On Poetic Natures - In Conversation with Juan Arabia

On Poetic Natures - In Conversation with Juan Arabia

Micaela Brinsley

Exchanges with Juan Arabia

Dear Juan Arabia,

My name is Micaela Brinsley. Nacho Oliden, who I believe you know and have worked with before, introduced me to your work as a poet, translator, scholar and editor. I'm wondering if you would be willing to speak to me (virtually) about your work.

If this sounds like something you would be interested in making time for, I would love to speak with you about how you balance all parts of your creative life and manage their distinctions and similarities in your mind. Are there moments where they bleed into each other? How do you make choices about what form of writing you wish to engage in at any one time? Over the course of the last year and a half, what new forms, if any, have you been turning to for solace? In addition, does the form you're working within inform your interests and sensibilities at any given moment?

Please let me know if this sounds like something you'd be interested in doing. If it does, please let me know what days and times work best with your schedule so we can arrange a time to talk.

I hope to hear back from you soon.

Warm regards,

Micaela Brinsley


Dear Micaela,

Thank you very much for your email and for your interest.

Of course, we can talk whenever you want. What day and time is best for you?

I will try to answer these questions that you have sent me. If you want to send others, I am waiting here.

How do you balance all parts of your creative life and manage their distinctions and similarities in your mind? Are there moments where they bleed into each other?

I think there are not many distinctions, because basically I dedicate myself to poetry all day: when I am not reading, I am translating or writing criticism about poetry. Although the moment where everything seems to converge as a sedimented flux, as a process of synthesis, where everything comes together (including my own life and experience), is in my own poetic work.

For example, my last poem is written in the form of Pantoum. It begins with a line from a poem by W. H. Auden (‘The stone smile of this country god’), a poet I’ve read a lot lately. And it is written that way because I translated a poem by Ashbery with the same artificial structure.

The theme of this poem, like all poetry, is the confrontation between good and evil. This I have just understood or remembered better in recent days, it is something that Borges teaches to Jay Parini in Scotland (the recreation is included in the novel Borges and I):

'The battle between good and evil persists, and the writer’s work is constantly to reframe the argument.’

The task of the writer is to find new ways, at every moment, to describe this confrontation.

How do you make choices about what form of writing you wish to engage in at any one time? Over the course of the last year and a half, what new forms, if any, have you been turning to for solace?

I believe that everything is a result between a project and formation. On the other hand, I am very interested in the relationships between old traditions and new cultural formations (terms that Raymond Williams worked a lot).

To give another example, last year I translated Cathay by Ezra Pound. It is a book that, despite working with very old poems, contains the essential elements of modern poetry: free verse, linebreaks and deep images.

After a visit to Shanghai in 2019, I came back with a very short book, with only 5 poems, entitled The Bund. Basically, the poems are characterized by the use of the linebreaks, free verse and deep images. And it was the result of experience and the influence of Hermetic Definition by H. D., long before working with Cathay's poems. We could talk about a structure of feeling: the Imagists actually carved the wood.

I could say the same about my new book published in Spain, by Pre-Textos, entitled Hacia Carcassonne. Regarding archaic poetic forms, the book works with extremes of an avant-garde that has already become a tradition (free verse, linebreaks, visual economy) and a tradition that has ceased to be so (from the composition of a Sestine, to genres of poetry Provençal: ‘Tensó,’ ‘Planh’).

In addition, does the form you're working within inform your interests and sensibilities at any given moment?

Yes effectively. Although we must not forget that the stars and destiny decide these things. My book on Provençal poetry was written after my stay in the south of France, that is, after being invited to the Sète poetry festival. And the same happened with Shanghai and the origin of The Bund (published in three languages). It is poetry, or whatever name we want to give it, who carves.

Very best & stay well -

Juan


I don’t think this makes sense as a question… alter it later, maybe…  

You imply that poetry can be thought of as a person, with its own point of view and desires. Or is attempting to think about it as such reducing its ferocity?


Dear Juan,

Thank you so much for your response and your answers.

Given the way you responded to my questions, I’m wondering if you would be willing to answer some more.

I’ll include three in this email:

I've never heard it put so succinctly that poetry is the confrontation between good and evil. What, in your mind, merits the characterization of something as 'good' and as 'evil?' For you, how can poetry reckon with spaces in between those two poles? Is poetry the act of the mediation itself?

If symbols are being 'emptied and destroyed,' how can we all go about countering that destructive trend? Is poetry the only antidote?

How do you think of poetry as an entity?

Thank you for your time, I very much appreciate it. I hope to hear back from you soon.

