An interview with João Luís Barreto Guimarães with SJ Fowler.
With a precision and focus that seems to mirror the requirements of his profession, a surgeon, the poetry of João Luís Barreto Guimarães is representative of the finest work in contemporary Portuguese letters. Concise, eloquent and immediate, his work is concerned with phenomenological clarity and an engagement with a language of presence, of excavated intimation, and a wholly personal reality that hinges on a fundamental act of communication with the impersonal. For over two decades he has been a leading light in a poetry tradition often underappreciated outside of its borders, but from which giants of modern poetry like Fernando Pessoa and João Miguel Fernandes Jorge have emerged. In an extremely generous interview, we are pleased to present João Luís Barreto Guimarães as our first Portuguese edition of Maintenant.
3:AM: Let us first speak about your methodology. Your work seems often to possess a clarity that comes from an observational, sometimes minimalist, method. What is the importance of sight in your work? And the importance of images?
JLBG: Well, usually I do not depart from words to ideas (i.e. from language to reality) but the other way around, from reality (what the sight sees) to language. This means, necessarily, the need for a greater work of transfiguration, to find the fulminant image. I’m primarily a poet of the Present (”I write from inside life”), not particularly from a memory or from the Past. I like to place an argument, a plot, a logical thought throughout the poem, like an internal architecture or a skeleton for the poem. Thus, I like that the poem has a subject even though I do not like poems that defend a message. Poetry is not for moralizing but to enrol oddities. Therefore, the path from sight to the hand (or from the pen to the paper) is mediated by reason (or unreason). It is not enough for me to hold on only to the beauty of diction or to the sound of the words, – important as they still may be to my work, – as was the use in Portuguese poetry before the 70’s, which depended mainly from the tension between words and images more or less surreal or abstract or symbolic or hermetic. I admire such poets as a reader, I respect their work (which I read), but that is not the poetry I want to do. In my work, I want to communicate with the reader, I want to force him to interact with the texts, placing him problems, challenging him and surprising him. As reality surprises me, by the way. Of course, I do not walk around with a pen at hand in search of oddities, faults, accidents, but I seem to have a trained eye to detect those details, absurdities and anomalies in things, in attitudes, in words and gestures, in art. My poetry family is a figurative one. The added difficulty of this kind of open and clear process is that this sort of poetry of the Present requires a revision work much more elaborated and detailed and refined than hermetic poetry that stands as it is by its own. But, as Mallarmé would say to Degas, it’s not enough to have ideas, it’s in the language that finally the poem is decided. And what for Valery was the line donnée, to me is the sight.
3:AM: You are a surgeon by trade, how does this profession present itself in your work?
JLBG: I don’t think it influences thematically. Only in one case or another I have written directly about my experience as a surgeon. But being a reconstructive surgeon, perhaps the exactness that I put in the search for symmetry, hiding a scar, removing excesses, in precision, drinks from the same well that influences meter, enjambement, the graphic shadow that fills the page, all the revision process. Perhaps writing and operating, like many other arts, both have a certain respect for tradition, with an eye on creativity and originality (at the shoulders of giants). Now that you made me think about it, maybe there is a greater similarity between a page of skin and a wrinkle of paper.
3:AM: Who are your influences, both in Portugal and outside of the Portuguese language?
JLBG: As I am a avid reader, I could risk running off the limit of characters for this interview with an endless list of names. But I’d say my literary family in Portugal would include poets like Cesário Verde (for his literary sense of physical space with streets and people as characters), Bernardo Soares, Pessoa’s prose heteronym (for his mental plot on those streets and people), Alexandre O’Neill (for his use of irony and humour), João Miguel Fernandes Jorge (for his modulation of individual subjectivism to collective mythology), Manuel António Pina (for his synthetic rationality on the poem) and Luís Quintais (for his intellection and diction). Those amongst others, I may add. In other languages, William Carlos Williams (for his purity and lyrical concept of perfection of the poem), Frank O’Hara (for his colloquial notion that everything that the eye sees or the ear hears can be poetry), Robert Lowell (for his fine walk over the edge of confessionalism), Philip Larkin (for his sense of time and his themes), Joseph Brodsky (for his creation of an image of a poetic persona), Wislawa Szymborka (for the internal logic of her poems) and, of course, Adam Zagajewsky (for his sense of deeper meanings of life dwelling over geography). For the last twenty years, I’ve been stealing and stealing from these excellent poets but building, I hope, my own voice.
3:AM: Portuguese poetry of the last century (perhaps European poetry in general) is towered over by the spectre of Fernando Pessoa. How much has his legacy shaped Portuguese letters, and is his unique and powerful inheritance purely a blessing to contemporary Portuguese poets?
