A self-portrait by poet Marcelo Morales. Courtesy of the artist.
Marcelo Morales, born nearly twenty years after Cuba’s 1959 revolution, is younger than many island writers whose works have been translated and circulated abroad. Part of his acclaim is his willingness to addresses the twenty-first century in prose poetry that boldly takes on both public and private aspects of Cuban history.
His newest poetry collection, El mundo como ser (The World as Presence, University of Alabama Press, 2016), appears deceptively straightforward as compared to Cuba’s writerly tradition, which is so rich in stylistic complexity. We see, through the eyes of Morales’s speaker, how a dystopic Havana confronts a moment that feels suspiciously like the end of its own history:
I remembered one of my grandfather’s brothers who rested in a chair, fanning himself. Nothing was left there, nothing of the house, the businesses, nothing.
Worlds disappear, my father told me at my grandmother’s house, that world disappeared, like this one will disappear.
The poems combine a first-person speaker’s selected memories with observation of his present-day environments. He renders spatial distance with emotional complexity, playing across a continuum between loneliness and communion. As a writer, Morales is interested in the intersections between public sights and individual perception. These allow him to get at questions about change and continuity not only within his city and on his island, but also in the human experience at large. Through incremental fragments, sentences, and white spaces, Morales reaches beyond the self in purposive ways.
As his translator, I’ve worked with his newest projects while they are still in progress, rather than translating completed and published books. Morales has therefore given me an unusual chance to witness his process and ask questions as projects develop over time. This interview, which I conducted in Spanish, is no exception.
Kristin Dykstra You recently told me that visual artists in Havana are influencing your work more than fellow writers. Why is that?
Marcelo Morales You don’t make poetry using only material from the poetic art form. I’ve been influenced in one way or another by the moment in which I’m living, and by nearly everything surrounding me, from lousy magazines to television to political propaganda. But to answer that question in particular, I can say I feel great respect for the visual arts in Cuba. In my opinion, visual artists have shown the greatest social and political awareness.
With the fall of the Iron Curtain, or whatever we want to call that process, the visual arts in Cuba had an important impact on ways of thinking about the country and questioning its reality in a critical and intelligent way. The end of the socialist bloc exposed many contradictions and disappointments. Some of these artists continued to make—and still make—respectable work, even with changes in the market. The names that come to mind right now are Lázaro Saavedra and Tonel, as well as younger artists from the 1990s and new century, some with international careers, like Tania Bruguera, Toirac, Carlos Garaicoa, Sandra Ramos, and Wilfredo Prieto. The majority are artists who not only think about Cuba but also about the [larger] world in which they live.
Sometimes I find I’m less interested in someone’s art than in how they think about it, how they talk about it. This can happen to me with Gabriel Orozco, for example. I’m more interested in what he says and thinks about art than in his actual work. The artists who most interest me are of their moment, the ones who don’t make innocuous art. I’m not saying that art can never be innocuous. But I will say that the art I find most compelling is not usually innocuous.
KD The photo on the cover of your most recent book, El mundo como ser / The World as Presence, is by Alejandro Gonzalez. It is “by” him and yet it’s also yours, in the sense that it came about through collaboration. How does this collaboration relate to your body of work?
MM Alejandro González is a close friend, and so is Michel Pou, another excellent Cuban photographer. We’ve been inseparable for years. They’re in my books as characters, books that haven’t been published yet. The photo speaks to something fundamental in my work, the idea that there’s a dialogue taking place across my books. I think dialogue also exists across Alejandro’s work, which is very coherent, organic, and sometimes political. In my case, I’ve felt that since El mundo como objeto (The World as Object) I’ve been writing one and the same book, a book that first is one thing and then another and another.
In the cover photograph, just as in the book, there are two phrases, two concepts in confrontation: the world as object and the world as presence. The World as Object was my second book of poetry and to date I think it’s my best one, for its honesty, its concision, and for the control I think I had at that time. The phrase comes from Lautréamont, when he refers to the world as “that great exterior object.” Back then I was obsessed with my own death. I was 24 and afraid of dying.
