José Watanabe: From Everyday Reality to the World of Poetry
In the context of contemporary Peruvian poetry, one of the most recognized and admired poets is José Watanabe, an extraordinary creator who knew how to turn everyday reality into striking and lively poems. Much like Vallejo, another emblematic name in Peruvian poetry, Watanabe offers a new perspective and a particular way of working with language. The verses that Watanabe created were the result of an ingenious, meticulous and refined work. There is a lot of time, effort and patience behind each of his poems, and his work always surprises and moves all readers, even those who have no experience or contact with poetry.
Several scholars often include Watanabe in the so-called generation of the sixties, but he was a poet who always maintained a certain independence, adopting a neutral point of view that did not yield to the temptation to scandalize Lima's bourgeoisie; over the years, he would prove to be more relevant than many of his peers. One of the most visible features of writers from the sixties was a strong desire for a new and original language, a form of expression that had never been seen before. Instead of admiring or imitating the poetic heritage of their predecessors, these authors devoted themselves to getting rid of it. In the words of José Miguel Oviedo, "They knew that to usurp a place the best way was to annihilate those who occupied it." In fact, it seems that this is a somewhat frequent concern in the world of literature; it is, in essence, the need of new authors to overcome the old ones, like a son who wishes to surpass his father, but also, as in Taoism, the irresistible necessity of destruction as a preamble to construction. The only problem is that this generation went beyond the limits of parricide, and in their eagerness to eliminate the poetic works that predated their own, they started criticizing even contemporary poets, for reasons that were often subjective and even whimsical.
In this context, the Hora Zero literary movement emerged. One of its virtues was the attempt to "decentralize" culture; Lima had always been the political, financial and cultural capital of Peru, and the members of Hora Zero believed that culture should not be an exclusive asset of the capital, on the contrary, it should be more democratic and encompass the entire country. This was not simply an abstract theory, because in practice a high percentage of the members of Hora Zero were Peruvians from provinces and areas far from Lima; and many of their activities as a group took place outside the city or in Lima's marginal areas.
Although most of the poets from the sixties were fervent participants of groups akin to Hora Zero, there were others who chose to be independent. Among them, the two most outstanding figures are Abelardo Sánchez León and, of course, José Watanabe, who maintained a friendship with the other poets, no matter what movement they were associated with, but, beyond a polite and minor support, always remained on the sidelines of Hora Zero.
One of the few common elements that Watanabe shares with poets of this generation is what Oviedo considers an "immersion in the private world". Oviedo also recognizes that in Watanabe there is a remarkable subtlety of language in which one can perceive a complex rhetorical strategy. Moreover, in Watanabe, the relationship with his own interiority seems to be located on a plane where the barrier between time and space is blurry. The author has the ability to immerse himself in his personal life, in the most intimate moments, and then he resurfaces full of reflections and images rich in poetic possibilities.
José Watanabe was born in 1946 in Laredo, a small town in Trujillo, a northern province of Peru. His father was a Japanese immigrant and his mother a Peruvian woman of Andean roots. The poet's childhood, therefore, took place in a rural setting, where the lack of resources often led to the kind of family tragedies that ended up being forever engraved in his memory. The harsh living conditions in a town like Laredo can explain why Watanabe was, since childhood, deeply concerned about illness. Two of the poet's brothers became ill at an early age and died; later, their father shared the same fate as a consequence of a deadly cancer. These events, understandably, left a deep emotional scar on Watanabe. In his first poetry book, Albúm de familia [Family album], published in 1970, the poet reminisces about his past and explores the emotional bond he has with his relatives, both the living and the dead.
