Monday, January 15, 2007

Interview with Ernesto Priego

Tom Beckett: Where did/does poetry begin for you?

Ernesto Priego: It began with García Lorca. My parents gave me this little book of his poems for children, an illustrated one. I must have been 6 or 7. I knew that book by heart. I can still remember some of those: "el lagarto está llorando/la lagarta está llorando..." It was a very scary book, in a way, and now that I think of it I realize how influential it was to me. Not only the fact that for me the illustrations and the words were inseparable, and perhaps thus my fascination with illustrated books and comics, but also this sense of melancholy and inebriated sorrow that can be felt all over Lorca.

I started writing poetry and became interested in being a poet (whatever that means) after meeting Mexican poet and Latin American literature professor Eduardo Casar. His approach to poetry is so down-to-earth, and at the same time so carnavalesque, that it was impossible not to be fascinated by the possibility of experiencing life in a poetic way, which would mean, for me, when I was 15 at least, not growing up and thus becoming boring and pathetic. When I was a teenager Casar made me rediscover poetry's revolutionary power to disturb with beauty and a sense of humor the most solidified cysts of a conformed society. It may be the only case in my life in which meeting the person preceded reading the poetry. I met him at a poetry reading he gave at my high school in Coyoacán. Then I read his Caserías book and a whole world revealed to me. "Basta la lluvia y se me nota todo" was a line that made me realize how words could say more about us than we ever imagined.

In a non-chronological sense, poetry begins, for me, in dawn and dusk. Poetry is a space of indeterminacy: the threshold. It may sound like a commonplace, but I find poetry wherever I go, and I am constantly sniggling or even laughing on my own when I walk around a city. My idea of poetry is very referential and self-referential, trivial one could say, in that sense. I am always establishing connections, quoting, building bridges. Sometimes I become quite cryptic for other people because I have this whole textual universe which is almost private (though shared with some people I know and I don't know) and therefore I'm concerned about not getting whatever message I want to convey across. And when I see that this private, intimate network of words makes sense to other people, people who don't know me personally, like Jean Vengua, Eileen Tabios, Amy Bernier, John Bloomberg-Rissman or Mark Young I realize how much I underestimate the power of simple words. I am always surprised and what can happen when you send a word away, when you let it go. In that sense I was profoundly influenced by Cristina Peri-Rossi and Alejandra Pizarnik. I truly, sincerely believe that poetry must be a very humble act, just to discover that what it can do, sometimes, can be the least humble thing.

TB: You're bilingual--fluent in Spanish and English. You think and write in both languages. Talk about that a little--how it affects your practice.

EP: It's essential. My relationship with English is a special and strange one, because I always feel a bit uncomfortable in it and still sometimes it's the language I feel expresses better some things. Since I was a kid my favorite authors were either USAmericans or British, and even though I read them in translations to Spanish I could always sense that what I was reading was merely an approximation to what the original was. There's also the fact that many of the translations I read came from Spain and therefore felt always pretty alien to me: that Spanish wasn't the Spanish I knew. So the experience of translation has also be a key one: the idea that no language is completely whole or self-sufficient and that only a Babelian mash-up of languages could probably come somewhere near to expressing the whole. Back when I was a teenager, by listening to pop music in English (mainly punk, hardcore, goth and some metal) and reading comic books and novels and poetry I started having this understanding of language and experience of it as a fragmentary one. It is through the experience of bilingualism that I have come to define for myself an understanding of what poetry could be: meanings are never final and univocal.

I get aesthetic pleasure from dictionaries: I collect them. They are an essential tool, not only when I'm writing poetry, but as a way of making a living, because I am a translator as well. Translation and writing poetry have always been related fields for me, not only because of my experience as a reader, learning a language by trying to understand poetry or song lyrics (most of my knowledge of French came first from Baudelaire and Rimbaud, for example) but also because of my need to say things that cannot be properly expressed in only one language. When I read Deleuze and Guattari's book on Kafka and minor literature I could perfectly relate to this idea of writing in a language that wasn't yours. And then I discovered Walter Benjamin and then Jacques Derrida and everything started making sense. But critical theory and deconstruction in particular became meaningful for me only because I already had this primitive, primal notion that meanings were perpetually deferred.

