This conversation with José Luis Rivas started last summer in Mexico City, and was continued via long-distance phone call on a gray September morning. We met on a quiet morning at the café of El Parnaso, which used to be one of the city’s best bookstores in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Back then I remember having the (perhaps deluded) sense that everyone associated with the literary scene could have been spotted at this place in the heart of Coyoacán, or else at the nearby El Hijo del Cuervo, a hangout for artists and intellectuals. These days things are less centralized, and the action seems to have migrated to rediscovered neighborhoods such as La Condesa and Colonia Roma, where on any given night, say, at the bar Covadonga, one is bound to encounter those who keep unconventional hours.
After living in Mexico City for 20 years, Rivas returned to his native Veracruz in 1990. At that time it seemed unthinkable to sustain one’s presence in the literary scene if one didn’t live in Mexico City or Guadalajara. Today this is far from being the case. Rivas’s role as a poet, translator, and editor remains central. He has translated major works, such as Derek Walcott’s Omeros, and as an editor at Universidad Veracruzana, has been putting out a variety of books, from scholarly ones to poetry collections. Currently he is editing a world literature series selected by Carlos Fuentes that has been met with much anticipation; each book features an introduction by a living Mexican author. As for his own work, Rivas is one of those rare figures whose poems are appreciated by poets of all generations for their vibrancy, daring formal range, vast and highly unique lexicon and distinctly celebratory outlook.
Mónica de la Torre Is the book fair at the Universidad Veracruzana that you organized still going on? How big is it?
José Luis Rivas Yes, until yesterday there were a lot of simultaneous events: a discussion forum in which Fernando Savater, who was in Madrid, participated via video-conference. Other things also required a lot of coordination, such as a panel on political education and democracy with Gilberto Guevara Niebla, José Woldenberg, Alberto Olvera, and Boaventura de Souza. We’re just a few oddballs publishing the books at the university and organizing this fair. It is a crazy amount of work. Our offices right now are practically empty, since everyone is at the fair.
MT So no Independence Day holiday for you, then. Do a lot of people attend the events?
JLR Yes. Porfirio Muñoz Ledo was here the day before yesterday, and it was packed. Carlos Monsiváis opened. It was quite something.
MT What did Monsiváis talk about?
JLR He spoke about the teaching of arts in Mexico and said that given the current neo-liberal sociopolitical climate, it is something hypothetical. He was tough.
MT Did he talk about teaching writing?
JLR He talked about all the arts. He didn’t touch music, since it’s not his thing—except for popular music, to which he’s addicted. He did touch on other things, though, such as the negative impact that the free market logic is having on public education. He said this logic is reinforcing the best-seller cult, and ultimately repeating the credo “The poor are, by nature, foreign to culture.” It was a serious discussion, I must say. Guillermo Sheridan is here too, for the presentation of his book of essays Poeta con paisaje, on Octavio Paz’s life. Adolfo Castañón is also around, and so is Christopher Domínguez.
MT It sounds impressive. And at least there is room for some fun too, don’t you think?
JLR Yes, I get a chance to see a lot of my friends in a group, after a long time of not having them within reach.
MT Let’s move on to your own work. You have mentioned that when you were 12 years old there was a breaking point in your life having to do with your mother. How did that manifest itself in your poetry, if it did?
JLR I was 14, actually. My mother died in my arms, after a heroic struggle with lung cancer for over a year. She never let on how much pain she was in, and taught me a lesson on invincibility. Her physical disappearance was a critical experience for me, one that made me turn inward. I had to assimilate this devastating loss and try to find a way to recover a healthy, vital attitude toward life. Literature became the way for me to discover new worlds, and also new ways of living, even if initially I only conceived of them in an imaginary manner. This was crucial. It made me take a path in life different from those taken by my friends and my contemporaries. I had to look for other ways to develop as a person.
MT Why do you think you turned to poetry and not fiction? What was it about poetry?
