I wrote one about the experience of visiting the Tate, which I did quite often anyway. It was not too far away from where I worked, so I could go at lunchtime. Just the way you are walking around in a gallery affects how the world looks when you come out. Everything seems to be in frames, in squares, when you look at it! [Laughter]. Of course, ‘art is what you choose to frame’ is: anything you decide to focus on is art. I had an argument with somebody on a panel. A novelist. Who was it? Antonia Byatt. She was one of the judges of a competition at the TLS. There were three other judges and I said: “Look, there’s a nice little poem”. It was just a short little poem, about six lines. And she said: “You call that a poem? I write better images than that in any page of fiction!” I replied: “Well, yes, but this one has got white space around it”! And if you look at it and it’s got white space around it, you look more closely. So that is art, it is whatever you choose to frame. It’s the ability to choose what you want to look at [Laughter]. I was so pleased I thought of that line before it was too late. [Laughter].Read More
I married a cigarrette and a cicada. They made such a racket: the cigarrette can’t sing and the cicada hates smoke.
Don’t tell me I made a mistake (what a rude habit!). I was just observing the laws of grammar.Read More
Wendy Cope: “There is this thing I wish people would not do in rhyming poems: when they rhyme a plural word like friends with a singular word like send, it drives me mad. And there is a bit in the House of Pooh Corner when Eeyore is trying to write a poem and he has a problem, because he realises that “friends” and “send” don’t rhyme. He alters “friends” to the singular. But then he has to put an “s” on “send”. He sees that you can’t rhyme “friends” with “send” or “friend” with “sends”. So he gets confused about it all, he can’t write his rhyming poem because of this problem. Nowadays, poets just ignore the problem and that really annoys me”.Read More
JF: What is the use of poetry?
It serves no use, absolutely none. I don’t know if you are mentioning poetry in general or the poetry that I make. In any case, both are completely useless because we are still going to have tragedies involving refugees in the Mediterranean.Read More
Interviewing Paulo da Costa Domingos
Lisbon, 15th January 2018
We met Paulo da Costa Domingos at Galeria Monumental. The author, editor and second-hand bookseller brought a first edition of a book by Herberto Helder he’d just bought and which set the tone for some of the questions about chance encounters with books stuffed with cookie crumbs, unpublished works by Gomes Leal and king Dom Ferdinand II’s drawings. We spend the next hour and a half talking about poems, blunders of literary criticism, the patient work of the reader, “nearly as persistent as that of the writer,” undervalued poets and about authors, such as Cesário Verde, who are not realists.
JF: What is poetry for? Does it have any use?
My writing is at odds with functionalism, waged existence, or the markets; it does not aim at any material exchange. But it is also my conviction that the true life of human beings does not aspire to profit, account sheets and material exchanges. I think that art made a mistake on the day it signed a pact with money. Which happened a long time ago, it’s not something recent. But that pact uniting art and money or commerce can only deprive of worth our presence on the planet. Life isn’t a commodity.
JF: How do you teach someone to read a poem?
That’s a big issue... it’s complicated. A text, or a painting, or any artistic stimulus, aims to act as a Rorschach test. Show it to someone and they will start unravelling their own story, their individuality. They will project themselves on that stimulus and this projection will grow, it will spread and broaden spiritually. The poem always brings forward a widening and not a congestion of meaning: the more culture and life experiences the reader possesses, the easier it will be for him or her to reap in the reading what was sowed during the writing. The transmission of a poem from an author to a reader isn’t something as simple as a give and take exchange. It’s a labour of patience. The reader is asked to perform a labour of patience nearly as persistent as that of the writer. One of the things teachers and professors ought to do, the first thing they should do in fact, is to frame the poem (as any work of art) in the context of its creation. Every work is always the product of a biography. Often that biography helps to understand the aesthetic choices the poet made, and the interpretative task takes off from there. It’s a way to appeal to the personal experience of any reader. Otherwise, if the reader ignores the places and the circumstances of the poem, he will not receive the signals inscribed in that language, and so he won’t understand a thing.
But I can tell you one thing: the current state of education can never bring readers and poems close together, and not just poems. It can’t because today the goal of education is only to teach how to read the user manual for daily life, how to read a set signals that is very scanty and crude.
JF: How do you imagine you will be described on a literary encyclopaedia? What would you like to have read about you in posterity?
Those entries should be neither passionate, nor adjudicative. What we must find is a name, birth date, bio-bibliography, etc., the literary and historical context of the author and the work. I expect that in my case the influence of surrealism will be mentioned, but, apart from that, nothing else should be said, not least because I have always tried to build my work outside any established cannon. What I would like people reading about me is exactly what is on my Wikipedia page. I always insist that the fact that I’m self-taught is known and is included on the biographical data.
JF: Do you read what the critics write? In your judgment, are they correct, or not so much?
Currently there is no literary criticism, only a news service about books which has been rigged by the publishing houses. In the newspapers there is no longer any literary criticism and whatever criticism takes place on universities, it remains locked up in there. We can even find criticism taking place in the classrooms, but it remains there, in the university backstage.
JF: We have a section about literary curiosities. Can you think of something you might share with us?
