Juan Gelman Interview

Dialogues with Gelman

That Matter of Not Knowing While Knowing

The following dialogue with Jorge Boccanera begins in the poet’s house at the end of November precisely on the morning he was notified that he had won the Cervantes Prize for Literature  and unfolds with borrowings from other talks on a variety of topics:  his latest books, the genesis of creativity, translation, journalism, and investigative journalist Rodolfo Walsh.  Gelman speaks softly.  His conversation is peppered with humor and he accompanies his jabs with a wink and a typical Buenos Aires wag of the head.  From time to time, he makes a statement in the form of a  question and the interview takes on an informal tone with expressions invariably framed to shy away from dogmatic assertion. 

The “Cervantes,” a recognition of a lifetime achievement, is bestowed upon a poet who does not rest on his laurels.

I’m writing a new book (Mundar, recently published) and while a sort of post-partum depression used to set in after each book, now, after the “Cervantes,” something different happens.  I keep on writing.

I can see that you don’t let up on writing but what about reading?

I reread two writers: Shakespeare and Cervantes.  Not only El Quijote but also his Novelas ejemplares and his plays, as well, that reflect aspects of his imprisonment in Algiers.  Cervantes took part in many battles but he battled poverty, too . . . bear that in mind.  He wrote “from” poverty, not on poverty.  The name (of the Prize) is moving in itself, the “Cervantes.”

But there is other reading and tangential areas, as well, from Spain, related to your work: the mystics, for instance.

I read San Juan de la Cruz, the loftiest poet of the Spanish language, and Santa Teresa de Jesús; but there are the German mystics, too — Eckhardt, Hildegarde of Bingen — and the Dutch.

I consider San Juan extraordinary, the riches of his language, his choice of words, the multiplicity of meanings, that matter of not knowing while knowing.  The Spanish poet José Angel Valente wrote that San Juan “says what he says and says what he doesn’t say.”  And I say that he also doesn’t say what he says.

In the wide range of your reading you included the Cabala.

I am interested in its vision of exile.  We are exiles on earth, in existence, in history.  There is a beautiful Guatemalan Indian tradition in which a woman, during the time she is carrying a child in her womb, takes it to see the trees and the birds, explains to it what she is seeing, uses their names so that it can identify them and learn a respect for life.

Let’s talk about your last book, Mundar (To World) , which is both noun and verb . . . 

It is a book in which a reconciliation of sorts takes place.  As is often the case, it hurts to hope.  The theme is that every time the reality of this world gets worse, there is a reaction.  There are gray epochs and always a reaction to the contrary.  Oscar Wilde said that a world atlas which does not contain the land of Utopia is not worth consulting.  The Utopia — I say — is known as sleep, a country humanity visits every night.

A previous book.  País que fue será ( Was Will Be Land in its very title points to a time in disarray and a barren land.

There is no comma between “fue” and “será,” no interregnum. The title points to the country many of us wanted and is yet to be.  Not only did we want it in the ’60s and ’70s, but so did our grandparents and their grandparents.  That babies should literally starve in a land capable of feeding 360 million people a year is unacceptable.  The title also refers to the land inside of us.

In “Opinion,” a passage of País que fue será, you referred to poems written in cold blood . . . 

Either the blood lacks emotion or the poem turns it cold.

At the core of País que fue será is memory, what “goes back into a haunted house each night.”

I can say something about the uses of memory, of its power to veto what seems undesirable to it.  To remember the past is a political act.

The word “search” is the thread that runs through your work and life.  In another of your recent books, Valer la pena , the poet searches for himself.


All of that revolves around what we went through for years, defeat, Utopia, the ties of solidarity that break, that whole question.  The book is a reflection on how one feels about all those things.  One asks oneself who one was then and who now.  The questions are the same but formulated from different perspectives.

Your most recent works underscore an “unceasing” emptiness, a state of loss; the “hollow shrieks.”  

There are losses.  The important thing is how returning to them transforms them into something new.

A conflict between what is living and what is dying, what takes form and what dissolves, pervades these texts.  Is that right?

I hope so.  Your question is a precise definition of life: the new, what is born, must fight to the death against what is dying, or is already dead.  Or against what has died but hasn’t been buried yet.

Is your poetry powered by antithesis, the battle of opposites? 

Yes, opposites occur normally in life, it isn’t a voluntary exercise, that’s the way it has always been.  I believe that opposites are never resolved in a synthesis; they live on in conflict and feed off one another

You allude to poetry as “calcinated language,” stripped down language.  How does one strip down a generator of images?

Life strips it down, and that sometimes finds its way into writing.

In your writings, the universe manifests itself through written signs, historical narrative, as though all activity could be transformed into writing. 

Well, things communicate with one, says Walter Benjamin, and the universe writes from the depth and breadth of time. Miserable and poor is the human being who never gets to read that writing.

Is imagination a tool?

The task of the imagination is to question life experience and express what it discovers.  That is the relationship between life, creation, and writing.  Fantasizing is something else again, has other limits, and is more closely linked to daydreaming, but imagination is deeply embedded in experience.

