“I believe writers do not represent a country, and not a language, either”: An Interview with Santiago Elordi
Matteo Lefèvre: You’re a multifaceted creator. You began as a literary activist with the made-up news of the Noreste project, you’ve been a poet, storyteller, traveler, documentary filmmaker, and a social artist with the Visual Public Service collective. Is there a certain hierarchy or an order to the different types of art you practice?
Santiago Elordi: I don’t want to answer you with theories. Definitions. This is about practice. Of course, there is an order to things, as you say, and poetry is the first step, but understood as “poiesis,” a work or a creation that explores realities. It’s a poetry that’s ambivalent, verbal, and a poetry of action, which transforms daily life. Life can be a work of art, like music, painting, literature.
M.L.: And what is poetry to you?
S.E.: A metaphorical language that allows us to connect with a kind of vital energy. To create this metaphorical language requires an approach that involves your entire physical body, beyond just the aesthetics of it. It’s like if breathing is a continuation of humanity, poetry is the oxygen.
M.L.: Is it possible to conjure up a new future for poetry or are we faced with a genre that is inexorably doomed to extinction? What do you think is the state of poetry today?
S.E.: I believe in these times poetry is more necessary than ever. Nowadays we have this feeling that the planet is like a ship that’s sinking into itself. This feeling is caused by a combination of things, from global warming, the totalitarianism of technology, to algorithmic control. Some people talk about the end of humanism, a global technocratic super-surveillance state. So many writers in the 20th century predicted this, like Orwell or Philip K. Dick. In this dystopian panorama we fill up with activists looking for something to blame. For some people these disasters are caused by capitalism or the idea of progress. For others it is the consequence of an anthropocentric vision in relation to nature. Others find blame in human greed. Faced with this feeling of sinking we ask ourselves what should we do, and we have the impression that all the languages we have to answer this question are contaminated. Then poetry once again becomes crucial, as this metaphorical language that frees us from the code of machines, from the language of finance, from all the languages that have led us to this panorama of sinking. It’s this poetry that is more presence than idea, more beauty, less control, which connects us to our own selves.
It’s as if poetry, which, for centuries, was the ugly girl of the party that political power never asked to dance, something persecuted by religious dogmas, something Marxism never incorporated in its utopia, the social pariah that was kept out of sight from the literary prizes, today this poetry makes more sense than ever.
M.L.: Doesn’t that sound like a new savior recipe, a totalizing proposal, like a type of self-help?
S.E.: We can respond to this present situation of planetary disasters in many ways. For example, politicians offer economic growth. The Pope preaches thrift from the Vatican. The millionaire gurus of India continue teaching us how to become happy. If the planet seems like a sinking ship, we can also continue painting our nails or worrying about being late to our meeting. We can also continue searching for people to blame and condemning them, or else believing that something will save us, a god—what god?—or that aliens from other planets will save us. I’m someone who believes that no one will save us, that it’s a righteous thing to deactivate this global panorama of sinking through our metaphorical language. That’s what poetry is. It’s not about escape or selling you a paradise that will rescue you. It is reality, open, ambivalent. It lives in paradox.
M.L.: As a critic and translator, I know Chilean poetry quite a bit. What do you think about Chilean poets of the last few decades? What current authors or tendencies do you feel affinity towards?
S.E.: There are some tendencies I connect to and others I don’t. I don’t connect with antiestablishment poetry based on provocation, or the meta-literary mode, or the pained victim poet, the suffering Christs, whether private or public. I also don’t connect with poetry that is this clever intellectual game. In Chile there is a proliferation of these “puzzle” poets. So some of us wonder, what is happening? I guess Chile has a major reserve of the planet’s metaphorical language, and we are filling up with technical poetic wordsmiths. Well, it’s a world phenomenon, the “nerd” poets. There’s also this belief that poetry begins and ends in Chile. There’s a huge lack of knowledge of other traditions. Some Chilean poetry is very heavy and tiresome. In contrast, I connect with many different kinds of poets and writers, but they are all lively, lighter and visionary. There is a huge number of them. Some left Chile, like David Rosenmann. Others have died, like Tellier, María Luisa Bombal. Others are still alive, but no longer write, like Paulo de Jolly. I connect with Francisco Ide, Madrid, Cuneo, Armando Roa, Carrasco, Zambra, Anwandter, poets who live in the moment, in everyday amazement. I even connect with poets who don’t write poems, for example the spoken poetry of Gubbins, Cussens. Poetry understood exclusively as written can be like a straitjacket.
M.L.: What about Neruda?