Some critics have pointed out that Watanabe's poetry is so original thanks to the transculturation of Japanese and Andean elements, a testimony to the mixed heritage of his parents; others, however, have affirmed that the haiku is a primary influence on Watanabe's poetry. It is necessary to explain that Watanabe's father opened the door to a world of poetry for his son, reading him well-known haikus. Watanabe has admitted that as a child he could not understand the meaning of these haikus, but he always sensed the beauty of this type of poetry. While his relationship with his father seems to have been free of conflict, the relationship with his mother was slightly more complicated. The mother is sometimes seen as a strong figure of an authoritarian nature, sometimes she's a caring woman, but she's mostly concerned with the practicality of domestic chores, to the point that her world is reduced to cooking and housework. She is a mother who can be kind but also full of negative elements. These details can be seen in Historia natural [Natural history], released in 1994. In this book we can find, for example, the poem “Mamá cumple 75 años” ("Mom turns 75"), in which there are phrases that are singularly revealing; in one of them the maternal figure is defined as "an animal of too severe tenderness". Another phrase is more disapproving: "you are our oldest ailment".
In Watanabe's work, there is a constant need to return to the land of origin. This tireless return to his roots and his hometown plays a prominent role in many of Watanabe's poems, in which he describes the people, customs and lifestyle of Laredo. Watanabe himself explained his relationship with his immediate surroundings: "... the poetry to which I aspire the most implies a form of revelation that occurs in a physical space, that begins as an event of nature". Laredo, then, is not only a geographical location but also the representation of a primordial space where the truth lives, and where a safe haven can always be found; it is, after all, the home of the father and the mother, as well as the idealized world of childhood.
Among the relevant themes in Watanabe's poetry, it is important to mention the body as a unique receptacle for human life and therefore an intermediary between the self and the world. In the poems of Cosas del cuerpo [Things of the body], published in 1999, the poet examines the relationship between the human body and nature. In several poems, Watanabe imagines the human body as a machine of awkward movements, rarely in harmony with nature; on the other hand, animals are the perfect example of integration with the natural world; their bodies are weightless and they possess great dexterity and beauty, each in its own way. All of this can be seen in poems like “El lenguado” or “Animal de invierno” ("Winter Animal"). The body itself is also the setting of the struggle between Eros and Thanatos and, as psychoanalysis dictates, the subject must learn to dominate and balance his erotic and tanatical impulses in his own body. The body, however, will also remain as a space for pain but also for pleasure.
The body also calls for intimate reflections on life and death. Certainly, there are abundant autobiographical elements in the poetry book El huso de la palabra [The spindle of the word], released in 1989; in the pages of this book, the author describes his personal battle with cancer and his hospitalization in Germany. Faced with the possibility of dying, the poet relies on the conception of death drawing influences from two different cultures: that of East Asia and that of the Andes.
Watanabe enjoyed contemplation, not as a motionless act but as a source of inspiration. In an interview, the author noted the following: "More than once I have said that my poetic approach is that of the eye, it consists of seeing, of looking. And I try to describe things as they are described in a movie, with some objectivity, although the text is eminently subjective." This idea, in turn, is complemented by the ability to find an everyday object or situation and transform it into a poem: "For me the poem is the found object... I have but to describe it and then it's a poem. That is poetry for me. Whatever I find".
In addition to his poetry, Watanabe was also a screenwriter. He worked on Peruvian films such as Maruja en el infierno (1983), Ojos de perro (1983), and La ciudad y los perros (1985), a film adaptation of Mario Vargas Llosa's first novel. Watanabe also wrote theater plays, like Antigone (2000), a new version of the classic Greek tragedy by Sophocles that the poet created for the emblematic theater group Yuyachkani. This work portrays the agony of the protagonist, trapped between two deaths; as Jacques Lacan would suggest, the central theme is the opposition between real death and symbolic death. In the verse collection Habitó entre nosotros [He dwelled amongst us], released in 2002, the poet addresses spirituality not from an ethereal and celestial perspective but from an earthly point of view; in fact, some of the best known biblical episodes are reimagined in the humble town of Laredo in poems like “La última cena” ("The Last Supper") and “Resurrección de Lázaro” ("Resurrection of Lazarus").
