Poet of the Popol Vuh

Poet and teacher Michael Bazzett
Poet and teacher Michael Bazzett at Royal Grounds Coffee. “Poetry was meant to infect us,” he says. Photo by Jim Walsh

April was declared National Poetry Month in 1996, organized by the Academy of American Poets “as a way to increase awareness and appreciation of poetry in the United States.” But Kingfield-based poet and teacher Michael Bazzett is a champion of the oldest written art form every month.

“There’s a distilled intimacy in poetry, and ideally something lasting and authentic—in a bite-sized piece, too,” said Bazzett, a father of two and husband to fellow writer/yoga instructor Leslie Bazzett. “A good poem fits on a smart phone. … Twenty years ago I’d mention ‘poetry’ [to teenagers] and there’d be this wariness or groans from some of the kids and a fear that, ‘There’s a deeper meaning and I won’t get it.’ That’s changed. Kids are excited to read poetry; it’s been a little demystified.”

Bazzett has taught English at the Blake School for 20 years, and it was his students who in part inspired his translation of the Popul Vuh, an ancient Mayan creation myth that was originally sung and chanted before being translated into prose in the Mayan language K’iche. Bazzett has translated the Popul Vuh—a revered source of Mayan culture, traditions, beliefs and history, and one of the only epics indigenous to the Americas —into verse for the first time since its origins in the 1500s.

“My ideal reader was one of my students. In my mind, I wanted an intelligent 18-year-old in a hammock,” said Bazzett over coffee at Royal Grounds coffee shop. “I wanted a book for them, because there are great translations in English, but they’re prose and I kid you not, they often have two-thirds of the pages as footnotes. I just wanted to let it become a transparent, lucid story that the kids could enter into—a gateway drug, if you will—that they could really get into the Mayan mythology of this.

“This generation has access to more information than any other generation’s had before them. So information isn’t what they’re after. What they want is wisdom. Authenticity. … I’ve been literally astonished at how much it resonates. I think more and more people are looking to indigenous wisdom as the way out of, for instance, our impoverished relationship with land and the climate crisis.”

In the New York Times’ round-up of the “best poetry of 2018,” critic David Orr raved: “The Popol Vuh is a free-verse translation of a Mayan origin narrative that we know only because it was copied by a Franciscan friar in the early 18th century. (The original manuscript was lost, and was presumably a transcription of stories that were usually told, not read—making the Popol Vuh, as Bazzett puts in his deft introduction, ‘the copy of an echo.’) For nonscholars, the first test of any translation is simply whether it’s pleasurable to read, and Bazzett’s limpid, smoothly paced version is more than satisfying on that score. And it’s a good thing to be reminded, perhaps especially now, and perhaps especially by a text originating in Guatemala, that ‘However many nations/live in the world today,/however many countless people,/they all had but one dawn.’”

Published by Minneapolis-based Milkweed Books, Bazzett’s translation of the Popul Vuh and its underground world filled with scorpions, rivers of puss and magical owls could find a new readership weaned on various heroes’ journeys, games of thrones and teen wizards.

“The translation project came out of teaching a class in myth and memory at Blake,” said Bazzett, who played football for Rochester Lourdes High School and Carleton College and whose side hustle these days is as baseball coach of the Minneapolis Millers. “I didn’t know what I was getting into when I started this ten years ago. I’d lived in Central Mexico and played around with [translation] and Mayan folklore and got kind of obsessed. I didn’t know that much about it. To me, it felt like discovering the Arc of the Covenant. Some of it is just what’s in the zeitgeist now.

“I think the reason I wanted to re-poem the Popul Voh is because it’s the oldest form. Poetry is way older than writing. If you think about it, homo sapiens, we’ve had these brains for a quarter of a million years, but we’ve only been writing [stuff] down for five or six thousand years. So for those other 245,000 years, think of the stories that were being carried around and told around the campfire, so to speak.

“People really connect with it. Especially once they get enough context, because it’s a strange story in terms of its cultural references are not Western. That’s one of the things that drew me to it. It’s weird, in a really cool way.”

The Twin Cities boasts a rich poetry history, led by several independent literary presses and vibrant working poets such as Danez Smith, Robert Bly, Cindra Halm, Bao Phi, Matt Mauch, Heid E. Erdrich, Bill Holm, Doug Wilhide, Gordon Henry, Jr., Mike Hazard, Dylan Hicks, Lightsey Darst, Lynette Reini-Grandell, Todd Boss, Diane Glancy, Feng Sun Chen, Chris Santiago, Su Smallen, Amy Munson and many more.

At 52, Bazzett’s poems are finding new audiences. His first collection, “You Must Remember This,” was hatched during the same 2008 sabbatical in Mexico that inspired his translation of the Popol Vuh, which has brought him speaking engagements all over the country. All of which finds Bazzett in rare air—a poet with an audience.

“I’ve got more poems coming, and coming out, and these days people say, ‘Wow, you’re prolific.’ I say, ‘No, I’m just old.’ I wrote steadily without anything happening for 20 years. I wrote daily starting in my mid-20s, and my first book of poems didn’t come out until I was 48. I had a little chapbook come out and I was publishing in journals, but I just hadn’t gotten a book together, and a lot of that was being a young parent.

“Now I’ve usually got four or five journals going; if you saw my study, there’s probably four or five envelopes from Center Point Energy that have poems started on them.”

He’s also working on poems and books that tackle the narcissism of selfie culture and late-stage 21st century capitalism. But first comes the day gig.

“I try and write every day, but life is busy with kids, teaching and just living life,” he said. “My subconscious comes knocking around May 20th. I’ll be trying to grade essays and the poems are there. I’m desperately trying to finish grading, and the poems are, ‘It’s our time.’”

Be it this National Poetry Month, or next month, or any day of the week.

“Poetry was designed to infect us,” he said. “That’s my theory, at least. It’s just a way to get something that’s a little more elastic, a little more eternal, than just the white noise of the culture.”

Jim Walsh lives and grew up in South Minneapolis. He can be reached at [email protected].