the absurdity of the cosmos
12 bolivian poets in translation, edited by jessica sequeira
‘pop and purgatory: lives of the poets (and translators)’
‘a book’, jesús urzagasti
‘how to be elegant in hell’, liliana colanzi
‘hilda mundy, the avant-garde’, edmundo paz soldán
‘postscript — cochabamba’, claudio iglesias & jessica sequeira
‘i remember… (following brainard and perec)’, sebastián antezana
‘the poetry of yesterday and today in bolivia’, emma villazón (excerpt)
‘disgraphias of the poet: the drawings of jaime saenz’, marcelo villena alvarado (excerpt)
‘speech’, emma villazón
‘shadow notebook’, julio barriga
‘immanent visitor’, jaime saenz (excerpt)
‘death at the very touch’, jaime saenz (excerpt)
‘the cold’, jaime saenz (excerpt)
‘caligula’, óscar cerruto
‘telephone’, hilda mundy
‘twenty-seven of us’, raúl otero reiche
‘underground population’, edmundo camargo
‘vote of silence’, pedro shimose
‘postmodern ballad’, eduardo mitre
‘for a mythology of minor things’, humberto quino
‘to a dinner guest’, juan cristóbal maclean
‘the city’, blanca wiethüchter
The grand archive
“The first and most important mental habit that people develop when they learn how to write computer programs is to generalize, generalize, generalize. To make their code as modular and flexible as possible, breaking large problems down into small subroutines that can be used over and over again in different contexts. Consequently, the development of operating systems, despite being technically unnecessary, was inevitable. Because at its heart, an operating system is nothing more than a library containing the most commonly used code, written once (and hopefully written well) and then made available to every coder who needs it.”
~ ‘In the beginning… was the command line’, Neal Stephenson
When The Missing Slate asked me to prepare a dossier for its poetry section, I chose to focus on poets from Bolivia, understood loosely to mean writers with some connection to the country. Why Bolivian? “Bolivian writing” is a phrase that, like French or Mongolian writing, in itself means nothing. Poets work from a personal vision, or maybe with affection for a certain city. Any fervent propaganda on behalf of a nation is already some other project, like politics. Or is it? What is poetry, after all? Is it a text with rhythmic and aesthetic qualities? Is it life beyond the text? Is it, viz pornography, “you know it when you see it”? I’d rather avoid the snapping intellectual trap of defining terms, and use the time to read the poems themselves. The real reason I’ve chosen to focus on “Bolivian poetry” is its convenience, an arbitrary selection method to read a wedge of the world’s infinity of poems in greater depth. Several poets from the region struck me as compelling, and I wanted to know what I’d find going deeper. Poems from the past, poems by contemporaries… I’d recently visited the country and was interested in all the stimuli that met my eyes, but what mattered now were the texts.
In 1959 literary critic Fernando Diez Medina called for a literature representing the national geography, which he divided into three regions: valle, sierra, altiplano. Literature that represented Bolivia as a country in potential, capable of industry yet nourished spiritually by a mysticism linked to its kolla and aymara past. “The dawnlike awakening of the Bolivian people will find its support in aesthetic and literary renaissance,” he wrote. At about the same time, Bolivian cultural minister Roberto Prudencio Romecín took a different line, praising the “cholos”, contemporary indigenous people who had migrated to the city. Yet he shared Diez Medina’s developmentalist vision of literature. The collection ‘On books and authors’, which compiles essays written throughout his life, gives a good sample of his perspective. “Very few have dedicated themselves to the history of our literature,” he begins one piece. “Our new generations do not seem very inclined to the cult of letters,” he starts another. “Rare are those among us who have dedicated themselves to pure philosophical speculation,” begins a third. “The novelistic genre has not had many, or very good, cultivators among us,” he starts a fourth.
