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.