Entrevista a Luis Enrique Belmonte: “El arte une y la ideología divide” / Miguel Chillida

An Interview with Luis Enrique Belmonte: “Art unites and ideology divides”

                    [Photo: Enio Perdomo]

Luis Enrique Belmonte is one of the most prominent poets of his generation. He was born in Caracas in 1971 and is a medical doctor who graduated from the Central University of Venezuela. He specialized in Bioethics at Ramón Llull University and History of the Sciences at the Autonomous University of Barcelona. He has received, among other recognitions, the Fernando Paz Castillo Prize for Poetry (1996) for Cuerpo bajo lámpara, the Adonais Prize (1998) for Inútil registro and the Poetry Prize for the IV Mariano Picón Salas Biennial of Literature (2005) for El encanto. Miguel Chillida interviews him exclusively for Prodavinci.

Luis Enrique, Walter Benjamin has pointed out that “The purpose of the calendar was to unite the acknowledgment of a certain quality with the measurement of a certain quantity, since holidays, in some way, leave blank spaces for contemplation. Man misplaced from experience feels as though he is outside the calendar. The inhabitant of a big city gains access to the knowledge of that feeling on Sundays.” It is precisely in your book Inútil registro (1998), where time doesn’t pass and the days even revel in their stagnation, that a poem like “Los domingos” appears. Could you talk to us a little about life in the city and the passing of time from your experience as a poet and musician?

You’re right, Miguel, the topic of displacement is present in Inútil registro and in other phases of my poetry. The sensation of estrangement we experiment when we’re displaced generates a phenomenon that intrigues me. You can be displaced from what surrounds you or from yourself. Undone or depersonalized. Being displaced is a mental condition that reveals and unknown side of the world and of yourself. It seems to me that they have correspondences with the eccentric nature of human beings, that urge that impels us from the center to the margins, bordering the circle, on the periphery.
When we’re displaced we lose certainties and roots. And this, if we know how to assume it, is an extraordinary source of knowledge. Relatedly, Sundays and holidays are times that bring about sensations that are related to drifting, beyond everyday order, at the margin of the productive-consumerist forces of society. During holidays we can experience idleness, slowness, contemplation. They’re days that defy the operative and productive logic of the Western almanac. The eccentric nature and displacement are attributes of a rebellion against the finite, the predetermined, the calendar, the accounting of the days. Religion and political ideology have tried to regulate this matter. That’s why during holidays they impose on us church services, soccer games, military parades and proselytizing fairs. It seems to me that subsistence is richer and more infinite if spaces exist for displacement, wonder, the festive mood, the loss of roots and certainties.

In the poem “Elefantes,” from your first book Cuando me da por caracol (1994), the speaker has a vision of five elephants while he’s looking out a window. The poem says:

They’re looking for the hidden source
beneath the tip of the pencil
that drives this pachydermatous message.

What is beyond, in unreality, is revealed to the poet so that he might be the intermediary between that unreal world and conventional reality. But the revelation is produced in the everyday. Do you think it’s important that the poet learn how to see the extraordinary in the ordinary? What does that consist of?

