Nicanor Parra:
Brand-new After 100 years

by: Iris Cushing


nicanor parraPhysicist, mathematician, artist, folk dancer, and (anti)poet Nicanor Parra turns 100 years old today. That he’s living to celebrate his own centennial could be a detail from one of his magnificently wry, aphoristic, self-mythologizing antipoems, which he has long characterized as a type of literary material analogous to antimatter. In her translator’s introduction to Antipoems: How to Look Better and Feel Great (New Directions, 2004) Liz Werner writes that “…antipoetry mirrors poetry, not as its adversary but as its perfect complement…it is as opposite, complete, and interdependent as the shape left behind in the fabric where the garment has been cut out.”

Parra has been cutting vivid shapes from the fabric of Latin American poetry and poetics since 1937, when his first book, Cancionero sin Nombre, appeared (Pablo Neruda’s book responding to the Spanish Civil War, España en el Corazón, appeared a year later). He went on to study physics and cosmology at Brown and Oxford, and teach those subjects at universities in Chile. Parra’s deceptively plain, deadpan voice has long confronted the various status quos of pop culture, literary canons, academia and politics. Having lived and written through the 17-year U.S.-backed Pinochet dictatorship, Parra has penned postcard-sized lyrics and drawings responding to situations as diverse in time and space as the U.S.’s embargo on Cuba and the war in Iraq. Throughout all his work runs a compassionate entreaty to consider poetry as a means for rethinking the world. “A poet is not true to his word/If he doesn’t change the names of things,” he writes in “Changes of Name” (trans. W.S. Merwin, in Poems and Antipoems, New Directions, 1967).

To celebrate Parra’s birthday, Chilean press Ediciones Universidad Diego Portales is releasing a long-lost long poem by Parra, titled Temporal. Written in 1987, the poem was lost by Parra in the chaos of the end of the Pinochet regime. However, Parra’s secretary, Adán Mendez, recently discovered cassette tapes of Parra in conversation with critic Rene de la Costa in which he reads the entire piece aloud. Mendez transcribed the poem from audio. The unlikely survival of a great poem in the body of a now-obsolete technology seems perfectly appropriate to Parra’s style.

Saludos a todos– “hi to everyone”–is the ninth and final “note” of Parra’s “Notes on the Lessons of Antipoetry,” translated by Liz Werner. Issued from the position of a theoretical physicist, rigorous social thinker, and poet, this greeting reads as something that could be inscribed on the Higgs boson particle: a beautifully purposeless joke at the center of the world’s great mystery. At 100, Parra is still laughing.

Welcome to Circumference Online

Founded in 2003 by Stefania Heim & Jennifer Kronovet, Circumference has built a strong reputation for publishing important new literature in translation, with a focus on poetry. For almost ten years, the magazine has been an invaluable source for teachers, students, poets, translators, and editors alike.

A new beginning

Now, after a two-year hiatus, Circumference is back. We have a new editorial team, as well as updated tools and resources for continuing our mission to support poetry in translation. The magazine will be presented annually in print, while the expanded website will give us another platform to present new work and focus on the possibilities online publishing allows. 

“I don’t just ‘like’ it, I love it.”
–Pierre Joris commenting on Circumference on Facebook.

Along with the opportunity to participate in ongoing global dialogues around literary translation, the website will allow us to share audio, video, and other media that lends itself particularly well to the digital format.  We will feature a monthly podcast curated by Montana Ray, interviews with poets and translators, reviews of new work in translation and, of course, new material from around the world.

The website will reopen the conversation begun by Circumference ten years ago, and will be an ideal place to facilitate real-time conversations about poetry in translation. This, we hope, will only expand the audience for the kind of work Circumference has always been interested in: translation projects that enliven our sense of what it means to bring new work into English, the re-imagining of old work, and the rethinking of existing approaches to translation.


We plan to expand our capacity to serve the translation community by providing a searchable archive of poems from the pages of Circumference, bringing together work from past issues with new work we publish online.

The work in this archive will be an important resource for students, translators, editors, and researchers. In its first seven issues alone, Circumference published many of the major poets and translators of our time, including translators such as:  Forrest Gander, Marilyn Hacker, Caroline Knox, Donald Revell, Pierre Joris, Mónica de la Torre, Zachary Schomburg, Billy Collins, Sawako Nakayasu, Matthew Zapruder, Jeffrey Yang, Jen Hofer, and Rosemarie Waldrop, and authors such as: Roberto Bolaño, Jorge Luis Borges, Catallus, Polina Barskova, Paul Celan, Gennady Aygi, Freidrich Hölderlin, Tomaž Šalamun, Stephané Mallarmé, Takashi Hiraide, and Aase Berg.


Those already familiar with Circumference will be pleased to know that it will continue to be produced annually in print, with an updated design and new features that reflect the new editorial leadership of the magazine. Readers will enjoy poems in English “en-face” with the original languages, as well as essays, interviews, and hybrid works that address the ever-evolving state of translation today. Subscriptions are ten dollars per year; a limited number of back issues of the magazine are also available from our website.

Our goal is to make Circumference a frequent destination for scholars, readers, and lovers of poetry and international literature. Come and visit us often.

photo by Elizabeth Burchfield Ballard©