Warm regards,

Micaela


Hello dear Micaela,

Hope you're well.

How about the idea if I send you some answers, and you take what you want from them. And of course, you can send me new questions.

Thank you in advance for your interest.

I've never heard it put so succinctly that poetry is the confrontation between good and evil. What, in your mind, merits the characterization of something as 'good' and as 'evil?' For you, how can poetry reckon with spaces in between those two poles? Is poetry the act of the mediation itself?

Since ancient times and the oldest poetry we have seen the development of this war. From the Chinese poetry book Shi Jing (XI BC) we find poems about social injustices, as well as in Provençal poetry: descriptions of war, authoritarian regimes or kingdoms. These themes are changing: for example, Blake saw in Urizen's symbol the dangers of rationalizing and science; Ezra Pound, on economic ‘usura;’ Mina Loy in the patriarchy. The list could go on.

Perhaps today our greatest enemy is the word itself, so subject to the undimensional language of the market, the mass media, social networks. Symbols today, their ability to multiply progress (unlike Yeats' time, for example, when mythical and regional traditions were still being recovered), are being emptied and destroyed.

If symbols are being 'emptied and destroyed,' how can we all go about countering that destructive trend? Is poetry the only antidote?

I believe that each act of creation brings something new to the world, the symbols move, they fulfill the function of being alive. Even if they are incomprehensible.

As Rimbaud said:

‘inspecter l'invisible et entendre l'inouï’

‘inspect the invisible and hear the unheard of’

How do you think of poetry as an entity?

I like to think in terms of formations and institutions. And poetry is the greatest enemy of the greatest and most powerful institution of all: language. But poetry lives on the small margins and cannot get so far from the castle.

I think Coleridge said it much better, without closing it in dialectical terms:

Of large extent, hard by a castle huge,
Which the great lord inhabits not; and so
This grove is wild with tangling underwood,
And the trim walks are broken up, and grass,
Thin grass and king-cups grow within the paths.
But never elsewhere in one place I knew
So many nightingales…#

Warmly,

Juan


Dear Juan,

You say that language is the greatest and most powerful institution. Given that you spend so much time wrestling with it, what have you identified as its pitfalls, what it often fails to do? What frustrates you most about language when you are working with it, and what frustrates you about how others tend to interact with it?

How do you conceive of form and content in poetry, in the sense that, which for you tends to take the lead? Do you begin writing with a form in mind, typically, or with an image, idea? Or does your 'method' change with every poem?

You write that 'each poem seeks its own nature,' and will eventually come into its form. Would you say the same of poets? How would you encourage poets-to-be to explore their own writing technique, process, practice, tone? How did you begin your own journey as a poet? Would you say you also entered poetry in your own search 'looking for air, light?’

Do you feel as if poets are mobile, in some ways perhaps nationless? You mentioned earlier that all poets draw on a variety of traditions, even from places they may not necessarily be from. Could poetry itself be thought of as a nation, or even a shelter?

Feel free to answer however you wish.

Thank you.

Best,

Micaela


Dear Micaela,

Thanks for your questions. Below I give some answers, and we can continue, of course. If you write poetry, I would like to read something of your authorship.

In general, poetry cannot change anything or modify anything in the world. No, at least not in today's world. In the Tang dynasty, a politician had to be a poet, anyone with higher education had to write poetry in a traditional way, know its forms.

As for writing, I don't feel too many frustrations: I respect the nature and time of each poem. Each one contains a life, even those who are born dead and disappear.

Many times you can begin to write poems, and find them very vivid and clear. But for some reason they do not flow, they do not find their own rhythm (or they are born without it). And that generally happens with free verses, which are more real and more delicate (they seek their own light).

As Denise Levertov said, content and form are in a state of dynamic interaction. Many times that interaction can fail.

I believe that each poem seeks its own nature. Even when they are subjected to rules, they hit the cage harder: looking for air, light. Free verse, on the other hand, grows in wilder lands.

The tradition of poetry is almost infinite, as well as its forms. And it seems to me that both poets and readers should lose themselves in their experience. And find, on the other hand, poetry as a way of life.

In addition to formation and reading, it seems to me that poetry has something of the medieval journey, in the sense of pilgrimage. And in the same way that Ezra Pound traveled to Spain to follow Lope de Vega's 'buffoon' (the subject of his doctoral thesis), he got carried away by Provence. There he approached the troubadours, a subject that interested him the most. And he dropped out of his academic studies, and as a troubadour, he began to travel and write poetry.

