In 1980, living in Brazil and reading widely in search of some wonderful untranslated poet, I’d happened on a seven-line poem by Adélia Prado—and knew immediately I’d found what I’d come for. Five years later, I walked into Adélia Prado’s kitchen hungry—and hungry to talk poems. First, she gladly fed me, delighted to meet a North American thrilled with rice and beans; then, she served up—in equal doses—answers to my queries about the poems I was translating and questions of her own about the process of translation. We talked for two weeks (nonstop it seemed), and I brought home with me the nearly completed manuscript of The Alphabet in the Park: Selected Poems of Adélia Prado and the tape of what has become Part I of the interview that follows here.
A decade after she burst on the poetry scene at 40 as a “discovery” of Carlos Drummond de Andrade, it was not just the literary folk who were still trying to figure out this remarkable poet from the backwaters of Minas Gerais. Psychiatrists in droves made the pilgrimage to Divinópolis to delve into the psyche of this devout Catholic who wrote startlingly pungent poems of and from the body; they were politely served coffee and sent back to the city. Many books and prizes later, things are not so different for the pre-eminent contemporary woman poet of Brazil (though she would hate the term). Adélia Prado follows no trends, mostly stays at home, and is read all over Brazil. Part II of the interview was made at the request of BOMB, in October 1999.
Ellen Watson When did you first feel that you would be a writer?
Adélia Prado Not until the publication of my first book, Bagagem (Baggage). I didn’t think what I wrote before that deserved to be published. Even now, I don’t like to think of myself as a writer. I hate the idea of being an author who gives advice to other people or who writes forewords. I want to be a new author. I want to feel, with any book I come to write, the same doubt, the same anxiety, the same joy I felt when I wrote Bagagem. I always want to be in that precarious and difficult position.
EW You like to suffer!
AP (laughter) Yes, I like to suffer. I always want to feel not completely sure that what I’ve just written is any good. That gives me more pleasure. Even if I believe in what I’m doing, there’s the insistent question: Will this be a good book? Will people like it? I think that’s vital for me.
EW What about reading? Was that always important to you?
AP Yes, I read so much when I was a teenager that my stepmother would tell me, “When you get married, your husband is going to eat books for lunch and dinner.” Because I was lazy about doing other things, and just kept reading, reading, reading.
EW Which writers influenced your artistic development?
AP João Guimarães Rosa—his books are like a Bible to me; Carlos Drummond de Andrade, Clarice Lispector, Manuel Bandeira, Jorge de Lima, Murilo Mendes, Helena Morley. I would like to write as Helena Morley wrote her only book, with no plot, with nothing. Just write, almost as breathing.
EW Which is why Drummond said, “Adélia…makes poetry as naturally as nature makes weather.”
AP Well, writing is an artificial thing: “making literature.” Writing is not a natural condition. But my wish is for it to be as natural as possible.
EW What led you to write free association, as it’s called in the United States? I’m referring to the grand leaps your poems take and the way you sidle up to the theme or the central image from several perspectives instead of taking a straight-on approach. It’s more of a lateral investigation.
AP It’s spontaneous. If there is a concrete reason, then I don’t know it. The free verse of Carlos Drummond de Andrade made me think:,That’s how I want to write. Reading him I realized I didn’t need rules hanging over me, I could write however I wanted. I just obey a rhythmic impulse, which is itself the very nature of poetry. And I think reading Joyce’s Ulysses opened my eyes to what you are calling free association, to the way the mind works: I say banana and I think potato; I say cup and I think eye glasses.
EW Do you think of your language, your poetic language, as private and personal, or is it something you have in common with other people?
AP Sometimes other poets and critics analyze my writing, and they’ve said how, even though the text is made of colloquial and everyday language, the work goes to transcendental issues. I don’t know, I don’t explain things; I simply do what I do. I only know how to write about concrete, immediate and commonplace things. But these commonplace things show me their metaphysical nature. I can only see the metaphysical, the divine, through the concrete and the human.
EW I see your poetry working against organized and imposed order, against the organization of thought, and open to instinct. Do you agree with this characterization?
AP Yes, I do. Because the terrain of poetry, the territory of poetry, is the territory of freedom. Poetry does not resist any theme, any part of the body, any human fact. It lands in the most unusual and unexpected places. Who am I to organize the flight of the poem? I am a servant, a minion of poetry. I cannot control it; it controls me. When it tells me to write a certain word, I put the word down.
EW This desire to work against order, to remain utterly open—doesn’t it sometimes conflict with faith? Doesn’t faith have only one answer to any given question?
