Gustavo Barrera Calderón.
As many of us process the results of the 2016 U.S. presidential election with anger and sadness, I hope that Gustavo Barrera Calderón's words might be a small source of light and strength. When I read his response for the first time yesterday, I was deeply moved and heartened by the grace and fortitude of this man who spent his entire childhood living under Augusto Pinochet's military dictatorship. (His poetry is remarkable, too.)
The text in Spanish is posted below. Thanks for being with me this week. I wish you well--
Gustavo Barrera Calderón (Santiago de Chile, 1975) has published eight books of poems, and received fellowship support from the Neruda Foundation, among others. I am currently translating his 2010 verse novel, Cuerpo perforado es una casa [Punctured Body Is a Home], which I first encountered while visiting Santiago in 2014, when I was struck by the direct, unadorned beauty of his poems, the way the seemingly straightforward language of Calderón's lines reveal much deeper emotional, familial, and political complexities. Excerpts from his book in my translation have been published in Issue 13 of SAND, and are forthcoming in the Issue 26 of Two Lines. This week we exchanged emails to discuss identity and the process of generating poetic material.
KH: You've mentioned to me before that, while working with Gabriela Mistral's manuscripts in the Biblioteca Nacional de Chile, you came across many letters from the Cuban poet Dulce María Loynaz to Gabriela, which always began with “Cara Poetisa,” “Dear Poetess.” Although the poems in Punctured Body stand on their own, the book reads as a verse novel as well, since the arc of what's recounted is as important as the individual poems. There's also an epistolary quality to the book, written as it is in conversation with Dulce María's Jardín, that lends it an intimate, tender tone, as though the reader were listening in on a private exchange. You even lifted a handful of lines from her book as a way structuring your own. Could you tell us a bit more about how Punctured Body […] grew out of your engagement with Dulce María's voice, and how you arrived at the poetic voice of your book?
GBC: As you say, I became familiar with Dulce María’s work thanks to her letters to Gabriela Mistral. I found the formalities and way in which she began her correspondence amusing: ‘Cara poetisa’ is already a dated expression, the word cara having been supplanted by querida or ‘estimada’; and ‘poetisa’—in Chile, at least—fell out of use at the request of female poets in the 1980s, who considered it a pejorative term. They felt that the word ‘poeta,’ ‘poet,’ should apply equally to both men and women, because language—especially in Spanish, which assigns all nouns a gender—is where discrimination and omissions originate (collective plurals in Spanish are all masculine—for example the word ‘children,’ ‘niños,’ refers to both niños and niñas). In my writing, I look to neutral forms, as I’m interested in having the text remain situated in an ambiguous, indeterminate territory that allows for multiple meanings. This is also my approach to literary genres: my poetry traverses the narrative and my prose the lyric, in many of my texts characters appear and begin to speak, and there are even descriptions of dramatic scenes; it could be called, perhaps, a literary trans-genre.
Returning to the connection with Dulce María Loynaz, I was stunned by her novel Jardín (Garden) and her poem “Últimos días de una casa” (“A home’s last days”). I’ve always been interested in the relationship between bodies and spaces, of lives lived in spaces, and earned a degree in architecture motivated by this interest. In both texts by Loynaz, the passing of time and the spatial dimensions of a crumbling, dilapidated historic building left me with a kind of epiphany about the echoes or resonances that I had with my own experience, especially with my childhood. The first house I lived in, until I was nine years old, was a palatial neoclassical building with marble floors located right in the middle of El Golf district, which was one of the most expensive districts in Santiago and next to a golf club. The house was only about three hundred meters from Augusto Pinochet’s home, and a few years earlier it had been the ambassador to the Soviet Union’s residence. When the military coup happened, the house was under the protection of the Indian Embassy, and my grandmother, who was close to the Russians—although they never gave me a clear explanation as to why—wound up in charge of the building's care. We were a big family, my mother, my aunt, my great-grandmother, all of us lived there, but the house was so vast that it was very difficult to come across anyone. The building was rundown but still beautiful. The first floor was empty and there were two rooms underground, part of a bunker that the Russians had left half-built. The people in the neighborhood hated us, to them we were Communists, weirdos, an affliction. I was the only child in the house, and playtime consisted of exploring these spaces: discovering objects left behind by former inhabitants, observing plants, insects, animals, mirrors, images, and scenes on TV, as well as the rain and the way the sun came in through the windowpanes.
