Rafael Cadenas: “Nunca he sabido lo que es un poema” / Harry Almela

Rafael Cadenas: “I’ve Never Known What A Poem Is”

[Photo by El Nacional]

Poet, essayist and translator, Rafael Cadenas was born in 1930. He was a fundamental figure of the group Tabla Redonda. In 1985 he was recognized with the National Prize in Literature. He is a Doctor Honoris Causa by the Universidad de los Andes and by the Universidad Central de Venezuela. An exquisite edition of Obra entera [Complete Works], which Editorial Pre-Textos put into circulation in 2007, has given the dissemination of his work a new impulse in Spain.

Since the appearance of your book El taller de al lado [The Workshop Next Door] in 2005, where you gather a large part of your work as a translator, it’s been a while since you’ve published anything in Venezuela. I understand that foreign publishing houses have been paying attention to your writing. I would like for you to review that situation, starting with the publication of your complete works by Mexico’s Fondo de Cultura Económica.
That one was re-edited by Editorial Pre-Textos in 2007. Two months ago that same publishing house released Habla Walt Whitman [Walt Whitman Speaks], the book of my translations of his conversations, though I added twenty pages. In 2007 Un’ Isola e altre poesie, a bilingual Italian-Spanish edition was published by the Ponte Sist house, and Memorial in English and Spanish came out from the Universidad Nacional de San Marcos in Peru. Here, the Universidad Simón Bolívar re-published Realidad y literatura [Reality and Literature] last year.

Before, in 2003, a selection under the title Fausses manoeubres came out in France and in Canada Poèmes choisis was released a year later. Both of them are bilingual editions.

I’ve noticed that the anthology edited for Visor in Spain by Ana Nuño doesn’t include “Derrota” [Defeat], a poem that our critics have always celebrated as being representative of a generation. Are you in agreement with that absence? Is there anything in that text that still speaks to you today?
I agree that it shouldn’t be included, partly because it’s been published a lot and also translated into several languages; because it’s full of complaints and I stopped complaining years ago; because it has certain links with the absurd and painful armed struggle against a democratic government, which contributed to the arrival of a militaristic autocracy which has taken hold the country. So, today I don’t feel that “Derrota” expresses how I feel. “Fracaso” [Failure], on the other hand, doesn’t have those limitations.

Let me tell you how it was first published. Adriano [González León] asked me for a few poems for Clarín, a left wing newspaper published by Luis Miquilena. I gave him several and said: “Look, here’s one I call “Derrota,” but I don’t think it’s a poem, but rather a series of confessional phrases.” So then he read it and his immediate answer was: “This is the one I’m going to publish,” and he presented it with a note. As you can see, I’ve never known what a poem is.

On several occasions I’ve heard you say that one of the most interesting poetries of the 20th century was written in Poland. Going over your translations and your recent Contestaciones [Contestations], the reader notices the presence of many poets from that country: Wislawa Szymborska, Zbigniew Herbert, Tadeusz Rosewicz, Tymoteusz Karpowicz, Stanislaw Baranczak. What is the root of this affinity? What specific aspects interest you about them?
The affinity is due to the fact that they can educate us. Their country was divided between Stalin and Hitler, then the latter occupied it, then the Soviet Union liberated it, but imposed a communist dictatorship that lasted nearly forty years. This history is present, directly or indirectly, in all of them. Here we haven’t lived anything of that sort, I hope that coexistence will be what imposes itself, since a country broken in two pieces can’t function; but a project is being executed that euphemistically camouflages itself with the inoffensive word socialism, in order to not reveal its true design: the total domination of society. They seek to make it uniform, literally and figuratively; to turn Venezuelans, who have always been very open to the world’s diversities, into fanatics, to inculcate a hate in them that they’ve never had before. This is all done with music from Cuba where, I’ve been told, the only freedom that exists is to be quiet. The case of Unamuno comes to mind: he said he felt sorry for a unanimous nation. I should add that I hope I’m mistaken.

