We met Michael Longley at Magdalene College (Cambridge University), during lunchtime. Longley had given a poetry reading the day before when he managed to make ‘everyone feel the hairs on their forearms’, which, as will be seen, is a valuable criterion for judging poetry. Whilst having a bite, we talked about orchids, long walks to see otters, poems about animals, patterns, kilts, Carrigskeewaun, and the difference between a translation and a poem.Read More
Interviewing Harryette Mullen
Lisbon, 16th of June 2018
We met Harryette Mullen in Lisbon thanks to an invitation from Casa Fernando Pessoa. We spoke about writing tanka, teaching poetry and someone who was fired (and then rehired) for using the word “niggardly”. We also talked about discovering unexpected things about one’s family history and suddenly realizing the meaning of clichés like “tighter than Dick’s hatband”. In the end, we learned there is only one instruction to writing poetry:
“You can break the rules, but do it with flair and intention”.
JF: Our first question is usually whether you like poetry, as there is always a small chance…
There are poets who do not like poetry? They don’t like other people’s poetry?
JF: Sometimes they don’t like their own poetry.
Oh no. I enjoy the process. I think more about the process than the actual product. Yes, at some point I have to think about the text, but once I get started, it feels good to be writing, to be in the zone.
JF: Do you have a daily routine?
I wish I did. I do write a little bit every day but it is not systematic. Often I’m just scribbling and it has nothing to do with poetry. I tend to write at night. When do you write?
JF: At night, as well. I’m sleepy and ill-tempered in the morning.
More owl than early bird. [Laughter]
JF: Oh yes. One of the aspects that I enjoy the most in your poems is their complexity, which seems to imply that the reader has to do his own homework.
For every poem there are two readings: at first you enjoy the poem, the texture, the music of it. Maybe you get a hint of an emotion or an experience, and you immediately want to go back and read the poem again. Often there is a surprise: you start reading a poem and by the end, you ask yourself, “How did I get here?” Then you want to read the poem again and trace the route. You call that “homework,” I call it a second reading or the journey back into the poem. That’s something I discuss with my students because they tend to read things just once. Once is a lot for them, so the idea that you have to read a text twice—well, I’m asking them to give it more attention. A poem requires two readings. You have the reading to find out what. And then the reading to find out how. That’s a natural way to read a poem. And yes, sometimes it can take a little effort.
JF: We have to struggle with the poem. Sometimes we dance with the poem and sometimes we (laughter)…
Punch the poem! [Laughter] Whatever you do, keep reading.
JF: Still, due to your use of riddles and anagrams, the reader seems to be required to do a little more than just a second reading.
It’s true that several poems in Sleeping with the Dictionary were inspired by anagrams, words rearranged to spell other words. “Ectopia”, the poem you wrote about in Jogos Florais, is something like a riddle, with homophones, rhymes, and anagrams of “womb” and “uterus” pointing to the poem’s subject. Anagrams of Crenshaw (a neighborhood in Los Angeles) appear in “Bleeding Hearts”. Another poem, “The Lunar Lutheran”, is almost completely made of anagrams. A number of those poems began as improvisational riffs on jokes, puns, and word games.
Maybe it’s not that the poem is so complex or difficult, but that it’s so playful! Perhaps it doesn’t behave like poems the reader is accustomed to reading. Or there may be a gap between the reader’s and the writer’s experience. I think about the poem as an arrow aiming at the bull’s eye of a target. Sometimes you are the exact center of the poem’s target, but other times you are closer to the outer ring.
Sometimes when I’m reading a poem and I realize I’m not exactly the reader the poet had in mind, I have to work my way toward the center by maybe learning more about the poet or about the poem’s culture, where it comes from, looking up words that I don’t know. That’s how I get more words. It’s by reading more, learning more, adding more words to my lexicon. Some of my students don’t like to look up words. And I always say, once you look them up, those words are yours. Next time you see them, you will know them. It’s about enjoying language so much that you just want to add more words to your treasure chest.
JF: In a way that seems to be political. You are not just adding some words, you are adding precise words, words which for some reason are not usually considered to be poetry material, as if you want to dignify them and to prove they belong in a dictionary and in a poem.
Probably a lot of what we now read as classics were transgressive in their time. People invented words, they borrowed words from other languages. They created new forms, when that wasn’t considered the right thing to do. Or they did not write in Latin, they wrote in their local language. Or they wrote about topics that were taboo. Or things considered too mundane or too political to be poetic. I think that’s happening all the time and we just forget. In school we learn what is proper, but what’s proper today was once improper. Violating old rules creates new rules. Because in literature the rules are made after the fact. [Laughter] Poets amend the rules whenever necessary to write the poems they need to write. Once the poet creates something new, we analyze the poem to see how it was made. Then the rules get revised.
JF: An exercise done afterwards. Saying this you seem to wish to change the form or to subvert it. You don’t write villanelles or triolets.
Right. Probably because I’m not good at arithmetic. [Laughter] Anything that requires counting... Even when I was writing tanka, I thought most of them were 31 syllables but it depends on how you pronounce the words. In any case, altering forms or creating new ones doesn’t destroy the poetry already written. It’s always possible to return to tradition.