There is something that to me really stands out. Because I work with many second-hand books, one of the things that surprises me is opening a book and finding what was left forgotten in it. I even found money once. Very often I find cookie crumbs. You open a book and you find cookie crumbs. [Laughter] It gives you a precise picture of what was happening at that moment in the past with someone you don’t know at all.
JF: What does it mean to be a realistic poet?
I think the problem with realism is that it tries to be a trustworthy photograph, a photojournalism of the world, a demagoguery of the real. That’s the problem. Because every time the so-called realistic poet transcends that and makes a detour from that attempted copy, he or she immediately becomes more interesting. Because in its aesthetic approach to the subject at hand the poem is itself the real. Take Cesário Verde, labelled by many a mere realistic poet. But the way he regards the real has an almost expressionistic exuberance. The realist is a reducing agent, enclosed on a trivial worldview concocted from pety and limited behaviours. This has nothing to do with the eventual commitment to reality. Samuel Beckett’s absurd is strongly tied to the real, so is Franz Kafka’s. In the plethora of perspectives that Cesário created we even find the picnic poem, which is a brief note inspired by impressionism in the visual arts.
JF: Is your poetry committed to reality?
My writing reflects the ever-present bombing of the encircling world. I’m not immune to newscasts and while in the midst of the pursuit of pleasure the horrors of the world come through at an hourly rate, disturbing me and smothering my freedom. Even going back to 1991, in my Campo de Tílias [“Linden field”], which is a book less “committed to reality”, we find poems in which the erotic encounter on a hotel is punctuated by a glance outside through the room window. Well-being can only subsist in an enclave of a harrowing universe. I would say I write a poetry subjected to an enormous urban pressure and that keeps a watchful eye on the awareness of this collective pressure. Is Edward Hopper, for instance, a realistic painter?... Is Philip Larkin a realistic poet, one who has committed to reality? He, creating poems that are trustworthy pictures of what he sees from the window of his room... The lovers in the garden... But always projecting on the verses a reflexion on what he is seeing that goes above any photojournalism. We always balance our measures of objectivity or subjectivity, the poem is what is produced by the welding of these linguistic presences.
JF: “I have answered to one single calling: poetic action”. Can there be poetry without poetic action?
It can happen. We can’t be unfair to all those that leave for work every morning and then make works of art after hours. It’s their exorcism. I would find that challenging, harrowing, although I understand that someone can commit to a creative task, while working at the same time for the mail supply service. To me, all my daily existence has always been dedicated to reflect on the poem or the arts that are bound to it: reading other authors, for instance. I had to do lots of things outside the so-called poetic action in order to pay the bills, like everyone else does, but I always ran away from subjugation to any sort of outside order. I strived to be the promoter of my own slavery and not put myself at the service of anyone. It can even happen that no books are published, as happened during the two or three years when I didn’t write. But I was then a different person already, another way of grasping things, poetic action stood above everything.
JF: Is the poet an explosives expert? A guerrilla fighter?
Yes, explosives because the world doesn’t make it easy for you. When you choose art and art alone, and this is all I do, obviously the world becomes ridden with traps, because the world doesn’t want you to invest the whole of your energy, the whole of your being, whatever you have inside you that is human, in something that runs at odds with the world. It wants you not to think, it wants you to adopt the behaviour of the masses, of the flock – manoeuvrable subjections. If you think, if you have time to think, there’s a chance for you to conquer your autonomy. If you’re free from the shackles of home, car, etc., you have the conditions to turn your back on the world at any time, you have nothing to lose. You’re in the absolute territory of freedom. But this is very complicated – the ground you walk on is filled with landmines, because the bills keep on reaching the mailbox, everyday livelihood doesn’t fade away. And it’s expensive. I pay so I don’t have the State breathing down my neck, to keep it far from me, as far away as possible. And that’s already a trap, a mined field.
JF: And what sort of thing is a publisher?
It’s very complicated, but wonderful. A publisher is someone that grants recognition to another person. He does so driven by his own taste – this is all subjective, because I can enjoy things that other people don’t like – but, as a rule, a publisher is that person who recognizes virtues in someone and that has a great desire to lead others to share that encounter, that unforeseen event. That is my stance as a publisher. I know the card-carrying publishers out there are something else entirely – they’re just people who recognize if something has sales potential. I never once thought like this. For instance, the Sião [“Zion”] anthology. It was made with an approach based on taste, within thematic parameters – there’s a thematic axis going through it – and taking as an assumption the need to establish a different poetic cannon for Portuguese poetry. But the selection of authors and poems has nothing scientific or strictly literary to it. The approach owed much less to the precepts of literary history than to the precepts of the cultural and personal histories of the anthologists (Al Berto, Rui Baião and myself). My attitude as a publisher is the same: to make known something that reflects a personal taste and judgment. Obviously never losing from sight the context in which the publication occurs, the living history of the moment.
So, surely I made some “errors” of perspective, which everyone knows about – publishing “non-authors” which I imagined could one day become recognized authors. It’s something that comes with vanguard movements, standing in the risk zone as they do.
Interviewing Lorraine Mariner
London, 14th of August 2017
On the 14th of August, we met Lorraine Mariner outside the National Poetry Library, at the Southbank Centre in London. We spoke for about an hour about poetry and poets, but also about Ikea furniture, the dress we never had and the musicians we would keep in a basement at our disposal to write and play for us forever.
