by Daniel Borzutzky on Sep.26, 2011
Urayoán Noel, stateless poet, professor, polemicist and performer, has recently translated a terrific, fabulous, historically important, and wondrous book entitled U by the great Chilean poet Pablo de Rokha, whom it appears has yet to have a book translated into English. And it doesn’t appear that there are many translations of individual poems by de Rokha out there as well. There are a few in The Oxford Book of Latin American Poetry (translated by Molly Weigel), but I can’t find much else that’s currently available.
This (U!) is an exciting, momentous event, and to mark the occasion I thought I’d ask Urayoán some questions about his work with de Rokha, and in the process it’s my hope to draw some attention to Urá ‘s great project and to get some folks here in US poetry land aware of and interested in this great Chilean writer. It’s also important to mention that Pablo de Rokha’s wife/collaborator/co-conspirator–Winétt de Rokha is also a fascinating writer whose work is badly in need of some translating. So hopefully some of her work will soon appear in English as well. We dream big here on Montevidayo.
So, here goes the interview in which Urayoán Noel talks about translating de Rokha, who gave him “the freedom to suck” and who may be either the best or the worst poet he ever read!
DB: What should new readers of Pablo de Rokha know about him?
Urayoan Noel: Pablo de Rokha (1894-1968, born Carlos Díaz Loyola) belongs to that moment of rupture that saw the flourishing of Latin American vanguard poetry in the early 1920s. His early book Los gemidos was published in 1922, the same year as Vallejo’s Trilce, and, while I think it is an uneven and transitional book, it nonetheless represents a clear break with the poetry of its time. The bulk of de Rokha’s reputation as a vanguard innovator rests on a series of long poems he published in the mid-to-late 1920s, of which U (1926) is, I think, the most fully realized, and hence the one I chose to translate. In its long lines, its cosmic sweep, and its quasi-automatic writing, U resembles what Neruda and Huidobro were doing in Tentativa del hombre infinito or Altazor respectively (all very visionary Tristan Tzara), but its tone is distinctive: at once meditative and confrontational, funny and angry, fueled by the ironies of class, empire, and technology. de Rokha was an ardent communist, and much of his later work would take a brutally doctrinaire Stalinist hardline, something that undoubtedly alienated readers and negatively impacted his reputation. His penchant for self-publication, and for public feuds (most famously with Neruda and Huidobro) also help account for his relative invisibility outside of Chile.
DB: How does de Rokha fit into the pantheon of Chilean 20th century modernistish poetry giants (e.g. Neruda, Mistral, Huidobro, Parra, etc..)?
UN: He’s certainly a part of the Chilean poetry canon. In fact, within Chile, he is considered by many to be in that national pantheon, one of a handful of luminaries, right alongside the poets you mention. Outside of Chile, though, it’s another story. He’s a prominent figure in Latin American vanguard poetry, so scholars in that field will have some knowledge of his work. He’s also something of a poet’s poet, albeit a controversial one. Still, he is largely unknown in wider poetry circles, especially in the English-speaking world, which is one reason I decided to translate him. Most of de Rokha’s work is either out of print or available only through small presses in Chile, such as Santiago’s Ediciones LOM, which published a new edition of U in 2001. Given the vicissitudes of small press publishing in Latin America, which is largely localized and nation-specific, and the complexities of distribution, these new editions don’t circulate easily, even within Latin America. I’m not a scholar of Chilean literature, so I can’t speak to the nuances of de Rokha’s relationship to the Chilean literary canon. Furthermore, my own interest in de Rokha is along hemispheric or trans-American lines. For instance, I’m fascinated by how de Rokha’s work is evidently influenced by Whitman (the long lines, the epic scope, the experiments with prose) even as it cleverly and indefatigably critiques both U.S. mass culture (Hollywood, etc.) and capitalism. In this sense, de Rokha’s peers aren’t Huidobro or Neruda, so much as José Martí or Sousândrade, Latin American innovators who found inspiration in Whitman’s forms and vistas for hemispheric poetics critical of U.S. imperialism.
DB: In “Dance Cards,” the Roberto Bolaño story in Last Evenings on Earth, the narrator posits a Chilean literary universe divided into Nerudians and Parrians (though for the Mexican poets it was Nerudians vs. Vallejans). He then goes on to ask: “Why didn’t Neruda like de Rokha?” Explain.