JF: You mentioned Tanka and I was reminded of an interview in which you mentioned how your mother claimed to have liked your book [Urban Tumbleweed] because she was finally able to understand it.
- Yes! [Laughter] “Finally, a book I can understand”.
- “You understood the first one!”
- “Yes, I understood the poems about me! But you still haven’t captured my complexity. You should write more poems about me”.
JF: She wishes to enjoy posterity through your words. It’s a good way of thinking. [Laughter]
Oh yes. [Laughter] Absolutely. My first book, Tree Tall Woman, features the plain, colloquial free verse that my mother appreciates. The tanka collection, Urban Tumbleweed, is also accessible in what I hope is an egalitarian way. I think my books are all quite readable and not difficult, but between my earliest and my latest, the poetry is a bit more experimental.
JF: Why did you start writing tanka?
To be clear, I did not try to write traditional tanka. I was inspired, or perhaps I should say, I was challenged by my students who claimed to have no interest in “nature poetry”. I was getting interested in contemporary eco-poetics at a time when I also had been reading haiku and tanka, traditional Japanese poems that affirm a union of the human with the natural world. The basic idea of my tanka project was to notice how we interact with nature while moving through the city like urban tumbleweeds.
JF: How did you think about them?
I thought of them as very brief prose poems when I was composing them in my notebook. The 3-line verse form is arbitrary. I didn’t feel compelled to fit a fixed number of syllables into each line. It’s my understanding that a traditional Japanese poem could be a single vertical line, not broken into three-line haiku or five-line tanka, as these syllabic forms are translated or composed in English. For Urban Tumbleweed, it was convenient to think of multiples of three: a three-line tanka with three verses per page, as I had composed Muse & Drudge with 4 quatrains per page. The visual layout of the page gives the work a certain regularity and makes it look organized. Yet there was flexibility as to how I divided a 31-syllable verse into three lines. I wanted space around the verses, and I staggered them on the page to create a visual rhythm of movement and repose, in keeping with the initial impulse of the project.
JF: They seem to be small impressions of what took place in one year.
Yes, I was interested in ephemeral moments of everyday life. The original concept was to take a walk and write a tanka every day for a year, but of course some days I wrote none and other days I wrote five. I went on with the project a bit longer than a year before determining how to sequence it, not necessarily in the order they were written. With multiples of three as my organizing principle, I cut it down to 366 tanka verses, representing a year and a day, or a leap year of tanka. Most of them were written in Los Angeles, but I also wrote tanka wherever I traveled during that year, including a week in Stockholm.
JF: There is this idea that we can find Nature...
Yes, we find nature wherever we go. We didn’t actually destroy it, we just built on top of it. I’m saying to my fellow Angelenos: look for nature where you are because it’s still here and we are part of it. So let’s try to take care of it. In my class at UCLA we were reading what could be called “nature poetry”. It was Mary Oliver, actually. Some of my students adore her, but others complained: we can’t relate to this because we’re urban. Mary Oliver lives out in the woods, having an epiphany when she watches…
JF: Wild geese. [Laughter]
[Laughter] Yes. I love the idea of Oliver walking in the woods near her home, where she’s stashed pencils in the trees in case she’s inspired to write a poem. In the same course we also read Kimiko Hahn, an urban dweller who views the natural world with curiosity and concern, but without the spiritual yearning and reverence we find in Oliver, or the gnostic mysticism and eco-critical activism of Brenda Hillman. Writing tanka was partly a response to those students who felt so estranged from the natural world that they couldn’t relate to Mary Oliver. Now I make it a regular assignment, in my poetry workshop, to take the students on a “tanka walk” through the botanical garden on our campus. I give them examples of traditional tanka from anthologies compiled for Japanese emperors as well as contemporary tanka translated or composed in English.
JF: You speak a lot about teaching. How do you teach someone to appreciate a poem?
Rita Dove, a poet laureate of the United States, suggested that in schools around the country you should just read a poem a day and don’t talk about it. Because, all too often, when it becomes an assignment, it ruins the poem. Maybe some poems could just be presented to the students and then you go on with the rest of your day. Unfortunately, it’s in school that people learn to hate poetry. I hope I’m not doing the same thing. I try to lessen the pain by making them keep a journal and I ask for the pages they want me to see. I check selected pages, just to be sure they are reading and responding to the literature, but it’s an opportunity for them to develop their own connection to the poets and their texts. Of the ten poets we read in class, they can choose one or a few to write about in the final essay. I know it feels different to read a book you love that you choose for yourself versus a book the teacher gives you. The most I can do is try to simulate some of that experience of finding a personal connection to a poet’s work. Usually there will be at least one poet out of the ten, half male, half female, that a student will like. This is American poetry, it is diverse.
JF: How do you choose?
If we’re reading contemporary poets, they all have to be alive when I’m planning my syllabus.
JF: I like that.
The students can read dead poets in other courses.
JF: Who do you teach?
