Back to The Night: A Conversation with Forrest Gander about Jaime Saenz


La Paz, Bolivia at dusk. Photo: Rodrigo González, Unsplash.

Victor Vimos: After many years of reading and knowing the work of Jaime Saenz, how different are you from him?  

Forrest Gander: You know, he had a radical vision that he lived out, and although I can identify with that radical vision, I’m perhaps less brave than he was.  

V.V.: Is the distance between you two, then, that radical attitude toward life that Saenz sometimes takes to the extreme?

F.G.: Yes.  

V.V.: Like ingesting alcohol or living in solitude?

F.G.: Yes, that’s the distance between us. But his poetry gives us a chance to cross this distance (Recorrer esta distancia, the title of one of his major poems), and so to find each other.

V.V.: What draws you to him?  

F.G.: I find his radical vision, his amphetaminate imagination, endlessly stimulating. It’s true, he made risky choices that took a toll on his body and mind. But we need artists who go beyond the frame of what our culture tells us is normal. It’s those people who allow us to see outside the perimeters of our expectations. His identification with the Aymara, with the aparapita1 and the hechiceros2; his embrace of those at the margins of society; his rejection of transactional logic—all of that is part of an ethical stance. A rejection of the ravenous class and racist powers that controlled polite society in La Paz.

V.V.: In that sense, for instance, the experience is like “an engine for expanding reality”?  

F.G.: Exactly!  

V.V.: How does this kind of experience work inside Saenz’s poetry for you? Is he a poet of his experience only?

F.G.: So, he’s not a poet of experience in the common sense. He offers a vision of transcendence. All of his work seems to me to be addressed, in an intimate way, to his personal holy trinity: Death, the city of La Paz, and the figure of the beloved. He crosses the distances between them. He breaks through membranes that keep those entities distinct for many of us. And in doing so, he discovers a region of connections, of mutualities, an “experience,” as you say, that is neither self-centered nor dependent upon rational thinking. He opens the way for mystery, for wonder and awe.

V.V.: That is very interesting because you use in this context the words “translation,” “movement,” “transition” and I think in the book, La noche, these kinds of transitions are so present. For instance, in that context, what is your relationship with this book?  

F.G.: Let me begin with his voice. His is a meditative voice. A thinking voice that has tremendous warmth. But from the start of La noche, with Saenz’s reference to “unos cuernos que se mueven a lo lejos,” that strange image that opens the book, we don’t quite know what we’re looking at. We feel inclined to trust Saenz’s voice, but it quickly leads us into the unknown. And that state of openness to “unknowing” is one that is shared by other mystical writers. St. John of the Cross, for instance, writes, “Entréme donde no supe,/ y quedéme no sabiendo…” All of La noche is concerned with that space of unknowing, right up to the end when Saenz is writing:

Y me he acercado una vez a mi cuerpo;

Y habiendo comprendido que jamás lo había visto, aunque lo llevaba a cuestas,

Le he preguntado quién era

His vision leads us out of our bodies, out of the constraints of culture, the constraints of our supposed singularity, into a consciousness that merges with others, with the world, with the abyss, with the night. He lures us away from the daylight of the rational, away from our instrumental relationship with the world and away from the attitude that we are superior to others—other people, animals, rocks. He prods us to imagine a reality in which we are part of one another. I think his poetry encourages us to give up our sense of control and the sense of mastery that Western thought has encouraged us to believe in.  

In this sense, Saenz is a revolutionary and pagan poet. Christianity divides the world between the saved and the unsaved. Between those with souls and those without souls. Between the chosen and the damned. Saenz offers a vision in which animals, rocks, and humans—everything in fact—is part of a collective soul.

V.V.: Several points here. You use the word reality. When Saenz finishes his voyage through the night, it seems he’s going to another reality. He changes. He positions himself on another perspective or point of vision before life. What happens with this relationship with reality and the poetic experience in this book by Saenz? Is the poetic experience transforming reality? Or are reality and poetic experience transforming themselves at once, cohabiting at once?

F.G.: That’s beautifully spoken, Victor. I think it’s more the latter, that we become very satisfied with the limitations of what we call reality. But of course, reality is a construction. Wittgenstein says, “If a lion could speak, we wouldn’t understand it” because its reality is so distinct from our own. Saenz offers a larger, more fluid sense of reality. I think his vision, his poetics, invites us to imagine passing through distinctions, expanding ourselves. Ethically, it’s a poetics of generosity, the gesture of opening to the rest of the world, opening to the other. His work is insistently engaged with otherness. It’s not the poetry of experience, of somebody telling a story about what they did today. He’s not interested in that kind of small sense of reality. So, we see that his work is importantly philosophical.

