“Carlos Cociña: From Collapse to the Certainty of Construction”: A Conversation with Sergio Rodríguez Saavedra

Chilean poet Carlos Cociña (left) with painter Hugo Cárdenas at the inauguration of the INFRARROJO Art Gallery, 2017. Photo: Oscar Navarro.

A complex author, or at the very least difficult to classify, Carlos Cociña (Concepción, Chile, 1950) presents his work from the mythical Universidad de Concepción, where Gonzalo Rojas generated encounters and workshops that condensed an entire era of Latin American literature in the late fifties and early sixties. In this place of residence, in 1981, he cemented his voice with Aguas servidas [Served waters] (Granizo, 2008; Del Temple, 2016; Luz&Sonido, Oaxaca) and, along with it, a rigorous body of work in constant movement. After that came Tres canciones [Three songs] (1992, self-published in Bío Bío), Espacios de líquido en tierra [Spaces of liquid in earth] (1999, Intemperie), Plagio del afecto [Plague of affection] (2010, Tácitas), and El margen de la propia vida [The margin of life itself] (2013, Alquimia Ediciones), followed by La casa devastada [The devastated house] (2017, Alquimia Ediciones) and the anthology Poesía cero [Zero poetry] (2017, Descontexto Editores). His body of work also includes online projects like Poesía Cero (www.poesiacero.cl), which stores A veces cubierto por las aguas [Sometimes covered by the waters] (2003) and 71 (setenta y uno) [71 (seventy-one)] (2004), poems that can be read at random, generating that other reading that, in general, his work requires. In spite of his end-of-year business, during which the presentation of his most recent works takes up all his space, we took the time to reflect on the exercise that for almost four decades has operated in contemporary Chilean poetry.

Sergio Rodríguez Saavedra: This year’s publication of the anthology Poesía cero and your latest book La casa devastada has increased interest in your work, especially among younger authors. How do you feel at the moment about the reception of your work?

Carlos Cociña: The fact that two books appeared this year is a coincidence, I prepared one between 2009 and 2016, and the anthology by Villavicencio and Almonte for Descontexto contains everything from my first publications in magazines to what I’m working on right now. As far as people reading what I write, I think that started in the nineties, according to Chico Figueroa in the prologue to the second edition (2008) of Aguas servidas. Also, something happened after 2003 with the website www.poesiacero.cl, where, by using some of the platform’s resources, I generated a sort of distinct appropriation that welcomed Internet users, whatever their level of attraction to the writing. One of the characteristics, in general, of most if not all young people, is the impulse to search, to discover, and at the same time the confirmation of an extreme fragility expressed in uncertainties, and also a highly concentrated passion. This can produce disasters, some satisfaction, an impulse to continue, or grow rigid. When they find works, actions, and proposals in which they see one of these characteristics, they tend to get interested in them. Some writings and proposals, above all those that do not retire, are constructed with the impulse of accepting what the material with which the writer operates demands, and those who are in a position open to uncertainty can recognize that.

The fact that what I did, what I wrote, is now created through the reading or listening of another is surprising and inspiring, and it compels me to persist in writing with the expectation of being trapped in an ever-closer relationship with another.

SRS: We hear a lot about the unique nature of this work, the way in which, through a project that acclaims the scientific, even the technological, it addresses the expressive phenomenon of poetry. Does this have to do with that footprint of life that made you study law and literature, collaborate with journals of poetry and architecture, be a poet and editor? And, along the same lines, what should be privileged: the experience or the experimental?

CC: When you opt to work in literature, it’s necessary to make use of and let yourself by invaded by the available verbal codes, and by auditory and visual codes as well. You can place limits, but not establish canons, because they destroy art and take away its freedom. When words and their absence, the shape of the letters, the tone of voice, the format of the book or the program do not understand the impulse that should be revealed, as a verbal object, you can use those codes that point to different reference points, to operate with them and make evidence of that which could not be named, but that exists without words. So, to speak of uncertainty, it’s possible to use a code that aims to be accurate, to be more truthful, like the scientific code, and to tense it, since it can never be that way. When the landslide comes around, more than what we associated with catastrophe,  the collapse, you can work with the certainty of construction, since the materials and the accurate calculation are only possible with their own worms that, at some moment, without a doubt, will awaken. The experimental takes place in laboratory conditions; writing takes place in the conditions of life, contaminated, and since it’s contaminated it is possible. Sterility is a guillotine.

SRS: And how have you constructed that nameless being behind your texts?

