Pessoa first came into my life while living in France. I suppose I’ve been working on him ever since reading ‘Tabacaria’ [Tobacconist’s Shop] and being completely taken by it. I knew that I would eventually pack my uncle’s suits, my debts, and books—and leave Paris for Lisbon.
It was through [the heteronym] Álvaro de Campos [that] the first rupture happened. But I gravitated, almost immediately, towards Alberto Caeiro. Maybe within the first week I read a few poems by Pessoa’s heteronyms, including Ricardo Reis, and Pessoa himself. I had never studied Portuguese, yet I sensed right away that I desired to read this multiple author in his original language. To do this, I needed to learn Portuguese. It made sense for me to start exploring it through Caeiro, to start memorising [his] direct, aphoristic poetry.
Because Caeiro was my first true exposure, it ended up being the closest heteronymic voice for me, even throughout all of my years in Portugal. It wasn’t until translating Campos here in the U.S. that I would even say that I finally read all of his writings. He is undoubtedly the most popular heteronym. That had put it off for me in a way—I thought, I don’t want to be one more Campos groupie, I suppose, I’m in love with Caeiro. And what about Pessoa? What about his writing? In addition to Caeiro and Reis, I was interested in Pessoa who, under his own name, wrote poetry also in English and French.
Almost two decades have passed since that afternoon in Paris and I can say that I’m now living in the Pessoa gifts. I devoted so much of my time to his writings for the nearly ten years I resided in Portugal that now translating is work, but it’s not. It’s a gift. Reading Campos and translating Campos was an absolute gift because I was almost discovering this layered voice. Pessoa is an even bigger figure today for me, because of this new Campos experience.
I’m very excited to be sharing—with friends and readers worldwide—a poet that I’m rediscovering. Translating first The Complete Works of Alberto Caeiro and, most recently, The Complete Works of Álvaro de Campos for New Directions with Margaret [Jull Costa] has been a one-of-a-kind experience. She is such an experienced, professional literary translator open to discussing particularly challenging decisions. She’s of course very different from my other co-translators—the dynamics, the dialogue, the format varies from co-translator to co-translator… I’ve had three others, including Forrest Gander, Susan Margaret Brown, and Graciela Susana Guglielmone. Who does what first, is it simultaneous, is it asynchronous? Each collaboration varies. With Margaret, for example, she does her versions of the poetry and then I go in later with the metrics, Pessoa’s diction, literary influences and make tweaks and suggestions. For the prose, we divide and then swap and share.
Speaking of the prose, the reader will find some of Campos’ prose in the print version of The Complete Works of Álvaro de Campos and the rest, as an Addendum, on the New Directions website for free—due to a decision to keep the volume affordable. Between the book in print and the translations on the website, we have a complete Campos in English for the first time, so that is very exciting.
Interviewer: Would you mind sharing what it was like for you to read Fernando Pessoa for the first time?
I believe it was a thin book—I don’t recall exactly what edition, but it was bilingual Portuguese-French. I moved to Paris in the late summer of 2002. I was re-reading the French poets that I’d fallen in love with during my college years in the U.S.—Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Verlaine—the usual suspects. But I had [also] begun reading new francophone poets whose prose poetry delighted me. One in particular, the late Philippe Jaccottet.
I had heard the name Pessoa, maybe in Rio de Janeiro when I visited for the first time at the age of nineteen in 1994. I did not know about the heteronyms. Had someone asked me, do you know who Pessoa is? I probably would have just replied, I believe he writes in Portuguese and he’s one of the key twentieth century poets to read.
When I began reading ‘Tabacaria’ I felt that there was something intense, deep, and long. This poem is long, but not as long as Maritime Ode with its almost 1,000 lines. However, I felt that there was breath, length, and depth. Not just in this poem, but in this voice.
In a way, it ruined a lot of the beauty that I was developing with French poetry and the French language, because Pessoa just did it for me. It was a total body reaction. And I knew I had to pursue it.