Jogos Florais: Do you like poetry?
Lorraine Mariner: Yes. [Laughter]. And I do really like writing. I have periods in which life gets busy and I find I am not writing as much as I’d like. But I've never felt I was blocked. I mean it’s gone quiet, and I have tried not to get worried and it’s came back again.
JF: You also work with poetry in your job at the Poetry Library.
It’s wonderful. My first library job was in a medical library and I did get into it, but working in a subject you love you go the extra mile, as you are learning as well. But I do get a bit “poemed out”. In the past when I’d not worked at the Poetry Library I went on poetry courses and got away to be immersed in poetry, but lately when I go on holidays it has nothing to do with poetry.
JF: Do you have a daily routine of writing?
No. [Laughter] I have found what works well is if I just get up on a day off and I decide I am going to do some writing. I just make a cup of tea and I start working.
JF: Could you please tell me a poem you particularly like and explain why?
Yes. One of my favourite poets is Fleur Adcock. I like her poem “Things”. It's quite a short poem but it's funny and universal and profound.
There are worse things than having behaved foolishly in public.
There are worse things than these miniature betrayals, committed or
endured or suspected; there are worse things
than not being able to sleep for thinking about them.
It is 5 a.m. All the worse things come stalking in
and stand icily about the bed looking worse and worse and worse.
Fleur Adcock, Poems. London: Bloodaxe Books, 2000.
JF: And one of yours?
I think “Thursday”. Because it was about a momentous thing that happened in London, the bombings on Thursday 7th July 2005, and I was proud that as a poet I was able to record the moment and that it became like a monument to that day. But I actually do really like “There is nothing wrong with my sister” (read here). I think I like poems that touch other people and people seem to really like that one.
JF: Is there a poem \ poet which you consider under-rated?
Yes, there must be. May I think about it?
JF: Do you use poetry daily?
Yes, yes. I will say everyday I read a poem.
JF: How do you choose the poem?
It comes through my work. So on Friday John Hegley came into the library and he was looking for a poem by Les Murray that he'd written about his father. So I looked it up. He could remember a bit and I looked into it. So then I read “The Last Hellos” a poem I had not read before and it blew me away and I remembered I need to read more Les Murray.
JF: Do you remember lines regularly? Do you know poems by heart?
Yes, some bits of. And because of my job people recite bits of poems to me and they think I will recognise the line and know the poem. [Laughter].
JF: How do you imagine yourself, within 50 years, in a literary encyclopaedia? What you would like to be remembered?
I think it is something I wrote about on that text you mentioned about Jessica Elton (click here). When I started I thought that if I could just write one fantastic poem that people would remember… that would be enough. I think that's still true. Sometimes, I think nobody will remember me and then I remind myself if I just write one fantastic poem that will be ok.
JF: Do you read what critics write about you? Do you think they ever get it right?
Yes, I do.
Actually I just remembered a poet. David Hart. So I think he is under-rated. One of my all time favourite poems is his poem “Father Hopkins is Shy About His Poems” (see here).
I have found with my second book I have had hardly any reviews. So that was difficult in a way. So, there is a lot of attention on first collections and then with second collections some get attention but most get ignored... They’ve all been good reviews, but there weren’t so very many. So I’ve gone from being upset with bad reviews to being upset that there were no reviews. I think that with reviews it's a bit tricky.
JF: Do you appreciate reading literary criticism? What kind of critic would you like to have?
Maybe somebody that gives the poems the attention they deserve. That tries to understand what the poet is trying to do, where they're coming from.
JF: Do you read criticism?
I do and in my job we’ve got a press cuttings collection, so we scan magazines and different poets have different files so I do sort of skim read a lot of criticism. But it’s tricky. Billy Collins was a poet that I went to see read when I was first getting into poetry, and I absolutely loved him, and I became a big fan and I then read the most awful review in the magazine Poetry Review and it made me begin to question my judgement and I think that if it has that effect, that someone thinks “I was wrong I shouldn’t have liked that sort of poetry” then yes I think that it’s quite damaging.
JF: A Portuguese writer once said in an interview that it was better to get a handshake from an enthusiastic reader than to read a book review. Would you say the same?
Yes, I think so.
JF: Do you have any ideas on how poetry should be taught?
I think maybe what has been the most helpful has been when they tell you if you like this poem you will really like this one as well. I think reading is the best teacher.
JF: Which poets did people advise you to read?
When I started my editor Don Paterson told me to read Hugo Williams. And that’s quite interesting, because at that stage I hadn’t read anything by Hugo Williams but I can see a similarity in how we write. And I've been advised to read Selima Hill. I think you might like her as well.
JF: Do you have anything you dislike in poetry? A word? A figure of speech? Clichés that you try to avoid?
Not really. Oh yes! Actually, I think I do. I do like very direct poetry.
JF: Why is that?
I don’t know. I suppose that being direct, using very plain language can be profound as well, it cuts straight to the heart of things. Having said that I have got into poets like Medbh McGuckian where I'm not exactly sure what is going on in the poem but I get a very strong feeling so sometimes I am up for a bit of ambiguity. But I do really love this sort of heartfelt, direct poetry. [Laughter]
JF: What would you ask another poet?
