entreview with/con Andrés Ajens*[1]

Abridged; Translated, Edited, and with Notes and Commentary by Kristin Dykstra and Juliet Lynd

Kent Johnson: In the first sentence of their Preface to your recent book of essays, Poetry After the Invention of America, published in Rachel Blau Du Plessis’ series (Palgrave, 2012), Erin Mouré and Forrest Gander propose that you challenge us to confront the paradox of “the poem’s possibility and impossibility.” I’m making the assumption that you agree with their claim. If so, the poem is “impossible” how?

Andrés Ajens: I’m tempted to begin my response to you with the name of one of the textiles that intertwine in the book: How not to respond?[2] That is, how can I not fail to respond to you? How can I not avoid responding? And at the same time, in what way may I not respond to you? In what way would there be no need to respond to such a question, its sad closing down of all possibilities, even in its potential impossibility, for poems today? But. The response should not be long, you suggest. So I’ll select another phrase for beginning, one that’s a bit more concentrated, an expression in Quechua that appears in more than one passage from Poetry After the Invention of America. It is: Imanatátaj watusúnchij kay wátuy mana atinata, which I take to mean: ¿cómo vamos a traducir lo imposible—de traducir?, and which Michelle Gil-Montero translucinates as: How do we translate what is impossible—to translate?[3] “How,” in effect: “how” “watusúnchij” (will we translate, understand, divine or write— since it’s not about knowledge here, you have to know it without knowing the whole; let’s see: cognition is not the key term here, but something that precedes the marking or re-marking of fate, a spirited response to some destiny or some unfixed destination along the path, a question—for example, your question— which is the thing that the Quechua [word] wátuy emphasizes in its own way).

Is that really a “paradox”? Or does it speak instead to the most extraordinarily everyday experience, that of the overwhelming, of the more-than-one voice or appeal in play, the more-than-one language and the “double bind” if you will, of the thing in which we’re immersed from the start? (I believe that Erín-and-Forrest avoid the word “paradox” in the preface to Poetry After the Invention of America, and furthermore I’d also want to pause and give more attention to what they “do” there as a team with those grim sentences signed with my name...). But. This is getting too long. I would have liked to recall that Imanatátaj watusúnchij ... is already registered in Poesía en pampa, a textile that periodically draws from The Meridian by P. Celan, that is to say, [t]his—in his words—“impossible road, this road of impossibility”: diesen unmöglichen Weg, diesen Weg des Unmöglichen...§[4] But. Regarding the wátuy and its occasional occurrence in the puna (Andean highlands), there where even the heavens se apunan (suffer from the illness or ecstasy of altitude, alias soroche), I refer to this passage from Trilce as a provisional conclusion:

Cielos de puna descorazonada

por gran amor, los cielos de platino, torvos
de imposible.[5]

How does Clayton Eshleman translate this? Michael Smith and Valentino Gianuzzi? Rebecca Seiferle and Dave Smith? And...?

KJ: Speaking of impossible things that are somehow made possible, you mentioned Michelle Gil-Montero’s tour de force translation of Poetry After the Invention of America. Your essays in the book (and elsewhere) are often markedly idiosyncratic in their language and modes of proceeding—conceptually challenging, linguistically cross-dressed, sometimes labyrinthine in their topical unfolding, as if you’re out to dismantle and rearrange standard structures of the form from within. I wanted to ask: What about genre? What place does genre have in your larger poetics? Do you see your “essays” as one kind of writing and your “poetry” as another? Or do you reject such distinctions? In either case (if there would be an “either”), please explain.

AA: Generosity of the genres, on the one hand; there are genres, of course there are, more than one, of all kinds (and in Spanish, remember, “genre” and “gender” are named with the same name: “género”), with their shifting laws, clauses and borders; and furthermore some are more resisted or oppressed than others. On the other hand, isn’t there, in writings not completely amputated from the play of destinies and destinations, always an implicit attempt to declare the unique thing performatively, a thing that is irreducibly singular (that never simply gives itself up, but always strikes or engages as a constellation or a knot)? And is there not an attempt to say it in turn in a singular way, within or beyond whatever genre, type or kind of speech, through that very “plural singular” as it is happening? If there is a plural singular, doesn’t that also involve monster-writings every time? But. Of course. Absolute monstrosity (or language) does not exist, it “can’t” exist, or at any rate it would be absolutely unspeakable, illegible, inaudible, untranslatable, etcetera. Well, with less or more violence, there’s always the effect of the mark, of domestication and/or classification of genres, on a case-by-case basis... In sum: what is more interesting (to me) is a general and generic suspension, exceptional strength in writing, attention to the plural singular engaging us, rather than the stage of its arrival in the conceptual home or the house of Being or that of genre. Yes, Erín and Forrest in the preface to that book, and you in your own way, emphasize it when underlining the “idiosyncratic” element in play: It is—before all else—an exploration and an opening.


KJ: You know, regarding the notion of a “civilizing vanguard,” we have this proclivity in the U S., it’s something like a reflex assumption among even the most “progressive,” where we tend to think we’re the leading edge of most things. Not least in the arts and poetry. I’m just barely exaggerating. You might call it the imperialist hubris effect... How much attention do Latin American poets working in the tradition of experiment give to, say, Language poetry and what’s evolved out of it in the past fifteen or twenty years? That’s “our” latest vanguardia in the U.S. Or I could more specifically ask: What do you think about this work, if anything? You’re influenced by recent Continental theory, as the Language poets certainly were, so I thought I would ask. We’ve only begun to pay attention to you folks down south; have you been paying more attention to us up here?

AA: Latin American poets? And what if “Latin American poets” were yet another production made increasingly necessary or desirable by the gringamen (the point at which gringoism and the Christian “amen” meet, but also where gringoism and “the game” meet, etc.)? That is, what if this were an economic (and also rather) violent way to create unity out of this southern mare magnum (that is, the superabundance of the southern other vis-à-vis the gringamen)? Of course, this is done every day and will probably be done even more in years to come... In the face of this phenomenon, “the project of America—of Americas—” (I’m quoting from “Our Americas: New Worlds Still in Progress,” by Charles Bernstein) appears to be more welcoming and at the same time more violent.**[6] A more welcoming appearance because at its point of entry it invites (us) into the Americas, “an imaginary cultural space whose mutant and multiform manifestation are as evanescent as the last breaths of a dying tongue.” And at the same time more violent insofar as it never makes clear what one would do with that “imaginary cultural espace,” one space, other than maybe creating the imaginary projection of a one-subjectivity, which in the end subsumes or overcomes all fissures and pluralities, all their mutations and multiformities...††[7] Still in Progress! “Our Americas,” Bernstein’s essay, simultaneously echoes and reinscribes an appeal for “Our America” made by Martí-Darío-Mistral, etc.— that is, by Latin American poets who tried to mark the difference between “our America” and the so-called “Anglo-Saxon” America, and proverbially the difference from “America” understood as the U.S.A., the forceful power.‡‡[8] All told, the appeal to a politics of identity (“our” America) is very different in the case of someone who is at a marked disadvantage in terms of power and who needs as a result to build, at all costs and in a more or less disciplined way, their “internal” cohesion, from the case of a dominant power. Even Bush (both father and son) invoked the space of the Americas when seeking advances in free-trade agreements... Not to mention yet again the sadly controversial “Escuela de las Américas” (the United States Army School of the Americas), set up in Panama to train the torturers used by the dictatorships of the sixties and the seventies... ! And what about Mandorla, you’re going to ask?§§[9] Mandorla—a small but significant detail, based on what I’ve seen of their project—never assumes one space or one writing, but more than one, speaking of a relationship between writings, among the Américas...

Be that as it may, the attempt at reinscribing Martí’s call through Bernstein, the echo of Martí reverberating in Bernstein’s ears, is also the echo of Martí reverberating in Jerome Rothenberg’s tympani.¶¶[10] So by mentioning Shaking the Pumpkin: Traditional Poetry of the Indian North Americas as a precursor to his own proposition, Bernstein highlights an anticipation: Rothenberg “here echoes the sentiments of José Martí in ‘Our America’ eighty years earlier.” Then he quotes the following, extremely debatable passage from Shaking the Pumpkin: “The history of America, from the Incas to the present, must be taught in its smallest details, even if the Greek Archons go untaught. Our own Greece is preferable to the Greece that is not ours; we need it more.” (My emphasis.)

