A conversation with Luis Chaves
THERE ARE AUTHORS who like to keep things clean, ensuring that each book is a different project, separate and distinct from what came before it. There are others, more playful, who build their work as if it were a question of assembling a vast web where life and literature are woven around each other. Luis Chaves seems to work like that. Poetry, prose, journal entries, chronicles: everything fits in his books.
When he decides to give up his studies as an agricultural engineer to devote himself to writing, it is first poetry that catches his attention. It’s been almost 25 years since he published his first book of poetry, El Anonymo (1996). Since then, his more than 10 published books have established him as one of the most original and versatile voices in Latin American literature. He has won important prizes such as the Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz Poetry Prize and the Fray Luis de León Poetry Prize and has been invited by prestigious residencies in Berlin and Nantes. The magic of Chaves is to have done all of this while writing unassuming books that refuse to raise your voice too loudly. Detached from the grandiose and solemn literary pretensions of many of his contemporaries, Chaves often mentioned that his work was born of a simple double gesture of writing in his diary a trace of daily life, only to erase it a few minutes later. I like to think that, in his case, his poignant writing springs from the traces left behind. Traces which, over time, begin to outline the impressive x-ray of the life of an ordinary man.
“Here is an attempt to reconstruct / everything with just a few elements,” reads “False Fiction,” one of the poems collected in Equestrian landmarks, his first book to be published in English, translated by Julia Guez and Samantha Zighelboim and published by After Hours Editions. This poetic statement, in its unassuming insight, is characteristic of Chaves’ method and accomplishment. Playing with remnants that refuse to surrender to oblivion, his books reconstruct daily scenes of lives that might otherwise have gone unnoticed. Luis Chaves is the attentive witness who finally makes visible each of these poetic moments.
CARLOS FONSECA: You begin this book with an epigraph by Charles Simic which declares that “the time of minor poets is coming”, while saying goodbye to Whitman, Dickinson and Frost. Tell me what does this “time of the little poets” mean to you?
LUIS CHAVES: It’s actually a whole poem, yes. I remember reading this Simic poem for the first time many years before Equestrian landmarks (the original Spanish version was published in 2011) was even a book idea for me. I remember how very close it was, how I bonded with this guy, late at night, looking for poems (written maybe in notebooks or loose printed pages) in his children’s room, trying not to wake them. I was looking for these poems because he wanted to share them with his guests, other poets of course (you would never do that with friends who like you even if you are a poet), and I remember thinking something like “I guess I know what Simic is doing here with this text, underneath this portrayal of helpless individuals there is something else, they are erratic and vulnerable men, trying to cling to something they don’t know where to find. And so I felt that I was there in that same room where the poem takes place.
Tell us a bit about your beginnings as a poet and your arrival in literature.
As far back as I can remember, I always followed the stories the singers told/singed in this kind of music that tells stories. Simple words, simple stories. I also learned to read with my grandmother (my mother worked so I stayed home with her) before starting kindergarten and the adults around me realized that “this little guy likes to read” , because they found me reading any type of printed paper I found. in the House. My parents weren’t intellectuals (in fact, far from it) and they weren’t used to reading either, so what this little guy read at home was newspapers, the mode of use of the recently acquired mixer, etc. I haven’t stopped reading since. One day I decided that I wanted to do the same, write books and publish them (not the same thing, we all know that). I didn’t have formal training in literature; for many years there was no difference to me between poetry and fiction (or other genres). These separate categories or tags or whatever we want to call them, I discovered later. People say he’s a poet or he’s a writer. Two different categories. I know that’s how it was decided, but in my head there’s only one: a writer, someone who writes.
I remember you once told me about your involvement with poetry magazines at the time. It was interesting to hear how these magazines connected you with writers and poets from all over Latin America.
Looking back, it’s almost unbelievable. Year 1998: Imagine a scenario with rudimentary internet access (we were using super slow connections, I mean slow latin america) was enough for my friend and Argentinian writer Ana Wajszczuk and I to start editing a poetry magazine distributed in both San José and Buenos Aires. We wanted to focus on “another poetry”, meaning poetry that didn’t need to sound or look like poetry (which was then the canon, at least on this side of the world). The magazine was called Los amigos de lo ajenoand it was printed from 1998 to 2004.
What were you reading at the time? Have English-speaking poets influenced you?
