The White Workshop

From the home of Eugenio Montejo. Photo: Martha Viaña.

Nowadays, anyone who feels drawn towards an apprenticeship in poetry, despite the many impediments which might dissuade them from it, whether for good or ill, can finally embark on their vocation by means of a poetry workshop. The experiment is something new among us but, as in many other cases, it can count on a large number of defenders and detractors. Though operating in a more or less identical form (i.e. the gathering together of a guide and a select dozen participants) poetry workshop can produce results as disparate as the groups of people they are made of. Much depends on the backgrounds and sensitivities of the participants, and above all, the fraternal cordial climate which can begin to develop through practice. That from the start each can distinguish their own voice in the chorus, that everyone sees the guide as persuasive interlocutor rather than hegemonic dictator, is doubtless a good point of departure. The habit of fertile discussion, the stimulus to work, mutual respect and everything which, to use an expression of Matthew Arnold’s, we could call “literary urbanity”, follow naturally from such a beginning.

For my part I don’t underestimate the usefulness of workshops, although I secretly feel skeptical about their results. I nourish the prejudice (somewhat romantic it’s true) that poetry like every art is a solitary passion. A multitude, as Simone Weil wisely advises, cannot even add up; a person needs to withdraw into solitude to execute this simple operation. For this reason maybe the title given by Schoenberg to his Memoirs strikes me as one of the most appropriate to sum up the meanderings of a life devoted to art, to any art: How to regain solitude. Only in isolation do we succeed in glimpsing the part of ourselves which is intransferible, and maybe, paradoxically, that is the only part worth communicating to others.     

I know that many would reply that in poetry, apart from innate gifts, there is the side of workmanship, strictly technical, common to other arts as to the modest labour of goldsmiths and handcraft makers. These are the so-called secrets of the trade, whose mastery is to a certain extent communicable. On the other hand, there are those who would remind me of Lautréamont´s well-known aphorism: poetry should be made by all. The vast body of folklore seems to confirm the triumph of such multiple anonymous contributions. In this process, words become polished by rolling back and forth between people, like stones in a river, and the ones which endure turn out in the end to be the ones most valued by the collective soul. All that is true, with the proviso that we don’t forget that at every instant there existed a real person, that they were never mere teams, however numerous we believe these makers to be. Yes, poetry should be made by all, but fatally written by one alone.

On the other hand, as far as there is a correspondence between poetry and an artisan’s methods of working, the secrets of the trade, that vast area which R. G. Collingwood analyses in this book The principle of art, it seems to me that it is to this field that people in a workshop can really usefully devote themselves. Given that we write in our own language, it is in this, principally, (i.e. through the creations which make up its traditions) that we can investigate the how of its intimate government; of the why and the when we can usefully learn not only in our own language but in however many other languages we master.

The word “workshop”, according to the Dictionary of the Spanish Royal Academy, has two accepted meanings, one concrete, the other figurative. The first refers to a place where an item of handwork is produced. The second refers to a school or scientific seminar where many people come together for common learning. The poetry workshop means both the first and the second. It is a workshop in both the literal and the figurative sense. There is an item of handwork as well as participation in a common apprenticeship. I, and those more or less of my age, never knew poetry workshops such as they exist today. We never had the fortune or misfortune of gathering together to initiate ourselves into the trade of poetry. Where, then, did we go to learn it? Others would reply, of course, with their personal stories of beginnings and influences. Personally, I have stated that I never assisted in any place where I gained the experience of this trade. That at least, because I believed it, is what I have repeated. I would like now to rectify this vain assertion. When I was a child, very much a child, I was intensely involved in one such place. I spent a lot of time in the white workshop.