S.E.: A virtuoso of language, clearly, but he’s always saying, “Look how good I am at this, I’m a juggler.” He also makes things appear as if by magic, but as a poet of the Americas, he is very inferior to Whitman. Neruda’s Canto General doesn’t share space with the diversity of poets. It hoards the limelight.
M.L.: Gabriela Mistral?
S.E.: She has some humanity, but she believed that poetry consists of confusing one’s feelings with dark words and a biblical meter.
M.L.: You don’t spare anyone sometimes. What do you think of the figure of Nicanor Parra? I recently published a long anthology of his through the long-established publishing house Bompiani.
S.E.: Very interesting, an explorer, unnerving. I was very close to Parra in the 80s. He was always creating unnerving scenes. One time, I found him nervously pacing back and forth in his house. He was pulling his hair out. I asked him what he was doing. “I’m looking for the pit of a fig,” he said to me. Parra had this playful side, able to shake up mechanical stereotypes of thought and action. He was like a Taoist master, he laughed at anything serious. But there’s also Parra the cacique, fighting to dethrone Neruda; his visual “artefactos,” which he considered more antiestablishment than Duchamp’s ready-mades; all that avant-garde stuff with the sign liberated from the referent. For example, another time we were traveling through the Atacama Desert, and he asked me, “What is more real, this desert or the word desert?” I said to him that the desert existed long before humans. “You don’t know anything. The word desert is more real than the desert,” he concluded indignantly. In admiration of him, I wrote an article about the ridiculous invention of antipoetry. It was published in El Mercurio, and called “Let’s free the butterflies from the garden.” Among other things, I advocated creative freedom. I said colloquial poetry is old as Adam. If Parra breathed oxygen into Chilean poetry, he also became more papist than the Pope defending antipoetry. It’s screwed up, to be anti-something. You’re a prisoner, marked by a negation. I’ll stick with his more anarchist side.
M.L.: Where do you situate yourself in the landscape of Chilean literature?
S.E.: It’s very clear to me that I’m not a major figure. I’m not in the scene. I don’t write about Chile directly. One of the things I’m almost obsessed with is cultural alienation. Also, I didn’t publish for many years. Recently I came out with two novels. It’s a little bit like a retired boxer getting back in the ring. We’ll see what happens.
M.L.: What can you tell me about the creative process, the methods and techniques of writing your poetry?
S.E.: I think the ideal is to write like samurai archers during battle, or like the Chinese painter-poets who, after years of training, get to the point of fast ink-and-brush strokes, which gives you a strong sense of crisp lines, movement, a lot of life in the poem. Since I don’t have that grace, that talent, that technique, my method consists of putting a lot of sweat into it. I can spend an entire day on one line, and hopefully give the impression that the poem was written in one breath. So to sum it up, a lot of work and artifice. What is also called the “true lie” of art.
M.L.: Let’s move on to novels. In the past three years, you’ve come out with two novels, Seven, a love story set in Shanghai, and La Panamericana, about a journey of initiation, both published by the Spanish publisher La Huerta Grande. What can you tell me about the creative process, your methods and techniques for narrative writing?
S.E.: I’m concerned with point of view, the placement of the speaker. I try to put the speaker in a place of strangeness, and make that the starting point for the story’s movement, the characters, the scenes. My narrative structure is simple—beginning, middle and end. The tendency towards fable is very natural for me. I’m thinking about Jonathan Swift or the subtle jokes of Mulla Sufi Nasrudin, who conveys his ideas through ridiculous situations. Silliness and craziness, fantasy and the real world as paradoxes.
M.L.: What is your opinion on the importance of language and its consistency in literature? Your prose is synthetic. It has a flowing but clipped rhythm. It doesn’t have the exuberance and rhetoric that you would expect from a South American writer. Could you say something about that?
S.E.: The thing is I don’t feel like a South American writer. I believe writers do not represent a country, and also not a language. I never bought the story of those linguists who say that the reason we think is because of verbal language. Or that snobbishness, like that German is a richer language for philosophy. I believe we think in images, that’s first. Sensations, which we translate into verbal language, that comes later. The proof is in our primitive ancestors. They represented the world by painting those deer on rock walls. Writing just recently appeared five thousand years ago. So I feel like part of a tribe of uncomfortable writers, who are even betrayed by words, but who write anyways. Maybe this paradox is what gives meaning to this writing stuff.
M.L.: What can you tell us about your literary career. What do you think about it over the years?
