"Your top five authors:
I love Rabelais because he has no idea what he is going to write when he starts writing. He makes stuff up as he goes along. He is perfectly fine with inconsistencies in characters and plot. I've learned from him that, if one of my characters drops dead and then reappears two poems later with no explanation, it's fine. I love Shakespeare and John Webster even more, but who doesn't? In general my tastes are still very Russian. Rabelais's Gargantua and Pantagruel was a children's book in Russia, the same with Don Quixote. But they were also touted by the Russian avant-garde because they did not conform to the conventions of psychological realism. So the Russian writers I value most and that I translated--Daniil Kharms, Alexander Vvedensky, Nikolai Zabolotsky--that's the kind of material they admired, and Zabolotsky even translated Rabelais. The world is nonlinear, why should literature be linear?
Book that changed your life:
I can talk about a poem that changed my life. One day in my 20s, I was lying in my parents' basement and leafing through an old Oxford Book of English Verse, compiled by Helen Gardner. And there I came across Edward Lear's "The Owl and the Pussycat."* I didn't know it as a child because it hadn't been translated. It was a shock. I read it over and over. It felt like the only real poem in there, the only poem completely devoid of verbiage. And I'm including Milton and Donne and so on in the comparison. Today "The Owl and the Pussycat" could become anthemic, like "The Road Not Taken," because it talks about love without imposing gender stereotypes or even differences. But it has the word "pussy." Americans get really nervous if they have to say "pussy" around children. They think they will be thought perverts. My mom bought my daughter Una a bowl with the text of "The Owl and the Pussycat" printed around the rim, but they excised "O lovely pussy, o pussy my love!/ What a beautiful pussy you are." They just left it out. They were scared. We own a bowdlerized bowl.
Favorite line from a book:
Una keeps asking me to tell her stories, so one day I just started retelling her the Divine Comedy--I teach it, so it's in my head, but also she was born in Florence. The Divine Comedy is great for children. It can be told in installments, and it also lends itself to adaptation into, basically, "Dante and his Friend Virgil go to the Center of the Earth and Play with Dead People." And I alter details to make it more relevant to her. So when the Dante of the original crosses the frozen lake at the bottom of hell, he comes across two brothers who fought each other, and are now encased in ice with other people who betrayed family members. But I had Dante and Virgil go skating on the ice, and the dysfunctional siblings whose heads they stumbled over are Anna and Elsa from Frozen. I also tell her about how little Dante first met little Beatrice outside the gelateria off Ponte Santa Trinita, and the kind of gelato they ate--she had nine scoops!"
*The Owl and the Pussy-Cat
The Owl and the Pussy-cat went to sea
In a beautiful pea-green boat,
They took some honey, and plenty of money,
Wrapped up in a five-pound note.
The Owl looked up to the stars above,
And sang to a small guitar,
"O lovely Pussy! O Pussy, my love,
What a beautiful Pussy you are,
What a beautiful Pussy you are!"
Pussy said to the Owl, "You elegant fowl!
How charmingly sweet you sing!
O let us be married! too long we have tarried:
But what shall we do for a ring?"
They sailed away, for a year and a day,
To the land where the Bong-Tree grows
And there in a wood a Piggy-wig stood
With a ring at the end of his nose,
With a ring at the end of his nose.
"Dear Pig, are you willing to sell for one shilling
Your ring?" Said the Piggy, "I will."
So they took it away, and were married next day
By the Turkey who lives on the hill.
They dined on mince, and slices of quince,
Which they ate with a runcible spoon;
And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,
They danced by the light of the moon,
They danced by the light of the moon.