“Quisimos ser voluntariamente críticos” / Gabriel Payares

“We wanted to be voluntarily critical”

Thirty years have gone by since the appearance of the literary group Tráfico and its “Sí, manifiesto,” one of the country’s last and most cited poetic and collective shouts, arising from the heart of a society made drowsy by petroleum money during the eighties. Armando Rojas Guardia, founding poet of the group, looks back and evaluates what was undoubtedly a fundamental poetic experience in Venezuela’s literary development.

Most of the approximations of the Tráfico group coincide in seeing it as an attempt to restore a critical will of the intellectual toward power, which was lost during the years of petroleum boom. “To make more sincere the poet’s relationship with Venezuela,” stated the group’s manifesto. How do you perceive that need today?
Exactly, we emerged as a group in a historical context where that critical disposition in the face of power had become rather feeble. La República del Este represented that feebleness for us, that unnatural fraternity of a certain left with Miraflores Palace. It was the symbol of everything we didn’t want for the intellectual, for the writer and, specifically, for the poet. Seen retrospectively, however, the manifesto is saturated with a messianic voluntarism. We postulated that the poet had to go out into the street and create, write and publish a type of poetry that would approximate the average Venezuelan, and we were guilty of overlooking the fact that the divorce between poetry and the majority of Venezuelans isn’t the fault of poets, but rather obeys structural causes of a political, social, cultural and economic type. So, the idea that the poet had to go out to the ghetto, to the army base, to the factory, to the public plaza, to the parks, today sound to me like that messianic voluntarism, as if the qualitative change represented by a new perception of the poetic phenomenon and the role of the poet in society depended on the exclusive will of poets.

So Black Friday and the debacle in Venezuelan democracy that began with it meant the confirmation of Tráfico’s complaints?
Of course. We were talking about the petroleum-based democracy, and in a certain way we were echoing what Arturo Uslar Pietri called “Balthazar’s feast,” that dance of the millions that materialized in the “That’s cheap, gimme two” attitude of the Miami-centric Venezuela and the urban middle class. Black Friday came to be the sign of alarm that the decadence had begun, that the feast, if it hadn’t ended, was about to end. We wanted to speak consciously and voluntarily from the urban middle class, but without identifying ourselves with the majority of their stereotypes and with a great deal of their mental universe. We wanted to be voluntarily critical regarding those stereotypes and that mental universe.

Do you think the “critical realism” Tráfico proposed is something outdated, or do your still consider it a necessary path in Venezuelan poetry?
Each thematic focus in poetry involves its own procedures. When I wrote La nada vigilante I faced an intra-psychic problem for whose treatment the procedures postulated by the manifesto were of no use to me. I wanted to write about a psychic block, I wanted to write the poem of the impossible poem, I wanted to write about the impossibility of writing. That involved a stylistic procedure that didn’t have anything to do with Tráfico. The ontologizing psychology of Rafael Cadenas, Juan Sánchez Peláez’s critique of the world’s apparent reality by means of the primordial images of poetic dream or the philosophical-aesthetic preoccupations of Alfredo Silva Estrada, for example, require their own stylistic procedures that have nothing to do with what is postulated in the manifesto. In that sense, the wager for critical realism seems valid as an option to choose; the manifesto erected it as the only one possible and in that sense it’s a dogmatic and fanatical affirmation. Miguel Márquez has just made, in his latest book, Poemas de la Independencia y del escarnio, a stylistic experiment that hadn’t ever been done before in Venezuela and for which I can only remember as an antecedent a book by Ernesto Cardenal, El estrecho dudoso. Miguel takes historical texts and chronicles from the period of Independence and subjects them to a musical rhythmic treatment that places them in new dimensions, in the same manner as Cardenal takes some texts from the chroniclers of the West Indies: Fernández de Oviedo, Bernal Díaz del Castillo, Bartolomé de las Casas, and obtains from them a distinctly poetic value. This experiment is inscribed within a type of critical realism that’s perfectly valid as an option, but not as the only legitimate one. In poetry, as in literature and social life, the plural game of options must have the final word.