Extremely debatable for many reasons. One that arises immediately: if that which belongs to us—“that which is ours”—is already decided or resolved at the outset (our Greece, versus the Greece that is not ours or even the other Greece or the Greece belonging to others; Greece at any rate), what opportunity remains other than the one already determined by the fate and/or the decision implicit in “that which is ours”? (Which does not preclude writing, always performatively, unique stories about that which is uniquely ours, about the unique instance, about singularities of all kinds, even, if you so desire, a story running from Manco Cápac to the present.)***[11] In other words, if we begin from the outset with an “ours” that has been preconfirmed (in references, identifications, clauses, dispatches, etc.), what happens to the improbable possibility of an encounter not only with ourselves but also with the others who inhabit our collective selves? Does “Our Americas” reinstate the most classical (most sovereign and onto-theological) “poetic” tradition...? To put it another way: isn’t “America” a European invention anyway? (And I do not refer just to the name of the thing but to the very thing that is imagined, insofar as “name” and “thing” can be categorically distinguished.) Sticking for the moment with the Incan example advanced by Rothenberg, doesn’t translating Pacha (space-time-world, etc.) or Tawantinsuyu (four-parted, four mutually implicated zones) as “América” worsen the easy assimilation of the differences in play? (Neruda, apparently aware of the dilemma, speaks in the first lines of his Canto general of “my land without a name, without America” (“tierra mía sin nombre, sin América”). The same goes for hasty translations of arawiku as “poet” and amawta as “philosopher,” which El Inca Garcilaso de la Vega proposed in a progressive gesture as early as 1609, in his Royal Commentaries.†††[12]

KJ: Tweaking a bit this complication of identity, nationhood, location, “cultural place,” and its repercussions: In a recent interview conducted by Forrest Gander, Raúl Zurita, one of the great poets of Chile, states that nationality in Latin America importantly inflects poetic production.‡‡‡[13] He speaks of Neruda’s works as marked by his national “place,” and Vallejo’s as shaped, in turn, by his different national roots. Zurita says, literally, that Neruda is one species of writer because he is from Chile, and that Vallejo is a very different kind of writer because he is from Peru. It’s a recorded interview, and I suspect Zurita might well expand and refine his formulation if given the opportunity. But I believe you would quarrel with how he frames the distinctions there, inasmuch as he gives emphasis to the category of nationality and seems to link it, however roughly, to poetic type and identity? Indeed, you’ve spoken of yourself as an Andean poet, rather than a “Chilean” one, and your critical work—including the thrust of much of your recent book of essays—moves in the direction of deconstructing national categories. Is the notion of a national literature to be dispensed with altogether? If so, what should take its place when we talk of, well, a poet’s place? We were both at a conference a few years ago that focused on this theme. And I remember your talk raised a ruckus, with some younger poets yelling in interruption throughout...

AA: Andean poet? In what place... have I spoken of myself in such terms? Such a place, I think, is still vacant. However. If someone—you, for example—wants to label me an “Andean poet,” I receive it as a present, as a present impression of X (myself). This would probably lead me to wonder what is at stake in such a label or even—no pressure now—to question whether or not such a label is not perhaps “a misprint,” like when Forrest notes ex post in the Preface he co-wrote with Erin: there where it should say writing from the Andrés there is in fact a misprint, an unexpected gift, from the Andes. As the author of the prologue to The Life of the Tomcat Murr says, it is also true that writers often owe their most daring thoughts [ihre kühnsten Gedanken], the most extraordinary twists, to their good typographers (or editors), who, through gazapos (Druckfehler: misprints), as they have come to be called, contribute to the elevation of ideas...§§§[14]

That said, let me say something else (picking up Antología de poesía brasilera, perpetually forthcoming):

Is there anything more stupid than an anthology
of national poetry? Is there

any way to delimit my body, a select body

without surrendering to the desire

for nationstate domination and, at the same time,
for imperious, imperial devastation? How to avoid
being sent to the crypt of popular bureaucracy (birth
certificates, passports, ID cards) and at the same time
to the planetary technothingy, to total erasure?
and if my body were not given over

to any civil inscription

but instead to the very thing

that is the nation, what would that be? What would

brazilianness in poetry be, Cintio? Brasilien: Ein Land der Zukunft?¶¶¶[15]
Tristes tropiques? Warhaftige Historia

und beschreibung eyner Landtschafft

der Wilden Nacketen Grimmigen Menschfresser-Leuthen
in der Newenwelt America?

and what if romanticism itself (the German kind)
would nourish the belief in the poetic

essence of every people, of every nation

even if one were foreign
to the flame of History

orchestrated to the rhythm of ein Volk,

ein Reich, ein Führer—ein Rhein?

¿is there anything more idiotic than an anthology of national poetry?


In other words, yes: in “Latin America,” and not only there, but also definitely in Europe and, more broadly speaking, in what we could still call the “West,” literature will apparently have been a thing of the nation, of the nation-state: Spanish literature, French literature, English literature, etc. Nothing more natural than the institution of the nation determining what literature is! Nothing more normal! So if we add to this the (more or less romantic) ideologeme of “to each nation, her poetry,” then (historical) reason becomes tautological, and the place of the writer is predetermined as his or her nation, his or her nation-state. And thus the norm is to come across anthologies of poetry categorized by nation, or by nation-state, which thus makes poetic writing come to depend on and be subsumed by the writing of the institutions of the nation-state. As for what we call “Latin America” (although [...] this name is not at all natural either and there are millions of “Latin Americans,” especially indigenous ones, who do not identify at all with the label), it will become clear that the construction of nation-state literatures has been part and parcel of the process of socio-cultural and linguistic homogenization, benefiting Castilian Spanish and Portuguese; that is, operations to extirpate non-Western alterities efficiently. Such republican machinations, we will realize, have been even more devastating than those of the colonial period. Speakers of Aymara, for instance, will see that not only were they suddenly divided into three “nations” (Peru, Bolivia, Chile), they were also violently “invited” to adopt a foreign language, in this case, Spanish, the “national” language. I would not, by the way, counter this reasoning of state, of nation-state, with a universal or cosmopolitan reasoning or with an ethnic or more local reasoning either; I would not counter it with anything from any predetermined place. Any opposition would only reinforce the machination here.

Nevertheless, to say it as Celan might have said it, each poem re-seeds the mystery of the encounter with the memory of what is there, the data (Daten), at once the data from which we write and to which we write ourselves. Is Celan a “Romanian” poet, a “French” or “German” poet? (The national or nation- state categories collapse in this case, as in many others.) It is precisely Celan who intervenes in the German language (and not territorial limits or the limits of German or national or nation-state geopolitics) as the site of interrogation because it is an open place, a place at which to arrive, a place to inhabit. Language-to-come—Celan’s German is not only the language he inherited. It is, above all else, the German he wrote poetically.

Obviously, it does matter where one is born and where one dies. But neither the here nor the there is easily confused with the national or the nation-state. Not even Neruda falls for it: by the time he was thirty, he was committed to an inter-national popular poetics, and he writes Canto general, not a canto for Chile, as was his original intention. This would not impede him, of course, from exercising his rights as a citizen and getting himself elected to the Senate of the Republic, and later running for president.****[16] It’s Nicanor, if you want to stay on the horizon of the nation-state, who, in opposition to Nerudian internationalism (but at the end of the day making it into a mimetic system), begins to bring up, at first half jokingly, half seriously, the topic of “Chilean poetry” and the “Chilean poet.”††††[17] This tendency that will become more severe in the aftermath of September 11. 1973 [...].‡‡‡‡[18]

KJ: You are very much involved with the most innovative poetic currents in Latin America, if you’ll allow me the term. And the “vanguardia” tradition has long been a centripetal force in the history of Latin American poetry. Some of the Latin American avant-garde figures have been widely translated and are well-known, even canonical figures now, on an international level. Is there today in Chile and Latin America what you would call an “avant-garde,” poetic movements beyond the official, institutional margins? Or has the “vanguard” by now become, as it more or less has in the United States and Europe, “domesticated”: institutionalized and legitimated into a literary party that has pretty much made its peace with the Academy and High Culture? So, is the vanguardist idea still relevant to current Latin American poets? And if so, where could we be looking to find the most vibrant examples of the radical and New in Latin American poetry? Could you name some poets, groups, journals, publishing houses of importance in this regard?

