If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.
Born and raised in Santiago de Chile, the poet, artist, filmmaker, and activist Cecilia Vicuña has been in exile since the early 1970s, after the military coup against Salvador Allende. She has always understood art as a form of political resistance, weaving together themes of ecological destruction, female sensuality, human rights, and cultural homogenization. Her actions and objects are often site-specific and ephemeral, what Vicuña calls “lo precario” (the precarious), “the moment of emergency,” or “the future potential of the unformed.” Her poetry readings veer off the page into improvisations that embrace happenstance, at times morphing into song inspired by her indigenous heritage, and her performances invite audience participation. She speaks in a soft, incantatory voice, turning our attention to what has been erased or obscured by official histories, to all that has been lost and all that we are still at risk of losing.
Countering a culturally imposed amnesia, she reminds us of our kinship with the natural world, acknowledging both impending danger and generative possibility. At a recent benefit for the nonprofit More Art, Vicuña recounted a nightmare she had upon first arriving to New York City in the 1980s: Lower Manhattan was completely underwater, at the bottom of the bay, but she stood patiently with others in a bus line on West End Avenue anyway. “There was no despair, as we were already submerged.” Though she awoke in a panic, she wondered at the human capacity for calm in calamity and what “new, different creatures” we might become in an age of climate disaster. By awakening us to the importance of ritual communion for the sharing of joy and pain, Vicuña shows us how to breathe underwater.
Elianna KanSo we just greeted one another in Spanish, and now we’re switching over to English. This shift seems pertinent because language itself is often a central subject for reflection in your work. What is the relationship between these different languages you inhabit? And what does it mean to see the recently published bilingual edition of your poems?
Cecilia VicuñaMy work is really multilingual, and it includes languages I don’t even know myself—meaning languages I feel. I sense they exist because I hear them as a murmur, a sound, a concept. They’re unknown. They may have existed already, or maybe they will in the future.
I work mostly, of course, in Spanish, my native lung—or tongue. And because I’ve been in the US for so long, there’s English too. Also, I always include the presence of other languages, like Mapudungun, Guarani, Quechua, and Aymara. These come across as containers for a philosophy of how language works. They cannot be translated. So, you will find in my New and Selected Poems [Kelsey Street Press, 2018] many different languages—including Greek, Latin, and other ancient tongues as components of contemporary ones.
EK What are these philosophies of language evoked or generated by the indigenous languages of South America?
CV In the West, the idea that only the Greeks had philosophy and that indigenous peoples didn’t (and still don’t) is very prevalent. The philosophy of ancient peoples is always included in the composition of their language—the phrases, syntax, and relationship between what you say and what you don’t. For example, in Quechua there’s such precision to an expression: somebody did something. You have to include in the word whether you heard it, witnessed it, or heard it from someone else who witnessed it, and so forth. There are all these specific determinants. So the fact that such expressions have to be as precise as possible and at the same time suggestive of other dimensions is included in the creation of the language as a masterpiece—an artwork.
You find this in Mapudungun too—the language of the Mapuche people in the south of Chile. In 1998, I edited an anthology of Mapudungun poetry. Their philosophy of language includes an awareness of three types: the language people speak among one another, the one they speak with nature, and the one used to speak to another dimension, to those who are gone—ancestors, or even future people.
EK This seems to be more than a philosophy of language; it’s a metaphysics. These modes of communication grant that the human use of language involves nature and the physical world, communion with others and beyond.
CV For instance, right now I’m a passionate student of quantum physics. Scientists are investigating the existence of a state where a molecule knows it’s being observed and changes in response. I might conceive of language the same way: it changes when you relate to it with an awareness of what you are seeing or engaging in, within that exchange, as if language were an alternate reality.
EK When you mention Greek philosophy, I think of argumentative language deployed for the sake of making a case to convince another. But you use language in many other ways.