It varies. Since I’ve been teaching, some of the poets have passed on: Florence Anthony (the poet known as Ai), John Ashbery, Amiri Baraka, Lucie Brock-Broido, Gwendolyn Brooks, Fay Chiang, Lucille Clifton, Jayne Cortez, Robert Creeley, Allen Ginsberg, Barbara Guest, Michael Harper, June Jordan, Galway Kinnell, Akilah Oliver, James Tate, C.K. Williams, C.D. Wright, all dead now. I was teaching Gwendolyn Brooks the day after she died. I opened the class by reading her obituary. When I teach, I usually start with the eldest. Recently it was Mary Oliver. I never used to read Mary Oliver. I didn’t know who she was.
JF: I do like her poems.
It was my students who got me to read Mary Oliver. The last time I taught “Contemporary American Poetry” we read, from eldest to youngest: Mary Oliver, Yusef Komunyakaa, Brenda Hillman, Sandra Cisneros, Dean Young, Kimiko Hahn, Martín Espada, Li-Young Lee, Matthew Zapruder, and Kiki Petrosino. They are very different but very American. Li-Young Lee is there partly to include immigrant experience, and others might have an immigrant parent like Cisneros or, in a different version of the same course, Kristin Naca. That last time we read two Asian Americans, two African Americans, two Latinos and the rest are “white” but they also have diverse identities. I point out that Mary Oliver and Kimiko Hahn have similar ethnic backgrounds. Oliver’s ancestors are English, Czech, and German. Hahn’s are German, Japanese, and English. Petrosino and Hahn have different perspectives on being biracial, and it’s instructive to see what different kinds of “nature poems” are written by poets who are also exploring individual and collective identity.
JF: Are you writing now?
Nothing that is poetry yet. What I’ve been doing for the longest time, boring my friends so much that I can clear the room at a party… [Laughter] If anybody asks me that fatal question: “Are you still writing that family history?” That’s what I’ve been doing.
JF: I’ve just interviewed Fleur Adcock and she spent years writing family history. She explained: “I just fell in love with facts rather than fiction, or whatever poems are”.
Right. The facts are compelling. I started with my grandmother’s oral history, which surprisingly included certain exact details, such as street addresses of long-dead relatives, but also left many crucial questions unanswered. I realized that if I didn’t talk with her all would be lost. I don’t have children but my sister has two sons and someday they, or their children someday, might want to know these stories. Maybe it’s my duty as the childless person to maintain this bridge back to the past. My grandmother was the youngest child of her father who was sixty when she was born. She lived to be ninety-four. That’s a lot of history. It struck me immediately that we’d already lost the story of our enslaved ancestors, although the history, in fact, is quite recent. My maternal grandmother’s father was born into slavery. He was a child when the Civil War ended. Except for her mother, who was born after the Civil War, all of my grandmother’s ancestors had been slaves in Virginia, going back to the colonial period. My grandmother’s family name came from a prominent family of slaveholders who were granted large tracts of land by the colonial governor of Virginia. In my grandmother’s oral history, both her parents had been born after the Civil War, and she insisted that her grandmother “had never been a slave”. She seemed to resist acknowledging what my research confirmed, but I found several records indicating that her father, her grandparents, great-grandparents, and so forth, had all been slaves before the Civil War. The stories she knew were all about their post-Emancipation lives in Pennsylvania, where they moved after the war ended, and where she was born. As free people, her grandparents and her parents became tax-paying homeowners and respectable members of their community, especially her father who was the pastor of a church.
JF: Did she want to ask them questions? In Portugal people dislike asking questions about the colonial war.
I think that those who had been enslaved, if they were younger, claimed a birth date after the civil war so that they wouldn’t have to talk about it. They could reinvent themselves. The civil war was practically in their back yard. A lot of battles took place in Virginia. My grandmother didn’t know anything about their lives as slaves, or how they had lived through the war. She didn’t know how her father became literate. He wasn’t proud of his handwriting, but he could write. He was a community leader so he was mentioned in newspaper articles. I have one that says that he was reading the Bible at a public event. So, I know that he was literate, but we don’t know whether he was able to go to school, or perhaps he was self-taught. These things intrigue me. I was asking questions that my grandmother never thought to ask.
I realize now that most of the adults in his church congregation had been slaves. Many of them had come north to Pennsylvania from Virginia and Maryland. It’s a whole community learning how to be free. That’s what’s excited me. My grandmother’s parents were the first generation in the family to be literate. I have letters that my great-grandmother wrote to my grandmother. Letters of the first generation of my maternal family who were able to read and write. In archives, I’ve seen marriage certificates of people whose weddings my great-grandfather performed. It must have pleased him each time he signed one of those documents, a son of slaves who were forbidden to acquire literacy and denied the dignity of legal marriage.
JF: And on your father’s side?
On my father’s side, I discovered that two of my father’s ancestors committed homicides. I had heard stories when we visited my grandparents in Alabama. It sounded like local folklore: stories about a white man who lived with a black woman after the Civil War. They couldn’t marry because it was against the law, but they had several children, and this white man was very protective of his black family. When anyone stepped on his land or troubled them he would take out his gun and send them off. As it turns out, the people in this story are my great-great-grandparents. One of their children is my grandfather’s father. Incredibly, this white man whose roots were German and Irish, had fought in the Civil War on the Confederate side. His family owned slaves, and he followed his older brothers into the war that was fought over slavery. After the war, he returns home and has ten children with this African American woman who had belonged to his Irish American grandfather. Before the war, she and her family had been slaves of his family, and after the war, she has ten children with this Confederate veteran. When I started looking into this family history, my relatives in Alabama sent me a photograph of those ten siblings. One of them is my great-grandfather. Some of this history I was able to find because the slaveholding patriarch, my Irish American ancestor, has the same first and last name as my father. It’s a traditional name in both the white and black families.
