Note: a Galician version of this conversation is available here.
Chus Pato is one of the most significant poets writing in Galician today. Thanks to the efforts of her translator, Canadian poet Erín Moure, five volumes of her work have been translated into English, the two most recent being Secession/Insecession (BookThug, 2014) and Flesh of Leviathan (Omindawn, 2016).
It was almost by chance that I encountered her work. I met Erín in the fall of 2017, and she handed me three of the books she’d translated. It took all of one line from the first poem in m-Talá (Shearsman/Buschekbooks, 2009) to make me realize I was in the presence of a major poet and thinker:
i ask myself if in this phrase all the yews of the free city of Paris lean and fall, all my reflections on language—the word that shuts the edifice of Language is the same that opens to the wind’s dominion—
Here was a writer working in an experimental idiom that I recognized from my own travels through the North American poetry scene, a writer who worked in fragmentary lyrics with the materials of history, philosophy, politics, and memory to create a poetry seemingly infinite in scope and yet specific to the particularity of its language in geography. Everything, it seems, is overturned in Pato’s fiercely partisan work: subjectivity, gender, language, and yet all of it appears to the reader at once recognizable and new. One feels thinking happen on the page, and the feeling is electric.
This conversation took place via email in the spring and summer of 2018, with Erín translating my questions and Chus’s answers.
Michael Kelleher: In Secession, you write, “my native language is a linguistic conflict.” Your native language is Galician, a language once outlawed by Franco (under whose regime you grew up), a language that now exists as co-official with Spanish within the “autonomous community” of Galicia in Northwestern Spain. Can you talk about the complexities of Galicia as a place, of Galician as a “co-official” language, and what it means for a poet to write in Galician? In other words, what is this “linguistic conflict”?
Chus Pato: That’s what I wrote, and that’s how it is. Prior to Secession, in Fascinio, I’d written: “My native language is fascism,” and, in Ninive, in the poem “Outside”: “I had to learn American just like a foreign language // but she’d spent her childhood in Galicia speaking in Spanish // a combination of the correct Spanish of offices / and the impossible Spanish of ladies // native language: dismemory / vernacular: it was all vernacular // the sensation felt by an entire people / on finding themselves ousted / from their shared native language.”* Thus I’d say that reflection on the question you’ve asked is one of the power centers of the writing that I practice.
I was born in 1955 and—apart from the Castilian (which you know as Spanish) spoken by a minority of speakers—Galician was the language spoken in Galicia. What can be done with a people of whom a majority speak an incorrect language? Francoism made the answer very clear; its policy of emigration/deportation was successful. Thousands of Galician speakers were proletarianized across a Europe in need of cheap labor after the Second World War. With its demographic policy of emigration, Franco’s government met several objectives. One of those was, precisely, to break the transmission of Galician from one generation to the next. I belong to an intermediate generation; my parents were native Galician speakers but always spoke to us in Castilian, as they didn’t want their children to have painful issues in adapting, as they’d had. Naturally, what my generation inherited from our parents was a linguistic conflict, of which I spoke in Secession. My native language is the fascist prohibition against speaking the language of my progenitors, of the women who preceded me. This is definitely the case.
After Francoism came the Transition and Democracy. By that point in time [late 1970s], Galician was a country that was demographically irreparable: we’d been losing population for over 150 years and were already irremediably a land of old people, a people that both loved and hated Galician and that viewed Castilian as their only clear option. Again and again Galicia has voted for majority governments formed by a party whose linguistic policy favors Castilian and works against Galician. Their policies have made it clear: we could go ahead and speak Galician, but the language of success and the language of culture was Castilian.
Today, the situation of Galician is opposite to that when I was born. The younger generations now don’t speak Galician because it was not transmitted to them. They don’t know how to speak it [on a daily basis]; they can read and write in it but it’s a dead language for them, for the majority of them. Of course, Galician is alive in a minority that could become a majority if there were decent linguistic policies. Will this ever happen? Anything is possible.
