Octavio Armand: "A Concert for Misconduct": A Conversation with Roberto Cantú

Cuban writer Octavio Armand. Photo: Vasco Szinetar.

Concert: from Italian concertare, to proportion or accord together, to agree or tune together, to sing or play in concert […] to contend zealously, dispute, debate (OED).

Delinquency: from Latin delinquentia, failure in or neglect of duty, violation of duty or right (OED).

Octavio Armand is a Cuban poet and essayist whose collected work (1974-2016) was recently published in three volumes: Contra la página (Against the page, 2015), and Canto rodado (Spinned Stone, two volumes, 2016). Armand settled in New York during his youth and graduated from Rutgers University, but has lived in Caracas, Venezuela for more than 30 years, thus embodying the life of a writer whose main themes are memory, a search for plural and conflicting meanings in language, and the appropriation of poetic traditions that range from the ancient Sumerian, Greek, and Mesoamerican to the Latin American modern in José Martí, Vicente Huidobro, and Octavio Paz. Armand’s writing forms itself of words that have been cleansed of accumulated surfeit, like polished pebbles on a stream, setting in creative motion a poem or an essay where the reader’s aesthetic experience stems from uncommon levels of interpretation. My conversation with Octavio Armand concentrates on his book of poetry Concierto para delinquir (A Concert for Misconduct, 2016), but we also discuss his childhood in Cuba and the poetics that continues to breathe life into his poems, poems in prose, and essays.

Roberto Cantú: Since memory is an unwavering theme in your poetry and essays, let’s begin our dialogue by looking back in time. If you don’t mind, I’ll begin with my own memories of New York while spending a week in your parents’ home in late December 1976. Your book of poetry Piel menos mía (Skin Less Than Mine, 1976) had just been released, therefore my visit was a fitting excuse to fly to New York to join you and friends in a celebration. I remember the daily walks around the block with your father–don Luis, as I called him– who would tell me tales of his youth in Cuba while he cast fistfuls of bird seeds under the elms that lined the street. As we walked and he tossed the seeds, a cloud of birds would leap from one tree to the next, pecking at the ground and taking flight after your father’s footsteps. You had told me beforehand that the neighbors constantly complained because of the nuisance the birds –their noise and droppings– had turned into. Your father, undaunted by such complaints, took his early-morning walks, placidly feeding the sparrows. I remember being in concert with your father, whom I then saw through Longfellow’s poem “The Sermon of St. Francis”:

Around Assisi’s convent gate
The birds, God’s poor who cannot wait,
From moor and mere and darksome wood
Come flocking for their dole of food.  

I felt proud in the sharing of such a daring and well-meant violation of civic duty! It was through your father that I understood a constant ethos –or is it more of an ethical stand?– in your poetry and essays.

Octavio Armand: I remember my father and his retinue of sparrows. And I remember very well your visit, the conversations about Cuba and Mexico, as well of course as my visits to your home in Los Angeles and your mother’s spicy and luscious huevos rancheros. Another unforgettable memory of East Los Angeles: a mammoth-sized burrito I ordered at El Tepeyac restaurant, unaware that I thus became a laughing target for all the fellow diners who were warned by a bell that a very hungry stranger was in town. They must have all seen me, you included, flocking for my dole of food, that is, exactly as you saw my father surrounded by sparrows.

R.C.: We first met through one of your books –Entre testigos (Among Witnesses, 1974)– a collection of poems that I found in my mailbox in the early fall of 1974 as I prepared to begin my course-load at Cal State L.A. As I worked my way through the book’s pages, I took note of your poetic affiliations and sense of literary history indicated through epigraphs and listed authors: Octavio Paz, André Breton, Rainer Maria Rilke and, among others, Michel Foucault. I felt drawn to the prose poems (e.g., “Articulando la insuficiencia”, “La palabra como periferia”, and “La ritualizaciόn del entusiasmo”). In retrospect, the prose poem seems to be the literary expression that ties the essayist and the poet in you. I am tempted to say –better yet, to claim– that this creative inclination reaches a high point in Concierto para delinquir, where the poem and prose poem follow each other in a harmonious, albeit not linear, course. Tell us how you keep moving forward and at the same time remain constant and grounded on who you were as a poet more than forty years ago.

