Interviewing Luísa Ducla Soares
Lisbon, 13th March 2018
We were welcomed at Luísa Ducla Soares’ house by Queen Margot, an affable cat that has recently left the streets. Luísa Ducla Soares is the author of more than 165 books; her name stands over the gates of one elementary school, one kindergarten and 10 libraries. Maybe all this would not have been possible had she dedicated herself to so-called poetry for grown-ups. Surely in that case she would have never received so many prizes as those she showed us on our way out: a generously-sized room filled with trophies imagined, painstakingly conceived and produced by many hundreds of readers from schools all across the country – material for a proper museum house...
JF: We would like to begin by a poem of yours which we particularly like, from the book Poemas da Mentira e da Verdade [Poems of Deceit and Truth].
Casei um cigarro
com uma cigarra,
fizeram os dois
porque o cigarro
não sabe cantar
e a cigarra
Não digam que errei
só cumpri a lei
que manda a gramática.
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.
JF: It is said that one finds nonsense in your poetry and that the rhymes are childish. Does this make sense to you?
Yes, I think so, it does. I should add that I very much like nonsense and I believe that nonsense is not at odds with having values and upholding a civic attitude in life. These are things that can complement each other, and nonsense is a way of also playing with words, of playing with the purpose of things. I studied in an English school, and the English live on a strong supply of nonsense, especially where nursery rhymes are concerned, and perhaps that has influenced me and it is something that I took to heart since I was a small child. As for childish rhymes... when I write for children I think it is normal to come up with childish rhymes and not strive to write on something of an epic register, some sort of Camões for the little ones.
JF: What are childish rhymes?
Childish rhymes... whoever came up with that term should be the one to explain what a childish rhyme is. There is a tradition of Portuguese children’s poetry, there is a whole folklore of children’s literature that has been collected by ethnologists from Adolfo Coelho hence, who have gathered a large set of rhymes, rigmaroles, folk poems, some made for children, others of a merely folk nature, like the quatrains of folk poetry, all sharing a similar rhyming scheme, basically based on the five or seven syllables of the redondilha.
JF: Is this a lesser style or is it just a distinct one?
It’s just different, each has its function and each is aimed at a certain audience in a certain moment. The same audience can enjoy reading Saramago now, and later delight in a rigmarole before reading an essay.
JF: Your debut as a writer occurs with poetry for grown-ups and you were associated with the Poesia 61 group. Later there was a change of course. How come?
It happened by chance, sometimes there are chances like these that change our life. One day, just for fun, I wrote a children’s book entitled A História da Papoila [The Story of the Poppy Flower]. I didn’t know whom I should show it to, so I went to the publishing house Estúdios Cor, and the person working on the editorial section was José Saramago – who wasn’t a famous man at that time, he was someone, I wouldn’t say ignored, but mostly recognized as a journalist for the opposition. He didn’t make it easy for others to deal with him because he was a bit guarded, a bit gloomy. I handed the text over to him and he said: “listen, leave it there and come back in a month.” I thought this was already a refusal, but my luck came through. I went back after a month and he said he was going to publish the book; he even had an illustrator already lined up. And the book was published with illustrations that at that time were considered very modern and interesting and, to my luck or my bad luck, there came about the intention to bestow two prizes to that book, the Maria Amália Vaz de Carvalho prize, for the text, and the illustration prize, which Zé Manel, the illustrator, would receive. Well it so happens that I refused the prize for civic reasons, because in those days I worked for the newspapers, I worked for Diário Popular, I had published several short-stories there, and some were quartered by the blue pencil of the censors. And I thought: wouldn’t it be an inconsistence if I accepted a prize that the National Secretariat for Information, a government organ, was giving me? To accept a prize given by a government that didn’t allow me to speak... And I refused it. The owner of the publishing company was mad at me - Saramago wasn’t the owner, he was the literary editor – because he would have been able to put a band around the book stating it had won two prizes. It only won the illustration prize.
Saramago told me “listen, I like your writing, and next year I want to publish six of your books.” I thought: “six all at once? This man is afflicted with megalomania.” But then I considered: “why shouldn’t I do it?” So I wrote the six books. I started thinking about how one should write for children, the problems children face, what I liked about Portuguese children’s literature, what I wanted to make that was distinctive, and I began to apply myself on this genre, I caught this terrible virus and I never found a cure for it. Sometimes one small thing changes our life. I’m sure that, had that not been the case, had Saramago plainly and simply not said anything, I would have gone on creating other types of texts. I had plans to write short-stories, novels, poetry, something completely different. Afterwards I began to receive invitations from schools, teachers, people who were interested in children’s literature, journalists who asked me to write something for the newspapers, television.
