Like many of Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s readers, I first came to him via The Sound of Things Falling, which landed him the Alfaguara Novel Prize in 2011, and paved the way for his international renown. I met the Bogotá writer in person at the Oromo Bookstore in Cali, Colombia, on October 5, 2022 during a conversation with local author Julián Chang. It was on that day that he announced, calmly and straightforwardly, that he’d soon publish his first poetry collection. Three months later, Visor Libros Colombia would release Cuaderno de septiembre, with their typical black cover and a foreword by the Spanish poet Luis García Montero. By the end of that same October, we scheduled an interview around his poetry, his ties to Colombia’s poetic tradition, and the literary connections to his already extensive narrative oeuvre.
Néstor Mendoza: I’m very interested in the trajectory of some Colombian writers, who write both prose and poetry with great ease. Álvaro Mutis is a paradigmatic case of a writer who moves from poetry to prose. This transition doesn’t seem forced, but rather a natural step. I notice the same in other contemporary writers from your country, such as William Ospina, Piedad Bonnett, and Pablo Montoya. Some more recent Latin American writers include Mónica Ojeda, whom I first got to know as a poet and then as a writer of prose. Your case is actually the other way around: after an established career as a novelist and short story writer, an author of journalistic and critical prose, you’re now publishing your first poetry collection, Cuaderno de septiembre. What’s your opinion about this “phenomenon,” about writers who go from poetry to prose and vice versa?
Juan Gabriel Vásquez: Yes, I am enormously curious about those amphibious writers, too. Among novelists, for example, I’ve always been drawn to those who give poetry a prominent presence in their prose. Cervantes was an unsuccessful poet, it’s true, but Don Quixote is full of wonderful apocryphal poems, and it opens with two lines written in the classic meter of our language: an octosyllable followed by an eleven-syllable line. “In a village of La Mancha/ the name of which I do not care to recall…” Flaubert did not write poetry, but he brought the precision and music of verse to the prose of his novels. One of the most virtuoso stylists of the English language was James Joyce, who wrote two beautiful books of poetry.
At the same time, I feel very glad when I see a poet turn to prose. I don’t know what it is: a longing for freedom, for wide-open spaces? For greater contact with the passage of time? Borges, of course, was a poet before he wrote short stories, and he brought the formal rigor of sonnets to his stories. There are also risks, of course: a “poet’s novel” is a genre to be feared, almost as much as we should fear the “novelist’s poems.” In any case, we could also talk about those poets who, in their poems, are great narrators: Dante is the father of them all. In Dante, the eye for physical detail, the ability to capture a character’s psychology in a description, are worthy of Chekhov.
N.M.: It really caught my attention that the “psychic breakdown” of one of your most complex characters, Ricardo Laverde, takes place in the Casa de Poesía Silva. This is not by chance, and can even maybe be seen as an unofficial “prequel” to your first poetry collection. What’s your connection to the late poet José Asunción Silva and with your country’s poetic tradition? What other Colombian poets are in dialogue with Cuaderno de septiembre?
J.G.V.: The Casa de Poesía Silva, that place outside of space in downtown Bogotá, is very important in my private experience. When I was twenty years old, when the only thing I was interested in was figuring out the mysteries of literature, I used to hide there from the terminal boredom of my law lectures to listen to Mutis, to Carranza, to León de Greiff. José Asunción Silva, who up until then had been a vague memory from school, became a melancholy companion. When I wrote that scene in The Sound of Things Falling, it was very clear to me that the narrator should be listening to Silva’s “Nocturne” while Ricardo Laverde was suffering that “psychic breakdown” as you put it. Seeing that scene as a prequel to my book of poems is interesting. I had never thought of it that way, but the poetry in the novel—hidden or obvious lines that are important for me—comes from those years. Which Colombian poets got as far as my book? It’s difficult to say, but I can happily accept that Mutis is in there.
N.M.: I was recently rereading a poem by Spanish author Luis Rosales, titled “Oda del ansia.” In it, the poet establishes a bond with his loved one in meter verse. What is your connection to this tradition in our language and with Spanish poetry of the early twentieth century?
J.G.V.: The names that immediately spring to mind are Antonio Machado and Miguel Hernández. I remember a visit to Machado’s house with Michael Ondaatje—a great poet, by the way—and my failed attempt to improvise a translation of the “Cantares.” I realized then that Machado’s poems, which seem so simple, actually have extremely intricate constructions, and some of the simplest words are untranslatable… My most recent novel is called Volver la vista atrás, and there was no way to make that Machado line work as an English title with both its sound and sense, so we called it Retrospective.
N.M.: Section III in Cuaderno de septiembre is mostly made up of sonnets (some in alexandrine and others in hendecasyllabic verse). Is there a particular reason for this, aside from prosody?
J.G.V.: That section is a book within the book: that’s how it all began. Twenty poems that I wrote for my wife out of moments of our biography, and that’s why the poems have a formal unity. I asked Neruda’s permission, the Neruda of the 100 Love Sonnets, and he grudgingly granted it. He’s regretting that now. Anyway, I have always liked the formal restrictions of fixed forms. Stravinsky said that total liberty was stifling. As soon as we establish artificial rules, our creativity awakens. I wanted to use unrhymed sonnets to explore episodes—anecdotes or memories—in our life as a couple. It’s very strange for me that this has now been published, though I hope readers will appropriate my memories and project their own lives over top of them. Which is what we always do with other people’s poems.