As a Mexican writer, it's very strange that I should decide to write poetry in English. But as a Mexican English Literature student, it was only logical, for me, to try my hand at it. But in Mexico it was some kind of unspoken rule, a cultural taboo, also because of our contradictory and conflictive relation to the US,that a Mexican Spanish native speaker should want to write in the language of the Northern neighbor, the language of Uncle Sam. In Mexican culture, the figure of the translator is the figure of the traitor. La Malinche is depicted by Mexican muralist painter David Alfaro Siqueiros Siqueiros as a prostitute who, bilingual, licks Hernán Cortés´s ear. So right there, deep in the Mexican psyche lies the idea that to speak the oppressor´s tongue is to sell yourself and therefore to sell your country. Again, this is quite contradictory in contemporary Mexican culture, because, for instance, Diego Rivera was very happy to paint his murals in the US and, in general, Mexicans have a fascination with English and make every possible effort to learn it. In recent times, our most talented filmmakers and actors have filmed in English, but there are not that many of us writer types writing originally in English. (Mexicans writers are translated into English, of course, but not the other way around). So, I must say, for me it's also a conscious decision, a political act of sorts if you will, to know that writing in English as a Mexican writer puts me in a strange situation which is also a non-place. Because my English is "awkward" because it's my second language and I´m not as fluent in it as I wish I were, and because in Mexico people will not take seriously any work of mine not written in Spanish. My hay(na)ku collection, Not Even Dogs, will not be reviewed in Mexico because it's in English and therefore it cannot be read nor sold nor distributed. There's no interest in Mexico for a book like mine, written in a language which is not mine. Then again, I would say that Spanish is not my language either.

TB: Not Even Dogs has, I believe, the distinction of being the first individually authored booklength collection of hay(na)ku. What is it about that form that appeals to you?

EP: I feel very honored that Eileen Tabios decided mine should be the first single-author hay(na)ku collection. I never expected that to happen. What interests me about the 1-2-3 form is that whenever I think of it different ideas come to my head. I have attempted to reply to this question of "why hay(na)ku?" before and I always come up with a different answer. By the time I first came across Eileen's concept of the hay(na)ku I had been playing around with those "magnetic poetry" sets at my friend's kitchens and would take photos of the resulting poems. I realized some of them imitated the three-line structure of the "American haiku" as imagined by Jack Kerouac, and when I read Eileen I even thought we were on very similar playgrounds there. Then I realized her concept was much more formally rigid than I thought at first, but this gave me an excuse to be bold and just attempt as many combinations as possible. There is something about the rhythm of the hay(na)ku that was strikingly familiar to pop music lyrics and to the Northern Mexican lyrical tradition of corridos. I saw in the hay(na)ku structure a very seductive tendency towards the stanza rather than a self-contained unit. I guess I always thought of some lyrics by bands I like in terms of 1-2-3s:

pensando sobre-
viviendo con mi

en New
Jersey: ella me

que es
una vida buena

bien rica,
bien chévere! (Ey-oy!)

(From The Pixies, "Vamos")

Also, a case like this:

ahí cabaretera
vuelve a ser

que antes
eras en aquél

rincón ahí
quemaron tus alas

equivocada las
luces de Nueva-York

(From La Sonora Santanera, "Luces de New York")

