An Interview with Jordi Alonso and Phoebe Carter
“I dream of
in languages we barely know of being as untranslatable
as we are”
—The Dream of an Uncommon Language, The Lover’s Phrasebook
If the poems in The Lovers’ Phrasebook are considered a meditation on physical and linguistic boundaries, the collection does not attempt to transcend them. Instead, it revels in the satisfying, but perhaps impossible, challenge of trying to overcome them. Each piece in the collection, titled after an “untranslatable” word, adds a poetic and visual meaning to each word’s many interpretations. From the beating of a love-struck heart to the silence that follows a lovers’ quarrel, The Lovers’ Phrasebook unifies human experience not through languages, but through motifs of love. Set onto a side of a three by five inch postcard, each piece in the collection invites active readership by making space for the reader to add and share their perspective. Full of ripe imagery and simple but striking similes, Jordi’s writing joins hands with Phoebe’s meticulous art style to produce The Lovers’ Phrasebook. I had the chance to speak with Jordi and Phoebe about the creative process behind the collection below.
How did you find words from so many languages, and what was the process like choosing among them?
Jordi: Phoebe and I started collecting words sometime in the spring of 2014––her first, and my senior year at Kenyon. On my part, as I came across lists of words in books like Ella Frances Sanders’ Lost in Translation, I jotted down my favorites and their languages of origin and definitions. Eventually, we discovered wordstuck.co.vu, a website from Vanuatu that collects words in various languages that do not have a one-to-one translation into English. Once we had an embarrassment of lexical riches from which to choose, I came up with a tentative list of 26 words, one for each letter of the standard Latin alphabet, and that’s pretty much the list you’ll find on the table of contents when you pick up a copy of The Lovers’ Phrasebook after reading this interview.
Phoebe: As Jordi said, I started compiling a list on my own as I came across them, which Jordi then started adding to as well. You’d be surprised how many people have dedicated blogs to the search of “untranslatable” words! Better Than English is one of my personal favorites (although I would add that English has its own share of unique and precise words...Lovers’ Phrasebook part 2, perhaps?).
Were the illustrations inspired by the text, or the other way around?
Jordi: Having jointly come up with our list of words, Phoebe and I worked somewhat independently across borders and time zones. For the most part, they were, created independently––two grapevines growing alongside one another, each forming the other’s supportive trellis.
Phoebe: I did all of the illustrations with the manuscript in front of me. Jordi’s poetry contains such striking imagery and I wanted to capture that on the page.
Some of the poems in the collection are really short, almost aphoristic, allowing the illustrations to take center stage. What factors did you and Phoebe consider when deciding the length of a piece?
Jordi: The physical format of the chapbook, which is to say the postcard size, was the main constraint for me. Each poem fits on one side of one three inch by five inch postcard, leaving the other side free for our lovely readers to write on themselves, adding one more person to this collaborative artistic endeavor, and hopefully reaching a fourth person––whether that last one is a lover, a friend, or whether they exist in some liminal state between the two, is all the same to me!
Phoebe: As I was drawing, I can’t say I was particularly cognizant of the fact that the poems and the illustrations would have to actually fit together on the page, so I have to give a shout-out to our amazing editors over at Red Flag for dealing with that. They did such beautiful work in putting the book together so that the words and illustrations complement one another on the page, rather than obscuring each other.
I noticed that nature is a motif in the collection, with repeating images of flowers, birds, and water bodies. Was this a conscious decision, and if so, why?
Jordi: I wish I could say it had been! When I wrote the poems over a roughly two-week period in February of 2015, I found myself in the darkness and cold of winter both physically and psychically. It may well be that when I retreated to one of the few sources of warmth and light I knew were unwavering and perennial, Phoebe’s company and her art among them, I was drawn to nature both for comfort and a lexical field.
Lastly, which word was your personal favourite to work on?
Jordi: It’s hard to pick just one; I’ll have to go with “Jeong”, which is a Korean noun meaning “a feeling stronger than romantic love, linking two people” and which, to me, summarizes the ethos of the poems in this project:
for Mara Vulgamore
Let everyone long for love––
I have no need
of sweet-flowered hibiscuses,
bursting for a day:
Junipers bloom even in winter.
Phoebe: Gumusservi (Turkish for “moonlight reflecting on water”) was fun and surprisingly challenging. The word lends itself so easily to illustration, I thought at first it would be an easy one, but I probably did more versions of this drawing than for any other word. The one that made it into the book I drew early one morning when I was supposed to be studying for finals last December, just a week or two before the final version of the book was sent to the press. It took a while to get right, but now it’s one of my favorites!
The Lovers' Phrasebook is available for purchase from Red Flag Poetry.
Interview conducted by Avleen K. Mokha. Edited for clarity & length by Kat Neis.