Interviewing Chus Pato
Vigo, 5th May 2018
On a sunny Sunday, Chus Pato came from Lalín, where she lives, to Vigo, to talk with Jogos Florais. We chose the deck of the Hotel América for a talk about various subjects, among them mornings reading Montale, how uncomfortable she feels to be spoken to in Spanish when passing through Caminha and how her unexpected adventure in Harvard went. In the end she offered us an unpublished poem that sprang from a dream of being lost in the woods.
JF: Do you like poetry?
Yes, yes, I do like poetry. I would say it’s one of the greatest passions of my life.
JF: As a poet or as a reader?
I’m speaking as a reader. I read poetry every day, not a single day passes without me reading poetry. In actual fact it’s very rare that I don’t read poetry. Something very important must happen to prevent me from reading it. And somehow it is a joy, it’s what joyfulness means to me, something that relates to my freedom.
JF: And what is poetry for?
I think it has several uses. Firstly, I would say poetry celebrates the fact that we are able to speak. I consider myself an individual belonging to the sapiens species and the sapiens species has a lot of defining characteristics, one of which is language. As I see it, poetry is a celebration of the fact that we are able to speak, and being able to speak entails the gravest of dangers, right? But it also presupposes the ability to think, to gather information, to play with language, to conceive the world, to open up a country wherever we stand at a given moment. That to me is important. That’s not the only use of poetry. I think that without poetry our linguistic ability would be reduced to a mechanical speech, to the repetition of countersigns made to command us, to force us into obedience, countersigns that are the only possibility to build a world. The way I see it, poetry stands in opposition to this: it is the language that can disentangle itself from mechanical language and open up new worlds.
JF: Do you use poetry in your daily life? Do you know verses by heart?
My day-to-day life, like everyone else’s, is very busy. It doesn’t leave much room for poetry. So I read poetry in the morning; as I work in the afternoon, I take the mornings to read. It’s a space that I consider to be unbreakable. At that moment I am with poetry; I read poetry and then the day takes over. What is certain is that there are moments, days, or circumstances in which I write poetry; but that is another question, something that is of the realm not of reading but of writing.
JF: You were recently inducted in the Royal Galician Academy. Is it important to have more women in the Academy? Is that a concern of yours?
It is certainly a concern of mine and of a great number of people. There is something I would like to stress: we must distinguish between the terms “woman” and “women”. Because I don’t care if women generally speaking enter the Academy; what I want to see is more women enter, who, apart from being women, have a reason to be inducted. In the institutions on the whole there are a lot of men who could be substituted by women; what this means is that those women who were excluded because they were women had as much value, if not more, than the men – it’s just how it is. My wish is that the Academy induct women for a better reason than the fact that they are women. Today we must own the fact that we are women; I would like to see a moment in the future when that would no longer be necessary.
JF: In your speech before the Royal Galician Academy you mentioned the importance of poetry in teaching. How can one talk about a poem? How would you teach someone to read a poem?
It so happens I’m not a Literature Professor.
JF: Yes, we know. You teach History.
My background is in Geography and History. How would I go about the teaching of poetry? I don’t have a clue; the teaching of poetry is something that is out of my scope. In any case, I mentioned the importance of teaching, yes. The idea that poetry celebrates the anthropological fact of human speech does strike me as fundamental, the fact that we are able to speak, because I think that has to be present in the education of both boys and girls, right? And it would have to be transversal, like the teaching of painting and music.
JF: You also claim poetry is a means of survival for languages.
To think that poetry is one of the means language has to survive relates to that idea I will now repeat: for me, poetry is a celebration of language, of the fact that we are able to speak. Without poetry, without poets, no one would be able to speak beyond the boundaries set by mechanical language. The poem is really necessary because it shows that ability, the freedom sapiens have to create language, to overcome the slavery to which we are submitted. Language itself has that ability, and the poem deals with it.
JF: Is the Galician language surviving through poetry? Did you choose to write in Galician or was it something that naturally happened?
You know that Galician is in a very rough spot due to a set of linguistic policies against its use and propagation. So for a language like Galician, poetry is twice as important, right? Twice as important in the sense that obviously if we write poetry it is because there are still chances that that language will survive. On the other hand, when a language loses so many speakers as Galician has, and in addition faces an issue of generational substitution, of course that makes it much harder to write poetry. Because to me a poet, apart from the whole of the written tradition, must be in continuous contact with the speakers, so he or she can see how the language in which they write is functioning. If you take that away from the poet... it becomes complicated, right? But there would still be a possibility of writing in a language that had no speakers.
In my case, I started writing poetry when I was very young. I was ten years old, and I wrote in Castilian, all my education was in Castilian. There have been two cycles of poetry writing in my life: from the ages of 10 till 18, I wrote in Castilian; then I stopped writing poetry until I was 25. Ever since, in that second cycle of poetry that lasts until today, I chose to write in Galician. I was already aware of the linguistic situation in Galicia and I chose Galician.
