LAURA CESARCO EGLIN & LAURA CHALAR. Tangled Routes: A Conversation

2015 Number 3 - SOLD OUT - The Tangled Route

Translation is lovely that way – it makes you think in ways other than your own, like being able to look at reality with different eyes.

LAURA CHALAR: For some years now you have lived in the United States. That makes you a part of the great number of Uruguayans who, over the years, have chosen or were forced by circumstances to live abroad, and also, perhaps, a part of the tradition of Uruguayan exiled or semi-exiled poets, like Jules Supervielle (who lived all his life between Uruguay and France). From the vantage point of distance, how do you see contemporary Uruguayan poetry and your place in it? More generally, do you see yourself as part of a tradition, of exiled writers or otherwise?

LAURA CESARCO EGLIN: I left Uruguay 16 years ago, when I was 21, which means that when I started identifying myself with the word ‘poet’, I was already away. When I was living in Uruguay I was reading Uruguayan, Argentinian and other Spanish- speaking poets. At the time though, I was writing when no one saw me, when no one could read me. I thought the word ‘poet’ was too big for me. I was (still am) very shy, which meant that actively looking for other writers of poetry of my age, my generation, was totally out of the question.

I think that it was precisely thanks to the distance that I was able to start connecting with contemporary Uruguayan poets. This distance was like taking a step outside, looking at the big picture, and allowing myself to be myself without trying to be like everyone else, without trying to fit into the categories of what ‘Uruguayan’ supposedly means. Distance is not only geographical; distance is the space that allows me to stop, be silent, observe, become closer to myself, and it is from there that I want to connect with others.

Even so, I saw myself on the outside of this ‘generation’. Outside of a generation means not really knowing the dynamics that govern a certain community, it means not being part of that community. They don’t know you, you don’t know them. As if there was no connection because you don’t know the language; they don’t know yours. On the one hand, it’s so nice to be part of a community. On the other hand, being on the outside is a place that is comfortable to me. It is easier to find your own voice, to be more independent. Having been a minority, having been a foreigner in different cities and countries has afforded me that understanding—that it is OK to be different, that it is more than OK: it is something that I embrace. It allows me to always see things from different perspectives at the same time.

Having lived in different cities and countries, being able to communicate in four languages is definitely a part of my writing. Words and the connection you have to certain words change with the languages you know. You flow from one to the other constantly, even if you are only expressing yourself monolingually – inside your head you have the different languages interacting, conflicting, tensing, enriching the ways you think. It’s not just the languages that you know that influence the way you write though. It also has to do with the poetry that you read. Every poem I read influences me, even those poems I don’t like. I gravitate towards what moves me, of course, because the poetry I enjoy is the one that I feel opens something, guides me. That poetry is what others might refer to as ‘muse’.

It’s interesting to think that by leaving Uruguay I became part of a community of people living outside el paisito (the little country), although I am not exiled. I can never really define a part of me (in this case living outside the country I was born in) or even all of me with a single identity. I think that the poetics of pieces is more to my liking, in that there are so many different aspects to all of us. Pieces make a whole. So maybe it’s the Uruguayan tradition of migrating, or maybe it’s the wandering Jew in me, or maybe it’s something that does not really belong to a group. Most probably, it’s a combination of everything, together with personal factors, and others that I might not be aware of.

You’ve lived in Argentina for a while, what’s your experience of being on the other side of the River Plate?

LC: Despite being based in Buenos Aires, I actually spend a lot of time in Montevideo, so my relationship with my home country hasn’t changed as radically as would that of someone who has spent years and years without coming back. Of course distance enables me to see things differently (it’s hard to fight the phantom of nostalgia, which is always hovering), and the homeland becomes –at least in my case– a more prominent subject of my poetry. I’ve always written about places I’ve visited or wanted to visit (my poem ‘Venice’ is a good example), and being away makes your own birthplace one of them. Montevideo is always in my poems, whether explicitly or not.

On the other hand, I’ve always found living in Argentina tough. It’s not just that I moved from a country with a population of 3 million to a country of 41 million, with all that such a difference involves (in Buenos Aires, for example, distances define everything – not just where you buy your food or go to the doctor but also, most harrowingly, how often you see your friends; in Montevideo, everything was relatively close). No, it’s even more than that. Argentina’s difficult and often brutal dynamics, its increasingly sharp swerve towards authoritarianism and the stifling of dissent (which Uruguay is also experiencing, though in a much slower way and without the obscene corruption of Argentina), feel and always have felt jarring to me. And, although my poetry is not political and I haven’t really addressed these concerns in it, I think they unconsciously permeate it, adding as they do to my sense of displacement and loss.

Your approach and style are very different to my own, but I feel we share a preoccupation with issues like family, memory and childhood. Do you also see it that way? Do you think it has to do with the fact that we are both Uruguayan, born within days of each other, and raised perhaps in similarly intellectual families?

LCE: I agree. Our common experiences, as Uruguayans born almost on the same date, have shaped our shared preoccupations with family, memory, and childhood. When I wrote my first book, Llamar al agua por su nombre (Calling Water by its Name), I realized that I had this wound common to all Uruguayans – the dictatorship. It’s part of our vocabulary, our cultural imaginary. Memory in that book is, in a few poems, linked to this period of history (1972–1985).