One of the poets you mentioned, Tadeusz Rosewicz, has been edited by Bid & co. I recommend the book to readers and I wrote a few words for its presentation and the Book Fair at the Universidad Metropolitana, but there weren’t any people there. I think it wasn’t promoted well or I don’t have enough drawing power, as they say; if that’s the case, then it’s fine with me, since I don’t like any kind of power. I think power is malign under any form, as we see on a daily basis in all spheres, even the most insignificant ones.

We can clearly distinguish two stages in your poetry. The first – which begins with Una isla [An Island] (1958), continues with Los cuadernos del destierro [The Exile Notebooks] (1960) and concludes with Memorial (1977) – where one senses a certain delight with language and the elaboration of metaphors, and a second one – which begins with Amante [Lover] (1983), Dichos [Sayings] (1992) and concludes with Gestiones [Stages] (1992) – where we witness a simplification of stylistic resources. To what extent is this appreciation true? Do you have enough distance from it to talk about this work in progress?
Gestiones and Amante depart a bit from what came before, Dichos are aphorisms, not poems, or more plainly, phrases that gather certain ideas. Sometimes it seems to me that I turn certain poems into prose, or the opposite, that what was once intended to be prose ends up being a poem. At least that was the intention. Certain verses also become phrases. There is a certain amount of activity. Words come and go.

What one does should be seen as a totality. Everything is part of the same thing. An interview, an annotation, a talk, a poem, a note for a workshop and even a conversation, these are all linked, they weave together, they clarify and sustain each other. What happens is that we tend to privilege a medium, the one that stands out at any given moment. Czeslaw Milosz says that some of his poems are notes, and that pleases me because I’m very laconic. It’s like finding support from a great poet. It’s good to remember that there have always been brief poems and long poems; what’s important is that poetry reside in them, as she is a very evasive lady, as her lovers, poets, know so well, upon whom she smiles one day and on another she punishes them with her disdain. As for poets, they carry her within themselves.

For a long time, your presence gave the impression of distance, of reserve, of being a man who was not easily accessible. I’ve never shared that opinion, but people still have that impression of you. Since a few years ago, your presence at events related to literature is a constant. You’re often seen at presentations, at readings, you yourself participate in them alongside young writers. You’ve participated in international events alongside recognized poets. Your work is published in other languages. That change, from the taciturn to the expansive, for the sake of saying it a certain way, is it true? And, if it’s true, what influenced it?
Yes, introspection slowly gave way to a certain extroversion, but I’ve always lived from teaching, even in a school for Venezuelan kids in Trinidad, that is, I’ve had to speak a lot, though I also know I remain silent quite a bit. At the same time, I value conversation very much. By the way, Juan Sánchez Peláez also taught at that school before he went to Chile. Two years before the military dictatorship fell – this is a redundancy; there is none that isn’t one – I was able to return to the country. During that time I worked at the Moral y Luces School and at others; I also worked as a proofreader at El Nacional, and at another job, a bit vague, for the Syndicate of Press Workers. Later on I participated, without much enthusiasm, during the frenetic sixties, in the salons of Sabana Grande Boulevard. So, I was always open to what was happening.

I go to those events you mention because that way I see my friends. Besides, one has to support those activities. They’re important. They show that our society is alive, and as long as that continues, it won’t be subjugated.

Outside Venezuela I also participate in similar events. This month I’m invited to the Granada Poetry Festival that will take place at the García Lorca house. I’m supposed to open the festival with a poetry reading. I’ll also read in Málaga and Valladolid, as long as the Tao allows me. How can I reject this invitation from friends in Spain, where besides I like to go? Honors shouldn’t be sought, that’s undignified, but neither should they be rejected. I’m also very aware that Spain is a central part of our roots, beginning with the charge of the language, the same one with which the current government attacks the Spanish empire. At this stage in history! It’s as though the Spanish decided to verbally assault Italy because the Roman Empire occupied their country.