To write in Galician today is to write in a language that feels the breath of its own extinction, which gives rise to great sadness and discomfort but also nourishes a great struggle. On top of everything else, to write in Galician today is to demand justice for this language.
To me, what gives force and urgency to your work is your willingness to immerse yourself in this “linguistic conflict,” to encounter the seeming limits of language, and transcend them.As a reader one must diligently persist in the state of mind that Keats called Negative Capability, of “being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” I am thinking of the first remarkable book, m-Talá, in the pentalogy Erín Moure has translated into English. “m-Talá” is a word with no meaning at all in Galician or English, a kind of cry. Is meaninglessness or the unspeakable, then, a point of departure for you, or a limit, or both?
Are the limits of language apparent? Rather than limits, I’d speak of the different uses of languages, and would oppose those uses that are instrumental to poetic use. If we consider instrumental uses of language to be “apparent limits,” I’d go along with your formulation, and would further affirm that the language or idiom of the poem tries to break through those limits and arrive at that language which has none.
As for Erin Moure choosing to translate m-Talá into English, I can only thank her here once again for being brave enough to take it on.
In effect, “m-Talá” is indeed a word that lacks meaning or, to put it another way, direction. I created this title not really as a cry but as a proper name, of a person or place (a toponym). Most such names lack meaning and, notwithstanding this, they name all that we are. They signal our identity; by them, we are called and turn our face toward the one who calls us. In many cases we receive them from an ancestor, thus connecting us to the infinite links in the genetic chain that has led to the appearance of the species to which we belong. This is just to set out some of the qualities of proper names. It’s the same with toponyms; with them we name the places we most cherish, or those from where we came or toward which we want to go. It’s precisely their quality of lacking meaning that constitutes names as key to the entire language. Thanks to that non-sense, that lack of direction, we can enter and traverse the language we use; all of it, and every one of our verbal constructions, are based on non-sense, on the arbitrariness of sounds that constitute both words and the relations that grammar establishes between words. As such, in consequence, to me “m-Talá” functions as a proper name, an identity that, in its impossible referentiality, reveals the arbitrariness and non-sense of the articulated language of the human species.
Obviously, a name’s lack of direction can include the unsayable. Life itself is unsayable, unspeakable, unutterable; birth—the emergence, budding of life—is unsayable, and death as well. Life is improper, in the sense that it is not our property, we don’t own life, or birth, or death. Our life is improper and unsayable. Perhaps this fundamental impropriety is one of the reasons why language fails us at the grandeur of a birth or the farewell of death. In any case, in all that this might raise for discussion, I want to point to the opposition between the limit and the illimited. I’ll say that the poem is a limited entity or being, I’ll say that life is the eternal flow of what lacks limits, life is the absolute of time that never stops flowing, as do the waters that surround the continents on which we live, as does the movement of galaxies in the heavens. I’ll say that in the poem, the articulated language of the human species wishes to brush up against that which has no limits and which in some way shatters its limits, to be contaminated by, infected by, the absolute through which life unfolds, and this very contact infuses the poem with a rhythm, a breathing that makes it transcend the sayable and lift life closer to that unsayable magnitude. A poem is a birth (in that sense, yes, a cry always emerges from it, the cry of birth), an arising, a desire to breathe the unsayable. In short... well, it’s not simple to write on these questions. In any case, m-Talá, both book and title, tried to attempt to draw close to all that is so difficult to articulate here: the question of limits, of the illimited, of sense and of the absence of direction.
I want to pick up on what you said about life, and perhaps by extension poetry, being “improper.” Your poems are populated by all kinds of “improper” women, muses of a sort, or perhaps “anti-muses.” I am thinking of Elizabeth Báthory, a mass murderer popularly known as the “Blood Countess”; Charlotte Corday, another murderer of the French revolution; Dora Diamant, Kafka’s lover who violated his wish to destroy his letters, which were later confiscated by the Gestapo; and Cordelia, daughter of Lear, who refuses to falsely flatter her father and ultimately dies for her defiance—the list goes on. You return to the muse, as concept, and to muses, as objects and subjects, again and again. Can you talk about your fascination with the muse?
