A Choral Interview with Eugenio Montejo
As we discussed, I am starting to send you a few interviews. I have attached my interview with Edmundo Bracho, another more recent one done thanks to Marina Gasparini, and the speech I read for the Paz prize, the latter outside of this project, just so you can take a look at it when you have time. As soon as I find other interviews, I’ll send them over.
With love, Eugenio
I found another interview, a recent one, done by José Pulido for the journal of the BCV early this year. I often find that, as soon as I turn them in, I don’t remember them. Now I’m looking for some other, older ones. I’ll send them to you soon. With love, E.
Thursday, April 27, 2006, 05:48pm
Thinking of the collection of interviews, I’m sending you two more or less recent ones attached. The one by José Pulido appeared in the Revista del Banco Central, and it dates from 2004 or 2005. The one by Julio Bolívar is earlier and was published in a journal he edited in Barquisimeto. When you have time, take a look at them and see if they have, let’s say, the indispensable quality to be selected for the volume. I’ll send you other, so you have them on hand.
With love, Eugenio.
The brief messages transcribed above, which Eugenio Montejo wrote to me in August of 2005, account for the beginnings of a project conceived of by the author of Terredad [Earthness] himself, who invited me to participate in its completion, postponed until now. The project consisted, first, of putting together in a book a selection of interviews done over the course of his life and, second, of preparing a “choral interview” in which the voices of different interviewers and Montejo’s responses, in distinct circumstances and over various topics regarding his work, his poetics, and his principles of life, would flow together. The brief text that follows is only a late demonstration of what could be the upcoming fulfilment of this wish, of this project, taking into consideration, in this case, only a few of the questions asked by the people mentioned in the messages above.
Arturo Gutiérrez Plaza
Julio Bolívar: You suggested in an interview at the end of the past decade [the eighties] that “poetry is the last religion we have left.” In light of this new millennium, do you feel the same way?
Eugenio Montejo: I said that in an interview, and then I repeated it several times due to the echo effect that it left in some way within me and within others. What I was trying to sum up is the mission that, in the industrial era, certain thinkers and poets attribute to poetry, before the abandoned belief in God, as the redemption of life.
The labor of the poet, in these terms, would be to “invent the quantity of God / that everyone denies daily,” as I say in an old poem. Before the radical economism of our days, poetry comes to be the only thing with which we can oppose the fundamentalism of money. In any case, we have to think that Bach’s cantatas, Michelangelo’s Pietá, and the poems of Fray Luis, Blake, Ungaretti, or Verlaine were not produced out of a simple drive for profit. In that sense, at least, my opinion has not changed: I still believe that poetry is, as Antonio Machado would say, “immortal and poor.” And I would add that it is very necessary, that the deepest, truest changes can come through it.
José Pulido: From your first book to now, what has changed in your sense of being a poet?
EM: Many things change and change us in life. Under the word “I,” we summarize the actions of many other beings who we have been and with whom we live, not always without dissent, hostile in secret. Sometimes, when I correct a poem written thirty years ago, I wonder if this is not an intromission into the expressive feelings of the young man I was back then. In the end, to answer your question, I share the same devotion to the enigma of language I had in my youth, I am a devotee of the god Thoth, the god of language dreamed of by the Egyptians, although with the years the practice of writing has added its experience; with the passage of time one learns to defend oneself from impulse, one tries to be more cordial with oneself. My teacher Blas Coll used to say that “the true poet is a madman who hopes to fit the whole universe into a single syllable.” That means the poet obeys his instinctive laconism at every moment. I would have endorsed that as a young man just as I endorse it now; what has changed is the way to approach it, now I know that this single syllable can be said with the nonexistent letters of silence.
Edmundo Bracho: Many critical reader have pointed out that your verse collections give the impression that you have always written–since Élegos [Elegies] (1967)–one single poem. And, indeed, the sign of the psychic-unitive and of reconciliation is maintained in your poetics.
EM: Perhaps that observation, which I think it partially true, results from the fact that people don’t notice abrupt changes, violent overflowings in what I’ve published, but rather a certain sense of unity, as you mention. Of course, that is not the result of any conscious planning; it is rather a natural development, linked with our way of being. With the years I perceive, nonetheless, an evolution dictated by the very experience that leads us to fine-tune the media and specify the keys, rather than to complicate them. Otherwise, I believe the trait of unitary being, like that of diverse being, in a writer is nothing more than that, a trait; nothing guarantees value by itself, and there are, among the variety, poets of great or little merit, just as there are unitary poets of great worth as well as others of less worth. It all depends on the art that serves to separate the subtle from the dense.
JB: You have written several books signed by heteronyms: El hacha de seda [The silk axe] by Tomás Linden; Los cuadernos de Blas Coll [The notebooks of Blas Coll], among others. What is the cause of this tendency in your poetic work?