So I thought that the hay(na)ku, instead of promoting a way of reading that would isolate individual words in a negative sense, would be all about fluidity and run-ons. The stanzaic form, though, does promote a reading that places attention on the graphic situation of each word and on the blank spaces after each end of line. This gap between lines, the line-break proper, is something I see as the space between panels in comic books, what Scott McCloud calls "the gutter". For him the whole mechanism of graphic narrative is activated by this blank space between panels. For me, the hay(na)ku is activated by this blank space between lines and between stanzas. I have never been into metrical patterns, even though I had to study that in the university. But I always thought that poetry was somewhere else, not in technical or metrical precision. So here was this form that was cunningly simple. 1, 2, 3. Like punk rock:

on the
brat -beat on

brat with
a baseball bat

(From The Ramones, "Blitzkrieg Bop")

I am only thinking of this as I try to reply to your question. But the more I think of it the more I realize that my visual memory of pop music lyrics had a tendency to be in a hay(na)ku-like stanzaic form even if they hadn't been originally conceived as that, of course. The hay(na)ku appealed to my imagination and my sentimental education. I was thinking of Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon whispering,

swear I
never mean it

swear it
wasn't meant to


(From "Shadow of a Doubt")

and then, I don't know, I just started trying my hand at it. I would start talking in hay(na)ku form, even if nobody noticed. When I first read my hay(na)ku in my book's launch in Xalapa, México, last year, a member of the audience asked me to read more emphatically as to underline the 1-2-3 stanzaic form, because he could not "see" it as I was reading it. I did not want to, because for me the whole thing was about being fluid, about running into the next stanza. Some of my hay(na)ku sequences, as they have become known, do require some more isolated reading, separating each stanza as a single unit, making pauses between them, but in general I would say that what I want to achieve is a two-fold combination of both an emphasis on the haiku-like 3-line snapshot and underscoring simultaneously that these instants are always part of a longer current of words and images and thoughts that flow into each other.

I guess that another reason why I have been so in love with the form is because of the differences between the English syntax and the Spanish one. I have always been fascinated by antepositions and all the possible relationships between adjectives, adverbs and nouns. Adjectival nouns are so marvelous in English. I don't think there is an equivalence in Spanish. So the possibility of leaving a word on its own is an invitation to consider its different functions, both as a part of speech and as an element within a syntactical structure.

TB: Who do you think of as your poetic forebears?

EP: That's a very interesting question. I don't know! I was just reading the issue of MiPoesias that Nick Carbo edited and I could relate so much to the poetics there. Sometimes I feel more connected to the poetry being written by Filipino-Americans and Asian-Americans than with the one written by Latinos or Chicanos. So I was wondering, just today, if there was something common, yet-unexplored, between the poetic experience and ancestry of Asian Americans and the place I think I come from. I would as well, say that there would be no way I'd be interested in poetry were it not for Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. The whole Beat generation was foundational for me and I guess that for a lot of people of my generation in Mexico. But I was also influenced by a sense of poetic writing from authors like Borges, Cortázar and Pizarnik. Of course that Mexican poetry was influential, especially Octavio Paz and Xavier Villaurrutia. Villaurrutia, whom I read because of Elías Nandino, another poet whose sense of sadness affected me deeply, has to be the the Mexican poet that most made me see what could be done with words. I always felt a bit alienated from Octavio Paz´s work, due to political reasons, and it took me until my late 20s "to give him a second chance" and read his poetry trying to leave my prejudices behind.