I am quite interested in how often they write that sort of thing and if they’ve got a routine.
JF: We have a section on literary curiosities, is there any you remember?
I think I must. I’ll get back to you on this one. I hope this isn't egotistical but I have a literary curiosity of my own. I've modelled for the character of Sybill Trelawney in the illustrated Harry Potter (see here). I know the illustrator Jim Kay and he thought I'd make a good Sybill! But I’ll keep trying to remember one about a poet from the past as that would be better for your website.
JF: A friend of mine asked if there is any dress you have always dreamed of having and never had.
Not really. Not really, I mainly wear trousers. One New Year, I made a resolution to wear a skirt once a week and in the last few years I have bought more dresses than I had before. I mean I did see a dress once in a shop window that I wished I’d bought. It was blue chiffon and it then it had a sparkly metallic bit across the front and on one of the sleeves like sequins. But I think I thought where would I wear it?
JF: Do you have hobbies?
I run. I do running and I play the clarinet. I should practice more.
JF: Do you have a favourite tune?
Well, I am a big Steve Sondheim fan and his Send in the Clowns has quite lovely bits for the clarinet.
JF: Who would you like played your role in a movie about your life?
[Laughter] Well, I love… Hmm, I should pick an English actress. Hmm. Well, maybe I would go with a French actress. I do love Audrey Tautou. I think that the film, I mean maybe I could be a minor part in a film as I think my life would be really boring, I don’t think it would make a very good film. [Laughter] So maybe a minor character played by Audrey Tautou. [Laughter]
JF: Are you worried with metric and rhythm when you write?
Yes, I do think about internal rhymes and things like that. I am conscious of that. I think as I go on, now I’ve got maybe a bit more control than when I started. I remember someone said to me you don’t rhyme. But I do think I have internal rhymes. And sometimes I also think there is something going on I am not entirely conscious of.
JF: What is your relation with other poets? Do you go to poetry readings, for example?
Yes, I do go to a few poetry readings, there are regular readings at the National Poetry Library. I go to a poetry reading group but I also go to a writing group with other poets and I'd be really lost without that.
JF: How does it work?
We meet every month to six weeks and we take along usually about two poems that we are working on and then we share them and give feedback. There are currently 6 of us. When I moved to Greenwich the poet Mick Delap, who I'd met on a City Lit course and through the magazine Magma, found out and he invited me to join a group in the area that he was just getting going.
JF: Does the editor at Picador make suggestions?
Yes, Don Paterson, the editor, he’s very hands on.
JF: What are your favourite places in London? And your favourite bookshop?
This probably sounds a bit bad, but as I work with books I try to avoid them. This is what happens after 20 years working in libraries! I live by Greenwich Park and Blackheath, so I love being on the heath and in Greenwich Park. And a new place I have discovered is the Charlton Lido, (in case you don't have the word Lido in Portugal it's an outdoor swimming pool and luckily the Charlton one is heated). I recommend going there although I haven’t been for ages. I love going to the cinema. I love the Greenwich Picture House. One of my life goals was to be able to walk to a cinema from where I live and I can walk through the park to the Greenwich Picture House.
JF: Do you like some movies in particular?
I absolutely love romantic comedies. But I also love a bit of sci-fi.
JF: What are your favourite?
When Harry met Sally but I do love While You were sleeping. And actually Strictly Ballroom was on the telly the other day and I was supposed to be going to bed but I couldn’t stop watching, even though I've seen it loads of times. I'm very excited about the next Star Wars film and the new Blade Runner.
JF: I saw there is a Philip Larkin poetry club. Is he an important reference for you?
We did a book club, it was just a one off, where we looked at his poems.
I do like his poems and I've booked a trip to Hull in October because there's a Philip Larkin exhibition taking place at the university of Hull. And a couple of years ago I went to Coventry and I ended up going to look at the house where he was born. I know it’s not so cool to like him today. I do think, and it is something I can relate to, that writers can, when they are writing to someone they can reinvent how they are writing to suit that person and I think he definitely did that, but that’s not to forgive the things he said.
JF: Is there anything you would like to see in a poetry website?
Well we're currently redesigning the National Poetry Library website so that is on my mind a lot at the moment. I think the main thing is poems.
JF: Do you believe in Ikea’s furniture, its durability?
I do. Yes, I do. I mean lately I do find myself drawn to second hand furniture, but outside the library where you were sitting that was made of Ikea shelves. I do love their book shelves. [So they will not fall over a reader, like the closet in your poem?] [Laughter] No, no. Yeah, you have to build it properly and my sister does build it properly. So [Laughter]
JF: Which contemporary poet would you interview if you could?
Hmmm. I was at a conference recently and Sinéad Morrissey was there and I wish I could chat with her but I felt too shy, it was silly of me, because we had met before... So maybe I would like to interview Sinéad Morrissey.
JF: Which painting would hang on your wall to see?
I do go to exhibitions and I do often think I would quite like to have that one. I went to the Georgia O'Keeffe exhibition at Tate Modern last year and there was this beautiful small painting of a shell with red and green seaweed (Shell No. 2) and I thought I wish I could just take that home. And then a friend sent me a postcard and it was the same!
JF: Which musician would you have on your house basement, ready to play for you whenever you wanted it?
