Alumni Spotlight

Alumni profile: Erica Mena "Icarus Also Flew"

In the spring of 2004, Erica Mena ventured into the Student Media Office at UMass Boston. She’d been there once before to help read submissions for the student literary journal, The Watermark. The editors exhausted themselves on an elegant and studious volume that was published a few weeks before their graduation, but hadn’t had time to hire replacements. Mena showed up to the meeting as a reader of The Watermark, and left as its editor.

“I think I was the only one who was willing to take the job,” she says. “It was a lot of work. There wasn’t a lot of structure, and we were like, ‘Maybe it’ll come out and maybe it won’t.’”

Mena led The Watermark through its most productive period to date, fall 2004 to spring 2006, publishing an issue each semester until she graduated. That experience encouraged her to pursue a career in literature.

“I still have the journals that I published,” Mena says. “I got lucky, because it turned out that running a journal was something that I loved doing, and it’s something I’ve continued doing ever since.”

After graduating from UMass Boston, Mena worked as a catalogue designer for an art gallery in Harvard Square for a year, and then moved to England for an MPhil in Literary Theory from the University of Cambridge. A year after she returned to the States, Mena dove back into academia for an MFA in literary translation at the University of Iowa. There she started a small press called Anomalous. While Anomalous began in 2011 as an online journal, Erica conceived of the business as the publishing of handmade texts. Each digital issue was, and still is, hand coded, page by page, bringing the artisanal labor of printing into the Internet age. But Erica had no plans of giving up print altogether. A year after beginning the website, Anomalous began selling print books produced on its letterpress. Click here for more information on Anomalous.

“I’m interested in how the format affects the content,” she says. “You open a Microsoft Word document and a lot of decisions have already been made for you, things like the space between lines and letters, the fonts, the width of the page, the height of the page. A lot of people don’t push against those boundaries. It always felt to me like I was letting somebody else control the presentation, and therefore reception, of the work I’m creating, and that’s a feeling I’m uncomfortable with.”

Anomalous released four new titles at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Conference this spring 2015, and had record sales. This year they printed a second fiction title, Drown/Sever/Sing, which is a collection of retellings of Colombian legends and myths. They also put out two poetry books, The All-New and Third Person Singular. Their biggest seller at the conference, now in its second printing, was their first nonfiction title, Anatomy of a Museum, which explores The Icelandic Phallological Society, the world’s only penis museum.

Anomalous Press is a labor of love. Mena says, “I use my personal income to subsidize the work that the press does, so there’s no point in doing it unless I love the books.” That income comes from working as the executive director of the American Literary Translators Association. Please click here for more information on the American Literary Translators Association.

Mena continues to translate Spanish literature into English, which is an occupation she discovered at UMass Boston. “Translation is a great way for me to be invested in thinking about language without feeling like a failure when I can’t write a poem every day,” she says.

Her interest in translation started in a university honors course offered by Dick Cluster, a well-known translator of Cuban literature.

“He knew that I was a bilingual speaker of English and Spanish,” Mena says. “So he encouraged me to pursue translation. I was fortunate to be at UMass at that moment, when a lot of people there were doing translation.”

Professor Askold Melnyczuk of UMass Boston's English Department helped shape her interest in translation. Mena also took a summer translation workshop with Martha Collins, who taught a master class in translation through the Joiner Institute Writers’ Workshop.

“I had a lot of exposure to translation as part of my English degree at UMass Boston, and a lot of encouragement to pursue it as a literary pursuit, not just as a scholarly pursuit.” (After Erica finished her degree, new English faculty with distinguished reputations as translators, such as Professor Patrick Barron, have arrived in the department, and continue to encourage students to think about translation as a form of scholarship.)

Erica started seeking out translation work while she honed her craft in the MFA program at the University of Iowa.

“I’d go to other countries, and go to bookstores, and buy all the books I could afford,” she says. “It’s harder when you’re a beginning translator. At this point people approach me with projects, and I say yes, it’s interesting, or no, so that makes it easier.”

Though she used to translate poetry and some fiction, now she translates graphic literature. Her translation of El Eternauta, by H.G. Oesterheld and F. Solano Lopez, is coming out with Fantagraphics as The Eternaut this August, and she’s working on two more books for them.

As executive director of the nonprofit American Literary Translators Association, she works to support the art of literary translation. It is a literary arts community, and every year Mena co-organizes a conference with readings, workshops, panel discussions, and more for translators.

“Last year, when the board was transitioning from a university-supported institution to an independent arts nonprofit,” Mena says, “they hired me to help steward the transition, and I’ve stayed on with them.”

Mena is also a poet. Her first book comes out with Ricochet Editions in June. It consists of one long poem, three years in the making. The project began in Iowa; came alive during a summer workshop in Corfu, Greece; and was completed at Brown University, where she went for an MFA in poetry after Iowa. Her book, Featherbone, published by Ricochet Editions, comes out in June. Click here for more information on Featherbone.

“The tagline that my editor uses to talk about it is something like it’s a cyborg feminist retelling of the Icarus myth, which is about right,” Mena says. “Generally it’s the female body that is capable of metamorphosis, and so that’s where we get the feminist retelling.”

The book grew out of Mena’s interest in mythology and the study of religion, her other major at UMass Boston, and also the illusion of the feminine in those fields.

“I spend a lot of time in the book imagining the actual physical sensation of that transformation. It may be grotesque in some ways, but that’s what I was captivated by.”

In book eight of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, where the Icarus myth appears, six other humans transform into birds, most of them female, but not the human with the wings strapped to his back. Icarus dies.

“I imagine Icarus as a female-bodied being that becomes part machine and part animal, and that’s where you get the cyborg spin, that sense of not merely human, more than human.”

While composing her poem, Mena read all of Gray’s Anatomy, as well as textbooks on ornithology and mechanical engineering.

“If I’m not learning something, I don’t want to bother writing,” she says.

Instead of expressing her own experiences, she made Featherbone something more speculative.

“I don’t have to try to be in my work,” she says. “I find that it is much more interesting when I try to look at things outside of my experience. I write about things that I don’t know, particularly because I want to know about them.”

 ~Profile by Caleb Nelson (BA 2012, MA 2015)

Click here to see our former Alumni Profile: Ken Tangvik