Sastrería (Tailor Shop), my second book is threaded by the theme of memory. It’s not the same memory, however. This poetry collection examines how memory signifies and re-signifies the present. Memories work through negotiations, and are never exact copies of the original experience: they are like language that changes through migrations, or like cancer, carried in the body from generation to generation.

I also see differences between our poetry. I feel that it is actually the differences in our writing that are enriching in our relationship as poets, because while I am able to recognize some of myself in your work, I am not reading my own words, or my ‘stories’. When I read you and when I translate you I have to enter a different plane. Translation is lovely that way – it makes you think in ways other than your own, like being able to look at reality with different eyes. And then negotiations begin: to bring your reality to another language, to another culture, to another way of expressing reality, which necessarily changes it. Negotiations of points of view. The challenge of bringing the poem into another poem, adding your reading of the poem. In translation too, like in our choices, we find differences and similarities – translation exists in this tension. A relationship.

What kind of poetry are you drawn to?

LC: I enjoy work that is unexpected and unfettered by expectations, whether the prevailing culture’s or the readers’. I like ‘confessional’ or ‘personal’ poems much more than those that try to make a blunt social or political statement, and I like poems that tell a story – it doesn’t have to be a fully rounded story, with a beginning, middle, and end, but a window into someone’s life, or a historical event, or something that appeals to the reader in me.

Since becoming a mother, I’m also drawn towards poems that address motherhood, especially the experience of (relatively) young, working mothers like myself. It took me almost two years to be able to begin writing about my own experience of having a daughter, and I’ve only written a few English poems and some drafts for a series of prose poems in Spanish, but I think of having begun to write about this as a move into a further stage, where I can process this profoundly changing experience and transform it into words.

The Uruguayan poets I like include Julio Herrera y Reissig, Líber Falco and Marosa di Giorgio among the deceased, and Horacio Cavallo and Mariella Nigro among the living. I read a lot of English-language poetry and always try to get hold of Bloodaxe editions because their choice of authors is impressive – I’ve very seldom been disappointed in any of their books. Among the classics, Donne and Shelley are special favourites, as is Larkin. Many years ago I found a book called The Viking Book of English Poetry at home, which literally changed my life. That battered old book, with an unknown person’s name inscribed on the flyleaf (my parents are still arguing over who he was or might have been), was an incredible source of happiness for a long time. I discovered poets I hadn’t known existed, and started scrambling desperately to get hold of more of their work. Back then it was difficult to find books in foreign languages in Uruguay – you had to ask people who travelled abroad to bring you stuff. Do you remember that time, and did you share that avidity for books?

LCE: Yes, I remember that time. I would also ask people travelling abroad to bring me books. So I was reading English, but.... At the same time, I started showing my poems to my brother, and he recommended I read this and that poet. These were all in Spanish. I think that his recommendations helped me to see myself as part of a lineage. I was not writing alone or in a void: there were writers that fascinated me and that I could relate to. The first poets he recommended were Idea Vilariño and Alejandra Pizarnik. This was my first mentoring. Reading them and the others that my brother suggested helped me think of poetry in a different light. Poetry was not just what I engaged in at night when I was sure everyone was fast asleep. Poetry was a whole world. My brother showed me this world I hardly knew existed. I’ve participated in it ever since. I’ve become a poet.

But the truth is that I was desperate to read only in English after my family and I moved back from Rochester, NY. I was eight, and until I was in my late twenties I had this desperate urge to hold on to those two years we’d spent in Rochester. My way of holding on was, and still is, through language. Although back then I had this feeling that if I dared read in any other language other than English, not only would English vanish from within me, but also, that I’d be letting go, I’d be forgetting, I’d be losing two years of my life, and ultimately, my family.

LC: I suppose my writing poetry in English has to do with my reading a lot of it in that language, but the truth is that poetry comes easier to me in English than in Spanish, unless it’s prose poetry. With my short stories it’s the other way round: I have never written a short story originally in English, although I’ve often translated my work into that language.

My connection with English goes back a long time. Unlike you, I have never lived in an English-speaking country, but both my parents were exchange students in the USA and the language was present at home, both in the shape of books and magazines and because it was what they spoke when they didn’t want my brother and me to know about something!

I studied English at the Anglo-Uruguayan Cultural Institute, whose library I regularly haunted in search of books. But, alas, they wouldn’t let you borrow books other than those on the shelf marked for your grade – which meant years and years of abridged versions! I wanted the real thing – as well as the pleasure of guessing and connecting and culling meaning from context – and was routinely frustrated when I walked up to the librarians’ desk with a book in my hands and they said, ‘No, you can’t take that one.’

LCE: I totally understand what you are saying, both about reading and about language. I am obsessed with language. A word is not just a word. The same with a phrase, a line, a sentence... There is so much richness, so much texture. Language provokes journeys, conversations, observations... I could go on and on about my ‘travels’ with language(s). Reading is a pleasure; it opens up spaces, and at the same time, one has to create a certain space in order to read. What I do is wake up earlier than I have to in order to go teach or study, and I read. It’s a practice that I have had since I was a child. I like to know that the world is asleep, and that I am alone with the book. Reading is also sharing. I have this clear memory of when I was in about 9th grade and I had just read Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I remember being at a bus stop in Montevideo with some friends from high school and telling them about the book. In a way, aside from creating community, those were my first ventures into ‘translating’, into finding a voice.

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