I had no formal education in literature, so I read without a plan, methodology, or structure. One book led me to another. Always poetry and always “narrative” (not making the distinction between fiction/non-fiction, which are foreign categories), a bit of philosophy, “nuevo periodismo”, religion and sports chronicles. But also, and at the same level, always passionate about stories in songs.
As for the English-speaking writers of my debut, let’s try some name-dropping: Dickinson, Sexton, Plath, O’Hara, Rexroth, Ginsberg.
Are there any Latin American poets who have particularly influenced you?
It is always difficult to answer this question, but try: Nicanor Parra, Juan Gelman, Ernesto Cardenal, Alejandra Pizarnik, Enrique Lihn, Blanca Varela, Raúl Gómez Jattin, the “poesía de los 90” in Argentina, Antonio Cisneros, Juana Bignozzi .
Your poetry always seems close to life, close to the everyday rather than grandiose. What guided you in this approach to writing?
I like to read all kinds of poetry, even the kind of poetry written for poets. I like it, I learn from it. But when it comes to my writing, there are two things: 1. I write aware of my limits, of my limits, “that’s how far I can go”. 2. I guess all I want is, one day, to write a poem that has that mysterious power that good songs have. The songs say things (powerful, wonderful, moving) that would sound corny in a poem.
“Here is an attempt to reconstruct/everything with just a few elements,” reads the poem “False Fiction.” Do you think poetry works like that?
I would like to know how poetry works! It worked, I think, for this poem.
Tell us a bit about the genesis of Equestrian landmarks — how was it born and what place does it occupy in your many books?
There is a short foreword in the original EM in Spanish (published October 2011). There, I say something more or less like this: “The book was built gradually (“se fue armando”) in a way like Simic’s poem/anecdote does, with a man who enters late into at night in his daughters’ bedroom, waking them as he searches for loose poems in the dark. The poems were thrown away in the last cleaning, the man is me and from the moment I walked into my daughters room until I returned to the living room to read poetry to my friends, a whole decade has passed. Thus, the book was not thought of as such, a book with a theme or music, breathing or a precise rhythm. It included poems written as early as 2002, others were pieces published in newspapers, and one was dated October 2, 2011 (the same year and month the book was published).
It’s the first of your books to be translated into English, if I’m not mistaken. Tell us a bit about your experience working with your translators.
Some poems had been published in magazines and newspapers (POETRY, Boston review, Circumference, The Guardian, Guernica, PEN Poetry Series, Asymptote, spring house), but as a book, it’s the first time. All translated by Julia Guez and Samantha Zighelboim, to whom I will be forever grateful. I mean this, this is not a protocol comment. Their work was meticulous, serious and attentive to the “time” of poetic writing. The process took over a decade because there was no rush, just like the group of poems collected in the book. The translation of Julia and Samantha can be summarized as follows: No urgency, each word is weighed. And, most importantly, create her own version of the poems that were originally written in another language, a Spanish form specific to the region she belongs to (there is no standard Spanish, only in film subtitling). Borges said that translation is more civilized than writing.
Your work always mixes genres. I like to read your prose books as if they were poetry and your poetry books as if they were prose. And, to add to that, you always experiment with extra-literary genres: the diary, the photo album, the chronicle, the inventories, etc. What interests you in this kind of mixtures?
In fact, what happens is that I don’t think ahead. It can be good, it can be bad too. But it is so. And I’ve said it before, of course I’m aware of the existence of genres, but in the back of my head there’s only in writing.
I like this idea: there is only in writing. I think that today poetry is one of the genres with the most freedom. I remember a friend who once told me that only poets who have freed themselves from the idea of writing a bestseller can really do what they want. Do you feel the same?
I never thought of it that way, but I totally agree and will use your friend’s insight whenever asked about it from now on! (“As Carlos Fonseca’s friend once said…”) The fact that you’re writing a genre that almost only people who also write poetry read is liberating. In other words, nobody cares, so you’re doing it because you really want to/have to.
You wrote once, I think in your book Iglu, that you aspire to write “an endless book that must fall apart or unravel as you read it”. It’s a beautiful picture. Is this how you design your own writing?
I liked the idea of a book, the texts inside melting away as you read them. Like holding an ice cube in the palm of your hand. I like this picture.
Born in San José, Costa Rica, Carlos Fonseca has been named one of Bogotá’s Latin American writers under 4039.