EM: The tendency to opt for apocryphal writing has been manifested meaningfully since the start of the twentieth century, when great poets in different countries and, most curiously, without knowing each other, created these characters with autonomous voices, emissaries of an oblique writing, whose works take on their own characteristics, different from those of their creators. This is the case of Antonio Machado, of Fernando Pessoa, and, a few years later, of the French poet Valery Larbaud, the inventor of the memorable poet A.O. Barnabooth. Why did it all happen in these years? I wouldn’t know. It must have something to do with the fact that back then the theory of relativity was sinking in, the discoveries of psychoanalysis were spreading, the birth of the silent film was taking place, etc. Writing that makes use of the apocryphal voice in its method must keep in mind that this does not guarantee any great accomplishment on its own; the extraordinary part of the cases I have mentioned is that they were great poets and creations of great significance, like the Juan de Mairena of Machaco or the Alberto Caeiro of Fernando Pessoa. In my case, keeping my distance from these eminent writers, I started with El cuaderno de Blas Coll, a character attached to the somewhat nonsensical idea of trying to modify our language under the supposition that it is a weighty, or, as he says, penitential language, etc. With time, other notebooks have appeared, those of the so-called “colígrafos,” the disciples or conversation partners who come together in the typography of Blas Coll. Out of them appeared the sonnets of Linden, the annotated couplets of Sandoval; another collection of children’s poetry is upcoming from Eduardo Polo [Chamario (Caracas, Ediciones Ekaré, 2004. Colección Rimas y Adivinanzas)], and I have others that are unpublished. Now, to answer your question, I would say that through oblique writing I seek out other entirely different ways from the ones I usually propose to myself, ways of dodging the rigidity that the “I” tends to impose upon us. As I have said elsewhere, I believe that in apocryphal creation the writer is worth much more than one’s own “I,” a “poly-I,” something that, if we think of it carefully, seems like a computer’s mouse.
EB: You have said that in each word of a poem we must always read that word’s necessity; that each word must convince us that it is there because it is more necessary than other words that are not used and, at the end of the day, more valid than silence itself. Are exactitude and transparency traits that have taken a great effort to develop formally in your work, or are they rather parts of your temperament and instinct?
EM: To the extent that I have achieved something of that precision, I would say it is at once a question of temperament and of long periods of work. Poetry requires a mastery of condensation, what Brodsky called “the instinctive laconism of the poet.” It matters, nonetheless, that this be achieved in the most natural way possible, without revealing the difficulties, instead trying to overcome them through “difficult simplicity.” Work has a lot to do with it. Ungaretti, whose complete poetry takes up no more than 170 pages, claimed that the day he worked the least he worked for about four hours. And when, at the end of his days, he was recognized and famous, he got into trouble with his editor since, with every new edition, he cut away verses and words rather than enlarging his poems. As we can see, his hard work further sharpened his critical exactitude. Regarding the instinctive need for laconism in poetic writing, I like to repeat this line from the Infante Don Juan Manuel, the author of El Conde Lucanor, which contains a golden rule for any poet: “Put it in as few words as can be.”
Marina Gasparini: In your first books, the present of climates and landscapes is fundamental; so much so that one of your books is called Terredad and another Trópico absoluto [Absolute tropic]. Nonetheless, in your later books the landscape is more of an interior geography than an exterior space. What do you make of that reading?
EM: That is a true observation. I think at the start the reference to landscape was more distanced. I made use of the experiences of a rural world that I got to know, in part, in my childhood. As we all know, the rural country that was Venezuela lasted approximately until the forties, when the mining country took over, and oil, steel, and aluminum took their places as the principal products of our economy. We said goodbye to the old country of agricultural rhythms, and in its place, quite abruptly, erupted the modern country, which modifies, without much previous calculation, the architecture of the cities. I would say that the old dialogue with landscape visible in my first poems remains, but that with age one ends up internalizing it. Neither in Caracas nor in any of our main cities can you hear the crowing of a rooster, but those who have heard it in their youth do not forget it and, for want of better words, hear it still.
MG: Time is quite flexible in your poetry, there are no dividing lines between the present, the past, and the future. So it’s no surprise to see how the dead are still alive and the future keeps hold of days gone by. Is memory what allows us to erase temporal borders?
