David Ferry Talks with Harry Thomas' Class at Buckingham, Browne and Nichols, March 7, 2000
BRANDON CODY: At what age did you decide to become a writer? What events led you to want to be a writer?
DAVID FERRY: I got started in graduate school. I guess it was having to write a Ph.D thesis, and enjoying the experience, that made me have ambitions to be a writer. I thought I was going to end up as a scholar, and I did become an author that way--I wrote a book about Wordsworth, which was a revision of my thesis. But I got interested in writing poems because I was reading a lot of poems. I think I do recall scraps of things, furtive scribblings of a few lines when I was in high school and college, but nothing that was evidence that put writing poems at the center of my interest. But I had begun to get more and more literary in college, at Amherst, because I had a couple of really great teachers there, Reuben Brower and Cesar Lombardi Barber. So I was developing in that direction. But, as I've said, I didn't really start to write poems until I was in graduate school. The first poem I really worked on and finished was "The Embarkation for Cythera." It got published in the Kenyon Review, then edited by the poe t John Crowe Ransom, one of my idols, and that was a thrill. A very big thrill.
JUSTIN ELSWIT: I think you started out doing a lot of translations. How did you move from being a translator to writing your own stuff?
DF: It's the other way around, really. There's one translation in my first book, a translation of a poem by Ronsard, a famous one-- "Quand vous serez bien vieille," and then in my second book-- and there's a long gap between my first book and my second because--I don't know why--I wasn't writing very much and I was doing a lot of other things as a teacher at Wellesley College--there were three translations, one of them an ode of Horace, the only one I knew at that point. I don't even remember how I got into doing that one, but I did it. There was also the translation of a poem by Jorge Guillen, a distinguished Spanish poet, who was teaching at Wellesley, in exile from Franco's Spain. And there was a short poem by Eugenio Montale. Then in the next book, Dwelling Places: Poems and Translations, the mix was about half and half, so in other words I was moving in the direction of being a translator as well as a poet. In my new book, Of No Country I Know: New and Selected Poems and Translations, in the new part of it the mix is once again about half and half. I've made an effort, both in this new book and in Dwelling Places to make connections between the poems and the translations. Friends began to help me by suggestions of poems to translate that they thought would go with the poems I was working on and that would go with the general character of the book I was working on. In most cases I tried to be as faithful as possible in my translations, but some were more free, shaped and somewhat changed to fit the purposes of the book as I was conceiving of it.
During this last decade I've also produced some books that are purely translation: my rendering of the Gilgamesh epic, my translations of the Odes of Horace and the Eclogues of Virgil, and, just finished, the Epistles of Horace. I got interested in the Gilgamesh material through a friend, the Assyriologist William Moran and in the Horace material through another friend, the classicist Donald Carne-Ross. In both case I started out with a few passages or poems suggested by them and then I got hooked and did the whole kit and kaboodle.
ALISON ELLSWORTH: What about other people's writing draws you to do translation and to do responses? There are a number of poems in this collection that are responses--like Johnson on Pope and a number of others--and poems from your father's writings and your grandfather's.
DF: I think I'd say two or three things about that. I tend to be a hero-worshipper of some writers, and Dr. Johnson is one of them. So I was very interested in everything of his that I could find and when I had begun translating a little Latin I became aware of two or three translations that Johnson did of Horace, early in his career. …