In The World as Object I tried to find an equilibrium between my ideal world and the material world. I started to situate objects like ashtrays and tables within poetic space as if trying to look outwards at the same time that I was looking inwards.
In the following book, El círculo mágico (The Circle’s Spell, 2007), I continued the conversation. There I explored the idea of the perennial poetic state, a mystical state, a state of poetic mega-awareness, Vaché’s dazzling emptiness or the phosphorescent point of which Artaud spoke. A place perhaps past death. In the next book, Materia (Matter, 2009), I try to get rid of all the mysticism and start with the line about “when I see dust, in my room, floating, I think about the sentence, bury my face inside it.” That line describes a crucial moment in my life. I went into the library one morning and saw a ray of sun, which lit up the dust particles in the air. I remembered Genesis 3.19: “For you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Understanding and accepting death was transcendental for me. I was a few months away from my thirtieth birthday, but I think that’s the day I really turned thirty. Comprehending and accepting my mortality was important to me then.
After Matter came a book I haven’t published, Realidades mentales (Mental Realities), which basically talks about Fidel’s illness, among other things. Fidel’s illness made me realize that even when I was an extremely political creature, I had dismissed poetry’s political potential by considering politics to be fleeting. I wanted to focus on more ontological details, things common to all people in all eras; on the passage of time, on death, frustration, love, pain, happiness, loss—the famous human experiences of the world. I don’t know what happened—whether maybe I became more aware, socially speaking, or I came to a greater historical consciousness—but in that moment the reality that surrounded me began to manifest not only in terms of objects, but also in historical, political, and social terms.
One day after writing those collections of poetry, I was sitting at a bar with Alejandro, underneath the Focsa building, and I heard myself think (if that were possible), “The world is not an object, it’s a presence and it’s alive.” This thought emerged out of the blue and after maybe 15 years went by, I wrote the new book around it, turning against the idea of the earlier book. I’ve always written my poetry collections around an idea, as if each one were an essay. I get obsessed with the idea of matter, or the idea of the poetic spell of the circle, or with the idea of the world as object or world as presence, and I try to circle around each idea until it’s exhausted.
KD Recently you’ve been taking more photos. It seems to me that new relationships are appearing between those photos and your work in progress, particularly “La puerta a los cielos” (“The Gateway to the Kingdom”) and “El cisne II” (“The Swan II”). Could you select a few of your 2016 images to talk about, especially as they weave through the fabric of your current poetry?
MM I’ve always been fascinated with photography, but I take photos for pleasure, without any deliberate aesthetic or artistic intention. What most fascinates me is how photography speaks to its moment. For that reason, the photographs that most interest me don’t follow Cartier-Bresson’s concept of the great subject. For example, I prefer the work of Richard Billingham, or Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Larry Sultan, Ingar Krauss, or Larry Clark.
Something very basic that attracts me to photography is the way the passage of time grants it value. For example, Michel Pou has a picture of the interior of his refrigerator taken during the Special Period [referring to the severe economic crisis Cuba experienced in the 1990s, when food was in short supply]. As a photograph, it didn’t seem like much in the moment, but the passing of time gradually gave it another dimension.
With this series of photos, I had the sudden sensation of living out the end of Fidel’s era, and I started to shoot photos of the faceoff between the socialist world and the newer Cuba, the one experiencing the Raulista opening, which included Obama’s visit.
I thought these two worlds were colliding, or that the capitalist vision and the socialist vision were distinct and opposed to each other—that there is a socialist aesthetic and a separate capitalist aesthetic. Then I realized that in reality, those supposed worlds were divided only inside my head. The truth is these worlds were coexisting. There was no capitalist reality segregated from socialist reality. There was one reality, period. Understanding that was important.
I began to see my reality from a distance. Everything began to interest me, from the new businesses opening to the socialist window displays. Everything suddenly seemed strange, anachronistic.
Above: A Fidelista window display. Below: Changing facades in Raulista Havana. Courtesy of the artist.