I had been in Paris for almost two years and I was in love with the language, with the city, I was even toying with the idea of maybe one day writing poetry in French. Years prior, I’d written a manuscript in French as an exercise to learn the language. I thought, maybe I could do this, maybe Paris is my city. Pessoa displaced that completely. I would have never thought, oh here I’m reading a person who not only wrote under different fictitious authors and developed them in the way that he did, but also in different languages. When I learned that he had also written a lot in English and also in French… I thought I’ll still be able to continue my relationship with French, even though I’ll go to Portugal.
As you know, and as Pessoa readers know, when you come to his writings it’s a Pandora’s box that opens and opens and opens—you’re in love with this and then you’re in love with that and you’re not even tired of reading this voice, but then a new voice appears. Then Pessoa’s French poems (partially unpublished then) took a backseat in terms of my literary needs. That need was, I suppose, satiated by so much diversity and quality—especially Pessoa the orthonym, as he referred to his own voice when writing under his name, remains the least known voice of all the poets in his literary galaxy.
To come back to the beginning, [it was] very physical for me. I understood it was the foundation of something completely different. I was not falling in love with say, one more Baudelaire or Rimbaud. I don’t want to say that these poets are contained within their works, because no giant is. They’re bigger than their works; they’re bigger than themselves. But there was something radically different in Pessoa which I felt in that opening stanza of ‘Tabacaria’ … “Não sou nada. / Nunca serei nada. / Não posso querer ser nada. / Àparte isso, tenho em mim todos os sonhos do mundo.” [I’m nothing. / I’ll always be nothing. / I can’t even hope to be nothing. / That said, I have inside me all the dreams of the world.] Pessoa-qua-Campos was bigger than life. By this I’m not saying that he’s more relevant than Baudelaire or any other French 19th century poet that I mentioned—I would never compare Pessoa in that regard. I don’t think even he would have done so. But that was also something I wanted to do—dwell in the writings of a great writer, yet still somewhat unexplored. Yes, that’s it. Someone in the margins of European literature.
You described the experience of reading Pessoa as if it was boundless—that word kept appearing in my mind, as you were speaking. What was it about how he composed sound and rhythm in his poems that hooked you in?
Pessoa, the maker of the heteronyms, was made conscious of the roles metre and rhythm play in poetry from very early on. His British schooling in South Africa was instrumental. The program was so robust, including the study of Latin, that scansion was also part of the curriculum. He was exposed to all the prominent literary figures, from Shakespeare and Milton to Blake, the Romantic poets and Tennyson—the longest standing poet laureate in the United Kingdom to this day. They really were so rigorous in terms of the authors that they had to read and he took that very seriously. There are several poems Pessoa eventually came to translate from those days, texts where metrical features played an inherent role in their meaning—Tennyson’s ‘Break, Break, Break’ and Poe’s ‘The Raven’ are two distinctive examples that come to mind.
Metre and rhythm, as you know, go hand in hand. Metre being the chosen form or blueprint and the rhythm [being] the execution of (or deviation from) that [given] pattern. Not only did Pessoa craft his heteronymic voices —Caeiro, Campos, Reis—thematically, but [also] metrically and rhythmically. If you just look at the page and the layout of the poems, you already see that Pessoa must have created the heteronyms differently in terms of metrics. In Campos, the lines tend to be longer than in Caeiro and Reis—the poems themselves tend to be also longer. Longer horizontally and longer vertically. Even longer than Pessoa’s. I discuss this in “Metre and Rhythm in the Poetry of Fernando Pessoa,” my PhD dissertation that I defended at the University of Lisbon in 2012.
For instance, coming from Whitman—to develop a voice in Campos that was all about machines and modernity and embracing life… it makes sense that he is the poet who wrote in free verse. He is the poet who cultivated the longer poems. He is the poet who cultivated the longer lines. More so than Caeiro. One of the most important metrical traits he inherited from Whitman’s Leaves of Grass was phrasal stress. His ‘Ode Marítima’ [Maritime Ode] is a fine example of it. Another one is the use of anaphora, which you find already in Campos’ earliest poem “Tão pouco heráldica a vida!” [Life is so very unheraldic!]
