To talk about poetry with Carlos Germán Belli, or simply to spend time alongside an extraordinary spirit like his—generous and affable to a fault—is a wonderful gift. This interview is based on a longer version born of our conversations while we were preparing a book in his honor, Vivir en el poema. The poet has given his blessing to share this dialogue with Latin American Literature Today.
Inmaculada Lergo: Who is Carlos Germán Belli?
Carlos Germán Belli: What a question! I have done many different things in my long life; I have been an average man with his head in the invisible world, and also a practitioner of sestinas, villanelles, and ballads, as well as Petrarchan canzoni.
I.L.: There can be no Carlos Germán Belli without poetry. Isn’t that right? What has poetry meant in your life?
C.G.B.: Due to my deficiencies as a speaker—real or imaginary, I do not know—I have clung to poetic writing, tooth and nail, as a means of survival. At first it was catharsis, then writing became a true existential challenge to me, and finally a path to metaphysical transcendence.
I.L.: 1958. You have your first published book in your hands… Does that moment live on in your mind?
C.G.B.: What I recall most strongly of late is how my first book came to be. It happened thanks to a loan I received from the Senate, where I was working as an administrative employee. I took the money to the printer, Mr. Villanueva; I showed him Arquitectura del poema, by Raúl Deustua, and I said to him, “Make me a book like this one.” I look back on it fondly now, as a little volume from which I can pull texts to put together representative personal anthologies.
I.L.: You had already published a few individual poems by then…
C.G.B.: I remember having published in La Prensa, El Comercio, and Mercurio Peruano, and in some short-lived student publications at San Marcos and La Católica—thanks, incidentally, to the good will of friends like Jorge Puccinelli and the historian César Pacheco Vélez, classmates of mine at the latter university.
I.L.: You were linked, at first, to a small group of surrealists whose work was little-read. You also declared yourself a descendant of the avant-garde.
C.G.B.: I would have liked to have formed part of the group of Buenos Aires surrealists led by Aldo Pellegrini, and to have contributed to Mandrágora, the journal of the Chilean surrealist group. But I had to resign myself to building my avant-garde library with just a few first editions, regrettably with a limited mastery of French. Fortunately, it was good enough to delve into surrealist painting and to cultivate both love poetry and black humor, thereby not ending up a nineteenth-century poet, despite my constant penchant for conventional meter.
I.L.: Whom were you reading at the time?
C.G.B.: Mostly Breton, Michaux, Peret, and Eluard, and the lyricists for a shorter time.
I.L.: Have your reading habits remained the same over the years?
C.G.B.: These are latent tastes, recondite within me. Over time I have had other, more intense preferences, such as my interest in the Spanish Golden Age. My youthful fondness for the avant-garde and my fondness for Renaissance trends have ended up as a sort of combinatorial art, perhaps resembling the processes of alchemy.
I.L.: In 1962, the publication of ¡Oh Hada Cibernética! earned unanimous applause from intellectual circles. The titular “cybernetic fairy” is an iconic figure who first appeared two years prior in Dentro & fuera.
C.G.B.: It all started with a prosaic problem: the act of working too much, as I tended to back then, and the coming of the technological labor revolution. Due to that confluence, I came across the word “cybernetic,” which led me to conceive of the poetic personification of the Cybernetic Fairy, first nested in a single poem and then in a book of poems, which grew and grew until it earned the National Poetry Prize.
I.L.: Among your first admirers was our Nobel Prize winner, Mario Vargas Llosa.
C.G.B.: I believe surrealism—and our interest in the work of César Moro, in particular—links me to Mario Vargas Llosa. Our friendship dates back to our origins, when he was anxious to find me a Spanish publisher in Madrid, even including one of my verses as an epigraph in The Time of the Hero; he later wrote an early article on my first book, and later, two strikingly beautiful and generous prologues. I feel infinitely honored, and all of this makes me think I am not exclusively a victim of bad luck.
I.L.: What were your “personal demons”?
C.G.B.: I believe the titles of the very brief volumes El pie sobre el cuello and Por el monte abajo reveal the “demons” to which you allude, which can only be the writer’s obsessive feelings or ideas. In brief, a feeling of existential worthlessness. Truthfully, I cannot explain how I have been able to lodge my entire, viscous inner realm in metric verses and strophic molds, which no doubt deserved a better fate.
I.L.: You have always exerted a particular effort and attention on the formal aspects of your work, opting for traditional metric forms.
C.G.B.: My concern for form is another of my literary obsessions, and as far as I can tell, it is permanent, unlike my existential worthlessness, which sometimes dissipates, giving way to hope, eventually taking its seat on my thematic throne. Furthermore, my incorporation first of the sestina and then of the Petrarchan canzone was not the result of a preconceived plan. It was a gradual matter that later found expression in two books.
I.L.: The wordplay of the “Sextina de los desiguales,” in which you add the antithesis of paired terms to the requirements proper to this metrical form—mare-ass, rose-elm, day-night—is unsurpassable…
C.G.B.: Many thanks for such a generous reading of my sestina. I do not remember when I wrote it, but I will always remember a listener at a reading I gave at a U.S. university who had an expression of marked pleasure on his face while I read it. He told me afterwards that he did not know Spanish, but he found the sound of the poem pleasing. That sestina is one of my favorite inkblots, although admitting that might make my other compositions jealous.
I.L.: How do you handle the tension between faithfulness to form and personal innovation?
C.G.B.: It probably has to do with taking on poetic writing as a stylistic challenge. That is the source of my absolute faithfulness to closed-form compositions, all of which require arduous elaboration; that is also the beating heart of my desire to exalt the new. In the midst of this act, perhaps, is the state of tension you observe.