Maybe seeing beyond the everyday is a natural activity for the imaginative consciousness. The imagination expands the limits of conventional reality and points to the extraordinary. Poetry is interested in the traces, not the evidence of reality. René Char used to say that only traces can make us dream. To imagine, to dream, to see beyond. If I’m walking down the street and I notice the paw prints of a dog in the cement, I could try to explore other realities through that image: Where might that dog be now? When did he pass by here? What did the workers say or do to him when he put his paws on the wet cement. In other words, to imagine, to see beyond the evidence of the real, this unveils a hidden and magical side of things. Many years ago, when I was studying for an M.A. in the History of the Sciences and researching the effects of the bubonic plague on the Medieval state of mind, I stumbled across a great discovery. The medical Galenism of the 14th century recommended avoiding fear and sadness during the plague, since such afflictions predisposed the body to falling into the physical-natural disaster. The medical regimes of Agramont and of Gentile de Foligno highlight the value of the Ymaginatio in compensating for the effects of the plague. A certain etymology attributes the origin of the word Ymaginatio to the predisposition and activity of the Roman sentinels who were stationed at the fortifications at night. The night sentinel has to be capable of anticipating and mentally representing a phenomenon that hasn’t occurred but could occur. From his guard post, the sentinel imagines the beyond, and he interprets, with vigilant attention, the signs that emerge from the darkness (the creaking of a branch, the sound of the wind, voices, footsteps, lights, etc.). The sentinel hast to maintain his serenity so he doesn’t succumb to desperation. I think about this when you talk about poetry’s capacity to see the extraordinary in the ordinary. It’s a predisposition that leads you to investigate the hidden side of what’s known, and to imagine what happens beyond the perceptive walls that habit imposes on us. So we return again to the eccentric nature of the human being, to the movement of expansion from what is ours toward what is foreign. The poet is a nocturnal sentinel.

I like what you say, Luis Enrique. Particularly with the image of the sentinel, which is so present in your work; not only as an image. In “Noches del Bósforo,” from your book Compañero paciente (2012), the speaker seems to be a sentinel who witnesses the passing of time, and that poem, precisely, is permeated by a Medieval imaginary. Relatedly, Georges Bataille has written that “we don’t know ourselves as differently and clearly as the first day we perceive ourselves from outside as an other. And this happens only under the condition that we have already distinguished the other first on the plane where fabricated things have appeared to us distinctly.” Those things, utensils, objects that surround us, are very present in your work, and not just the “useful” things but also the “useless ones.” No longer as “hierophanies”(Eliade), since the speaker of the poems is at his core a profane man. And yet there is an intuition, another dimension hidden behind those objects. Do you think that part of ourselves can be found in that dimension? (I’m thinking of the refrigerator in your novel Salvar los elefantes, 2007.) Could you explain all this to us a bit?

Definitely yes, Miguel, and how sharp of you to see it that way. Objects allow the transition between inside and outside. And vice versa. The object or its mental representation are present in my work as resources and processes through which I explore the relation of a particular subject with himself and with his surroundings. Objects can catalyze an action or catapult an image in a very effective manner. I remember how one time Gustavo Valle told me that my poetry was full of useless knickknacks. I like the word knickknack [cacharro]. Useless objects that have been knocked around and defy functional logic. So the anti-operative and anti-productive dimension of the poetic impulse appears once again. A dimension that’s political and at the same time an aesthetic exploration. The possibilities a knickknack can offer are vert attractive for an artist. Duchamp, Schwitters, Arman, Brossa (who gave me, by the way, his final interview), Boltanski and the entire current that emerges from the Ready Made are constant references for my work. In Salvar los elefantes, objects are correlatives and processes of what happens to the subject. The refrigerator, the fan, the carburetor, etc. Those objects from “outside” are introjected by the character and, like him, they wander off course in a type of existential-situational shipwreck. Maybe the cosmic ecstasy or fusion of the hierophanies occurs, in Salvar los elefantes, starting with the character’s identification with and projection towards the useless objects in his apartment. The domestic objects that surround us might form the most transcendent constellation to which we can have access in this world that is every day more de-spiritualized.

In one of his essays, André Breton said that artists shouldn’t subjugate themselves to any political ideology, but at the same time, as men, their political position, along with the characteristics of the historical moment they live, will be present in their work as “latent content.” Do you think this “latent content” is expressed in verses such as:

My childhood priest
explained the black sheep very well
you can’t swim against the current he told me
and I looked at his big belly and asked myself
if he could even float with that belly

Or in poems from Cuerpo bajo lámpara like “No se olviden de nosotros,” that begins with an epigraph from Carlos Germán Belli, that I reproduce below:

Because above
there are those who handle everything,
who write, who sing, who dance,
who speak beautifully,
and we, red from shame,
only want to disappear
in little pieces