S.E.: Ever since I started writing, I knew I would not be on the normal literary career path. It’s not really my thing, checking off all the right boxes, writing a column every once in a while, lobbying the publishing houses, the awards, the conferences. That doesn’t mean I don’t want to publish, or that I don’t want to build a body of work, as they say. But where I put my accent is on staying in a creative state when everything around you is going in the opposite direction.
M.L.: Chilean literature has always been affected by the ghost of the dictatorship and its consequences. How did the dictatorship affect the literature of your generation, and especially your writing?
S.E.: Listen, I’m pretty lost when it comes to the topic of generations. I was never a hippie or a revolutionary, and when punk came on the scene when I was young, I was reading haikus. I don’t know why I didn’t fit in with the social movements of my time. I’m pretty anachronistic, awkward like a crab. During the dictatorship, artists that were older than me were very active politically, which gave them a certain set of historical credentials. Not me. I was 11 when the military coup happened, and if I do belong to a generation, I would say it was the one that tried to impose a new logic. For the Noreste people, they used to throw it in our face that we weren’t politically active or we practiced political escapism. And in a certain sense they were right. In Noreste we were inventing news that wasn’t real. We were not protesting politically, but we were making a type of poetry, even playing with it. I came to understand this better as I got older: during repressive dictatorships, artists respond in different ways, and what can’t be categorized—let’s call it poetry—is disconcerting for authoritarians. In that sense, the reading of events that says that the dictatorship fell exclusively because of political activism might be incomplete. At that time we said to ourselves: we are not going to wait for democracy to make poetry or to make our imaginations come to life. It was a conscious dissidence. The terrible thing about the thousand forms of dictatorships is that they trap your mind, even those that protest against it. So we were an escapist generation, and I should add, we were also a generation of failure. That’s because if during the dictatorship we responded with an escapist or poetic attitude, when democracy came, we faded into politically correct language.
The dictatorship definitely affected my writing. To this day I continue escaping creatively when faced with any kind of repression. I continue creating personalities that express their individual liberty in repressive situations, regardless of the consequences. I detest any kind of totalitarian expression, no matter where it comes from. Although I don’t like to be defined, politically I might be an anarcho-individualist, following the liberal line of a writer like Thoreau. I’m someone who believes that the mental chain that creates all kinds of disasters, pain or social suffering, can be broken by creating other realities. So in this context of global sinking that we are living through, poetry makes more sense than ever.
Translated by Slava Faybysh
Matteo Lefèvre is a professor of Spanish Language and Translation at the Tor Vergata University of Rome. A critic, translator, and poet, he collaborates with several Italian and international journals and directs the Hispanic poetry collection "Siglo presente" for Editorial Ensemble. He has curated Italian anthologies of Goytisolo, Parra, Mistral, and other Spanish-language poets.
Santiago Elordi (1960), Chilean, is a versatile, rather unclassifiable writer. He has lived a wandering life, and as well as a writer, he has been a translator, a hotel doorman, a miner, a documentary filmmaker, and a diplomat. In 1990 he founded Noreste, a newspaper made up of invented news that, under the motto "La Vida Peligrosa" [The dangerous life], became a cultural reference point for a whole generation during Chile's repressive military dictatorship. In 1997 he received a residency grant in New York, and there he formed close relationships with poets and artists of various schools. In 2005, along with the painter Kate Macdonald, he set off on a 4,000-mile journey through the state of Mato Grosso, Brazil, following the route of the explorer Percy Fawcett, who was lost on an expedition more than a century before. The journey was recorded in the documentary Punto Z. In 2010 he cofounded Visual Public Service (VPS), a public intervention collective. Santiago Elordi's poetry, as much as his fiction, his documentaries, and his more social art, demonstrate emphatically the lack of borders between genres, exploring the possibility of art as a way of life. He currently lives in London, England.
Slava Faybysh is a translator based in Chicago. He translated Leopoldo Bonafulla’s The July Revolution, Barcelona 1909 (AK Press), a first-hand chronicle of a weeklong rebellion and general strike followed by government repression, told from an anarchist perspective. His translation of I Want to Live My Life (1931), by Carmen de Burgos, a Spanish socialist feminist who was problematically writing about gender-identity issues, is forthcoming from Song Bridge Project in 2022.
In our thirteenth issue, we feature two innovative, hard-to-define figures of Latin American letters: from the present, Mexican writer Mario Bellatin, and from the past, Chilean writer Juan Emar. Together with these authors, we highlight Latin American theatre for the first time with a script by Ramón Griffero, Nahuatl-language poetry by Martín Tonalmeyotl, plus interviews, book reviews, exclusive previews, and more from writers including Rosario Castellanos, César Aira, and Salgado Maranhão.