The writing of Punctured Body is a Home happened over three days, in a flood of images that I wanted to get down simply to show myself what I'd observed, heard, and dreamt during my childhood years; to make it evident. Without issuing any judgement or commentary from my present situation or mental condition, I wanted to convey the same sense of surprise I felt when confronting these phenomena in their original state. The only subsequent intervention came precisely from the reading of Jardín unlocking this flood of images. For me, writing is always a dialogue; in this case, the dialogue became more explicit by incorporating traces of the text that acted as a catalyst for this process.
KH: Given that you're still at the National Library, I'm curious to know more about the work you do there, and whether it informs your current writing process. What are your projects at the moment, poetic or otherwise?
GBC: I’m currently working in the Writer’s Archives, which is a section of the National Library where they keep literary manuscripts, letters, and photographs of Chilean writers—Gabriela Mistral and Pablo Neruda, among them. Oftentimes, I’ll find multiple versions of the same poem, narrative or dramatic texts with marginalia, erasures, and edits, as though the texts were still in the process of being created, or letters that refer to the past in the present tense, every day is like a small trip through time. I find it hard to make sense of the contrast when I leave the National Library’s historic building, which I imagine as a kind of boat washed up on the shore of space and time, which doesn’t have any windows facing the street, only beams of indirect light and days that all seem to run together. Right now I’m working on a dramatic anthology of Joaquín Edwards Bello’s work based on his unpublished writings, many of them unfinished, written on slips of paper, and in some of the plays entire scenes are missing. My work feels like that of a pattern-cutter and seamstress. Edwards Bello is a writer I admire, primarily because he was an terrific reporter. He also wrote novels full of autobiographical elements that were fiercely critical of Chilean society, but that were, at the same time, light and funny. Besides that, I’m working on a book of poems entitled “La familia chilena es peligrosa” (“Chilean families are dangerous”), which investigates the peculiar nature of these interpersonal dynamics that I’ve lived so intensely. Unlike in other parts of the world, where each person is guided by his or her own interests and affinities, in Chile, whether out of economic necessity or because of something deeply culturally ingrained, families never separate, children never truly leave their parents’ homes, and grandparents, uncles, cousins, all sorts of relatives are deeply bound to each other physically and sociologically, which can result in unimaginable pathologies stemming from a fear of ‘what will people say,’ a fear of poverty, loneliness, or of sexual repression due to religious fears or superstitions. The impulse to write these texts arose two years ago, coinciding with the death of various people close to me: my grandmother, my grandfather, my cousin (who was like a sister to me), and two poet friends of my generation. These deaths all happened in the span of one month and in each instance, their respective families were involved or, from my point of view, they hastened these outcomes.
KH: This is a fraught question, but I'd like to know how you view identity in relationship to your work—in part because I have conflicted feelings about this topic myself. As a woman born and raised in New Orleans, I'm wary of labels such as “Southern Author” or “Woman Writer,” which can carry connotations of condescending reductionism when used within traditional power structures, as though writers marked by such labels haven't earned the right to simply be called a “writers,” full stop. In the U.S., Knausgård and Ferrante notwithstanding, books in translation are often treated similarly, as pet projects for special audiences, marked by their 'difference.' As such, part (most?) of me wants to resist such categorical distinctions and let texts, in all their complexity, speak for themselves. At the same time, my gender and geography (and ethnicity and class, for that matter) inform the place from which I write, and I certainly don't want to deny or gloss this over. Especially since, politically speaking, marking 'difference' allows us to recognize historically marginalized voices, and have conversations about the conditions precipitating their marginalization. Garth Greenwell, in embracing the label "gay writer," speaks beautifully to this (and oh how I adored his novel What Belongs to You).
Maybe it's a matter of shifting the framework, of inviting readers to see the different/universal as a false dichotomy. I wonder if the last lines of your book, addressed as they are to Dulce María, offer a possible response: “Distinguida poetisa: / Cuando yo muera, ¿usted y yo seremos una misma cosa?” “Esteemed poetess: / When I die, will you and I be one and the same?”
