Books - June 4, 2000

Poet and graphic designer Todd Sanders sits with several of the books he has created. (Heidi Murrin/ Tribune-Review)

Squirrel Hill poet inspired by French work

By Stephanie Huszar

Ten years ago, on page 281 of a paperback copy of the "Random House Book of 20th Century French Poetry," Todd Sanders discovered Robert Desnos.

The finding would lead to the acquisition of an enormous collection of French literature, a two-and-a-half-year translation project, the creation of a small press and the development of two Web sites.

It's a lot to blame on one book, and the thick blue volume - which still rests on Sanders' dining-room bookshelf - looks appropriately tired.

A graphic designer, Sanders graduated from Carnegie Mellon University with a degree in architecture. His love for French poetry and knowledge of publishing stem from his undergraduate years, when he worked for Gerald Costanzo, director of Carnegie Mellon University Press and a professor of English at CMU.

"I've been in publishing for about 30 years now, and it's a thrill to see someone doing things that are so interesting," Costanzo said. "Todd's really gotten himself involved, and he's made himself something of an expert in French translation."

The path on which I run
Will not be the same when I make a half-turn
But it is still beautiful to follow it right on through

A poet who wrote from the 1920s to the 1940s, Robert Desnos was a member of the French Surrealist movement. His writing is a mixture of dreams and reality, according to Sanders, with layers of meaning concealed in puns, symbols and metaphors.

Sanders, who's been writing poetry since high school, found inspiration and parallels to his own work in Desnos' - especially in the love poems Desnos wrote for his wife, Youki.

"I write a lot of love poems myself," Sanders said, "and the way he expresses himself is similar." Both men write unconventionally, using humor and unexpected metaphors to redefine the notion of a traditional love poem.

Sanders began to collect Desnos' works, as well as those of other French writers, and to read as much biographical information about Desnos as possible.

He found, though, that collections of Desnos' poetry were scarce. Only a handful of scholars had attempted to translate his work into English, and of Desnos' three novels and more than seven books of poetry, Sanders estimates only 5 percent has been translated.

Sanders' solution was to begin his own book of Desnos translations. Titled "The Circle and the Star," the translation took more than two years to complete and was published in April by Air and Nothingness Press, which Sanders runs from his home in Squirrel Hill.

"The Circle and the Star" is a collection of 18 poems, written for children of Desnos' friends. They're simpler than some of Desnos' other works - which is why Sanders decided to use them for a first translation attempt - but as he points out, they're by no means naive or unsophisticated.

"Just because they're children's poems doesn't mean they're childish," Sanders said. "There are actually some anti-Nazi subtexts in some of these poems."

To translate a poem, Sanders uses a mix of what he calls the literal and the poetic. He combines his understanding of a poem with its literal translation - taking into account French idioms and plays-on-words - and arrives at an English version that retains Desnos' original meaning and rhyme scheme.

The translations in "The Circle and the Star" are especially impressive considering that Sanders taught himself to read French, Costanzo said.

"It's hard to translate anything and capture the rhyme in English," he said. "What Todd's done is a real accomplishment."

It returns me to another place
I turn around but the sky changes
Yesterday I was a child
I am a man now

In addition to "The Circle and the Star," books published by Air and Nothingness Press include two books of Sanders' own poetry, "Lack River" and "Underland," and "Great Disguise," a poetry collection by CMU's Costanzo.

"I was really glad when Todd asked me to do something," Costanzo said. "He has a very firm idea about who he wants to publish."

A slim paperback printed with an ink jet printer, "Great Disguise" is an example of what Sanders refers to as "on-demand publishing" - when books are duplicated and sold as needed.

The Desnos book, on the other hand, is a cloth-bound volume printed on letterpress, a technique that's time-consuming, expensive and almost forgotten.

Letterpress books are beautiful, with intricate illustrations and type that seems to sink into the page, but few people today are willing to invest the time or the money. Sanders had to travel to Johnstown to find a company that could make letterpress plates, and the book was bound by an 83-year-old man and printed in Iowa.

"If you're not doing wedding invitations, you're up the creek letterpress-wise," Sanders said.

The world is a strange thing
And the rose that rises among the roses
Does not resemble any of them.

One of Sanders' Web sites, "The Library," is a modern French literature Web site that was honored by the French Embassy in 1999 for being the Best American Web Site about French Culture. His second site, "The Online Center for Gidean Studies," is a Web site about novelist Andre Gide, another of Sanders' favorite French authors.

Sanders receives between 10 and 20 e-mails every week with questions and comments about the sites, and he spends several hours responding to inquiries.

"The whole reason I created the Web sites was so I could share these authors with other people," he said.

The same goes for "The Circle and the Star." Publication of the book marks the first time this set of Desnos poems has appeared in English, and Sanders plans to translate and publish more of Desnos' works, as well as additional works by contemporary authors.

The idea that more people will have access Desnos' poems is one that quietly pleases Sanders.

"The idea really just hit me," he said. "It's not me doing this and selling copies here and there. There are going to be people turning to these poems to understand Desnos."

And with Sanders as translator, that understanding will come from another poet, who has a true appreciation of Desnos' work.

The poem used throughout this story is titled "The Ring of Moebius," from "The Circle and the Star."

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