O.A.: Perhaps it’s because I’m younger than my 70, forty years younger to be exact. Or maybe it’s because I walk backwards into the future. In any case, I feel both much older and much younger than my friends, no matter their age. Some I consider brothers, sons, grandsons and simultaneously fathers, grandfathers and great grandfathers, depending on the whims of circumstance. As far as time is concerned I’m a contradiction. As a boy one of my closest friends was Regino Boti, then in his seventies. Boti happened to live across the street from us. He also happened to be one of Cuba’s best known poets. But to me he was not a national figure; nor highly respected, revered or feared, due to his stern public image. He was just a playmate, whom I assumed to be just about my own age, given his interest in the games that amused me, which included drawing and telling tall stories. A peer despite his enormous size, his considerable girth and his baldness, Regino died age 80, in 1958, during my family’s first exile. For a long time now, in the rearview mirror of experience, I’ve recognized in him an early pivotal influence. No matter how tall my stories, he never questioned them. He never doubted them. Instead, I guess, they were regarded as fruits of the imagination, and as such, objects to be shared outside of the three dimensional physical world, in a fourth, fifth or nth dimension, ruled by exceptional laws of thermodynamics and universal gravitation. An example, from my family’s anthology of anecdotes: I once told him I had seen a lion in the bushes of El Uvero, the beach resort that was the hunting and haunting grounds of my early years. There I was Red Cloud, Geronimo, Tarzan, Captain Nemo, a musketeer, even myself. One of these selves saw a lion, a huge, roaring beast that threatened my life. “Please don´t tell anyone, Regino. I was a bit afraid.” “Don’t worry, Tavito,” came back an enhanced echo, “I understand perfectly well how you feel, since several weeks ago I ran into one right here in the outskirts of town. Only it was a bit bigger than the one you saw, a female with four cubs, very protective and extremely dangerous. I also felt a bit afraid.” Could my tall tales be true? Did they in fact fall short of a possible reality? Regino challenged my imagination to greater horizons: the impossible is possible, I must have surmised. Inventions, fantasies can be as real as what adults call real. The frontiers between inside and outside, reason and imagination, light and dark, narrowed in a blur of sunrise or sunset. In conclusion, I think Regino taught me not to lose my sense of wonder. The world and the world of words should not become a girdle or a straightjacket. Oblivion is part of memory and ignorance is part of wisdom. Translating this to landscape and architecture: Regino was my very personal Frank Lloyd Wright. He opened my mind like a prairie house. The cardinal points were at arm’s length and walls could become mounds, clouds, wind, all beyond reach. My old old buddy was a bridge between paired and unpaired realities. Is it too farfetched to find in this anecdote an analogue to my experience with prose and poetry?

R.C.: On the contrary, the more farfetched or taller the tale, the better. The image of a bridge that leads to your prairie house, or to a sense of wonder, insinuates the place beyond where mere prose is transmuted into poetry. However, in addition to the union of contraries, or the extraordinary enjoyment of holding two opposite meanings as complementary, I find in your writing a temporal theme rebellious to the future, resulting in an appealing exclusion of any form of utopian imaginings. In other words, in your writing I perceive a conceptual constant: a questioning of modernity as a telos and thus as a determining force in history; as such, you exhort your reader to “walk backwards,” let’s say from Van Gogh, Albrecht Dürer, and Nezahualcóyotl, to the polychrome cave paintings in Altamira, always in search of other forms of writing, artistic expression, and –why not?– the ruins of past wisdom. This might explain the frequent allusions to diverse forms of writing (Akkadian, Egyptian, Hittite, and so on), to the art of reading and interpretation, and to the writer’s desire to reach self-understanding through the language of symbol, metaphor and allegory. The act of reading: the possibility of transformation and transfiguration of the self.

O.A.: Instead of switching to Spanish, as I should, I switch from the calendar to writing, both prose and poetry. You say, quite accurately, that art, at least as I understand it, or live it, is transformation and transfiguration of the self. Metaphors begin in the inner self. After that alteration in the presumed symmetry of being, and only after, do they become verbally tangible, not only to a reader but to my own self as outsider, as reader of my own image in the mirror of language. Down to earth but akin to a religious experience, writing is often turbulence, writhing; and at times its sedimentation, coherence of seemingly unrelated fragments of being. The poet is both showman and shaman. Death and resurrection, yes. An ongoing birth. All forms of writing, from Paleolithic hunting scenes to hieroglyphics or music scores are timeless vantage points for the reader; the written page, a Rosetta stone where reading is increasingly made possible by the affluence of diversity. Life as metaphor. Language as metaphor.