JF: You mentioned the illustrator that Saramago pointed out. One hundred and sixty five books later, are the publishers always the ones to choose the illustrators for your books?
It depends. For the greater part, yes. On her first books, an author has no power of choice, because they won’t allow us to make that choice and the author thinks that she’s already lucky enough that she’s being published. Afterwards, it depends. Sometimes we can suggest illustrators, as I have often done, but they are not always accepted, because naturally I’ll choose my favourite illustrators, which are frequently also those who have won more prizes, who have more job offers, some work for advertising where they earn more money. Once I waited three years for an illustrator, I chose to stand in line and have the book illustrated by him. Other times what happens is that those illustrators are very expensive and then the publisher immediately says: “no, we can’t afford him or her.” Also the editors have this notion, which doesn’t strike me as absurd, that they should give an opportunity to the novices. Of course all the great illustrators were once young, they were given their chance, if that had not been the case they would have probably never become great illustrators, but among the young maybe three out of one hundred will one day became good, fifty will be average and the rest terrible. Sometimes I have helped launch excellent illustrators, but I have also had books destroyed by others.
JF: A while back you said you began by writing poetry for grown-ups, and when you started to focus on children’s literature you also wanted to change things you didn’t like. Why? Was it a general awareness of what children’s literature was?
Because children’s literature reflects an attitude towards life. It mirrors our stance as regards the events of the world, the established morals, all that happens.
JF: What was it you didn’t like and what do you think you tried to make different?
I, for instance, enjoy traditional tales, and I think there are reasons why they are universal and pass through every generation. There is a traditionalism to them that doesn’t offend me. Now, there are scores of dated works that reflect a worldview, for instance, of those who identified themselves with the Estado Novo. That I didn’t like, because I considered that my worldview should also be shown to children. In those years, I made, for instance, a book entitled O Soldado João [Soldier John], which is a book against the war, and we were living through a war. It tells of a soldier who doesn’t like war and makes all sorts of efforts to undermine the military spirit, which he considers ridiculously funny. I thought that children, in a country that had committed all its youth to a dead-end cause to which I didn’t adhere, should also be reflecting about that; they shouldn’t just look at the newscasts that were intoxicating them.
JF: Do you draw influences from other literatures?
I am influenced by all I read, see and hear.
JF: What about children’s literature authors? Was there someone that struck you in particular?
I don’t think there was any one author that struck me in particular. I can certainly take influences from this or that one, a little of each, but not from one in particular.
JF: What about general literary influences?
Generally speaking, the poets, because I very much enjoy poetry.
JF: And why do you like poetry?
The first way I found to express myself was through poetry, I started writing poetry when I was ten years old. By that age I made a tiny poetry book which fortunately I didn’t publish. And why do I like poetry? That is something very hard to explain, I think I like poetry because it is an intimate way of getting in touch with others. I live poetry as a receptor or a transmitter. I began by enjoying certain poets; later my way of thinking and feeling may have evolved a bit, but fundamentally I still like the same poets, I don’t know, Fernando Pessoa, António Gedeão, Cesário Verde, those are the poets I like the best.
JF: Do you use poetry in your daily life?
Yes, I use it a great deal. Poetry also influenced my life because my father wasn’t a writer, he was a doctor, but he knew a lot of poetry by heart – he knew poetry and rigmaroles and folksy stuff on verse. When I was a child, the only way I had to talk to my father was to drive with him when he visited his patients – in that time doctors would visit the patients at their houses. He was a very busy man; he would leave very early for the hospital, come back at night and he would always study after dinner, I could only be with him for a few moments on weekends, and yet I had a very deep connection with my father. So I would talk with him between the house of one patient and the next. I would leave my house, go to the house of the patient, always talking, then I stayed in the car while he saw his patient, after that we would head to a hospital – in the hospitals I would go in, I talked to the patients – and on the way there he would recite poetry. Those were my oldest memories of poetry. The poet my father recited the most was Guerra Junqueiro. There was a time when I knew several passages from “A Velhice do Padre Eterno” [The Old Age of the Eternal Father] by heart, and this wasn’t a poetry suitable for children, but it had such strength that it echoed in my hears, and in a certain way bewitched me.
JF: Can you name a favourite poem?