Pessoa himself, when writing in Portuguese, will be the one who rhymes. He is undoubtedly the most varied of all his voices when it comes to metre. Including the monossílabo (which is rare and usually appears in combination with lines of other lengths), which by early 1912 he had employed every Portuguese metre: the dissílabo, trissílabo, tetrassílabo, pentassílabo (or redondilha menor), hexassílabo (or heróico quebrado), heptassílabo (or redondilha maior), octossílabo, eneassílabo, decassílabo, hendecassílabo and dodecassílabo. Let me catch my breath… With the exception of the monossílabo and the pentassílabo, all of the other Portuguese metres served Pessoa in his composition of Mensagem [Message], the only Portuguese book he published during his lifetime, in 1934.
How else would you say he constructed those different poetic voices?
Shakespeare and Whitman are the two anglophone poets who changed his life. Of course, what also changed his life was moving to South Africa and the English language. Shakespeare flooded him like a character-building deluge. But the meteorite, the unexpected roar from across the Atlantic, was Walt Whitman. He must have felt his body quake, but it took Pessoa years to process it, to do something with that impact. Because Whitman’s Leaves of Grass must have come to Pessoa around 1906, but only in 1914 will he begin with Caeiro and Campos, writing poetry in Portuguese in a completely new light.
With Pessoa, the complexity of his literary self-otherness, is a gradual crescendo. We can witness that not just in the manuscripts, but in his plural library.
Would you share some of Pessoa’s fictitious authors that readers might not be as familiar with?
He made some of his early fictitious authors read certain authors so that they would absorb a specific influence. As a side note, Pessoa used the word ‘heteronym’ only for Caeiro, Campos, and Reis. Not for all the other voices he created. That’s why some literary critics and editors refer to the other voices as ‘fictitious authors.’ It’s the term Jerónimo Pizarro and I employed in the title Eu Sou Uma Antologia: 136 autores fictícios [I am an Anthology: 136 fictitious authors], published in Portugal by Tinta da China in 2013 and in a second edition in 2016. A sort of Pessoa encyclopaedia with an introduction to every single fictitious voice, including a selection of texts for each, as well as facsimiles with manuscripts, signatures, seals, and more.
Around 1906, back in Lisbon, Alexander Search became the poet that Pessoa wanted to develop into a Romantic poet figure. Pessoa must have asked himself who he thought Search should read. He should be reading Coleridge, Byron, he should be reading Shelley. In Pessoa’s private library, you have Alexander Search’s signature or seal on the front flyleaf or title page of at least twenty-five books, including the books of these three Romantic poets. In doing so, Pessoa was crafting a personality, a diction, and a literary lineage for Alexander Search. He turned him into an active reader of books in English, but also in French, Portuguese, and Spanish. Born like Pessoa on June 13th 1888, Search was Pessoa’s polyglot poet and writer.
But before Alexander Search, he had begun writing under the name of Charles Robert Anon. Anon has been equated with ‘Anonymous’ [as a way to explain] why Pessoa had invented this name. But what was fascinating about Anon for me—and it is one of the early voices that is still fairly unknown, not fully published—was that he’d left philosophical fragments and poetry in English that echo Pessoa’s earliest English influences. Hopefully one day there will be a thin, but very thought-provoking book of Anon’s complete works.
The most fascinating feature about this voice is that Pessoa started developing it during the second half of 1903, at the age of fifteen—that in and of itself is extraordinary. He had the intelligence [then] to quench his thirst from the most exquisite wells of English literature. I don’t know whether all the poets he was reading were coming up in the classroom or he was also being an autodidact. Likely both. But the truth is that he was also nurtured by the environment in which he grew up—his mother played the piano before they went to South Africa. French was a love of the household before the Durban days. His father was a music critic of the opera in Lisbon. So that [artistic] sensibility had been cultivated before he joined his mother and stepfather in South Africa in 1895, at the tender age of seven plus a few months.
