Srikanth Reddy in Conversation with Josué Coy Dick, Juan Coy Tení, and Jesse Nathan
The Poetry Magazine Podcast: Srikanth Reddy in Conversation with Josué Coy Dick, Juan Coy Tení, and Jesse Nathan
Josué Coy Dick:
(READS EXCERPT FROM “Versions from the Popol Vuh”)
Lofty Feathered Snake, Heart of the Lake,
Heart of the Sea
Srikanth Reddy: Welcome to the Poetry Magazine Podcast. I’m guest editor, Srikanth “Chicu” Reddy. Today, we’ll be talking about the Popol Vuh, the foundational sacred narrative of the K’iche people. This Mayan epic tells the story of creation, the role of the gods in human affairs, and the history of migration and settlement in Central America, up to the Spanish conquest in the sixteenth century. One incredible thing about the translation we’ll be talking about today is that it’s a family affair. Jesse Nathan began translating the poem with his brother-in-law, Juan, and Juan’s son, Josué, on a wheat farm outside Wichita, Kansas. Here’s Jesse.
Jesse Nathan: My memory is that after Christmas festivities last year, circulating a draft on the couch after several beers—well, Juan and I had beers—you’re still not of age.
Josué Coy Dick: (LAUGHS)
Jesse Nathan: So I think I would type up a very rough kind of version, and then they would very gently but brutally say, “There’s no way that word is the right diction.”
Srikanth Reddy: Juan Coy Tení was born into an Indigenous community in Cobán, Guatemala. He studied law, and is now a social worker living in Kansas. When he married the poet Jesse Nathan’s sister, Juan and Jesse began translating poetry together, over email, and at holiday gatherings. And now, Juan’s son, Josué, who was raised in the US, has joined in their work as a family of translators.
Jesse Nathan: We would debate over email when we weren’t together, but in this farmhouse in rural Kansas, surrounded by dirt roads, gather for festive, loud occasions, but there was always a moment where we would tuck away in some corner of the house and just read it aloud together.
Srikanth Reddy: The story of the Popol Vuh is pretty amazing in itself. It was passed down from generation to generation for hundreds of years, first orally, and then written in Mayan glyphs in the mid sixteenth century.
Jesse Nathan: The culture and the community were facing a kind of apocalyptic moment. In 1550, this other frame was added, which indicates that what was happening, what was written down, was being written down under great duress, under pressure. That frame is part of what’s called the preamble. And that’s part of what we translated. And it’s the moment in which the text is speaking to itself, because there’s this line, “and we’re going to write about this now, even as Christianity spreads around us.” So that’s the kind of moment in which the text first gets written down.
Srikanth Reddy: This original version was hidden from Spanish invaders, until the K’iche people allowed a Dominican friar, Francisco Ximenez, to make a Spanish translation in the early 1700s. Today, there are many translations of the Popol Vuh. But it’s not nearly as well known as other texts, like the Bible, or the Epic of Gilgamesh, even though it’s considered by many to be the oldest book in the Americas. We started the conversation with how Juan first encountered the Popol Vuh, in his childhood home in Cobán, Guatemala.
Juan Coy Tení: I remember that the Popol Vuh was part of the readings in middle school. Yeah, unfortunately, that’s how I had the first formal contact with the book.
Srikanth Reddy: Why did you say, “unfortunately”?
Juan Coy Tení: My parents didn’t go to school, so they didn’t have formal education. And maybe they, there were some aspects of the Popol Vuh that were being practiced. But due to the oppression, and the inability to be who I am, to freely say, “I’m Indigenous, I have the right or I can identify with that book,” I had to let it go. During my childhood, if you want to say, when I look at it like that, our identity, our culture was always oppressed. And the ultimate goal was to eliminate it. So, it would be nice to have the freedom of having this book as part of our lives, like, integrated and not just, you can have access to it, but it’s not as good as the Western civilization, something like that.
