A Venezuelan-American Aesthetics

[Cathedral of Learning from Schenley Park, Pittsburgh, 2013]

There is no such thing as a Venezuelan-American aesthetics. I am inventing it right now as I write. I want to know two things: What is a Venezuelan-American and what might a Venezuelan-American aesthetics be?

I started writing Venepoetics in September of 2003 when I was living in Boston. I continued with Venepoetics in 2006 when I moved to Durham, NC, where I was fortunate enough to join a thriving community of writers whose friendship and camaraderie taught me a great deal as a writer. The dedication to a DIY approach to literature among these friends in North Carolina was an inspiration to me. Some of the projects I was privileged to witness in Durham were: the Minor American Reading Series, which kathryn l. pringle and Magdalena Zurawski brought with them from Oakland; Tony Tost’s online magazine Fascicle, which published my translations of the poet Juan Sánchez Peláez (Altagracia de Orituco, 1922 - Caracas, 2003); Brian Howe’s Mix Tape Reading Series; Chris Vitiello’s performances of conceptual poetry texts that would eventually be published in Irresponsibility (Ahsahta, 2008) and Obedience (Ahsahta, 2012); David Need’s Arcade Taberna Reading Series, devoted to longer poems, where I saw Fred Moten read the entirety of Hughson’s Tavern (Leroy Works, 2008), to mention one of many amazing nights at that series; hearing Laura Jaramillo read & comment on fragments of what would eventually become her book Material Girl (Subpress, 2012) in various informal reading group sessions that we held; the great house readings at Ken Rumble’s apartment and later on the readings he, Chris Vitiello & others organized at The Space, a former garage converted into a performance venue. I recall Brian Howe’s epic introduction with 80s pop musical accompaniment for Jon Leon’s reading there, and how Leon’s decadent poems resonated so perfectly in that bare room. Or the time we huddled there beside space heaters for an intimate reading by Stacy Szymaszek one winter night.

Not to mention the many readings in Raleigh, Chapel Hill and Carrboro that I attended over the years. Poetry in North Carolina’s so-called Research Trinagle during the late 2000s/early 2010s was a magical and productive realm. As I know it continues to be, after I’ve left. The encouragement and feedback I received from that community while I was researching and translating the work of José Antonio Ramos Sucre (Cumaná, Venezuela, 1890 - Geneva, Switzerland, 1930) helped make my translation of that poet a reality with the publication of From the Livid Country (San Francisco: Auguste Press) and Selected Works (New Orleans: University of New Orleans Press) in 2012. Thanks to the close readings Joseph Donahue and Dianne Timblin in particular gave me of those translations, I was able understand that Ramos Sucre’s work has a potential American audience, that it’s a matter of introducing his work to readers and making sure my translations remain faithful to his latinate vocabulary, his love of Shakespearean rhetoric and his distinct sense of the paragraph as a form of poetic measure.

I left Durham last year and now live in Pittsburgh. Since 2009, Venepoetics has mostly served as a workshop for my translations of Ramos Sucre. My new city turns out to have a connection to Venezuelan literature and to Ramos Sucre. The poet and critic Guillermo Sucre (1933) lived here in the early 1970s and it was in Pittsburgh that he wrote his study of Latin American poetry, La máscara, la transparencia: Ensayos sobre poesía hispanoamericana (1975). Sucre is a descendant of Ramos Sucre and his book includes a short but illuminating section on his poetry. Back in Venezuela in the late 1970s, Sucre taught a graduate seminar on Ramos Sucre at the Universidad Simón Bolívar, the first of its kind. In 1999 he wrote the introduction to Ramos Sucre’s complete works Obra poética, “Ramos Sucre: La pasión por los orígenes,” published in Mexico by Fondo de Cultura Económica and Universidad Simón Bolívar’s Editorial Equinoccio. In 2001 his former student in the Universidad Simón Bolívar seminar, Alba Rosa Hernández Bossio published an definitive critical edition of Ramos Sucre in Madrid, with the UNESCO-funded Colección Archivos, to which Sucre contributes an essay.

Sucre’s La máscara, la transparencia remains in print and, with its lengthy chapters on figures such as Jorge Luis Borges, Octavio Paz and César Vallejo, it’s rightfully considered an essential book for understanding 20th century Latin American poetry. So as I now work on translating and editing a bilingual edition of Ramos Sucre’s Complete Works, I do so in a city that has indirect traces of his writing.

I recently wrote a brief translator’s introduction to a feature on Venezuelan poetry that I've edited for Typo magazine entitled Venezuelan Poetry: 1921-2001 (which will be published in June). In the process of writing that note I came to realize that what I’ve been doing over this past decade, and longer actually, is related to the notion of deciphering and defining what it means to be a Venezuelan-American. This process has technically been going on since I was born in Cambridge, MA in 1970 to a Venezuelan father and an American mother. My parents moved around a great deal, so my experiences of Venezuela were always fleeting. I don’t remember my first visit to Venezuela in 1973. My parents and I moved there via freight ship from New York City to the port of La Guaira in 1976, a trip that took a week down the Eastern seaboard and through the Caribbean. My brother was born soon after our arrival in Caracas.