Anon at some point encounters the precocious works of Thomas Chatterton. Chatterton is a remarkable figure in English literature—beloved by the Romantics. Listen to this. Chatterton wrote some poems under a penname [though] I don’t know what Chatterton used, to refer to Thomas Rowley, the fifteenth century monk of Bristol who writes in Medieval English. Chatterton studies Medieval English in order to be able to compose in this type of English. He also created paper that looked old, so that he could sell the manuscripts. He fooled I’m not sure exactly who, I think some collector at a bookshop—as though he had found a manuscript in a church where his father worked. He wanted to make money, but I believe he saw that also by doing this he was leaving something important to the history of literature.
So early on, Pessoa found an author who did something ingeniously different from just taking up a pseudonym… Pessoa took the spear and ran with it, making Anon the owner of The Poetical Works of Thomas Chatterton. It’d be a longer conversation but let me tell you that Anon wrote an elegy which echoes two different Chatterton poems. All of this at the age of fifteen or sixteen.
This said, Pessoa still refers to these pre-heteronymic figures as ‘pseudonyms,’ a term we find in the title page for The Poems of Frederick Wyatt, Pessoa’s last fictitious English poetic voice, around 1913. But even by then Pessoa must have known that he was doing something much more elaborate. Wyatt, named after Sir Thomas Wyatt, the 16th-century English politician, ambassador, and lyric poet, will inherit a lot of the poems that Alexander Search wrote in 1909, 1908, 1907. The Poems of Frederick Wyatt is a chapbook that Pessoa left unpublished. Carlos Pittella and I published it in Inside the Mask: The English Poetry of Fernando Pessoa, a selection of essays I edited during my postdoctoral period at Brown University between the fall of 2014 and the spring of 2015. We don’t know whether Pessoa himself or someone else was going to sign the Preface—though there’s an unsigned Preface to the Wyatt collection that talks about Wyatt in the history of literature and that Frederick had been named after Wyatt the British poet…
Pessoa is clearly creating something more multifaceted than, say, Chatterton with the monk (though making the paper have this old look must have been a very complicated task) or Ezra Pound, say, to mention a contemporary of Pessoa, in his shorter poems Personae, experimenting in a variety of voices drawing from different historical periods, cultures, and literary traditions.
It’s legendary indeed. But it took Pessoa decades to come up with the term, ‘heteronymismo.’ As Jerónimo Pizarro has pointed out, it was in 1927, ‘28, when he came up with the concept. So practise precedes theory. Only around the age of forty, around seven or eight years before his death, does Pessoa come up with the coinage ‘heteronymism.’ But by then, he had already created almost all of the 136 fictitious authors. The last one is Maria José, a female voice. And he did not have many. Only a handful. Maria José is the author of one single text, a love letter written in ’29 or ’30. Unlike any love letter Pessoa himself wrote in his own name… Only a few new fictitious authors arise after 1927 or 1928, that is, after Pessoa coins the literary term that would make him posthumously famous.
For some voices, Frederick Wyatt being one [of them], Pessoa wanted to apply a personality through how the writer signed. Fascinating, right? Wyatt signed his name with the letters apart. Apparently in graphology, if you write your letters apart from one another it represents your ability for analysis. As for additional uses of pseudo-science, Pessoa started employing astrology after Wyatt. In 1914, when developing the three heteronyms, he assigned each one a birthdate corresponding to a particular astrological sign. Born under Aries, Caeiro was a fire sign; Campos was a Libra and therefore an air sign; and as for Reis, he was, of course, born under yet a different element, earth, he was a Virgo. I encourage readers to explore the poetry of each heteronym and observe how their astrological signs resonate with their creative expressions.