One could go on, but the point is clear. The idea is that from this absence, a new generation of nationalist writers was expected to emerge. It was a call-to-arms, and the collected work is a dizzying attempt to alchemize gold from nonexistent materials. Can a country’s literature really be built deliberately, like a railway forged of purely national steel? These critics, writing shortly after the 1952 revolution and subsequent reforms, were convinced it could. Even now, literary critics trace analogies between poetic movements and historical events such as the Chaco War, Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario, rule of the military junta, series of coups, 1982 democratic elections, hyperinflation, quadruple election of Víctor Paz Estenssoro, protests over the privatization of Sánchez de Lozada, disputes over natural gas reserves in the south, 2005 victory of Evo Morales, and focus on nationalization and indigenous rights. But recurring to lines of narrative history to “explain” a style often has little to do with the way actual poets write.
A romantic construction of the self, Saenz’s attitude largely ignored the nationalist agenda. It wasn’t that Sáenz was unaware of official ideology. Just like the other two poets who, according to poet and academic Mónica Velásquez Guzmán, have marked the path for Bolivian poetry — Óscar Cerruto and Edmundo Camargo — Saenz held down a government job. Yet his poetic work deliberately adopted a mystic approach, in which the self is inscribed in the universe. He examined his own skull and interrogated his own mind to talk about the world. This gives his work a remarkable coherence. Although he wrote from the 1950s to the 80s, his rambling style drawing on specific images — night, cold, comets, magnets, stones — as a means for expressing his inner vision remains consistent.
The “non-political” nature of symbolist poetry allowed writers like Saenz to speak without reference to specific politics or people, and gave his work a sense of timelessness beyond context. This is likely why Diez Medina, Romecín, and other critics tended to ignore it, in favor of focusing on the novel, a more effective vehicle for their preferred indigenous social realism. Certain symbols might be interpreted, faithful to authorial intention or not, as commenting on the politics of the moment, but it is also possible to read the poems with pleasure beyond these temporal indicators. If they are not obvious metaphors, symbols can permit the freedom of a compression of meaning. Most of the poems included here, by a variety of poets writing at different moments in Bolivian history, include these symbolic elements, and none are explicitly “political”.
In the same way, one can read and analyze non-politically the imaginary jungles of Raúl Otero Reiche, the enigmatic landscapes of Blanca Wiethüchter, the “parodies, inventions and blasphemies” of Humberto Quino, the death-obsessed bodies of Edmundo Camargo. These poetic themes possess a historical link to the moment at which they were written, but can also be cut-and-pasted from their historical moment into the present, as easily as “command+C, command+V” can carry a Spanish text online to a Word document on my desktop for translation.
The pop turn
And what about the poetry written now, in the Estado Plurinacional de Bolivia of President Evo Morales? Despite nationalist measures, Bolivia is highly open to international influence. Its writers increasingly form part of an international network of connections and this, almost inevitably, brings the influence of pop. Poets (and short story writers, and novelists) want to write about Bolivia without writing about Bolivia, to pay attention to its local characteristics without stopping there. Rather than turning into solemn mystics like Saenz, they turn to irony. Contemporary poets often write with a wink with regard to their own position as poets. Pop is the self-conscious moment the object becomes aware of itself, when the raw material of the “popular” becomes material to be worked and transformed, aware of its place within the industry, economic structure, system of scholarships and network of writers and readers. Given this situation, what is the best tone to adopt?
Some contemporary poets, like Emma Villazón, have chosen a lyrical tone bordering the surreal, permitting reference to the real with a layer of mediation. A bird may carry the poet away in its belly, but some part of her country will always remain with her. (Villazón, whose work has a kind of dreamlike or mystic vibe, died last year returning from a book fair in La Paz, at the age of 32.) Other poets, like Julio Barriga, adopt the Saenzian aesthetic of the alcoholic vagabond drawn to the abyss, but do so with self-conscious pathos. Barriga goes about the bars of La Paz distributing mimeographed, hand-stapled copies of his poems, and talks openly of his love for Amy Winehouse. The self-consciousness and ironic humor in his tone are clear. This attitude, increasingly common, is a way of going on writing when excess solemnity seems incapable of the toleration and quick flexibility required in a society (and world) in flux.