With the publication of La piedra alada [The winged stone] (2005), Watanabe became a consecrated poet. This was the best selling book in Spain for five consecutive months. When the Peruvian press interviewed Watanabe, the author confessed that he was the first one to be surprised by such success. The author explained that probably his success in Spain was because he had fallen right in the middle of two tendencies: one that valued experience, in which poets considered themselves "social," and another that valued mainly language, in which poets considered themselves "pure." Fortunately, Watanabe's work was well received by both currents, despite the rivalry between them.
For Watanabe, poetry was hidden in reality, and the poet's job was to approach that reality and try to find it. In order to discover poetry, it was necessary to work properly with the language, to choose the structure of the poem and to be careful when accumulating perceptions and images. "My poems are born from experience, they have a narrative base, so to speak; but also a reflection, and a more or less thorough language". According to Watanabe, the key was the relationship between art and self-control. The rules were necessary, but they had to be rules that the creator imposed upon himself, rules that he would elaborate throughout several years. Some of Watanabe's words are especially revealing: "Poetry can get lost in words, and we must constantly distrust them. What I say is not rhetorical: after so many years, a poet begins to feel a kind of unease or cynicism in the face of life in general and poetry in particular. For me, poetry really saved me, in a vital sense. I have been ill, I have survived a thousand things, and I think that if it had not been for poetry I would have committed suicide."
The basic concepts of Watanabe's poetry, such as nature, body, real death, and symbolic death anticipate the approach of Watanabe's latest poetry book: Banderas detrás de la niebla [Flags behind the fog], published in 2006. The theme of death relies on a synthesizes of poetic reflections from earlier poems. On this occasion, however, the way of approaching death goes beyond the setting of the family and the author's first experience with cancer, fundamental elements in previous works, in which the death of the author himself was not yet a fact that could not be postponed; in this book, therefore, death becomes an undeniable and imminent reality.
In fact, after temporarily overcoming cancer in 1989, Watanabe would be diagnosed with the same disease a few years later. Aware of the seriousness of his situation, the poet exorcises many of his fears and frustrations by writing a series of extraordinary and poignant poems whose central core is death. In relation to these texts, Watanabe stated the following: "The title of my last poetry book, Banderas detrás de la niebla, tries to express the conception of poetry that I have been practicing with, increasing awareness: a fleeting discovery, a perplexity, a strangeness that makes its way amidst routine reality...".
Therefore, this particular book is essential to understanding Watanabe's poetic proposal. At the age of sixty, Watanabe was facing the same disease. The reappearance of the cancer predicts the final outcome, but Watanabe does not give up. Urged on by the circumstances, and perhaps as a way of dealing with his concerns and fears, the poet finds himself even more devoted to poetry and, more specifically, to writing Banderas detrás de la niebla, a book in which there are abundant reflections on the disease and on the imminent end. Banderas detrás de la niebla, therefore, is the book that best synthesizes the poetic proposal of Watanabe; in its pages, all the main themes come together, and this time they are developed with greater maturity and depth.
I had the opportunity to meet Watanabe in Lima in 2005, shortly after the publication of La piedra alada (a book that, by the way, he very kindly signed for me) and although we only talked for a few minutes, perhaps exemplifying why fugacity was so precious to the poet, that moment is now a precious memory.
It is evident that cancer was part of Watanabe's family history, and if readers have access to all his work, they will understand that there was an indisputable connection between his various books. Watanabe's poetry offers a lucid perspective on the human condition; each poem combines philosophical reflections with a language in which the concern for the aesthetic is not overshadowed by the impact of honesty. Watanabe constantly reminds us that to be alive means to fight relentlessly against death, and that often our only and most valuable weapon in such a hard-fought battle is the written word.
Translated by the author
Arcadio Bolaños was born in Lima and spent most of his childhood surrounded by thousands of books; thanks to his father’s library, he became an avid reader but also an aspiring writer at a young age. He studied in Los Reyes Rojos high school, named that way after one of José María Eguren’s poems; after writing a thesis on José Watanabe’s poetry, he graduated from the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú. In the past seven years, Bolaños has been writing comic book scripts, and his stories have been published both in print and digitally through ComiXology (an Amazon subsidiary). He is currently a graduate student in the Spanish Department of the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee.