This is an excerpt from Octavio Pineda’s interview with Eduardo Chirinos in Toulouse, March 2013. Published in Eslava, Jorge. La voz oculta. Conversaciones con Carlos López Degregori y Eduardo Chirinos. Lima: Fondo Editorial de la Universidad de Lima, 2016.
Octavio Pineda: What pushed you to leave your country of origin? How was it that you ended up in Missoula, where you live today?
Eduardo Chirinos: Unlike many writers from Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay, I didn’t leave my country for political reasons, and I often travel to Peru, where my wife and I have family. What I mean to say is that I’ve always maintained a close connection to my country.
When we went to the United States, it was because of our work—no Peruvian university in the nineties offered a doctorate in literature. First we thought about going to Italy, but that would have been very difficult. In an American university, if you have a bachelor’s degree you can work as a teaching assistant in Spanish, and with that you can afford—modestly—to support yourself and pay for your studies. That’s how we earned our doctorates from Rutgers University. Then we found jobs at the University of Montana and we moved to Missoula. In sum, it was more of a work-related exile than a political one.
In the middle of the eighties I spent two years living in Spain, a country with which I feel a strong connection and to which I return again and again. To me, your country isn’t the one you come from, but the one to which you return, and I’m always going back to Spain, to the U.S., and to Peru. These three countries form a kind of emotional triangle in which I can move around very easily.
O.P.: And the experience of this displacement is one that you share with other poets of your generation.
E.Ch.: Without being representative, my situation does have sociological undertones, since many colleagues around my age left for the United States without losing their connection to Peru. All things considered, it’s about broadening one’s horizons: your homeland ends up being the place where you publish, where you can count on that handful of readers who read poetry, and for me those homelands are Spain and Peru. As far as the U.S. goes, I haven’t published very much there because I do not and will not write in English, except for the few times my poems have appeared in magazines. The difficulty of being a foreigner slows this integration but, thanks to my translator Gary Racz and to the invitation from Víctor Rodríguez Núñez, in 2011 I had the opportunity to publish an anthology, Reasons for Writing Poetry, in London, and this opened the door to American publishers. Since then, in a short time, Written in Missoula has come out in Montana and The Smoke of Distant Fires in New York. Currently, my translator has just finished translating Mientras el lobo, which I hope will appear in print soon.
O.P.: Was it difficult to integrate into a new cultural space, including a new idiomatic space?
E.Ch.: When we move to another geographical space we don’t arrive with the same innocence as we do to the blank page, but rather via the filter we have from a multitude of readings, films, songs, etc. from which we’ve constructed an imaginary. Every time we arrive in a new city, we bring that cultural baggage along with us, which allows us to inhabit it and to inscribe it with our own writing. And that is amazing.
O.P.: You mentioned Written in Missoula. What shape does the experience of living in another country take in your poetry?
E.Ch.: I’m going to respond to your question in two ways. The first has to do with the way in which literature written in a foreign language influences your own writing, that is, reading American authors in the U.S., or reading Spanish writers in Spain. Reading William Carlos Williams in New Jersey isn’t the same as reading him in Lima. To be clear, I’m not suggesting that one type of reading is better than the other, I’m just saying that they’re different. The second has to do with the necessary shift in focus required to live in a place that is not originally your own. This shift in focus results in a different way of writing—that’s what interests me. This shift is vital, and renews me greatly.
O.P.: And what relationship does your poetry establish between this transnationalism of your displacement and childhood, which is so important in many of your poems.
E.Ch.: To be honest, I never noticed that every geographical displacement returns me somehow to childhood until you mentioned it just now. But I don’t mean that child “we all have inside of us;” I’m referring—again—to the gaze, because it’s the eyes that see the place where you live anew. Naturally, this demands a new language, new desires, new fears that will all “colonize” this new space where you’re going to write.
O.P.: In that case, do you think that poetry is a language that is better situated to express a certain experience of distance, displacement, rootlessness?