Pessoa seemed to be creating his work in order to construct his own canon—like an engineer designing an ecosystem he was also inhabiting.
Pessoa took great heed in how he weaved the literary lineage of his heteronyms. Style but also the biographies of each heteronym mattered to him. He wanted to make sure there was a first name and a last name, a signature, a sign, a place of birth, height, the colour of their hair, the colour of their eyes, and lineage—literary lineage. Caeiro, for instance, was ignorant of letters, as we learn in a preface for Caeiro’s poetry. But Thomas Crosse, who Pessoa creates around 1915, receives the task to translate Caeiro into English. In a preface to such translation, he affirms that Caeiro, the master, did not know English or Walt Whitman for that matter. Pessoa opened a paratextual dialogue that included the most direct influences.
When you arrived in Lisbon and began your ten years of studying Pessoa, how did you approach entering this vast landscape?
What I did for the first year was read as many poetry books in Pessoa’s private library as possible—not every single book, for there are hundreds in that genre—but most of the canonical, important-name poets that had been so instrumental for him in South Africa.
To tell you the truth, it also led me to delve, for the first time, into the complete works of Chatterton, Byron, Shelley, and Keats… Chatterton I didn’t even know existed. Keats and Byron and Shelley, I had only read a handful of poems by each, but not the complete works… even Walt Whitman. Certainly not Shakespeare and still to this day—but the poetry I did. And I did this through Pessoa’s books and the marginalia. Pessoa annotated many of his favourite books. The example in his library is Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám rendered into English verse by Edward FitzGerald—from front flyleaves and title page to the margins of several pages and interlinear lines. Reading notes and literary reflexions, translations, original ruba’i in Portuguese, passages underlined—you name it.
That was a privilege. To read these books with Pessoa’s traces in them.
I began transcribing a lot of the notes that Pessoa was taking, as well as his reactions. Sometimes in English but also in Portuguese and French. Even his interlinear translations. Early on, I was learning who had been what for Pessoa when. Until then, I can say, I had only encountered Borges as someone with such vast literary knowledge. But not through his archive—only through his published writings. And here I was with Pessoa’s books and names and new names and more names... Someone who had created literature through a private multilingual and multifaceted library.
With Pessoa, I was encountering where this had taken place and almost how. Almost able to track down and back to those moments of first encounters. To get as much of an intimate peak into Pessoa’s poetic atelier as one could. At the same time I was reading poetry, for the most part. I was not interested in reading Pessoa’s prose or that written by Campos or Reis, at least that first year, the first few years. The Livro do desassossego [The Book of Disquiet], Pessoa’s masterpiece, also came later.
When I arrived in Lisbon in early March of 2006 neither the manuscripts nor Pessoa’s private library had been digitised. One had to physically go to the National Library of Portugal and the Casa Fernando Pessoa and spend days, weeks, months—hours and hours with the Pessoa papers and his annotated books. Nowadays when you work as a scholar or writer, it is very rare that they will let you read, physically, the manuscripts or the books. Besides, Pessoa’s manuscripts and every single page of every book in his private library have been digitised. The digitization of Pessoa’s library, for that matter, is the result of a team project that Jerónimo Pizarro, Antonio Cardiello and I coordinated in 2010 — available and open to the public for free on the Casa Fernando Pessoa website.
Inside this archive I started spotting resonances, influences. Lexicon, poetic form, poetic metre, poetic rhythm—that’s when I really began scanning poems. Both Pessoa’s and those I thought were behind the poems he was writing under his name, as well as that of Charles Robert Anon and Alexander Search—the two most prolific early English fictitious authors. Not just to see what Pessoa was borrowing, say from Chatterton in the case of Anon or from Byron in the case of Search—but also in what periods and, most importantly, how. This early work led me to expand my PhD. dissertation into a comparative metrics study.
