Written on the Sky

Chilean poet Raúl Zurita talks about life after Pinochet.
Raúl ZuritaPhoto: Héctor González de Cunco

This interview was conducted in Chicago on April 3, 2009. At this time, I was working on a translation of Raúl Zurita's Canto a Su Amor Desaparecido (Song for His Disappeared Love), which in August 2010 was published by Action Books. Zurita was completing a stint as a visiting professor at Tufts University in Massachusetts, and I invited him to come to Chicago, where on this evening we gave a bilingual reading of his work at the Instituto Cervantes, in an event sponsored by the Guild Literary Complex. Zurita is an amazing reader of his own work; his voice is deep and shaky, and he concluded his recitation by literally singing a hymn to the disappearing nations. It was humbling to be a part of this event, as it was the only time I've ever been at a poetry reading that concluded with a standing ovation. There were clearly many Chileans in the audience, and their familiarity with Zurita's writing, and the experiences it conveys, gave the reading an emotional gravity that is rare at American poetry readings.

Before the event at the Instituto Cervantes, we spent the day working on the translation, preparing our presentation, and engaging in the following discussion, which, according to Zurita, is the first published interview of Zurita to appear in English. The interview was conducted in Spanish, mostly at the Café Jumping Bean in Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood. Thus I both transcribed and translated the conversation, which touches upon a variety of topics, and which I hope conveys the oddities and contradictions of being a radical, political artist under an oppressive and brutal regime. Additionally, we discussed some of the different artistic approaches and influences that over the years have defined Zurita, who can at once be described as poet, performer, conceptual artist, and literary provocateur.

Born in Santiago, Chile, in 1950, Zurita studied engineering before writing poetry in large part as a response to Augusto Pinochet’s 1973 military coup. Zurita was arrested and tortured, but upon his release he helped to form the radical artistic group CADA (Colectivo de Acciones de Arte), and he gained notoriety for his provocative public performances. In the early ‘80s, Zurita hired planes to sky-write passages from his poem, “The New Life,” over Manhattan, and later he carved the phrase “Ni Pena Ni Miedo” (“Without Pain Or Fear”) into Chile’s Atacama Desert, where it can still be seen because children in the neighboring town bring shovels into the desert and turn over the sand in the letters.

Zurita is the recipient of numerous awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship and the National Poetry Prize of Chile. Three new books—INRI, translated by William Rowe; Song for His Disappeared Love, translated by Daniel Borzutzky; and Purgatory, translated by Anna Deeny—have recently been published by, respectively, Marick Press, Action Books, and the University of California Press. His books of poems include, among others: Purgatorio (1979), Anteparadíso (1982), El paraíso está vacío, Canto a Su Amor, Desaparecido, El Amor de Chile, La Vida Nueva, and In Memoriam. He lives in Santiago, Chile, where he is a professor of literature at the Universidad Diego Portales.

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Daniel Borzutzky: Song for His Disappeared Love was published in 1985, right in the midst of Pinochet's dictatorship. I'm curious about what it was like to be an artist and a poet during those years?

Raúl Zurita: It was very strange. There was a world that had to do with poetry that was full of conflict, and one had the sensation that we had to respond to the terror with a poetry that was just as powerful as the pain being delivered, but at the same time you had to try to avoid being punished. It was very difficult to find the language for this.  And so Song for His Disappeared Love was published—it wasn't so black and white—thanks to a person named Maria Teresa Matte, someone on the right: she read it and got it published.

DB: And who was she, an editor?

RZ: She was the sister of an editor at Editorial Universitaria [one of the largest publishers in Santiago], and she had been a friend of mine for a long time. It was all very weird

DB: When you speak of punishment, for writers what were the risks?

RZ: I was a member of a group called CADA (Colectivo de acciones de arte), and we did performance/actions in the street, and so the risks were the same as those taken by anyone who at the time was opposed to the dictatorship: that you'd be disappeared, beaten, imprisoned.

DB: Returning to poets, how did the censors operate? Were there books that at the time were not able to be published?

RZ: Exactly. The books had to pass through censors, at least to a certain extent.

DB: For all publishers?

RZ: So with Anteparaíso I submitted a book that was different than the one that was actually published. They approved the book thinking it was one book but it was actually another.

DB:  You said the publisher was a friend of yours. The idea that someone who was politically from the right wing would support your books sounds pretty weird to me.

RZ: Chile is a country with two Nobel Prize-winning poets, and so there was a tiny fraction of the right wing who claimed Neruda for themselves even though Neruda was a communist. It was an incredible contradiction. Of course these weren't the military. These were people who loved Neruda and thought it was cute that he was a communist.

DB: Speaking of Neruda, it seems to me that this same group of people sought to depoliticize him as a writer

RZ: There was a time when García Márquez and Neruda were banned. Those were the first five years of the dictatorship, the worst years. After that, they realized that they had more important things to worry about than books.