E.Ch.: It depends on whatever genre you’ve chosen as a writer. It might seem that the novel is a better way to channel the experience of rootlessness (I should clarify that I’ve never felt rootless myself), because it allows for the creation of actions interwoven with thoughts, leading to the novel or the travel narrative. Poetry doesn’t obey any necessity of narrating or inventing a parallel world. Poetry is about trying to be attentive to a kind of music, and the music that you hear in other places is distinct from the music you hear in your country of origin, in such a way that it challenges and reeducates your ear. As I said in Anuario mínimo, you don’t write poetry because you have an idea—poetry is indifferent to the obligation of writing down ideas. So how does it happen? After many years of writing poems, I feel like wherever I am, I hear music, and this music requires words, and these words require an idea. Unlike novels, journals, or stories, which normally begin with an idea, in poetry it’s a question of being alert, of being ready to listen to this music and to sit and write down the words that it demands. If the ideas show up that’s great, but if not, it doesn’t matter. Sometimes they’re not even necessary at all.
O.P.: If we take George Steiner’s concept of “extraterritoriality,” you would say that this is more of a shift in music than a shift in language. It’s possible to maintain that in Latin America, there is a type of poetry—or “music”—that is extraterritorial, wandering, or migratory.
E.Ch.: Generally speaking, I think that all poetry, including poetry written by someone who never left their own country or even their own house, can be extraterritorial. Because true poetry is composed of words that are constantly shifting. I remember a phrase by the Uruguayan poet Ida Vitale that goes something like this: “the words of a poem are always nomadic, but bad poems make words sedentary.” So, it depends more on the poems than on their writers, and this nomadism, this migration, exists in all the great poems that we read from all places and all epochs. Even someone who has moved around experienced a multiplicity of tones, of languages, of foreign places, if their words are sedentary, they’re useless. Moving around doesn’t guarantee extraterritoriality.
O.P.: Nevertheless, in terms of the music of many of your books, there are some poetry collections that demonstrate a clear shift due, perhaps, to the shift in music, like those you wrote in Madrid or in the U.S. Which texts represent most explicitly this shift in music and place?
E.Ch.: Really all my books entail a shift in music, even if they were written in the same country, but there are a few in which the shift is more radical because they refer to a scenery that really affected my gaze. If there are books that mark a shift, those would be El libro de los encuentros (which I wrote in Madrid), El equilibrista de Bayard Street (my first encounter with the U.S.), and Written in Missoula. For whatever reason those are also the most popular with readers.
O.P.: El libro de los encuentros represents, as they say, your relationship with Madrid. In that text there’s a mix of places, times, and of history. For example, the temple of Debod in the Parque del Oeste. There you’re talking about the transfer of an Egyptian temple to Spain, as the movement of a physical space to somewhere else.
E.Ch.: Now that you mention it, one of the writers who most affected me when I moved to Spain was Cavafis, who at that time wasn’t very well known in Peru. One of his great teachings was to bring poetry and history closer together. But not history as a description of past events, rather the history that you can read as a transference of your own particular history. I was feeling alone, isolated, in a place that didn’t feel like mine. I’m talking about my first weeks in Madrid. But I should say that this loneliness and isolation were temporary, because I quickly realized that a lot of what was around me was familiar: in elementary school I’d learned to add using pesetas, was taught the names of the Visigoth kings before those of the Inca, I knew the songs from operettas like Luisa Fernanda (also the name of my street) by heart, and I knew perfectly well what we were celebrating fifty years after the Spanish Civil War. Neither the language, the food, nor the music were new to me. It wasn’t such a categorical shock, like it was in the U.S. in later years.
But I still felt alone. I was 25, I didn’t have family there and it was first time I’d left Peru. I felt like that solitary Egyptian monolith in the middle of the Parque del Oeste, installed there for God knows what reason. What is such an exotic construction doing there, I would ask myself. And I discovered that by researching its history, what I was doing was explaining myself to myself. The poem “Templo del Debod” was talking about my own particular situation.
O.P.: So, connecting a historical event to a personal experience.
E.Ch.: Yes, as if within history more generally speaking, you can locate a channel through which to express your own personal history, just as you can also find a kind of mask, since masks hide, but they also reveal. With historical or cultural events the same thing happens as when you are confronted with the blank page, although I agree with Roland Barthes when he says that what confronts a writer is, in reality, a black page: when we want to write about something in particular, like love for example, the page is already blackened with the words of hundreds of thousands of poets. You have to find a small blank space in which you insert something different from everything that’s already been done. The same thing happens with the cultural event, like the temple of Debod or certain cultural instances that demand to be written: they are so semantized, so loaded with history, that there is very little one can say. This is the challenge that every poet has to confront.