I completely agree. There’s latent content in every act of communication. We can’t separate ourselves from the impression and the contingencies of the time we live in. I think the affinity for the eccentric in my poetry is already a political position. But I don’t think it’s adequate to confuse politics with ideology. An artist should defend the right to exist and create at the margins of any ideology or exploitation of thought. We’re back to the peripheral function of art. The political preacher seeks to convince by means of doctrine, while the artist seeks participation by means of enchantment. The ideological operator speaks to the masses and to the powerful. The artist speaks to beings and to small things. Ideological preaching inevitably leads to vengeance and to the robbery of power. The poetic word seeks communion in the diverse and in the participation of the other. That’s why art unites and ideology divides.

Perhaps that democratic aspect of art is also associated in your poetry with the feast, with the orgy. I’m thinking of Matadero (2002). Relatedly, I think that time has been abolished in your poetry, for example in poems like “Dónde estará mi cuerpo, dónde los días”, from Cuerpo bajo lámpara (1996). Do you think it has to do with what Charles Péguy observed in Victor-Marie, Comte Hugo? (“When he would look at the door to the street, and the doorstep, which is generally a carved stone, atop this stone he clearly distinguished the ancient line, the sacred threshold, because it is the very same line.”)

Wow, Miguel, that quotation is so enigmatic and precious. It reminds me of that verse of Eliot’s that says time past and time future might be gathered in the present. It makes me think of art’s utopia, of the rebellion against the finite, of the search for an alternate and atemporal current.

The experience of the reader is closely tied in your work to the experience of the writer, to the point that they could turn out to be the same thing. One of the images present in your work is “the yellow flower,” always associated with positive, pleasant aspects of life. I recall a short story by Julio Cortázar that’s called precisely “The Yellow Flower.” The protagonist tells his story to the other narrator in a bar. After he meets a child, who is him as a child, he worries that the story of his life will repeat itself. Later on the boy gets sick and dies, under his care; so then he feels relieved that his story won’t repeat itself. But one day while walking he stops to light a cigarette and sees a yellow flower, and it’s at that moment he intuits nothingness in the beauty of that flower. “I suddenly understood nothingness, what I had thought was peace, the end of the chain. I would die and Luc was already dead, there would never be a yellow flower again for someone like us, there wouldn’t be anything, there wouldn’t be absolutely anything, and that was nothingness, for a flower to never exist again.” I read your book Paso en falso (2004) and I stop at a poem like “¿Cuántas veces tiene que morir un hombre para estar muerto?”. The ephemeral, the transitory, even the organic decomposition of things and beings, and also the forgetting of those things and those beings, these are very important in your work. Could you talk to us about this?

My friend, the image of the yellow flower is very potent. I’ve been obsessed with it for a long time. I’m fascinated by those yellow flowers that grow in the cracks of cement in public. The image of a yellow flower is simple and profound. And it’s true that it’s present in my poetry. It has a solar nature, associated with festivity, with the happiness of spring, with pleasures, but at the same time it refers us to tempus fugit, to life’s ephemeral nature, to the fragility of our existence, to everything that happens and moves us precisely because it happens. A simple yellow flower reveals to us the mystery of existence, the celebration of life and the work of death. Reverdy said that at the core what is loved is what passes. The image of a yellow flower can summarize a poetics of transit, the commemoration of the beauty that surges from what is most fragile and ephemeral. I’m very moved that you’ve mentioned it.

Luis Enrique, how do you explain the ego of poets, if art is a struggle against this?