[Laughter] It would be Ron Sexsmith, because he is so prolific that he would be continually writing new songs. So that would be great if he could be in my basement writing songs. [Laughter] I don’t think he would want to be in my basement, though, but I… [Laughter]
JF: You would feed him properly. [Laughter]
Yes! I’m also a big fan of Natalie Merchant so I think I’d like them both to be in there. [Laughter] I don’t know how they’d feel about that, but maybe for a week, they could be in my basement and they could come and write some songs together. [Would you like to write some songs with them?] [Laughter] Oh yes, I hadn’t thought about that! Maybe the three of us! And I think I’d get my brother along as well. The four of us. [Laughter]. I think I better invite my sisters too! We could release an album as Merchant, Sexsmith and the Mariner Family. I could play my clarinet.
JF: Which contemporary poets would you suggest for someone who does not know English poetry very well?
If I'm allowed to expand it to British I’m a big fan of lots of Northern Irish poets like Sinéad Morrissey, Colette Bryce, Leontia Flynn and Derek Mahon. Then there's Fleur Adcock and Selima Hill who I mentioned earlier.
JF: Which question did you like the most, if any.
I think maybe the first. Do I like poetry?
Interviewing Adília Lopes
Lisbon, August 2017
For our interview, we met at café Danúbio, in Lisbon. The Portuguese poet Adília Lopes was already waiting for us there (she’d arrived at least 20 minutes before the time we agreed on). We brought the questions we prepared, the interview went as planned, but we also talked about her neighbourhood, about poplars and cherry trees, about dreams and nightmares, and about eating cakes before enjoying the beauty of cathedrals.
Jogos Florais: Do you like poetry?
Adília Lopes: [laughs] Sometimes I don’t, sometimes I don’t….
JF: We often think about the posterity of poets. How do you see yourself in a hundred years, in a literary encyclopaedia entry?
I don’t see myself like that, no.
JF: Isn’t there something you’d like to read about yourself?
No, I never imagine that. There’s a sentence where Fernando Pessoa says that Milton didn’t do anything without thinking about his future fame. I think about the present, I don’t really think about the future, I think about the present.
JF: What would you ask another poet? If there was someone you admired, what questions would you ask them?
I don’t think I’d ask them anything. I would say “good morning” or “good afternoon”, like I do at coffee shops. I wouldn’t ask anything, I don’t know…
JF: When you read poets you like, do you not wonder about something you’d like to ask them or tell them?
No, I don’t think so. I understand why people would interview writers, the ones who write novels, poems. They may talk about what they wrote, what they do, what they live, how they see things, but I don’t think I’d ask… I talk to a poet or a novelist like I talk to the baker, to the waiter, to the postman. That’s how it is.
JF: All of them have interesting things to say.
Yes, all of them have interesting things to say.
JF: We asked some people who admire your work whether they had questions for you. For instance, a costume designer asked if you could describe a dress with which you’ve always dreamed, but never had. If there was any…
[Laughs] When I was 30 years old and such, I liked that French couturier, Christian Lacroix. Of course I would never have enough money to by one of his dresses, nor would spending money on a dress would ever cross my mind, but I liked those really colourful clothes that remind us of Spanish or Russian folklore costumes… I wouldn’t go out wearing something like that, but I enjoyed those garments… from the theatre, the opera.
JF: Who would you like to play you in a film about your life?
An actress? I’m thinking, this takes some time… It can’t be her, because she already died, but I liked this American actress very much, Lillian Gish, from silent films and such. I liked her very much. Of course she doesn’t resemble me one bit, but I really like her in silent films and the like. Maybe I would enjoy being portrayed in a silent film.
JF: Do you have any relation with the literary scene?
I don’t really connect with the literary scene, I don’t know many people, nor any, I don’t know anyone in the literary scene, I don’t.
JF: And do you care for it?
No, I don’t. I have this idea that it is full of gossip and such, like in every profession, or any other human scene, not just in jobs, everywhere. And I don’t care for that.
Translation Rita Furtado
Interviewing Alberto Pimenta
Lisbon, 29th September 2017
* translation João Brandão
On September 29, Alberto Pimenta welcomed us to his house, deep in Calçada dos Cavaleiros, on a Mouraria that is no longer what it was in 2000, when he moved there. After climbing some steps we noticed the sign warning “beware of the head bump,” three steps from his door. We took with us a sheet with 20 possible questions and we didn’t expect the 20 answers we received. But Alberto Pimenta asked us to read them and said that, despite the resemblance some shared with TV questions, he would address all of them, anchoring his answers on his life experience, the only thing about which anyone can talk, and not what he had read on books. And this is the interview that was possible to make, an inter-view, as Alberto Pimenta phrased it, a view between reality and fantasy.
JF: Do you like poetry?
I’ll answer that with what I think is a disarming simplicity. It’s like rice, it depends on how it’s cooked. I can enjoy it a great deal. For instance, there’s this rice dish in Porto that I love, it’s a hasty rice, runny, made with sautéed onions, delicious seasonings, to which one adds some vegetable or animal supplement, usually something seaborne, octopus rice, for instance. The way they cook it in Porto is truly delicious, because it slides down your throat, you know? It’s delicious from the start and it remains delicious when it reaches the end of the mouth and slides down. It’s exactly the same with poetry, there’s absolutely no difference whatsoever.