Luis Cardoza y Aragón, the Guatemalan poet, sought to make a tracing of imagination . . .

There are cases in which the relationship between imagination and memory is so intense that it creates another memory in which the dream of reality is recreated as a dream of writing.

I believe that subjective experience is the offspring of life experience.  Like the reality which awakens it, subjective experience has many guises and the imagination questions them. The result is writing, poetry, the leafless tree that gives shade.  This is why the work of the imagination is to question life experience as a clash of realities.

In your most recent books you speak of the poettroubadours Guillaume de Poitiers and Guido Cavalcanti.  Is there a close relation between sonnets in slang, the trobar clus (the linguistically more sophisticated ones)? 

Yes, and not only with the ballads of past centuries.  There are outstanding examples in the present-day Cuba similar to the Argentine and Uruguayan gaucho payadores (singers of improvised ballads with guitar accompaniment) and the Uruguayans like Carlos Molina or the coplas (popular ballads) to

be heard in the interior of any of our countries.  Mayakovski called Esenin a vicecantor (sing-a-long or accompanying singer) because the singer is the people, the inventor of language.

You translated sonnets by Cavalcanti.  How did you feel about that task?

Translating poetry is harder than writing it.  Besides Cavalcanti,

I translated Yiddish poems written in 1915 by a North American Jew whose name I can’t recall right now.  In recent years I’ve been trying to translate work by Carlos Drummond de Andrade, to my way of thinking, Brazil’s greatest poet.  I like the quotidian slant of his worldview.  Fed up with being harangued about Brazilian modernism, he wrote a verse that I love: “I’m tired of being moderno, now I want to be eterno.”  His work has tragic overtones from which much of its irony derives.

Many poets march through your writings and there is even a “tribute” to the Mexican Ramón López Velarde.

I had a very strict teacher in the third grade whom we called “La Guarrochena.”  She would read us poems by López Velarde with the same frequency that she whacked us on our fingertips with a ruler when we were caught with dirty nails.  I don’t recall the poems, the strange words unfamiliar to me, but I do remember the music.  Thinking about it now, it is odd that at that time I am talking about 1939, more or less anybody should have been reading López Velarde in Argentina where he has hardly been published.  In my opinion, he is Mexico’s first modern poet and I very much appreciated the poet Hugo Gutiérrez Vega’s definition of him as “the bachelor father of Mexican poetry.”

Is it true that while in exile you wrote sonnets in Roman slang? 

Out of the country I was unable to write for several years, until ’79.  I wrote Sí, dulcemente (Yes, Sweetly).  Two elements came together in it: exile and language.  I was in Italy and Italian is a sweet, flexible language that gets into your ear.  To counteract this, I wrote a series of sonnets in Roman slang.  Pornographic some of them, spoken by a made-up character, Nono.  My colleagues at the news agency split their sides.  Later on, I translated poets of past centuries.  It was a form of consolation.

How does the relationship between poetry and journalism play out in your writing?  Is there concordance, discordance, mere coexistence? 

My being a journalist never interfered with my being a poet.  They are two different literary genres because journalism is literature both of which coexist in me as good neighbors.  There is no conflict but rather harmony.  It so happens that journalism and poetry don’t live on the same floor but are simply neighbors.  And, while I don’t think journalism has been a help to me as a poet, it did enable me to make contact with diverse realities.  They are different languages deeply rooted in different mysteries of life.

Did you ever say that interviewing is the part of the profession you like best?

Yes, and I interviewed a lot of people, politicians, intellectuals, of course: I recall one interview with Leopoldo Marechal and one with the Greek musician Mikis Theodarakis which I turned into a joke.  Theodorakis talked so much that I put everything he said into the body of the piece while I interrupted from time to time only to say “Is that so!”  To lend depth to an interview you need the other person to participate and you must encourage participation.  Lately, I’ve interviewed Carlos Fuentes, Subcomandante Marcos and José Saramago, among others.  The one with Saramago was really good because his replies had substance.

Continuing on journalism, a few years ago you won the “Rodolfo Walsh” Prize for your work.  Talk to me about that personage.

He was a man who always sought truth, “the most hidden and painful part,” he said, “of the Argentine truth,” and did so by investigating and writing with utmost rigor.  His search was always rigorous both in his life and in his work and, inasmuch as it may be said that the former left its stamp on the latter, I would venture to say, as well, that the search in his writing dug into and -opened up channels in his life.  Operación masacre seems exceptional, similar to Carta abierta de un escritor a la Junta Militar, (A Writer’s Open Letter to the Military Junta.)  Those texts are more than mere testimony.  They created something new that nobody had been able to define exactly.  Is journalism, literature, or both?  Of his stories, I like Esa Mujer (That Woman), and, Irlandeses detrás de un gato (Irishmen After a Cat) which, of course, is extraordinary.

Finally, do the obsessions of poetry operate in hazardous areas?

Poetry is an incandescent calling in which one labors while awaiting the miracle of a happy marriage of life experience, imagination, and words.  Chesterton said that the truly miraculous aspect of miracles is that they do sometimes happen.

tr. Asa Zatz