I was lucky enough to have been raised in a house that didn’t have a library, nor did my family cultivate reading as a habit. My mother read, but she read Vargas Llosa, Agatha Christie, Reader’s Digest, and Teresa Ocampo’s cookbooks all with the same level of interest. My father was in the military and if he read at all it was books about military strategy and stuff like that. I didn’t grow up in a home where culture was this oppressive thing you had to go out and conquer. No. I grew up free from this tyranny, and little by little I put together my own library, which today is split between Lima and Missoula. That’s the only way I can explain this gaze that puts the sophisticated and the common on the same level, without it being some kind of paternalistic concession or an act of arrogance.
O.P.: That makes me think of your book Smoke from Distant Fires, in which we find comic book characters, such as Batman, alongside texts about contemporary Romanian poetry.
E.Ch.: More than an erudite interest in things, it’s a poetic interest. As a child I contracted an illness that would permanently affect my hearing, but I have a particularly refined ear for hearing the music that emerges from a person, from a book, or from a film. That’s why I’ve never believed in the distinction that some people make between the cultural and the vital, as if culture weren’t something vital. Going out, reading a book, listening to rock or bolero or operetta is all, for me, on the same level as reading comic books or listening to classical music. When I read, I’m waiting for poetry to jump out at me from anywhere. I’m always on the lookout.
O.P: It seems like everything can be poetry.
E.Ch.: The paradox is that if everything can be poetry, nothing can be poetry…
O.P.: Another element that comes up in the text about the poetry of Lucian Blaga (the Romanian writer), is your interest in languages you don’t know. Sometimes you even incorporate foreign languages…
E.Ch.: The poem you’re referring to is called “Ordenando la biblioteca antes de dormir” and there’s a story behind it. The last time I moved, it took me a long time to arrange my books in my new library. It was nighttime and the silence was overwhelming, and I thought of that poem by Blaga. I found out that there were four or five versions of it in Spanish. It seemed amazing to me that the fact that I didn’t know Romanian gave me access to so many versions. What the poem began to communicate to me, more than its words, was this silence or linistire (in Romanian) that had overpowered me. I soon felt that silence was the same in any language.
O.P.: And English, as the language with which live day to day, has this pushed you to write in it?
E.Ch.: I learned English late in life, that’s what I haven’t incorporated it into my way of writing, even though I often consider what the tone of what I’m reading in English would be like in Spanish. That’s why I started translating: you can smell poetry, you can touch it, you can flip through a book of poems and tell immediately if you like its tone or not. In this way translation becomes a necessity rather than a job.
O.P.: It seems like poetry is always latent. What relationship is there, then, between your life and your work? Your book Anuario mínimo directly represents the fifty years of your life from 1960 to 2010.
E.Ch.: A friend read Anuario mínimo and said to me: “it seems like your life is nothing other than your relationship to language.” And he was right: language ends up supplanting life until the point where it becomes life. There’s a verse by Jorge Guillén that uses Javier Sologuren as a symbol of his work: Poesía: vida continua. I believe that my poetry is my life continuing, that my life is my books.
O.P.: Let’s talk about your connection to a literary tradition. One of your poems in Anuario mínimo (1960-2010) says: “A poem, if it’s truly original, will know how to lead its readers to the origin itself of literary tradition, a poem is the point of departure for a literary tradition, never the point of its arrival.” What relation is there between poetry and tradition?
E.Ch.: It has to do with the interpretation of Ricardo Reis (Pessoa’s most classic heteronym), who says that in every poem, no matter how small, we can see that Homer wrote it. For years I believed that every poem must be the receptacle of a tradition, and that a poem should reveal, like an x-ray, the process that defines our culture. And then one day I realized that what Reis was trying to say was precisely the opposite. My students had told me that certain poems really intimidated them, they thought understanding them required all sorts of cultural and historical references, as if the poem were a monstrous sphinx and they were being forced to respond to its riddles. And then I thought of Reis and I told my students to think of a poem as the beginning of a tradition that would lead them to understanding. In the same way that many poets don’t know what a “litote” or “asyndeton” are but still use them, readers should encounter a poem as freely as possible, and that will lead them towards Homer. It’s just a question of perspective.
