In honor of Litmus Press’ forthcoming collection of Leonard Schwartz interviews with female poets, we will offer an ongoing series of transcribed talks from Schwartz’s “Cross-Cultural Poetics” archives.
Interview with Mercedes Roffé. From CCP Episode #2: Cosmopolitan.
Leonard Schwartz: Welcome to Cross-Cultural Poetics. Poets from all over the world discuss their work and their language. This is your host, Leonard Schwartz. Today’s guest is the Argentinean poet Mercedes Roffé, who we’re catching up in New York City, where she makes her second home. Mercedes is the author of many, many works of poetry in Spanish. Welcome Mercedes.
Mercedes Roffé: Thank you, Leonard. How are you?
LS: Mercedes, I’d like to ask you about your own work, but I’d also like to speak to you about Argentina, and poetry in Argentina. Thanks to your intervention, or thanks to your introductions, I spent some time in Buenos Aires in November and did some readings, and have a little book in Spanish translation which you did for me, so I have some familiarity with Argentina and Buenos Aires. It’s a fascinating and powerful poetry that is being written there, and in the midst of a terrible economic crisis. Could you say a little bit of your sense of what’s happening in poetry in Argentina?
MR: Right now I think it’s really a period in which many, many things are going on. Really, I would say that it is a period of flourishing of poetic activities, such as poetry readings, independent editorial projects, two important festivals at the national and international levels. You could say that it’s a kind of activity that began in the mid-80s mostly, and has really continued since then, with a lot of things coming up.
LS: It is amazing how these moments of extreme distress—as we all know Argentina’s economy has collapsed, it’s the ruin of capitalism in effect, and in the midst of those ruins the poets keep working, the poets keep writing. How do you locate your own work in relationship to that, and in relation to being in New York? You’ve lived in New York City for many years, I know you go back to Buenos Aires all the time, but, do you see yourself as a poet in exile, do you see yourself as an Argentinean poet, or as an American poet? Where do you locate yourself?
MR: I don’t feel at all like a poet or an intellectual in exile because I came to the US in 1985, when my country was already working on a very clear democratic process, so I have the privilege to have had the option to come and the option to stay. I got a fellowship here, and I decided that it would be an incredible experience to come and live here, so it was really my option. And because of how old I was when I came, and that I had already a path as a poet, and many activities and publications here, even though I have been here for almost two decades, and I feel incredibly lucky for being here, and I have had exchanges with so many people here in the States, I feel an Argentinean poet who has the privilege of being here. That’s how I see myself. I feel I belong to an incredibly large and varied group of Argentinean poets, and Latin American and Spanish-speaking poets. So I have to describe myself as a foreign poet living in the States by her own decision, and I’m very happy about that.
LS: It’s certainly true that New York City has a very, very powerful Spanish-speaking Latin American literary culture, with writers from all over Latin America who are there. Mercedes, would you read a poem for us?
MR: Of course, with pleasure. What would you like to hear?
LS: Well, you know I’m in love with your work from the Mayan Definitions. Maybe you could say a little bit about that project, the Mayan Definitions book?
MR: So let’s start with a poem from this chapbook, Mayan Definitions, and what do you think if I read the Spanish and you read the English, or the opposite?
LS: Oh, I would love to hear the Spanish for the sound of it. I would do my best with the translation.
MR: Okay. I will start with this poem. The title in Spanish is “Entonces.” The translation is “Then.” [Reads:]
Antes, mucho antes
en el tiempo del que te estoy hablando
cuando era chica
cuando mi madre era chica
cuando la guerra
cuando la Depresión la Ley Seca
cuando el rito mozárabe bate en ordalía doble
la cátara herejía
cuando llegaron a América
cuando la Tetralogía
cuando se estrena Traviata en el Colón, a sólo cinco años
del estreno en París
abrió Cartier y el país salía
recién de la mazorca
que nada es garantía?)
Cuando todo así de aproximado, erróneo
como las citas de Curtius durante la guerra o Borges
en su memoriosa ceguera o Paz
y tantos otros en lo ciego
de su apurada ambición
los egipcios o cuando
construyeron las pirámides
la Capilla Sixtina o el metro
el califa Omar o los soldados de César
la biblioteca de Alejandría
o Nerón Roma
la Torre de Babel
o la hierba
el caballo de Atila
(¿dónde quedó, María,
tan ardua, la flecha suspendida
como el aliento en la boca
del padre de Tristán? Siempre duele la espera,
¿no? Hasta esperar el final de una frase, un argumento, duele,
cada cual lo suyo
destruyó y hubo
o armado o hecho o fraguado o erigido
o cuando el detective va y encuentra el cuerpo y
o cuando el marido va y la ve y ve que el chico
o cuando la amiga se da cuenta y
cuando la noche
todo lo que viene
todo lo que por lo general sucede en presente
histórico o no necesariamente
después de algo
sólo aparentemente conclusivo
que sin embargo se abre
LS: Thank you, Mercedes. It’s a wonderful poem. I’m speaking with Mercedes Roffé, author of many books and quite a few translations into English. Here’s one of them, the translation of the poem Mercedes just read. It’s entitled “Then,” and I’m going to read it for you. [Reads:]
Earlier, much earlier
in the time I am talking about
when I was a child
when my mother was a child
when the war
when the Great Depression Prohibition
when the Mozarab rite beats in a double ordeal
the Cathar heresy
when they came to America
when the Tetralogy
when La Traviata opens at the Colón only five years after
its debut in Paris
Cartier had opened and the country
was just emerging from
that there is no guarantee?)
When everything is just that approximate, wrong
like those quotations by Curtius during the War or Borges
in his retentive blindness or Paz
and so many others in the eagerness
of their blind ambition
the Egyptians or when
they built the pyramids
they used to
the Sistine Chapel or the Moscow
they used to
Caliph Omar or Caesar’s soldiers
the Library of Alexandria
or Nero, Rome
the Tower of Babel
or the grass
the horses of Attila
(where is it now, Maria,
so strenuous, the arrow, suspended in its way
like breath in the mouth
of Tristam’s father? The wait is always painful
isn’t it? Even to wait for
the end of a sentence, an argument, is painful
don’t you think so?)
when everyone destroyed
what was theirs
and had destroyed or assembled or done or hatched or erected
or when the detective goes and finds the body and
or when her husband goes and sees her and the boy
or when his friend realizes it
when it falls
when it comes
everything that comes
everything that usually occurs in
the preterit or not
only seemingly conclusive
that instead unfolds
MR: Thank you, Leonard.
LS: Oh, thank you, Mercedes, for the poem. It’s such an interesting piece, obviously, in terms of its sweep. Could you say something in terms of its connection to the Mayan language, or the Mayan world? The poem comes from a series called Mayan Definitions, and of course that isn’t explicit in the text, so I’m interested in the poetics behind it.
MR: Yes, sure. These poems are a series of four, and they were inspired by a series of oral texts recorded by Alan Burns as part of an ethnology project. And I read those poems, which were the testimony, the teachings, the information given by the Mayan informant for this project. And the way he explained the use and meaning of some Mayan words to this ethnologist, and the way in which in doing so he was helping to keep his own culture and language alive, and I think the first impression was the rhythm of his own orality, even though I read it in English first. So the first impression was this idea, this rhythm of orality, and the second, but at the same time, was the idea of the fragility of a culture that may, for some reason, be at risk. And we are all at risk. I don’t know, cultures disappear. There are many cultures with an incredibly rich legacy, but they are not there anymore. So we are all really in that situation. And I started thinking of what it would be like, why can’t we experiment with having that feeling, thinking of being in the position of having to explain to somebody some words in our language, and my language, Spanish, and my culture, and the way in which language can communicate, can concentrate some things that are very rooted in the language, in the culture. So that was the basic idea, and it was an incredibly rich experience for me.
LS: That is interesting on so many levels. For one, in American poetry, since at least Charles Olson, the Mayan world has been, let’s say, the model for what it might mean to be American, of the kind of hidden unconscious of the American imagination, and as a source of a lexicon, or vocabulary for how we might make it new, and at the same time make it ancient, in terms of what America once was, in terms of what America could be. So it’s just so striking, of course, to see yourself, as a poet from Argentina, coming to some of those same sources that we, North Americans, are also drawn to. Of course, you have a much closer relationship to it. Argentina is thought of as closer to Europe, but there is also…
MR: Yes, of course. It’s very interesting that I come to some Mayan works through English. That’s really amazing. But there is another aspect in this attraction that I feel for these texts, that in some way, and I have to be reminded of this, in some way oral poetics, I don’t know if I could say that, but some effects of orality have always been very present in my poetry. I am not pretending to write something like oral poetry, but what can be found in many of my books is the interest in integrating different language levels and registers. The classic poets, the poets of the Spanish Golden Age, but at the same time, some idiomatic expressions that I usually try to call attention to, not to use them mechanically, of course, not to give room to them in the poem unless I’m going to work with them in some way. So I wouldn’t say now, after thinking about it for a while, that this is a completely new experience or interest in my poetry. For example, I always had the tradition of Spanish ballads very present. This tradition is very present in Argentinean and Latin American high school education, so we grew up with that. And that may be one of the instances when oral poetry was first seen as a source for my literary work.
LS: Interesting. Often the oral and the written are so firmly segregated from one another, as if there was an oral poetry, and poets working in that tradition, let’s say, the poetry slam tradition in recent years in the US, and then there’s the written tradition, which is obviously heavily text-based, that’s stating the obvious, but let’s say, entirely oriented toward the reading experience, a poet like John Ashbery, who needs to be read, and reread, and reread. So to come across a poet whose investment is in both the oral and the written and in creating a text that operates at different moments in both of those ways, and it’s to be heard as well as to be read, is very important. This is cross-cultural poetics after all.
MR: Absolutely, absolutely. It’s a very important area in which many people are working.
LS: On that note, could you read us another poem?
MR: Sure. I will read a poem that is really like a bridge in the matter of languages, experiences with languages. But you will laugh at the sense in which I’m talking about experiences with languages, because in this opportunity I am thinking of differences between Argentinean Spanish and the Spanish of Spain, of the peninsula, where I had been living for two years. This is one of the first poems that I wrote when I went back to Argentina, so the differences between languages that are present in a subterranean way here, as a subtext, are really differences in intonation and word choice that you can find in these two regions of the Spanish-speaking world. So I will start with this poem, “Prólogo.” It is the first poem of the book that I had translated. I chose the title for the translation, which is a title of Barbara Guest—The Screen of Distance:
Se dibuja un paisaje de retorno
Idioma nacional la música
de las esferas
Quizá por estar en el aire
en tránsito de retorno
El catálogo minucioso de la tribu
La breve cárcel
el mito del Moro y las canciones
La intersección: siete lenguas
el final de una historia que no (se) cuenta
ni deja (de) contar
el nombre que circuncidó la dicha
Sin el la no hay concierto
Paisaje de retorno
El ángel viene a transverberarte un pulmón adicto
a la tradición literaria
La tradición encalada de un convento
Confundís un cuartel con un convento
que a tu casa de
Tu sino en un papel
Un convento, quiere
Un encierro blanco en el cual
Padre y maestro
El que teme la lira
la música de las esferas
¿Qué hago aquí?
Huyo a una fiesta
No es posible sin dioses una fiesta
Oh llama de amor
El rey se muere
El rey ha muerto
Viva el rey
LS: Thank you, Mercedes. I am speaking with Mercedes Roffé, the Argentinean poet living in New York, speaking to her in New York City. I am going to read the translation of that poem, which is entitled “Prologue.” It begins with an epigram from Barbara Guest, from her book The Screen of Distance. [Reads:]
A scene of return is drawn
National language the music
of the spheres
Perhaps because of being in the air
Because of being
Because of being
Synagogue of the
The detailed catalogue of the tribe
The fleeting prison
the myth of the Moor and the old songs
The intersection: seven languages
the end of a tale that is never told
the name that circumcises that which is said to be
Without the A there is no concert
Scene of return
The angel comes to transfix a lung addicted
to the literary tradition
The whitewashed tradition of a convent
You confuse a headquarters with a convent
Your fate on a piece of paper
A convent, wants
A white enclosure in which
Father and master
You, who fears the lyre
sing to me
He who fears the lyre
the music of the spheres
What am I doing here?
I run away to a party
There is no party without gods
A fellow called…
A fellow called…
Oh flame of love
The king dies
The king has died
Long live the king
Thank you Mercedes.
MR: Thank you, Leonard.
LS: Yes, it is my pleasure to read it. Like the poems from Mayan Definitions it has such sweep. Can you say a little bit about the North African references: Oran, Casablanca, Tangiers?
MR: Well, that’s my background. It’s where my four grandparents were born, so it’s a tradition, an oral tradition, I would say, that is very alive in some way in my family. And in some way it is connected, it is interrelated there in the poem with something that you can appreciate, that is a sort of collage with sentences, expressions coming from different literary sources: from Ruben Darío in his poem to Verlaine, and Ubu Roi, and several things that probably now I can’t even map, but are in there, and in some way that tradition that I have as a descendant of a Sephardic family is in there too.
LS: So the basic map is North Africa to South America to New York City. Mercedes, it’s been wonderful having you on, and having this conversation with you. The work is wonderful, you are one of our most important poets, and you’ll have to come back some time very soon.
MR: Sure, Leonard. It was my pleasure. Thank you so much for the invitation.
Mercedes Roffé is one of Argentina’s leading poets. Widely published in Latin America and Spain, her poetry has also been published in translation in Italy, Quebec, Romania, England, and the United States. In 1998 she founded Pen Press, Plaquettes de Poesía, a successful tiny press dedicated to the publication of contemporary Spanish-language poets as well as poets of other languages in Spanish translation. Among other distinctions, she was awarded a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship in poetry (2001) and a Civitella Ranieri Foundation Fellowship (2012). She holds a diploma in Modern Languages from the University of Buenos Aires, and a Ph.D. from New York University, and has coordinated creative writing workshops in Argentina, Spain, Venezuela, Colombia, Canada, and the US. She divides her time between Buenos Aires and New York, and is frequently invited to read from her work at international poetry festivals and at academic settings around the world.