AP No. You can say that about doctrine, but faith is different. My religious education was repressive, which made for some difficulties in relation to sex and love, for example. But that’s about doctrine, the institutionalized church. The terrain of faith is the same as poetry. Faith can’t refuse what poetry accepts, because there is no contradiction between faith and poetry. It’s the same territory. I believe it’s God’s face that incites poetry and nourishes my faith.
EW On a personal level, then, not in terms of the church, do you ever feel that your faith is fighting your poetry?
AP No, and it’s good you ask me that, because poetry is what freed me from this oppression. I found God more deeply in poetry than in doctrine. I realized that the poetic experience is in fact deeply sacred and religious. The poetic experience is deeply joyful and liberating and full of faith—something from God. I realized there was nothing wrong with poetry, but that there was something wrong with the kind of faith I had. So poetry liberated my faith, it purified and deepened it.
EW And what about the reader who has no faith?
AP Well, a reader who doesn’t care about religion will consider the religious content to be only poetic. He’ll say, “Well, you’re talking about God, but I don’t care about God, I care about poetry.” That’s okay, you do what you want. But it’s not like that for me. The poetic experience is sacred. Once I realized that, I thought, There’s no contradiction, the God of poetry is the same God that I worship. So, where’s the reason to feel oppressed?
EW I was thinking that maybe your faith, your beliefs, actually have their roots in the carnal, in earthly things, things that “stand out,” as you say it, and which suddenly or gradually, become a model, an internal view—in addition to giving you pleasure and a reason to live. Does that make sense?
AP Yes, it does.
EW Maybe it’s a silly question, but I’d like to know which sense is most crucial to you. Is there one above the others with which you first experience a new person or situation?
AP Vision is essential. The shape of things, the color of things, the thickness of things. I think I write from my gut: “I hear the message according to the hand of the herald.” I want to know what your nose looks like. What your mouth is like. It makes a difference to me. Because I’m a sensuous creature. I think first with my gut, and then with my head. And it’s all the senses, really. You can’t separate them.
EW What about inspiration—does it happen suddenly, like an unexpected storm, or do you need to think for a long time, chewing ideas before you start writing?
AP It’s just like a bang on your head. That’s how it happens. Sometimes it’s sudden. Last night I was having dinner—it wasn’t an inspiration—but we were in the kitchen, and Zé was fiddling with a dinner plate and all of a sudden everything took on a different aura. We can be here talking, the three of us, watching the candle burn down, and all of a sudden the moment transcends, you experience a change in the quality of the atmosphere.
EW And when that happens you go off to your study?
AP No, no. It’s not necessarily related to my writing. It’s just the experience of another reality that all at once seems to be the real one. And when it’s gone, this reality seems to be a lie. The other was the good one.
EW Do these moments come back to you later?
AP No. I don’t know why I got off on that. We were talking about inspiration, where something very similar happens—something touches you in a special way and begs expression. You try madly to hold the moment. When I can’t write the whole poem, I hold the idea, I write it down. Sometimes it results in a poem, sometimes it doesn’t.
EW When you begin a poem, do you know from the outset where it’s going?
AP Sometimes I have the ending and not the beginning. When inspiration comes you have the whole thing, in one way or another. The hard part is turning it into words.
EW And when do you know that the poem is finished?
AP When it gives me joy. When I look and think, Oh, what a beautiful child!
EW How much conscious control do you apply along the way?
AP My concern, my obligation, is to reproduce the emotion as faithfully as possible. So I write a poem, and then I read it and say, No, that’s wrong. And then I cut it. I rarely need to add. It’s mostly about cutting and cutting. Like with a newborn, you remove the placenta, you wipe away the cheese, and the child gets clean. It’s born dirty, and you clean it up. Inspiration brings dirt with it. But if I need to fix a poem too much—that’s a signal that it’s a bad one.
EW Is it hopeless? Do you throw it away?
AP It’s an abortion.
EW The poet as midwife! Do you think poetry helps us to live?
AP Oh, my God! Of course it does. Poetry, as any other form of art, is an instrument of humanization, of knowledge. People think of the poet as being on the margins of life, but it’s just the opposite! Poet, artist, philosopher, mystic, saint—they’re the ones closest to reality.
EW You seem to be seduced by spiritual issues, and dreams, faith, epiphany and transcendence are very seductive aspects of your poems. Could you say more about this, as an integral element of your work and your life?
AP The spiritual has the same power for me as the concrete. Dreams can be more powerful than the apparent reality. Eternal life, the resurrection of the body, these things are as real for me as this cup—even more real. God is a person, not an abstract idea. He’s not a philosophical matter, but a personal one.