JLR Poetry, or at least modern poetry, begins as a gaze turned inward, an examination of subjectivity. In that sense, poetry was closer to me than fiction. What I’ve written, though, often feeds on a plurality of voices and characters, like those in my clannish family. I only have one sister, but when I was growing up, my mother happily took in any family member who needed care. In 1955 a severe hurricane struck northern Veracruz. My grandmother’s house was completely flooded, so she came to live with us. Later, for over a year, five of my cousins lived with us too. Their father, who was married to one of my mother’s cousins, had killed a man in a gambling brawl and was hiding in Campeche. They were all girls, to my delight. Two elderly aunts also lived with us toward the end of their lives. Strictly speaking, it has not been a look in the mirror constrained by my own egotism or narcissism.
MT That’s very clear in your work.
JLR My poetry, I hope, has many exterior elements; it’s profoundly tied to nature. I was lucky enough to have experienced, as a child, the last plenitude of the Tuxpan River, which was only six miles away from the ocean and had two tributaries, the Vinazco and the Pantepec. They had clear, lively waters, filled with thriving marine life. In the last 40 years these have gone from being the most vibrant expressions of life to huge accumulations of urban waste . . .
MT Even in Veracruz?
JLR Even in Veracruz. There isn’t a river that is not polluted, a river that doesn’t show blatant signals of what we call civilization.
MT Your poetry is so convincing that when I read it I believe that rivers in Veracruz still maintain their lushness, their purity. Do you agree that in at least a part of your work there’s an effort to rebuild the past? I use that verb in a literal way, thinking of building it again. In Spanish we use a phrase that doesn’t exist in English: to remember is synonymous with hacer memoria, literally to make memories, perhaps to fabricate them.
JLR Maybe there’s a little bit of that, but it’s more the idea of making the reader actually experience, in the reading, what truly existed, realize that it had a palpable, tangible existence on this planet, and to find this fact uplifting.
MT And the reader participates in the poem’s coming into being. Your poetry is more about searching than finding. I’m thinking here of your last book, Un navío, un amor (A Vessel, a Love) in which the poetic I is pursuing a feminine figure whose identity keeps shifting throughout the book. There are revelations and moments of epiphany, but the poems never station themselves there. The woman in the book is the embodiment of plurality, so there is no resolution.
JLR Sure, one of my intentions is to have an attitude of openness, to make the reader partake of that world that in the poem is permanently being generated.
MT Why do you value this openness?
JLR I hope it’s an act of generosity. I want to share the gifts of the land where I had the luck to be born, and which I enjoyed throughout my upbringing. We lived on the top of a hill, in a neighborhood called the Barrio del Palomar, which was teeming with all kinds of wild doves, ring-doves, stock-doves and other species. We spent a lot of time at the river and the ocean. I feel it’s my duty to continue to celebrate those things that have been uplifting, powerful, and vigorous in my life. I’ve tried to gather the earthly energy that I’ve had glimpses of and bring it to my writing so that it may spread among my readers.
MT Your book Tierra nativa (Native land) has a great epigraph by Gertrude Stein: “After all anybody is as their land and air is. Anybody is as the sky is low or high, the air heavy or clean and anybody is as there is wind or no wind there. It is that which makes them and the arts they make and the work they do and the way they eat and the way they drink and the way they learn and everything.” In your work the lushness of the landscape translates into a profuse diction. How else do you think the landscape shapes your poetry?
JLR There is a poem by Aimé Césaire with the title “Essential Landscape.” My writing always points to landscapes that derive from that essential landscape of my youth, yet somehow the two end up intertwined. In the book Estuario, for instance, I try to move to other settings, or rather, to transport one to another place, but the starting point remains that primeval landscape that sustained my childhood experiences.
MT And going back to your childhood, or rather, to the moment when you stopped being a child, you had mentioned to me that what you first wrote were love letters. When or how did you realize that your writing could transcend the private realm, that you had something to communicate to a larger number of people than the sole recipient of your letters?