JF: Will you publish it?
I’m not sure…
JF: Fleur Adcock did publish her family history, so perhaps you might as well.
Yes, I might. It was startling to realize that this history of slavery is so close to me. My sister and her husband, an economist, are writing a book on reparations. Everyone says to them: “Oh it’s too late for that”.
JF: There were no reparations at all?
Oh yes, there were reparations, but do you know who got them? Certain slaveholders were paid for the loss of their property. Reparations went to people who ownedproperty, not to people who wereproperty. Have you noticed that in the United States, we’re still fighting the Civil War? The legacy of slavery is still with us. We’re living in the aftermath of that systematic dehumanization.
JF: Is that the reason why you avoid…
It’s usually my habit to avoid racial slurs and other dehumanizing terms. There’s a poem in Sleeping with the Dictionary, “Denigration”, that’s built on the idea of avoiding a racial slur, while alluding to the brutal history that such words evoke. In a literal sense, “Denigration” isn’t about “the N word”. The poem was inspired by the scandal caused when a white city employee in a majority black city was fired for using the word “niggardly” in a conversation about the city’s budget. I found out that the person was later rehired, presumably after the concerned parties had consulted their dictionaries. However, in the discussion that followed, at least a few people argued that white people should avoid using the word “niggardly” (especially in the presence of black people) lest they be accused of “homophone racism.” My poem conspicuously avoids the censored word but includes “niggardly” and several other words with the sound of “nig” or “neg”. The poem employs periphrasis and circumlocution as it avoids the unspoken word.
JF: And things you enjoy? Clichés?
I like playing with words, I delight in puns, and I enjoy recycling clichés. I try to use them a little differently…
JF: Yes, you always change them. [Laughter]
I play with commonplaces, or allude to them, because that’s another rule. “Don’t use clichés”. We’re looking for something new in poetry. That’s a good rule. I wouldn’t pick up any old hackneyed phrase or dead metaphor and stick it into a poem. I often wonder, why does this cliché exist in the first place? Why was it so handy to so many people? What is it trying to get at? What assumptions is it hiding? How might I turn it around in a critical way that’s also poetic? Like the mass-produced objects displayed as art works by Duchamp, a linguistic “readymade” can be framed in a poem. There is one in Muse & Drudge that I often heard from my mother and my grandmother. It was years before I realized what it meant. It’s a simile. When something is a really tight fit, they would say, “It’s tighter than Dick’s hatband”. As a child I must have wondered, who is Dick and why is his hat so tight, but one day I was writing a list of those old expressions. As soon as I wrote it, I realized, “Oh, that’s a condom!” When I asked my mother about it, she said: “I never thought of that either”. We repeat these sayings automatically without thinking of the literal meaning.
JF: You seem to do this a lot. To pick up something that people say shouldn’t be used in poetry and then… [Laughter]
JF: And you use it.
Oh yes. That’s one way to make something fresh! Especially if no one else is doing it because they are afraid to break a rule. Poetry is all about rules, and any of them can be broken, but you have to do it in a way that says: Really? Yes, really! You do it with flair and intention. You know what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. So it’s clear you’re not making a mistake. You’re making a statement.
Interviewing Rui Caeiro
Oeiras, 17th April 2018
We called Rui Caeiro to ask if he would like to be interviewed. Before any assent, came a warning: “I haven’t anything interesting to say. Trust me, this is going to be a flop.” Despite the caveat, he set an appointment with us at the Palácio do Egipto café, and the interview had a bit of everything, save that foreseen flop.
JF: Do you like poetry?
It’s not a matter of liking or disliking, it’s about accepting it when it imposes itself.
JF: Does that pertain equally to a writer and to a reader? Do you enjoy writing poetry as much as you enjoy reading it?
When I gave that answer I had writing in mind. As far as reading goes, there are poets I always read with great pleasure and a heightened sense of surprise: for instance, a contemporary poet by the name of Luís de Camões.
JF: What does it mean to be a contemporary poet?
It’s someone with whom we identify more than we do with our putative contemporaries, for instance, the poets who write for the Jornal de Letras[literary biweekly newspaper] poets.
JF: Do you think there are overrated poets?
Overrated poets... they are legion.
JF: What about underrated poets?