EW But also a universal matter. We were talking earlier about the I Ching, the mystery of it, and how instead of being a measure of the great distance between cultures, it links us to another religion and time.
AP Exactly. The more we venture into other cultures’ forms of spirituality, the more real God becomes. The I Ching and The Bhagavad Gita predate Christ by thousands of years. Their language preceded scriptural language. I can only conclude that the source that inspires us and that inspired the Book of Wisdom and those Eastern texts is the same one. The same spirit that blew there, blew here. My faith is not a tiny thing in a small room. It’s a universal thing. God’s not a genie in a bottle. The Holy Spirit organizes life, creates life.
EW Returning for a moment to poetic life and the cross-fertilization of cultures: if metaphor is the guardian of reality, could translation be the guardian of metaphor?
AP It could and should be, Miss Ellen! It has to be! Translation is possible; this connection between us is possible—the longest I’ve ever had with someone who speaks another language. I’m coming to understand that language is not an obstacle. Feelings are universal. You don’t have the word saudade in English, but you feel it the same way I do. You can’t say meu filhinho (my little son), because your language doesn’t have the diminutive suffix, but you find a way to say it. Because you are human like me and affection leads you to a way of expressing meu filhinho in English.
EW I once read a description of translation as a performance of the text, as theater—which I liked very much. What advice would you give to someone, like me, for example, who is performing your text?
AP Ah! What you must translate is the emotion. “I don’t care about the word. What I want is the grand chaos that spins out syntax.” What matters is the feeling that the word carries, in any language in the world. A literal translation might be just noise. The translation, as a performance of the text, as you said, has to be faithful to the emotion.
EW In our last interview you mentioned that with every new book you’d like always to feel like a new author, with that mix of doubt, anxiety and joy, as if it were the first time. Did you feel that way with Oráculos de Maio (Oracles of May), your newborn poet-child?
AP I felt as though I was writing my first book. It’s a very good feeling; it prevents me from setting myself up as a veteran, which I think is a dangerous pitfall for a poet, or any kind of artist.
EW When I first received the book, I opened it at random, and the first thing I read was the poem, “Anamnese” (“Anamnesis”), which is a word I didn’t know.
AP Anamnesis is the state of remembering, wandering back through memory to the past.
EW The first poem I ever read of yours was “Dia” (“Day”), from O Coração Disparado (The Headlong Heart). I read that poem and thought, Oh my God! That short poem woke me up. “Anamnese” had the same effect. Do you understand the affinity I found between the two poems?
AP No. In “Dia,” what troubled me was how much eroticism I saw in this hen. “Anamnese” came out of an extremely unexpected and strange emotion that I still can’t define. It was about something that shouldn’t be exposed, and is. And the shame, the constraint that comes with that. Constraint as much on the part of the child as the mother. The mother says “nitwit chicken!” because she has nothing else to say—I didn’t have anything to say either. There was just this feeling of exposure, “like being caught without your panties on.”
EW So, you’re saying that “Anamnese” is somehow more negative than “Dia,” because of the fear in it?
AP No, it’s not fear. It’s…bewilderment. A lack of language in the face of a situation.
EW But isn’t it also the fear of being without something: panties, language, a mother or father—of being an orphan?
AP Yes, that’s true. Many of the poems are about orphanhood.
EW “Pedido de adoção” (“Petition for Adoption”) makes the point that it’s not only children who experience abandonment, that separation from God is another way of being orphaned.
AP You hit the nail on the head.
EW Lets talk about this idea of without. You describe your hometown of Divinópolis as a “city without history.” Can you say more about that?
AP I’ve never been completely at ease in my city. I’m from the Middle Ages, and Divinópolis sometimes strikes me as silly. It’s always felt too new, there’s no seeping stonework, no antiques—the lack of history almost makes it not a real city. I’m fascinated by really old cities. But I discovered that the Divinópolis in my poems, the city of my childhood, is something else…almost a dream of itself. Because I find the smell of newness distressing. My soul is medieval, and so is my writing.
EW And living in a city without history influences what you write?
AP I think so, yes. I was born 100 years old.
EW In the background material you sent me, I was interested in something Miguel Sanchez Neto wrote: “There is no desire for sophistication in her work. It identifies exclusively with the commonplace existence of everyday people in a city with no history.”
AP That’s the truth…
EW He also says that this runs contrary to the cosmopolitan tendency of contemporary Brazilian poetry, which assumes the poet to be a polyglot. Do you agree with that?
AP Absolutely. I have no desire to dress up my poetry and make it fancy. I want the poem to be as true as humanly possible to the feeling that inspired it. That’s my only concern. Everything else seems wrong.
EW Hasn’t the intelligentsia criticized your work for that very reason?
AP The first reviews of Oráculos de Maio were very bad. They said it was disappointing, that I had lost my bearings. Later on, the reviews got better. Now I know who likes my work and who doesn’t. What else can I do? Nothing.
EW Sanchez Neto also writes, “Adélia Prado’s poetry is striking, not just for its embrace of provincial life, but also for its desire to give positive symbolic expression to everything devalued by the dictatorship of modernism.” I liked that.
AP He got it.
EW You’ve said, “This is the only way I know to sew,” and appear content to steer clear of the literary world of Rio de Janeiro or São Paulo.
AP I do my sewing here, deep in the interior of the country, outside any literary group. My loyalty is to the text. I’ve never been tempted by trends or experimentalism.
EW That’s why José Neuman said, “It’s not easy to trace Adélia Prado’s literary DNA.”
AP I love it!
EW The poem “Viação São Cristovão” (“São Cristóvão Transit Co.”) begins, “I don’t want to die ever / because I’m afraid of losing the treasures this window unfolds.”I see this book as being about living in two worlds simultaneously: the spiritual and the material. God is portrayed here more than ever as a man. For example, the poem that follows, “Na terra como no céu” (“On Earth as in Heaven”) ends with the lines, “Do you understand, O Most High? / No answer. / He, too, is napping.” The God in this book sleeps, eats, develops wrinkles….
AP Yes, that poem is a kind of experiment in peacefulness. Even God can sleep a little.
EW You’re depicting a relationship with God that is very much like the relationship between people.
AP The biggest mystery of faith is the incarnation of the divine word. To think of God, who is the Word, with a capital “W,” in human form—that’s a greater comfort even than poetry.
EW In your previous books, O Pelicano (The Pelican) and A Faca no Peito (Knife in the Chest), the figures of Jesus Christ and Jonathan were more present than God was. Where has Jonathan gone?
AP Why do you ask me that? Don’t you have anything better to do? (laughter). The archetype in A Faca no Peito is Jonathan—the book is eternally about Jonathan. When I discovered that Jonathan was Jesus, that such an idealized perfection was only possible in the Son of God, my poetry turned in a new direction. I’d conceived of Jonathan as more vulnerable than that, but then everything changed; if I were to write about Jonathan now, it would be different, because I’ve lost my innocence!
EW It’s interesting that in this new book, the Son of God appears rarely, and even then in the service of the Father: “Mary, make your son show me his father.”
AP The poem you’re referring to was born out of a certain difficulty with the Holy Trinity. In the gospels Jesus says, “He who sees me, sees the Father.” Which in my case, is a psychological problem related to God—or a theological problem. But in the end, I don’t discover anything, so I set off to sell zucchini. I’ve stopped rationalizing with respect to God. You can’t rationalize with respect to God. You have to have an open heart and not a rational one. That’s Mary’s advice to me: “Stop worrying so much, take care of your life.” It’s hard to talk about, especially on the phone.
EW This book really is a pilgrimage, as the title of the first section suggests. It seems to be a very important development. An exploration of the whys: Why is there suffering? Why joy? Why does the act of writing exist?
AP Why, indeed! It’s an affliction. Sometimes it seems a better idea to go sell zucchini!
EW The poem “O Poeta Ficou Cansado” (“The Poet Gets Tired”) speaks to why you write, and for who. You demand of God “Why don’t you shout it out Yourself…” instead of depending on someone else to do it? “Oh, God, let me work in the kitchen…let me make Your bread.” To which He responds, “Daughter, all I eat is words.” So, must you write to feed God?
AP Precisely. Just like the Native Americans pray to make the sun rise. That’s why I write. Because He eats words and wants words and He doesn’t know how to write. God doesn’t know how to write.
EW And you also write to feed people?
AP Yes, because we, too, need food. I eat from the same plate I prepare.
EW On the other hand, the narrator of “Direitos Humanos” (“Human Rights”) insists, “But the handwriting is mine.”
AP The handwriting is the only thing that is mine! The poetic phenomenon is divine, but the words are mine. The trains, the soil, the hens, the backyards are mine, but the poetry in them is divine.
EW There’s a lot of conviction in the declaration that the handwriting, the words “are mine.”
AP God gave me that conviction. I would have died otherwise.
EW This book has more confidence and serenity, I think, than the ones that came before.
AP Yes, people get older and get more…mature. My hair is so white. A lot of peace is a question of maturity.
EW Do you feel like this is a new stage in your life? Has something changed in reality, or…
AP Well, I think I’m…more passive, in a way. I can talk to God, I’m less scared of God, because I’m more loving, and feel more loved. I think it’s that. It doesn’t take away the suffering, but it’s an improved suffering.
