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.