Josué Coy Dick: I would say, too—this is Josué—I would add that, from my own experience and also thinking back to my dad, even if the Popol Vuh wasn’t explicitly read in the household, the values that can be found in the Popol Vuh, are definitely very present and passed on. So I guess I would ask my dad, even though maybe your parents didn’t sit you down at night and read you the Popol Vuh, can you articulate some of the lessons that you think you might find in the Popol Vuh that you would have been taught by your parents?
Juan Coy Tení: I would think that the most important value is that we should not forget about our Creator. It’s not an excuse or justification, but is it’s just so hard to think I have been educated from a Western perspective. And sometimes it has worked so well that it’s hard for me to go back and probably I practice those values, you see those values, but, when I have to think about it, and be conscious about it, it, it takes work.
Srikanth Reddy: That makes a lot of sense to me. You know, it’s like something that you’re, like, immersed in or you come out of, and then to try and see what it is. It’s like trying to see inside of yourself.
Juan Coy Tení:
(STARTS READING EXCERPT OF “Versions from the Popol Vuh” in Spanish)
Josué Coy Dick:
(READS EXCERPT OF “Versions from the Popol Vuh” in English)
And here in this root-place we call K’iche’
we’re going to write down the words,
we’re going to write down the ancient words,
which are the source of everything done
here in this root-place called K’iche’.
And we’re going to teach, tell, show how
the world was made, how light was brought
by the Maker
Juan Coy Tení: I’m a traumatized being. Probably a lot of that my childhood has been blocked a little bit. But throughout the years, the last twenty years, I have had the freedom of processing that trauma and minimize transmitting it to my kids. So yeah, I was born in Cobán, February 15, 1973. It was a big deal for my dad and my mom that I was born at my house. I didn’t go to the hospital. My mom was helped by an Indigenous woman, Q'eq'chi, with no shoes, to deliver me in my house. So I remember growing up that every time that lady was walking by my house, going to her house, I had to say, “wan chick Na'chin” in recognition like, saying, “You brought me to this world, you are my Na'chin which means maybe godmother, that will be a translation. You know, it’s hard to find the perfect words for the meaning like, when I say Na'chin it just has a lot of—it’s not only words. Then 1976, big huge earthquake in Guatemala my dad got electrocuted. He was, I don’t know, he was so strong. And that’s why he’s still alive. But he was disabled since 1976 to this day. So I had a tough childhood. My mom became an alcoholic, my dad too. But I also grew up with this generation of leaders in the K’iche community. And my parents transmitted that leadership, that knowledge of being leaders in the community, mediating, arranging weddings, helping people to get jobs. Despite their struggles with alcoholism and mental health, they were still active in the community and doing their part. My father was a carpenter. He never taught me carpentry, which I’m not happy about it.
Srikanth Reddy: (LAUGHS)
Juan Coy Tení: But he didn’t, because he wanted me to go to school, school, school, school, school. I remember that it was so hard to grow up as an Indigenous kid. Couldn’t speak my language at school. I didn’t want people to know that I spoke my language.
Jesse Nathan: Would you say something, Juan, about your teacher.
Juan Coy Tení: Oh yeah.
Jesse Nathan: You’ve told me about the time that you made especially meaningful contact with the Popol Vuh later, in basically a law school setting, at the University of San Carlos.
Juan Coy Tení: Yeah.
Jesse Nathan: And you had a special teacher.
Juan Coy Tení: Yes, I told you about that experience, it was back I think in 1998, ’97. So I was finishing law school. I enrolled in this postgrad class that was for a year. The Dr. José Emilio Ordoñez Cifuentes brought to Guatemala—he was Guatemalan, he passed away. That program was about legal Indigenous systems. It was an opportunity for me to connect with my Indigenous being.
Jesse Nathan: What was the connection that he was making between Indigenous legal systems and the Popol Vuh?