CV The perception you just described is what is taught in the academy. Later Greek culture, after the classic era—meaning after male takeover, when patriarchy really sets in—becomes an instrument for domination, where clarity really means ruling. But many of the roots and etymologies of ancient Greek reflect an earlier culture of female creativity, as is the case the world over. The testimony to that is inside the words themselves. It’s a fact that very few languages speak of thought without involving weaving. I’ve been working to dig out all these weaving metaphors because they’ve become invisible. People say, “Oh, I’ve lost the thread of my thought.” Why is that, and who created that metaphor? Was it a weaver?
EK And weavers tended to be women, presumably.
CV Across the world! In the teaching of language, there’s this invisiblization of women, even though the words themselves speak otherwise.
EK They betray a pre-patriarchal past.
CV Yeah, and that’s the content of my work. I was a teenager when I first became aware that I was a writer. I began observing my own perception, my words, with the purpose of knowing what I really felt, not what I was supposed to think. This involved a huge rebellion, a revolution of perception. I believe that’s why all these works of mine from the ’60s have been censored for so long and are only now beginning to be published.
EK Do you think this is because there’s a particular need for them now? Or because the ideas you were exploring back then are more integrated into our current discourse?
CV Both! There’s a female sensibility rising with more freedom than fifty years ago. The sheer number of girls exposed to a different worldview now is huge. Women my age may reflect on an old ideology, a reduced image or idea of what feminism can be. But if you listen to girls today, six or eight years old, they’re pretty amazing. They don’t have these limitations that were imposed on what women thought about themselves for thousands of years.
EK You mentioned your early explorations into writing and poetry were born out of a shift in your own sense of something internal, an instinct—which is to say that feeling came first and then language. Am I right in describing it this way?
CV Both interact so intricately, like the molecule and observer. If you look at a word closely, it reveals other depths—what I call the inner metaphor, its innards. This has been my passion. I had a feeling for language, certainly a feeling for my own feelings, and in the observation of that new linguistic realities were born. New metaphors and images. The process is endless and very fertile.
EK Did you always maintain that sense of freedom, even when the work was censored? Or did you, in some way, encounter a wall?
CV How does censorship influence the mind of the person being censored? This is truly something humanity as a whole needs to explore; I’m sure it affects me in deeper ways than I know. Now that I’m old, I read my early unpublished writings and am amazed at what that girl was able to do. I think this pain of censorship has been part of my life for so long that it’s made my perceptions more acute. Maybe it pushed me to explore certain portions of linguistic reality, or excluded me from doing so. I cannot be accurate with this; it is dark, obscured.
EK With this question of freedom pushing back against censorship or limitation, I think about your performances—the orality of those poetic texts. Was that born of trying to find a space and mode for really pushing any kind of limit, testing how far you could go?
CV Yes—forced by the censorship, I became an oral poet. My poems could never see print, never be circulated as books, so I began performing. With performance, I probably reached thousands more than with a book because at the time books were being burned.
Now people read even less than then, perhaps because they only do so on their smartphones. Texts are brief. They mostly read images, so there’s a reduction of the possibilities of the imagination when it comes to words. If we continue on this path there will be a reduction of the brain’s connections, of humanity, because words—being multidimensional creatures—are caretakers of the deeper and unknown aspects of our imagination.
EK Say more about this idea of humanity and language.
CV In the West, you find the idea that only humans have language. I never believed that. We know bacteria sing to each other, that even subatomic particles are self-aware and communicate and tangle with one another. So, for me, the universe is itself language; everything is speaking to everything else, in particular chemical, sonic, and territorial languages. There are sorts we can’t even imagine, yet together they form part of what we as humans can sense and perceive. We can talk about things as if we know what we are talking about. That’s the most fascinating thing in the world because in truth we don’t know much at all. What we don’t know composes 99.9 percent of the real. That possibility of sensing what we cannot name makes language what it is—a reaching for what cannot be said.
EK In your live performances there’s certainly an interplay between what you’re saying and what you’re not.