V.V.:  What kind of relationship with philosophical ideas can you see in this moment of Saenz?  

F.G.: I don’t know whether Saenz read Emmanuel Levinas, but their work seems to be very much in dialogue. Saenz suggests that we come to know ourselves when we recognize others. So he keeps focusing our gaze on the aparapita. At the same time, there is in Saenz a kind of Indian mysticism, a non-Western, non-logocentric point of view by which we discover that appearance doesn’t account for the depths of reality.

V.V.: Yeah. And we are talking about experience, reality; they are very big topics that are connected inside the poetry of Saenz. But I think these kinds of topics have a link with language. What happens with language?  

F.G.: So, we should look at La noche to see. Saenz writes “Cuando pienso en el misterio de la noche, imagino el misterio de tu cuerpo, / que es solo una manera de ser de la noche.” But he doesn’t mean he’s simply attracted to someone else’s body. He’s talking about a body that’s larger than the human body. For Saenz, the body can be a passageway to a larger vision, to an experience outside of the body. Which is why we find him so often asking his own body questions.

Technically, Saenz does this with subtle substitutions and with trombone-slide transitions. The body slides into the night; the night is filled with “infinitos reinos de oscuridad.” That oscuridad, that darkness, segues into “un resplandor.” And in that resplandor, our perspective is inverted. We become aware of “la imagen que me imagina.” Saenz is creating synapses that link things that we thought were separate and discrete. They become woven together in a larger network of connectedness.  

V.V.: Yes, like in the brain.  

F.G.: Yes.  

V.V.: That is so interesting. The synapses, like, language is alive in a sense.  

F.G.: Precisely.

V.V.: And, probably, language also has memory.  

F.G.: He would say so, without a doubt.

V.V.: A language like that of La noche, which involves a sense of transit, experience, reality, is like a liminal language. In that sense, Saenz’s voice, whatever that voice may be, could also be a liminal voice between language and that voice that’s always moving to transform itself; it appears that they are both open to become material to work with.

F.G.: Well, you’ve already phrased it beautifully. That’s it. A synapse is a link between two different nerves, right? And in our logical thinking, we like things in Western thought to be discreet, to be mathematical. So that x is on one side of the equation and y is on the other side. But the synapse creates a transition between those two things. They interact and touch each other across the synapse. You are reframing the synapse, that transitional link between I and you, between death and life, etc. as a liminality because you recognize that Saenz’s displacement of one word by another word creates an active liminal zone. His work is concerned with crossing through, even crossing out, the discrete ways that we have of viewing the world and the self.  

V.V.: I have the feeling that Saenz’s way of traveling is not forward, that his direction is transformation, not progress, but a voyage of return to the embryo. That may be explored in the notion of senses that he explores in the book: what’s that that the smell tells us, or what’s that that a color tells us. He’s challenging the notion of absorbing outside reality. The voyage of return is, I believe, also a different transformation in time and space.

What happens with time and space in this kind of movement?  

F.G.: Yes, smell and color in Saenz are also linked through synesthesia.   

V.V.: Synesthesia.  

F.G.: His work in some ways anticipates the physics of the twenty-first century, where we realize that the only way to isolate, to look at an electron, is to look somewhere other than where we suppose it is. As soon as we try to see it here, it’s somewhere else. And even our looking changes its location. What particle physics has shown us is simultaneity. That there’s no way of fixing location in space. Because neither space nor time proceed linearly. They bend. Saenz’s poetry anticipates that altered concept of our reality by connecting space and time.  

V.V.: Yeah. It’s really amazing how poetry can be ahead of theory.  

F.G.: Intuitively for Saenz.  

V.V.: How do you see intuition in the works of Saenz, for example?  

F.G.: That’s what makes him so brilliant, and why he stands out from the poets of his time. I mean, look at what most of his contemporaries were writing. His work is so much more adventurous, so much more risk-taking. He takes off his seat belt.

V.V.: Yes, the relation between intuition and the work of Jaime Saenz. We’ve been talking about Saenz having different critical ideas. He knows how to link experience and reality, but it’s not just this only, not everything has been calculated in his work.

F.G.: No, no.  

V.V.: Intuition, randomness.   