AA: Yes, yes: name names and even anonymous (names), for sure, if the vanguardist idea is still relevant to current Latin American poets. Is it still? Before I begin to answer that question—which is totally relevant, even if identifying the vanguardist “idea” could be an exercise in the spectral—we would have to begin by canceling the notion of the “native informant.” It’s so ethno- logical or what some have called ethnopoetic: it posits a cultural configuration, usually exotic and remote, from which someone who has privileged access because they are a part of it could offer a faithful account... But apart from the notion that someone who is part of a totality would be equipped to speak of the totality, or to speak faithfully, accurately, seems already problematic, things get even more complicated when we ask about the place in question, in this case, “Latin America.” The “idea” and the very name Latin America are a recent invention, from the middle of the nineteenth century. It only came to be consecrated at an international level when it entered into the geopolitics of the United Nations, after World War II: the UN calls everything on the so-called American continent that’s not the US or Canada Latin America and the Caribbean. So there you have it: Latin America, from its beginnings, is not so much a geographic or geopolitical descriptor as it is a modern “cultural” project, one that seeks to rid itself of any reference to the Hispanic matrix dominant until the beginning of the nineteenth century (West Indies, Spanish America, or, later, Hispanic America), as well as any Anglo-Saxon influence (America, in the US sense of the word).

So “Latin American poets” are inscribed in and respond to that project, that mold. In 1905 Rubén Darío speaks, in explicit counterpoint to the United States, of the (Latin) America que tiene sangre indígena, / que aún reza a Jesucristo y aún habla en español (who has indigenous blood / who still prays to Jesus Christ and speaks in Spanish, from the poem “To Roosevelt”). Beyond all its modulations and varieties, that which is “Latin” in Latin America has been defined by the Spanish language, or in the best of cases, by Spanish and Portuguese ... in “American” lands. Even authors who are recent and as wildly engaged as Patricio Marchant (1939-1990), an early translator of Derrida and in his way Heidegger, has stated that Latin America “speaks to itself” in Spanish—a Latin American Spanish, one that is distinct, and not just linguistically, from Peninsular Spanish—as he believes he sees in poetry by Pablo Neruda and Gabriela Mistral (cf. Escritura y temblor, published posthumously in 2001).§§§§[19] That is to say, even recognizing that in some cases there is “indigenous blood,” the “idea” and projection of Latin America have reinforced not just an erasure but the frank expulsion of “indigenous languages,” of their writings in the broadest sense, and along with them “Afro-American” writings and traditions. This complication becomes quite complex in speaking today about Latin America or “Latin American poetry.” Among others, Silviano Santiago has emphasized the continuity of this scenario with the violence of the Conquest: “Evitar o bilingüismo [el más de una lengua], significa evitar o pluralismo religioso e significa também impor o poder colonialista. Na álgebra do conquistador, a unidade é a única medida que conta. Um só Deus, um só Rei, uma só Língua: o verdadeiro Deus, o verdadeiro Rei, a verdadeira Língua” (from Uma literatura nos trópicos, 1978).¶¶¶¶[20]

This “is” and “has been” Latin America. Maybe there’s another Latin America yet to come—and/or other names and writings, from this point forward. To put it briefly: the newest thing in “Latin American” writing right now, today, may be the oldest: the text known as the “Huarochirí Manuscript” (a text in Quechua by an anonymous author, circa 1600), the Primer nueva corónica by Guamán Poma de Ayala (1615), the Relación de antigüedades by Pachakuti Yamqui Salqamaywa (circa 1600), and the Atau Wallpaj p’uchukakuyninpa wankan (anonymous, in Quechua, undated), to name just a few and focus only on the Andean region.*****[21] That is, texts sealed off for centuries by the imperial and civilizing project (including its modern, progressive phase, its avant-garde), which began to be “discovered,” read and appreciated recently, in the twentieth century. Probably the so-called Latin American or South American avant- garde, with few exceptions (Gamaliel Churata in Puno, La Paz and Potosí; and J. M. Arguedas in Abancay and Lima, among others), never even learned they existed.†††††[22] Neruda, Borges, Huidobro and Vallejo wouldn’t even have read them (many of these texts were only published in the second half of the twentieth century). Nor would Gabriela Mistral, Guimarães Rosa or Jaime Saenz, though it’s hard to group them with the avant-garde writers.‡‡‡‡‡[23] Not even Nicanor Parra, who had more affinities with Shakespeare (he did a beautiful translation of King Lear, quite a bit better than Neruda’s bland translations of Shakespeare; see his Romeo y Julieta), took any interest in those writings deemed “anomalous,” sometimes unclassifiable, in non-European languages and/or more than one language, or in monstrously impossible languages, where the aporias of translation become patently obvious with every turn of phrase... It’s not about “naturally” reiterating the ideographeme for the noble savage, or the one for the basic mystification of otherness, nor is it about postulating an ideological postcolonialism, or simply tossing the imprint of (Western) literary tradition overboard, or even attempting some kind of “fuite en arrière” in the face of the most evident interpellations (sociological, technological and ecological for example) of the “present.” It’s just about writing, about responding or allowing it to correspond to that which touches (us)—and the event, as emphasized in a passage in Poetry After the Invention of America—it specifically says that: an event unfolds at the outset, delivered with clarity, a/con/tingire, with roots i.e. tag-, in “touching,” “contact;” in ‘tocar,’ ‘con-tactar’: lo que toca, that which touches in luck or grace).

One last word before I put a temporary stop to this type of response, which is already running over length. Sometimes, just sometimes, I think that the native informant whom you occasionally believe you see in me is less interested in exploring or intervening in a “radical,” “new,” or “experimental” Latin American writing than in a writing that is a secas American (or better said, American). A secas American, or American pure and simple, with all of the inadministrability created by the expression “American writings.” For the moment, American writings can refer to the non-Western writings registered or now being registered by these places (even maintaining, then, a link between writing and territory, a geo-graphy as definite as it is indefinite), like the Nahuatl writings of Nezahualcóyotl, prince of Texcoco; or the stone inscription at Tiwanaku or Machu Picchu; or the kuel or Mapuche mounds.§§§§§[24] But American writings can also refer to something you’ve already glimpsed: “american writings,” by which I mean writings (poetic or not) from the United States, whether provincial or global or traveling through the routes of globalization, more or less self- projective and/or imperial, and for this reason they should leave no inhabitant of the aforementioned globe indifferent. As you’ll understand, these two references seem incompatible—the (American) non-Western mode and the (American) dominant Western mode—and yet, perhaps, and I would highlight that perhaps, at least up to a certain point, the two may co-pertain. And there’s at least one more way to refer to escrituras americanas that I’d like to explore: the one that doesn’t lose sight of the figure of the explorer, the exploratory writings of Americo Vespucci and his legacy, so a legacy in Italian in which the entire Latin legacy returns in a specific way, and maybe the incipient form of something called “Latinworldization,” including “Latin America”—highlighting the point that the much-trumpeted globalization is not and never will have been one.¶¶¶¶¶[25] It’s never unique or total; it has always been a shared phenomenon, more than one. On a related note, the “US-Americanization” of the world, in plain sight, can’t be confused with its “Northamericanization.” Some of the most daring and perhaps most decisive “North American” poems being written right now are being written in... Galician, too. Have you read Erin’s O Cadoiro?

KJ: Yes, I have. She’s amazing... So you’re not proposing any sense of a revised “Ethnopoetics,” or at least not as the concept tends to be bandied about in the North. You’ve mentioned Jerome Rothenberg. In fact, he recently spent some time in Chile with Parra and Zurita [. . .] So we have “our” notion of Ethnopoetics already, and I wonder if you could talk some more about that project, in regards its values and assumptions, and inasmuch as its place of origin, if you’ll pardon that fraught term, is in Empire. I’m not sure I’m making sense. But this stuff regarding translation and the “other” can get complicated! Let me put it this way: How would you feel about getting Ethnopoeticized in an anthology up here? I don’t ask the question lightly, for your work is, to some important extent, about putting US under the ethnographic scope. But nothing can stop US from doing it to you, and I’m sure we will. We’ve already begun...

