Endowed in perpetuity by the Glenna Luschei Fund for Excellence

Paradise in Zurita: An Interview with Raúl Zurita

Nathalie Handal

I can tell you that Raúl Zurita was born in Santiago, Chile, in 1950. That he studied engineering, then became a poet. That his early works were poignant responses to Augusto Pinochet’s 1973 military coup. That he was arrested at six in the morning on September 11, 1973, and beaten. That he was a founding member of the radical artistic group CADA (Colectivo de acciones de arte). That he has published more than twenty collections of poetry, essays, and criticism; his work has been included in countless magazines and anthologies; his work has been translated into numerous languages; and he has won some of the most prestigious prizes, including the Premio Nacional de Literatura, Premio Pablo Neruda de Poesía, Premio Municipal de Literatura, Premio Pericles de Oro from Italy, a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship, and, most recently, the Premio de la Crítica for Zurita (2012). He is one of the most important poetic voices in Latin America today.

But what’s really important is the way he explores the geography of the earth, the body, the soul. His poems are bone, river, spirit. They are weaved in the sky and in the desert. His words give us eyes to see the blue, the white, the endless hues of beige and ocher—the colors of the desert he returns to. He leaves us with twenty-two inscribed phrases in the cliffs of the north coast of Chile that can be read only from the sea. He refines distance as well as the sea. He is the revolution of language. Lyrical and epic. Mythical and mesmerizing. He saw “nothing of what [he] believed” but inspires us to return to what’s sacred—our humanity. And he reminds us that “Poetry was born with the human, it is older than writing, older than the book, older than the Internet, and it will continue taking on millions of new forms until it dies when the last man contemplates the last sunset.” Zurita is his long sentence.

If “Neruda is the great river” that Chile doesn’t have, then Zurita is its current. He is the poem that man will contemplate at the far edge of paradise.

Nathalie Handal: Let’s start from the beginning. You were a member of CADA, along with the novelist Diamela Eltit and the visual artists Lotty Rosenfeld and Juan Castillo. It was created in 1979 and ended in 1983. CADA was a daring initiative—political art against the dictatorship in public places. This included performances and actions in streets, churches, schools, and clandestine locations. It was risky and dangerous. Can you tell me who was the Raúl of that time and what he was thinking?

Raúl Zurita: All that I came to do in those years, like the art actions with the CADA, was because I felt that pain and death should be responded to with a poetry and an art that was as vast and strong as the violence that was exercised over us. To place in opposition the limitless violence of crime and the limitless violence of beauty, the extreme violence of power and the extreme violence of art, the violence of terror and the even stronger violence of all our poems. I never knew how to throw stones, but that was not our intifada. You can’t defeat a dictatorship with poetry, but without poetry, and this is no metaphor, humanity disappears, literally, in the next five minutes.

NH: How were you able to do all that you did? For example, get ten milk trucks from Soprole (Sociedad de Productores de Leche), completely repaint them, and not get caught? What was CADA’s most daring action?

RZ: Only passion can accomplish those things. We weren’t afraid at all. We didn’t have any way to get those milk trucks out of there, to recount Salvador Allende’s program against infant malnutrition, we didn’t have any way to fly six planes, in the midst of the dictatorship, launching thousands of flyers with a poem about Santiago, but we did it. The last art action was the call to clandestinely cover all of Chile with the phrase “No más” (“No more”), with the + sign [in Spanish, “+” is verbally pronounced “más”], and see how thousands of other people finished these phrases by adding on their own words—No + dictatorship, No + murders, No + terror, and that graffiti didn’t stop until the dictatorship ended. But we only advanced a little. The massive protests had already begun. And when I saw hundreds and hundreds of candles lining the street up to the church where a priest who shared in the poorest’ssuffering had been assassinated by the military, I understood that our work was over. The most audacious actions weren’t performed by Colectivo de acciones de arte but by the actual collective: the people of Chile.

NH: You were arrested on the morning of September 11—the day of the coup—in Valparaíso. Can you speak about that day, what was going through your mind?