JLR It was the feeling of being one of the last witnesses of a place of an extraordinary, unpolluted natural beauty. That was the origin of my desire, like Saint John-Perse’s cycle of poems “To Celebrate a Childhood.” Why poetry? To celebrate that, and then the life that continued afterward, an affirmation of life that is sustained despite all its changes and variations, but that fundamentally has fulfillment at its core. A Deleuzian notion comes to mind, regarding the fact that only happiness and enjoyment can be repeated: If you have a goal ahead of you, a destination in mind, regardless of where you are or what feelings you’re going through, or what upsetting or devastating things have happened to you, you can repeat happiness. You can settle back into being yourself again; it’s like a destiny that is reached, completed. Being is consummated in happiness. This is what moves my life and my writing.
MT Which is highly unusual in poetry nowadays, where the prevailing feeling is not that of optimism. This is a distinctive element of your writing. It is also tied to your celebration of everything vital: your interest in capturing other people’s voices, and in giving them a voice in your polyphonic poetry. This also seems unusual in contemporary Mexican poetry. In my view what prevails today is the notion of the Adamic poet who has the power to name the world as if for the first time, through his individual eye, at the expense of other people’s silence. Your poetry doesn’t display this at all.
JLR It’s not about my own solipsistic experiences but rather my experience as an individual totally tied to a community, or to a number of communities, the ones that I’ve been able to partake of and build, networks of friends, of loves. When I arrived in Mexico City to study Philosophy at the National University (UNAM), for instance, I began friendships that continue to this date. At the time there were a lot of activists and leftists groups with which I sympathized, although I belonged to no specific party. I was closer to the anarchists. In the early eighties my friends Héctor Subirats, Mercedes Elorriaga, Antonio Izaguirre, and I began a magazine called Caos. We published literature and critical essays, and the project lasted about three years. Communities like this one provide the substance that gives my life meaning. Others have always been present in what I write, and if the gods will it, they’ll be so even more in what I am planning to write in the future. The voices will be of a host of characters from the town I was brought up in, combined also with those of imaginary ones that come from other kinds of experiences, mainly related to what I’ve read.
MT I remember you telling me that what most struck you about your family was that they all had a very distinctive, unique register when speaking. You have a keen awareness of the singular ways in which people express themselves.
JLR I think this corresponds to each person’s personal way of breathing, which in turn defines the manner in which phrases are articulated and lexicons are used. Even if we share many terms, the adoption of certain phrases, the frequent use of some expressions, and the way in which we construct sentences is synched with the way we breathe.
MT I hadn’t thought of that connection between breath and words outside of poetry.
JLR If you read your own poem out loud, it becomes very apparent that you’ve built it in synch with your breath, and to your breathing’s variations when you are, say, won over by melancholy or excitement.
MT Lezama Lima and his asthma come to mind; his writing is often described as asthmatic.
JLR There’s Gonzalo Rojas, too. He claims that erotic language is the language of the soul, and so he tries to write poems with a panting rhythm to them.
MT How would you describe your own breathing style?
JLR Sometimes it’s extremely excited and concentrated, and sometimes it’s like a rhythm of silences. I’m not prone to speaking much, especially when I’m overcome by the spark of Dionysus. There are lots of silences for me. I don’t know exactly when I’m going to write something, when I’ll be compelled to write by the feeling that there’s something I have to say. I guess sometimes I can foresee it. I’m not always in charge; I’m vulnerable to the flow of things.
MT But you are such a prolific writer! So far you’ve published two collections of poetry this year, as well as a translation of John Donne’s erotic poems, and you have two more books coming out soon, including a translation of Perse’s Éloges. One would think that there are no silences in your writing, or to be more precise, that you never take breaks from writing and are always enraptured.
JLR There are long periods in which I’m not writing, I’m reading, or translating, although of course these things are completely tied to my writing. Sometimes I just don’t feel like writing, so I don’t write.
MT How is that for you?
JLR It’s just an emotional state. I’m taken over by indolence, so then I want to enjoy other things, become immersed in them. Often from that emerges, precisely, the feeling of joy that moves me to write.
MT So are you saying that you have to feel ecstatic before you write so then you can translate this into your writing—that the writing itself is not the source of the exhilarating feeling? Is it more of a dialectic process?
JLR Very often certain great experiences in life make me want to prolong the feeling as much as possible, through writing. Of course it’s not a linear process; it involves shifts, moods that somehow enrich or give different nuances to the feeling of joy.