So, did the experience of Tráfico stray in its subsequent writing journey?
Well, Yolanda Pantin was telling me a few weeks ago over the phone that all the poetry those of us from Tráfico make at this moment has nothing to do with what we postulated in the manifesto, except, of course, Miguel’s. I’m not sure that’s true. Igor Barreto’s poetry is one that maintains a surprising fidelity, in its procedures and in its style, to what was pointed out in the manifesto. I myself couldn’t have written a poem like “La desnudez del loco” without having passed through Tráfico. The collage technique I learned in Solentiname studying Pound –because every afternoon after five hours of manual labor in Solentiname I would devote myself to studying the collage technique Pound uses in The Cantos, or that T.S. Eliot uses in “The Waste Land,” or that Robert Lowell uses in his poetry–, I later applied to some of what I consider to be my best poetic texts. The same thing happens with the revaluing, which we claimed, of narrativity and in consequence of the anecdote; facing the mostly abstract, quintessential and impersonal poetry that was being written and published in the country, we felt that one of the specific means of bringing back to Venezuelan poetry an existentialism and committed and explicit subjectivity consisted in returning to narrativity, preferably autobiographical. Although it’s a poem written after Tráfico had already disappeared, “Retén judicial,” that text of mine included in Patria y otros poemas, carries the narrative imprint of the group’s poetry. We always acknowledged a slender but true tradition in what we were proposing at the time: the poetry of Víctor Valera Mora and the one represented in Copa de huesos by Caupolicán Ovalles and, to a degree, also in Oh smog and Ciudadanos sin fin by Juan Calzadilla. Likewise, we felt an affinity for the Alejandro Oliveros of El sonido de la casa, for Blas Perozo Naveda, William Osuna and the more narrative poems of Enrique Hernández-D'Jesús. As for Latin American poetry in general, we perceived ourselves as being very close to creators like Ernesto Cardenal, José Coronel Urtecho, Juan Gelman, Antonio Cisneros, Rodolfo Hinostroza, Mario Rivero, Jotamario Arbeláez, Luis Rogelio Noguera: all of them elaborate a poetry with room for local dialects, first names, colloquial turns, conversational diction, the incorporation of conventionally non-poetic elements in lyrical discourse, the first person singular, aesthetically calculated prose, the narrative. In the same way, we recognized the teaching represented by the so-called Spanish “poetry of experience,” whose greatest exponent was Jaime Gil de Biedma.

And what happened, as you see it, to the legacy of Tráfico in the subsequent collectives and poetic tendencies?
I’ve been leading poetry workshops on a weekly basis for eight years, I’m currently teaching three of them at once and I’m in touch with a good part of what young poets write and publish in the country. I wouldn’t say that Tráfico constitutes the fundamental reference point in the work of these poets; but it’s undoubtedly an important one in their mental map. In our effort to reconnect the poet with the audience, and in that sense to give poetry a new social dimension, in Tráfico we wanted to renovate readings. The poetry reading is today a currency widely in use, something that didn’t happen in the beginning of the eighties, when it was looked down upon, considered something for patron saint festivals, for high school cultural events and it was associated with declamatory affectation; so that we proposed to resuscitate that practice for the purpose of a new connection for the poet with the audience. Another undeniable conquest by Tráfico was its insistence on a poetry that would rescue the historical and the quotidian, the collective macro-history and the individual and existential micro-history of man in his daily life. We felt that the poetic orb within modern poetry where these elements were most explicitly displayed was that of American poetry. And if today poets venture into those themes, and even more if people are studying American poetry with new eyes, all that is due to Tráfico. Collections of excellent aesthetic quality such as Harry Almela’s La patria forajida and Armadura de piedra by Edda Armas, in which the country’s historical present stirs, I don’t think these are conceivable without the experience of Tráfico having acted on their creators at least as a mental reference point. And if we focus on what the youngest ones are writing, the extraordinary homoerotic poetry of Alejandro Castro, his irreverent ease, his wise and subversive irony, within which the urban atmosphere is a tacit but also an overwhelming presence, this isn’t explainable without the antecedent of Tráfico. The same can be said of the political and urban code in the marvelous poem called “Sexto mandamiento,” by Leonardo González Alcalá.

{ Gabriel Payares, Papel Literario, El Nacional, 9 July 2011 }

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