R.C.: Tell us about Concierto para dilinquir– its opening pentagram with no musical notations, a seemingly poetic journal or diary organized in a non-chronological order, with a mix of irony, humor, and a recurrent meditation on ancient civilizations: Babylon, Egypt, Mesoamerica, China. On the other hand, the idea of the author or the book as the places where an absolute finds its focal point or bridge is a traditional postulate that is constantly questioned and refuted in your essays and poetry, anchoring yourself instead on the notion of writing as a musical score whose performance depends not so much on the composer or score itself but on the dialogue/dialectic between composer and players –ultimately, however, on the latter, the readers. This assertive activation of the reader finds kindred encouragements in Octavio Paz, Julio Cortázar and, among others, Carlos Fuentes. At the risk of engaging in interpretive delinquency, I admit to finding in your poetry and essays a tacit appeal to a perceptive reader to join in a concert –understood as accord or tuning together, but also as an agreement to contend zealously and to dispute that which is mandated by custom– where reception and interpretation by other than the author, composer or conductor is affirmed and encouraged.

O.A.: From the outset, Concierto para delinquir straddles two very diverse spheres, as you point out in the epigraphs to this interview: music and crime. The title is a devious misappropriation of the legal term, which implies collusion or co-authorship in crime. So the book opens as both a courtroom and a music hall. But it immediately runs into a blank pentagram, which hints at parallel rows of seats, empty and geometric. The reader is not standing in a courtroom, ready to be sentenced, but rather looking for his/her seat in a concert hall. Instead of facing a judge and a sentence for a yet uncommitted crime, he/she will hear sentences which hopefully will be a temptation to join the music. To insist on the gambit, he/she will become an accomplice in rhyme, a co-author in poetry, that increasingly marginal, almost criminal experience. Again let me make a metaphor, a translation. Roberto, perhaps you have had the following sensation and can share some of the strange, awkward feelings involved. Seated in a concert hall, while the musicians tune their instruments before the almighty conductor appears and raises his baton, I have felt scored in a vast living pentagram; a silent, expectant social chord that will echo without sounding. Since as a reader I have often felt like a musical rest, a blank note, a sounding absence, in my own writing I want the reader to raise the baton.

R.C.: Let’s focus on the expressed desire in your last sentence: “I want the reader to raise the baton.” This wanting pulsates through a rhetorical pattern in Concierto para delinquir in poems where the reader discovers the conditions to become one. Understood as such, the poet-as-composer hands over the baton to the reader, suggesting how to turn the notes on the pentagram into a living sound. It follows that an affiliation of misconduct exists between the poet’s code and reader’s key to the comprehensive reading of Concierto para delinquir, situated in poems such as “Tareas del lector” (p. 23), and “Pájaro” (p. 32), with the former emphasizing acts which lead to a successful reading or re-creation of the poem, and in the latter to the reader’s failure (“en lo que acabas de leer…Lástima. Se fue”). The poet’s exhortation toward a total reading, where the reader’s senses and imagination function in unison, is revealed in a footnote to the poem “Akkad” –the Rosetta Stone, I think, of Concierto para delinquir– in which the reader learns how to decipher constellations, and thus to be Akkadian once again, thanks to a cast of poets and singers that range from Orpheus, Ptolemy, Garcilaso and Mallarmé, to Octavio Paz (p. 41). This transhistorical lineage and family tree would clarify the poem “Walt Whitman” where one finds the line “tú y yo hemos sido el mismo” (p. 52).

O.A.: You raise the baton and challenge me as a player and an instrument to keep score. To interpret and keep my own score and my place as a note in a vast tradition, that reaches as far back as the howling of wolves and the singing of nightingales and cenzontles. In Keats’ ode we learn that all nightingales are one, just one; but we also know that each feathered mimus polyglottos –cenzontle or mockingbirdis a choir of four hundred voices in just one endless and ever changing voice. Let’s turn the music sheet a few pages back to a beautiful sonnet. In Góngora’s A un ruiseñor I find a condensed instance of the nightingale and the mockingbird, oneness and multitudinousness.

