Mexico series: interview with poet Alberto Blanco

By Wasafiri Editor on December 22, 2016 in Articles

This is an edited extract from the text ‘The Heart of the Moment: An Interview with Alberto Blanco’ which was carried out by Kimberly A. Eherenman. It has been published in parts in The Bitter Oleander and in the magazine Fractal. The following has been published with full permission from Alberto and Kimberly.

Alberto Blanco is one of Latin America’s most acclaimed poets and his interests range from chemistry to art to jazz. Poet José Emilio Pacheco has written of Blanco that ‘in his poems, nothing is lost … everything streams into his words.’

Blanco has published more than two dozen books of poetry as well as essays on art and books for children (some illustrated by his wife Patricia Revah). He has won numerous awards including the ‘Alfonso X el Sabio’ from San Diego State University in 2002 for excellence in literary translation. In 2008 he was awarded a Guggenheim Grant for his poetry. His interests and work have taken him around the globe. He has pursued Asian studies with a specialisation in Chinese culture, and he accepted a residency in Italy that was funded by the Rockefeller Foundation.

Kimberly A. Eherenman: Do you have a specific interest in what you write about?

Alberto Blanco: Many years ago someone asked me, ‘When you write poetry, what is your theme?’ This is always one of the obligatory questions, right? But I had never taken it seriously. I thought it was a very absurd question … as if poetry had a theme or themes. The very idea that a poet had to set aside a theme for himself or make a theme his, seemed even more absurd. Like artists or pseudo-artists who specialise in painting cows or sunsets over the ocean or nudes. My first thought was, ‘all possible themes … or none at all.’ But I didn’t say that. I thought silently for a moment; ‘Well, okay, really, what is my theme or what does ‘theme’ mean or why does that question seem so absurd to me?’ And the first thing I had to recognise was, of course, that I’ve written about everything…

After more than twenty-five years of writing poetry, what have you learned?

The first answer that comes to mind is nothing … I really don’t believe I know more now than twenty or twenty-five years ago. Anyway, it’s really the opposite. I have even more doubts. I understand less. Of course, I don’t want to exaggerate and say that one doesn’t learn anything at all. Clearly, in twenty-five, thirty, years of writing I have learned, more or less, how to speak Spanish and write in Spanish. I have learned to use all, or almost all, the tools in the workshop. I have learned what poetic forms, at least the known, traditional forms, are used for. I have explored many other forms … contemporary, experimental. I have invented other forms. If this is what we call ‘knowing’ well, I now ‘know’ what all of this can do and what it can’t. But, really, all of this seems to pertain more to the area of information than to knowledge.

Poetry has taught me that ‘you can’t take anything for granted.’ We can’t assume we know what is happening. As I have said before, we can’t assume we hold the reins of language, or that we know exactly what we want to say. We are who we are.

Which poets have influenced you most during your writing career?

Ay! The list is either unending or I’m going to have to try to respond to this question another way. Whenever we talk about influence, we think of the influence of the great poets, the greatest writers. And the truth is everything influences us. Influences aren’t just the works of the greatest poets, the greatest masters, even though the question always points in that direction.

So, which poets can we speak of? In a life dedicated to poetry, as you can well imagine, I have read an enormous number of poets from many traditions who have written in many languages. A simple list of the poets I’ve translated would give you a good idea. I have even dared to translate poets whose mother tongue I barely understand, like the Danish poet Ivan Malinowski or like Bertolt Brecht.

Of course, I’ve translated an enormous number of English language poets, from Emily Dickenson to W S Merwin, from Allen Ginsberg to Walt Whitman. I’ve translated, speaking only of the North Americans, Gary Snyder, Kenneth Patchen, Robinson Jeffers, Ammons, Bly, Charles Olson, Lawrence Ferlinghetti. I have translated, from Portuguese, the works of Fernando Pessoa, who is one of my favourite poets.

I have translated Chinese poetry. Such as the works of Su Tung Po, Wang Wei, Tu Fu, Po Chu Yi, Li Po. I have translated Buddhist texts that are really important to me. I have translated the entire Dhammapada, for example.

I would like so much to be able to translate from Nahuatl because the Nahuatl poetry I’m familiar with is fundamental to me. I would like to familiarise myself with and have more poems from, for example, Ayocuan Cuetzpaltzin, who is my favorite Nahuatl poet. How I would love to be able to read and find more poems by Ayocuan!

I haven’t even mentioned all the poets from my own tradition. First, the Mexican tradition, starting with Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz and continuing through Octavio Paz to my own contemporaries. José Gorostiza is a definitive poet for me. Jorge Cuesta. Pellicer and Villaurrutia. From Latin America, I’ve already mentioned Vallejo, Borges. Huidobro is essential for me. And Lezama Lima. What more can you add to that? They are the greatest poets. I could certainly go on …

Click here to read an English translation of Alberto Blanco’s work:

By Kimberly A Eherenman

Edited by Jack Little