JF: Do you think poetry is an overrated genre?
Well, I don’t know where that could be. Maybe in universities, maybe in poetry classes, maybe for some poets who only talk about poetry, who have no other conversation topic. There are poets who can’t distinguish between the reason of poetry, which is a reason that is not... it’s not part of the natural flow of life, it’s something like an intermezzo, a set of interludes. You need a special disposition and a special reason to make poetry, hence to talk about it as well. It’s not overrated except in those cases, and even then I wouldn’t say overrated... it’s an obsession or a professional fixation, for instance with professors that are obliged to talk about poetry, that value deeply the one they favour or the one they have to teach; and it’s an obsession for those that make poetry methodically, their lives are dedicated 24 hours a day to the making of poetry, and in those cases the poetry can’t possibly be good, poetry cannot exist continually during a 24 hour period.
JF: We were thinking about the Portuguese case, whether poetry is overrated in Portugal.
Oh, no!, absolutely not, absolutely not... What happens in Portugal is that there is among a certain learned or cultured group this idea that poetry is a little above the average level, and the average level is low. I’m more familiar with the German context. In Germany, there are fewer and better, by far better poets, there have always been better poets, and we don’t even have to go as high as Mr. Goethe or to name all of the great poets. There, poetry is naturally held in esteem by educated people, but held in esteem within its own realm. I mean, there’s none of that commonly Portuguese fascination: “ah, poetry!” It can in fact be simply a rhyme, even a plain cheap rhyme. It’s a totally different attitude. In Portugal poetry isn’t really over or underrated, what we find here, in my opinion, is an attitude towards it that is sometimes childish. Which means that poetry isn’t seen as one thing among others, something that is part of life. It is seen as something apart, but that isn’t the case. It’s something that is part of life and that manifests itself only in some cases, like almost all things that exist.
JF: Literary art and not literature, yes? Why?
Well, no. Literary art entails poetic forms that fall a bit outside the norm, that don’t fit in the realm of literature because they lie outside the word. We don’t have to get to concrete poetry, there is a great amount of poetry before that. In Antiquity, in Greece, there are poems made out of drawings that outline trees and other elements, this in Ancient Greece, two or three centuries before Christ. And later in the Middle Ages as well, where religious poetry was in many cases shaped as an altar or something similar. In those cases it is best to speak of literary art, not literature. Apart from that it’s fine as it is, it’s literature, it’s painture, it’s ura, “candura” [candour], “frescura” [freshness], etc. But poetry is poetry.
JF: Is Archibald Macleish’s “Ars Poetica” one of your favorite poems? Why so?
I think this poem, just like any other, should be seen as a whole. It’s clear that those are the two verses that end the poem and that carry with them the global intention, so “should not mean” means that poetry isn’t a place where you go to look up the meanings, because that is a transformation, and if it transforms, poetry is no longer poetry, it ceases to be poetry once it is transformed, once it is explained. It has to stand as, for instance, a tree stands, a tree which we are not used to seeing, we look at it and sometimes the best is when we don’t know its name or anything else about it, we just admire the tree. We set foot in Africa or in Asia and we see a tree which we’d never seen, this astounding thing, and we stand in admiration, how is it possible that there is in nature something with so much power? Whatever name it has, that is not so important and on top of that, names are usually loaded with preconceived notions.
Excerpt from “Ars Poetica”, by Archibald Macleish
A poem should be palpable and mute
As a globed fruit,
As old medallions to the thumb,
Silent as the sleeve-worn stone
Of casement ledges where the moss has grown—
A poem should be wordless
As the flight of birds.
Archibald MacLeish, “Ars Poetica” from Collected Poems 1917-1982.
Copyright © 1985 by The Estate of Archibald MacLeish.
I think there is nothing else that needs to be said. It begins with the first two verses: a poem should be palpable and mute as a globed fruit. There you have it, a globed fruit is palpable and it doesn’t speak, it’s mute, but to feel it, to hold it, and then to smell it, to get to the point where you eat it, that is enough, that is what the fruit is. A fruit wasn’t made to be eaten. It wasn’t made for us to eat it, it was made so that it could be, and then it can have various uses. And couldn’t the eating of the fruit stand for the reading and grasping of the poem? No, to eat the fruit is to absorb the poem so well that it becomes...
Jogos Florais: Internalized, memorized?
No, not memorized, there you have it, that doesn’t matter. It becomes felt. Like the tree, for instance, to look at that tree which we’d never seen, which is so strange and new, be it in its thickness, or, on the other hand, the colour of its leaves and flowers. You don’t have to describe them, he saw a most beautiful tree, it has flowers of such a colour. That has no value, one thing is to see, another to listen. The same happens here, we have a series of images about that concrete nature of the poem.
JF: How does one teach poetry? How should we talk about a poem?
I don’t know how poetry should be taught, it’s something each one has to figure out alone. But can it be taught? Some things are taught, the child has to be taught how to speak, if no one teaches him or her they’ll never speak. Of course there are poetry students, just like there are mathematics students and students in every area. Some have a vocation, some have an inner strength that allows them to understand more effortlessly and better than others. Now, how it is taught, that’s a question each one has to handle alone, for me there is no blueprint for teaching.