JF: In your poetry you often reflect on the limitations of human language. You claim that not only language, but also linguistic ability itself, are threatened. What is threatening it?
It’s a bit what I have already said, in a single question I have answered the entire interview [laughter]. I think that the species’ linguistic ability, as all things creative, as the ability the species has to reproduce itself, which rests on the wombs of women, has griping mechanisms that power can take hold of, right? There are powers that have no interest in having free human beings, they are interested in transforming the species in an oppressed workforce and in expropriated uteri that they can better exploit, right? The last thing they want is that that section of the population demonstrates a linguistic ability. Because linguistic ability is reflexive, it entails reflectiveness and disobedience, the possibility of escape, the possibility you have of escaping and considering yourself not just exploited workforce or just a female in charge of the reproduction of the species, but someone who faces other possibilities... So that linguistic ability is threatened by the attempts of those powers to prevent us from being free through language.
JF: So you consider that poetry is a political act?
Always, always. I think that poetry, just like any other creative human activity, the arts on the whole or philosophy, is always political. I think what is political is the body, to have a body, to exist is political.
JF: And do you think poetry can have practical effects on people’s lives?
Yes, it always has, to me it always has. If someone reads a poem, they will have a larger linguistic ability than someone who doesn’t read poetry, so they will be freer and more importantly they will be happier.
JF: I will now use a verse of yours to ask a question: “is there an inside/outside of the poem?”
I don’t remember it. What was the poem like?
JF: It’s called “The outside of the poem”.
Yes, I know which poem it is... it’s from Charenton, but the problem is that I don’t remember how it goes. If you have it with you, I’ll take a look. Is language all there is, or is there something outside of language? That would be the question, is there a world beyond language, right?
It’s a poem that highlights the omnipotence of language in the sense that language isn’t private, it isn’t personal: we don’t speak language, it is language that speaks through us. And somehow the poem asks if the poet has an inner voice with which we can dominate that iron structure, the speech-grille Paul Celan spoke of. I think the answer the poem provides is ironic. Today I would say that... It’s been years since I wrote that poem and that question is more settled in my mind, or I see it differently now than I did at the time of Charenton. I would say the only possibility we have of being free, so that we can write poetry, so that we can be happy, whatever happiness means, is for us to be able to restrain that language that wants to speak us, that wants to speak on our behalf. And that we are able, as best we can, to speak us out.
JF: When I read the poem for the first time, I thought of the old question of poetry: content and form. Did you consider that question?
No, I didn’t, because to me the form is the content. As I write my job is to work out the form, and the form is the content, like a sort of breathing that disentangles itself from the whole magma of language. Try to see it as a painting: the language is the background and suddenly there is a sort of force that moves forward, the figures in a painting, so that the form is totally connected with the background, it’s not something different, it’s just a moving ahead, a presenting itself. Now imagine language; a poem simply unchains itself from that “totality”, let’s say the language limits itself to a form that is the poem, but the language doesn’t disappear, the form and the background, the content and the form are the same matter or, if you prefer, the same spirit.
JF: What is it like to be included in the Woodberry Poetry Room? How did you feel reading and hearing your poems in translation?
Oh, well. Since I don’t know English, I can’t have a critical perspective, it’s wonderful.
JF: It’s a very beautiful translation. I really enjoyed hearing them in English.
I suppose so, because Erin Moure is a great translator. I don’t know English and with regards to Erin Moure’s translation I made an act of faith. When she came I told her yes and that I had no idea how all this would go about. And that was the beginning of an adventure that took us to Harvard, to read there. And how did it go? It was wonderful, that is, I don’t quite know how to put these things, to me it was like a gift, a present, a stroke of luck, a big present. They showed an interest in this particular book in which Erin replies to each of my poems. And they invited us. Erin was a bit reluctant to go to Harvard because she’s suspicious of great institutions, but I wasn’t at all reluctant. I’m not in the least bothered by great institutions. But I would have to explain myself better, of course I felt deeply honoured, but to me it was just a place like any other. And yet I am aware that it is Harvard, that reciting there isn’t the same as doing so in the local bar. It was wonderful, I was very well received, they treated me very, very well, extraordinarily so.
JF: Do you think poetry can be translated?
For personal reasons, I think so. I understand the reasons that lead some to claim that it isn’t possible. But to me translation is vital, if it weren’t for translations I wouldn’t have read Seferis, Kavafis, to mention the Greek language alone. Of course it is enough to read the Galician tradition, from the medieval songs until today, it is enough, but it would be an enormous loss not being able to know other poetic traditions, it would be a greater loss than whatever is lost in translation, wouldn’t it? I understand that some people will only read what they can read in the original language. That is not my case.