MT The other day I was at a bookstore, and a book on writer’s block caught my eye. Since I was killing time, I started flipping through it and found a quote by Roland Barthes that said that to write is a problem for every writer. Now I can’t find the book or the quote, and I’m even wondering if I dreamt this. In any case, I wonder what you think about this; it’s the opposite of what you’re saying. This problem can have many different sides to it. Is writing a problem for you?
JLR Paz himself used an epigraph by Quevedo in one of his books, which one I can’t remember right now. I find it fascinating: “Nothing disenchants me, the world has cast a spell on me.” Disenchantment certainly exists, one goes through it, but one has to keep in mind that it’s transitory. And as for the world in the second part of Quevedo’s line, it’s decisive. The disenchantment we might experience can be transcended by the earthly spell that the world casts on us. On the news we see myriads of images of the terrible things that happen in the world. Maybe that is the primordial function of the news: to remind us of destruction, that man is the wolf of man. Yet there are also myriads of things that we can focus on which contest those serious and deplorable things we hear on the news. It can’t be that we limit ourselves to just having a guilty conscience for what’s happening in the world, it’s as crucial to remind ourselves that good things happen too. We may exchange words with someone and find them to be highly stimulating; we may meet an arrestingly beautiful person . . . . On a daily basis we see expressions of human kindness, too. It is things like these that counter hate, destruction, evil.
MT And tedium.
JLR This reminds me of an old man who was my neighbor when I was a teenager. He was a retired oilman who had an orchard to which he devoted much care. He was very close to me, almost like a grandfather. After I moved to Mexico I would come and visit him sometimes, and I remember a scene that for my own inner edifice became key. He was digging a hole in his garden to plant a small avocado pit. His wife, Lola, asked him why he was doing it, if when that avocado tree bore fruit, both of them would be six feet under. He responded, “That doesn’t matter; someone will eat them.” That to me is the sense in affirming life. What I have enjoyed is worthwhile for others to enjoy as well.
MT I’ve asked you about the kind of dialogue that poetry had with society at large, with the social and political context. You didn’t mention these things, but I think what you have been saying now is your answer to the question. To you poetry doesn’t need to address that which media and the news cover, since they leave out exactly what your poetry does deal with.
JLR Yes. The side of reality that the media presents is of course real, lacerating, but it’s not the only one. We should make efforts to at least diminish, if not disappear, it. What poetry can do is small, but it does have an impact, I believe.
MT What you’re doing with language, for instance, is very important. I sense that language is becoming increasingly impoverished, due to the impact of mass media and what I see as English’s blatant invasion of Mexican Spanish. I see generosity in your writing in the sense that you are extending and enriching our vocabulary. Ironically, I think this is one of the reasons why your poetry often can be somewhat difficult; there is such clarity and precision to your use of language, which is so specific to your geographical location. For a reader, say, in Mexico City, your lexicon can seem completely exotic and at times even incomprehensible. You often use hyper-concrete nautical terms and refer to species of flora and fauna that few people outside your region have ever heard about.
JLR I’m satisfied with the fact that my language stems both from my lived experiences and my experiences as a reader. It feeds on an accumulation and, in fact, a surplus of experiences related to my contact with nature, people’s regional speech, and my family, which was a sort of theater of voices. A person who only knows five or six dishes is limited, in gastronomical terms, to a finite number of flavors. In the same way, writing that is limited in terms of language reflects a narrow set of experiences. In this sense, I feel wealthy.
MT That relates to the major work you have done as a translator. You not only have access to the language corresponding to your own experiences, but to that of other poets as well.
JLR Yes. I’ve plunged into risky experiences such as translating Omeros by Derek Walcott precisely because I think that his work, as well as Césaire’s or Saint John-Perse’s, is an expression of a multiplicity of lexicon and of experiences for which I am prepared to work on. I feel I can achieve an equivalent.
MT What happens when you encounter poetry for which there is no equivalent? Has it happened to you as a translator? Or do you avoid translating that kind of work from the start?