JF: What is poetry for? What is your poetry for?
Poetry has no use except for those who make it. Like most other useful things, almost everything that a human being does in society, people do it because it brings them some advantage, be it material or not. A restaurant’s cook cooks because she is paid to do it, and with that money she is able to live, otherwise she wouldn’t cook. She cooks because she learned how to do it, and that enables her to earn money. The poet is different; there may be poets that seek material benefits of some sort, such as prizes, but to me they aren’t true poets. The poet writes driven by an inner need, a compulsion. Religious people adhere to a religion because they have an inner compulsion and not by any other reason. Poetry has a use for the poet with that compulsion, it gratifies that compulsion. Almost all of us gratify our compulsions. Some have very trivial and unimportant compulsions. But if you are compelled to kill, or to climb the Everest, or to do other things, it’s the compulsion that drives you to do it. No one climbs the Everest without a strong compulsion to stride up the mountain. Poetry for me serves to gratify the compulsion that the poet has. Why does the poet have this compulsion? Surely for the most part it’s something he or she were born with, each of us has certain interests in life, that’s plain to see, it’s a part of what we are, of an individual’s character, and then there were doubtlessly events that drove him or her in that direction, events that they need to work through. Writing, and writing in that specific form is a way of working through them.
JF: Do certain political periods demand a certain type of poetry?
No, that question is very poorly put. To begin with, there aren’t exactly political periods, there are social periods, a social period is a much larger thing. For example, in democracy, there is the political period when the right-wing party governs, there is the political period when left-wing party governs, and of course poetry suffers no change and of course each party can cause a different social period. We can have social upheaval, we can have strikes, there can happen or not a lot of things. The social periods bring with them no demands, they provoke a certain type of expression, be it in music, in the arts or in other activities, and they also provoke the type of poetry that deals with those social periods. Poetry can deal more or less with the social periods, that depends on the style and range of the poet, who may care a lot or not at all with the social problem. Maybe he only cares about his feelings and whether his beloved is with him or far away, etc. So he may not care about the political sphere or, on the other hand, he may have a deep feeling for the social environment.
JF: Do you use poetry on your daily life?
I don’t know what it is to use poetry. If I’m about to read poetry, I would never say I’m using it. I want to read a certain poet because I already know what he says and I want to hear that again, it’s like listening to music. In the time of The Beatles you’d listen to them day and night, now it’s the same with punk rock or with Bach, some people listen to Bach from dawn to dusk, in Portugal as well.
JF: When we Google you, your name comes along with Ana Hatherly, António Aragão, Alexandre O’Neill, Mário Cesariny and Herberto Helder. Does this make sense? You don’t have a lot of sympathy for the Internet, do you?
Remember the PIDE [acronym for “International and State Defense Police”; the political police during the Portuguese dictatorship]? Half the Internet is like the PIDE. Whatever someone is doing here, however small that thing is, immediately everyone knows about it. I don’t want that, I’ve always wanted my... I don’t like the word “privacy,” but that no one invades me when I don’t want it. Usually I am a very sociable person, at other times not at all.
Sure, it makes sense, some more than others: with Ana Hatherly, António Aragão and Melo e Castro we even made a book together. And of course Alexandre O’Neill, we were friends and we spent time together, but we never worked on anything that I can recall. His style is markedly different from mine. I’m also a satirical poet, but in a different way from Alexandre O’Neill’s, and I’m not just satirical, his work is almost entirely satirical. He is a very good poet, but there is nothing he did that doesn’t have a pinch of satire. As to Mário Cesariny and Herberto Helder, the association makes sense but only because they are poets whose poetry I find very interesting.
JF: Tell us about a linguistic and/or poetic word or construction that annoys you.
There are many, so many.
JF: What would you ask another poet?
Nothing! What could I have to ask? I spent time with many poets and I never asked them anything, and neither did they ask me anything related with poetry, only about other subjects, the type of subjects everyone shares and that demand answers.
JF: Can you describe us a garment you always dreamt of and never had?
Unlike most people, who would very much like to have a garment like the one some actor or actress wears, I remember having once worn exactly the one I wanted. I wanted a leather waistcoat, which I’d never seen in Portugal at that point, and that I found in Germany and wore many times. There are pictures of me wearing that waistcoat. Speaking of clothes, I’m sure you remember that, after they sinned, Adam and Eve recognize they are naked, which they hadn’t known up to then. Being naked was so natural to them as it is to cats. Is there any cat that finds it strange to be naked? Or dog? Or turtle?
JF: Some people put clothes on their pets...
I know, perversity comes in many shapes and forms. It’s not exactly because of shame, they want to embellish them. The first cavemen, who were still half-monkeys, didn’t wear any clothes, and they may have started to do it once they travelled north and felt cold, or they may have done it put of prudishness, this is something that may be cultural or natural. Clothing reached the heights of excess in the 17th and 18th centuries with those dresses, which would drag for kilometres and had several lackeys holding them. And of course, because there is also a business-side to it, these clothes’ merchants, the designers, they create so that people will buy, because, all things being equal, everyone already has that item and no one cares. Fashion is made because there is such an interest, and there are people who go after that interest and have to follow fashion: this is the way to wear it, since yesterday! And so it becomes a mandate. A few years ago we had torn-out jeans. But then why do women keep on dressing in a different manner from men? They do it by their own free will, no one is forcing them, they want to dress differently, no woman dresses as a man. And now we have a Commission for the Equality...
