English articulation. Amanda and I, perhaps due to our previous creative and research-based work, seemed to both desire a process that would allow us to not only work on the word- and expression-level matter of the poems but also to interrogate what the work was doing in time, both literarily and to us. I have very little doubt that Amanda could have translated a version of this book on her own, but if she or I had gone forward independently, we would have denied ourselves a lot of meaningful conversation around French and English expression, as they relate to the narration of women’s lives. 


FWR: What have been each of your journeys into the world of language and then into translation specifically? How did you each meet and fall in love with poetry? With French? I know that you, Carrie, are a poet, and you, Amanda, are a scholar of comparative literature. In what ways do you feel the act of translation connects with, diverges from, and even influences your individual writing practices?

Amanda: Language for me is a tool for emancipation: be it a “foreign” language or a particular use of, or creation within, a language we consider native, speaking and writing is about finding a voice. It’s about bringing something into existence – be it a voice, a concept, or an image – that didn’t previously exist, like one of my favorite poets Nicole Brossard expresses through the notion of “l’inédit” (the term she uses to describe something that has been denied by language and society but that can be brought into being). This is what fascinated me, as a young woman, about foreign language, and this is ultimately what I have come to appreciate about poetry and literature in general. In my research, I’ve been particularly drawn to writers who push the limits of language(s) or rely on multiple forms of enunciation to express their relationship to language(s) and the space(s) to which they’re connected, and which usually has a political element to it. This is why my interests in literature began with the most “radical” forms — the historical avant-gardes and modernists (Kafka, Djuna Barnes, Faulkner, Joyce, Woolf), as well as the Language poets in the U.S.

I never really distinguished poetry and prose and have never been interested in genres as categories (which doesn’t mean they don’t exist; these are just not the questions that are the most interesting to me). For me, it’s a matter of doing something with language. 

Translation is directly connected to this idea, as it is a practice that by definition brings something into existence, but translation for me is also a process working from within a language. It can be part of a poetic gesture; it can be found within a word choice, or can leave merely a trace, a hint of elsewhere, which is what I often find among the writers that interest me the most. Personally, I find it impossible to write in only one language, as translation is always there – the back and forth movement is part of my identity and therefore part of my writing.

Carrie: It’s a humongous question, Marissa, but still such a worthy place to attempt response. My journey into the world of language has been a process, a long and ongoing one, of understanding my linguistic inheritance — all those weird underpinnings that made up my expression at home in the U.S. Southeast and then within the larger context of “universal,” or what I really think of as colonial, English — and then looking for ways to disinherit or revolutionize the grammar of my thoughts so that I might chance a realer articulation of self or future self. At the same time, I have often been pulled, contrastingly, towards preservation, towards a wish to keep some lineage intact, to be sure I could still feed off the oxytocin of origin. 

Recently, I’ve been thinking about, in my own creative work, the trauma that is incurred by a person when she comes to share, as sincerely as she can muster, a truth of herself and is met with denial or ambivalence. It breeds estrangement within the self, and all I really understand is that I believe this might have happened to me as a very young person and that I have gone on to breed estrangement in some of my life choices. Even as much as I’ve been looking for real embrace. I understood at some point that “home” — my South in particular — was not a place where I was or would be accepted. And that translated into a number of places but very really what became my writing life. 

Poetry has always seemed to me like a beautiful foreign country, a place where customs are turned on their heads, where the unrequited is given ample room and the hope of audience, where dreams are suddenly documented. I believe that if you are writing anything that you call a poem, that you are writing from a place of estrangement, from a place where you have felt your thought or vision was disadvantaged by the current stakes of reality. And so you write to contextualize yourself, which is in a sense giving yourself a new country. I have needed poetry for this above all else, I think. 

The act of translating poetry feels to me like another way to be a good citizen to the estranged out there, and it is also a great experiment with a “tool for emancipation,” as Amanda said of language. In seeking the English expression for Sandra’s poems, we’ve had to interrogate responsibility in English and in literature, which is a terrifying but fascinating space to enter in regards both to communal and personal conversations around creation.