In a recent article in i [a newspaper] Diogo Vaz Pinto wrote about a number of guys who are not much talked about but who are very strong poets, Carlos Poças Falcão and Rui Nunes, for instance. Rui Nunes is one of those cases about which I usually say: “there are scores of scribblers pretending to be writers and then there is Rui Nunes. He is a real writer, he doesn’t mess with petty stuff, he deals with literature, he struggles with literature, he is angered by literature.” One has to be angered by literature in order to do anything of interest in that field, otherwise we are just repeating the platitudes that float around in the air. Rui Nunes is a special case. And he has a characteristic I very much appreciate: the person and the poet are alike, which is something that doesn’t always happen. Herberto [Helder] may just be our greatest poet from the second half of the 20thcentury; I spent some time with him, not a lot, but as a person I was not very taken by him. I wasn’t repelled or annoyed by him, but he wasn’t someone that captivated me. But that is something that happens with Rui Nunes, or with that guy from Oporto who died a few years ago, Manuel António Pina... I went to Oporto to interview him, and after twenty-five minutes it was like we had known each other for years. And the best part of the interview was left out of the recorder, which happens often. And we made arrangements for the future, but his death blew it all away. Another guy who is the same as his poetry – and this is something I already wrote several times – is António José Forte. There was nothing writerly about him, which is great. There was an ease to the way he spoke – and to his way of being – which wasn’t at all incompatible with the feeling of revolt he also carried within him: he who was an anarchist and one among the pure.
JF: Clearly that is a criterion in your personal canon, no?
Yes, yes. One should stay away from the writerly types.
JF: I’ve read the adjective “discreet” being applied to you. What does it mean to be a discreet poet?
It means that, among my countless faults, you won’t find that of being pretentious or cocky – that is something I’m not. To that extent, am I discreet?
JF: So there is something modest about you, a quality that the writerly types you mentioned don’t share.
Yes, I believe so.
JF: When you talk about being angry at literature, it seems as if you are mentioning an anger against a certain type of writerly person. Does this make sense
It’s increasingly agreed on that, if we want to do something in literature, we have to do it against literature, otherwise, we’re just repeating of parroting what has already been done. There’s no point in being one of those, what’s their name... the Saramago prizes, maybe with one single exception, are people who are able to write, they write properly, but the things they write bring nothing new to the table: they have already been done, they have been done another way and in a better way, there’s no point in making that effort. The other day there was a young girl here in this café whom I asked what she was reading, and she answered Pedro Chagas Freitas [a very popular Portuguese writer, though not a very good one]. She sincerely liked him, so I couldn’t say “that has no value”. I didn’t do that. I would only do such a thing with a more knowledgeable person. This girl would need to read a great deal until she figured out that that is valueless.
JF: Do you think people can learn how to read a literature of greater quality?
I worked for ten years in the &etc publishing house, and it is a part of my life to which I ascribe a certain importance. In through the gates of &etc would walk some very strange birds. People who, in a certain way, liked poetry and wanted to write a book: “I have some sheets with me, if you wouldn’t mind taking a look...”. For the most part, all of that stuff was dreadful, but there was one thing that never failed and that we could say to them, which was: “we have great poets, one of which was Camões”, but there is still Pessoa, Pessanha, Sena... And the poem “Cantiga, partindo-se” by João Roiz de Castelo Branco, and the sonnet “O sol é grande” by Sá de Miranda.
When the Brazilian writer Ruben Fonseca came here, he was talking with his fellow Portuguese writers and told them something in the lines of: “you have a tremendous responsibility, you are speakers of a language from which in the 16thcentury this one erupted”. And he takes a little book in his hands and reads a sonnet by Camões: “so you share the same language, and that gives you a great responsibility.” That respect, that respect for the idiom, is something which we might be able to teach. And so those toddlers that would show up at &etc, nearly all shy people (though there would be some, fewer, who were full of themselves)… And there was something that we could always tell them: “there are so many fundamental poets which you probably haven’t read yet, because in your writing there is no sign that you have chosen a path other than that of poetic banality”.
Something funny happened: the guys I brushed off didn’t come to hate me for it, some even thanked me for having been off – that was a sight to be seen. I must say that wasn’t what happened in the majority of cases. No one likes to be brushed off; people will take off mumbling “the hell with them!” There was a fair on Regueirão dos Anjos in one of the last Saturdays, and a guy approached me, he was someone whom I had once brushed off: he’s a doctor, a young doctor, very handsome, so is his girlfriend, they make a cute couple, and he keeps on writing, and reading, and buying poetry books at the fairs, but he never published anything, so far he hasn’t published anything, which may be a good thing or a bad thing, we’ll see. There are cases like this.
The poet Manuel de Freitas showed his first original to &etc, and the answer he received was as follows: “there are some good bits here, but it needs further work”. He has a strong personality and so this is what he did: to a degree he disregarded what we had told them, but he didn’t take it badly, he showed the manuscript to another publisher, who published it, and when he wrote his second poetry book he brought it to &etc and it was published there.
JF: Did you enjoy working as a publisher, helping poets publish their works? That’s also a way of dealing with the literary world and people’s literary ambitions.
Yes. I mean, they hadn’t reached the point of being writerly types, they were mostly immature kids, very young guys who could handle advises, good or bad, and justified or unjustified brush-offs. It was fun; besides the originals, we would get through mail some special cases, and I would tell Vítor Silva Tavares: “we should take a closer look at this one”.
JF: Is there someone among those authors that stands out to you? There’s an author that was published by &etc whom I very much like, Nunes da Rocha, and who is also tremendously underrated.
Nunes da Rocha got a great deal of support from Vítor Silva Tavares, his books wouldn’t sell, but despite that Vítor kept on publishing him. That was one of Vítor’s qualities, he knew what was good, he didn’t take the commercial value into account, the prints were always small, always in the same numbers, and we tried to make up for the authors that sold less with those that sold more, that was the spirit.