UN: Well, as I mentioned before, Neruda, de Rokha, and Huidobro had “issues” with each other. A lot has been written on this (so much so that de Rokha is, sadly, known more as their foil than for his own work), and it involves accusations on all sides: of plagiarism, of being a bad poet and/or a bad person, and/or of having bad politics (de Rokha’s recalcitrance would be one extreme and Neruda’s purportedly wishy-washy rock-star communism would be the other). I think what Bolaño is getting at is the distinction between Neruda’s “poet with a capital P” and Parra’s far more playful, self-effacing persona (a language worker). De Rokha would split the difference between the two; he would be a Parra-lover’s Neruda: a cosmically (and comically) self-important poet who can still get his hands dirty poetically and politically.
DB: You’ve translated de Rokha’s U? How does this fit into his larger body of work? Why is it called U?
UN: As I mentioned above, I think it is his best book, the one that most successfully fuses the political poet and the automatic writer. I’m not really sure why it’s called U; I asked my friend José Miguel Curet, a poet and de Rokha scholar whose dissertation focuses on U, and he didn’t have a definitive answer. I’ve always thought of the “U” as short for the universe, given the poem’s totalizing impulse. I also think of “U,” the last of the vowels, as representing the end or the limits of language. “U” in Spanish is also like the sound of an animal howl or a howling wind: a howl of terror, pain, delight, all that is incommunicable. Images of howling recur throughout the poem and in de Rokha’s work more generally. (Maybe U can be marketed as a Chilean, heteronormative precursor to Ginsberg’s Howl?) Lastly, I think of “U” as the chemical symbol for uranium, an element whose relation to radioactivity would have likely interested de Rokha. (There are various scientific allusions in the text, to everything from the Scopes trial to various drugs and chemicals.) de Rokha’s is largely a poetics of energy transfer, a process of creative and political revolution.
DB: What do you like about de Rokha? What made you want to spend so much time, living, occupying, slogging around in his writing?
UN: de Rokha’s is a total poetics: it can accommodate (and de/recontextualize) everything. I can see him at home in our culture of apps and YouTube art and flash mobs, hurling out diatribes against them all and eviscerating them in the process. It’s also got that big emotional sweep common to the vanguard poetry of the times (Vallejo’s woundedness, Neruda’s sentimentality etc.) that reminds you that it’s okay to be cheesy. So much “experimental” poetry (including my own) risks becoming about coolness, about hip positionality. De Rokha reminds me that it’s okay to howl and whine also. As a poet, I think de Rokha also gave me the freedom to suck. When I first read de Rokha, as an undergrad at the University of Puerto Rico, I wasn’t sure if it was the best or the worst thing I’d ever read. I’ve felt that way about various poets who matter (e.g. Ginsberg, Stein, Rubén Darío), and I still feel that way about de Rokha today. At its worst, his work stagnates in its own lack of any kind of poetic economy (ironic in a poet so attuned to political economy); it is a one-note bleat. But there is a courage in that commitment, a beauty in that quest. Translating was the last step in a process of working through my complex feelings about the work– I have alluded to de Rokha at various points in my poetry, most noticeably in my most recent book, Hi Density Politics, which includes a piece that incorporates my translation of a de Rokha poem.
DB: What translation difficulties arise in U?
UN: de Rokha uses a high-poetic register with frequent prosaic twists and vernacular terms. There are many chilenismos, terms specific to Chilean Spanish of the 1920s and to which I, as a New York-based Puerto Rican of the 2010s, do not have easy access. This, I can research. The toughest part, though, is that de Rokha’s automatic writing typically involves so many linked prepositional phrases and dangling adjectives that it’s hard to tell what’s modifying what, especially since the images are often quasi-surrealistic anyway. When in doubt, I have gone with what sounds best, with what best renders de Rokha’s torrent into something resembling vernacular English. Finally, there are various typos in the original, so that when I come across a phrase that doesn’t sound right, it’s hard to tell if maybe he had meant to write something else. It would be great to have a definitive contemporary, critical edition of de Rokha’s works to consult. (Visor, the esteemed Spanish press, put out an anthology in the early 1990s, but, inexplicably, there was very little from U there.)
DB: Have you found a publisher for the book?
UN: I’m working on it.
DB: Give us a line or two from U that makes you say wow!
UN: For sheer shock value:
“Jhon Rockefeller defeca un telegrama sin ombligo”
(“John Rockefeller defecates a telegram without a navel”– Rockefeller’s name is misspelled in the original.)
It’s not pretty, but how many punk rockers or politically conscious rappers can say they came up with something as pithy?