JF: You were recently translated into Portuguese. Did you enjoy the experience?
It was fantastic. I couldn’t be more thankful. It seems wonderful to me and I have every wish of doing it again; besides, to tell you the truth, of all the translations this was the one that thrilled me the most, to read myself in Portuguese. João Paulo Esteves da Silva is a great translator and he did a tremendously serious job. It was something that Douda proposed, I didn’t know anyone in Lisboa, and so I am deeply thankful.
JF: In Portugal there is very little Galician poetry, unfortunately.
Very little, very little. I took great pleasure and I learned a lot, because it is very beautiful to read my poems in Portuguese. They are the same poems, there is little difference between them, but the difference is there and it is important. I learned a lot from the whole process.
JF: On our website we pick poems we like and then analyse them briefly, usually starting our text with “I like this poem because...”. Could you name a favourite poem?
[Laughter] In fact, there are no favourite poems.
JF: And are there favourite poets?
More than favourite poets, there are poets who are there at a particular moment. Presently I’m reading Montale, the Italian poet, and all of a sudden this reading – and when I say I’m reading Montale, I mean I’m reading the complete works, I read the whole of a poet’s works, as much as I can, if there’s a translation available. When I pick a poet I don’t pick the selected poems, I always pick the entire works. As much as possible, of course.
This reading of Montale is all of a sudden interrupted because of the publishing in Castilian of the complete works of Ingeborg Bachmann, a poet I had already read – I could say Ingeborg Bachmann is one of my favourite poets –, but that I wasn’t reading at that particular moment, so I stop reading Montale and I read Ingeborg Bachmann. When I finish reading Ingeborg, I’ll get back to Montale, but at the same time I was reading Montale, I was reading Horace, I was reading the Aeneid. How do I do this? I read Montale mostly in the morning, but throughout the day I will pick up the Aeneid, I will pick up Horace... you know how it is? Now I’m mentioning Montale, Horace, the Aeneid or Virgil and Ingeborg Bachmann, but if you interview me in a year there will be other poets.
JF: But aren’t there some poets who are constant presences? Could they be considered influences?
Of course I would mention the Galician tradition, which is always there. And within the Galician tradition Ferrín, Xohana Torres, of course, Rosalía, Manuel Antonio, Pondal are always present. I think these are the ones who are always there. In fact all of them are present, actually in poetry there are no authors.
JF: As a poet and reader of poetry, is there something in language or poetry that annoys you?
I don’t like obvious rhymes. They make me very uneasy, I can’t stand them.
JF: Do you think they flag a bad poet?
I think they are a sign of stupidity. And poetry is the opposite of stupidity.
JF: Are there any words, poetic forms of figures of speech you value above others?
I very much like enjambments, very much indeed. And the sestina is a strophic form that I’m passionate about. I don’t resort to classic metre, but if I did I would write sestinas.
JF: Do you usually read literary criticism?
Not really. And what is meant by literary criticism?
JF: My question was if you follow the literary criticism written in newspapers and literary magazines, for example.
I take a glance, but I don’t think I’m a reader of criticism. I read, for instance, Blanchot. Yes, I take great pleasure in reading what is called theory.
JF: What about criticism about your poetry books?
Yes, of course I do! It interests me greatly.
JF: And do you enjoy reading what is written about you?
Generally speaking the critics are very kind to me.
JF: And apart from being kind, do they also make accurate comments on your poetry?
Yes, yes, they always say accurate things. In general, yes.
JF: Not so long ago I read a text about your poetry that mentioned the supposed hermeticism of your poems. I’ve read more than one time the reference to the hermeticism of your poetry. What do you think about this?
Some people are determined to make my poetry seem difficult.
JF: Is being difficult the same as being hermetic?
In a sense, yes. I don’t agree with the idea that my poetry is hermetic, but I’m not much concerned with what the critics say, that is, the critics have their discourse and each one reads what he can. My poetry isn’t hermetic and it also isn’t difficult. It is complex, as you say, but all poetry is complex, that is, we can’t ask that a millennial-old code be transparent, for that we have our countersigns, right? For that we watch television, right?
JF: And what are you looking for in the poetry you choose to read? Is there any special reason why you are currently reading Montale?
I can’t really explain why I read some poets at certain moments and others at other moments. Why am I reading Montale? Montale is a poet that’s been around for a long time, he is not trendy, he is not in the circuit, and yet I started reading Montale. I started reading Montale because Xohana Torres passed away and she had a relationship with Montale. And I wanted to see if I could immerse myself in the work of Montale to find out what it was that Xohana Torres liked. Of course, I found it... I found a reflection about time and the glimmering of certain recollections that Montale and Xohana Torres write about magnificently. I had tried reading Montale some years ago and it was impossible, I couldn’t enter. Now that the great Xohana Torres is no longer, yes, it was possible. The poets are there, as I’ve said before, probably there are no authors, at a particular moment there are some, at others there are others, but they are legion. Those that possibly interest you the least turn out to be amazing. We could ask: what sense does it have to read Pindar, for instance, in our time? And yet I read Pindar and I find him stunning.