It took me at least two full years of weekly research at the National Library of Portugal to grasp that in order to do something meaningful with archival materials it takes considerable time. I’m in the archive, perusing folder after folder, learning how much remains unpublished, and say to myself ‘this poem doesn’t exist in print. It hasn’t been published yet. I didn’t know Pessoa had composed this or that French poem or took the time to write film scripts!— and so on, and so forth. But you shouldn’t just go out and publish it just because… For the first three or four years of [working on] my dissertation, I ended up [just] transcribing Pessoa’s manuscripts that had little or nothing to do with metrics: Portuguese proverbs culled and translated by Pessoa into English, English translations of sonnets by Antero de Quental, film scripts, marginalia in Pessoa’s copy of Milton, Keats, Arnold, Whitman, Poe… Pessoa’s archives, both his papers and the private library, are really a rabbit hole and you just end up admiring the quantity and the quality of what you come across and cannot help but explore more and more and more—how did he do this in such scant time?
At some point you tell yourself, ‘chega’ [enough]. You’ve got to unplug. I understood and the more I spent time with Pessoa’s writings, the more I understood that this day needed to come. I remember hearing: ‘Patricio, unless this is your life calling, get out while you can…’ Because it is hard to get out. When you really come into this labyrinthine archive containing such fascinating materials, you’re going to be hooked.
You described how you needed to unplug from the flood of Pessoa. I was wondering, given you’re a poet and writer yourself, how did you go about constructing your own authorial voice?
If anything, I also owe to Pessoa the realisation of devoting your time to the Great Ones. The rest, other than your friends’ writings, is mostly noise and dust. Dwelling in the voices of those you admire most yet knowing that at some point you’ll have to bid them adieu. Of course, quite the challenge. How from such force do I create something completely different? Something of my own. There’s going to be a trace, inevitably. Such is life.
When did you decide you wanted to write?
In the fall of 1993 I returned to Argentina after a one-year Rotary Exchange Program in the U.S. I was seventeen and half then and hadn’t read any poetry, at least deliberately. Tango lyrics on the radio were omnipresent growing up, especially at any cornerstone—but poetry, I don’t recall being given a poem to read in high school. I came into writing—or treating language differently, let’s just say musically—through my love for foreign languages, which [at that time] was English. That had been instilled by my mother, Graciela Susana Guglielmone, at home and at her language school which she founded outside Buenos Aires in 1971, at the age of 21. When she was pregnant with me she was teaching English. She talked to me often in English, all through my early years and upbringing. Every now and then there would be the Italian dialect of the grandparents or the great-grandparents. I had studied Italian also, in high school while still in Merlo.
The first manuscript that I wrote—and I really did it as an exercise— was all in French though, the language I’d studied at the university in the U.S. I titled it De lumière et d'ombre [Of Light and Shadow]. I still have it but never sent it out. Some of it very Baudelaire-like, prose poems for the most part. I wrote it while I was on a railroad trip through Western and Central Europe, including Scandinavia, during the summer of ‘98 so I was twenty-two and a half. The year prior I’d been in France as part of a study abroad program through my university. It was then that I started reading poetry avidly and only in French.
Shortly after defending my PhD dissertation in October 2012 professor and author Onésimo Almeida invited me to Brown University to work on Pessoa’s unpublished English poems. The late renaissance scholar George Monteiro was still active as ever and until then had been one of the few advocates for the relevance of Pessoa’s output in English. When I packed my suitcase for Providence, two years later, I threw in De lumière et d’ombre, as well as two other manuscripts I’d put together since 1998. Pájaros vientos cantos—a collection of poems in Spanish I’d written in Argentina right after 9/11, during the months I was recovering from Dengue after my trip to India where I’d also contracted Malaria while in the Andaman Islands—and Pleats of Persistence, a trilingual diary of reflections and aphorisms in French, English, and Spanish produced during my four years in Paris between 2002 and 2005. I still remember close friends of those years in Paris telling me that if I wanted to be a serious poet I had to do it in the language of my birth. What was I trying to do in French or English? Coming back to the U.S. where I’d lived between the ages of sixteen and twenty-five with the year hiatus in Southern France in ‘98 was precisely what I needed. But this I did not know until after I set foot in the Department of Literary Arts at Brown.