JF: We spoke a while ago about discreet poets. At a certain point in your last book you claim that poets are a sub-category of the lunatics. How so?
In the book, I speak of lunacy as something that goes against the grain, something that is liberating. This idea can be disputed in that it reflects a somewhat selfish or romantic stance, but it is also a way of exalting a contrarian attitude. The publisher Homem do Saco just brought out a small text of mine, taken from a rather long book that some people enjoy but in which I don’t see myself anymore, and which I didn’t even had the patience to reread. Despite that, I was looking for something, I glanced through the book and I thought: “this text isn’t too terrible, I think I could have written it now”. The praise I give there to drunkards is similar to the praise I bestow now on lunatics, it has a lot to do with the need to escape the daily life we lead, or that I lead.
JF: Do you use poetry in your daily life?
I think so. Even if I didn’t want to, that would happen. Me and poetry spend some time together, yes.
JF: And in what manner? By reading, writing or just remembering poems by heart?
It is more about letting myself being impregnated by it, when that happens. It is more about paying attention to reality and interpreting it in a different fashion. In my last book, which comprises two books, I do that, I make use of scenes from daily life that allow for a different resonance.
JF: In Jogos Florais we have a section, Marginalia, where we share literary curiosities. In your Diálogos Marados [Nutty Dialogues], you also share bizarre anecdotes that featured some people from the Portuguese literary scene with whom you spent time. What made you want to share those stories?
Those were funny stories in which I took part and that I enjoyed telling people, and which they found interesting. And if they thought they were interesting, maybe other people would also be interested in them. In that sense, some of the stories ended up in the book because they were anecdotes of that ilk; others were included because I was able to use them to confess something I needed to confess. And that would be a good occasion for me to do it; to convert what I needed to say into a nutty dialogue.
JF: Some of them don’t seem that much nutty.
Nutty in the sense that they are a bit weird... they all share something somewhat unusual, they all have something special. For instance, I walk by two guys who are chatting about women, and they utter two or three stupid remarks on women, and they are highly amused by what they had just said, and they keep on talking that way, but in the meantime they had already walked past me and I couldn’t follow the conversation and, as I write in that book, I probably didn’t miss much. But why did those stupid remarks in particular interested me, why those and not others? They might have had something characteristic to them, something of which a great deal of people partakes, maybe a lot of people could have said that in good conscience, and maybe that was why they also entered the solemn category of nutty dialogues.
JF: The cat is a literary figure in your oeuvre. Is there a reason for that?
Yes, my wife worked at the British school in Carcavelos, St. Julian’s. The school has a very large park, and in that park animals would show up, namely cats, and one time she was sitting there and one cat leaped into her lap. A cat leaping into someone’s lap could mean: “go on, adopt me,” and that’s what she did: she put him in a card-box and arrived home with him. From them on the cat became an important person, perhaps the most important person in the house. When the cat died, an event about which I talk in another text, we immediately adopted another one.
But to address your question: yes, there is a particular reason, it’s all that the cat has that makes him a wonder, a perfect creature.
JF: Previously, in the book 49 espinhas para um gato[49 fishbones for a cat] you praise the figure of the cat and reveal the superiority this animal has over human beings. You show us, for instance, that the cat is far from being a peaceful and submissive animal committed to providing companionship for its owner...
If one expects a cat to caress us, we can forget about it, but it’s also true that a cat is able to surprise us with a completely unexpected gesture that makes us wonder: “I didn’t see that coming from you, I didn’t expect you to look at me like that”. I write about a dog we had that died; he and the cat didn’t like each other, which is only natural. When the dog died, I took advantage of my wife having gone to the market – our house is nearby –; she went to the market and I put the dog inside a black plastic bag. When I walked out with the bag, the way the cat looked at the bag was something particularly hard to define. What did that regard mean? It is very hard to explain, an extremely intense curiosity and perhaps a great understanding of what was taking place, yes, for sure. Luís Gomes, from the bookshop Artes e Letras, made an edition of a little book of mine entitled Um gato no inferno[A cat in hell], which deals for the most part with that cat and his death. He is in hell like Dante’s mistresses, the most notorious mistresses ended up in hell, because to love owes a great deal to the realm of the infernal, the cursed. He was a dearly loved cat and he is in hell, there you have it, it was a little book called A cat in hellthat was printed with annoying blunders, we had to amend it by hand.
JF: You are always very careful with your editions, you edit your books yourself or in smaller publishing houses. Do you give preference to more discreet publishing houses, farther removed from the big publishing houses, and the publicity they promote?
I have no interest in publishing in the big publishing houses, I am more drawn to author’s editions, underground publishers, I am very drawn to that. Snob, Língua Morte, Averno...
JF: I understand that idea of wanting to stay away from the big publishing houses, but aren’t you sorry that you are less accessible to the general audience, that only a small niche of people connected to small publishers gains access to your works?
I am quite aware that the people who really like to read poetry are not numerous. Let’s say that, despite being few, that they are very good readers. You have to remember that previously it was possible to make a 1000 copy edition of a poetry book. Nowadays, that will only happen in a few very special cases.