JF: What about the Portuguese? Do you enjoy Portuguese poetry?
Unfortunately I don’t really know Portuguese poetry. And there’s a reason for it. I think that in Portugal Galician poetry isn’t held in esteem, neither is the fact that Galicia exists and that we have a language called Galician. The majority of the Portuguese population denies the fact that we are Galician, they want us to be Spanish. That makes me really sad, I don’t like it at all. Not reading all the Portuguese poetry I should be reading is a way of getting my own back. I get very angry when I’m shopping in Caminha and the salespeople address me in Spanish. I am aware I am being mischievous, and it is me who stands to lose, but that’s just how it is. Of course I read Portuguese poetry, yes, but I don’t read as much Portuguese poetry as it could be expected of me. And I don’t read it for this reason I have just explained.
JF: Do you think the Galician are more open to Portugal and Portuguese poetry?
I think so, I think the Galician read a lot of Portuguese poetry. That’s not my case, because I’m wicked [laughter]. Yes, the Galician poets read Portuguese poetry. I think Galicians in general have an openness towards Portugal and that, in this sense, the Portuguese are very obedient to the Portuguese state. I’ll explain myself better. I think Portugal has a bad relation with Spain – this is obvious – and doesn’t accept that a part of Spain is also a part of its history, because today’s autonomous community of Galicia is part of the ancient Gallaecia, to which the north of Portugal belonged, and that Galician was formed here, in this identity system. And this is something the Portuguese state doesn’t admit, and this non-acceptance is transmitted in the education of its citizens. So I think the Portuguese citizens are very obedient. And I don’t like obedience.
JF: I felt that sorrow before in other Galicians.
It is sorrowful, because you realise you are not accepted. I’m talking about the general population.
JF: Going back to your work, there are several biblical references in it. Is there a special reason for it?
No. The Bible is the Bible, a book like any other, but it’s the book of books. I thought about this very calmly and said: why would I ignore it? This is a treasure trove, we must see it as a treasure trove. If I speak without any difficulties of Venus, why would I not speak about Isaac’s sacrifice? I mean it in this sense. I don’t have any sort of deism or creed of any kind, I just recognize that the Bible is part of my culture and of a Europe that is rooted in Christianity. Christianity is a very wide concept that permeates the culture and part of my life. I’m not a religious person and I don’t define myself as religious, but I won’t ignore that part of my education. This is a treasure trove and I use it like I could use any other thing.
JF: And it’s a book you go on reading over again.
Yes, I reread the Bible. I spend a lot of time reading, in a way my life was organized so that I could read, right? Given that it is organized to allow me to read, I have a lot of time to read.
JF: Besides the poets you mentioned, the poets you read, can you think of anything that leads you to writing poetry?
When they appear, the poems are always something wonderful and something which is unknown to me, it’s unexpected. They show up. What do I know? The next to last poem I wrote was a great surprise, it was an image I had of a dream, a dream of being lost in the woods, and from there on I worked the poem through, and the poem has its life. My greatest difficulty is not to encroach on the life of the poem, I always want to encroach on the life of the poem, I want to intrude and steer its course.
JF: Do you usually modify the poems?
Yes. But when I speak of encroaching I mean I want to guide it, and the poem doesn’t want anyone guiding it, you know? This is hard for me because I have a tendency to want to command the poem. What the poem does is it expels me, as it should do, and it is hard for me not to be present in the poem, it’s a struggle. It’s something I learned over the years: I don’t have to impinge on my bouts of silliness and overburden the poem with explanations.
So there is nothing particular, it can be anything, it can be this kettle, it can be an historical fact. I regard writing as an exercise of attention. It entails being attentive and open to the world, both in the realm of thinking and that of sensations. Going on a hunt. It’s a similar state to that of a hunter, and when I mention hunting I am alluding to the Palaeolithic and the need to hunt for food, it’s a state of attention. So, as far as I know, there’s nothing in particular that triggers it. Also, I don’t know a great deal about my poems.
JF: We have a section dedicated to literary curiosities. Can you think of any you might share with us?
I would have to think better about it, but there’s something you may find amusing, which is that sometimes I don’t recognise my poems... and sometimes it’s not clear to me what I’m doing. I will be reading something and I come across a poem and I say: “Damn, this is a good poem”, and then I realize I wrote it. First I don’t recognize it and then I notice my signature... This has often happened, I read a poem and I don’t realise it’s my own and I say “it’s very well done” and then I see it’s mine; it’s very satisfying.
Translation by João Brandão