I've been thinking about this, too, in light of what you told me recently about your friend, the Cuban journalist Álvaro Álvarez, who is a nephew of Dulce María Loynaz and lives in Chile. Álvaro’s nephew, who is also related to Dulce María, died tragically earlier this year at only eighteen years of age in the Orlando nightclub shooting. Clearly, these issues aren't abstractions, since people who promote hatred and violence in the world based on ideological notions of 'difference' obligate us to contend with these ideas independent of how we view ourselves. All of which is to say: as a queer Chilean writer who came of age under Pinochet's dictatorship, how do you feel about labels that mark you by your nationality, sexuality, or otherwise? Do you embrace them? Resist them? Both?
GBC: It’s a difficult question; I believe that our objective as a culture is to try to move beyond labels of ethnicity, social class, and sexual orientation, but I don’t think that we can arrive at that point without first making difference, and the injustice and violence that’s been perpetrated in the name of difference, visible. In Chile I think things have changed considerably in recent years. No one spoke of homosexuality during or before Pinochet’s dictatorship: for the conservative and Catholic right is was a mortal sin, and for the supposedly-revolutionary left, there was no thought given to the subject. The Left circumscribed things same as the right, though the justification was different: homosexuality was called one of many perversions of man created by the corrupting influence of capitalism. My entire childhood was spent under Pinochet’s regime; I thought he was in charge of everything: the mountains, the cities, and people. I received a military education. At school we had to line up before going to class and sing the national anthem, and it was considered more important to have your hair properly cut and shoes properly shined than it was to know about math or literature. In Spanish, which is now called Language and Communication, we had to memorize the maritime, aeronautic, police, and military hymns. Men were expected to act and look masculine and women to act and look feminine in accordance with strict codes. It was said that the way to get a fag to stop being a fag was to beat it out of him—and, if that didn’t work, to beat him to death; and that for trees born crooked you had to fix them while they were small. This was accepted at every level of society, by all adults, and teachers allowed this corrective violence to happen without stepping in to stop it. I was constantly attacked; to the point, I think, of discovering that I had a very high tolerance for pain, and that's when I stopped being afraid. I discovered, with my own body, that pain doesn’t hurt. Fear does. I think this realization came to many people who were marginalized in Chile—to women, to the indigenous peoples, and to the poor, because Chilean society is extremely classist. Repeated assault and injury only served to make us stronger. Those who didn’t die or go mad were left with a kind of armor, in possession of a strength that many people don’t have; it created a paradox of sorts: those of us who were discriminated against for being the weakest and for having delicate tastes became the strongest. Our strength lies precisely in having formed a solid identity and concept of being and belonging, which in contemporary culture is becoming increasingly widespread.
In my earliest books of poems I didn’t work from a place of gender identity because I was interested in other topics: death, mass media, spatiality and the human condition as it unfolds over space and time; how common it seems and how surprising it actually is. It was only when I wrote about love, eroticism, or my personal experience that my label appeared, imposed by others, of being a gay poet; before, I didn’t have it. I believe that art, poetry included, is a space of freedom and exploration, not a field for political battles or social recognition; these are matters that don’t exist outside of poetic creation, but aren’t its final aim.
I believe that strength, which is something worthy of striving toward, should never become hardness. It makes no sense to respond to violence with hardness, stones, or bitterness, because if we do we convert ourselves into weapons and nothing more. The key, I think, is to never lose our capacity for tenderness, for affection, delicacy, and laughter; all of our soft parts, which aren’t synonymous with weakness, but rather are human traits necessary for understanding others, for being able to communicate deeply and meaningfully, and, as in the poem you mentioned, for realizing that we already are and always have been one and the same.
Thinking about the case of my friend Álvaro and his nephew Alejandro (the one who died in the Orlando attacks), I was moved by the way in which Álvaro, for an entire week, posted different family photos of the two of them together on Facebook—singing, celebrating someone’s birthday, laughing, dancing at party, kissing a friend on the cheek—and his words made reference to conversations, trips, jokes, and meals that they’d enjoyed together. There wasn’t a single word devoted to hatred, fear, or death.
Interview responses translated from the Spanish by Kathleen Heil