FWR: As Americans who have spent years building lives in France, has immersion into the world of French literature altered the way you look at the writing of your homeland? In the same ways in which many people trace the lineage of aspects of contemporary American poetry to writers like, say, Dickinson or Whitman, what do you feel is present (—whether being hearkened to or pushed against—) of the foreparents of French poetry in contemporary writers? In Moussempès specifically? How do you feel having access to modes of expression outside of the Anglophone influences the ways in which you view, understand, and imagine literature more largely?

Amanda: In my case, foreign language, or a certain foreignized relationship to English was what drew me into literature. I have been particularly interested in the incapacity to feel at home in one’s own language and to the potential mechanisms of exclusion or oppression contained within languages that function in different ways depending on the language and its historicity. Sandra, I believe, writes with the presence of a community of women poets, contemporary and past, who have also suffered from exclusion or oppression (Plath is a very important figure for her, I know). She draws attention to the difference between being (or identifying) as a woman and the expectations society has had, and still has, for women, including in language – how to speak, how to respond, what you can and can’t say.

Carrie: Yes, building a life in France, which absolutely meant for me building a stronger relationship with contemporary French literature, has changed the way I look at the writing of my homeland. Firstly, my move here, as probably many who’ve made similar choices to uproot from homeland might attest to, pronounced for me very clearly my nativeness, which began to feel a lot like an almost impolite level of naïveté, to my homecountry. Even the American-ness I knew I was trying not to perform almost compulsively emerged from me. My whole sense of self-worth had to be reappraised, because I no longer held in French society the obvious markers of anything except my biographical information. If I considered myself having had any “success” in the United States, well, nobody here had ever heard of a lot of my stuff, especially an MFA. But what this meant, painful as some of it was, was that I could kind of reappraise the hold America had on me. I still write myself a lot about my South, I’m still fixated in so many ways on looking back, over, under, etc., but I’m also now more freely accepting that my homeland shouldn’t need to take up so much space, in my relative sense of how much I matter and in a global sense of how much it matters to other lands. 

As far as what I feel might be in revolution in French literature, I think a lot and not enough, all at the same time. Institutionally, what we have as an example with Sandra’s book, which is released by a major press (Flammarion) in France, is a reminder that here poetry is recognized as a living artform, but I don’t think you see these major presses supporting, mostly through PR and events, their poets in the same way they do their prose writers. And I guess the French public isn’t either. Which means that poetry in France remains, for better or for worse, niche. 

For me, this “nichitude” goes back to the earliest moments of education around poetry. French children are still required in school to learn certain poems, mostly themed around the seasons or school supplies, by rote memorization and perform them for their teacher and classmates. These poems have heavy rhyme scheme and meter, and are, I believe, meant to promote a certain formality around pronunciation and elocution. While I was initially charmed by this practice, I’ve learned that the poem, the poet, poetry as an expression, are given small parameter. The poem stays fixed in the classroom as exercise. After that, by the time of the final graduation exam, French youth are expected to have evolved and asked to be more literate in literary technique and prosody but as applied to a limited canon of white male poets — Apollinaire, Baudelaire, Char, Hugo, Ponge, Queneau, Rimbaud, Valéry, etc. And this is, I guess, what many French people here leave their education with, that poetry has been written, that it has intellectual properties and even “a message,” but that it is stowed in the past, in the hands of these men, these practically mythological names, that people around the world include when they refer to “French Literature.” 

So, I have some difficulty tracing all that contemporary French poets are pushing against. It is practically everything. Every rigid exclusion of diversity, every dictation of poetry as something that must have strict formal structure. And it’s pretty challenging to go through historic or contemporary European artistic and social movements and find parallels in poetry publishing because it seems the French taste for poetry has been greatly reduced by this rigidity. French women in this tradition are very underrepresented, as are people of color. We have some cultural nodding around names like Andrée Chedid or Suzanne Césaire (though we usually hear more about her husband), and if we go back further, some might recognize Marie de France, Louse Labé, or Anna de Noailles. People still get excited by the Oulipo movement, and it did touch poetry in France. Yet, I have my doubts about whether it really expanded any conversations around who gets the preservation of publication, the reissuing, etc. Only six women were “inducted” into its club-like structure and few of them have been translated. Hélène Besette, who was not a member but who was first published by Queneau, is one of my absolute favorite French poets. She was enormously inventive with her “roman poétique,” but she was practically excommunicated from the scene because she wasn’t an “easy personality.” It’s taken several small presses to resuscitate a readership for her, and I have heard that she will finally have English translation in the coming years. 