DB: I read that when you were arrested you were carrying a file of poems.

RZ: Yes, they threw them into the sea. Everywhere I went, I carried this file of poems. It was from my first book, Purgatorio, from the first part, and since the poems had some drawings on them, they [the military] thought they contained codes, and so I was beaten terribly, but they gave me back the poems, until a senior officer arrived and he took one look at them and instantly knew they were poems, and so he threw them into the water.

DB: Why did he throw them into the water?

RZ:  They were poems, garbage.

DB:  And the first guys who looked at the poems, did they actually read them?

RZ: They looked at the poems and said, “What's this shit, huevon?” but they didn't recognize what they were, but then the one guy who knew better took one look at them and threw them into the water. You see, the only thing that told me that I wasn't crazy, that I wasn't living in a nightmare, was this file of poems, and then when they threw them into the sea, then I understood exactly what was happening

DB: How did you come to be arrested?

RZ: I was arrested at six in the morning on the September 11th [the day of the coup], in the mess when Valparaíso was taken. I was an engineering student at the University of Federico Santa Maria and so without even checking names—they arrested anyone who had anything to do with the left-wing organizations. It was a deeply leftist university, and so they didn't even ask me my name until I had been arrested for three weeks.

[Note: Valparaíso, a port town a few hours from Santiago, is where the Chilean navy was based, and where the coup d’etat was prepared.]

DB: And how long were you in prison?

RZ: It wasn't that long. Six weeks. But it was so terrible that it's stayed with me all my life.

DB: Did you have any contact with your family?

RZ: None. And I lived with the permanent fear that they were going to kill us. They shut the top and we were in an absolute pitch blackness; we were in a space where there was room for 100 and we were 800, and we could barely walk, like in those films that show the slaves coming from Africa.

DB:  And so I assume you weren't able to write at that time?

RZ: I couldn't write for three years, at which point I went back to Purgatorio.

DB:  What was the relationship between the new versions of the poems in Purgatorio and those that you wrote before and that were lost?

RZ: Curiously enough, I had the poems that were thrown overboard memorized, and so I was able to recuperate them. Half of that book was written before I was arrested, and it wasn't difficult to reconstruct it.  And as in the poem “Wolves and Sheep” by Manuel Silva Acevedo, it was as if in those poems I had a great premonition of what was about to happen. But before I was arrested on the ship, I had no idea that the book was going to be called Purgatorio.

[Note: Daniel Borzutzky's translation of Manuel Silva Acevedo's “Wolves and Sheep,” originally published in 1975 and considered a canonical work of Chilean poetry, was published in Another Chicago Magazine in 2010.]

DB:  Returning, then, to Song for His Disappeared Love, how do you see this book as fitting into your collected body of writing?

RZ: For me, it's central: it's like the belly button, like the deepest point . . .

DB: From what I've read of your work, it's the most intense, the most direct, which leads me to a question.  For the writers of this period was it common to write about political reality in such a direct way?

RZ: Not at all. On the contrary, if you would have read 90 percent of the poetry of that period, you'd have the impression that nothing was going on in Chile. Enrique Lihn, for example, had a book called El Paseo Ahumada that I think is pretty bad, but it was well liked in Chile. There's another poet who’s famous in Chile named Jorge Teillier and there's an illusion; his poetry before the coup, during the coup, and after the coup is exactly the same.  And then those that wrote protest poetry were so bad, so poor. For me there were two big exceptions. One was José Angel Cuevas, but he has more to do with the period after the coup. And the other one is Diego Maquieira, whose work is so violent that it couldn't have been written under any other circumstances. Now, I feel that with Song for His Disappeared Love, it was an interrogation of the forms, with the niches; it was not only a denouncement, but it was an attempt to invent a language.

DB:  Speaking of other poets, how does Nicanor Parra fit into this discussion?

RZ: For me, Parra is fundamental. He re-brought poetry to life, which was the most important lesson I learned. I think he's the most important of all. I don't know if you know that Parra supported the coup. But then he realized quite quickly that he was wrong.

DB: And why did he support it?

RZ: Because he had problems with the communists. Because they had accused him of one thing and another. And so he confused his personal problems with problems that were much bigger. However, I was one of the few who supported him during this time. Parra had it bad during that time. He was totally isolated. I really love him. And the lessons of anti-poetry are for me incredibly important. He also used a direct language. It goes beyond language. He is very important.

DB:  One thing I see not only in Song for His Disappeared Love but also in your other books is the idea that the speaker is experiencing something that's at once both deeply personal and at the same time communal. Is this something that you were conscious of? I'm specifically thinking of the moments in Song with the niches and the countries.

RZ:  I never thought about the writing's reception before it was published. But soon I had an odd understanding that what I was saying represented something else, and I didn't control it but I thought it was true.

DB: Specifically?

RZ: Song for His Disappeared Love, Purgatorio, Anteparaíso . . . they represented an experience that was not simply my own.

