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bought and which set the tone for some of the questions about chance encounters with books stuffed with cookie crumbs, unpublished works by Gomes Leal and king Dom Ferdinand II’s drawings.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.