I.L.: What is it about the hendecasyllable and the heptasyllable that makes you use them above other types of verse?
C.G.B.: I assimilated the habit from my readings of the modernists, if I’m not mistaken. I do not know why I feel so comfortable cultivating this meter. But, evidently, there is something special in the use of the hendecasyllable and the heptasyllable, as if they were particularly ductile poetic structures, blessed by time. Combining these meters, whether following our own whims or imitating the classics—in my case, Petrarch—allows us to delight in the contemplation of the strophic mold, even wanting to touch it. There is indeed a special charm in combining these meters.
I.L.: You were born in 1927, a fundamental year for poetry. What is there of ‘27 in the work of Carlos Germán Belli?
C.G.B.: It is a coincidence in which I rejoice, and one I consider a good augury for me. But, besides this chronological coincidence, there is another that strikes me as even more significant: the shared use of measured meter and the strophic mold, as if the author were somehow consubstantial with these literary structures. The example of the poets of ‘27 is a crucially important breath with which to confront the stylistic mess of the twentieth century. I think, if the painters of the past century had had a movement analogous to the generation of ‘27, they would have delved deeper into the art of all times, rather than the anti-art of the present day.
I.L.: Nine years would pass before you published En alabanza del bolo alimenticio (1979), followed by Canciones y otros poemas (1982) and El buen mudar (1987). Certain thematic and formal changes took place—“timid” ones at first, but they would grow more solid: metapoetic reflection, obsessive concern with your inability to reach the rose; a feeling of personal underestimation that holds you back, despite your best efforts; the longed-for union with the word, which shows itself to be aloof and disdainful.
C.G.B.: Until this moment, I had never been aware of these “timid” formal and thematic changes in my book of poems from ‘79, which are implicit, as you rightly observe.
It’s quite correct, your perception of the theme of aloof poetic writing; or, better said, of what one writes as literal inkblots, literary fiascos, lame songs that no one likes. This feeling of literary underestimation has probably led me to cultivate closed-form composition with even greater devotion. Let’s put it as simply as we can: the negative can be the foundation of the positive.
I.L.: What was this good “mudar” (or change) to which you allude in the book’s title? This change implies a before and an after.
C.G.B.: This “positive change” was motivated by Rubén Darío. In the first place, his book Azul, and the presence of prose texts within it, was a decisive driver for me to put together a collection of both verse and prose. Beyond that, the evident spiritual shift from hopelessness to hope is owed directly to the Darian poems inspired by Roman spes. From my poetic inception, I have never ceased to take on great literary debts to the Nicaraguan master.
I.L.: You also began to note the dates of your poems. Is there some particular reason for this?
C.G.B.: Yes, in some cases. For example, when the date on which the poem was written coincides with the birth or death of my parents.
I.L.: 1990 saw Bajo el sol de la medianoche rojo, which you had previously titled Más que señora humana. It seems that, by this point, you had thoroughly established yourself as a poet.
C.G.B.: I considered the poetic act first as a sort of catharsis with which to overcome life’s tribulations, and later as a stylistic challenge. Nonetheless, in the text “El itinerario” from Bajo el sol de la medianoche rojo, I see that artistic desire is replaced by romantic desire. The poetic act—that is, the marriage of letter and pen—goes beyond aesthetic limits and exalts metaphysical transcendence. This extreme state of love is glimpsed, clearly or blurrily, by all the world’s lovers, at the apex of body and soul.
I.L.: You continued publishing other titles until you came to ¡Salve, Spes! (2000), a book made up of one single poem divided into ten cantos.
C.G.B.: ¡Salve, Spes! is one long, organic poem, and its concrete reality makes me think I could write other long texts, thus enriching my personal bibliography. I hope that fickle inspiration comes back to the fore someday. That is the positive part of that poem’s existence.
I.L.: Starting with En las hospitalarias estrofas (2002), your writing became, let’s say, more carefree. You finally seemed satisfied with what you had written.
C. G. B.: The collection En las hospitalarias estrofas represents, perhaps, the goal of recovering strophic molds that are millenarian literary forms, but were somewhat forgotten in the twentieth century. Here the strophes are newly presented as they once were—that is, as gracious hosts of the writer, who is therefore content.
I.L.: In their abundant studies of your work, do you believe literary critics have undertaken a good reading of your poetry?
C. G. B.: I am content when the focus is on tradition and modernity, and, in particular, on the baroque or mannerism, and on surrealism and other avant-garde movements. And although I’ve been criticized for writing things that are difficult to understand, and been called a reiterative writer, my work has had the luck to be favorably received, which has subconsciously driven me to keep writing.
I.L.: How have you received the many recognitions imparted to your work?
C.G.B.: I receive them with gratitude, surprise, and an irrepressible urge to dedicate them all to my parents, who—with reason—were greatly distressed by my devoting myself so absolutely to literature. It was undoubtedly a problematic fact to accept, especially because at the heart of my family was my brother Alfonso, who could not walk.
I.L.: To conclude, what is your opinion of the present-day poetry of Peru and the Spanish-speaking world in general?
C.G.B.: I shall repeat what I’ve said on other occasions, perhaps naively: poetry is an endless river. It comprises the Amazon, the Nile, and the Ganges all together, on which, by chance, we have literally sailed. These iconic rivers continue flowing with relevance, like the new generations of poets in Peru, in the Spanish-speaking sphere, and in the rest of the world.
Many, many thanks to Carlos Germán Belli for forming part of these waters and for his ever-enriching words.