CV Absolutely. I often go into strange sounds that are perhaps meaningless or senseless, but they are full of meaning and sensing. Emotional realities! Bob Holman said to me, “You speak in a language no one knows but everyone can understand.” Performance is a time to collectively engage in exploration. It doesn’t feel like I’m doing it by myself. Everything participates. There’s a bird that comes in, somebody coughs, a child cries—all of it is part of the weaving.
EK Do you feel like there’s a different relationship to time when you are making a written poem versus a performance poem?
CV Temporality is another fixture of the imagination, in the sense that the theory of relativity is based on the discovery that time doesn’t move in the same manner for everyone. It depends on what you’re doing and where you are. Whether I’m composing a poem or reading, I completely lose sense of time. I don’t know if it’s been ten minutes or two hours. My eyes get tired; that’s how I know. Or my ass, from sitting too long. It’s clear that in poetry, whether performed or written, you’re transported to other temporalities.
EK I had a literature professor who would say, “The only advice I can give you is to find something that allows you to lose track of time, because your life will depend on it.” These little machines [smartphones] make it difficult to lose track of time, to make space that is sacred and our own, because anyone can contact us at any time.
CV They make your body into an extension of the machine. Everybody willfully becomes a slave. Thank god I belong to a generation that can imagine an existence without these creatures.
EK If the dominant culture is now one in which each of us is moving along in our telephone world, have you found that the reception of your live pieces has changed?
CV Yes. I think the first public performance I did was in 1970. Before that I was performing without announcement, just on the bus, in the street, at the beach, in the mountains. Whoever happened to pass by could be there, or not. I could perform for clouds and grass, trees and ocean. Before the military coup in Chile there was tremendous freedom because we were still living in the era of the ’60s—that joyous, wild energy. Nobody called them performances; they were events or happenings.
After violent repression and persecution set in, in the early ’70s, I began to notice a rather antiseptic attitude. Like, “Don’t touch me. Don’t come near me. Don’t involve me please.” People removed themselves from any contact, from engagement. “Who is this ridiculous lady? Who is bothering me?” They didn’t know I was the performer because I would come from the back, in the hallway, always in the wrong place.
Over the last five years, as these takeovers by conservative powers here and around the world have taken hold, people’s need for a sense of contact becomes a thirst, like a willingness or desire. I notice it clearly. When I do my strange gestures people come toward me. If I don’t happen to touch a person, they feel left out. They want collectivity, a form of communal behavior. It’s a deep lack.
EK Shifting gears a bit, when you read translations of your poems against the originals, how do you see their relationship?
CV It’s a co-creation. In a way, all forms of communication are translation. I have profound admiration for people who become translators. It’s one of the most difficult arts, and so unappreciated—especially in the US. Each one of the translators that deal with my work are jewels. They discover things in my work that I wasn’t aware of. This encounter of different perceptions becomes fantastic work. Very often the translation can even be more communicative than the original. My original comes from this indigenous mind that is so playful and likes to create darkness, spaces of not knowing to make room for the possibilities embedded in an expression. English sometimes has to be to the point. Even though I’m unwilling to do that, the translator makes me speak in this manner, and I totally love it. If you read them together, you’ll see two texts in one.
EK Maybe three texts in one—since you perform in between them.
CV Right. I sing and alter the translations when I read them. I do that to the originals too. Everything becomes a re-version. There’s a force coming from the poem itself, so I listen to it.
EK You don’t want to be bound to the page?
CV Sometimes I want to because the page is fantastic. But even then, I can’t help myself. I have to go where this force of interaction leads. Even if it’s mine, the poem belongs to itself.
EK This notion of ownership and creativity reminds me of the way we speak about translation in terms of fidelity and infidelity, as if it’s clear what would be one or the other. There’s anxiety about an essential original.
CV This may be a function of private property, even of owning the body of a woman, of the right to rule over others. There’s definitely a hang-up with ownership. You hear artists and poets speak of “my work.” Even I say it. People ask about “your work,” in those terms. But I think my or your is relative because what’s really happening is always an interaction. You can own that interaction maybe, but it will always be changing. There’s a permanent impermanence to that relationship.