AA: In the sense of an Ethnopetics? No, not exactly. There are no ethnopoetic (traditions), there is no ethnically cloistered poem (maybe there’s ethnoliterature, cf. Bloom and his “Western canon,” maybe; but not ethno-poetics); if there’s a poem, there’s an interruption in belongings (ethnic ones, among others), a deferral of all illusions of propriety. You can read it, singularly pronounced, certainly, in Celan’s The Meridian. Of course, I’m familiar with a few texts by Jerome Rothenberg; and in spite of the fact that I don’t speak English veramente, I did an “overlapping” version of one of his textiles, “Cokboy” (which is, among other things, the story of a Jew in the Far West who doesn’t speak English):

Rocín montado vine a dar

marrán inter indieras

qué estoy faciendo en tan estrannio sitio

con tal estrannia gente con t al es t r annios ojo s...******[26]

When Rothenberg was in Santiago de Chile a few years ago, he was kind enough to visit me in the company of Cecilia Vicuña.††††††[27] [. . .] A few weeks later we read our poetry together in Buenos Aires, with Reynaldo Jiménez.‡‡‡‡‡‡[28] But when we speak explicitly of “ethnopoetics,” or more specifically, when I tried to do so with him, the effort was suddenly unsuccessful. So pas de ethnopoétique, now. Which obviously doesn’t mean that the major hallmarks of belonging of all sorts (ethnicity, genre, nation-state, etc.) might not potentially be relevant for every poem on every occasion...

KJ: Andrés, I have to ask you about this “poesía a secas.” By the phrase—and your highlighting of lo novedoso in colonial-era indigenous texts seems to hint at it—do you mean that poetic value has little to do with aesthetic “progress”? That the teleological vision of “advance” fueling the avant-garde idea (“You can’t say it that way anymore”) is chimerical? Because that teleological sense sure lurks here, en nuestro clima...

AA: “Poetic value”? Has little or nothing to do with aesthetic “progress”? Little or nothing, or, to the contrary, everything (if we are not interrogating something like the idea or theory of value in poetry); nothing that stands out or ruptures, or is really decisive—and it ought to be unnecessary to refer again here to Celan’s The Meridian or Derrida’s Shibboleth or even less to the thought regarding Dichtung in Heidegger (cf. “Progreso, regreso y a otro hueso”, in Poetry After the Invention of America). That said, is the “avant-garde”—the modern, si prefieres—expression an homogeneous (te(le)ological) expression? Only if we reduce the avant-garde effort to a mere idea or theory, erasing its writing with a stroke of the pen... Trilce and Katatay (Arguedas) and even the Atau Wallpaj p’uchukakuyninpa wankan, indispensable writings today, among others, and at the same time writings unthinkable without their brush against “avant-garde expression,” were no mere ideas, theories, chimeras...

KJ: Two poets for whom I’ve had some fascination, both Chilean, major figures in Latin American poetry, but both so far virtually unknown here: the endlessly mysterious Omar Cáceres, murdered in 1936, who may or may not have been a stand-in for Vicente Huidobro, or Pablo de Rokha, or for both.§§§§§§[29] But that’s a longer story. I want to ask you about the other one, the legendary Juan Luis Martínez, who died just a couple of decades ago, renowned now as one of the great avant-garde figures of the Southern Cone.¶¶¶¶¶¶[30] What about him, his place and importance, to you and recent others? His most famous, or infamous work, “La poesía chilena,” whether a poem or a book or a sculpture or an urn, I’m not sure what to call it, was some kind of large box filled with dirt, in which was buried all manner of curio and detritus? It caused something of a commotion down there, as I understand.

AA: ¿What about..., dices? Martínez, as you may know, published La nueva novela (1977, 1985) and La poesía chilena (1978) while he was alive, both self- published, or more specifically under an imprimatur he created himself, “Archivo” (“Archive”) due to rejection by the established publishing houses of the day. Scattered texts and drafts edited by third parties have appeared posthumously, discursive and also predominantly visual: Poemas del otro (2003) and Aproximación del Principio de Incertidumbre a un proyecto poético (2010). La poesía chilena, or Chilean Poetry, is a type of small box evoking a coffin, containing a series of pages and items (including a tiny bag reading “earth from Chile’s Central Valley”) and a group of official death certificates for Gabriela Mistral, Pablo Neruda, Pablo de Rokha and Vicente Huidobro, as well as one for his own father, Luis G. Martínez Villablanca. Due to his destabilization of the preeminent subject (lyric or not, parodic or not, etc.) so present in the four poets who appear in his necroanthology, his writing eludes the “modern tradition” (Octavio Paz).*******[31] Due to his lack of connection or attention to non-Western American traditions of writing, he perpetuates the cloistering of certain modern Latin American poetries. It’s very possible that he never even heard of the monstrous work of Guamán Poma de Ayala, one of the earliest and most significant Quechua “visual poets” (but this can’t be confirmed: I only became “acquainted” with Juan Luis Martínez on the day of his funeral, in the cemetery on Prison Hill in Valparaíso). And yes, from beginning to end, from La nueva novela to Aproximación del Principio de Incertidumbre, Arthur Rimbaud figures as the poet’s figure (not that of the self, then, who has vanished in the meantime, but the figure itself: it [re]names but is also a drawing, a contour, an outline) through a figure of speech, antonomasia. It goes without saying that so far no passage of Chilean Poetry has been included in any anthology of “Chilean Poetry,” since it’s deemed ineffective, a situation so unjust that it’s laughable.

KJ: Martínez’s box makes me think of the latest au courant thing here, which goes by the name of Conceptual Poetry—I mean in that Martínez reminds me how “post” U.S. notions of poetic conceptualism really are. Anyway, you referred earlier to Darío and Huidobro... You know, Bolaño has a kind of thought experiment in Amulet, where via his Uruguayan protagonist, Auxilio Lacouture, he/she wonders what would have happened to the Vanguardia if Darío had lived long enough for Huidobro to have known him, as Pound knew Yeats. I don’t know if you want to comment on that: It might have made the Latin American avant-garde, what, more “classical”? Anyway, I am going to press you on my earlier question. Who are some “current” writers, let’s say living and untranslated, to give a frame, who interest you most right now in Latin America? To frame it down even a bit more for our “foreign” convenience: If you were to write down a dozen names of living, untranslated poets who you feel must be translated now into English, what would your list be? Here is my understanding in asking the question: If I asked you again, you’d probably give me a different list! I know that the request puts you on the spot. Very well, then (as Whitman somewhat put it), my question puts you on the spot. But we have hunger here, and we are more or less lost. Please just make a first pointing. Translators are listening. Una lista nos lleva a otras...

AA: Why insist on the “living” and untranslated poets? And above all how do we understand, how do we translate “poetas vivos”? As “living poets” in the sense of poets who are alive? Or “vivos” in the sense of a keen wakefulness, a rogue awareness? Of what liveliness or vividness are we speaking...? Weren’t you the one who, confronted with the decision of Rothenberg & Joris to leave the Yasusada poems out of Poems for the Millennium after they learned there had never been a “living” Araki Yasusada, launched the question (in so many words) about whether they were making decisions according to poems or biographies? Anyway, let’s attempt a list of some living men and women who aren’t exactly, all told, “from Latin America”—instead, slightly displaced, “from Ladinoamérica, alias Ladino America.” Many have written about the notion of a Ladino America (Pablo Oyarzún, a luxuriously skillful writer, and Germán Arciniegas among others); within that idea at least three strands lace together, though never completely: the Ladino as exposure to more than one language and to the events of translation (Ladino was a synonym for translator, at the Castilian / Moorish border); the Ladino then as more or less astute and somewhat slippery (precisely because of this “motion” between tongues); the Ladino, finally, as one who characterizes the condition of the recent writer (and so since the Conquest, you hear of “Ladino Indians,” indicating those who had learned to read and write, speaking in terms of literacy).

As you see, the notion and/or name of América Ladina or Ladinoamerica does not have a territorial or institutional anchor (but for the features of language); it’s also not imagined in opposition to an Anglo-Saxon America, which was the case from the very beginning with the term “Latin America.” Some will say that this (Ladina) America does not exist. But in fact there are a variety of Ladinoamerican poets who have already been mentioned in our conversation. Naturally you head up the list, particularly with the poem “Mission” from Lyric Poetry after Auschwitz (and, of course, with your copyright of Doubled Flowering), along with Jerome Rothenberg, here for “Cokboy” and, of course, for his pluritranslational passion. Before you I had also mentioned O Cadoiro by Erin Mouré, and now I must not fail to mention her Little Theatres, especially the section entitled “The first story of Latin (os araos)”: “I only speak latin.”