Con diferencia tal, con gracia tanta         
aquel ruiseñor llora, que sospecho         
que tiene otros cien mil dentro del pecho         
que alternan su dolor por su garganta.

Every poet, I’m tempted to conclude, is both nightingale and cenzontle. Putting an apt proper name to this, every poet is Whitman, who was one and many. Your phrase ‘a total reading’ perfectly translates what, dispersed in a few poems, is intended as an epic invocation to the reader, who as you point out must help turn notes into living music.

R.C.: Concierto para delinquir contains four poems in prose akin to poetic quadrants in a writer’s biography in the tradition of a Künstlerroman, or the narrative of a poet’s becoming. Thus read, Concierto para delinquir is one of the most personal books you have written. The narrative sequence runs from (#1) “Acuario” (pp. 15-22); (#2) “La destrucciόn del presente” (pp. 26-27;, (#3) “Lenox Hill Hospital” (pp. 58-62); to (#4) “Paradoja del caracol” (pp. 72-77). It appears that autobiographical features found in these four prose poems are transfigured and transposed, either to stress the becoming of a poet or, better yet, to encrypt and thus to unveil itself as a “cipher text” only to Akkadian readers. The paradox and snail references in the fourth poem point to a “Boustrophedon” method of arrangement in which a “linear” sequence (1, 2, 3, 4) is evidently non-chronological and thus a puzzle or collage that must be reconfigured into a biographical narrative that would begin with (#1) the account of a young dreamer’s discovery of poetry; and (#3) a father’s death in Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan’s Upper East Side in the city of New York; followed by (#4) the time of adulthood and remembrance of three lost paradises; and concluding with (#2) the destruction of the present –thus, life in a limbo, a temporal disorientation, and a sense of homelessness– with the telling epigraph taken from a poem by Antonio Machado: “Algo inmortal hay en nosotros que quisiera morir con lo que muere” (p. 26). A successful reading or re-creation of this cluster of poems in prose would by necessity rest on a left to right and right to left narrative sequence: 1, 3, 4, 2. The life being told would thus spotlight the youth and adulthood of the poet with memories of constellations hidden in the Caribbean’s dark abyss, more luminous than the school’s blackboard, and with a throng of marine life –the octopus, moray eel, lobster, and myriad others– named by the young Adam-like poet who discovers and explores the oceanic depths of only three feet. The themes in this poetic quartet would thus seem to be (1) the discovery of poetry (the only exact science at humanity’s reach, as affirmed at the end of “Acuario”), (3) orphanhood, (4) memory, and (2) exile. Thus read, Concierto para delinquir is a conscious effort toward unity in the sense of drawing together major themes in your poetry and essays.

O. A: For some reason, as I read your question, an image came to mind. An image drawn form a particular quarter or quadrant, to use your wordof the mind: it’s sometimes unreachable, sometimes imposing, even obtrusive, yet always surprising archive: memory. Years ago a Persian dancing company visited Venezuela. I saw the performance of the whirling dervishes with delight and wonder. As the men danced to what seemed a mystic version of Ravel’s Bolero, they slowly became something else: the gyrations of spinning tops, the rotation of planets, the pulsating stillness of stars and constellations. Also, of course, in the accelerating logarithmic spirals they paradoxically seemed to harden into seashells. Before my eyes, the very seashells that so fascinated me as a child, in whose emptiness I thought I could hear the depth of the ocean, turned the corner of the distant past and allowed me to feel in their presence, in their present, something I would have to describe as God. The sound of the ocean turned skyward and rhymed with the imperceptible music of the spheres. A Pythagorean bridge fused math and sound, logarithms and the humming movements of heavenly bodies. Human bodies became snails, shells, wooden tops, all of which were tentacular, tentative metaphors for heavenly bodies. Of course memory can be turned into metaphor. Swinging with the image of the ecstatic dervishes it fused the heaven and havenof my childhood and early adolescence with the hell of the first few years of exile; Boti’s verdant patio with the snow of New York; the strict horizontality of my hometown’s urbanism, where few buildings rose beyond one or two stories, with the daring verticality of skyscrapers; and crawling starfish with exploding supernovas. By no means is it a stretch of the imagination to envision a convergence of prose and poetry, poem and essay. I’ll go even further. Making the impossible possible cannot be left entirely to religion. If and when poetry can be assumed as religion I’m thinking of Wallace Stevens and his notion of poetry as supreme fiction the clinically impossible and too farfetched even for the boundless realm of the imagination can turn into non or nth dimensional realities. For example and I step here into the next possible questioneven after a couple of thousand years the halved body of Pythius’ eldest son can miraculously be rejoined for an unprecedented though tongue in cheek resurrection. And of course, even without any of the king’s horses or any of the king’s men, Humpty Dumpty can be put together again.