JF: Or is it man who doesn’t dress as a woman?
Why would a man dress as a woman if his clothes are simpler, usually pants and shirt and we’re ready to go? Women can’t resist that difference. Some men also can’t resist stressing that difference; when they grow a beard they are saying: I am a man. The moustache and so on are varieties that reflect the cultural habit of a region or a time. It was Dali who transformed the moustache into an artistic phenomenon, into pure art.
JF: Who would you like to have play your part in a movie about yourself?
No one. I wouldn’t like to see any movie made about me, because any movie about me or about other person is mostly a movie about the interpretation the film’s director made about that person, so I have no interest in it.
JF: What does it mean to be a “son of a bitch”?
I wrote a relatively long book about it. That book was translated to Spanish, Italian and French, languages where we have equivalent terms [to the Portuguese “filho da puta].” Given my connection with Germany, I’ve had two or three people coming forward with translation proposals, they even sent me two or three pages. It was very well translated but there is simply no match for the Portuguese term. In other words, there are ways to insult someone, but they don’t fit, because in Portuguese “son of a bitch” is so universal, so particular, that you can even apply it to an object. There’s a semantic range to the term that allowed me to make that book, which is more than any other thing a philosophical digression. What does it mean to be a son of a bitch? All I can say is that you may find out if you read the book.
JF: Portugal or Germany?
I went to Germany when I was 23 years old, I came back from there in the year I turned 40. It’s the main part of my life, between 23 and 40. I spent the main part of my life in Germany, it’s only natural I have very strong connections that are rooted on the language, the habits, the customs. When I returned to Portugal it wasn’t easy, and what made it even more difficult was the fact that I came nurturing a deep illusion, right after the 25th of April, and I didn’t expect to find all that commotion. And later to find again all that had been part of my adolescence, this sordid Portuguese monotony, this absence of a will to live, this lack of energy. In this country, the lack of energy... Once in a while there is someone in the political realm who raises his or her voice, but it’s something that only has a rhetorical, oratory value, it doesn’t exalt anything on the inside. I don’t know, I don’t really understand this country. When one compares the language with the Spanish, there are even structural differences. Both idioms have a common origin, like both regions had so many affinities that they were once in fact united, as we all know, however the Spaniards have such an energy when they speak. The Portuguese not only lack this energy, but the structure of the language itself always leads back to euphemisms, to forms of courtesy.
So, Portugal or Germany? Listen, I have always lived in the present, without caring too much about the past or the future, that’s how I am, and so when I lived in Germany I lived well. I earned a good salary, I lived very well, but still there was a vague unease, something I don’t quite know how to describe. Maybe it’s not possible to totally forget, although... I taught Portuguese and Portuguese Literature, at home I spoke Portuguese, I didn’t speak German. At the University I spoke Italian with my office colleague, who was Italian, because he didn’t want to speak German. And so I went to Italy many times. When I was in Germany, I couldn’t return to Portugal because I hadn’t completed the military service, and in the last few years I was actually deprived of my passport. It was all a bit... I threw a party when I lost my passport (“I’m free! I’m free!”) but in fact later this grew into a nuisance because all the outings to France and Italy came to a stop, without a passport I couldn’t travel.
And yet I have both good and bad impressions of the two countries, not one of them is entirely bad or good. What really astonished me in Germany was the theatre, the German theatre is something that takes your breath away, when it’s on the large theatres. Not in the city where I lived, which was the only city left unbombarded, because the Americans wanted to build their head-quarters there. Ten kilometres from my city there was an industrial city that had been severely affected by the war but where a large theatre had already been build, a theatre that had both a large and a small venue. And once in a while they opened the background and we’d see a 30 metres stage. Incredible! There are so many disparate things in my head, in my experience, but I stick with my tendency to live in the present... Germany has all but vanished from my head, except for the interest I have in some poets, but it has recently been revived, a month or two ago, purely by chance, lead by that Greek god called kairós, the god of the moments, those moments that flow by and which we either grasp or let pass. I was seating on a bench in Campo Santana, which faces the German Institute, and there was a lady sipping a coffee at some distance who once in a while glanced at me with some insistence. And then the lady got up and when she passed by me she said: “Are you Alberto Pimenta?” And I replied: “Yes, well, there’s nothing that can be done about it, isn’t that so?” And she said: “Oh, I was your student 40 years ago in Germany.” And I have remained in contact with her and with another one who was also my student. They were teachers at the Institute, they are retired now. So, in an instant, all of Germany came back to my mind through them, because it wasn’t a year or two but 16 or 17.
JF: What is it like to live in Mouraria?
There’s no more Mouraria, it was done with. Now a part of it belongs to the Indian and the Chinese, it has been so for 6 or 7 years, the other part to Airbnb. I’ve lived in this house since 2000, there were not so many of them then, one or two, and now there are other transformations taking place. Right in front, the private garden of a palatial mansion was destroyed, so that apartments for tourists and yet another hotel could be built. That has deeply changed this area, with the exception of this building, because all three stories are inhabited by their owners.