What can be said of poetry that has not been said already? That it is not read; that it is the black sheep of the literary genres; that the poem returns to us our true face, or brings us closer to the voice of the tribe; that it is inexplicable, but not unintelligible? In any case, the current unpopularity of poetry has little or nothing to do with poetry itself, but rather—if I may venture a hypothesis—with today’s readers: under pressure, busy with a thousand things at a time, and therefore hesitant to pause, to take their feet off the accelerator, to look back at the past, to comb through their memories, fearful perhaps of turning into a pillar of salt like the stubborn and curious wife of Lot.
It is no surprise that we should forget all that has come before, in these times in which we are living. No matter: all ages someday sink with a certain deliberate unconsciousness, even a perverse joy. Ours is no exception. Ours is an age of transactions and new velocities. Perhaps this is why the Canadian poet Anne Carson reminds us that poetry is a gift, and that before money came around, many societies meaningfully ordered their economic lives around the giving and receiving of gifts. Such societies governed themselves according to a triple responsibility: to give, to receive, to return. Unlike money—which circulates in a single direction, that of expense—a gift, like poetry, is gratuity and reward, celebration and gratitude. Of course, the exercise of poetry is far from pure extremes; not so the poem, a verbal object ultimately irreducible to the market. Of course, the poem is also stained with the materials of the present, contaminated by history, but always rebellious and alien to its determinant times. Leaving the poem behind, societies believe themselves to be advancing toward more perfect forms of operation and exchange, but the poem never leaves us, just as breath, rhythm, and meaning never leave us. Sometimes we are lucky enough to come face to face with that mirror of words whose reflection is a single, unrepeatable image. Sometimes.
These reflections serve to lead the way into the two dossiers we present in this new issue of Latin American Literature Today: the cover dossier, dedicated to Cuban poet Reina María Rodríguez, and the other—this one from the archive—on Brazilian poet João Cabral de Melo Neto. Reina María Rodríguez, winner of the 2014 Pablo Neruda Ibero-American Poetry Award, is a foundational poet in the panorama of Spanish-language poetry. She dwells in two worlds—the world of Cuba and the world that exists off the island—and is also known as the cultural organizer of the Azotea, on Calle Ánimas in Havana: a central space in Cuban literature. Today, as Elena Lahr-Vivaz points out, “almost 20 years later, the space of the Azotea has become a storied site associated with Rodríguez’s creation of an alternate space of identity.” Reina María, as a poet and builder of bridges and encounters between poets and artists, has spent years working from what her translator, Kristin Dykstra (who coordinated this dossier) describes as endurance: “Of course, you don’t need to be Cuban to feel the urgency of a struggle to endure under pressure. Rodríguez has reached audiences around the world with expressions of everyday urgency, which are central to her long career in poetry and prose.” For this and many other reasons, we are happy at Latin American Literature Today to feature an extraordinary woman and poet like Cuba’s Reina María Rodríguez on our cover.
Another poet taking up some of this issue’s main pages is João Cabral de Melo Neto. Continuing our series on the Latin American writers who have won the Neustadt Prize, we come to a Brazilian author of extraordinary importance throughout the continent, who was distinguished with this prize in 1992. From the prize’s archives, and thanks to the generosity of our friend, World Literature Today editor Daniel Simon, we present two texts in celebration of this singular moment. One of them consists of the words of thanks delivered by Cabral de Melo Neto upon receiving the Neustadt Prize at the University of Oklahoma; the other is an introductory text composed by the seventh editor of Books Abroad/World Literature Today, Djelal Kadir, who eloquently highlights the tightness of the competition: “[João Cabral de Melo Neto] had to compete with the significant qualifications of such eminent writers as the Russian poet Bella Akhmadulina, the English novelist John Berger, the Italian poet Andrea Zanzotto, the Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk, the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano, and the Japanese novelist Kenzaburō Ōe, to mention a few of the candidates who were presented to the 1992 jury.” This dossier also contains an essay by the renowned translator from the Portuguese, Richard Zenith, as well as translations of poems by Melo Neto into Spanish by Venezuelan poet Margara Russotto and into English by American translator Rhett McNeil. What’s more, our correspondent Christian Elguera has prepared a complementary dossier on contemporary Brazilian literature to further bolster LALT’s commitment to promoting Brazilian literature in both Spanish and English.
But the poetry in this new offering from LALT does not end there. This issue’s poetry section is devoted entirely to women poets from Latin America. We feature four in particular: Geraldine Gutiérrez and Yolanda Pantin of Venezuela, Micaela Paredes de Chile, and Gabriela Pignataro of Argentina. Their poems are a few of many features in this new issue: interviews, fiction, poetry, indigenous literature from Brazil, conversations between authors and translators, reflections on translation, and more, especially in our “seeking publisher” space: an initiative we hope to share far and wide, which seeks to create dialogue with independent presses publishing in translation in the English-speaking world, under the direction of our Translation Editor Denise Kripper.
This issue also comes with a surprise: a return to Mariano Picón Salas’s 1954 essay “And This Is Regarding the Essay,” translated by Beverly Pérez Rego. This is no arbitrary choice. On the contrary, the essay represents the editorial heart of our journal: a form of resistance, of endurance, if you will, before the homogenizing tendencies of academic, journalistic, and so many other forms of writing that shy away from uncertainty, exploration, intellectual pursuit in the wild parts of the world. Picón Salas himself says it best: “The formula of the essay [is] to have something to say; to say it in a way that agitates the conscience and awakens the emotions.”
I would be remiss not to thank the correspondents in many different countries of Latin America who have helped to make this issue possible: Alejandra Jaramillo, Óscar Campo, Christian Elguera, Héctor Iván González, César Ferreira, and Gustavo Valle.
I close this note thinking of poets alive and dead, of the poems we bring along with us, the poems that have yet to be written, the poets published in this issue. I think of those gifts that come and come back, gifts with which we build “a common roof” under which to live on this mistreated planet. We know nothing of future, and less of the future of literature. All we know is that in this issue of LALT, poetry has found its own roof—one it sometimes lacks in today’s world. The day might well come when we end up asking ourselves, along with Reina María Rodríguez, “And where to place my poems? / And where to place my teacups / when rain comes / to shatter them all?” Perhaps, next time, we will not be so lucky.
Translated by Arthur Malcolm Dixon
Arthur Malcolm Dixon is co-founder, lead translator, and Managing Editor of Latin American Literature Today. He has translated the novels Immigration: The Contest by Carlos Gámez Pérez and There Are Not So Many Stars by Isaí Moreno (Katakana Editores), as well as the verse collection Intensive Care by Arturo Gutiérrez Plaza (Alliteratïon). He also works as a community interpreter in Tulsa, Oklahoma and is a 2020-2021 Tulsa Artist Fellow.