CC: With ice, but ice burns (González Barnert). A constant tension with the ego. When you write or undertake another similar activity, in the creation of fictitious devices, you’re alone, and the ego expands or retracts, since it seems to be unique in that space and moment. Nevertheless, when you work with words or another system of symbols, words are within themselves and each of them uses language, you are not alone with the word, it is shared with others, at the same moment, but even more, they are in all words that have been used since the moment they started jumping from one to another. What’s more, these words in isolation will belong to others, while these words settle into someone’s frontal lobe, or are emitted by some lips, until they disappear from all that’s human. When you’re alone, you’re never alone. Only the word of others can be yours, like another who would leave a mark on it. This mark, which each individual places, is what art tries to make appear.

SRS: Elliot said that no verse is free for he who wants to write a good poem. Between Aguas servidas and La casa devastada there is an extreme coherence in this writing process. Tell us, how do you write, how do you maintain a project for almost four decades?

CC: I maintain it because I’ve tried to maintain nothing, always blown away by what I hear, see, read, touch, breathe. To read and listen to what is perpetrated in other places, in other times, to read and listen to words as distant as possible from what is esteemed as literature. To listen to the intonation of foreign languages, ideograms that I do not know, tracks, trails, elevators, ships. Language as the fierce desire to shout and whisper that one is alive thanks to death and birth.

SRS: Just ten years ago, I interviewed you—and it turned out very nicely—for the Spanish magazine Heterogénea. You told me that the crisis of language was a reductionism, suggesting that the crisis was the combined force of society. Could you confirm that answer now? That life itself is crisis?

CC: I can confirm that assessment. Nonetheless, in reference to language, even in societies that are going through periods of relative stability, language is in a state of constant change and tension, it’s never stable. This is because language is constructed with the collaboration of every one of its users, and therefore the versions of that language will be as numerous as the people who use it, and each one of the operators charges it with their own history and the circumstances of their moment, in both cases hiding or exposing their interest, consciously or unconsciously.

Language reveals and hides, it functions as an operation of meaning, and for this reason it is constituted in a reality that must be perceived as such.

SRS: In your poetics, what is the place of the city of Concepción, the house where you were born, Santiago, the peers of your generation?

CC: Where one begins to breathe, to smell, to touch, to see, where affections and threats appear, marks the models of relation that are established with others, the environment, and oneself. I always came from there. I understand water as it was there, and I’ve seen and will see other waters that will make me modify that first liquid.

An industrial city, mining coal and connected to the unseen sea. Almost without rural people, organized society, and university. With winds that prevent pollution and pull up trees from plantations. With officials, employees, salaried professionals, and a few businessmen.

The workers, rivers, hills, the poverty and the students, science and art, earthquakes and firedamp gas, coal strikes and the tall ovens of Huachipato, the petrochemical industry, lit up by fires in the night beside the mouth of the river, the hake and the shellfish advertised on the street or in the inlets. The students and miners march with the lights of their helmets turned on in the clouded morning that smells of sea.

The university, which has always been there, the mural on the Casa del Arte, the first doctors of literature who return from Europe (Hozven, Triviños, Coddou), the importance of the Russian formalists and linguistics, with its gaze fixed on Latin American literature. Mario Milanca, who was from Calbuco, who had passed through Santiago and been in Arica, working with Revista Tebaida, and then Miquea, Nicolás, who arrived in a plane from Llai Llai, to the student residences, with pink tarantulas, and the youngest, then, Thomas Harris, Juan Zapata, Carlos Decap, Osvaldo Caro, Roberto Henríquez, and on the side, back then, Egor Mardones and Alexis Figueroa. Jazz, rock, music, movies. Study, and revolution and being crushed, but there was no defeat since we’re alive. We all know that we could do something more than write and disrupt the night, but we do it anyway, always writing.

SRS: Writing the language that questions society:

CC: Language doesn’t exist outside of society, and it understands society, even if sometimes what it doesn’t want to see is hidden in language. But language is a social body, and it exists in the people who use it and transform it. So, it will always realize what is revealed and what is hidden. The answers are there, the difficult part is asking the question.

Translated by Arthur Dixon


LALT No. 5
Number 5

LALT No. 5 features powerful literary voices from across Latin America, including dossiers of essential writers Sergio Pitol and Victoria de Stefano, a special selection of Latin American chronicles curated by Felipe Restrepo Pombo, and a moving collection of trilingual poems by Mapuche poet Liliana Ancalao.

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