I don't think I write with a sense of historical or literary genealogy in mind. In a way, for me to write is to be trapped within a very complex double-bind: I write to liberate myself from any sense of rootedness, while, at the same time, I know I write as a means to ground myself somewhere. I just don´t have a "national" conception of poetry, and my forebears would have to be all these authors from different times and ages and countries and languages. To be honest, I feel closer to Charles Thompson (aka Black Francis or Frank Black; the Pixies´s lead singer, not the ragtime musician) than to López Velarde. I think this is also in some sort of reaction to an attitude I perceive in some Mexican writers of my generation and even much younger ones, that their poetic tradition, to give it a name, is pretty much Mexican or Latin American. I know that my love for the English language annoys (or, in the best case, amuses) my fellow wordsmen at my home country. I just can´t separate myself from the political context and I do feel a connection between revering the mainstream literary tradition in Mexico and alligning yourself to some sort of literary or cultural status quo. To be honest, I don't give a flying cucumber about that. So I try to keep myself as far away as possible from the literary mainstream, even though I have mingled with it quite closely you could say, but in terms of recognizing a tradition I can't lie and say that I like better Octavio Paz than T.S. Eliot or Carlos Fuentes than Nick Hornby. I guess this is also connected to this idea I have that a writer is not someone who calls himself a writer but someone who writes. I get the impression some people write because they want to be writers and the social recognition it brings, even if in a country like Mexico that is so paradoxical because even the most recognized and best-selling authors struggle to make a living from their work. Maybe this will sound like bollocks to some, but I honestly write for pleasure. That´s why I blog. I guess the reason why most of my contemporaries in Mexico do not blog is because they see writing as a way of making a life and see no reason to do it for free. It´s just an hypothesis, but I would sustain it. Others blog but leave their "more serious" work out of the blog, so they can publish it later somewhere else, most importantly on paper. What I like about my book is the fact that most of the poems there were previously posted on my blog and people had already read them even if in a slightly different form. I write in English, I think, because my true passion is pop culture and that implies a recognition that we live in an heterogeneous, cacophonic culture, and this has allowed me so much freedom to write whatever I want without thinking of pleasing specific literary mafias or cliques in Mexico. Now it may seem like I am straying too much away from the main question, as I usually seem to do (you should see me teach a class!), but I guess what I am trying to say is that an idea of who your forebears are is strictly related to who you want to be and what you want to do with your writing. So I acknowledge the importance that some writers had on my personal life, but that does not mean I would like to write like them or to be related to them in any way.

When I think about it, most poets who really influenced me were really rock and roll, if you know what I mean. Eduardo Casar is so rock and roll. When he writes,

Sucede que yo no me enamoro.
Simple, infinitivamente me tatúo.

he is playing with language and is giving a very long, emphatic finger to so much of the mainstream poetics and its politics. (I am quoting here by heart; so the actual poem may be slightly different). Paul Celan, Rainer Maria Rilke, Giuseppe Ungaretti, Constantine Cavafy, Xavier Villaurrutia, Cristina Peri-Rossi, Philip Larkin, W.B. Yeats, the English Romantics, all of them are grouped in my own personal pantheon as pure, absolute rock and roll. And even though I do enjoy some experimental and avant garde music, I will always prefer John Cale to John Cage. (And I do like Cage, mind you, just like I enjoy Pierre Henry, but if this flat were on fire I'd take The Velvet Underground over Cage's Etudes Australes without a thought). I come from a lyrical tradition, and this must be my strongest connection to what could be my own personal "national" tradition. Maybe this explains my conflict with the terms "experimental" and "post-avant", which I never know if they are meant to be chronological or formal. I understand the postmodern age I have experienced as one of intertextuality rather than one where language should be used as some sort of malleable substance that does have to stray away from the traditional sense of "meaning". So I come from both these sides, from both a need to experiment with languages and a need to keep saying things. Mexican culture is a lyrical culture, full of popular sayings, idiomatic expressions and carefree music about heartbreak and impossibility. Even the most experimental Mexican composers, who have had to deal with the ghosts of people like Manuel M. Ponce, Blas Galindo, Silvestre Revueltas and Carlos Chávez, seem to move within a lyrical context, even if its only "emotional", and not lyric-wise. I don't know if this makes any sense, because I am not a professional musicologist, but even one of the most prolific contemporary composers, Javier Álvarez, who by the way studied here in London and now teaches in Mexico, seems to be trapped within a need to deconstruct the burden of "Mexicanity" (I am thinking here of his piece "Temazcal"). Something similar, I think, happens with contemporary poetry in Mexico: there are some precious exceptions, but in general I think that the most recognized young poets writing in Spanish in Mexico are still trapped under the (political and formal) shadow of Octavio Paz. To be honest, I am interested in this as a cultural phenomenon, but I think that there are more interesting things being done at the level of underground pop culture, both in music and in poetry. So my forebears are the poets and the writers and the musicians and the artists in general that I have enjoyed during these three decades of my life, but that does not mean in any way that that is actually reflected on what I do. Maybe it does. I don't know.