EK Speaking of relationships, temporal and emotional, how do you relate to memory? And how is it explored in your work?
CV Memory is a great mystery. Physicists have discovered that a particle has a memory of its trajectory, of where it has been. What does that tell you about living cells, about land? These are notions indigenous peoples have expressed for so long—like that a rock has memory. Now medical science is recognizing that a fetus carries an epigenetic memory, transmitted from the mother. Her likes and dislikes, emotions and pain, all influence the epigenetic make-up of the child. Our ancestors’ trauma and memories are passed down to us, influencing how we see the world and tell stories. This notion is being expanded by science and also by the awakening of the human spirit. We have this reduction of the human imagination due to the invasion of technology, but at the same time, through our interactions, there’s this awakening. Which force will take over, which will humanity choose to follow? Do we move toward total destruction and loss, or to the recovery of the spirit? Memory, I think, is the foundation of the future—not as preservation but as creativity.
EK In your own work, is this function of memory the most expansive vehicle or driving force?
CV The driving force for people my age is doing work that will contribute to the continuation of life. I was a teenager when I became aware that life on this planet was under threat. Already, in the ’50s and ’60s, this was well known. The fact that this has been denied is one of the greatest crimes. The common thread in these explorations into the vitality of language is in the indigenous sense that language’s fertility becomes the fertility of the earth.
EK It reminds the listener or reader of their connection to something greater than themselves.
CV The difference between a poet and any other language worker—scientist, journalist, prose writer, and so forth—is that their job is to never forget that language includes what cannot be said.
EK That offers a possibility that poets can be the healers for our times. But how do we heal knowing we live in a time of perpetual mourning?
CV The most healing force is our own awareness of who we really are, what we are meant to be as humans. Awareness is the only way out. Consider the word consider; it means to sidereally, cosmically be with. Consider who we are. Recover.
EK Your performance art and interventions bring us to a heightened awareness of our bodies in communion with one another. And your work with the quipu does this by using the memory device to remember, to remind us to put back together the things we are losing. Tell me about the evolution of your work with quipus.
CV Quipu means “knot” in Quechua. It refers to a complex recordkeeping system for narrative and administrative information organized as sets of knotted cords. The quipu is an extraordinary Andean concept. It’s not only a textile instrument—a tactile instrument—but also an intangible, virtual construct: a weaving of us, all humans, as connected to each other and the cosmos. This was achieved by a form of the quipu called ceque, which means line in Quechua. This ceque is a set of virtual lines, in other words sightlines, gazes that represent your intent—where you’re looking at and where you’re looking from. These were like imaginary lines running from Cusco all the way to the mountain’s summit, to the origin of water. It’s all about the circulation of water—from glacier to river, ocean, cloud, rain, and snow. Quipu and ceque came from an awareness of this and the need to care for water through ritual activity and communal responsibility. In turn, there’s a connectivity with the galaxy from whence our planet came into being.
Therefore, the body is also a cosmic instrument, especially the female body, as ruled by the moon, stars, and planets. So, for many decades now, I’ve been creating collective weavings where people’s bodies are knots of an interconnected web, which is the quipu, to remember all these layers and dimensions. It creates a state of mind, a consciousness, that can only be achieved collectively in the ritual.
EK I was reading your book Read Thread—The Story of the Red Thread (2017), based on your project of the same name for documenta 14. You beautifully articulate everything you just mentioned in a text you wrote called “The Collective Quipu”:
The collective quipu is the quipu
not yet born:
the union of all
Blood, body, water and thread.
Erasing memory, we erase the moral compass of our cells.
The memory of injustice and hurt.
Somehow, in generating a new collective in the present, you’re suggesting a way of recovering the lost memory of the past.
CV Not only that, but recovering the lost memory of what we can be as humans. It’s a work for the future. The main purpose of remembering the past is to have a ground from which to move forward. We are forward-oriented peoples; this is how evolution has made us, even bacteria are moving forward. Everybody is looking to, everything is about to happen.