It was a real workshop, just as it really was our daily bread. As a boy my father had learnt the trade of baker. He began, like any apprentice, sweeping up and lifting crates, and with the years he succeeded in becoming maestro de cuadra. Later he owned his own bakery, the workshop where I spent a large part of my infancy.  I don’t know how I could have previously overlooked what I owe for my art and my life to that room, to those men who ritually night after night would gather before the large tables to make bread. I am talking of an old bakery, the kind that doesn’t exist now, in a large house big enough to pile up wood, to store hundreds of sacks of flour and to place in position the straight trays where the massed dough slowly gained body during the night in front of the oven. These are ancient, almost medieval proceedings, slower and more complicated than those of today, but also more filled with mystic presences. The sense of progress has reduced this workshop to a small cubicle of electrical appliances where the task is simplified by mechanical means. Now there is no need for cartloads of wood with its penetrating resinous fragrance, nor is there flour piled up in numerous store rooms. Why? The oven instead of being a yawning chamber of red-hot bricks is now a high-voltage metallic rectangle. I wonder, could a boy of today learn something for his poetry in that enwalled pigsty? I don’t know. In the white workshop perhaps stayed fixed for me one of those mythic ambiences that Bachelard recreated to analyse the poetry of space. Flour is the essential substance which stores those years in my memory. Its whiteness contaminated everything: the fringe of your hair, the hands, the skin, but also things, gestures, words. Our house stood there like an igloo, the dwelling of an eskimo, under dense snow. For that reason, when years later in Paris for the first time I contemplated the quiet fall of snow, I didn’t show the usual amazement of a man of the tropics. That old friend was already known to me. I felt only a vague curiosity to verify by touch its smooth presence.

I am speaking of a real poetic apprenticeship, of techniques I still use in my nights of work, for I don’t want to weave metaphors around a simple memory. This very thing I’m saying, my nights, comes from there. The task of the bread makers was nocturnal like mine, accustomed to the late peaceful hours which make up for the oppressive heat of a midsummer day. Like them I’ve got used to the strangeness of the laborious vigil while around us everyone is asleep. And in the depths of night whiteness is doubly white. The moon is present on the walls, the wood, the tables, the caps of the workers. The learned and wise workers. There is the air of an operating theatre, the silent steps, the quick movements. It is no less than bread what is silently being made here, the bread they will ask for at dawn to take to hospitals, colleges, barracks, houses. What labour can share so much responsibility? Isn’t the same preoccupation as poetry?

The oven, which purifies all that, reddens whoever works there with its invigorating fire. Loaves of dough, once formed into a mass, are covered with a cloth and placed in large bowls like sleeping fish, until the moment comes when they are ready to be baked. How often, setting aside the first draft of a poem to revise it sometime later, I’ve felt I’m covering it myself with a cloth to decide its fate later on. And I have said nothing of those labourers, serene, serious, and tough, with their mythology of slums, of cheap liquor. Should I seek for the sacred further off in my life, paint human purity with a different face? Christ could change stones into bread, for that reason he was more like a carpenter, that beautiful workshop with its distinctive colour. For those men who never spoke to me of religion, perhaps because they were too religious, Christ was in the humility of flour and the redness of the fire that started burning at midnight.

From the white workshop I gained the sense of devotion to existence which I found so often in those masters of the nocturnal. The care due to the making of things, the brotherhood which is part of a common destiny, the search for a friendly wisdom which doesn’t lead us to lie to ourselves too much. How many times, looking at the books lined up before me, I’ve thought of the line of trays filled with bread. Can a word reach a page with more care, with more intimate attention than that given by those workers to what they produced? I would give anything sometimes to approximate to the perfect execution of their nightly workshops. To the white workshop I owe these and many other teachings which I value when I face the writing of a text.

Bread and words join in my imagination, made sacred by the same persistence. By night, sitting down in front of the empty page, I see in my lamp a halo of that ancient whiteness which has never abandoned me. I no longer see the bakers, it’s true, nor hear close by their fraternal chatter; the song of roosters is replaced by wailing sirens and the sound of taxis. The fury of the modern city has driven far away the things and the time of the white workshop. And yet the ritual of its nights survives in me. In each word I write, I feel the prolongation of the watch that gathered those humble artisans together.

Maybe if I had not been involved in its daily watches, if I had not been mixed up in the deep ceremonies of its labours, I would in any case have found something that fed my desire for poetry. The cry of Merlin would have always tempted me to follow its trail in the forest. Nevertheless, I can’t imagine where, if not there, I would have learned my word to recognise the sacred devotion of life. I jot down this last line and listen to the crackling of the wood, I watch the cloud of smoke spreading, the iconic faces coming and going through the room, the flour meticulously covering the memory of the white workshop.      

Translated by Peter Boyle

Languages

LALT No. 7
Number 7

The seventh issue of Latin American Literature Today highlights indigenous voices with dossiers dedicated to three Wayuu writers from Colombia and Zapotec poetry and prose. We also pay homage to renowned Venezuelan poet Eugenio Montejo with a special dossier, as well as returning to the strange worlds of Latin American science fiction and opening a new space for Brazilian literature in Portuguese and English.

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