Juan Coy Tení: To make us think that K’iche’ people were able to write about the creation. I mean, we were—we developed systems. That was reading by Indigenous people. So we always had been, had systems to survive, even though there is a huge, you know, the colonialism and the imposition of the Western culture, there was there and strong. But his idea was that the state had failed to be effective, and regulate the lives of all Indigenous people. Therefore, the Indigenous people had to keep practicing their legal systems.
Jesse Nathan: The state had failed the Indigenous community because, in part because they didn’t care, in part because the Indigenous lived often far removed from the big urban centers. And so were kind of left out. Sounds like his point was that you ought to study the Popol Vuh, as part of a larger program of knowing who you are, who we, what it means to be part of this ancient system.
Juan Coy Tení: Yeah. Yeah, and also, we discuss a lot about the process of talking between the characters, how they get consensus, how they resolve the conflict, the way we look at punishment. I mean, restorative justice has been with us forever. That has been part of the legal system of Indigenous people.
Jesse Nathan: It’s just really striking to me to hear you describe the way that your teacher, in order to address this kind of modern failing of the state, he took a step back and said, “We have to think about this ancient tradition and reacquaint ourselves with this ancient text in order to address the modern failing.” It’s, you know, it’s not enough to just say, the state legal system hasn’t reached the Indigenous community. It’s as if he’s saying the state legal systems failure to reach the Indigenous community is really the tip of the iceberg. And the failing is much deeper and older than that, and involves a kind of erasure of cultural memory and of identity. And in order to address that, we’ve got to go back and look at these—
Juan Coy Tení: Yeah. You have to know this: the Popol Vuh is, it was denied, somehow, politically, and through Christianity and the oppression, it was kind of denied to the Indigenous, and now—and he was also trying to create a group of academic Indigenous. So his also goal was that this was a good starting point, to recreate or to make it stronger. An identity, its roots can be found in the Popol Vuh.
Jesse Nathan: And for me, that’s very moving, because as a student of literature, I understand it to be kind of the first great literary achievement in the Americas, from the far north of Canada to the tip of Argentina, that this, this book is sort of the—as far as what survived—it’s the great book of this hemisphere.
Srikanth Reddy: I’ve been reading and thinking about the Popol Vuh myself for some time now. It’s a poem full of stories. The story of people made of sticks, the story of corn, stories about Gods with names like Seven Macaw, Possum, and Bloodmoon. My own favorite story tells the journey of twin brothers who traveled to the underworld in search of their missing father. There, they’re invited to play an ancient Mayan ballgame for the lords of the underworld. And after a series of twists and turns, the twins turn the tables on the gods of death, tricking them into a bloody parody of human sacrifice. To me, it feels like a story about resistance, one that resonates with the violent political history of modern Guatemala. Here’s Juan’s son, Josué, talking about a story that influenced him from the Popol Vuh.
Josué Coy Dick: My dad keeps a lot of fruit trees in the backyard, and when I see them, I think a lot about these stories about my relationship with the beauty around me. So the story, the story of the stick people—the gods try multiple times to make people. As the gods are attempting, their attempts have many flaws. The fundamental flaw is that they are unable to worship the Creator. The stick people, in particular, they were intelligent, they did have, they were able to do everything. But they, I would say they were not humble enough, they didn’t have the heart to worship their Creator. And I think as a part of a consequence to this, they also mistreated the things around them. It gives a lot of examples in the Popol Vuh. But one that, that I find particularly meaningful is, the dogs, after the creation, the dogs go up to the stick people, and they say, “We came to beg, and instead of just giving us some food, you grab the sticks that you could find, and you beat us away. And now, the dogs and the stones that they use to moler—I don’t know how you say that in English, but—
Juan Coy Tení: To grind.
Josué Coy Dick: To grind the corn, and they all rise up against the stick people and they say, “For the evil ways in which you have treated us, you will now feel what that feels like, to be abused, to be neglected, to be mistreated.” So they all rise up and attack the stick people. And so, as a kid, whenever I would abuse a living or an object, that would be a story I would be told, I would be told, “If you, if you keep doing that, they’re, they’re gonna rise up against you. You’re gonna, you’re gonna pay for that.”