I don’t know, there are so many... António Gedeão’s “Pedra Filosofal” [Philosopher’s Stone], is a poem I really like, and also one by Jorge de Sena, “Uma Pequenina Luz” [A Tiny Light], I like Cesário’s “O Sentimento dum Ocidental” [The Feeling of a Westerner]... there are so many poems I love...
JF: Do you think there is a right age to start learning poetry? How should one talk about a poem?
I think almost all children that take an interest in poetry do so around the age of ten, eleven or twelve. Maria Alberta Menéres even has a book entitled Poets are made when they are 10 years old, and that is a truth. I made a book named De que são feitos os sonhos [What dreams are made of], for which I interviewed a large series of children’s literature authors and asked them how they had first became interested in literature, and almost all started enjoying and writing poetry at that age. For instance, Gedeão wrote a follow-up to the The Lusiads at that age. Yesterday I was writing a piece on António Mota; I was asked to preface an audio book that has songs of his turned into music. I glanced at his biography and noticed that he’d published his first texts when he was thirteen, on a newspaper from the northern region.
JF: And how do you think one should teach how to analyse a poem?
I don’t know because I am not a professor, I enjoy reading poems and I make poems, I hate analysing them.
JF: And do you usually read criticism?
I have no patience for that, I like to enjoy things.
JF: And do you think the analysis of a poem can compromise the pleasure of the reading?
I don’t think so, it does not. But look where I stand: I am seventy eight, and now what should I do? I have to choose what I want – do I want to take a poem and enjoy its beauty, or do I rather see how it is understood and analysed by the minds of some specialists... To see how they dissected it. I don’t always feel like messing with the bones and the guts of the poems, even though that task is also useful for someone who writes.
JF: And did you previously follow what the critics wrote?
In other stages of my life, when I was twenty or thirty, I may have had that disposition, later I gave it up, because my time was always very scarce, I always worked on many things. I started teaching when I was still studying, then I was a translator, I worked for the newspapers, I was an editor of a magazine, then I was on the Ministry of Education, then I worked on the National Library for thirty years, I spent my entire life working, and on top of that I had my home, my children, all of that. I only had time to start writing at ten in the evening, or on weekends, and except on weekends I also had to make activities with my children. I had to focus my attention on the things I thought more important.
JF: Do you think it is important not to commit full-time to writing?
Yes, I do, because this way we have a life experience closer to that of a normal person, we are not up there shut on an ivory tower, we live the problems of a normal person. Of course it also robs us of a lot of hours.
JF: Were your jobs inspiring? Was it easy to harmonize them with your literary activity?
Yes, for instance, when I was at the National Library, I had a great opportunity to get to know a lot of things, to get in touch with a lot of books. I literary had to get in touch with them. For several years I was responsible for the bibliographical information of that library. I would receive requests from researchers from all over the world, academics for the greater part, about the more diverse subjects, usually connected to literature and history, and I had to read a lot of things so that I could reply to their requests. I dealt with books on a very intimate fashion. At the end of the day, the time I had left for me was very limited.
JF: Was it a happy job?
In a way, but along with the interesting researches I also had to do other less interesting researches, because the requests I got covered all sorts of topics. For instance, I could receive a request about Guinean mosquitoes. Next I would do a research on weather vanes, later I would seek out the first Portuguese book that featured references to Australian kangaroos (to ascertain if the Portuguese had indeed been, as some claim, the ones who discovered Australia).
JF: Could that not have been a good subject for a children’s poem?
I drew a lot of ideas from the works I had to perform, and that included a lot of ethnographic projects, there were many people interested in that, and those researches triggered my interest on collecting texts. I gathered a lot of rigmaroles, I published four books of rigmaroles, one of riddles, one of tongue twisters, some of verse tales, some of traditional stories. In a sense, I had to rummage through that material, and I would get the urge to carry on from that point; I would stay during my lunch hour, I would stay after the exit time. I was lucky because my office had a direct elevator to the archival floors, so I didn’t have to walk to another location: I would place the book request ticket on my office, and the books would come to me. I think I was fortunate I found that job, but it was also a ton of work.
JF: You mentioned all that effort collecting rigmaroles. As regards juvenile and children’s literature, do you think there still lingers the notion that it is a lesser literary subgenre?
I think that notion is really not so pervasive right now. Among other reasons because currently we have recognized authors of literature for grown-ups writing for children, like Mia Couto, Agualusa, Sophia wrote books for children, Saramago has one book and, before them, Aquilino Ribeiro wrote a whole series of books and so did António Sérgio, even Antero de Quental, Maria Amália Vaz de Carvalho, a lot of people from the [19th century] 70 generation, who were, let us say, the initiators of children’s literature.