I think the artist’s ego is the consequence of a predictable risk of the job, since writing is a narcissistic exercise. The poet’s laboratory is himself. The images, words or sensations are recognized within, in the corners of the mind, in the basements where the consciousness tied to the real-conventional doesn’t reach. The poetic exercise leads to psychic excursions and to inner searching. Thus, part of the poet’s labor consists of submerging within himself to access symbols or meanings that are “his own” and that he’ll later on transform, by means of the alchemy of the word —and the calculated disorder of the senses— in common and communicable words. The poet checks personal materials in order to make them impersonal. And the deeper we explore, if the search is authentic, the more we find ourselves with the other, he himself. So I think true poetry is impersonal, even though it emerges from a personal experience. And it’s precisely there, in that delivery, where the poet’s ego is annulled to become part of the other. Now, if the poet stays locked in his self-contemplative and complacent shell, and praises himself constantly so as to compensate for certain failures, complexes or fears, well, he’ll probably produce very boring and innocuous poems. The best poets I’ve met don’t seem to be that way: even when they’re aware that writing is a narcissistic exercise, they don’t go around praising themselves and much less proclaiming themselves as special beings.

What about the state of mind of depression, in relation to the imaginative task?

As my friend and teacher Alfredo Silva Estrada would say, poetry is a state of waiting or a vigil for what will come. That state of expectation could, eventually, be associated with anguish, desperation or a terror of emptiness. Depression is an expectant desperation. The depressive constantly returns to what’s not there: he awaits and grows desperate about what will not come. Relatedly, the melancholic temperament leads us to a mood that contributes to a certain poetic vision of the world where life’s fragility and perishable nature is revealed. Thus, expectation and anguish when facing the finitude of beings and things could be related to some moments in poetic creation. Although I’d also like to think that the accomplished poem —a sensorial, expressive, communicable artifact— provides hope, since it gives us the chance to encounter the other.

Another preoccupation of this type among poets has been the Ivory Tower. What do you think about that?

The general notion exists of the solitary poet, removed from society, at the margins of everyone else. This perception has a real basis, which is the writing process, a slow process that demands silence and solitude. The other thing that sustains the notion of the solitary poet has to do with the very role of the poet in society, which for me is none other than to transit and register the margins of the world, the fleeting, the perishable, what we don’t see —or what we refuse to accept— because of the psychic routine imposed on us by the systems that rule human coexistence. But the flip side is that without the other the conformation of the subject is impossible. The poet doesn’t write for everyone else, he writes through everyone else. Without everyone else poetry makes no sense. It would be a sterile and onanistic exercise. And more than everyone else, the us would be the source that nourishes poetic writing and the place to which returns. Poetry begins with everyone else, goes into the self and emerges in the us.

In 2013 the first album by Viralata, in which you play the violin, was released. Tell us about that project and about your experience as “violinero”. (You’ve also musicalized some poems, for example “Cuando me da por caracol.”)

Music has always accompanied me. I think it’s the most spiritual form that matter can attain. In all the cities I’ve lived, I’ve always been taken in by musicians and artisans. Now, I’m not a professional violinist. I’m a violinero. José Manuel Briceño Guerrero used to say he preferred the violinero to the violinist. A violinist aims to exhibit his virtuosity. And he also makes a living from that. A violinero inserts himself in anthropological spaces related to collective celebration or with personal meditation. The violineros of the Andes, for example, pull out their violin after finishing their agricultural labor, and their practice is like a type of meditation at the end of the day. Or they might play when they’re high and they gather to liven the pagan and religious holidays of the town. The same thing happens with gypsy violineros and others. I identify with that social and extemporaneous function of music when it emerges in the contexts of celebration, enjoyment and communion. Recently, here in Caracas, I made an appearance with a great musician, Enio “Chicho” Escauriza, with whom I was exploring some sounds from Venezuela and making music to bewilder the mind. At the moment I have close partners in a psych folk musical project called Viralata, which means street dog in Portuguese. I sometimes think music and poetry are the same thing. And I’m grateful for your generosity in inviting me to engage in a dialogue based on my work with poetry. I think this is the most entertaining and empathetic interview I’ve been a part of. I enjoyed it a lot. Thank you.

Here are some links to access the music we make: the Viralata account on Soundcloud and on YouTube. Or you can listen to the project Magicomio.

{ Miguel Chillida, Prodavinci, 20 June 2014 }

No comments: