Remembering Nancy Festinger / Jim Kates

Jim Kates writes:

Nancy Festinger and I picked each other up at a small book fair in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in spring 1976. At the time, she was living in South Hadley, Massachusetts, and working as a waitress at the Miss Flo Diner, defining herself as a writer. We became good friends, colleagues and loose companions in the best 1970s way. A year later she was studying Spanish. “I almost like it better than French,” she wrote me on 11 October 1977. “It’s looser on the mouth.”

She was writing poems then, and practicing calligraphy. Her letters were laced with elegant quotes elegantly presented. It was Nancy who introduced me to the serious business of literary translation. Of course, as a writer, I’d been translating poems since high school days, but she sent me a translation of a Robert Desnos poem, asking for comments, and the only way I could think of commenting was to make my own translation — it was her response to that that propelled me forward.

For New Year’s that year, she sent me a quotation from Desnos, “written to put translators in their place. Thought you might like it.”

I used to visit from eastern Massachusetts. We hiked together in the Holyoke Range — I remember she had a favorite spot, but couldn’t for the life of me remember where now, nor the name of her close friend who was never far away. We adopted as a motto for our friendship the punch line of a joke she told me, “Fuck it, it’s only a hobby,” and I had a t-shirt made up for her with “Je m’en fous, ce n’est qu’un bidet” on it — a deliberate mistranslation. Nancy played the guitar and sang the blues — I can not listen to “Me & Bobby McGee” without thinking of Nancy in a half-dark room, her basement apartment, I think. Later, she took up cabaret-jazz singing — she took music lessons and studied the craft — and that became another dimension of her singing, one she brought with wit and flair first to ALTA conferences in general, and then to our declamacións in particular.

When I moved to New Hampshire in the 1980s, she came to visit a couple of times. By that time she was well launched on her interpreting career in New York. But for at least half a decade we fell completely out of contact. We met again in Pittsburgh, at my first ALTA conference, in 1992: “It was great to re-cross paths,” she wrote to me in November. “I was a little afraid we’d rehash old history and you’d yell at me for not writing back, but we did the only sensible thing: start from where we are now, and that’s not a bad place at all, is it?”

Nancy was a mainstay during the six years of my service on the ALTA board. For part of my time, she was on the board, too, knew all the politics and frustrations, kept me steady and served as a resonant sounding board. I could always depend on her for perspective. She laughed where I wept and raged.

Early on in our friendship, Nancy sent me, and I still have tucked away somewhere, a remarkable, unpublished full memoir manuscript of her year in Provence learning Provençal, These Things Take Time. She had traveled to southern France to live in a village and study the language. The villagers were puzzled by her presence — she said it was as if a Frenchman came to live in Brooklyn for a year to learn Yiddish — but they took her in slowly and gently. It was that process she wrote about, in the villagers’ own voices, and the rhythm of their life. I urged her to try to get it published — These Things Take Time is as beautiful as everything else about Nancy — and tried to get her to let Zephyr do something with it. Although I think she had once tried to sell the book to McGraw-Hill, she turned reluctant, putting me off, kept saying it needed revision, and she’d get around to it someday.

Instead, for a while she introduced me to The Forgotten Men, her translation of accounts of heroism during the Franco years, finally published in 1981. Even in later years, at ALTA, I kept asking about These Things Take Time. She would laugh that full-throated Nancy laugh and put me off again. I accepted her reluctance. These things take time. But time seems to have run out.

I would still like very much to see it into print. But more than that, I wish we still had Nancy herself. I’d give all my tomorrows for a single yesterday….. feeling good when Nancy sang the blues.

from a letter sent in August 1976:

Paul, the poet of Floucade (excerpt)

… other people write … for money — intellectuals who know provençal from books. They write well, but it’s arranged, complicated, a little forced. And the language is fluid, natural, intimate, simple…

It’s bad luck to be a peasant… Me, I’m an old peasant. And my wife too, is old. Without bragging, I say there are not many people like me, who can read and write in provençal, and speak it as I feel it. Me, I’m a poet at heart, but … I don’t have the time to do as much as I’d like. It’s painstaking, to find words, to look for just the one you want, the word that says it better than any other. I haven’t been to school — I’m lacking in formal education. But if you haven’t been taught, well then, you have the foundation of poetry within: you feel it. Inside.

Poetry has no borders, it’s like bees who go from flower to flower to gather the honey that nature gives to newly born souls. The hardest hearts, with poetry, become the most soft. I say that poetry, and especially when written in our language, provençal, is the richest, most beautiful art.

I will tell you this, my friend: There is no such thing as intelligence. There are gifts. Everyone has a gift, and it’s something else for each person. Some people have a gift for language, they learn languages easily. Others, they think provençal beneath them — it’s like the earth: too low.

But look at me — my big, wooden shoes, like the old ones wore, my shirt unbuttoned, my belly over my belt … I’m just an old peasant. I’m still working the land as much as I can. And will, until my death.

Ah, but to have a blank page in front of you — and to fill it — my friend, that’s not easy. Me, I have trouble… Yes, you have to go out, see people, all that; but there’s the page, all white … and to put something on it — ah, you know, it’s hard.

But this much I know — you can’t be rushed about it. If your head is busy with other thoughts, okay, put it away. But when you’ve finished with the day’s work, well-rested, you think, you look, and it’s not quite it; you think, how do you want to say it? — And you have to let it come to you. Believe me, my young friend, you find it after a while. You find what you’re looking for.

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