As an example:

para mí tu lengua es casi como latín,
has hombro y sombra

tan símil 

en mi latín es shoulder y shadow
¿puedes entrever cómo opera?

estoy por aprender tu lengua

miolo y ollo

miga y ojo

uy, mejor me voy con calma

antes que se me le escurra como auga

ollomol moi mollado
oficio fio dos fieis
(“Mergullada,” my translucine)

[“Mergullada”: To me your language is so like Latin, / you have ombro and sombra / how similar / / in my latin it’s shoulder and shadow / can you see it’s working? / / I’m soon going to learn your language / miolo and ollo / marrow and eye / / Ho! I’d better learn it quickly / before it moves on like water / / ollomol moi mollado / oficio fio dos fieis / afiador (Toronto: House of Anansi, 2007)]†††††††[32]

I could also talk about the very Ladinoamericano poem “The Tinajera Notebooks,” by Forrest Gander. Or even Michael Palmer’s “Wittgenstein”! If we season it with Wilson Bueno’s Mar paraguayo (a tremendously vivid poet, murdered a few years ago in his home in Curitiba, Paraná, Brazil); with “Alcoólicas” by Hilda Hilst, a hallucinogenic poet who also passed away recently; and with Bustriazo Ortíz in person (probably the Ladinoamerican poet par excellence, recently deceased in Santa Rosa de La Pampa, Argen- tina).‡‡‡‡‡‡‡[33] Add, to taste, a few pinches of la eme, a collection by Guillermo Daghero; of Nada de nadie, by Silvia Guerra; of La bandera de Chile and Tatuaje, by Elvira Hernández and Marina Arrate respectively; of Plexo, by Reynaldo Jiménez; of El cóncavo privilegio de la desmemoria, by Cé Mendizábal; of Centopéia, by Glauco Mattoso; of Susy Delgado’s crystalline Guaraní; of Jaguar azul by Jorge Campero; of the Paqhar Kirki, t’ikhatakiy, by Elvira Espejo (in Quechua and Aymara); and/or of Cythna en red by Román Antopolsky... (I’m aware that Leonel Lienlaf, Juan Luis Huenún, Graciela Huinao, Elikura Chihueilaf, Odi González, Juan Antonio Mazotti and Régis Bonvicino have all now been partially translated into English; also Raúl Zurita, Washington Cucurto, Cecilia Vicuña, José Kozer, Paulo Leminski and Juan Luis Martínez himself). Even so the list will never be fully listed, of course, because it’s not representative of Ladinoamerican writing, just as a set of craters does not represent the surface of the moon, nor do distant stars represent the light of the firmament on a moonless night. If to this situation we add the enormous “matter” of anonymity and/or the effects of actions rendering voices anonymous (which is the case of the Atau Wallpaj p’uchukakuyninpa wankan, as we’ve recalled, and not just a “motif” out of Mallarmé), whether this involves the text or its author, it’s not entirely improbable that the unnamed names on that list will be emphasized in an ever more explicit fashion.

And how could I leave out the very Ladino Lautréamont, whose Cantos de Maldoror arrive with periodic interception from the syntax of a River-Plate Spanish? Or Garde-manche hypocrite, by the very beloved and slippery Philippe Beck, the neighbor from Nantes, or the Cinepoèmes by Pierre Alferi and the Hordas de escritura by Lalín’s neighbor Chus Pato? That said, if the poets mentioned here could legitimately be considered experimental writers, insofar as their translucines and poems are open to that which touches (them/us), they are not experimental as per the banners usually raised: formalisms of all sorts or a fascination with oldnew techniques and technologies as such.

KJ: Some of these names are unfamiliar, and I like to think of myself as relatively in tune with new poetries down your way. But Jiménez, Daghero, Delgado, Antopolsky: time to entablar some serious work on them, for sure. It’s good to see the great Guerra brilliantly rendered lately by Gillian Brassil and Alex Verdolini.

Let’s see: You know that I grew up in Latin America, went back to work there three times, twice as a literacy teacher with the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, did a book in translation on the Talleres de Poesia, and published a series of interviews with FSLN leaders, in the now-defunct Mexican daily uno más uno, on the topic of revolutionary culture, one of which (with Ernesto Cardenal) made Octavio Paz blow his top, thus sparking a big debate about the politics of culture in the Sandinista revolution. So I have an interest in that topic and wanted to ask you about “political poetry,” which in Latin America has a big, heavy legacy. Apologies for the impossible question, but where do you stand on the matter of poesía comprometida—Cardenal, Dalton, or Neruda, for notable exemplars. Could you, under particular circumstances, see yourself writing such directly referential, populist verse?§§§§§§§[34]

AA: Hey, sometimes you’re like the popes, asking for one big pardon after another (Galileo, pedophilia, etcetera) and along the way you somehow, ironically, manage to get something out of it. That said, in contrast to what Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe might have written in La poésie comme expérience, I sense that Celan never ever expected that Heidegger would ask for forgiveness for his circumstantial collusion with National Socialism.¶¶¶¶¶¶¶[35] Poetry and politics, you say? But when is it not? And every time at play “in” the poem! Which, again, implies that one cannot reduce politics or politicalness (of being, of acting, of readwriting, etc.) only or in a privileged way to the nation or the nation-state (or its global counterpart) nor can the differential politicalness of these “scenes” be negated in one fell swoop. That is to say—and you can calibrate how “referential” or “populist” this passage from Æ sounds (to you)—with a pinch of jaqui aru alias Aymara language:

yaqha layqa phichhitanka********[36]

violeta parra manuscripted in bolivia 
gracias a la vida—the year sixty six 
to mark her territory, so no

chick would steal her gringo favre

and among the crowd the man I love 
and the sweet voice of my dearlyloved 
and your house, your street, your patio 
when i look into your blue eyes

in the peña nayra violeta parra wrote

gracias a la vida—the year sixty-six
and from la paz she brought her tigre revolver 
that ended it all one evening at six

how to return from la paz and not obliterate?
how to not return to chuquiyapu marka?
how to not tame the tiger or mark
territories and live to sing about it?

your canto, layqa phichhitanka

is it the same canto? kunats larch’ukista 
and everyone’s canto, mälurawix tu- 
putaw, which is my own canto, sasaw si?
to keep on translatin’, to keep findin’ the heart
of the fruit that came first: a zampoña player de marka 
from la carpa de la reina in the sixties
testifies that when someone called she would respond
sea for bolivia, hay sí, violeta parra††††††††[37]
gracias a la vida, layqa phichhitanka
layqa phichhitanka, kunats larch’ukista

KJ: Ha! I love saying perdón. It’s an affectation that no doubt comes from a long career in poetry of having lots to be sorry about. So I apologize for asking forgiveness so much in this interview, my dear Ajens. And that poem, with the Parra masterpiece behind, holy cow... The thing is, I think you’re dodging my question a bit. Let me put it this way: Let’s say there’s something akin to another 1973 situation in Chile, and I see things are beginning to “hop” a bit down your way in that regard.‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡[38] What’s an “avant” poet to do, poetically speaking, cuando las cosas se calientan?

AA: Let’s allow for other tones, other names... The thing is, this figure of the “avant poet” or the experimental poet (with the pertinent saving graces: openness to the happening mentality, to those who play [us], to the “monster” if you will, with which even those Provençal poets would scarcely have seemed more experimental than many of those who stand on their soap box today insofar as they are experimental) seems... not quite right. Let’s speak instead of escritores/as a secas. (How do you translucinate a secas?).§§§§§§§§[39] When things heat up... But aren’t things, insofar as we keep the door open to what belongs (to us), aren’t things each in their own way “calientes”? So: what’s a writer a secas to do, poetically speaking, when things heat up? Just go off and fuck, as I hear some Quixotic precursor in me say? But, sure, to evoke that data that is “1973” in Chile, you seem to want to highlight something like a historical fever, a historical monstrosity. Without reopening for now the huge question of the relation between writing a secas and History (if one founds the other or is a tributary of it, etc.) and without forgetting, either, that there is no possible prescription for the singular monstrosity of the event, if there is such a thing, I would say that when things heat up, it’s appropriate, then: to write, just that (but writing a secas is not only discursive nor much less simply constitutive or notarial: there are bodies, “actions”, performativity, etc. As for the rest, writing never remains completely mine or belonging to some I-transcendental I; every time it’s written with others, with other writings).