JLR I don’t know. I translate when I feel won over by empathy. Once that empathy has been established through reading, then I seek to translate the work.
MT Is there a poet you haven’t translated who you would like to work on?
JLR I’m sure there will be another poet who will fascinate me to the point that I’ll want to delve into an arduous and prolonged book-length translation project again. As for now, I don’t know. I’m taking a break. I need to alternate between translation and my own writing as well. Now I’m more in a contemplative mood.
MT Have you translated women writers?
JLR Yes, I’ve translated Elizabeth Bishop and Emily Dickinson. It’d be a dream to do a translation of The Waves by Virginia Woolf, her long poem disguised as a novel. If not a new translation then maybe a version—something in line with the plurality of voices in it.
MT Did you translate the Gertrude Stein you quoted from in Native Land? It’s a good translation.
JLR No, I took that from a book published by Editorial Novaro. In fact, Fabienne Bradu was translating my book into French and she asked me about the quote. I couldn’t tell her much, since I didn’t read the original. I guess I could find it if I had Stein’s work in English at hand. It might take months, though.
MT Well, I found it on the Internet in exactly 1.08 seconds. It appears in “An American and France” in What Are Masterpieces. I highly recommend that you start using search engines. But that’s another matter. I want to talk about the Mexican literary scene, which is way too big a topic, I realize. What can you say about poetry, specifically? Do you feel that you belong to any particular school?
JLR No, not really.
MT Can we even speak of schools of poetry or new movements in Mexico nowadays?
JLR In fiction there’s the crack generation, but beyond that I don’t think you can talk about movements. As for poetry I sense that people’s projects are more personal.
MT Here in the US a lot of people refer to contemporary Mexican poets as belonging to the post-Paz generation, as if things had changed considerably after Paz’s death. What’s your take on this?
JLR It’s hard to say; he only passed away seven or eight years ago. The radiating power of his poetry prevails: we’re still under the rays of a very luminous sun. But I don’t think we can talk about a post-Paz poetry. I still feel his influence is very present in the work of younger poets. Maybe some poets deliberately seek to move away from it, but then they are still defining themselves in terms of Paz’s work. There are personal, intimate and noteworthy projects that don’t need to release themselves from the grip of Paz’s influence. It’s not as if he had eaten up entire generations, or had been an impediment for them to write whatever they wanted to write. He was an impregnator, a finder of new possibilities for writing. I see him more as a favorable, propitious figure than one from which anyone would need to flee, as if from an evil.
MT Do you think younger poets are doing anything different from those of your generation?
JLR The long poem thrived with my generation. For some time now everyone has been working on a sort of brief, highly crafted poem, and somehow the more expansive poetry, such as David Huerta’s Incurable, as an extreme case, or Coral Bracho’s earlier work, is not being written much.
MT And yours too.
JLR Yes. I don’t see similar work being done now. That kind of longer work has always been a part of the Mexican poetry tradition, if we think of Sor Juana’s First Dream, Death Without End by José Gorostiza, or Paz’s Sunstone.
MT Why do you think this is happening?
JLR I don’t know. Maybe it’s that poetry now has as a theme the expression of daily life. The drawn-out poem sustained by a broad, rich, notion of the world is gone. Poets now try to render those small incidents of daily life; the heroic spirit has been lost.
MT Do you think that Internet culture has anything to do with this too? The way we approach written texts now is different. They are everywhere, and so we have less time for them.
JLR Sure. Now messages are laconic, telegraphic.
MT Like Oswald de Andrade’s poemas-minuto (minute-poems). Yet these poems that younger poets are writing now aren’t deliberately telegraphic. They are not the result of a thought-out strategy, as in Andrade’s case. Who are the older poets you think are most influential for younger writers?
JLR Gerardo Deniz may be one. Although his writing is so idiosyncratic that it’s very hard to repeat. Younger poets can’t learn to craft a poem from what he does, but I think he’s one of the strongest poets. Maybe not the most influential, except for his attitude toward poetry. His poetry is the result of his heterogeneous and vast erudition, and in that sense it’s exemplary. His lesson to younger poets is simply to go about things in the most personal manner possible.