Who had done this before?
I came to Brown at the time when C.D. Wright, Forrest Gander, and Cole Swensen [were still active there], who eventually became good friends. Early on Forrest said something along the lines of ‘you have to find your own way of coping with all of these languages that you have. Pessoa did it through voices, in your case languages may be the voices. See what you can do with that, it’s one of the poetries of the future.’
I didn’t want to write poems only in English or write in Spanish and then have to self-translate the piece to reach a larger audience. I did not want to cancel any of the voices in me, but most importantly, I did not want to exclude linguistic exploration. It’s how I came to homophonic translations and transcreations. I suppose I wanted to, by doing that, explore something about the creative process of the in-between. As for writing in languages other than Spanish, I thought, if I write a poem in English, French or Portuguese, it’s not because I know those languages; the poem needs to need it. Maybe we are in Portugal, maybe the ‘I’ in the poem is the shoeshiner in Lisbon telling me about the 1755 earthquake or about Pessoa, so there will be a line in Portuguese. If I use Italian it will be to say something about my ancestors; if in Hindi it’s because we are on the Ghats by the Ganges in Varanasi where mothers teach their daughters how to dry saris under the endless ropes of sun…
During the first few months, in the fall of 2014, I started assembling fragments, especially from Pleats of Persistence, and writing new poems under the title Nomad Books—texts in languages that sent me back to specific periods and places in my life… Argentina, the U.S., India, France, Italy, Portugal, Germany, England, and Sweden.
This is how I started what turned into Elsehere, the manuscript I wrote while at Brown, first under the supervision of Forrest Gander and then, when C.D. Wright unexpectedly passed away in January 2016, and then with Mónica de la Torre. Mónica left me with one great piece of advice, ‘be your own ventriloquist, starting with Buenos Aires.’ Inexorably Elsehere turned into something bigger. So following the MFA and a road trip around the U.S. I moved to New York City, the most linguistically diverse city in the world.
When I came to the City, it made sense for me to turn Elsehere into a trilogy. I really wanted to give Spanish and Italian some space to develop in the manuscript. I wanted to talk about not my ancestors per se, but a range of European voices coming into Buenos Aires, crossing the Atlantic and the amniotic night, the body of water and the body of languages and lullabies. I wanted to speak of motherhood and birthing, birthing a body in tongues…
For me, my connection to literature is through this physical need of languages. It was always about satiating this thirst for sound—ultimately to be enwrapped by the sound of the streets as much as those of the shelves of poetry. The different relationships I have with the seven languages in me are connected to who I was at the time—what I was interested in, where my life was. Coming into English as a teenager certainly shaped the relationship I have to the language to this day. My going to France in the formative years at twenty one, allowing me to look at myself from the outside. It’s the language that allowed me to me vouvoyer à moi-même, which can be translated as ‘to address myself formally in the third person.’ When I left Paris for Lisbon in 2006, I really left a life of love—love for the sound of French that was bigger than Paris, its cafés and its bridges, than friends and lovers, bigger than my connection with the symbolist poets themselves. When I made the decision to get on the bus and move to Portugal, it was to just be with Fernando Pessoa and the Atlantic, to listen and to unlearn… to be a child again, to language away.
Where do you travel to, within Elsehere?
I start off in Italian, the language of my maternal and paternal ancestors. It’s the proem of Mud, current title of the first volume of the trilogy. In the opening section we are at the port of Buenos Aires where Italian and other languages were heard during the different waves of immigration in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—European Spanish, German, Yiddish, Polish… The figure of the mother is very important to the book, not just because of the mother tongue but also for what I call mudonna—something about motherhood and language acquisition that transcends both origins and borders.