For me, traveling to Charleville in 2014 was the beginning of something very important. Poetry is something we feel deep inside, and life experiences are fundamental. I would never have translated Rimbaud had I not been in the French Ardennes.

I believe that all people feel identified with something. I was lucky from a young age to feel identified with beings like John Fante. I consider many poets and writers as my best friends.

Thanks,

Juan


How can a poem be ‘born dead?’


Dear Juan,

Thank you for your responses. In regards to your question about my own writing, I have written poetry before but never submitted it to be published. I enjoy it as a private pleasure, at least I have so far. Now that I'm thinking about your most recent answers and your point about language being governed by sound bites and mass media, perhaps my bashfulness comes from a fear that the sentiment of what the words contain will somehow fail to be recognized once I share them with a 'public,' even if the public consists of only one reader, or two. But maybe this fear is distracting me from trusting that the effort, no matter how it's received, will be present, no matter the mode of transmission... I'll think on this more and get back to you about my thoughts soon!

In regards to questions right now I only have two:

How do you locate poets and writers and their work?

When you are writing poetry, how much are you thinking about what traditions and poets you're drawing upon?

Warm regards,

Micaela


Dear Micaela,

Thanks again for your questions. I think it's getting interesting, so you can send as many questions as you consider. I will answer them as quickly as possible.

There is a lot of metaliterary poetry. For example, if we read a poet like Ezra Pound, we have access to the Latin poets, the troubadours, Dante, Villon or Félix Lope de Vega. Poetry makes these things very evident. This happens a lot, moreover, like the poetry that is made in Chile: reading Roberto Bolaño or Enrique Lihn, one actually reads two great poets, Pablo Neruda and Nicanor Parra: the poet and the antipoet.

I read many books at the same time, because one of my jobs is literary criticism for two newspapers in Argentina ('Diario Perfil' and 'Diario Clarín'). But I write about the books that I like. Now I must prepare a review about The Collected Poems of Raymond Carver, as well as a recent anthology by César Vallejo, 'Poemas Humanos.’ Another of my subjects is history: I highly recommend the 4 volumes of the Middle Ages coordinated by Umberto Eco.

In general I am publishing and translating the books that I want to have and are not published: for example, a recent anthology of the 'Thirties Poets': there was a lot of Auden, but very little of MacNeice, Spender and Day-Lewis, at least in our idiom. The same can be said of 'Exultations,’ 'Lustra;’ 'Cathay' and 'Blast' by Ezra Pound, as well as poetry by Dan Fante, and many others.

The magazine, at the same time, allows me another speed and plurality week after week, day after day. Last week I translated poems by George Mackay Brown, Jay Parini, Bian Zhilin and Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, to give an example.

I believe that everything is part of a flux, that it embodies in a natural way. I have never forced these things, I have only been carried away by them.

It is a pity that you do not continue writing poetry, if at any time you want to send me something, I would like to read your work.

Warm regards!

Juan


He writes that 'each poem seeks its own nature,' and will eventually come into its form. Would he say the same of poets? For readers of La Piccioletta Barca who may find poetry intimidating, how would he encourage poets-to-be to explore their own writing technique, process, practice, tone? How should I? How did he begin your own journey as a poet? Would he say he also entered poetry in his own search 'looking for air, light?’


Dear Juan,

Thank you so much for giving so much time and attention to this. I'm really looking forward to seeing what it becomes. I also think that we'll sense when we've reached the place we'd like to conclude this exchange.

Though I do have more questions for you, I'm wondering if there are subjects that have come into your mind during these back-and-forths that you've wished to go into further. Or if there's a question you haven't been asked by me you'd like to answer, please feel free to add those words into your responses as well.

I look forward to hearing back from you soon! Also maybe at that point I'll send you a poem!

Best,

Micaela


Dear Micaela,

I think the questions are very well formulated. I thank you for that and your dedication.

Warm regards!

Juan



Some too wordy, not very well formulated questions I chose not to add in writing:

I'd never heard of that Rimbaud quote, it really spoke to me. So, first of all, thank you for the introduction. You mention that acts of creation activate symbols, which 'fulfill the function of being alive,' even if they are 'incomprehensible.' But you also say that 'in general, poetry cannot change anything or modify anything in the world.' So is poetry's function today to shift the tectonic plates (for lack of a better image) of feeling, beauty, reckoning, pain, etc underneath the material world so that when people do interact, we are, even if we're not conscious of it, responding to the forces poetry helped to shift? Or is it not necessary to identify exactly what poetry's role is and simply continue to create? I hope that question makes sense.