JLBG: I think Pessoa influenced each one of us who write poetry very differently because Pessoa is many persons (“pessoas”) in one. What amazes me mostly is the ability he had to literally invent a handful of poets, each one with his own biography, profession and geography so as to be able to express the dispersions of his intimate lyricism. Each with a different voice. Much of the poetry that has been written in Portugal until the end of the twentieth century, threw bridges to at least one his main heteronyms (Álvaro de Campos, the futuristic engineer; Alberto Caeiro, the lyrical shepherd; Ricardo Reis, the classicist doctor; Bernardo Soares, the cerebral flanêur). In my case, as I said, my preference goes to Fernando Pessoa’s Bernardo Soares, for the reason I mentioned.
3:AM: Is there a synthesised relationship between the Portuguese and the Brazilian poetry modern traditions? Does the shared language, and history, form exchanges in poetry?
JLBG: Not really. In fiction, the scenario is better. But in poetry, except for the usual suspects from this side of the Atlantic (Fernando Pessoa, Sophia de Mello Breyner, Ruy Belo, to name a few), or from the other side (João Cabral de Mello Neto, Manuel Bandeira, Carlos Drummond de Andrade), all of them from the early or mid-twentieth century, except for those, cultural exchange is inexplicably reduced for two countries who speak the same language. And this is a shame because there’s a whole market to explore who could create conditions that would allow other publishing opportunities to emerge. What we know about them today (rather short), and what they know about us, it is due to the internet.
3:AM: How has the poetry renewal of the 1970’s and of your own generation, in the 1990’s and beyond shaped and changed the Portuguese poetry scene?
JLBG: Regardless of other voices, equally remarkable, I would like to highlight the work of João Miguel Fernandes Jorge and the poetry (but especially the critical work) of his fellow Joaquim Manuel Magalhães, both revealed in the 70’s, who played a crucial influence on the Portuguese poetry of the 90’s and beyond. An influence that is expressed by the possibility and ability to write about everyday issues, returning to the reality rather than to a more abstract poetry of language and about language, which, in my opinion, could have played a role in pulling away public from poetry. Those two poets influenced my entire generation, the 90’s generation: poetry returned to storytelling, to micro narrative (e.g. Jorge Gomes Miranda and Rui Pires Cabral), often about insignificant aspects of everyday life that acquired a sudden power of revelation and epiphany (e.g. José Tolentino Mendonça and Pedro Mexia); mixing time and space with an eye on reason and tradition (e.g. Luís Quintais). In the 2000’s, poetry regained a strong social tone (e.g. José Miguel Silva and Manuel de Freitas), always with the stamp of subjectivity and individual voice. All in all, Portuguese poetry, despite the financial difficulties of publishing houses that reflect the country’s economical situation, lives interesting times with the emergence of a handful of new names (Daniel Jonas, Rui Lage, Rui Manuel Amaral, amongst many others).
3:AM: Ana Hudson’s work at Poems from the Portuguese http://www.poemsfromtheportuguese.org is truly remarkable, both as a project and as a service to readers of Portuguese poetry in English. How did you come to be involved in the project and what are your thoughts on what Ana is doing?
JLBG: The names of the poets presented and translated by Ana were suggested by other poets. The translation of my poems was suggested by Luís Quintais and I suggested Rui Lage. It works more or less in a chain. The poet should also write an entry on the poet he chose and Ana translates them. As there isn’t virtually no contemporary Portuguese poetry extensively published in English, I don’t know if it is due to lack of funds, to lack of translators or both, – the effort that Ana Hudson is placing in translating Portuguese poets of the last four decades to the English readership is really remarkable.
3:AM: You soon have a complete poems being published I believe, which includes work from seven books from 1987 to 2009. What was the experience of compiling this retrospective? Was it difficult to look back and have to make certain editorial decisions? Or was it a satisfying experience?
JLBG: My “Poesia Reunida” has just been released in Portugal by a very good editor house of Lisbon, Quetzal, which made me quite happy as you can imagine. I did not delete a single poem from the 225 poems included on the original seven books published up to now. It was hard to resist eliminating a handful of them from the first book, but the truth is that I do not think one can delete poems or eliminate books that still exist on the shelves of former readers, poems that once had a real existence. So I decided to keep them besides having been written more than 24 years ago, as part of a process, in order to draw a route, an evolution. It’s almost like visiting those museums dedicated to a single artist: in the first room there are some pencil drawings, still lives, more academic or less mature work. And then, in the last rooms, we find their legacy to the art they embraced. And I like to think that my best work until now is clearly in the last five books. Which isn’t bad, is it?
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
SJ Fowler is the author of three poetry collections, Red Museum (Knives Forks and Spoons Press 2011), Fights (Veer books 2011) and Minimum Security Prison Dentistry (AAA 2011). He is the UK poetry editor of Lyrikline and 3:AM. He is a full time employee of the British Museum and a postgraduate student at the Contemporary Centre for Poetic Research, University of London.