The second volume, Skeins is the working title, features places and people throughout the U.S. But, most importantly, soundscapes. I borrow the title from a passage in a letter by Hart Crane quoted by Susan Howe in one of the most inspiring books I’ve read since returning to the U.S. in 2014 — Spontaneous Particulars. The Telepathy of Archives, first published as a Christine Burgin and New Directions cloth book that same year. Crane writes ‘[…] To handle the beautiful skeins of this myth of America […]’... To which Howe adds, ‘Words are skeins—meteors, mimetic spirit-sparks.’ It’s a beautiful, beautiful image contained in that, perhaps from the old French, mono-syllabic word…
It’s very textured.
Very textured. The second volume is about Englishes across the U.S. I may take another road trip.
In Skeins I’ve written poems about how some surfers speak on Malibu Beach, how some Texans speak in Dallas, how some Bostonians speak, but also how some Latinos speak in different parts of the US—from the streets of New York and Miami to border towns in Texas along the Rio Grande. I am also interested in the French-based creole still heard in parts of Louisiana, echoes of Swedish through the Iron Range of Minnesota, and Pennsylvania Dutch (Pennsilfaanisch-Deitsche), which I first heard in Lancaster as an exchange student in 1992… I want to revisit some of these places and represent them organically, through people I met or will meet and languages I know that have influenced the way English is spoken still to this day.
Elsehere, title to the trilogy and, for now, to the third volume, mostly features places outside the Americas. Countries where I’ve lived or spent significant periods of my life: India, Portugal, Italy, Germany, England and, of course, France. But there are places where I have not roamed extensively, like Greece, or been to yet, like China and parts of Africa, that I feel need to be in the manuscript.
But for now, the United States?
When I begin learning a new language or move to a new country or city I think in terms of cycles—seven or nine years. Coming back to the U.S., however, I could have never imagined that it was going to be for more than one cycle. Only when I came to New York City did it become obvious. I’d been to the City as a visitor during my exchange student years and my twenties as a college student, but had never walked its streets actively listening to the million and one voices that rain over this jungle of iron and rust. I returned briefly in the summer of 2016, after becoming acquainted with the documentary “Language Matters with Bob Holman” and the Endangered Language Alliance — a non-profit dedicated to documenting Indigenous, minority, and endangered languages, supporting linguistic diversity in New York City and beyond. That summer, sweaty and in Queens, I’d set out to meet and do recordings of older Italians still speaking in the dialect of the land they’d left behind more than half a century ago, I almost immediately knew it was one of those Pessoa ‘Tabacaria’ [Tobacconist’s Shop] moments—I just knew.
This is it, and this is it for likely more than one cycle of my life: New York City.
I’ve been living here for six years, since the end of the summer of 2017. I see myself [in the City] for another cycle, or two, unless…. Here is where my library is, where friends live or visit every year, where my uncle’s suits are hung. No debts this time. I can sit on the stoop in the heart of Chelsea and drink mate with a book in hand, I can attend poetry readings. I hear languages that inhabit me and that I am still delighted to be learning…. Eight hundred plus languages are spoken in New York City alone. In that regard it is the most diverse, linguistically speaking, city on planet Earth.
I get to visit all of the me’s inside of me—I get to be elsehere.
Patricio Ferrari is a polyglot poet, born in Argentina to Italian immigrants. As a translator and literary editor, Patricio has published 20 works, including The Galloping Hour: French Poems by Alejandra Pizarnik, The Complete Works of Álvaro de Campos by Fernando Pessoa, both with New Directions Publishing, and Habla terreña by Frank Stanford (Pre-textos, 2023). His work has been featured in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and The New York Review of Books, among others. Patricio teaches at Sarah Lawrence College and Rutgers University, enjoys an ongoing collaboration with the Endangered Language Alliance, and hosts the “World Poetry in Translation” reading series in NYC, celebrating foreign poets and translators. He just completed Mud, the first volume of his Elsehere multilingual poetry trilogy.