I think the French poets writing today are working towards more radicalism, both on the level of the line and articulating identity, than some of the celebrated men of French poetry tradition ever dared. Sandra Moussempès certainly is. And she is doing so in the purest promise to an artist’s life, and she’s doing it well and often. This is her 11th  published collection. This time, finally, garnering attention from the French Academy. It’s a big deal, even if receiving an award wasn’t going to dictate her future artistic production. Where is she taking her inspiration? I’m not always sure. Certainly, she’s looked to the U.S. She could be drawing, as are others, from what has been long and powerful social discourse in France on feminism. Today’s “wave” is absolutely more intersectional and is strongholding with feminist and queer writing collectives. And what’s powerful in that right now is that independent presses and young people are showing up for it and are feeling more and more empowered to turn back to their institutions and say, actually, I think this, over here, is really good literature. I’m very inspired by my French contemporaries who are dismantling the “preciousness” of literary forebearer so as to expand what art can do. It is amazing radical love.


FWR: When I first read through the Moussempès translations that you sent, one of many qualities that I was drawn to was the formal expansion and contraction, almost tidal, in her work, and the way in which it seemed to mold with how the theme of female embodiment ran across these poems. There are several poems that feature very long, almost breathless lines; others are incredibly spare. How do you see form, in this sense or others that strike you, operating throughout Cassandra at Point Blank Range? As translators, were there any tricky formal, rhythmic, or verbal decisions you had to make to bring Moussempès’ verse to life as you had understood it?

Amanda: The formal expansion and contraction in her work is definitely an interesting element. It’s what gives a certain rhythm to the whole book. For me, it’s necessary to consider rhythm and form on various scales: the line, the page, the poem, the collection, the book. There is definitely an importance given to changing shape, perhaps to the plasticity of women’s bodies and to women’s ability to adapt, with all the implications that can have. When translating Cassandre, we definitely had some moments where we were unsure of the need for a line break or a page break, and even on some occasions had differing opinions as to whether or not a poem ended before or after a page-break. Generally speaking, we tried to protect the rhythms found in the original, but as her poetry is also quite prose-like, we had to find a compromise between the semantic unit and the sounds and visual elements.

Carrie: I agree so much with your descriptor of “tidal” Marissa and with Amanda’s identification of Sandra’s expansion and contraction of form mimicking “the plasticity of women’s bodies and […] women’s ability to adapt.” I think of this collection as a series of short films strung together. Sandra’s work is so cinematic to me and because we find it all on the page with sound and image bites patched in here and there, we also have the sense of the fleeting, the ghostly, a staging but of a kind of absenteeism. I do see Sandra’s work as keenly interested in exhausting the reader’s ability to locate, as a way of forcing us to accept the speaker or the author almost as medium, bringing in messages from another consciousness. Like Amanda said, we had to work through a lot of questions. In some cases, we were looking at where to build cohesiveness with certain word choices, so as to engage “readability,” but then, we worried to what degree we were projecting a certain narrative-wish for the poems. I do think we decided early on that as far as translation would go, we would, in as many cases as it was possible, aim to maintain a semblance of the original rhythm of the text so that that “tidal” quality, which feels very Moussempèsian, remained. 


FWR: Was there anything in Moussempès’ work that you found particularly challenging to translate? Do you feel that the act of translating these poems gave you access to anything that you might not have had were you simply reading them?

Amanda: Poetry always relies on a degree of ambiguity and meaning can be located on so many different levels, so yes, in Cassandre à bout portant, we definitely had moments where Carrie and I didn’t necessarily come up with the same understanding or feeling about a word or a line that was particularly unique. Line breaks were often a challenge due to the ambiguity of meaning they can create depending on if you read through them or stop. Sandra’s forms and use of punctuation is not always consistent, voluntarily probably, so it is sometimes hard to come up with any kind of method or rule for translating.