KJ: “Bodies, ‘actions,’ performativity, etc.” Would the experience of the CADA during the Pinochet years be an example of what you refer to?

AA: I repeat: the writing to which I refer here is not just discursive, let alone constative or notarial. There are bodies, “actions,” performativity ... within the writing. This doesn’t imply that you must feel at home within art, that you identify with it to the point of calling yourself “artistic” and nothing else, as CADA did in its day. Art (everything this word and institution carries with it, and that’s a lot!) takes over, rather, as a problem, as a permanent un-settling in the face of straight writing, escritura al seco, if there is such a thing. This is where you hear echoes of Celan’s Ach die Kunst (or the unfinished fragment of Kafka’s Amerika about “the Nature Theater of Oklahoma,” or a start on dismantling the Romantic-Avant-Garde program that seeks to identify life with art).¶¶¶¶¶¶¶¶[40] Simultaneously you hear the caesura that is so hard to perceive between (Western) art and, for example, (Andean) jaylli or taki. Which, clearly, does not prevent us from finding real solidarity in a given moment—on the contrary!—with the thousands upon thousands of people who refused to be cowed, often risking our own lives when the dictatorship was unleashed across Chile, or with Salvador Allende inside the presidential palace in flames,the first who wouldn’t be cowed. So, how can we not also salute CADA today?

KJ: Aha. Well, as regards writing with others and other writings—Translation/ Translucination: You know, in the past few years a number of younger poets in the U.S. and UK have taken a great interest in translation from a conceptual, theoretical perspective. There is a developing current of poets, in fact, who base their work on the inherent problematic of translation, and they are producing some extremely vital work in hybrid modes—translation not as “faithful” record, but as a poetics of radical traslucine. The thing is, you and Erin Mouré were moving, collaboratively, within this territory a number of years earlier, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this had some impact here in that regard—though you know poets: they don’t necessarily like to acknowledge precursors. So here is an unfairly broad question: What are the ethics of translation to you?

AA: Poets don’t like to acknowledge precursors? What ethics of translation? Let’s pause for a moment on the astonishing—haphazard?—chain of both question-phrases. As if the recognition of “precursors” and some ethics of translation would go hand in hand. As if the poets who don’t like to recognize precursors were the same “poets” who don’t like to translate, who even consider translation a derivative form of writing, not original but servile; Oedipal-poets who insist on killing the “original” in order to occupy its place more efficiently— and the more they annihilate it, the more they bring about its spectral return. All of this is plenty understandable along the so-called Romantic (and/or creationist) horizon, which presupposes a pure origin and more often than not an absolute creator. But. From the moment when all writing, all minimally legible significant trace, even its eventual illegibility, brings with it an un/certain reiteration and, thus an origin already doled out, the limit of the so-called original writing, without entirely disappearing, becomes indistinguishable now and then from the original translation. If I reiterate all this, n’est-ce pas, it’s because “this” flips the scene and stands the figure of the poet-hater-of-precursors on his or her head: if the (unidentical) return is given as the very possibility of the poem, the poets, far from trying to erase or annihilate their antecedents, will probably tend to multiply the recognition of their precursors, translating themselves along the way. What are we talking about, then, when we talk about “precursors”? You tell me. Me? Well, whatever; if in Ladinoamérica, a place without a place that you conjure up, a poet says “I have a lot of precursors” or “I am full of precursors,” he or she will probably end up in prison or making an unpleasant visit to the police station. Without express authorization from the authorities of corresponding nation-states, one cannot have many precursors and less so at home, given that the aforementioned are, proverbially, indispensable elements for the alchemy of turning coca leaves into cocaine. Are you insinuating that the issue of drugs, and of cocaine in particular, little by little crosses through the Ladinoamerican poetic corpus? I wouldn’t say it like that, certainly, not exactly like that; the old and new “Greek” pharmakon (from the other Greece as from “ours,” bien entendu), doesn’t only get translated as “drug.” But, let’s see, tell me, where do you want to go? Me? Who else? To the question, then: What ethics of translation? Stated telegraphically: I don’t have an ethics of translation (if by ethics we are to understand, provisionally: a law, reference or criteria for decision-making), I have at least more than one; often they are at odds and they barely manage, if they manage, provisional agreements. More than one ethic: one wants to let the law of translation dictate for the singular text in translation, and in the end it hopes that the other (text) will provide the aforementioned ethic; the other permanently defers the moment of the law, without then transgressing it or conforming to it, betting on translating (itself) before the law. An example? Another one?


[1] Translators’ Notes: Throughout this translation we leave some words in Spanish and other languages because Ajens refers to bilingual and multilingual experience, as well as thematizing and performing it within his Spanish-dominant responses. We have not changed Johnson’s words, which are English-dominant. The unabridged original interview appears in Mandorla 15 (2012): 412-443.

Despite the long popularity of invisible translators in English-language pub- lishing, we insert contextual footnotes. Our notes will no doubt seem presumptuous through the lens of that tradition. Yet they sketch the potential for an ever-greater play of interpretation and excess, which we find to be commensurate with significant elements of the interview, not the least of which is the tremendous set of cross-cultural literacies at play throughout the conversation. Ajens’ complex poetics is predicated on think- ing, reading, and writing across and beyond borders and categories, be they linguistic, cultural, national, regional, or literary. As the interview suggests, he is also fascinated with between-spaces, sites opening to the creative complexities of translation. So with a nod to Nabokov and the parody of obsessive interpretation he created in Pale Fire, our loyalty to this original text resides in our betrayal of its economy of speech. (Lawrence Venuti is one of many translators to challenge problematic expectations forwarded by the invisibility model; see The Translator’s Invisibility: A History of Translation.)

Al seco, a secas: “Al seco,” the phrase used in interview title, refers to tossing down a drink in one shot. This is related to “a secas,” which appears throughout the interview. The second phrase could be translated as “pure and simple,” though Ajens will specify that there is no English translation to capture every meaning detonated by the expression.

[2] As in the English “textile,” the term “textil” plays on the etymological presence of text within textil in the Spanish version of the interview. Ajens’ use of “textiles” is thus an uncommon way to refer to a thread in a larger argument, and it calls attention to the textuality of textile traditions, important to indigenous cultures in the Andes (and elsewhere).

[3] Our term “translucination,” here, is one way to render “translucinar,” Ajens’ term highlighting the complexity of translation, including its creative potential. The Spanish version evokes “translúcido” (translucent) as well as “alucinar” (with various meanings such as to hallucinate, to captivate, to delude). 

[4] Paul Celan (Cernauti, Kingdom of Romania 1920 — Paris, France, 1970), well known for his powerful poems on the Holocaust.

[5] A relatively literal translation of César Vellejo's poem would read: “Skies of reeling altitude disheartened / by great love, skies of platinum, baleful skies / of impossible.” Other editions use the spelling “torbos” for “torvos.”

[6] Charles Bernstein (b. 1950, New York City, USA). The title of his piece re- calls an influential essay by José Martí (Havana, New Spain [now Cuba], 1853 – Cauto, 1895), an intellectual in the broadest sense of the word who wrote “Our America” after years of experience living and writing in the United States.

[7] Ajens’ slight adjustment to Bernstein’s language merges “space” (in English) with “espacio” (in Spanish). Dropping into English for the word “space,” Ajens marks his writing of the word with a Spanish-speaker’s inflection, placing an “e” before “space.” The “e” is pronounced as a short “eh.”

[8] In addition to the aforementioned Martí, Ajens refers to two other canonical writers of early twentieth-century poetry: Rubén Darío (Metapa [today Ciudad Darío], Nicaragua 1867 — León, Nicaragua 1916) and Gabriela Mistral (Vicuña, Chile 1889 — New York, USA 1957). The reference to Darío in particular signals a need to read the prior exclamation about “Progress” in more than one way.