Havana’s reality, for as long as I’ve been able to reason about it, is—at least in terms of objects—anachronistic. Many realities coexist, many objects from many moments. It’s completely normal to arrive at a stoplight in a Soviet-made Lada sedan from the 1970s and see on one side a US-made Chevrolet from 1956, and on the other a 2013 Audi. Or you’re going along in a Chrysler with a Mitsubishi motor and Pioneer speakers. It can be pretty weird, but to my mind that makes it interesting; in general, Havana is a lively place. It’s like a great generator for incongruities. You can say just about anything about Havana, except that it’s boring or fails to generate movement and emotion.
KD In The World as Presence you refer to Fidel Castro’s death. You write that the US economic embargo is “the most concrete aspect of reality,” and then you shift: “Fidel was the most concrete. In Santa Ifigenia a bulldozer removes earth, they’re building a tomb, Fidel’s tomb.” You wrote that passage more than two years before his actual death. Do you have an artistic response yet to his passing?
MM I wrote that passage on the very day when the two presidents announced they would give their respective addresses [about changing American and Cuban relations for the better]. I was at the Santa Ifigenia cemetery, in Santiago de Cuba. I had gone to José Martí’s grave with two poet friends, and it was said that Fidel’s mausoleum was under construction, but you couldn’t see anything. At that moment we heard about the joint speeches. You couldn’t see the [physical] mausoleum, but you could see the [symbolic] movements of the work. It made an impact on me because it meant accepting the death of someone who had been a constant presence in Cuba. The economic blockade and Fidel were constant factors of Cuban reality. On the day of his death I was in the United States, and I was asleep when the news came. A friend’s phone call woke me up and the one thing that I did, after realizing it was true, was to go to the mirror and snap a photo. It’s a photo with no artistic value—a picture of me, alone, taking a photo that is important only to me. A photo with only one kind of value, corresponding to the moment in which it was taken.
KD While you were writing El mundo como ser, I was already translating it as The World as Presence, and then we both worked through revisions over the course of the book. You’ve also been passing your newest works to me for initial readings and some translation. What has that translation process been like for you, as an author experiencing translation while your original work was still in progress?
MM It’s a strange and risky experience, risky in the sense that poetry generally needs time to settle, so a text you think is finished turns into something else and then again something else. Nevertheless, working in partnership is an excellent experience, because your text comes to be someone else’s too. The book stops being yours alone. From another perspective, the work of translation obligates you to explain things that you knew but never had to express that way, moments from your life, the reason you wrote the text.
What remains in the translation is only the tip of the iceberg. I remember in one place referring to a poem by another writer, and you went out and bought that exact edition of that book in Spanish. Another time, you asked me about the identity of the guy sitting in a chair, fanning himself. Those details don’t appear in the text; it’s like a revision of the poetic subconscious, a kind of maieutic.
The translator becomes the person who most closely approaches your poetic soul, if something like the soul exists, who gets closest to the truth of what you are, or have been. Since working with you I’ve been curious about the emails you’ve exchanged with other writers, like Reina María Rodríguez or Juan Carlos Flores. I wonder what hidden caches, what subterranean rooms of the mind are hidden in those email exchanges.
KD Your description is surprising and accurate. Yes, I ask a lot of questions whose answers I use for making subtle, often minimal edits to the wording of translations. Very small details can shift my global vision of a piece. Literary translation is for me a form of inquiry. I can’t do my part without feeling that constant “revisions to the poetic subconscious” have a meaningful impact on the results.
Working with Reina for twenty years has formed my approach to working with living authors, who have so far been willing to answer questions and do often reveal new dimensions of the texts.
I set aside time to rewrite material from our conversations, interviews, and translations into notes and articles. I realized that a translator has the potential to open a new archive, documenting knowledge that didn’t previously exist and might never be collected by anyone else.
On the other hand, there are long periods when I don’t want to write informational pieces at all. The maieutic inquiry continues in my translation, but it serves a different and almost opposing function. In these moments, I see deliberate withholding of context as a method for tracing the poetry’s movements through suspense, allowing for its mysteries. Poetry takes away while it gives. The translator must relinquish her hold on excess information to move this way.