F.G.: He talks about this very specifically. He says it’s not a learned knowledge, it’s a felt knowledge. He says what’s most important to us is the knowledge we have in our bones, a knowledge we comprehend through feeling, not intellect.

V.V.: Saenz constructs several places of reference within the same book. For example, a place for the sacred. It seems more of a space for impurities, mistakes, intuitions. How do you see this idea of the sacred in Saenz’s book?  

F.G.: That’s brilliant. And one of the most interesting contradictions is that Saenz was so absorbed with German philosophy, and specifically with Heidegger who has an obsession with “purity” and “source.” Heidegger is constantly using Greek definitions to peel back language to its supposed pure source, its origin. But even though Saenz was reading Heidegger, his own instinctive philosophy is the opposite of Heidegger’s; it’s contra-purity. Saenz understands the ethical necessity of recognizing that we’re all mongrels. Scientifically, he’s right. There is no biological definition of “race.” We aren’t even pure as a species. Our underarms and our intestines are teaming with other forms of life. Even our DNA contains the DNA of parasites, of other creatures that long ago became incorporated into our DNA. I think Saenz’s intuition of this attracts him to the indigenous, to the Aymara, in a society that was and still is prejudicial, racist, and classist. So I think his evocation of the impure, of the human as “un lio bestial,” is both a critical and ethical stance. Although many people react against Saenz’s work because they say it glorifies alcoholism, for example, or it romanticizes the Aymara, I think he was way ahead of us in recognizing our complicity in constructing hierarchies that he didn’t want to be a part of.  

V.V.: An aspect where we can see that is in his relationship with alcohol, which he takes up as a mediating force capable of opening a way of initiation and knowledge for transformation.

F.G.: In that sense, I think he was very much like Allen Ginsberg. There was a wonderful crippled musician from Athens, Georgia named Vic Chesnutt. When he was in his twenties, he got drunk and drove his truck into a tree and paralyzed himself. Although he could just barely move his fingers, he continued to play music. Vic, in his wheelchair, was touring for an album that he had titled “Drunk” when he met Allen Ginsberg. Ginsberg, who many people consider a champion of drugs and alcohol, asked Vic why he was romanticizing alcohol. And Vic was shocked. But for Ginsberg, the use of drugs wasn’t about having fun or getting high or escaping. It was about approaching! It was—as it is for Saenz—about crossing the distances that separate us. It was about achieving fresh perspectives and vision. Saenz, of course, suffered from his own alcoholism, which was real. But what he found in drunkenness was not escape, or just pleasure. For Saenz, as for Ginsberg, drugs and alcohol were vehicles for crossing the distance towards a visionary encounter with being.  

V.V.: That’s also another different way of thinking, learning. Because in general, in terms of the logic of our time, learning would mean having all the senses in order and absorbing reality.

F.G.: Yes.

V.V.: But Saenz is traveling through the distance as a way of learning. Precisely from that which is not in order.

F.G.: Right. His knowledge had to include the body, had to include the consciousness of death. There’s a lot of work being written now on the substance and origins of human consciousness. Some scientists theorize that what we call human consciousness, our self-reflective awareness of ourselves, might be connected to encounters with psychedelic mushrooms which led early humans to encounter themselves within fluid boundaries. To see themselves for the first time from outside of themselves. In the same way, I think Saenz’s work is exploring what consciousness is and letting go of our need to be in control of it all.

V.V.: In essence, this is also political work. This relationship with language, with knowledge, with marginality. How do you see his field of political action?

F.G.: So, that’s another one of his contradictions—he never apologizes for his admiration of German culture prior to World War II. He never apologizes for joining the Hitler youth as a boy. That’s troubling. But, in his actions, in his life, he opposes Bolivian fascism. In his identification with the aparapita, in his opposition to the brutal military forces that ruled Bolivia during his lifetime, he’s on the lines with the marginal people, facing down the people in power. This is one of the odd contradictions in his life. But do you remember that section of La noche where “los negros” appear with laser guns and giant dogs to terrify and enslave the population, to cut all the trees down, and to bring a darkness over the city? That’s only the most obvious occasion of his writing against the fascist forces of control and militarism under which Bolivia suffered. Even his advocacy for visionary experience through drug use, through alcohol, is a kind of antifascist activism, a resistance to the socially constructed image of what people are supposed to be in an ordered society. It’s an ethical stance against conformity.  

V.V.: This notion that you mention about contradictions could be seen as a constant element in Saenz’s life and thinking. Life, he seems to point out, is matter that decays in contradiction. How do you see ambiguity in his work?