JF: As a poet, is there anything that annoys you about poetry? A cliché? A figure of style?
There is nothing in particular I find annoying.
JF: What about a figure of style or word which you like especially? Or a poetic form?
Not really, I like to vary a lot, I like to get to know things that are completely different from each other, and I have no specific dislikes. I left that group, Poesia 61, exactly because I thought they wrote on a context that was increasingly shut-in, that they were like mules wearing blinkers.
JF: You thought they were following a programme?
They had chosen a path of experimentalism that entailed hating the leading literary figures. José Régio, for instance: they wanted to destroy José Régio just like Almada had done with Júlio Dantas, and that wasn’t fair, Régio was a much greater poet than they were. I concluded that was not my set of ideals.
JF: Was it also a matter of group affirmation?
Yes, of course, it is much more fun when people gather under a given banner, with some set of ideas or another, and the group becomes known for that.
JF: But in those years everything happened like that, you were either neo-realist or surrealist, and Poesia 61 sprang from that context?
Exactly. Today there is more freedom, people don’t get caught up so easily in those pigeonholes.
JF: Do you think Poesia 61 conditioned what poetry meant to you, or what poetry should be?
It is good to make experiments, I think they should be done, but I also think later on those poets went down a path of experimentalism that was at odds with a more direct way of grasping things. For them, if it was direct, there was something wrong with it: the greater the entanglement, the better. You can manipulate the language in such a manner that allows for a more concrete communication, putting forth ideas and feelings; but language becoming the axis of our communication, that I disagree with. We can play with it, I’m not against it, everything is allowed, every conceivable play, why not?, but that just isn’t something that interests me.
JF: A sort of return to conceptism?
Precisely. For that you would do better to go back to the XVII century. And I harmed myself, because it would have been better for me, where literary affirmation is concerned, to belong to the Group 61.
JF: Did you ever consider making poetry for grown-ups again?
Yes, I have made it occasionally, for instance, in the book A Cavalo no Tempo [Through Time on Horseback] I included some poems that weren’t meant for children, not even adolescents, even though I think a younger audience can read it. And then I wrote other poems that I chose not to publish. I have had proposals from several publishers, but I’m not interested in showing them, because often times poetry ends up having some confessional references, and there are parts of my life I want to shield.
JF: Is there any poem or book of yours you like in particular?
The poetry book I especially like is Through Time on Horseback. And the Poems of Deceit and Truth.
JF: Do you think your main readers are children or do you get the sense that, despite that label, you reach other readers?
I think I reach other readers, starting with teachers.
JF: Do you think it is noteworthy, as regards your recognition as a writer, that your books are included in the pedagogical programs, in the National Reading Plan?
I think so, it is a recognition. Everybody knows that the National Reading Plan played a very important role in developing the interest in reading. It doesn’t mean people didn’t read before, but I think they did it much less. Of course, reading is also a trend, if there is an investment on a given cultural policy, the teachers will seek to follow it. And so will the parents, and the friends of the children, who are the ones buying the books. If they enter a bookshop and see a book that has the National Reading Plan stamp, they may think it was appraised by some sort of food and health authority that separates the wheat from the chaff. Which is not always really the case. There are marvellous books that are not on the Plan, and others that got there by accident, like a book of poetry for grown-ups by Alice Vieira that, just because it was from that [mainly children’s literature] author, was included without even having been read.
JF: You mentioned you worked for some time as a translator?
Yes, from French, English and Italian.
JF: You even translated poetry. What was that like?
I translated Roald Dahl, Histórias em verso para meninos perversos [Revolting Rhymes]. It was a very demanding translation, because I translated everything into rhymed verse. They had already offered the job to two translators who had refused it.
JF: In the beginning of the interview you talked about the influence of nursery rhymes, which is a tradition that is not so pervasive in Portugal...
We do have that tradition, but it is not sufficiently esteemed.
JF: Do you think it can be an important springboard for the love of poetry?
I think it does provide an initiation to poetry, because those nursery rhymes bring about the enchantment by way of the word. And enchantment through the word and the rhythm is related to poetry.
JF: On our site we have a section dedicated to literary curiosities. One of the first we were told is about a room José Blanc de Portugal had (which he named Inferno), where he kept the books he didn’t like, mostly neo-realist works. Do you have any literary oddity you’d like to share?
I’ll do you one better: around the corner in the Quinta das Conchas park, do you know it?, there are these tiny sheds where you can leave or take books. I place there all the books I don’t intend to read again. And they all disappear.