I wrote an erotic book, a book of erotic poetry (O quarto azul e outros poemas [The blue room and other poems]), and Letra Livre’s young editor told me: “we’ll have this sold out by the end of the year”. That didn’t happen, it remained for years on the shelves.
Rui Pires Cabral, a poet I appreciate (António Manuel Pires Cabral’s son, his father even enjoyed a book of mine...), dedicated a book to “my (his) three hundred readers”, and that dedication entailed that three hundred was very few. But nowadays three hundred is very good. Reading habits are always changing.
JF: In Jogos Florais we write about poems we enjoy. Do you have a favourite poem?
It’s hard to say... If you asked me for a poem that I very much like, the answer might vary according to my mood. If I were in a downbeat day, I might mention a poem by Pavese, one of my favourite writers; if I were in a more ecstatic day, I could think of a healthier poet. Both these things are much needed. Jorge de Sena had tons of health and lots of stamina. I could point him out to you in one of the days when I feel more positive.
JF: Do you think Jorge de Sena was very healthy? In what way? I really like him, but I think he was a bit bilious...
That’s another issue, that was his polemist spirit.
JF: When it comes to that there aren’t a lot of writers like him, right?
No one came to take his place, no. When it comes to criticism, we are a bit exhausted right now.
JF: Do you regularly read literary criticism?
I do, I do.
JF: Do you read Jornal de Letras?
I skim through Jornal de Letras, at the very least so I can speak ill of them. Generally Jornal de Letras strikes me as always giving more of the same, it has a certain formula that it keeps on repeating. Once in a while there is something worth keeping, like Helder Macedo’s articles – he is a very intelligent and talented man. An old guy. But those are exceptions. As for the rest…
JF: Do you read what the critics write about you? Do you think they understand you?
There aren’t exactly critics writing about me, only friends of mine...
JF: Diogo Vaz Pinto also wrote recently.
Yes, Diogo, but we’re talking about friends, you can’t trust them. What strikes me as a more noteworthy case is the Spanish poet who writes frequently for Manuel de Freitas’ magazines, Telhados de Vidros and Cão Celeste. He comes from Barcelona and his name is José Angel Cilleruelo. I very much enjoy what he writes, and he got it into his head that he enjoys my stuff. And I think that, considering all that has been written about me, his are relevant texts. He has just written a book, he sent it to me and he said: “you are a character in this book”. It describes our meeting in the Paralelo W bookshop, a few years back, which was the only time I saw him and spent time with him. But he lived for ten years in Portugal, some years ago, so he speaks our language very well and he’s very knowledgeable about our poetry, Adília, Golgona, he knows all of them.
JF: Is there is a reason why you coupled those two names?
He mentioned them both when he came here, but in that occasion, I wasn’t with him. I think he talked about one and the other, but not exclusively.
JF: Have you ever imagined your name included in a new edition of the History of Portuguese Literature?
No, I think I see that with a sort of dread. Because I am someone who has read extensively, I am acutely aware that there are hundreds more, and because of that it wouldn’t feel right if they put me there on some sort of podium.
JF: Aren’t you being modest? Couldn’t others who are there say the same?
I think it’s not about modesty, because modesty can easily be of a deceptive variety. In my case I think it has to do with... I am an informed person, especially when it comes to poetry, and I am acutely aware that there are the good writers and there are great writers. We are good in the novel, we have no good columnists, nor short-story writers, but in poetry we have some great names.
JF: Do you think that a History of Poetry, for instance, only features the greatest? Is that why you exclude yourself?
Be the inclusion criteria what it may, there will always be people I regard as being more interesting that me. And this has nothing to do with fake modesty, it is actually the way I think.
JF: You also worked on several translations. Did you enjoy the experience?
When I was still working at EDP, which I did for twenty plus years, by the last years I had already translated various little things; but I mostly did it from the 90s onward. I translated a deranged Swiss, Henri Roorda, who wrote a book explaining why he would commit suicide when he’d finished writing it. And he did do it: he finished writing, drank a glass of Port and shot himself. That sort of stuff was right up Vítor Silva Tavares’ alley. He liked weird stuff, he’d immediately take the bait. And so it happened, that was translated at once.
I translated Pavese because I have always liked him, everything he wrote, poetry, novel, literary essay, journal. He has two very different poetry books, one is narrative poetry and the other is love poetry. It is rumoured that he fell in love with an American actress who was shooting a film in Italy. She starred in some movie, they had their affair and then she left. Possibly he couldn’t cope with that absence and he took his life; they say it’s related to that.
I also translated a Spanish poet named León Felipe, who went to Mexico to escape the Spanish Civil War. Some of his poems are sung, and very well sung, by the Spanish singer Paco Ibañez. I translated a selection of León Felipe’s poetry. I think I did it because of the last text, which really moved me... The last text is a letter he wrote to his younger sister. That letter is so beautiful, so beautiful, that he included it in a book of his poetry, though it’s just a letter.
I translated the surrealist Robert Desnos, who described a made-up encounter with Jack, the Ripper. That little book also held a spell on me, and I translated it.