EW You also write a lot about the issue of art, the whys and the hows of poetry. “Arte” (“Art”) is the shortest ars poetica I’ve ever seen: “From the guts, heart.” That’s it. Period. End of story.
AP Isn’t that what art is? You get the guts, extract the dirty bits, and you are left with the beauty of the heart.
EW Where did that poem come from?
AP My sister and I were talking in the kitchen and she said, “From the guts, the heart.” And I said, “Oh! That’s the definition of art.” You like my…insight? Is that the word for it in English?
EW Yes, yes. Insight! Epiphany!
AP Epiphany. That’s the religious term for insight.
EW In the poem “Ex-Voto” you say, “My heart is good / But I won’t accept just anything.” The moment you make art, or poetry, is that about not accepting that your heart is good?
AP No, the poem is about when you reject the gift. When the poet says, “I don’t want to write, I want to make bread.” To continue protesting is a sin of pride. It’s like saying I don’t accept the gift of writing because I want to be God, and I’m not. It’s pride that tempts us to reject poetry, to say in anger, Why is God making me write? But in actuality when you give in to it and write, when you let your heart speak, that’s the best. The heart doesn’t argue. The poem is the best of me, the most perfect aspect.
EW So the poem itself becomes your votive offering and your salvation: “Choosing words to express my distress / I breathe better already.”
AP Exactly. I write it again and again in each new poem. We all have one main drama in life and that’s what we write about.
EW “God wants some of us sick / And others writing.” What a sense of acceptance.
AP You just said the magic word: acceptance. Sometimes out of infernal pride we reject the gifts we’ve been given. Sometimes, I want to be sick like others and God doesn’t want that. He wants the singer to keep singing, the poet to keep writing, the musician, composing—do you see?
AP I go pale when I say something like that. I go into a cold sweat, embarrassed.
EW José Neuman compares your work to that of Gerard Manley Hopkins, the 19th-century British Jesuit. Speaking of purification through proximity to sin, Neuman writes, “In dramatic contrast to Father Hopkins, who burned his poems to hide the evidence of his weakness for the diabolically sensual seduction of words, Adélia Prado is not ashamed of her own happiness.” This notion of hiding or burning poetry out of shame and guilt is incredible to me.
AP Do you know why he did it? Because of the joy he felt when writing—the joy of it made him feel guilty. Hopkins suffered a lot for his marvelous poetry. I went nuts when I first saw his work. I loved it.
EW If it feels this good, it has to be a sin.
AP Yes—sin is fundamental. As Paul says in the New Testament, “Oh, happy guilt, you bring us great salvation.” It’s the meeting with sin, with shadow, with the dirt and sadness of life, the dark side, that offers the possibility of perceiving and enjoying the light. Otherwise, there would be no conscience.
EW So, suffering is the coming and going between the certainty and uncertainty of where one stands in relation to sin?
AP Let me see if I can respond to that, because it is a difficult question. One of God’s greatest gifts to us is the ability to perceive sin. That’s what salvation is. It is precisely through this work of annihilating my pride that I understand the nature of the human condition. Otherwise, I would have an inflated ego and I would confuse myself with God and they’d send me away to an asylum.
EW So, suffering has more to do with the pain of existence, with mortal life, the day to day, than with the question of immortality?
AP The biggest suffering—putting aside physical suffering—is the death of the ego. The struggle to accept life, to embrace the mystery that things are as they are instead of as we want them to be. Catholicism has a very acute sense of conscience, which is very important. Real guilt, true guilt, isn’t shallow.
EW How is it that you have a peaceful face and not a tormented one, considering all of the spiritual torment we’ve been talking about?
AP Because I don’t go out when I’m tormented; I hide under the bed!
EW But could this be related to your capacity to see life, to see good things in unexpected places?
AP I believe the world has meaning. It has a loving and logical intelligence and that gives me true peace.
EW “The world is incomprehensible, but it is good.”
AP We can accept the unintelligibility of the world, because in the end, it is good. It’s good to be alive. The world is happy. We can open the refrigerator and drink a whole liter of orange juice right out of the carton. How delicious is that!
EW Your poems are a litany to what is uniquely mysterious and marvelous in the world.
AP Can anyone explain the existence of a turnip or a tomato? On one level, the very idea seems absurd. But there has to be a reason. Whoever made turnips and Jonathan knew what He was doing. Tomatoes and Jonathan come from the same fountain.
Translated by Ariane Martins, Eva Golinger and Ernesto Solorzano.