RZ: I was twenty-three years old and committed to the socialist revolution of Salvador Allende, but my life was falling apart. I was newly separated, had two very small children, and suffered much. I had endured the last five days and nights without sleeping, wandering from here to there, and every so often I’d join the marches so as not to be defeated by sleep. (I thought that if I fell asleep I would die, and at the same time, the only thing I wanted was to die.) At six in the morning on September 11, they arrested me and took me with thousands of other prisoners to the galley of one of the boats that were used as prisons. I had a notebook with my poems in it and they thought that they were written in code, which meant some ferocious blows for me. When they were convinced that they were poems, they threw them into the sea. I reconstructed them in my mind. I managed to remember every letter amidst that hell. Later, they made up part of Purgatory, but then I didn’t know that I was going to write a book called Purgatory.

NH: You were arrested and beaten, the poems were destroyed, and you still were able to memorize all of them. That’s extraordinary. But you also didn’t write for years after that, why? Although your first two books, Purgatorio (Editorial Universitaria, Santiago de Chile, 1979) and Anteparaíso (Editores Asociados, Santiago de Chile, 1982), were published while CADA was still in action.

RZ: I began Purgatory a year and a half after the coup. Some soldiers got on a bus I was on and threw me off because of how I looked; they thought I was a beggar. I had been imprisoned in the galleys of the Maipo, I was communist, I was twenty-five years old, I was an unpublished poet, and I was alone. It didn’t go beyond a few blows, but I couldn’t stand it. I remembered that phrase from the Gospels that talks about turning the other cheek. So I closed myself in a bathroom and burned my cheek with a knife that I heated up until it was red. After hours the poems that I had memorized when they arrested me came to me and I began to write. I also imagined some poems that were written in the sky and in the desert and that he who had begun in ultimate solitude should end in the glimmer of happiness. Five years later we formed the CADA and with them I accomplished that poem in the sky. Its photographs make up part of the book that followed Purgatory: Anteparaíso. In 1993 I was able to do the writing over the desert in North Chile. It says, “Neither pain nor fear” and its photograph closes what I had imagined eighteen years earlier. It appears in the book La Vida Nueva (The New Life). The CADA had ended ten years before.

NH: Anteparaíso was approved for publication, but you didn’t submit the version you wanted published. Were you afraid it would be censored? What is the difference between censorship then and now?

RZ: The truth is that it was something simple. The editor, Mario Fonseca, submitted a copy with other poems, inoffensive things that we pulled from here and there, but with the title Anteparaíso. It passed the censure without any problem, so with that authorization we published the real version. We trusted no one would check it.

NH: You’ve said that you only stayed six weeks in prison but that moment has never left you. Can you describe that lingering moment?

RZ: That day has remained with me, and I think it is the undertone of everything that I have done. Not just because our lives changed forever in such a brutal way but also because that day is at the same time uncountable other days. He who is being tortured or beaten or killed is united with everyone who has been or is being beaten, tortured, and killed; it’s the military coup in Chile, but at the same time it’s Auschwitz, it’s the bomb over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it’s the Sabra and Shatila massacre. Each disappeared, tortured, massacred human being represents the absolute failure of all of humanity.

NH: Canto a su amor desaparecido (Editorial Universitaria, Santiago de Chile), or Song for His Disappeared Love, was published in 1985, at the height of Pinochet’s dictatorship. What would you tell your younger self today—were you really conscious of the risks? What would you tell the youth today in Chile and in the world about sociopolitical engagement? And what do you think of the Arab Spring?

RZ: In respect to myself, at that moment, yes, of course, I was aware of the risks. I’m not a Roman legion. I was afraid, but I couldn’t do anything else. The young know infinitely more than I do, and I hope from the bottom of my heart that they conquer the splendid cities that Rimbaud saw and which were denied to me and those of my generation. That’s what I also hope for the Arab Spring. I’ve seen nothing of what I believed, but if a God exists it is the same God for me and for the Palestinian poet Najwan Darwish. What I want to say is that I also carry Palestine and Jerusalem in my heart.