R.C.: A few poems in Concierto para delinquir are compressed tales (“El converso”), or parables of an ethical life (“Limosna para el cínico”), while the poem “Herόdoto, VII, 39-40,” forms a micro-narrative of only eight lines stemming from a crucial moment in ancient Greek history: Xerxes’ execution of Pythius’ first-born son, followed by Xerxes’ resolve to conquer Greece. What drew your attention to this anecdote in Herodotus’ Histories?

O.A.: Obviously you are not looking for a knee-jerk response. This dramatic, almost cinematographic clip, will render any reader captive to its violent symmetry. One can easily imagine a Cecil B. DeMille staging of the huge Persian army marching between the split body of Pythius’ son. The scene could well parallel the parting of the Red Sea scenes in The Ten Commandments. As an antithetical parallelism, of course. The human, all too human body halved to allow the onward march of an army in quest of revenge and glory is reminiscent of the massive body of water miraculously halved by invisible dams to allow the escape of the Israelites from Egypt. Civil engineering feats both, if you set them to their historical backgrounds. The parting of the Red Sea, though miraculous, has clear precedents in the pyramids, for example. The scale is huge, massive: a body of water is forced to behave like stone. It is held still and thrust upward, becoming for a few moments twin pyramids, mythical skyscrapers. On the other hand, Xerxes pontoon bridges on the Hellespont are a dynamic counterpoint to the splitting of Pythius’ eldest son. A twisted anatomical solution found to simultaneously keep and flout a promise that had become, in Xerxes’ arrogant mind, an obstruction to his vengeful destiny. The shah shatters anything that stands in his way. In the way of war. The split body is the harrowing result of punitive surgery as civil engineering. Just a clearing of a path. A mere construction. Or, as a French theorist might say, a de-construction. The response becomes darker as I try to get to the answer you might be seeking. You ask what drew my attention to this episode. You personalize the question. You make me step backwards into the not so evident, where a choice is made somewhat blindly, as though reasoned by the unconscious. I then have to grapple with the other ‘tales’ and ‘parables’ you mention in your question. To give you my best guess on the matter I must consider two issues that have shaped my conduct and my life. They are of an ethical and psychological nature. One has much to do with the relation of word and deed. An ethical must for me is the narrowing or closing of any possible gap between them. To fully mean, a word has to be kept. Only then does it become verb, action, world. The other issue, though obliquely, has to do, or originally had to do, with the theme of exile, not in a political sense but rather as an intimate outcome of that experience. And it implies living in a schizoid, divided self. Since my adolescence exile has been my Xerxes. Back to Herodotus and the Persian ruler: as sure as there are left-handed compliments there are left-handed promises. Xerxes’ promise to Pythius is a spectacular case in point. As to the split son, a literal, anatomical divide et impera, I am almost certain that I identify with him.

R.C.: Herodotus’ frequent references to divine omens or portents bring to mind acts of reading and interpretation that, in Xerxes’ case, fail terribly. In a similar manner, Concierto para delinquir includes signs and riddles in search of an Oedipus-like reader. I was intrigued, for instance, by the juxtaposition of the poems “Arcimboldo” (p. 50) and “Hermes o el pintor” (p. 51) that allude to two painters –Giuseppe Arcimboldo and Kazimir Severínovich Malévich– associated with “collages” and with the “hermetic” white on white walls painted in your apartment by Hermes Santana, a young Colombian worker. Stepping backwards into the not so evident, one could follow a retroactive affiliation or “identity of self” from Hermes, to Kazimir, and ultimately to Arcimboldo. As stated in your poem “Walt Whitman”:

Al despertar, siglos aparte
y un mar de por medio, ¿sequiré
siendo ese otro que soy? (52)