Reading is the first step in translation, and reading definitely determines translation to some extent; however, there is something extra in the gesture of translating that can feel empowering, depending on the text, and on the translator’s relationship to it and to the languages involved. There were a few poems, especially the ones about writing and women in language, that gave me a really great feeling to translate, the feeling of enacting, in a sense, what the poem was originally trying to say or do.

Carrie: Yes, I think Sandra’s poetics, which for me include a certain disbelief in traditional grammar practices, were probably the most challenging for me. For example, a misplaced modifier in French is misplaced still, but it can, within the rhythm of the language and the order of preceding words, be felt in a particular way. It was delicate to try to replicate that purposeful misplacement in English phrasing. We couldn’t always achieve it. 

I also think the repeated references to U.S. culture through cinematic, literary, and brand mention represented an intriguing moment in the consideration of how these poems would transpose. When the speaker in “Non-identified feminine objects” mentions Beverly Hills, Santa Monica, chewing gum and corn flakes, we had very little translating to do, of course, but I do think we considered what was intact in Sandra’s French and in our reading of her poems, which is a kind of mystique in importing another culture and language (and honestly time) into her work, that we just can’t deliver in leveling it all into English, and our American English at that. 


FWR: Translation can also be seen as a kind of editorial curation. It’s a process of decision-making—out of all of the books I come across on a regular basis, this is the one that has moved me irreparably, that I believe can touch others in far corners of the earth. What does it mean to you to think of not only the artistry, but also the responsibility, of literary translation? In earlier eras of your lives, as burgeoning young lovers of language and literature, what translated works were most formative to you and what you believed writing could be?

Amanda: There is no doubt that translation is determinant for literary culture and canons. The existence, non-existence, or delayed existence of translations has shaped our ideas of what literature is or isn’t, what it can or can’t do, and what it can or can’t say. Translating in itself is an occasion to reify or modify those beliefs and I have always admired translators’ initiatives to make something happen through translation, to bring about an event in language, even if it may be highly personal or concern, at first, only the translator’s relationship to the languages at hand. I can’t say I grew up reading with an awareness of translation. When I became interested in translation studies several years ago here in France, I came to the conclusion that a lot of the translations I had read at school in the United States, for example, had not even been presented to me as translations. There is a real problem with the dominance of the English language and the lack of interest in foreign languages in the United States in certain milieux, and that’s part of the reason why when I translate, especially into English, I adopt at times a foreignizing strategy, leaving traces of something that might remind readers that they are reading a translation. I believe that is essential to a responsible experience of reading in translation.

Carrie: Well, I guess I referenced some of these ideas a bit before, not knowing this question was coming! I do, though, see responsibility in literary translation as a very real concern. I have greatly enjoyed learning from Amanda’s research in translation and felt swift community with those she introduced me to who believe in maintaining some of the original’s grammatical structures, even if there might be something more economical in English, so as to honor the anatomy of the author’s lyric. A part of what attracts me to translation is what has also made me a poet, which is a wish to devote my whole self to the choice of words, to each word. I think of this practice as one that is fully artistic and fully responsible. I don’t know if I’ve ever disassociated the words when I‘ve thought of the social/political/artistic act that is presenting work to an audience. 

In high school, I remember having a very powerful reading experience with Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. However, much like in Amanda’s story, I don’t remember being presented with this book, which I think must have been assigned reading for one of my classes, as a translation. (The same is true when I think of  how little was said about how Sophocles’ Antigone or The Diary of Anne Frank came to our American English classrooms.) But if I recall well the kind of strange font choices and paper grade of the cover of my copy of Crime and Punishment, it was one of those cheaply marketed versions of “great literature” that you could find in the front aisles of Barnes and Noble. Certainly, I felt in reading it that I was being pulled into a different culture — the character names were difficult for me to pronounce even in my head, the small food references were obviously “other” to my parents’ homecooking, and the old religion didn’t feel anything like my then American Protestantism. I loved the series of weeks I spent in that book, yet didn’t spend much time interrogating how I was sitting in my carport in Alabama with this text. It was still several years before I would be taught, and then actually grow interested in, the front and back matter of books. But because of these occlusions and the sometimes clinical way novels were taught to me, I don’t think I had any inkling that “literature” was something that I could write, that translation was something that I could do.