MT And what about you and the poets of your generation you mentioned, David Huerta and Coral Bracho. Do you see any traces of this poetry in the writing of younger poets?
JLR David may have more followers. Though we should clarify that his books are very different from each other. He has known how to give each one of his works a distinct personality, so in that sense, it’s difficult to chart his influence. Though since he has taught a lot of workshops, especially in Mexico City, his influence is more felt. Coral’s work is also so idiosyncratic it’s hard to emulate. In terms of my work’s subject matter and tonal range, there aren’t elements susceptible of being incorporated—just think, for instance, about how much families have changed. Today they are nucleic, not clannish.
MT What would you think was the last poetry movement, conceived as such, in Mexico?
JLR The Infrarrealista, from the late ’70s. I was close to Mario Santiago and some of his writer friends, like Darío Galicia. Their poetry was against what everyone else was writing; it included distinct social critique. They tried to distance themselves from the mainstream and wanted to incorporate colloquial speech into their poetry, its registers and breath. In this sense, the work, especially that of Mario Santiago, is very interesting. Unfortunately, it’s scattered in books by other authors, since he used to write poetry in the margins of the books he was reading and in notebooks that he carried in a canvas bag beat by the weather’s and Mario’s own inclemency. I don’t know if anyone has had, or will have, the chance to gather it all together for an anthology of his poetry and criticism that would do justice to his poetic and critical talents; he was a man who always lived in the climate of poetry.
MT I’m reading Los detectives salvajes (The Savage Detectives) by Roberto Bolaño right now. It’s about the Infrarrealista poets, although in the novel they are called the Real Visceralistas. One of the characters in the book, Ulises Lima, is really Mario Santiago. It’s an absolutely terrific novel. Of course it’s fiction, but one gathers that these poets were hated by the Mexican literary world.
JLR I didn’t hate them! I liked Mario a lot, and some of his followers I liked too. We used to have a lot of fun. I remember once I gave a reading, with Carmen Boullosa, I think, at the Casa del Lago. They were all there. After I read they started cheering me and getting the audience to do the wave. It was hilarious, since they used to boo people’s work instead of applauding it. I suppose they liked me, or thought I was one of them. There were some similarities between us, especially when it came to our attitude toward our practice; we both wanted our lives to be defined by poetry.
MT Is Mario that poet you told me about once? You wanted to recommend his work to the Fondo de Cultura Económica and you had asked him for a manuscript; he showed up with scraps of paper from which you were to choose whatever you wanted to publish.
JLR Yes. I told him to go find someone to type up his poems. I guess he never found anyone to do it, so the opportunity was lost.
MT Too bad. I bet one of these days someone will show up with that material. As for you, what do you think you’ll be working on next?
JLR I hope to do a book whose main character is a pirate, so I’ve been reading books to launch me into that project. I’m a temperamental reader, though. I’ll go from essays to poetry, from a writer I know to one I don’t know, sometimes by chance, sometimes because of my mood swings. I hope that these assorted readings lead me to have the energy to do this book.
MT And why a pirate?
JLR I’ve always been fascinated by pirates. I’m reading a very interesting book, Pirates and Buccaneers, by Gilles Lapouge, who sees in certain pirates an incarnation of freedom and anarchy. They bet on a constantly changing life, marked by adventure in the vast dominions of the sea, outside of any legal or social constraints. Their world is open, their horizon of possibilities beyond good or evil. I want to explore what I can do with these elements, see what kind of writing they’ll end up in. In turn I’ll embark on my own adventure.
MT It sounds fantastic. All I can say is that this conversation has been an adventure for me. I’m in my Brooklyn apartment, the sky is overcast and there is a lot of noise at the construction site next door. Listening to you has taken me to a place very far away from here.
—Mónica de la Torre, coeditor of the anthology Reversible Monuments: Contemporary Mexican Poetry (Cooper Canyon, 2002) is currently working on a book project with Colectiva Taquimecanógrafas, a collective of women artists and writers from Mexico City; a poetry manuscript titled Public Domain; and a volume of poetry titled Acúfenos, forthcoming from Taller Ditoria.