EK With Quipu Mapocho (2017), part of Read Thread, you’re going to natural sites, bodies of water that in some way already embody loss—the climate change that’s irreversible. What’s the experience of bringing a ritual so oriented toward future communities and generative possibilities to sites being lost in the present moment?
CV The Mapocho River is terribly contaminated. It’s full of sewage, as well as chemical refuse from the mines. It’s a river of death. During the dictatorship, bodies of the tortured and killed were dumped there. The river carried corpses. All memory of this has been erased. Previous to that, this was a sacred landscape, at the foot of majestic eternal snow and the incredible Valley of Santiago, like the Himalayas but along the Pacific Ocean. It’s an extraordinary and fertile place that’s now completely polluted. So, with these healing weavings I do in the river, our feeling of joy is completely contradictory and paradoxical, yet it emerges. That’s what makes me feel that if we gather and align, something new will emerge—that’s where our hope could lie, if we let it.
EKI’m reminded of an anecdote your partner, the poet James O’Hern, told at your book launch, about a child buried in the mountain Cerro El Plomo above the Mapocho River. This mummified child, to whom your project is dedicated, was said to be holding a red thread as an offering to life’s eternal thread, as well as to water.
CVThis child was discovered by treasure hunters who dug him out of an altar at the summit, where he’d been kept in perfect condition, as if he were a living body. He wasn’t even stiff, and his skin was perfect because the Inka understood that there was a precise altitude in the mountains perfect for preservation. It was as if this child had been dreaming, asleep for 500 years. I was six years old then, and all Chilean children were taken to see this child, transformed into an archeological object, at the National Museum of History. You could see the horror of colonization, of not understanding the sacrifice of a child being buried alive at the birth of the Rio Mapocho, high up in the glacier. He was sacrificed for the benefit of all, then converted into a source of profit. The miners dug him up and sold him to the museum. This is so painful, and yet encountering that child may have changed my life. I could see right away what was between him and me. We were like the same being.
EK You felt a sense of continuity.
CVExactly. How can you not be moved to the core to see a child your age, your size, your color, your hair, with everything just like you?
My partner and I first did an offering to him in 2006, following his tracks high up the mountain. A condor came and spread its wings over my offering, the Quipu Menstrual (2006). Then I went back in 2017.
EKAnd that was the Quipu Mapocho, when you went to the mouth of the river?
CVYes. So you see, the cycle of water has been the thread of my life. The thread, blood, and water are really the only guides we have. That’s who we are.
EKWe forget that easily.
CVProfit is the only thing that matters, it seems, and the fact that we may die in the quest for it means nothing now.
EKBut I continue to be moved by your ability to hold awareness of the tremendous loss in our midst while still believing in and devoting energy to seeing our future potential. It’s a gift. I see its power in the way people respond to your performances.
CVIf you feel that, it’s because you know that’s our true condition: until we die, we don’t give up the idea that emergence can still occur, that change can still occur.
EKThat water still moves in places. There’s something soothing when you’re standing on an ocean shore, feeling that it beats on.
CVThat is the teaching of water. Water teaches us to go under. Do you know what Rio Mapocho means? Water that disappears under the earth. It disappears but reemerges again downriver.
Elianna Kan is a translator, writer, and literary agent. She teaches translation at Columbia University and spends her time between New York and Mexico City.
Originally published in
Our winter issue is dedicated to this planet’s greatest resource: water. With contributions from Saskatchewan and the American Southwest to Iceland and Northern Europe, an array of voices are brought together here—artists and writers investigating water as site, sustenance, and symbol, along with those expressing alarm and calling for intervention.
Featuring interviews with Lauren Bon, Oscar Tuazon, Jaque Fragua, Brad Kahlhamer, Ruth Cuthand, Janaina Tschäpe, Jessica Grindstaff, Tomoko Sauvage, Cecilia Vicuña, and Alicia Kopf, as well as writing by Laura van den Berg, Natalie Diaz, Stefan Helmreich, and more.
If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.