The grammar and the principles of organization in Concierto para delinquir seem to be in full concert with the geometry of fruits, squares, circles, and triangles that shape the representation of the world in paintings by different artists from diverse eras. Simultaneism, synchrony, or the way in which you walk backwards into the future. Oneness and multitudiousness. Both poems consist of fourteen lines, thus as sonnets, but in neglect or violation of its inherited rhyme scheme and structure. As sonnets, these poems and others with fourteen lines (e.g., “Tareas del lector,” “Mesa de noche,” “Keros”[“Que es un mármol de catorce líneas”], among others), claim a Renaissance derivation with an emphasis on the word sonetto, meaning both “sound” and “poem.” Hence, poetic unity and internal formal coherence in Concierto para delinquir. Before we conclude, tell us about the recent publication of your Obras reunidas: on the one hand, the essay compilation in Contra la página (Calygramma 2015); on the other, your collected poetry in Canto rodado (2 volumes, Calygramma 2016).

O.A.: Rounding up this interview you ask about my collected prose and poetry. Time of closure both in my writing and my life. A circle about to lasso its 360 with a fully wound circumference. And I happen to be its center. A somewhat eccentric center, uneasy about the impending, inevitable stillness. Let me remain geometrical in my answer. As a boy I admired the perfection of geometric forms. This probably had much to do with my handwriting, which turned from bad to worse, and to worst, as I stumbled through the Palmer Method. Palmer was hell; Euclid, paradise. A circle, a square, a triangle were balsamic antitheses to my capital A, my tortured g, my stubbornly uneven m. As I completed a triangle or a square, but particularly, as I completed a circle, I felt capable of absolute perfection. In the circle just drawn, I imagined light seeping through the dot pierced by the needle point on paper and pressing the image to completion with its rays, much as a bird pushes air in its flight, creating wind with its wings and shaping it concave with its breast. Because of this exhilarating sensation I felt I could enclose in three or four lines, or in just one winding curve, not just a shape on paper but a beam of light, a still one dimensional burst of light in two dimensions. The enclosed emptiness trusted to the visible edge of its becoming. Of its being. As a colophon, let me call in the mariachis and add a few pertinent Mexican notes. My years at Rutgers University meant a close, personal contact with Mexico. Two professors in particular were very important to me, both in and out of the academic cloister: Luis Mario Schneider, born gaucho but charro and Aztec by choice, and José Vázquez Amaral. Latin American avant-garde poetry and Ezra Pound are two of the bountiful gifts I owe them. Luis Mario went South with the manuscript of Horizonte no es siempre lejanía and that’s how my first existence in print saw the light and the dark, if errata are taken into accountin Mexico. Colophon within a colophon: Se terminó de imprimir el día 20 de agosto de 1970 en los Talleres de la Imprenta de la Universidad Iberoamericana, Cerro de las Torres 395, México 21, D.F. De la edición de 500 ejemplares se tiraron 20 libros numerados y firmados por el autor con un grabado original del pintor mexicano Fernando Vilchis. Octavio Paz wrote one of the earliest reviews of my first book, Entre testigos. Soon after Piel menos mía was published by a Mexican you probably know: Roberto Cantú. In 1978 the Asociación de escritores de México handled the first edition of Cómo escribir con erizo. Now, coming full circle, I am again brought a bit closer to heaven by a Mexican pyramid. This time I owe my exposed heart to Santiago de Querétaro, Editorial Calygramma, Miguel Aguilar Carrillo, Federico de la Vega and Diana Rodríguez. Contra la página (Ensayos reunidos) came out in 2015. Canto rodado (Poesía reunida) was published in 2016, with cover designs by Vicente Rojo. To these kind and generous friends, whorls and worlds of gratitude in just one word: gracias.

21 March 2018


Number 8

The eighth issue of Latin American Literature pays homage to Nicaraguan writer and politician Sergio Ramírez, winner of the 2017 Cervantes Prize and an important voice in a country currently gripped by crisis. We also feature poetry from Octavio Armand, as well as special sections dedicated to four indigenous writers of Mexico and Guatemala, bilingual sci-fi from Worldcon 76, and the poetry of Marosa di Giorgio, Olga Orozco, and Elena Garro. 

Table of Contents