You say the writing of a work is 'part of a compilation and an excavation, which has already begun and is not yet finished.' Do you ever revisit work you've written after it's been published, for your own sake? Or does this statement have more to do with the fact that you trust that the gesture of the work will continue to evolve and with time bring new connotations, evocations? How is this connected to choosing which poems to publish? Is there some theme or movement you're arrested by right now that you look for in poems? Or do you wait for them to strike you and take you by surprise?


Dear Juan,

Thank you, as always, for your responses. Given that it's the weekend right now, please feel free to take your time before responding.

I hope you have a great weekend.

Warm regards,

Micaela


Dear Micaela,

Weekends are the best days for poetry and to talk about all of this.

Thanks to you! And let's continue!

Pound said that keeping a tradition alive is not an act of vanity, and I share that. Poetry is one of the best things humanity has preserved, and it was socially produced, working as a team.

So it is a joint effort, and we are probably the authors of a small piece of something bigger: we could think, for example, of all the illegal literature that was circulating before the French revolution. These overdeterminations are often the root of advance.

I think we are all part of an art that was always linked to words as well as to music, since ancient China or the troubadours. Many times the dialogues are given explicitly, but many times the tradition acts behind us. For example, the verse par excellence in Spanish has been the hendecasyllable. But the Spanish hendecasyllable, as we now conceive it (after the 'Siglo de Oro' in Spain), is an adaptation of the Italian hendecasyllable (whose accentuation is mainly on the sixth syllable and not the seventh, like the old 'Gaita Gallega').

That tuning and sound belong to other worlds, and are given in their own rhythm. That is why we can read poems in Occitan: rather than meaning, they produce music, even if we don't understand them. Languages are excuses for a single song.

We could think of another example: the Imagists. Although they did not read Chinese, they executed some formulas of that poetry for their modern project. The Chinese themselves, in fact, read the Tang dynasty differently after Pound's versions.

Juan


He wrote that 'poets and readers should lose themselves in their experiences.'  How can we go there?


Dear Juan,

Thank you for your response. I'm glad that the questions are interesting to you. Thank you so much for your commitment to answering them!

I have more, of course:

You say the writing of a work is 'part of a compilation and an excavation, which has already begun and is not yet finished.' Do you ever revisit work you've written after it's been published, for your own sake? Or does this statement have more to do with the fact that you trust that the gesture of the work will continue to evolve and with time bring new connotations, evocations?

You write that poets must 'aspire to a more universal reader, without falling into vernacular regionalisms,' and all incorporate traditions from all over the world into their work. In the 21st century there's been an increasing number of debates, I'd say, regarding who deserves to write about who, and whether anyone has the authority to write within the tradition of somewhere they are not necessarily from. How do you navigate this conversation? Or do you tend to not assume any kind authority over a particular place or tradition, but rather think of your task as moving through them?

When you sit down to write a poem, do you feel as if the propulsion of writing sometimes resembles hunger in some way? Or the desire for some kind of satisfaction?

Warm regards,

M


Hello dear Micaela,

Poetry is ahead and above any language. Our commitment must be with poetry, and not with a language or a nationality. Spanish continues to be a vernacular language, widespread in 'third world' countries. I have no affinity with this language, I was simply born in Buenos Aires. All the vernacular languages emulated, in principle, Occitan poetry. And the 'Siglo de Oro' in Spain occurred precisely after the adaptation of the Italian hendecasyllable.

When I speak English in England, the first thing they ask me is if I am Italian. We may speak Spanish, but if we take out the content (it is also known that many words in Argentina are Italian) the rhythm and the music does not come from Spain.

And yes, I think that the writing of a work is part of a compilation and an excavation, which has already begun and is not yet finished.

Poetry is not possible without reception, and that is why it is important to have different and varied readings: for this reason, we must aspire to a more universal reader, without falling into vernacular regionalisms. That is why a poet must be trained and return to all traditions, to incorporate them.

There is a poem by Lu Ji 陸 機 that deals with this: 'The function of literature is / to express the nature of nature. / It can´t be barred as it travels space / and boat across one hundred million years. / Gazing for the fore, I leave models for people to come; / looking aft, I learn from my ancestors (...). Inscribed on metal and stone, it spreads virtue. / Flowing with pipes and strings, each day the poem is new.'

By referring to the universal, I am not speaking in a sense of totalization, but rather of including in poetry as many 'worlds' as possible. This is something that Roland Barthes said in 'Les Cahiers de la Publicité,' and it can be applied to advertising as well as to poetry: the power of these speeches depends on their ability to connect their reader with as many of the world as possible, experiences of very old images, poetically named for generations.

