Do you have a working knowledge of Spanish? Are you a poet?

You've probably got what it takes.

The inestimable beauty of the universe is something that is often best expressed in Spanish, a langauge that is easy for English-speakers to learn and also provides poetic opportunities far beyond those of our language. Besides, it can't hurt you as a writer/poet/artist/whatever to expose yourself to new forms -- just as you might write a sonnet, you might write in Spanish.

"Mother," the girl interrupted, "listen to me. You remember that book he sent me from Germany?"
"He asked me about it, when we were driving down. He wanted to know if I'd read it."
"It was in German!"
"Yes, dear. That doesn't make any difference," said the girl, crossing her legs. "He said that the poems happen to be written by the only great poet of the century. He said I should've bought a translation or something. Or learned the language, if you please."

-- J. D. Salinger, "A Perfect Day For Bananafish


Translation is fun, and it's a good exercise, but it often keeps very little from the original. Take this example, the introductory proverb from Laura Esquivel's Como Agua Para Chocolate (Like Water For Chocolate):

A la mesa y a la cama
Sola una vez se llama.

Which was weakly translated into English as:

To the table and to bed
You must come when you are bid.

So you see the problem that comes. Even in free, unrhymed verse, we tend to run into trouble. Take a look at this snippet (from Oda A La Jardinera) and my attempt to free-translate it:

Sí, yo sabía que tus manos eran
El alhelí florido, la azucena
de plata:

Yes, I knew that your hands were
The flowering clove, the lily
Of silver

This demonstrates a few obvious problems with the much-touted art of translation. "Of silver" is particularly damning, because the Spanish meaning is "the silvery lily", but the word orders of the two languages don't allow this to move smoothly. Instead, one must read the Spanish with a grasp of what it means, but without mentally translating.

This is very hard to do. Practice thinking in Spanish without translating, because that will help; as you begin to associate both Spanish and English words with the same concepts, the knowledge may come seamlessly.

Technique and Who to Study

In any field, it's important to think of the Great Masters first. As Spanish poets go, most people think Pablo Neruda -- that's fine. He'll do well as you learn, because he's brilliant and has a tendency to experiment with the language, which you'll need.

The biggest part of poetic expression tends to be rooted in connotation, grasping the meanings beyond the dictionary meanings of words. For example, the word "procession" in English literally means "A group of persons ... moving in an orderly, formal manner." However, "procession" tends to inspire thoughts of funerals or weddings in English speakers.

How can you learn connotation? It's not easy, by any means. It helps to know someone who speaks Spanish, or to be educated in Latin. English cognates can have vastly different meanings when you move them into Spanish.

Actually Writing

"How do I start?" you ask. How do you usually write poetry? Go find some source of inspiration and -- now that you've moved your thought patterns at least partially into Spanish -- attack the paper. Think of words that make sense. Make words up if you have to, and then search for similar ones that fit the rhythm.

If you find that your writing is unnatural, you need to practice. Read more poems. Pick simpler subjects. Work your way up until the language flows with you.

Remember, it's just another form.

Si yo hubiera hecho
Lo que ella quería
Seríamos contentos,
Y las noches
Tendrían cariño,

Ayer lo vi algo
Que me traquetea la mente,
Y ahora no sé qué
La mañana brutal
Me va a escoger a traer.

Poets for further reading: Pablo Neruda, Carlos Cullere, Federico García Lorca, and, of course, innumerable more