Likewise, it’s senseless to inculcate a hatred of the United States, a country which never colonized us, although we’ve been very influenced by it. We should remember, by the way, that it dampened Cipriano Castro’s grandiloquent fires, even if it did so with an imperial spirit. Moreover: the offenses that some of its leaders have inflicted on other countries in Latin America, while they aren’t forgotten, must be placed on a second plane in order to coexist in peace. The European Union wouldn’t exist today if the countries that compose it hadn’t put their grudges aside.

Your position regarding the political atmosphere in our country is public and notorious, and, in particular, in relation to what is happening in the country. For a long time, you were close to the approaches of the Venezuelan left and I understand that, at one point, you were an activist in the Communist Youth. I have seen and heard many declarations against your opinions and actions on the part of this country’s cultural bureaucracy and even from poets. Is this a problem between ethics and aesthetics?
What I do sometimes is make very critical declarations about what happens here, but I should warn you that the word enemy doesn’t exist in my vocabulary. How long will human beings continue to destroy themselves for the sake of ideologies, nationalisms and religions? It is fanatical adhesion to credos that brings so much destruction. No country in the world is exempt from violence, it is latent or manifested in all of them. In ours, its government is preparing a war that, one must say this with a phrase from Erasmus, would be the shipwreck of all good, and the majority of Venezuelans don’t want that. Besides, all wars are fratricidal.

In an interview María Elena Walsh conducted with Doris Lessing, the latter denotes as a massive psychopathology the communism in which she believed throughout her entire youth, and she says that she and her friends thought they were saving the world, but that they didn’t want to see what was happening in the Soviet Union, which in my opinion has been the greatest swindle in history, and now it seems as though our revolutionaries would like to repeat that experience. She also criticizes the idealists. She considers them dangerous people. She affirms that utopias turn men into savages that kill one another.

The great Russian writer Alexander Herzen puts these words in the mouths of the saviors of countries: We are not the doctor, we are the illness. In his book Russian Thinkers, Isaiah Berlin dedicates an essay to him that is very useful for us. Why didn’t I read Herzen instead of Lenin? At the time, none of his work could be found, nor would it have had any effect on me. One doesn’t listen when one is very young.

There are, however, exemplary politicians. Nelson Mandela would be one. After twenty-seven years in prison, he emerges without hatred to speak with his enemy in order to build a nation. Why don’t they let us borrow him? I’m joking: we too have brave men and women here, ethical people who fight every day, in jail or exiled or free.

I rarely hear anything about “those nothings they call insults” – the phrase is by Saint Teresa. I don’t attack people. It’s impossible for me because I can’t feel disdain toward others.

I know that you are a constant habitué of bookstores. What are you reading right now? What are you working on in the exercise of writing?
I recently read Inmadurez, la enfermedad de nuestro tiempo [Immaturity, the Illness of Our Age] by Francesco M. Caraluccio, a book edited by Siruela. It’s a study of infantilism in adults throughout history, about the will to not grow. It’s very relevant phenomenon that the author examines in different areas and to which he attributes the West’s decadence and the birth of totalitarianism. Isn’t it infantile, for example, to look for people to blame for the problems of our country, instead of the truth? Or for the Pope to say that hell is a place that actually exists? Or for the president of Iran to affirm that his country is the most powerful nation on earth? I could continue giving you with examples.

Right now I’m immersed in Nina Berberova’s untitled autobiography. We love that genre so much. Nina lived her youth during the period of the communist revolution, first in Russia and then in Germany, in France and finally in the United States. She knew many of the writers and poets of that time. She criticizes the Soviet regime, but she doesn’t identify with the most reactionary sector of those who emigrated. However, she mentions each of Stalin’s victims. Nina says that he destroyed three generations of artists.

I’m beginning to browse through The New Class: An Analysis of the Communist System by Milovan Djilas, a book that should be republished here. The fact that revolution produces another privileged class can already be considered, in my view, a historical law. Were they to read it, Venezuelan revolutionaries could make sure that law doesn’t take place. At this moment, the government slogan “Ahora Venezuela es de Todos” [Now Venezuela Belongs to Everyone] doesn’t seem true to me; I actually think it belongs to only some Everyones.

{Harry Almela, Papel Literario, El Nacional, 30 August 2008}

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