Faced with the abyss, one can choose to be not silent but conversational. The deliberately kitsch visual poetry of Paola Senseve, the linguistic whirlwind of Sergio Gareca mixing references to Michael Jackson and Quechua poet Juan Wallparrimachi — these are poets interested first of all in play, not international poetry festivals. Yet they’re aware those festivals are waiting. Bolivia’s writers have one foot in, one foot out of international markets, and their work has a certain self-consciousness about it. Even if they do not approach their work as Bolivians, or as part of an explicit national project, they are aware of structures far larger than themselves (life, death, capitalism). They live in a place where state and culture are intimately intertwined, yet are tapped in to foreign influences.
It’s worth noting that an increasing number of Bolivian writers come from the middle classes and suburbs, which encourage minor idiosyncrasies and a love for pop, as well as a respect for the avant-garde, so easily co-opted by global markets. The suburb is a place that is anti-nostalgic, or that produces a generic nostalgia given to categories rather than specifics — the same categories that appear in identity politics, scholarship applications, and other middle class institutions which encourage you to represent yourself as larger than you are. “Be an individual with quirky characteristics that set you apart,” these institutions seem to say, “but make sure you can also be located within a greater whole.”
Does the kind of poetry that results form part of the pop-focused, anti-magical realism “McOndo” movement theorized elsewhere by Paz Soldán, himself a novelist? Has poetry too become “McLiterature”? The term is playful; it does not have pejorative connotations. Like the artistic term “Fauve” it embraces the elements once used to attack it. Perhaps this particular kind of self-consciousness is to some extent present in every developing country with a growing middle class, from Brazil to India. Perhaps self-awareness even plays the same role for contemporary poets that alcohol did for Saenz — a distorting intermediary necessary to see the world “better”. The lens of humor produces an altered state, and any decadent paeans on behalf of intensity and against indifference, attracted to blood and torture, focused on death, the body, visions, flames, and oblivion, must be taken with a grain of salt. Contemporary poets are still interested in absence and presence, loss and love, but these elements are mediated. I read the irony in contemporary Bolivian writing as another variation of symbolist poetry — a tone suggesting that beyond the surface of what is said, there is always something more, an invisible metal hidden beneath the earth.
In this sense, more indicative of the current direction of regional writing than the mystical verses of Saenz may be the “light” poetry of Pedro Shimose, a Japanese immigrant with international connections to Spain, capable of moving vertiginously from the archival trawling of (invented?) Machiavellian papers to the small pleasures of drinking coca tea. This sense of freedom, the ability to include anything one likes from colloquial speech to Florentine parody, is conducive to participating in the grand archive. Freedom in not just citation but attitude — the poetry I like best is full of good-humored openness, where nothing is prohibited, and the world is a beloved secondhand bookshop through which we are free to wander.
A few months ago, over a beer with some writers in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, a conversation that flitted from Argentine elections to riots in Sucre, I remember thinking: “We’re drinking Paceña, but it could well be Quilmes, Corona or Jupiter. We’re talking about the Pope but could well be discussing Li Yu or Anna Karenina.” Bolivia is an increasingly prosperous country with a growing middle class, widespread internet connection even in the tiniest pueblos, and population of educated and mobile young people with academic scholarships and international travel experiences. Traditional geographical and ethnic distinctions have begun to blur. A writer may fill page after page alone in her room, then take that notebook to a bar for a reading, one she will perhaps repeat later on in New York, Santiago, or Moscow. Perhaps — is this just a fantasy? — the poets of Bolivia form one small part of a worldwide movement in which nations as we know them disappear, along with progressive “developmentalist” thinking, to leave only the pure flow of cash, art, and ideas.
Jessica Sequeira is a writer and translator living in Buenos Aires.