Jesse Nathan: And it was especially inanimate objects, right? Like,—
Josué Coy Dick: Yeah, inanimate, right. I mean,—
Juan Coy Tení: Maybe a toy when you were a kid?
Josué Coy Dick: Yeah, it could be a lot of different, it could be a lot of different things. There’s a lot of flexibility, imagination, and interpretation available.
Jesse Nathan: Maybe inanimate is exactly the point, that there’s nothing inanimate.
Josué Coy Dick: Right, right. No, it was—it could be trees, it could be, it could be living inanimate things. I mean, the question that comes to mind is, what did that object ever do to you? What are you—what kind of relationship do you want to have with the world you live in?
(READS EXCERPT FROM “Versions from the Popol Vuh”)
the Sustainer, the Origin who is named
Hunahpu Possum, Hunahpu Coyote,
Great White Peccary, Wide-Eyed Coati,
Lofty Feathered Snake, Heart of the Lake,
Heart of the Sea, Great Potter
of Plate and Bowl, and also called Midwife,
Matchmaker, Gatherer, named Xpiyacoc
Jesse Nathan: This is a story of beginnings in a time of endings. This is the beginning of the book. So, the cultural guardians who are writing this down, and remember that they’re adding this frame to an ancient text, they’re adding this frame to the stories that had been passed down for generations. So they’re adding this new, new frame in a time of colonial invasion. They’re trying to—Edgar Garcia says, to call forth the dawn in the darkness. To unblock—I love that word, he uses the word “unblock” the way to speech, to unblock the way to speech. And I think of it as a moment where communities in crisis, they’re trying to remind themselves who they are in the face of everything that they’re dealing with. I’m also struck again by the fact that the word “popol,” the root there, the K’iche’ word is “to hold council,” but the kind of literal meaning is to partake of a mat, which is the mat that the elders would sit on in the council. So it is quite literally a kind of circling, right there in the title. And “vuh” is paper. These words come right up out of a kind of crisis meeting.
Juan Coy Tení: And Jesse, that connects with the story that I was telling you about with my professor. So I think he saw that end of a crisis and the opportunity to bring this up. This is our moment, and that’s why he was so strong about it. And that’s why he wanted us to, okay, this is the time to let the light.
Jesse Nathan: After the part that Josué read, it continues,
They made everything, thought of everything,
and they did it with the clarity of their being,
with the clarity of their words.
And we’re going to write about this now
even as Christianity spreads around us,
even as they talk about the one God.
We’re going to write these words down now
because there’s no longer
anywhere to find them, no Popol Vuh,
no place to see the light beyond the sea.
That’s a moment where the book is seeing itself, where the book is, this is, this is this moment where they’re saying the Popol Vuh, the ancient stories are, are lost, are in shadows, are unreachable in some way. And there’s an urgency that’s quite palpable. And they go on to talk about how they’re going to write this down. And I think that also has a certain gravity, because they’re, they’re writing it down in the Latin script, in a, in the language of the invaders. And this is a book that hadn’t ever been written down, at least in that way, before. So, it’s not just like us saying, “I’m going to write this thing down that I’ve been thinking,” it’s, “We’re going to change the very medium by which this story has been transmitted.” So it’s, it’s incredibly moving and kind of momentous, the cultural moment that they’re recording there. And the metaphor that they turned to, which is toward the end of the passage that we translated, they say, “It will take a long time, a long writing/to adequately relate how the sky was lit/and earth covered.” And the metaphor that they then turn to, “To relate the fourfold/cornering, measuring, staking, halving the cord,/stretching the cord across the sky,” is really interesting because it’s sort of invokes the four corners of the earth. It sort of invokes putting up a tent. I’ve also seen scholars talk about it as a description of how a cornfield would be laid out to be cultivated. This is their metaphor for how they’re thinking about the work of writing in this profound, dark, difficult moment. And they end it then with,
stretching the cord across the sky,
across the earth, from corner to corner,
says the ancient book, by the Maker,
the Shaper, the parent of existence,
laborer, provider of breath, of blood,
sustainer, nurturer in the light, bringer
of the light, worrier, knowing custodian
anywhere there are skies, anywhere
there are earthly lakes and seas.