NH: With Canto a su amor desaparecido, did you want to invent not only a new form but a new language and transform the personal into the collective in a new way?

RZ: The only masterpiece, the one great poem, would have been that poem never written before because what it narrates never happened. I don’t take any pride in Canto; I don’t take any pride in INRI. Often when I read it, I hate it, and at the same time I can’t go on because I’m going to burst out crying. But I grit my teeth and I don’t cry. I read.

NH: Tell me more about writing La Vida Nueva (Editorial Universitaria, Santiago de Chile) in the sky.

RZ: The poem in the sky happened over Queens in 1982. Its photographs make up part of Anteparaíso, and its title “La vida nueva” announces the book La Vida Nueva, published in 1994, that ends with the photograph of the phrase etched in the desert. I thought that the sky was that place where all have directed their gaze because they believed that they could see in it their destined hopes. I imagined that it was beautiful, and that same sky was a great page to write our pain and perhaps our hope on. The writings in the sky and in the desert are my most intimate poems, those that are most deeply engraved in me. They were conceived in the most desperate times of my life and in the darkest period of the Chilean dictatorship. To think of those phrases being written on the sky, or of the phrase “neither pain nor fear,” in moments when the country could feel, for the most part, just pain and fear, was perhaps what made me not break. They weren’t aesthetic operations; they were acts of survival.

NH: Your latest collection, Zurita (Ediciones Universidad Diego Portales, Chile, 2011; Editorial Delirio, Salamanca, España, 2012; Editorial Aldus, México DF, 2012), is a monument. A collection of more than 700 pages that incorporates your previously published poems, especially poems from Canto a su amor desaparecido (1985), INRI (2004), and In Memoriam (2007). The poems from these three books seem to be the most central, deepest part of Zurita. Can you discuss your journey writing this masterpiece, your odyssey?

RZ: I started it in Germany in 2002. I had the facts of my life: fifty-two years old, four children. And I thought that they couldn’t be so different from the facts of other lives. That book describes the journey over one night, a real night, that existed and that goes from sundown on September 10, 1973, to the dawn of the next day, September 11, the day of the military coup in Chile; and it is also the journey of a child. My father died when I was two years old, and I imagined that night was also the night that each human being should cross the earth. Ultimately, those are the facts and only literature can give those facts compassion, and the deepness that they never have in and of themselves. INRI and In Memoriam and several others like Dreams for Kurosawa, which was published a year ago in English, are sections that I took from the pages of Zurita, but the structure of the book is different.

NH: Zurita reflects the country’s physical history and a single’s man physical history; body is intertwined with landscape. Nature is a central element in this book, a way to address political, social, and cultural ideas—can you elaborate? You have always said that you are an urban man and yet it’s nature you return to in your work. Perhaps nature is a way to address our human nature, or going back to our roots, or what we can’t control?

RZ: At times I’ve thought that poems are the dreams that the earth dreams and that our bodies are the transmitters of those dreams. The landscape that keeps constantly coming up is the desert. In Zurita even the ocean has dried up, as if thousands, millions of years had gone by. At the same time, what is being shown is the immediate present, all that cumulous of images of extermination camps, coup d’états, holocausts, that made the last century the cruelest in history and that continue being perpetuated in the present. But I always return to the desert, perhaps because its colors, unlike all the world’s other landscapes, in its infinite shades of ochers, of beige or brown, are the same colors of the human skin.

NH: You fuse life and work—Zurita is the title of the book, echoing yourself and a character... You promote and abandon the name; its uncommonness becomes common. Tell me more?

RZ: Its title is exactly like my last name not because I believe there is something special about my life or my name but because it is my basic fact, the basic act of being alive. If you can arrive at the core of that concrete fact that is your life, without self-compassion or false solidarity, you are possibly touching the core of us all; human beings aren’t much more than different metaphors for the same thing, and all of us, more or less, are similar in our anxieties and fears, in our need for love, in our perplexity in the face of death.