F.G.: There’s a memorable thing that Walt Whitman says. He says, “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself.” And William Blake wrote, “Without contraries there is no progression.” Through contradiction, Saenz breaks down the polarities between darkness and light, between sensibility and visionary ecstasy. Those polarized constructions support a limited way of seeing the world. What Saenz knows is that there’s a porous membrane between night and day.

V.V.: Yes, it’s a porous membrane, a site for infection.

F.G.: And that’s a great word for it. I think that he feels that his poetry is a kind of virus that infects the “la poesia de experiencia” and the assumptions and predictability of simple narrative. His work injects a kind of virus into language, a virus that inflames conventions.

V.V.: All of this brings us to the body. Toward the end of La noche, Saenz speaks with the body as if he were addressing another substance. His vision would seem to point toward the transformation of an open body.

F.G.: Yes. I think he finds no distinction, finally, between the body, consciousness, and the world, or the bodies of others. He discovers the otherness inside his own body, and death inside his own living body.

V.V.: It’s an opening with which his writing also “ends.” Now, Forrest, how do you translate that opening? I mean, what do you do with La noche to bring it into English?

F.G.: I want to point out that both of the books by Jaime Saenz that I helped bring into English are co-translations. I worked with Kent Johnson. And we wouldn’t have been able to translate Saenz without traveling to Bolivia, without hearing Bolivian Spanish, without tasting ranga-ranga, without meeting Blanca Wiethuchter, Luis Garcia Pabon, or Luis Antezana, without climbing the mountain that Saenz climbed to look down on the city, without seeing his death mask. All of those experiences made it easier for us to become vulnerable, to let go of trying to control the translation according to our own determinations. Speaking for myself, I opened to the music of Saenz’s mind. To do that, I had to take Saenz’s advice and leave my own body, leave my own consciousness, so that my ideas and my own music and my own talents as a poet disappeared—all in order for me to hear his otherness. The translation came about through an intense listening. It’s like Simone Weil’s concept of prayer. She says it’s not asking for something. It’s a focused listening.

V.V.: With which U.S. poets could Saenz have a dialogue of matching interests, visions?

F.G.: Ah, terrific question. You know, no great poets can be compared. But I think of W.S Merwin and the way he uses no punctuation so that one sentence flows into another sentence seamlessly. He’s breaking down syntactical borders, and his work is also invested in paradox and mystery.

V.V.: Which Latin American poet do you see as closest to Saenz, dialoguing with him?  

F.G.: Well, Saenz has been very influential. So a lot of writers in Latin America are dealing, in one way or another, with Saenz because his work is so important. But someone like Coral Bracho, in Mexico. She also plays with time and space, with consciousness and our relation to objects. Often in her work you can’t tell who or what is talking—whether it’s the landscape or the person in the landscape. She’s invested in the mystery between things, where space and time, subjectivity and world begin to merge.  

V.V.: Finally, what’s Saenz’s influence on you?  

F.G.: His voice lives in me. You know, translation seems the deepest form of reading, and he entered me. His voice entered me, and I will never shake it out of me. So, when I write, he’s one of my companions. And he showed me some ways to arrive at, or to move towards something that I believe in philosophically and ethically and aesthetically. He remains a profound presence in my own work.

Edited by Emma Ortquist

1 From the Aymara language, refers to people (typically poor Indigenous men) who carry merchandise on their backs in the markets of Bolivia.

2 Healers or medicine men.


Emma Ortquist received her master’s degree in Spanish with a concentration in pedagogy from the University of Cincinnati, where she currently teaches Spanish. She has worked as an instructor for the Institute of Reading Development, promoting early literacy and fostering a love of literature in children. Emma has also taught English as a Second Language and English as a Foreign Language in K-12 contexts both locally and abroad.


LALT No. 20
Number 20

With our twentieth issue, we celebrate the close of five years of publication. The cover feature reflects on LALT’s achievements thus far and on our goals for the years to come. Other dossiers highlight Bolivian poet Jaime Saenz on the centennial of his birth, 2006 Neustadt Prize winner Claribel Alegría, Spanish-language creative writing programs, and poetry and prose in translation from Quechua.

Table of Contents

Five Years of LALT

Dossier: Jaime Saenz

Dispatches from the Republic of Letters

Brazilian Literature






Indigenous Literature

Spanish-Language Creative Writing Programs

Translation Previews and New Releases

On Translation

Nota Bene