O.P.: What is your writing studio like? What is your process after so many years and so many published collections?
E.Ch.: It’s difficult to answer this question, since every book demands its own kind of writing. There are books that require a different kind of availability than others, and this availability depends on the moment in which you’re living. My last book, for example, was written in a different way, because normally I write in the mornings, and I realized that—contrary to my habit—some poems needed to be written at night. I was even waking up at three in the morning because I’d found the solution to a verse. Maybe because I wrote it during a long and painful illness, the idea of writing against death became less of a metaphor and took on a kind of reality.
Oh, and I write directly on the computer, since writing by hand resists inspiration. When an inspiration comes, I write very quickly, and writing by hand slows me down because I need concentrate on forming the letters. I never write by hand.
O.P.: Have you ever written two books that complement each other?
E.Ch.: In general when I write a book, once I finish it I’m left with an emptiness that’s difficult to recover from. But I’ve learned to be patient and trust that something will come to me later. In the first years that I was living in the U.S. I realized, to my surprise, that I was writing poems that had nothing to do with each other. I usually write in cycles, and the poems all take on a similar tone. But at that point I was writing—without intending to—three different books at the same time, without knowing where it was all headed. When I figured it out I just let things flow. That’s how I wrote El equilibrista de Bayard Street, Breve historia de la música and Abecedario del agua.
This didn’t happen to me again until I became sick towards the end of 2011. There two books intersected that, on the surface, didn’t have anything to do with each other: Thirty-Five Zoology Lessons in which each poem discusses a different animal; and another book whose poems are about how my mind and my body reacted to my illness… But I can remember how my mind and my body made me forget my illness while I was giving voice to the many animals, so there is something very subtle connecting these two projects.
O.P.: Thirty-Five Zoology Lessons reminds me of another book you wrote about animals, el Coloquio de los animals. That’s rather uncommon in contemporary poetry, which is usually so urbane, this deep interest in animals.
E.Ch.: Coloquio de los animales is, as I say somewhat jokingly, my paper zoo. My fascination with animals explains why they’ve always been present, from my first book up to the most recent. I guess that has to do with the fact that we approach animals as projections, that is, we transfer our own fears onto them, our own virtues, our own defects, as if they were cultural objects. But the truth is that animals are indifferent, they’re separate from that. Aristotle, for example, such an important and decisive philosopher in our culture, seriously thought that ostriches were the result of a sparrow mating with a camel. Even today its scientific name preserves both concepts: Struthio camelus. Don’t you think that if an ostrich could speak (and also read Aristotle), that it would complain about such a mistake? So, that’s what it’s doing in Thirty-Five Zoology Lessons.
I’m fascinated by the fact that our worlds never touch. We’re in parallel universes: what an ostrich sees, what a dog sees, what a cat sees, is also mediated by what each of them needs to survive, and even that’s different for every animal.
O.P.: And which animals do you most identify with? One might imagine that birds have a prominent place in your poems.
E.Ch.: In my last book there are all kinds of animals, not just birds. Mammals, fish, also insects. In Missoula, where I live now, it’s possible to see animals in their natural habitat. Missoula is a city that knows how to interact with nature—you can see herds of deer crossing the road, bears invading private gardens, not long ago I saw a beaver by the edge of the river. Animals live with us, but—as I was just saying—they live in parallel worlds. At night you can sense the presence of these animals, their mute closeness. That doesn’t happen in Lima.
O.P.: As if nature in Missoula had that same music you’ve heard.
E.Ch.: Yes, it’s really special. In other cities there are animals that have adapted to living there, but they’re always the same ones: the usual dogs, cats, rats, cockroaches.
Translated by Nora E. Carr
Nora E. Carr is a Ph.D. candidate in Comparative Literature at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York City, where her research focuses on literary translation, multilingual texts, and the U.S.-México border. Her translation of Mexican author Jesús Gardea’s short story, “Angel of Our Summers,” was recently published in the Nashville Review. She currently lives in Queens, New York, and teaches both college writing and literature in translation at Queens College, CUNY.