TB: Well, Ernesto, I believe that what/whom one loves matters in infinite numbers of ways which aren't always apparent to oneself. I'm a great believer in acknowledging those loves.

Do you think that poets have any unique social responsibilities?

EP: Yeah, you are right. I never quite believed Miles when he said he had no influences. It wasn't for him to say, after all. And sure, acknowledging one's loves is truly important. I keep dedicating poems to people or writing them after their work or their names or what they do. I do believe that poetry is a social activity and could never be detached from the rest of the world and other people. In that sense, your question is truly important. I'm not sure about "unique" social responsibilities, but I do believe that poets have social responsibilities they are not always willing to accept. By "social responsibility" I don't mean here some kind of very direct activism, or charity work, which here in the UK is perceived as the main form of being ethical or socially responsible, but an acknowledgment of the political role of poetry. Because poetry is not a "productive" activity in the same sense gardening or medicine is, and because it is still practiced and consumed by a comparatively small group in the context of the mainstream cultural activity, poets should be constantly aware of their role in the world. It comes to mind that language, especially "powerful" languages such as English, that dominate others and that have become the lingua franca of global business and mass communication, is also the material with which poetry is made. So poets should be more sensitive to the powers of languages, to what they can say and do. Not content-wise, not in the sense of Sartre's "engaged literature" or of the Latin American idea of "protesta", but in the sense of being open to difference through language. It is also in this sense that I understand Adorno's famous and so often misunderstood idea of "no poetry after Auschwitz". Because language was a key element in the implementation of Nazism and the destruction of European otherness. Because poetry could never be the same after such barbaric event. My idea of social responsibility in poetry is the one I read in Paul Celan, and more recently in the poetry of people like Barbara Jane Reyes and Michele Bautista, where language is reflecting, in my reading, the severe traumas of the contemporary world. That's also one of the reasons why I dislike some poetry written according to very formal metric standards or using a language that is completely detached from most people's reality. It's not about being "populist" or about dumbing down poetry, but about realizing that language can alienate and be used as a means to alienate poetic language itself.

The problem with the avant garde is that it also saw people like Marinetti and Italian futurism, whose radical elitism shaped their idea of "hygiene" through war. Futurism became an aesthetics of war, and in this sense it represented, for me, the end of the promise of poetry as a revolutionary force. Because, after all, I do believe in the revolutionary power of poetry, but not in the propagandistic sense. By "the revolutionary power of poetry" I mean the ability to make language say more than what the status quo has allowed it to say. Poetry should celebrate imagination, not alienation. My interest in popular culture is also an interest in the carnavalesque, in the possibilities for disrupting the established order of things. As long as poets have the will and the initiative to seek different forms and forums for expression, as long as they do not passively accept the traditional channels and forms of mainstream and established literature, I think there is hope for poetry as a socially responsible practice.