Life, the poem... no matter how much we might insist otherwise, don’t have proprietors; a poem, poetry is possible only in the absence of property, and that’s why the improper or impropriety marks them. Author and poet exist, of course, but the one who signs a poem is not its proprietor.
Thanks very much for your attentive reading, attentive too to the genealogy of “scandalous” or “disobedient” women that is mirrored in the work. Remember Foucault’s The Lives of Infamous Men? It was not my source or impetus, but all of my women could belong to that lineage of those who live outside the law. Here we might stop and ask ourselves: do women live inside the law? Is this permitted them? Or do they form part of the permanent state of exception? Are they the model for the state of exception?
I have never thought of them as muses; I realize they can be seen as inspiring, but as I see the Muse, the muses as something different.
In some sense, to be a poet is to be attentive, and to continually maintain this attention in many ways, but above all it is an attention that acutely sharpens the hearing, for that is where the Muse speaks, dictates.
The Muse, to be very precise, would be she who is invoked by and who sings “the wrath of Achilles,” and here I cite Homer for his foundational power. I am not making a case for the epic, but for the Muse as that force that dictates song and that thus sings in the poem.
To explain more clearly how I think of the Muse: I conceive it as possibility, as the a priori of theexistence of the poem, its matrix.
I think of the Muse as the task, the work or labor of the poem. This work of the poem, to me, consists in writing/speaking the truth of the poem right inside the poem, bearing witness to that truth. It’s this task of witness that authorizes the poet to write/sing the names of that truth that is proper to the poem (to the linguistic usage we call poem). The Muse—to borrow from Kant—would be the transcendental schema, prior to poetry, a figure of life, a figure that affirms that life has a poetic structure and can be lived poetically.
If I were to attempt to describe the voice in your poems, I would use the metaphor of the “exploded view,” a drawing of, say, a violin, where you see the instrument disassembled into its constituent parts without ever losing sight of the fact that you are looking at a violin. The voice is coherent while constantly breaking itself down into parts: alter egos, quotations, disembodied voices loosely attached to names of historical and imaginary personae, internal dialogues, dramatic monologues, et al. Is this something you are conscious of as you write, this breaking down of the one into the many? Is this a way to acknowledge the lineage of the poem, or—since you mention Foucault—its genealogy?
At some point in my writing life, people started to interview me. I suppose that’s normal, yet in my case there was a question that kept coming up: why did you start publishing so late? Usually, in my literary system and also in the Spanish State, poets start publishing in their early twenties, and I started at the age of thirty-five. I say this here because the reason for my late entry into publication was precisely this “exploded view,” as you put it. It took me a long while to realize that I could not write in any other way. Just as left-handed people once did, I had tried to correct myself and not write that way but I didn’t like the results; to me they lacked poetic truth, weren’t faithful even to themselves. It took me a while to realize that what I could bring to poetry was exactly that being, that word, that poem burst open, that praxis of the poem as fragment.
I have to thank you for the figure of the violin. I identify strongly with it. It’s a cubist view and, in evoking painting, it makes me think of a work by Juan Gris: a guitar that fractures into a huge variety of planes, while still remaining a guitar. Thank you again for this reading of my work.
As you can see, I was slow to realize that my form, my style, the character of my poetry was just this; there was never anything programmatic about it. I never thought: “This is how I’ll write.” It was always that way and it just took me time to accept.