This is something Yeats talked about a lot, in relation to symbols: coming into contact with the moon symbol, for example, was another way of communicating with ancient meanings. For Yeats, the moon named at the same time the ebon tower, the deer in the forest, the white hare on the hill, etc. This is something very exploited in ancient Chinese tradition. The east wind meant something benign, kind, favorable; while the west or north wind implies cruelty, coldness.

I wrote a poem that is very important to me, A Hummingbird on the Bauhinia, where I tried to synthesize my literary project. I was looking for a symbol that exclusively represented the American continent (you should know that hummingbirds are native to here, and live from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, southern Argentina). On the other hand, one of the peculiarities of hummingbirds is that they do not generally live in captivity. And all this without mentioning the poetic symbols that they promote: infinity of colors, silence, nectar, flowers…

The willow tree, on the other hand, symbolizes the seasons. But what interests me most about them is their roots, capable of destroying and lifting any type of surface: the beauty and growth of the willow implies some kind of destruction and limits.

It could be said that poems respond to a propulsion: it can be sometimes of anger, other times of happiness or simple emotion. It is assumed that for some reason one is adding a piece that is missing in the world. That is not to say that there is a balance: it may or may not serve a purpose.

But we could go back to the initial difference in the conversation between good and evil. It seems to me that this purpose is always fulfilled, even if it does not fulfill any real function. Auden said poetry was useless, but it has saved my life.

Here I am, for anything else.

Warmly,

Juan


Juan Arabia

A Hummingbird on the Bauhinia

translated by Katherine M. Hedeen

On the lowest branch of a bauhinia
rests the aquamarine black.
Enduring hummingbird… Purple,
like edge’s pleasure, thirsty
like harmful willow root:

Nectar, Liquor, Hashish: like the origin
of fire. In America flowers
feed legions… Tadpole algae
emerging, cricket shaking out its flags.

The sun is a hermit, like corn,
and the spot where silence’s bird
sings. Enduring before iron,
coal, pirate steamships,
on the lowest branch of a bauhinia:

Western slavery, rats.
Here the hunting sounds
sicken and die… the damp breeze
emerging in circles of rebellion.

On the lowest branch of a bauhinia
rests the aquamarine black.
Enduring hummingbird... Purple,
like edge's pleasure, thirsty
like harmful willow root.


*

Un colibrí en la bauhinia
En la rama más baja de bauhinia
descansa el negro azul color marino.
El colibrí inadaptable…Púrpura,
como el placer del límite, sediento
como la destructora raíz del sauce:

Néctar, Licor, Hachís: como el origen
del fuego. En América las flores
alimentan legiones…Brota el alga
del renacuajo, el grillo sacude banderas.

Ermitaño es el sol, como el maíz,
y el lugar donde el ave del silencio
canta. Inadaptable antes que el hierro,
el carbón, y el vapor de los corsarios,
en la rama más baja de bauhinia:

La esclavitud occidental, las ratas.
Acá mueren enfermos los sonidos
de cacería… Brota el húmedo aire
de la brisa en los círculos de rebelión.

En la rama más baja de bauhinia
descansa el negro azul color marino.
El colibrí inadaptable… Púrpura,
como el placer del límite, sediento
como la destructora raíz del sauce.



Dear Juan,

Thank you so much for your responses and I apologize for the delay. Yesterday I spent the day reading over your responses and I’m wondering if you’d be open to having them published in an article. I compiled it all into a document and rearranged the back-and-forths into a new order. I would appreciate it if you would read it over and let me know what you think.

I'm not quite sure yet if it's in the order I’d like to use for the final article and whether or not I want to reorder it at all. However, I thought I would reach out to you at this time and ask if you would like to add anything else to your answers.

I'm looking forward to hearing back from you and perhaps even sending you a poem after your next response...

With gratitude,

Micaela


Hello dear Micaela,

I think we did a good job and I like the new order of the answers.

And I wait for your poem, eager to read it.

Thanks for everything! The gratitude is mine.

Juan

Micaela Brinsley

Micaela Brinsley is in the process of trying to figure out how to stop thinking of everything in life as a performance. I was trained in the theatre and am curious about examining experiences no language or theory can completely describe, and trying to find ways of using the tools of text, performance and movement to work through that struggle. I recently graduated from the Performance Studies department at the NYU Tisch School of the Arts and grew up moving around, mostly between the United States and Japan. I also work as a developmental editor for LPB; please reach out if you're interested in speaking to me about your work.

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