We talked a lot about that word “worrier” when we were translating this passage, because we’ve seen it translated as “ponderer,” “thinker.” “Worrier” had this kind of, this pathos, this concern to it, this kind of gentle care that I found specific to the Popol Vuh. That the kind of, I don’t know, the pathos of these gods. That they are worriers. They worry about us.
Juan Coy Tení:
(READS EXCERPT FROM “Versions from the Popol Vuh” in Spanish)
Jesse Nathan: Thinking about, Juan, what you were saying about your childhood, I just, I wondered, to what degree were you aware, and how did you become aware of this immense civil violence all around you? How did that filter into your childhood?
Juan Coy Tení: There was a culture of silent that we adopted pretty good. So we, that means we didn’t talk about it. We didn’t discuss anything. Even I remember maybe it was, as I said, have blocked, and I’m trying to unblock some things, is, hear these gunfires and then, how do you call it, the empty, the bullet shell?
Jesse Nathan: The shell.
Juan Coy Tení: The case, I heard it on my roof. The next day, an old K’iche woman came to our house crying that her son had disappeared after that event and hearing this fire, this gunfire. So I remember that I couldn’t ask anything. It was in Guatemala, my dad was a carpenter, he was making the wooden casks for the people who was—
Jesse Nathan: He was making the coffins.
Juan Coy Tení: Coffins of the—yeah, for the people that were being killed during the conflict. We never talked about it, so. And it was not only me, it was a general, like, culture of silent that the government created. So nobody would talk or come up with ideas or dispute any system. So, I don’t know if that answered your question.
Jesse Nathan: No, that’s exactly what I was—wow.
Juan Coy Tení: What do you think when I hear I’m trying to not, to transmit my traumatic, my trauma to you or your brother?
Josué Coy Dick: Yeah. Well, the first thing that would come to mind is, I grew up in the United States removed from the poverty and the violence, that creates this trauma. So I think my growing up in the United States has sheltered me, has avoided me a lot of that trauma. While it is avoided, it has avoided me all the trauma that comes from poverty and violence, because I haven’t experienced it. So, I don’t know, it’s a question I don’t know how to answer, because I don’t know the answer. I think it’s a very complicated issue of how and whether the trauma that my dad experienced can, in fact, be transmitted to me when I am so far removed from the context.
Juan Coy Tení: The way I talk, the way I act—
Josué Coy Dick: Yeah, so—
Juan Coy Tení: How do you, how do you assimilate that?
Josué Coy Dick: I think, right. I think there are many different forms of trauma that, to say, you know, the Indigenous communities are, are traumatized, that my dad is traumatized in many, many different ways. My dad mentioned the alcoholism of his parents. That’s one form. The violence that surrounds, the gunshots, the disappearances, that’s a second form of trauma. So many of those forms of trauma, I have not experienced. But what I have experienced, to some extent, or what I’ve witnessed, very personally, the effects of trauma, on my dad. And I know a lot of what that looks like and what that means. But that doesn’t make those experiences mine.
Srikanth Reddy: Do you think maybe, I can’t help wondering if transmitting a poem together is a way of not transmitting the historical trauma alone? I think the trauma is probably transmitted as well along with the poem, but I’m curious what, if that makes any sense to your experience of translating together?
Juan Coy Tení: Yes, I think this work has the potential of creating new relationships, or transform the ones that may need to be transformed. In that sense, why this book in that when I study it, and also how I think I don’t want to transmit trauma to my kids, is that, as Indigenous people, knowing that we are beings, we are human beings able to create, to be creative, able to think, able to be free, and be creative. Always, I’m sure Josué sees my insecurities every day. And that’s part of my trauma of being Indigenous, being targeted, and being treated as less, inferior. Not intelligent, not smart, not able to accomplish anything. Not able to, even to speak my own language freely. So I think that’s what I think I don’t want to maybe mainly transmit to Josué that he doesn’t believe that just because he’s half Indigenous, he’s going to have a problem.
