A Small Library in a Poem: a conversation

2014 Number 2 - SOLD OUT - Twisted Angels

A good poem, for me, enriches a microfight I’m empathetic with, or it makes me look at something in a way I never did before.

Sasha Dugdale: Hilary, you translate the Brazilian poet Angélica Freitas, whose work is experimental in the sense that it works with found texts and the sorts of lunatic juxtapositions offered by the internet. Could you talk a little about her approach and the energy it lends to her poetry?

Hilary Kaplan: Angélica started her googlagens (google collages) in 2004, culling and recomposing language she found online through Google searches in both Portuguese and English. Her new book, Um útero é do tamanho de um punho (The uterus is the size of a fist), critiques the notion of ‘woman’. The googlagem is one way she stages this critique; the book’s ‘3 Poems with the Help of Google’ explicitly acknowledge her Google procedure. Angélica searched for the phrases ‘a mulher vai’ (a woman goes), ‘a mulher pensa’ (a woman thinks), and ‘a mulher quer’ (a woman wants), selected lines from the results, and combined them into poems. Each line of the poem begins with the search phrase; this repetition emphasizes the mechanic composition, and the automatism of the language almost neutralizes meaning. As we encounter these statements, we become inured to them and even come to expect them. The resultant portraits of contemporary popular images of women call out the sexism and heterosexism of Brazilian popular culture (though not unique to it), and the absurd and funny ideas that abound online.

There’s a strong tradition of Brazilian poets embracing new media to create their work, there is the tradition of the poem- object and one might even trace internet language appropriation to the creative ‘cannibalism’ espoused by the Brazilian Modernists. One could say Angélica’s googlagens cannibalize found language. But I don’t think the googlagens are motivated by a concern for Brazilian avant-garde tradition, which was also invested in national identity. Angélica is interested in the possibilities of technology for composition and critique. Her first book, Rilke Shake, distinctly questions the boundaries of national identity and language. She is exploring the possibilities for language beyond the frame of nation.

HK: Leo, you’re another writer who’s interested in the poem as object and in writing machines. In your MixLit composition, which you describe as being the ‘DJ of literature’, you select fragments of literary texts in Portuguese and occasionally English, and combine them into a new piece of prose fiction or poetry.

What opportunities does this process offer over the usual traditional ideas of authorship?

Leo Villa-Forte: I want to ask questions about identity, originality, property, continuity and the very essence of what is writing, what is reading, the physicality of these two activities.

Do I really need to write ‘manually’ to produce a written discourse? How many words does someone need to put together to claim authorship? If someone quotes a fragment of a MixLit of mine, which name(s) is he gonna write down on the page? How do we read in this zapping age? How do we make sense of all the constant changes? How do we deal with so much content being produced today? And how to read every book we want? And how to make sense of this amount of text? Maybe by connecting parts of them? This brings into question the frontiers between writer and reader.

For me, MixLit is a physical demonstration of how a reader can create directly from what he reads, and that goes right against the idea of the reader as passive. This content communicated by the form is important for me because there are still some people who think of reading as ‘not doing anything’. That said, in MixLit I try to guarantee that what the text is saying is not less interesting than the questions the procedure raises. I try to say something and to make it pleasurable to read – my way, of course. The procedure of cutting and joining fragments has been hailed as a way to achieve the ‘aleatory’, or randomness, by the Dadaists, then as a way to reach the unconscious by the Surrealists, then as a way to reach the future or hidden messages by William Burroughs. I’m fond of all of them. But, when I’m putting fragments together, my goal is to build an engaging piece of story and just open myself to making the words of others mine.

Read Daniel Hahn's translation of Leo Villa-Forte's MixLit.

SD: The MixLit poem you have put together for MPT uses elements from several of the writers we are publishing, Drummond, Behr and Freitas for example. What was the guiding principle behind this piece?

LVF: In MixLit I work more with prose than poetry. My main goal when I am mixing a lot of fragments is to make sense from them and say something interesting, something that I would maybe want to express anyway. It’s incredible how we’re able to express ourselves through others. This MixLit poem I made using only Brazilian poets says something about how I feel about time and the things that do or do not change in a city. But if I were to write something ‘manually’ about that, I wouldn’t write it just like it is written in this MixLit poem. It’s a constant negotiation between what the sources offer me and what I can make of them. So I try not to have too many worries about the text form, because I have to be open to what the sources can offer me.

I let what I find and how they connect define my approach. Although I do care about rhythm, a certain flow: in this poem
I wanted to have rhyme. But my worries are more like: Is this fragment saying something interesting? Would I want to say something like that? Is it open to the fragments coming before or after it? Does it extend the text or draw it to a close? Does it fit to build a sense of wholeness? When it’s all put together well, I have a complete MixLit text.

SD: But that’s not all that is particular about this piece. It has a very distinctive layout on the page.