NH: Can you speak about the influence of the church in Chile? Recently Time Magazine had an article about the Latino reformation—Latinos are banishing the Catholic church and joining the Protestant churches across the United States, becoming Evangelicals. This could reshape religion and politics in the US. What do you think about this, and what have you observed in Latin America?

RZ: I don’t know, and I don’t know if it matters to me. There is something that’s extremely sad. During the dictatorship, the Chilean Catholic church protected the persecuted and heroically opposed the Pinochet dictatorship. For that, they were beloved and respected, but several of them, the most emblematic, have been accused of sexual abuse against children.

NH: Where do you see the world heading? And literature?

RZ: We live in the age of the agony of languages and the absolute triumph of the language of advertising. It’s the end of that journey that begins from the plentitude of the great ancient poems where the word and what it names are one sole thing, to “Nike; Just do it,” where no word names what it names and no phrase says what it says. And faced with that agony, poetry is the most fragile art because it depends on those words that die. But at the same time, it’s the most powerful because it is the only one that can give an account of that ferocious loss and raise up new meanings. The poem as we have known it since Homer is dying, and hopefully does so with grandeur, hopefully still delivers us some poems that make us cry. But, although all the words are drying up and all the great poems are dying beneath the infinite ocean of advertisements, poetry will not die. Poetry was born with the human, it is older than writing, older than the book, older than the Internet, and it will continue taking on millions of new forms until it dies when the last man contemplates the last sunset.

NH: I was in Chile for the centenary celebration of Pablo Neruda—it was impressive, magical even, to see so many people in the streets, by the beach, everywhere reciting Neruda’s poetry. Why do you think Neruda was able to have such influence on music, literature, and politics in Chile and throughout Latin America?

RZ: Neruda is the great river that our narrow country doesn’t have. He is our Mississippi. If his poetry continues being heard and thousands and thousands continue reading it, singing it, citing it, that’s because he interpreted the dreams and hopes of the age he lived in more deeply than anyone else, their yearning for love so often choked.

NH: Can you speak about the younger-generation writers in Chile today— are they engaged sociopolitically? Do they write about the era of the dictatorship or post-dictatorship years, or perhaps about the politics of economics? Are they freer? How has the Internet affected literature in Chile? What are their different poetic aesthetics?

RZ: The best young poets from Latin America and from Chile are making an enormous effort to reinvent the poem by integrating the Internet, video, and performance, but not as something purely formal. And there are several notable ones. In Chile, the poets of the new poems were ahead of today’s large mobilizations of students fighting against the hyper-dictatorship of capitalism. I’ll name some of the most interesting: the Chileans Héctor Hernández Montecinos and Juan Soros; the Mexicans Valerie Mejer, Julián Herbert, andMaría Rivera; and the Argentinian Sergio Raimondi.

NH: Pablo Neruda, Nicanor Parra, Enrique Lihn, and Roberto Bolaño are global literary figures; are there important writers not sufficiently recognized outside of Chile?

RZ: Yes, impressive poets: Pablo de Rokha, Neruda’s great enemy, with a torrential work that includes one of the most extraordinary tragic poems of the twentieth century, Canto del macho anciano; and the first Latin American to receive the Nobel, Gabriela Mistral.

NH: You have been influenced by French writers, such as René Char and Raymond Queneau—who else? Any American writers?

RZ: Yes, Rimbaud and the Coup de dés by Mallarmé, not many more. Marguerite Duras means infinitely more to me. In general, to me the French poets seem somewhat artificial and too proud of their language. There is one nonetheless that still moves me—RobertDesnos. His book A la misterieuse contains poems like its title poem, the most extraordinary love poem since Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 55.” I’ve admired North American poets much more: Walt Whitman and Pound—it doesn’t matter what one thinks of them, they’ve influenced you—William Carlos Williams, finally, the Maximus Poems of Charles Olson, A by Zukofsky. So many.

NH: Does the poet have a responsibility to address issues of war and conflict? Would you have done anything differently?

RZ: I think so. But no one can decide besides the poet what he will consider his responsibility.

NH: Chile for you is...?

RZ: My country.

Translated from Spanish by David Shook