FWR: What does it mean to you to translate from a foreign language that you are also both currently living within? What are the ways in which you feel it smoothens the process or ways in which you find it complicates it? I remember, when I first moved back to America from France, how often the French word for something would come to me in conversation before the English word (even now, four years on, my brain can never manage to find me the English equivalents for terms like parcours or régulariser). Do you find your minds blurring the borders of the language it feels most “at home” in, and if so, how does that affect you as not just translators, but as writers yourselves?

Amanda: I think translators, by the nature of their work, always live to some extent in a gray zone. Like anyone who speaks more than one language, they are constantly swinging back-and-forth from one space to another and develop a particular attention to language, which is also that of the poet, in the broadest terms of the word. Through my academic work and own writing (and living), I have realized that these spaces are never étanches; they are never neatly delineated and writing, like translating, is a matter of allowing for newness, maybe even a language of one’s own, to emerge out of the friction between the languages we use, but never fully possess. Even after living in France for 16 years, doing a PhD here, and claiming to be close to bilingual, there have still been words and expressions in Moussempès’ poems that escape me and create an element of surprise. In those cases, I often experience a desire to elucidate but fight against it so as not to flatten the foreignness or strangeness (étrang(èr)eté) in English. That’s where it’s nice to have two translators so that we can compare our respective histories with the French and the English languages.

Carrie: I often return to something Maryse Condé says in the beautiful documentary on her life, “Maryse Condé: A Voice of Her Own” : “The language I write in is neither French nor Creole. As I have often said, it’s a language of my own. I write in Maryse Condé.” When I first watched this film in 2016, as a student in the DUEF department at Sorbonne Nouvelle University, Paris 3, I rejoiced. I was in love. Condé’s determination to claim a spot for herself, in all we can think of as self, in the world of literature, despite different worlds demanding something of her to be more distinctly Guadeloupean or more distinctly French, was so illuminating for me. As a poet, I had often felt like some readers had wanted me to shirk certain aspects of my expression that felt so distinctly me to me. I think Condé, who now lives, and has for years, in New York, embraces in ways I want to, in ways I want so many writers to, the particularities of a linguistic relationship to the world. The way one feels and wields and receives language is one of the most personal and intimate spaces I can imagine. It is a sensuality. And I think “living in French” as a native English speaker has offered me new sensual dimensions in the expression of self and reality. Of course, I experience complications. Like you Marissa, certain English words “go missing” on me. It seems my brain has almost permanently deleted a referent for what might be an English equivalent for “préciser,” but I don’t know if I could say that anything about living in France burdens the process of translation from French into English. The process itself, no. Perhaps a question about publication, being farther away from the English presses that might want to release a translation, is a different order of question. Yet, I think it actually makes a lot of sense to be within the culture from which you are translating some of its works. At the same time, of course, this could never be a requirement, but for me, living in France and working on Sandra’s book has afforded me a collaboration with Amanda and also regular contact with the poet herself. I feel extremely lucky to be local in this way, to have the constant stimulation of French in my daily life. All of this leads me back to what I wanted in moving here, which was a kind of solidification or amplification of the linguistic plurality I already felt in me. 




TWO POEMS by Sasha Burshteyn
TWO POEMS by emet ezell
TWO POEMS by Sebastian Merrill
SO MANY by Robin LaMer Rahija
TWO POEMS by Tana Jean Welch
ELEPHANT by Julien Strong
JUNCTURE LOSS by Liane Tyrell
TWO POEMS by Julia Thacker


WET OR DRY by Naomi Silverman
BLOODY AVENUE by Isabella Jetten


ANCIENT MOSQUE by Xiao Shui trans. Judith Huang
THREE POEMS by Sandra Moussempès trans. Carrie Chappell and Amanda Murphy
THROUGH THE LAKE, THROUGH THE WATER by Johannes Anyuru trans. Brad Harmon
THREE POEMS by Álvaro Fausto Taruma trans. Grant Schutzman
THE GARDEN IS THIS GARDEN by Hélène Cixous trans. Beverley Bie Brahic
CHEWING BETEL NUT by Mark Dorado trans. Eric Abalajon and Mark Dorado
THREE POEMS by Anne Vegter trans. Astrid Alben


with Carrie Chappell and Amanda Murphy


by Omneia Naguib