Josué Coy Dick: So, and, yeah, I guess, so, growing up in America, I wonder—I was talking with my dad and my tío yesterday, and I was wondering, you know, being the next generation, I guess, I wonder where, where do we go with this text? Where does this text go? How can we be a part of the process of helping heal, of returning, returning might not be the right word, but of healing the relationship, of growing the relationship, of empowering the relationship between this text and Indigenous communities, especially as we translate them in the United States, as removed from these communities, and to some extent, I mean, of course, we aren’t at all completely removed, because my dad is Indigenous and a part of the process. It’s a beautiful text, and it’s worth reading, it’s worth studying, but it cannot be removed from the process of healing from the history of the text. So, that’s something I think about a lot as we work, and as a person who has roots in the K’iche community, but I also understand that I have roots in a very different and, to make the point, a Christian community, in particular. So, balancing that and finding a way to make right relationship there is a tricky, difficult endeavor.
Jesse Nathan: So much of the Popol Vuh takes place in darkness, in this pre-dawn twilight, this shadowy kind of state. It’s hard not to feel that there’s a politics to that.
Josué Coy Dick:
(READS EXCERPT FROM “Versions from the Popol Vuh”)
Xmucane, Guardian, Sponsor,
two times a midwife, two times a matchmaker—
all told as the story is told in K’iche’.
Srikanth Reddy: Juan Coy Tení studied law at San Carlos University in Guatemala City, and now lives in North Newton, Kansas. His son, Josué Coy Dick, studies social work, violin, and literature at Bethel College. Juan’s brother in law, Jesse Nathan, lives in Oakland, and his poetry has appeared in the Paris Review, The Nation, Kenyon Review, and Yale Review. You can read an excerpt of their translation of the Popol Vuh in the May 2022 issue of Poetry, in print and online. If you’re not yet a subscriber to Poetry magazine, there’s a special rate for podcast listeners. For a limited time, you can get a full year of the magazine for $20. That’s eleven book-length issues for just $20. Visit poetrymagazine.org/podcastoffer to subscribe. That’s poetrymagazine.org/podcastoffer. This show is produced by Rachael James. The music in this episode came from Resavoir, Alabaster DePlume, John McCowen, Rob Mazurek, and Irreversible Entanglements. Okay, that’s it. Until next time, be well, stay safe, and thanks for listening.
(MUSIC PICKS UP AND FADES OUT)
Today we explore the Popol Vuh, the foundational sacred narrative of the K’iche people. This Mayan epic tells the story of creation, the role of the gods in human affairs, and the history of migration and settlement in Central America up to the Spanish conquest in the sixteenth century. The story of the Popol Vuh is pretty amazing itself. It was passed down from generation to generation for hundreds of years, first orally and then written in Mayan glyphs in the mid sixteenth century. The original Mayan text was hidden from Spanish invaders—until the K’iche people allowed a Dominican friar, Francisco Ximenez, to make a Spanish translation in the early 1700s. Today there are many translations of the Popol Vuh—but it’s not nearly as well known as other texts, like the Bible or the Epic of Gilgamesh, even though it’s considered by many to be the oldest book in the Americas.
One incredible thing about the translation we’ll be talking about today is that it’s a family affair. Juan Coy Tení was born into an Indigenous community in Coban, Guatemala; he studied law and is now a social worker living in Kansas. When he married the poet Jesse Nathan’s sister, Juan and Jesse began translating poetry together over email and at gatherings—and now Juan’s son, Josué, an undergraduate student who was raised in the US, has joined in their work as a family of translators. To guest editor Srikanth Reddy, Jesse, Juan, and Josue’s translation—made across borders, languages, and generations—marks an important new chapter in this epic poem’s story.