LVF: I’m also working it visually. When it is complete I begin to think about how to distribute the cut-up fragments on the coloured page. It’s great when I can use graphic novel or comic balloons, because they break the righteousness of the text line. It’s also great when I use a fragment that is a long line and I have to find a way to make it fit within the limits of the coloured paper, so I can’t put it as a straight line, but with an inclination. In this MixLit poem I put a part on the left, and a part in the right, after beginning in the centre of the page. I think it combines with the saying in each part, and with the breathing of the poem, but the layout doesn’t always have a rational decision behind it. Also regarding form and content, in these visual MixLits, I like to use the source references as a frame. They are not merely reference information, they’re a part of the work. They stay around, linked to what’s happening, and, what’s more important for me, they offer a map. They say to the viewer: ‘if you liked this fragment you can find it in...’ And they also make it possible for anyone to remake a work the way I did. It’s a reading path and a writing map. A small library. And it’s part of the work, not something outside.

SD: I love that idea of a small library in a poem! I think that many traditional poems have that quality in them, too. I’d like to askbriefly though about contemporary Brazilian poetry now. Hilary,you mentioned that Brazilian poet Paulo Henriques Britto recently wrote about Brazilian poetry in the 21st century that it is finally being produced in a state of ‘normalcy’ after a long ‘period of exception’.

HK: Yes, there is a sense of relief and of a turning point. Related to this idea of ‘normalcy’ is the idea of ‘good’, as in ‘good poetry’. Paulo writes that the ‘major goal’ of Brazilian poets today is ‘simply to write good poetry’ (as opposed to being revolutionary, which was the goal of previous generations). Can poets today focus exclusively on good poetry because they have the luxury of normalcy? And what is ‘good poetry’ these days?

Angélica, in Um útero, upends this alliance of ‘normal’ and ‘good’. The poems in the ‘clean woman’ series rely on these entrenched binary oppositions: clean/dirty, good/bad, sober/ drunk, beautiful/ugly. The word ‘normal’ never appears but is implied in opposition to the ‘troublesome’ women in the poem ‘a popular song (19th c.–20th c.)’. The hollowness of these banal oppositions is made clear by the ironic repetition of the usual terms.

LVF: These poems fight against what we understand as ‘normal woman’ or the very concept of ‘normal’, and how society has produced the female figure. For me, a good poem always has this element of fighting something.

HK: What’s interesting to me about this period of normalcy, when ‘Brazilian culture’ is firmly established, is that it seems to have allowed space for poets to do the necessary work of questioning Brazilian culture – not nationhood, per se, but cultural attitudes that have become entrenched simultaneously with nationhood – and to do this in a new way. For example, Angélica questions the construct of ‘woman’ in part by appropriating language from current Brazilian cultural attitudes about women. Ricardo Aleixo’s body of work raises questions about race and racism in Brazil, via multimedia forms created with techniques from Concrete poetry, Tropicália, Afro-Brazilian ritual, music, and more. ‘Normalcy’ opens up the possibilities for poetry that’s not only good but also critical.

HK: Leo, as a Brazilian writer, what’s your take on this idea of ‘normalcy’?

LVF: This normalcy provokes a lack of subject. No great enemy to put down, no country to build, no utopias. What, then, to say? It seems harder for the poet to ‘choose’ his subjects. Because there are no obvious ones. A good poem, for me, enriches a microfight I’m empathetic with, or it makes me look at something in a way I never did before. Like Wisława Szymborska’s ‘Writing a curriculum’. That for me is a great poem.

HK: In place of a preoccupation with Brazilianness, national identity, I see a clear embrace of cultures outside of Brazil, and also of diversity within Brazil. But it’s not just the crossing of cultures in these poets’ work – concerns domestic, personal, international, and aesthetic are present in recent books without the constraint of national definition.

Poets are playing with the transition away from national preoccupation, too. So when Angélica writes, ‘be a patriot, surrender your mallarmé. Olê’ (‘seja patriota, entregue seu mallarmé. Olê’) (in ‘estatuto do desmallarmento,’ from Rilke Shake), she jokes about national identity, about the historical attempt to distance Brazilian art from French art, and about the contemporary poet’s indebtedness to modernism.

LVF: Hilary, I wonder how you’re translating the poems made with the help of Google. They were generated by searches for specific expressions, and the fact that these searches were made in Portuguese is what makes these poems what they are, because if Angélica had searched for the same expressions in English, she would get different results, that is to say, different verses. Could this be a text that, if translated, would have not only its language modified but also its creation process?

HK: Procedural poems raise an interesting question for translation: Does the translation emphasize the poem’s content, or its process of composition? What’s the ‘poem’? For MPT, I chose to translate Angélica’s language, the results of her procedure, in order to convey her findings and her specific composition. Another route, which Angélica and I have discussed, involves doing my own search using English equivalents of her terms, to translate the procedure. In this version for MPT, though, I’m interested in the ‘Brazilianness’ of the poem – perhaps as a counter to or a product of the supposed universality of the World Wide Web – and I’d like to find out what of present-day Brazil might come across. What do we have in common across cultures? What’s different?

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