I still recall the first time I saw the mountainous coastline of Venezuela rise up from the sea as we approached land. Every time I fly back to Venezuela in recent years, I can’t help but be moved when I see that coastline approaching from the airplane window. We lived in Venezuela until 1978, when my mother, my brother and I moved to Woods Hole, MA, where my sister was born and where I repeated second grade because I had to learn how to read and write in English. Between 1979 and 1981 we lived again in Caracas. 1981-1982 found us in the town of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, where my American grandmother lived for over two decades. My final interlude in Venezuela was a tumultuous six months in Caracas in 1982, during my parents’ protracted and contentious divorce.

Certain episodes of my childhood in the United States, Venezuela and Mexico resembled scenes that could have taken place in Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives, as my parents enacted many of the dreams and failures of the global counterculture in the sixties and seventies (long hair, vegetarianism, drugs, organic food co-ops, yoga, The Beatles). I have distinct memories of spending time with our guru Sri Swami Satchidananda at lectures he gave in Cambridge, MA in the early seventies. A Venezuelan-American aesthetics for me is directly tied to my experience as a child in the afterglow of the counterculture as it faded into the seventies and eighties, across three countries.

My work as a translator probably began in 1973, during that first trip I took to Venezuela which I don’t remember. Or maybe it began in our home in Cambridge, when my father would speak to me in Spanish and my mother in English. The first Venezuelan poet I read whose work moved me to translate it, so that I could share it with friends, was Juan Sánchez Peláez. It was his last collection Aire sobre el aire (1989), which I bought at a book fair in Providence, RI in 1997. Since that fundamental experience as a reader, I’ve been engaged with researching and translating Venezuelan poetry to varying degrees.

I think Venezuelan literature does not exist outside Venezuela. By this I mean that hardly any Venezuelan writers have been translated and none of my poet friends here in the U.S. have read any Venezuelan writers. This is not their fault, it’s simply the reality of Venezuelan literature in the global market. It does not exist outside Venezuela. My project of making this literature known via Venepoetics, and more recently with various translations in books, magazines and hand-made pamphlets, is inherently a Venezuelan-American one. English is my primary language, though I speak Spanish fluently and read equal amounts of literature in English and Spanish. My project, which now feels like a life-long endeavor, can only be done here from the United States and after decades of moving back and forth between two very different countries.

In my introduction to Venezuelan Poetry: 1921-2001, I mention Devendra Banhart as an inspiration for some of my own work as a writer and translator. I don’t think Banhart knows what a Venezuelan-American aesthetics might be, either. But when Banhart covers a Simón Díaz song or alludes to Venezuela in his music, he is creating a Venezuelan-American aesthetics. And it’s a pleasure for me to encounter his music and listen to it through this filter of wanting to understand and define what it means to create as a Venezuelan-American. Not on a sociological level and definitely not as a marketing tool. After all, what is invisible will avoid classification and marketing. My interest is more obscure, personal. As Ralph Ellison writes: “Invisibility, let me explain, gives one a slightly different sense of time, you’re never quite on the beat. [...] Instead of the swift and imperceptible flowing of time, you are aware of its nodes, those points where time stands still or from which it leaps ahead.”

One of the roots of a Venezuelan-American aesthetics, which I'm inventing now, out of nothing, might also be the concert Guns N’ Roses gave in Caracas on November 25th, 1992. An 11-year-old Devendra Banhart was at that show which would eventually have a huge impact on him as an artist. In a November 6, 2009 interview with the New York Times, and on other occasions, Banhart mentions the concert:

Q. Do you remember your first concert?
A. Guns N’ Roses. I was like 10. Ninety percent of Caracas was there. There were all these rumors: Axl was going to turn his back to the crowd, he was going to call us monkeys. We were so excited. “Axl’s going to call us monkeys!”

This seems perfect to me, Axl Rose’s semi-racist attitude towards Venezuela feeding the legend of his arrival in Caracas, for a concert that’s still talked about in reverential tones today in Venezuela. As Banhart says, almost everyone in Caracas was there. Guns N’ Roses in 1992 were at the peak of their career, on the infamous Use Your Illusion world tour. A decade later, Banhart would begin releasing his own music here in the U.S.

A recurring motif in José Antonio Ramos Sucre’s texts is the image of a tower. During my weekly jogs in Schenley Park here in Pittsburgh I catch glimpses of the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning through the forest trees. I like to think that tower would have appealed to Ramos Sucre for its Late Gothic Revival style that recalls the medieval settings for many of his texts. I read that tower through my translations of Ramos Sucre. And I read Ramos Sucre through this rough, preliminary sketch of a Venezuelan-American aesthetics.

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