EM: In our psychological notions of temporality, we privilege the western view, which represents time as a non-spatial continuity in which events take place in an apparently irreversible succession starting in the past, passing through the present, and heading toward the future. This is the conception of time we represent as an unstoppable linear arrow. Nonetheless, there are also other representations of indigenous American or African origin in which time is perceived from a circular perspective, in which the instants of the past and present coexist. Perhaps this is the origin of this propensity in my poetry to wipe away the borders of time to which you refer. To illustrate this other conception incorporated into our mestizo culture, is we must confine ourselves to the spatial representation of time, I would make use of the same arrow, but I would add that, instead of a fixed direction, it can point toward any of the infinite points of a sphere, that is, toward the six horizons with their immeasurable directions. Following this model, instants could come toward us or move away from us, move to one or the other side, up or down, each one guided by its unforseen goal. “Time is round and it torments,” I wrote more than thirty years ago. To put it grammatically, it is as if we lived on the earth of the perpetual gerund.
JP: Are politics and intellectuality incompatible?
EM: It is difficult to share an active political exercise with a serious creative attempt of any sort. The creator tends toward solitary work, the interior search. Nonetheless, solitude and contemplation do not imply irresponsibility or indifference before public issues. Far from it. We should remember the exemplary behavior of the great Russian poets faced with Soviet totalitarianism: the regime could declare them “enemies of the people,” but the alert people did not perceive them as such, on the contrary: the verses of Ana Ajmátova, to mention one name, were learned by heart and copied in secret. Ossip Mandelstam, for his part, paid with his life for a poem against the terrible Stalin, the same to whom the inattentive far left of the West sang heated songs of praise. In Spanish America, there has been a tradition of responsibility among intellectuals faced with the outrages of autocratic regimes. As far as our country, it is enough to reread the Memorias de un venezolano en decadencia [Memoirs of a Venezuelan in decadence] of José Rafael Pocaterra, or the poem “Balada del preso insomne” [Ballad of the sleepless prisoner] by Leoncio Martínez.
Translated by Arthur Dixon
Eugenio Montejo (Caracas, 1938 - Valencia, Venezuela, 2008) was a poet, essayist, editor, and diplomat; his verse collections include: Élegos (1967); Muerte y Memoria (1972); Algunas Palabras (1976); Terredad (1978); Trópico Absoluto (1982); Alfabeto del Mundo (1986); Adiós al siglo XX (1992); Partitura de la cigarra (1999); Papiros amorosos (2002) y Fábula del escriba (2006). The majority of his essayistic work is collected in two volumes: La ventana oblicua (1974) and El taller blanco (1983). He also published many books under alternative names: El cuaderno de Blas Coll (1981); Guitarra del horizonte (by Sergio Sandoval, 1991); El hacha de seda (by Tomás Linden; 1995); Chamario (by Eduardo Polo, 2004), and La caza del relámpago (by Lino Cervantes, 2006). Among other honors, we was awarded the National Literature Prize in 1998 and the Octavio Paz International Prize for Poetry and Essay in 2004. An important volume of critical writing has been published on his work, which boasts a significant number of re-editions, extensions, and anthological volumes in several countries and in various languages.
Arturo Gutiérrez Plaza is a poet, essayist, and university professor. He serves as the Associate Editor and Book Reviews Editor of Latin American Literature Today.
He has published the following verse collections: Al margen de las hojas (Caracas: Monte Ávila, 1991), De espaldas al río (Caracas: El pez soluble, 1999), Principios de Contabilidad (Mexico: Conaculta, 2000), Pasado en Limpio (Caracas: Equinoccio, bid&co, 2006), and Cuidados intensivos (Caracas: Lugar Común, 2014). His books of essays, literary research, and anthologies include: Lecturas desplazadas: Encuentros hispanoamericanos con Cervantes y Góngora(Caracas: Equinoccio, 2009), Itinerarios de la ciudad en la poesía venezolana: una metáfora del cambio (Caracas: Fundación para la Cultura Urbana, 2010), Las palabras necesarias. Muestra antológica de poesía venezolana del siglo XX(Santiago de Chile: LOM, 2010), and Formas en fuga. Antología poética de Juan Calzadilla(Caracas: Biblioteca Ayacucho, 2011).
Among other prizes, he has won: the Mariano Picón Salas prize for poetry (Venezuela) in 1995, the Premio Hispanoamericano de Poesía Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (Mexico), in 1999, and the Premio Transgenérico de la Fundación para la Cultura Urbana (Venezuela) in 2009. He is a retired senior professor at the Universidad Simón Bolívar (Venezuela), and he currently works as a Distinguished Visiting Professor at the University of Oklahoma.
Arthur Malcolm Dixon is co-founder, lead translator, and Managing Editor of Latin American Literature Today. He has translated the novels Immigration: The Contest by Carlos Gámez Pérez and There Are Not So Many Stars by Isaí Moreno (Katakana Editores), as well as the verse collection Intensive Care by Arturo Gutiérrez Plaza (Alliteratïon). He also works as a community interpreter in Tulsa, Oklahoma and is a 2020-2021 Tulsa Artist Fellow.
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.