N.M.: I noticed that, in many poems in Cuaderno de septiembre, there are explicit references to other readings and authors (in your epigraphs, in the titles of some of the texts, in some direct and indirect quotes). What are some of your poetic antecedents?
J.G.V.: Let me explain it like this. Behind me, while I’m writing, I have an anthology of Hispano-American poetry (the two-volume Monte Ávila), two of Spanish poetry, two of poetry in English (one compiled by Michael Hulse and Simon Rae; the other by Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes), and one of French poetry (André Gide). Also on these shelves are the complete works of Shakespeare, César Vallejo, and Elizabeth Bishop. I can see Leaves of Grass, The Waste Land, Leopardi’s Canti, Rimbaud’s Une saison en enfer. Emily Dickinson is there. I like to have these books nearby because I draw on them the way religious people fall back on their psalms or prayers.
N.M.: I notice a certain “post-apocalyptic” landscape in some of your poems, for example, in “Cuando eso pase” or in “Después del diagnóstico,” with that “tubercular Paris.” And what’s surprising is the narrative voice that emerges, motivated by the addressee, by the lover or loved one to whom this will to go on is dedicated. Tell us a bit more about these territories you chose for Cuaderno de septiembre, tell us about your addressee (or addressees). Are your landscapes only an “imagined horror,” as you say in a line in the poem “Prosa del preocupado”? Do your addressees reflect the real or literary loves of Juan Gabriel Vásquez?
J.G.V.: My poems are addressed at once to my partner of the last twenty-eight years and to an abstract woman who is all women, just as the voice of the poems is mine and at the same time that of an abstract man who is all men. That’s the beauty of poetry: nobody knows how it happens, but it converts the intimate into a universal language. What I sought with Cuaderno de septiembre was a meditation on the couple as a place, or as a space from which to view the world. A long relationship is a headland from which we see the political world, our collective history, social life, just as we see our own private life—illnesses, accidents, dissatisfactions, small joys, children—and fix it in place in order to understand it.
N.M.: A great friend of mine told me that good poems begin in the same way as good novels or good stories. He saw in every good poem’s opening the beginning of a good narrative work. This is what I gathered, especially, in “Cruces blancas,” one of the most noteworthy and stripped texts in your book: the first line is self-sufficient, and it foreshadows the ambience we’ll see in the rest of the poem. The same thing happens in the opening line of “Prosa de las avenidas.” What do you think of the beginnings of a good text, of the opening being purposeful for a poem or a novel?
J.G.V.: I like the narrative qualities of a poem: when I think of great openings, my memory throws up narrative effects. “April is the cruellest month.” We are immediately asking ourselves narrative questions: Why? For whom? Who’s speaking? “Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita/ me ritrovai per una selva oscura.” I want to know more. Or the opening of Les fleurs du mal, with the birth of the poet and his frightened mother, just as characters by Rabelais or Laurence Sterne were born, or maybe even Dickens, if pressed.
N.M.: Your poem “Reflejos” refers to music, to boleros. The theme, the rhythm and emphasis suggest a longing, but in some cases also an unrequited love. “Escrito en el cuerpo” can be connected to Latin American rock, and in the last section of the book you claim that a poem is “…the secret music of loves and anarchies.” What do you think of this?
J.G.V.: It’s true: there are poems here, or at least lines, nourished by popular music. Once, a few years ago, my friend Fonseca dared to write a song with me. It was an astonishing exercise: I was fighting for the rights of poetry and he for those of pop music, and both of us finding virtues in the other. I learned that a pop song cannot be a poem: it seeks another language, a more direct emotion. So then, in Cuaderno de septiembre there are poems that want to approach emotion directly. Poetry held its ground and I never managed it completely, but traces remain. When you say one of them reminded you of a bolero, I feel well served. Music is important to me in any case: one poem conjures up a Pink Floyd song; some lines reference Joaquín Sabina, whom I admire enormously and who affectionately designed the book’s cover.
N.M.: Your book is divided into five parts: there are two parts before and two after section III, which gives the collection its title, Cuaderno de septiembre. It’s like a sort of walnut, protected by two layers on each side. Can you elaborate more on this structure? Is there some superstition around it?
J.G.V.: There is a desire for symmetry, and I am delighted that you noticed. The walnut is a walnut is a walnut, as Gertrude Stein would have said. The poems of parts II and IV talk to each other; as do the poems of parts I and V, which function as prologue and epilogue respectively. That’s why I would like the book to be read in order. But that is asking too much patience of the reader.
N.M.: What comes after Cuaderno de septiembre? Do you have any unpublished poems? I’m sure your readers will be waiting for them.
J.G.V.: Well, I’d be grateful if this book made readers hope for more, but I don’t see any on the horizon. This one came out of very specific private circumstances, and was published only after a series of chance occurrences (and pressure from some dear friends whose opinions I respect). In a way, its publication is a brazen act, something to which, in principle, I am not much inclined. But I’ll keep reading poetry, and will be very happy if this book might find its way to some readers and couples, who might find in it a revelation, small or large, about a corner of their own lives.