[9] Mandorla: New Writing from the Americas / Nueva escritura de las Américas is a maga- zine founded in Mexico City in 1991. It was inspired in part by the collaborative spirit of El corno emplumado / The Plumed Horn, a magazine printed in Mexico in the 1960s by poets from Mexico and the United States. Mandorla focuses on new creative writing (usually in English and/or Spanish) alongside new translations, visual art, and commentaries. Founding editor Roberto Tejada (USA) now co-edits Mandorla with Gabriel Bernal Granados (Mexico) and Kristin Dykstra (USA).

[10] Jerome Rothenberg (b. 1931, New York City, USA): poet, translator, anthologist, and polemist who coined the term “ethnopoetics,” which will come up later in this interview. Bernstein centers part 2 of his multi-part essay on ideas from Rothenberg’s 1972 anthology.

[11] Manco Cápac is the legendary founder of the Incan Empire.

[12] El Inca Garcilaso de la Vega (Cuzco, New Castile [now Peru], 1539 — Cór- doba, Spain, 1616) was born at the beginning of the colonial period to a Spanish Captain and the sister of the last Inca emperor. Well versed in the history, literature, and rhetoric of both European and Inca civilizations, he took on the task of writing Inca culture and history into Spanish letters in his Comentarios Reales (Royal Commentaries), first pub- lished in Lisbon, Portugal, in 1609.

[13] Raúl Zurita (b. 1950, Santiago de Chile) was the controversial recipient of the National Prize for Literature in 2000. During the Pinochet dictatorship, he was part of a core of intellectuals who remained in Chile and forged avant-garde poetic critiques from within. Zurita’s own work blurs the boundaries between poetry and performance. So does the work he carried out with the legendary art action group known as el CADA (Colectivo Acciones de Arte), to which Johnson and Ajens refer later in this interview.

[14] The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr is a novel written by E.T.A. Hoffman (Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann, original name Ernst Theodor Wilhelm Hoffmann, 1776, Königsberg, Prussia [now Kaliningrad, Russia] — 1822, Berlin, Germany). The book was published as Lebens-Ansichten des Katers Murr nebst fragmentarischer Biographie des Kapellmeisters Johannes Kreisler (2 vols.) in 1820-22.

[15] A winner of prizes for his own poetry, Cintio Vitier (Cuba, 1921-2009) is interpellated here in relation to national frameworks because he edited influential anthologies and studies, including Lo cubano en la poesía (Cubanness in Poetry [1958]).

[16] Neruda was elected to the Senate in 1945 and served until his conflict with the Videla government (over a decree to outlaw the Communist Party, as well as repressive tactics used against striking miners in the northern provinces Neruda represented) led to a warrant for his arrest in 1948. He went underground and eventually into exile. In 1970 he ran for President on the Communist Party ticket but ceded the nomination to his friend and ally, the Socialist candidate Salvador Allende, when the parties merged to form the Popular Unity coalition.

[17] Nicanor Parra (b. 1914, San Fabián de Alico, Chile): Parra is the instigator of what he named anti-poetry in the 1950s. He ridicules the figure of the poet as a larger- than-life voice of authority, and he uses a sharp sense of irony to produce poetry from everyday language and the idiosyncracies of daily life. Although the relationship be- tween Neruda and Parra is as complex as Ajens implies here, poetry and poets in Chile are often categorized simplistically according to their greater or lesser alignment with one figure or the other.

[18] The pause here emphasizes the significance of Chilean history, both with and without the co-presence of the United States. Ajens is aware that after 2001, the most common association worldwide with September 11 is that of the attacks on the United States. But the date has its own deep historical resonance in Chile: on the fateful Tues- day morning of September 11, 1973, Hawker Hunter fighter jets swooped over Santiago and bombed the Presidential Palace of La Moneda. By the end of the day President Salvador Allende was dead, hundreds were executed, and thousands were arrested, initiating the brutal military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, characterized by its merciless persecution of the left through torture, disappearances, assassinations, censorship and exile until the official return to democracy in 1990. The US was involved in the coup and supported the Pinochet regime. With Ajens’ strategic pause, this date reasserts the relevance of Chile’s history, and it evokes one more instance of US intervention in the region. 

[19] Patricio Marchant lived and wrote in Chile. He played an important role in introducing poststructuralism there, but in posing the question about whether or not Chile has a philosophical tradition, Marchant turns to poetry and a tradition of explor- ing philosophical matters through the ambiguity of literary language.

[20] Silviano Santiago (b. Formiga, Brazil, 1936), author of literary and cultural criticism and translation theory, as well as poetry and fiction. His Uma literatura nos trópicos: ensaios sobre dependencia cultural (Literature in the Tropics: Essays on Cultural Depend- ence, 1978) is a foundational text about power and literature in Latin America. San- tiago builds on Derrida to formulate concepts of hybridity and of “o entre-lugar,” the “in-between place” of Latin American cultural production, thus moving away from the notion of cultural dependency that emerged from the center-periphery model of depen- dency theory. While we leave the Portuguese version above to preserve the multilingual qualities of this interview, Santiago’s statement reads: “To avoid bilingualism [as in the presence of more than one language] is to avoid religious pluralism and it also means the imposition of colonial power. In the algebra of the conquistador, unity is the only measure that counts. Only one God, only one King, only one Language: the true God, the true King, the true Language.” The remark in brackets was added by Ajens.

[21] For an English translation of the first source with scholarly context, see The Huarochirí Manuscript: A Testament of Ancient and Colonial Andean Religion, tr. Frank Salomon and George L. Urioste (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1991). Salomon observes that the manuscript is a unique source regarding Andean traditions, but its complexities must be recognized: “The way people recalled their ancient tradition and the occasion of their recalling it were themselves facets of a colonial situation the tellers had already endured throughout their whole lives” (1).

Guaman Poma de Ayala (c. 1535 — c. 1615, New Castile [now Peru]): born into a royal Inca family, Guamán Poma worked in the Administration of the Viceroyalty of New Castile. His El primer nueva corónica y buen gobierno, directed to King Philip III, presents Andean history and culture and denounces abuses of colonial rule. Aestheti- cally, rhetorically, culturally, and linguistically, the text melds Andean and European representational traditions.

Juan or Joan de Santa Cruz Pachakuti Yamqui Salqamaywa (also from the re- gion that today is Peru) is associated with the genre of the chronicle. His Relación is com- monly dated to 1613. Ajens notes that three editions are available to Spanish-language readers: one by Jiménez de Espada, Ed. Mo de Fomento, Madrid, 1879, pp. 229-328; another by Pierre Duviols y César Itier, IFEA/CERABC, Lima/Cuzco, 1993; and one by R. Navarro Gala, Iberoamericana, Madrid, 2007. Despite the fact that he wrote in Spanish and bridged cultural divides, Pachakuti Yamqui Salqamaywa identified as an indigenous subject, describing himself as a “canchi” of the Orcosuyu group.

The Atau Wallpaj p’uchukakuyninpa wankan tells of the fall of Atahualpa. Ajens includes a chapter on it in Poetry After the Invention of America. In our discussions, he remarked that the canonical edition of the Atau Wallpaj presently available to Spanish- language readers is presented bilingually, and it includes a commentary by Jesús Lara, who asserts the existence of the Manuscript of Chayanta. Whether or not that manu- script really exists is now a topic of debate.

[22] Gamaliel Churata (Arequipa, Peru, 1897 — Lima 1969), avant-garde poet. José María Arguedas (Andahuaylas, Peru, 1911- Lima, 1969): an ethnologist who made a major impact as the author of short stories and novels, Arguedas drew on his life experience as a mestizo. In language he moved between Quechua and Spanish. 

[23] João Guimarães Rosa (Cordisburgo, Minas Gerais, 1908 — Rio de Janeiro, 1967): prominent Brazilian novelist. Jaime Saenz (La Paz, 1921 — 1986): Bolivian poet, novelist and non-fiction writer.

[24] Ajens refers to modes of writing used in pre-Colonial indigenous societies for creative reflection. Acolmiztli Nezahualcóyotl (1402-1472, Texcoco [in what is today Mexico]), ruler of Texcoco, is often recognized as a poet for his beautifully construct- ed verses. By naming him along with stone inscriptions from the Andean region and mounds from the Southern Cone (the Mapuche inhabit the region south of the former Incan Empire), Ajens points to the complexity of non-alphabetic forms of writing preva- lent in indigenous cultures throughout the continent and thereby negates the possibility of making (hierarchical) distinctions between societies “with” and “without” writing.