If we consider a poem to be a kind of limit-writing in and of itself, it might be said that what I try to write is a poem at the limit of that limit. Limits and borders—as we well know—separate and delimit, but also put into contact; they make edges visible. Borders open. No one can know better what is on the other side of a border than those who inhabit the space at its edge, its boundary. I desired and desire a poem that, already being at the extremes, is open to what is outside the poem and at the same time touches the borders of all other possibilities of literature, drama, thought, essay, mythology, music, the arts and sciences. I desire a poem that includes the world in any and all of its versions. Actually achieving this is another matter, of course.
The poems on pages 87–89 of Charenton and 72–74 of m-Talá (English version) could also serve as answers to your question, I think.
And, yes, all this is, I believe, a way of saying that the poem is a living entity that takes millennia of writing into account, and is contemporary with that impetuous river of time, that bursting forth that is poetry. There are times when I write a poem and an ancient meter emerges, completely classic, and it’s a pleasure to watch how, in the ocean of language, this island sparkles, intact (on page 81 of m-Talá, Brenda recites one of those extraordinary poems).
Still, the exploded view of the world isn’t what we’re given, we don’t see the world under those conditions; yet who of us today can write totality? Is not the poem, any poem, a fragment? Isn’t the very poem formed from sonorous and visual units that in themselves are fragments? Is this, then, perhaps, the very condition of forms, to be a shard of the infinite in the finite? Is fragmentation not a god, an inebriated deity with no relation to a center, one not shored up by any originary reference, whose thinking does not emanate from fixed and unitary identity?
We often tend to see the exploded, the fracture, the fissure as negation; it’s that way because we view totality as something good, but what is certain is that language, writing, the poem is an archipelago, without a center.
I don’t write with a view to unity, with a gaze turned to concordia or conciliation; rather, I accept divergence, an accord or pact in which writing, and what is written, do not serve a dialectic, or a synthesis that constructs a hierarchy. Rather, each one of the fragments takes on responsibility for justice, synthesizes itself, polarizes itself and tries to welcome the unknown without restraining it.
* Translator’s note: Later in the same poem, Pato states that the first line of her poem is from Raymond Chandler, and she took it not from Chandler but from the Spanish translation of “Raymond Chandler’s Sentences,” a poem by US poet Tina Darragh that quoted the Chandler line. Pato’s poem thus becomes a citation of a citation, a kind of spy drama in itself. Pato’s point was that Chandler learned American English was the way she herself had to learn her own native tongue, Galician: as a foreign language. The anthology Chus read was that of Estaban Pujols Gesalí, who edited, translated, and introduced La Lengua Radical: Antología de la poesía norteamericana contemporánea. Madrid: Gramma, 1992.
Chus Pato writes in the Galician language. Her sixth book of poetry and first in her pentalogy Decrúa(Delve), m-Talá, broke the poetic mold when it appeared in Galicia in 2000. The first four books of the pentalogy, all translated by Erín Moure, appeared as m-Talá, Charenton, Hordes of Writing, and Secession. Flesh of Leviathan, the final text in the pentalogy, appeared in 2016 from Omnidawn in a bilingual edition. Hordes of Writingreceived the 2008 Spanish Critics’ Prize and the 2009 Losada Diéguez Prize in Galicia. In 2013, the Galician Booksellers’ Association named Chus Pato as Author of the Year, a rare honor for a poet. In 2015, she became the first Galician poet to be recorded for the archives of the Woodberry Poetry Library at Harvard University. In 2017, she was elected to the Royal Galician Academy. She reads and speaks frequently throughout Europe and South America and has also given readings in Canada and the USA.
Michael Kelleher has published four volumes of poetry, the most recent being Visible Instruments (Chax Press, 2017). He is the director of the Windham-Campbell Prizes at Yale University.
Erín Moure is a Canadian poet and translator of poetry from Galician, French, Portuguese and Spanish. Her Planetary Noise: Selected Poetry of Erín Moure, edited by Shannon Maguire, appeared from Wesleyan in 2017.
Banner image: “Looking Above,” a photograph by Daniel Gonzalez Fuster.