A MATTER OF HUNGER BY JORGE FONDEBRIDER
(Poetry Ireland News, November/December 2007)
First, it is not at all clear that the word ‘poetry’ has the same meaning all over the world. If it does not, then the kind of approach one takes with that literary species will change dramatically, depending on what language we are dealing with, what tradition of that language we are related to, and the attitude that the society we live in has towards the thing we call poetry. Far from being universal, the word itself might mean many different things.
I write in the Spanish of my country. I qualify the word ‘Spanish’ in this way because, in spite of all they have in common, each Spanish speaking ‘province ’ has its own tradition and represents a particular history, just as, the English language varies significantly from one to other country that share it. Of course there are two broadly homogeneous Spanish-speaking zones: Spain and Latin America. Even so, the former consists of many regional variations and the latter can hardly be considered a cultural unity, given its many subdivisions whose histories and peculiarities constitute a voyage all their own , both for the spoken language and for their poetry. Nevertheless, continuing with this overall division, it can be said that Spanish as it is written in Spain is determined by centuries of poetry written in that language. Seen from our side of the Atlantic, it represents just one strong tradition. This could have the effect of weakening current Spanish poetry insofar as, from an evolutionary point of view, selection to work requires initial variation. Latin American poetry, on the other hand, is nurtured by a series of recent poets who, in the early decades of the twentieth century, revolutionised the poetic language and gave birth to many new traditions.
Now, while the rest of Latin America was busy with its poetic revolutions, Argentina centred on bringing in ‘new traditions’ from abroad, by means of translation (understood in a broad sense).This tradition, with its many threads and branches, is what I have in mind when I write in the Spanish of Buenos Aires. Moreover, as is the case with everyone, I stand in a specific poetic tradition – one of the many possible traditions to be found in my country. I choose one (or, I am chosen by one), in the same way an Irish poet today might stand on the shoulders of Austin Clarke, Patrick Kavanagh, Louis MacNeice or John Hewitt, while at the same time attempting to leave his own mark. And although I would be understood by any Spanish-speaking person (as the Irish poet – at least those writing in English – is understandable to any English speaker), it is also true that it’s a safe bet that I would be recognized as an Argentinean. I suppose it would be the same if I were an Irish poet being published, say, in New York, Toronto or Sydney. Thus far it appears that, aside from a different language and a different history and tradition, the situations of Ireland and Argentina have some analogies. But this appearance has its limits outside poetry itself.
Argentina is a country in which the concept of ‘institution’ is a feeble one. One can trust neither the government, the banks, the media, nor the airlines. One places one’s trust in individuals, which means one seeks out people as stubborn as oneself in order to build temporary islands of stability and predictability that foster the illusion of living the life one dreamed of living, and stave of awareness of the fact that local reality has many ways of transforming dreams into nightmares. Such a society leads one to expect nothing from the institutions, strangers to longterm planning and strategy as they are.
What to say then about the official public institutions that deal with such‘luxury’ goods as literature? In the first place, they are few. Also, they are run for people completely alien to writing or publishing. Finally, they spend all of their money on administrative matters and meetings. Prizes are well-kept secrets. There are no grants. Once in a while one reads in a newspaper that someone won something – a national or municipal prize– only to read further that the prize lacks funding. Things are not much better in the private sector, which behaves similarly, only without the necessity of having to explain itself. And all of this is what happens to the novel and the essay.
Nevertheless, I do not expect to be paid for publishing poetry, not to mention being paid for giving readings and lectures. The expectation of being paid for these things doesn’t exist in my country (as well as in many other countries of Latin America). One writes and publishes because that is what one does. This is true even for those at major publishing houses. The upside of this is that the poet is the owner of the poems, with the freedom to do with them what one will, without consulting with the publisher. Of course, it’s hypothetically possible that one might receive one’s 10% royalty (twice a year ). But everyone knows that no money will be earned by writing and publishing poetry. Poets write because they want to, and publishers will often publish simply because they want to, without any consideration for whether the poems are marketable. So, in the same way as one builds the ‘ country of the mind’, the poet builds a reputation as a poet by being obstinate. It is neither easy nor fair, but this is the way things are.
Of course, a poet raised with a different view on these matters, might conclude that, beyond whatever consideration and praise one might earn from one’s poetry, that a poetic production in these circumstances must be considered an amateur endeavor, in the strict sense of the word. Perhaps. But where is the problem? My experience tells me that very few in the English-speaking world could live off of their writing, readings or lectures. They too are ‘amateurs’ – only with the illusion of not being so. I noticed
that this kind of so-called professionalism is usually accompanied by a narrow- minded vision of what happens elsewhere in the world of poetry. It is quite easy to check this by going to the bookstore and counting the number of poetry translations made in one’s own country.
I’m not saying that we must live in an unfair state of things and not be paid for what we do. But being paid for everything carries the risk of making us unaware of the other forms that reality can assume. As an Argentinean, I was educated not only in my own tradition but in the tradition of translations. As I translated (Irish poets, for instance) I found many solutions to what I was looking for. They helped me (and continue to help me) to see more clearly certain aspects of my own tradition. I’m very grateful for this. And I did it because I was hungry.
Jorge Fondebrider is an Argentinean poet and writer. He edited, with Gerardo Gambolini, Poesía Irlandesa Contemporánea, the first bilingual anthology of contemporary Irish poetry published in a Spanish-speaking country.