I translated a novella that Marguerite Yourcenar considered a masterpiece – that is also my assessment –, by the French writer Roger Martin du Gard, who nowadays has been largely forgotten. It’s a story that shows him at his most delicate. It deals with the sexual encounter between two siblings, brother and sister, but it is written in such a cautious and natural way that it is really a joy to read. It’s called African Confidence, and the crucial scene takes place in Northern Africa. For &etc I also translated Miguel de Unamuno and the Swiss Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz. There, those were the translations I did for &etc.
Because Vítor was very skillful at designing covers and preparing editions, I “used” him a lot to help me with my author’s editions. They were author’s editions, but they had very neat covers, because they were the handiwork of Vítor’s, not my own – I have no talent to draw or paint. And so I put out various author’s editions. While I was there, at &etc, I only published a book of mine that carried that publisher’s sign (Sobre a nossa morte bem muito obrigado [About our death all is very well thank you]), and to this day I’m not sure if I should have done it, because, given that I worked there, maybe I shouldn’t have done it. The French editors sometimes get the urge to write something of their own. You know what they do? They don’t publish it through their publishing house. They give it to another editor, who will edit it if he or she wants to.
JF: And was there any other publishing house that could have been more right for you than &etc?
Maybe not, not least because the subject was delicate: suicide. It was something delicate and it could even be compared, stupidly, to an invitation to suicide, but it wasn’t it. But it could be interpreted that way, so... that is a crime.
JF: Do you have any linguistic or poetic annoyance?
I have several, yes.
JF: Things you avoid writing or that you also don’t like reading in others, figures of speech, poetic forms, words, etc.?
Oh, I wasn’t understanding the question in that sense.
JF: [laughter] You were thinking about personal antipathies, right? That I can tell you have [laughter].
I was fuelling up for the other answer, but let’s return to this one. I don’t see anything very tangible. Generally, but I think that comes down to my way of being, I don’t like grandiose statements. I think the most moving verses, the ones that stay with us until later on, weren’t aiming at grandiosity.
JF: And are there poetic forms, words, figures of speech which you prefer above others?
I wrote very little poetry proper. InBook of Affections there is poetry, little verse, lines that break, those are verses, in that book there are verses. And also in that Blue RoomI mentioned. But there isn’t really much more.
JF: Isn’t there proper poetry in your last published book?
It’s not poetry per se, rather stories or anecdotes. And in the text about the lunatics, sometimes, here and there, there is a poetic tone.
JF: So what is poetry per se for you? Does it always imply a notion of form, technique, rhyme, meter?
Normally yes, but I must admit that, for instance, in the book Um maluco vem pousar-me na m ão[A lunatic lands in my hand], when I write that I would like to tell a lunatic, one of those who carry a card, the complete history of my failures, that I would like to see how they would react, and above all that I would like to hear their final laugh, as conclusion-answer... Well, that text is prose, but I think it is a poetic text, and there might be more like it, mostly in the Nutty Dialogues.
JF: Throughout our talk I felt that you aren’t very at ease in the realm of the so called writerly people, in the literary scene. Does this make sense?
In whatever interaction I had with Herberto Helder, for instance, he never spoke about literature. He would sit at a table in a bar, and he would speak to everyone, no matter who they might be, he would tell stories, but it was no literate-minded rambling. And he would present himself as a common man. He wasn’t the poet, he wasn’t at all the Buddha. He was a man who cursed, he did it frequently, as friends do when they’re in bars: “that guy is a son of a bitch and so on...”
JF: In a sense, you don’t like poets who dissociate the poet from the person?
Well, one time a girl walked in the bar; she was working on a college essay and she had chosen HH’s oeuvre as a subject, and she said: “I would like to ask you to explain this and that”. In those cases he was no longer the nice guy sharing drinks with everyone... She picked his brain and he replied: “dear girl, I’m not a very inclined to making donations”. And thus he murdered the question dead.
But to answer your question: I know there are other ways to be, there are other stances one can have with regards to literature that aren’t necessarily worst or more immoral than mine. That is possible, as long as it is done with some authenticity. Now we see more and more poetasters showing up who already include this in their portfolio of cutesy achievements. Now that we cannot accept. Poetry isn’t cutesy, poetry avenges cuteness. And there are lots of people writing who are highly satisfied because their books were well received and whatever else. But what about poetry? Where does that leave it?
JF: And what does it mean to be well received? To reach those 300 readers you mentioned?
It means to be published in robust publishing houses, in hardcover books, with an embossed title, those quirks that today are very fashionable. As I said before, a poet whom I always liked very much, both as a person and as a poet, of whom I talk about in Nutty Dialogues and with whom I spent time, was António José Forte. And he almost never talked about literature. What was his stance towards literature? He made it. When he wrote the love poem to Aldina, with whom he shared the last years of his life, when he made a poem about the bedazzlement of May 1968, in those cases he was dealing with poetry. In conversation, in his everyday conversation, that would almost never come up. He is someone I sorely miss, and I talk about him in one of my favourite texts from Nutty Dialogues, maybe because it’s about him. It’s a text in which I asked Vítor – “You are already a fossil in our literary scene, you’ve seen a lot of people vanish and some of them were your friends. Who do you miss the most?” And he utters but one word: “Forte”. And I understand that.
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.