Re-Making Creation: Poet Michael Bazzett Brings The Popol Vuh to Boise State 

Seamus Heaney's Beowulf. Stephen Mitchell's Gilgamesh. These aren't exactly beginner texts. And yet, they were the works that poet Michael Bazzett turned to in order to plan a lesson on mythology for his 11th- and 12th-grade students at The Blake School, a college prep school in Minneapolis. They're also the texts that, indirectly, inspired Bazzett to tackle crafting his own: an English verse translation of the Mayan creation myth, The Popol Vuh.

"My students are bright, lively and curious: I craved a version of the myth that they could disappear into, a verse version that truly sang," Bazzett explained in the introduction of his translation, which was eventually published in 2018, a full decade after he had first sought to introduce The Popol Vuh to his students.

The Popol Vuh (pronounced "poe-pull woo") has mysterious origins. It's the story of the world's inception, centered on the heroic twin brothers Hunapu and Xbalanque, who journey to the underworld and defeat the Lords of Death before the creation of man. Supposedly first written down by the K'iche' (pronounced kee-chay) people of what is now Guatemala in the mid-1500s, proof of the book's existence didn't come about until the 1700s, when a Dominican Friar named Francisco Ximenez learned of the story from the K'iche' natives and transcribed it. Since then, the tale has seen many iterations, though all more academic than poetic—until Bazzett's, that is. He'll bring his version to Boise State University for a reading on Wednesday, March 27, at 6 p.m. in the Student Union Building's SPEC Center.

Bazzett was first exposed to The Popol Vuh while on sabbatical in Mexico, and so to start work on his translation he traveled to the place nearby where it all began: Guatemala.

"There are almost, I think, 2 million [K'iche'] speakers in sort of the western highland part of the country. It trickles over a little bit into [the Mexican state of] Chiapas, where you can hear K'iche' being spoken. I was trying to get a sense of what the cadences and the rhythms and just the music of that language sounded like, just in the abstract, you know—language as sound and music, and not necessarily as information," Bazzett told BW in advance of his trip to Boise.

From there, Bazzett spent years with a word-for-word translation of Ximenez's transcription by Allen Christenson, four other translations and a K'iche' lexicon, working to reforge the dense text into verse. It was his first time translating a full-length work.

"Once it gets flowing it's a little bit like a river, and I tried to let it go as long as I could before I kind of ran out of gas. And that's how the initial draft came out," he said, later adding, "... I felt I just needed to trust the story. My working metaphor as a translator is to be a bridge. I'm the thing that you don't notice that maybe is utterly necessary to get to where you want to go, but what matters is where you're coming from and your destination."

Even while translating The Popol Vuh, Bazzett never stopped writing poetry. In fact, working on the translation fueled his mental furnace, leading to the publication of three poetry collections—You Must Remember This (2014), Our Lands Are Not So Different (2017) and The Interrogation (2017)—while The Popol Vuh was still in progress.

"I had a tremendous amount of fodder and imagery, and it was just very vitalizing to be reading the wonderful and yet strange story that was inspiring in the oldest sense of the word." Bazzett said. "... Every time you write a poem you're translating anyway. You translate this thought, this energy, and distill it into language that is always somewhat imperfect. But being able to go write my own poems was sometimes a nice break, because it just seemed a lot more free."

Since The Popol Vuh's publication, things have come neatly full circle: After it was named one of 2018's best books of poetry by The New York Times, David Shook of World Literature Today compared Bazzett's work directly to one of his inspirations, Heaney's Beowulf.

"That was pretty uncomplicatedly pleasant," Bazzett said of the correlation. "I was delighted to read that. I think that there's probably more than a little hyperbole there, but I was honored to be included in the same sentence as one of my heroes."

Bazzett's next project is a horse of a different color—a book that he described as "a bit of a mashup" between poetry and translation that retells the myth of Echo and Narcissus through the lense of contemporary American culture. He's calling it The Echo Chamber.

"Late-stage capitalism, 21st-century America—I think the myth of Narcissus has a lot to tell us," Bazzett said, adding that a selection of the poems will look at the concept of the selfie, which he calls "an interesting extension of a very old story, if you put it in that Greek, narcissistic context."

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