I don't think that the poet is a "unique" character that should receive special considerations in society. But I believe, at the same time, that some societies have been completely detached from their poetic traditions and have learned to live without poetry. This is very sad. When I visit a house of a friend that has no poetry books, the next time I take a poetry book as a gift. It disturbs me, it saddens me deeply to see a house without poetry books, the same way that I still can't understand how some people can live their lives without listening to music. And then there's the fact that poetry books are very expensive and printed on very limited runs. And the official campaigns to promote poetry reading, not only in Mexico but even here in London, as in the case of the Underground Poetry campaign here in the tube, have not been that intelligent nor successful in attracting new readers. The truth is that the general public feels completely detached, if not alienated, from poetry or poetic experience. Walter Benjamin and his idea of modernity as the decay of the poetic experience comes to mind. I do believe that poetry can change lives, but that can only happen if poetry is read and poetry is written. So "social responsibility" in this sense would mean understanding the fundamental role of poetry as a life-changing experience and as an essential aspect of human development, of all human beings, not only cool urban hipsters or nerdy indie kids or tweed-wearing academics. And sometimes poetry feels so alienated form the rest of the world; so concerned with their own internal strifes, without realizing that nobody else but those within care about it. It reminds me of all the hours I spent in my 20s discussing what comics should be with Mexican cartoonists. We kept talking about it, spent weeks on message board discussions, burning precious time we should have employed in actually doing those comics. Comics share with poetry their reduced readership and their endangered species status. But, unlike comics, poetry is considered the highest literary activity. No one denies the cultural importance of poetry, while comics are still unfairly perceived as childish and immature. But this cultural recognition is merely nominal, because out of a few mainstream and well-established authors, poetry does not matter much in the cultural panorama. So poets have a responsibility to keep practicing poetry and to make it matter, to attract new readers, not only the same people who are already reading it.

TB: One last question: what is most encouraging/discouraging to you about the current poetry scene(s)?

EP: There are more encouraging things than discouraging ones. I have been very lucky in finding a receptive audience and fellow poets who have made me feel like what I do has some value. I would have never been so vocal about what I think of poetry outside of the unviersity's classrooms had it not been for blogging. I am indebted to many individuals who were very encouraging from the very beginning, like Bill Marsh, K. Silem Mohammad, Nick Piombino and of course Eileen Tabios. I think they might have been about the first ones to notice my work on my blog and to respond to it. I think the work that Ron Silliman does in terms of promoting poetry is awe-inspiring, even though some times I get depressed by reading the comments on his blog. Sometimes the Internet can emphasize a lot this navel-watching attitude of small groups or the "developed West" a lot, but at the same time it has, with blogging at its center, developed a very interesting community of people from different countries who support each other. I have recently been able to participate in a project by Bill Allegrezza, a poet whose blog I had followed for some time now but that until recently I established contact with. So "my scene" if it should be called like that, is basically my blog roll, a group of mutually-encouraging people interested in poetry and other things. I do find a bit discouraging to see that in spite of many important efforts poetry on the Internet still seems to replicate the political agendas of poetry off line. So there is not as much collaboration or exchange between poets of different nationalities, maybe because of the language barrier and what has been called "the technological divide", but I remain hopeful that this will change in the near future. When I was a teenager I published my own fanzines and was a DIY publications collector. Electronic self-publishing and blogging has been the next logical step. I wouldn't have been able to publish my poetry in English in Mexico, and it would have taken me a lot of time to get my stuff published in American or British journals using the traditional system of submitting by post. So as a blogger I have been self-publishing my stuff for more than 5 years now, and that has been a means of opening many doors. I still find the USA poetic scene(s) very intimidating, very localized and insular in many ways, but that may be because I don't know them first-hand and because all I know about them is what I read of them. I believe poetry should be all about exchange and dialogue, and I think that the Internet is and will keep playing a central role for contemporary poetry. As long as poets understand that the world is very diverse and complex and that the term "global" still has to find its true meaning implying a respectful recognition of otherness, including that of other languages and cultures, I think that poetry has a lot to offer in terms of encouragement. Maybe I'm too optimistic, but sometimes, when I write something and get a response I never expected, I can't help feeling that there is still some hope left in this world.


Blogger Jean Vengua said...

Wonderful interview, Ernesto --so we both started at the same place: with Lorca!

8:08 PM  
Blogger EILEEN said...

Y'all...I caught that interesting followup on this wonderful interview over on comments section of Jean's blog. I found the discussion fascinating, and would encourage reflecting that (whether as clarification or what not) in the interview-version that will be presented in Tom's future project about interviews that he has yet to make official (heh).

an idea. Hi Tom.

2:17 PM  

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