[25] Amerigo Vespucci (1451 — 1512), Italian merchant and explorer who visited coastlines now part of Venezuela and Brazil. He may have been the first person to real- ize that these lands constituted continents new to Europeans. The Latin version of his first name is generally believed to be the origin of the name “America.”

[26] The poem as “translated” by Ajens is a riff on the first four lines of “Kokboy”, originally published in Poland/1931 (New York: New Directions, 1974). Rothenberg’s 1974 poem begins: “saddlesore I came / a jew among / the indians / vot em I doink in dis strange place / mit deez pipple mit strange eyes.”

[27] Cecilia Vicuña (b. Santiago de Chile, 1948) is a poet and artist who works throughout the Americas, engaging avant-garde and indigenous traditions. She chal- lenges borders of nation, culture, and language; she also unsettles genre and traditions of written and oral representation.
[28] Reynaldo Jiménez (b. Lima, Peru, 1959): poet who has spent substantial time in Argentina, moving and working across national, cultural, and linguistic borders. With Gabriela Giusti he founded Tsé=Tsé, a publishing house and magazine of the same name that ran from 1995 to 2008 with the assistance of Carlos Riccardo. They produced around 100 books including the anthology archipiélago de poesía. Based in Buenos Aires, Tsé=Tsé specialized in writing from across Latin America, including Brazil. Diversity was a goal for the creative selections in its magazine, which also included commentaries, translations, and interviews.

[29] Omar Cáceres (1906 - 1943): ghostly author of Defensa del ídolo, which as Eliot Weinberger has observed, contains an unlikely introduction from Huidobro, who did not write introductions for other poets. See Jacket 3 (April 1998) for more of Weinberg- er’s remarks on the mysterious Chilean writer. Pablo de Rokha (Licantén, Chile, 1894 - Santiago, 1968): avant-garde poet contemporary to and often at odds with Huidobro and Neruda.

[30] Juan Luis Martínez (Valparaíso, Chile, 1942 — Villa Alemana, Chile, 1993).

[31] Octavio Paz (1914, Mexico City — 1998, Mexico City) wrote a great many works, particularly in the genres of poetry and the essay. His most famous commentary on Mexican identity is The Labyrinth of Solitude (1950); his defining role in twentieth- century Mexican culture included founding the influential magazines Plural and Vuelta.

[32] ©Erín Moure, reprinted from Little Theatres (Anansi, 2005) with permission of @HouseofAnansi and @ErinMoure. “Mergullada” can mean “soaking wet” or “caught in the rain” in Galician, a language with which Mouré has worked in past projects; she prefers these colloquial translations (email, 26 July 2012).

[33] Ajens names writers from an array of locations around the Americas, along with an occasional European (such as Galician writer and activist Chus Pato). Many have moved across nations and live and/or write in more than one language. Vicuña, for example, was in London at the time of Chile’s 1973 coup and was unable to return. She is now based in New York, though she works in Chile regularly; while she uses a great deal of Spanish, she disrupts it with other languages and sounds. González, who was born in Cuzco and raised speaking both Quechua and Spanish, considers himself a mestizo writer (conversation with Kristin Dykstra, El Museo del Barrio, NYC, 21 May 2011); he too is presently living in New York. Kozer was born in Cuba and long ago moved to the United States; he explores the generation of an ever more international Spanish through immersion in its many variations, remarking that his life has exposed him to many Spanishes as well as Yiddish, Portuguese and more, which blend into a cultural experience he too understands as mestizaje (see “In Favor of Babel,” interview with Nicolás Mansito, Jacket 35 [Early 2008]). Several of the poets on Ajens’s list main- tain relationships to indigenous communities, such as Lienlaf and Chihueilaf; and many other complexities in the group lend diversity to the sketch of Ladino writing.

[34] Ernesto Cardenal (b. Granada, Nicaragua, 1925): complementing his interna- tional reputation as a poet is Cardenal’s high-profile status as a liberation theologist and politician. Leftist poet Roque Dalton (San Salvador, El Salvador, 1935 — Quetzalte- peque, 1975) moved among several countries during his life, spending a period of exile in Mexico before landing in Cuba, where most of his work was published. A prolific writer who won the Casa de las Américas prize, Dalton escaped execution twice for political activities but was not so lucky when serious disagreements divided the Ejército Revolucionario del Pueblo with which he was serving.

[35] Philosopher Philip Lacoue-Labarthe (Tours, France, 1940 — Paris, 2007) raised questions about the relationship between Celan and Heidegger, such as whether Celan believed that redemption could be possible for a thinker once associated with Nazism.

[36] Æ is a forthcoming poetry collection by Ajens. He translates this poem’s title, “yaqha layqa phichhitanka,” into Spanish as “otra pájara hechicera,” or another bewitching birdwoman, and notes that it incorporates material from a song in Aymara: “layqa phichhitanka” (email 9 Aug 2012). It also uses details from the life of Violeta Parra (San Carlos, Chile, 1917-1967), sister of the aforementioned Nicanor Par- ra, who was a folklorist, singer, visual artist, and poet in her own right. Parra traveled through rural Chile gathering traditional songs and performing her own compositions. She presented her work in Europe (in 1962 she became the first Latin American artist to have a solo exhibition at the Louvre), and in Latin America she inspired the New Song movement combining traditional and modern sounds with socially conscious lyrics. She was romantically involved with Swiss musician and ethnomusicologist Gilbert Favre. He worked with Parra in her peña, a sort of club for performing folkloric traditions held in a large tent known as La Carpa de La Reina, located in the neighborhood of La Reina on the outskirts of Santiago de Chile. Favre also helped to open the Peña Nayra in La Paz, Bolivia. There—where she traveled in an attempt to rekindle her relationship with Favre—Parra wrote her most famous song, “Gracias a la vida” (“Thanks to life,” 1966), shortly before returning to Santiago and taking her own life with a shotgun in 1967. Ajens’s poem, which includes lines from her song, uses the same metric and assonant rhyme scheme as Gracias a la vida. He radicalizes Parra’s melding of linguistic and cul- tural traditions by integrating Aymara phrases into the lyrics and wordplay.

For more on the topic, see Mar con soroche 7. This journal, co-edited by Ajens with Bolivian poet Emma Villazón, is a multilingual production that questions national, linguistic, and cultural borders. The title, which could be translated Sea with the illness (or ecstasy) of altitude, evokes the longstanding conflict between Chile and Bolivia over Bolivia’s right of access to the ocean. The struggle dates back to the drawing and re- drawing of national borders following Independence from Spain and the 1879-1883 War of the Pacific and disregards cultural continuities and collaborations across political borders. 

[37] Hay sí: Ajens prefers the original Spanish here to one possible translation, “oh yes.” The Spanish preserves wordplay in which “hay” (there is) sounds like the lament “ay.” “Hay sí” implies “yes there is” (sea for Bolivia). For English-language readers, “h/ay” here should rhyme with “eye”; the English word “hay” is not intended.

[38] Johnson presumably refers to political tensions ramped up by the Chilean student movement’s demands for free, quality public education for all (within a largely privatized system in which most students take on enormous debt loads in order to complete their education), as well as protests against the construction of a dam in the south of Chile that would displace whole towns, largely affecting indigenous Mapuche communities, and have massive environmental effects. Both are peaceful social move- ments—instances of violence appear to be largely the work of a few provocateurs—but they have prompted police brutality and mass arrests.

[39] Here the expression “a secas” suggests that we not label writers, evok- ing the popular use of the phrase indicating that a person has no middle name. So here a writer “a secas” is “just a writer,” not a particular kind of writer. (The adjective would follow the noun in Spanish, thus the modifier would be like a middle name; so for example, a poeta experimental, an experimental poet, would just be a poet.) This pas- sage also plays on the gendering of nouns, a feature not generally available in English: Ajens asserts the feminine form of the noun for “writers” alongside the masculine form presumed to be universal, writing “escritores/as,” a deliberately inclusive gesture that he makes throughout the interview. In his formulation, a writer of any gender can be a writer a secas.

[40] Franz Kafka (Prague, Bohemia 1883 – Vienna, Austria 1924). Kafka’s episodic and posthumously published novel Amerika (1927) includes a segment in which the protagonist comes across the Nature Theater of Oklahoma, a theater company that welcomes any and all participants as artists.


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