SJF: You have travelled the world reading at festivals and the reception of your poetry has allowed you to interact with poets from around the globe. Poetry Parnassus will offer a unique opportunity for some of the world’s leading poets to share with each other, as well as a new British and truly international audience in London, their work and their philosophy on contemporary poetry. Is this dialogue something that is important to you and your practice as a poet?
RAB: Very important. I think it is one of the essential aspects of Poetry Festivals. To name just a few happy examples, such as the mythic Festival of Medellin in Colombia, that of Douz, at the gates of the Tunisian desert, others in Caracas, Barcelona, Rosário in Argentina, Lodève in France, Trois-Rivières in Quebec, all of them well-known festivals that bring together a large number of poets and activities, and all were experiences lived with poetic intensity and companionship from which arose unexpected projects and friendships that survive to this day, despite the distances. And we all know that, one of these days, we will come across each other by chance, in the midst of Poetry, at another Festival, for example, Poetry Parnassus.
In general, writers are aficionados of reading. A Festival such as this one not only allows one to get to know Poetry—much of which one could never get to know in any other way—but also allows one to hear it in its primordial orality and in the voice of the one who wrote it, while making possible a dialogue with the poets themselves, permitting a deeper understanding of Poetry and an exchange of ideas, not just with other poets, but also with the public. These are magical moments that festivals such as Poetry Parnassus offer us.
SJF: 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?
RAB: his is an especially salient question in relation to the overall European reality and even more so to Portugal in particular. In fact, the breadth and the genius of Pessoa’s work, the genuine megalomania with which he exhausted all poetic paths possible, sucking up the life of his own heteronyms, mixing them with the lives of each other, writing as a himself or as an other, about a wide range of areas of knowledge , made it so that for a long time everything that was written was felt as a déjà vu or of a quality absurdly inferior to what one ought to present to the public. What was needed was a completely different imagination, that of Vitorino Nemésio, from the Azores, who came to break a bit this nightmare, although in fact one continued to live for a long time under the aegis of Pessoa and one goes on having Pessoa as the genius no one can dream of equaling. It is, however, worth remembering that in the 16th century, Camões—Pessoa wanted to be the Camões of the 20th century—was a poet of the Portuguese Epic whose lyric poetry is still modern today. In the case of Europe, there was a total fascination—in some cases an obsession—but not the subjugation and artistic block that was the case in Portugal.
SJF: Who are your influences, both in Portugal and outside of the Portuguese language?
RAB: The truth is that I’ve read so much since I first learned how to read – my parents’ library granted me access to both Portuguese and foreign literature – that I don’t think I’ve interiorized one or other specific source. My poetry is influenced by cinematographic narrative – maybe because my father is a film maker, and I’m still so passionate about cinema – and by the problems I stumble upon, should they be related to science, philosophy or everyday life. Still, these ingredients are trans-mutated in the course of poetic writing, erasing the traces that lie in its origins. Irony too is a constant element of my poetry, which is also influenced by the humorous perspective present in my vision of life. I can nevertheless point some of the foreign poets I most appreciate, not considering the consensual classics: Wallace Stevens, Oliverio Girondo, Edmond Jabès, Carlos Drummond de Andrade Charles Tomlinson, John Ashbery.
SJF: 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?
RAB: The renewal of our movement Poetry 61, with its high quality poets, was born with an unrelenting desire to produce a kind of poetry against Fernando Pessoa. In the seventies, poets in general set on fire the places of the body and the body itself as the place of desire. That generation, whose typical representative figures include Al berto and Helder Moura Pereira, had as their aim to modify or to negate the overwhelming poetry of Herberto Helder. Fernando Pessoa, continuing to hold the place which he still occupies today, was seen as a classic, and no longer was felt to be an overwhelming threat.
My generation, with some extraordinary poets such as Amadeu Baptista, does not constitute a generation, since its poetic manifestations are not subsumed within something programmatic or even systematic. We don’t hold in common a shared form of imagining, but instead there is a vast poetic dissemination. In this way, my poetic “generation” opens a variety of paths, without determining any particular trajectory for the following generation.
In any case, in the nineties, we noticed a growing attention to a transfiguration of the quotidian and an abudance of images that fled from metaphor, something already quite evident in the writings of Egito Gonçalves, who began to publish in the fifties. The nineties proved themselves a very productive period for poetry, even in a number of first books, as was the case with Daniel Faria, prematurely gone at the age of 28, who bequeathed us a major body of work.
SJF: You organise two International Poetry Festivals, Spoken Aloud and Meetings at Talabriga. Could you detail their aims?
RAB: In the case of Meetings at Talabriga, the principal factors that differentiated that festival from others are the following:
1. The introduction of great literature from small countries, less translated and less known in Portugal
2. The bringing of Poetry to the people, not via the idea that one must simplify Poetry so it can reach a larger public, but by bringing it beyond the usual places where it is normal for Poetry Festivals to take place, into the square, the streets, the bars. It was an unforgettable experience.
In the “Spoken Aloud” Festival here in Porto, the basic idea was to build bridges between performance poetry and a performance poetics, in which music and other arts, occurring simultaneously, were a constant. The Festival took place in the Rivoli Theatre, and, in accord with the venue, the Poetry had a truly scenic component.
SJF: In its sheer scope Poetry Parnassus offers a unique opportunity for you to interact with fellow poets from every corner of the globe. How do you think this collective experience will benefit those who attend, to be exposed to so many different traditions of poetry, to hear poetry in so many languages?
RAB: I know that this will be a truly delightful experience for everyone. To begin with, the music of unknown languages pouring into our ears and our bodies, is like water that is incomprehensible and at the same time crystal clear. Listening to it, it seems that the meaning gathers round, as if it were not necessary for us to know the language in order for us to be impregnated by the poem. On the other hand, translation allows the listener to plunge into the semantic universe of the poet, with a sonority that is now familiar. At Poetry Parnassus, listening to poetry in so many languages will be a happy Babel.
SJF: The parnassian ideal that really centres Poetry Parnassus project reaches back to the Poetry International festival held in London in 1967 which sought to address notions of free speech, community and peace through the art form of poetry. Do you believe this tradition needs to be maintained in 2012?
RAB: I cannot say that the tradition needs to be maintained, since that would be to encroach upon some of the organization’s freedom. What I can say is that it seems to me absolutely relevant and desirable that a tradition with such premises be enacted in a festival as important and broad ranging as Poetry Parnassus. In fact, it’s a question of appropriating (in the phenomenological sense of the word) the most important values that ought to guide us at all times and in all places. That being said, I am all the more happy to join your chorus in favor of all I believe in.
About the interviewer:
SJ Fowler (1983) is the author of four poetry collections. He has had poetry commissioned by the Tate Britain and the London Sinfonietta, and has featured in over 100 poetry publications. He is poetry editor of 3am magazine, Lyrikline and the Maintenant interview series.