DB: Song for His Disappeared Love was published by Editorial Universitaria. What sort of poetry were they publishing?

RZ: They published the big writers of the time. They published Nicanor Parra, Enrique Lihn . . .

DB: And was there a community of literary journals and salons in the Pinochet years, in the 80s?

RZ: Sometimes there were readings that were massive mixed with music and everything, but in general they were semi-clandestine.

DB: In houses, or. . . ?

RZ: In houses, [or] schools affiliated with the church.

DB: In Chile there are so many contradictions, and the church is a good example of this

RZ: The church in Chile was different than the church in Argentina, or in Spain during the civil war as it absolutely supported the persecuted. But this isn't the case anymore, as there's a series of really reactionary things in the Catholic Church, the same Catholic Church that gained so much good will in a different era. . . . But the other thing that's difficult to understand is the work of Ignacio Valente, for example [a right-wing priest and literary critic who was fictionalized in Roberto Bolaño’s By Night in Chile]. On the one hand, [he was] a priest with Opus Dei, a lover of literature, and writers were absolutely hanging on him to get him to write about them, before, during, and after.

DB: You spoke a bit about Parra, but were there really poets who could be considered Pinochet supporters?

RZ: There was one who was especially noteworthy. His name was Braulio Arenas, who was a poet who was very respected, and he supported Pinochet and even wrote hymns for him.

[Note: Braulio Arenas' poem “Chile es Asi,” published in 1976, is often interpreted as an homage to the dictatorship.]

DB:  I know you were very young at the time, but I'm wondering if in the years before Pinochet, if there was an artistic movement that corresponded to the political movement of the time.

RZ: The popular songs of that time were excellent, but the poetry of that time was a “flat” poetry . . .

DB: I mean more in terms of aesthetic or formal ideas.

RZ: Yes, there was an art that we could call revolutionary that supported a certain aesthetic. It was Neruda: he influenced everything—Cuban music, the music of Silvio Rodríguez, the music groups. The culture of the left in Chile and in a large part of Latin America was called Pablo Neruda. He was a genius: he gave people expression.

DB: From the little that I know of Chilean poetry of the time, the person who I think of as writing in a totally different form is Juan Luis Martínez. Are there others?

RZ: No. Afterwards, there are. Diamela Eltit three years later, published a book that was like this, in 1983. But these are like two time periods.

DB:  Here, there are a few translations of Juan Luis Martínez by Steven White in Poets of Chile, and now La Nueva Novela is being translated by Mónica de la Torre. For people who don't know anything about him, why is he important?

RZ: La Nueva Novela, first of all, didn't have one sentence that was by Juan Luis Martínez. It was constructed purely from found texts. It's an enormous compilation. It can also be explained a bit in terms of the anti-poetry of Parra, but it went even further; Martínez's was a poetry without God. In this book the role of the author was as someone who compiles or organizes more than someone who writes. It's a huge collage. You know, we wrote some of that book together. I don't know if you know that I was married to his sister. And we shared a typewriter. There's part of La Nueva Novela that I wrote, some multiplications and divisions, so we had that type of relationship.

DB: So you were very close friends?

RZ: We were almost brothers.

DB: And how did the literary world respond to Juan Luis Martínez?

RZ: With a profound distrust. But something weird happened, which is typical . . .

DB:  He died and they discovered his greatness?

RZ: Not just that. In part when I started getting attention, then they began to pay attention to Juan Luis Martinez. And I think there was originally an idea that he was somehow copying me, but really they didn't understand him at all. And I really got his work.

DB: For him, who were models?

RZ: The French writers . . .

DB: René Char?

RZ: René Char, Raymond Roussell, Raymond Queneau. . . . Not the more official writers . . . He was an incredible person. He never finished high school, and he knew more about French literature than anyone else, but he didn't know French. He was incredible.

DB: And so are there now people who write under his influence in Chile, who use collage, etc. . . ?

RZ:  I think there are some who intend now to write like him, but no one is really able to do it, because he was extremely structured. And so those who try to write like him don't have the patience for the structure. I think there is only one writer, a young writer, who has taken Juan Luis Martínez and used his influence well. His name is Andrés Fischer; a young writer, well young for me; he was born in 1971. He constructed a poetry that is syllogistic, influenced a bit by me and a bit by Juan Luis Martínez, but he's different.

DB: You spoke a bit about the cow poems. Reading your work, one notices the use of nature and nature as a way of talking about political and cultural ideas, of talking about something other than nature. How did this happen?

RZ: For me this is a mystery. It's a mystery, I don't know. The truth is, I'm a city person. I began to feel at one point that in the face of the violence and horror, nature had something permanent. That this existed before and it will exist afterwards. But why? But why so obsessively? I don't know.

DB: I think this is something that continues to exist in your work, even in your latest book, In Memoriam. Well, on the same subject the poems from La Vida Nueva that you wrote in the sky—how did this idea come about?

RZ:  That idea came about in the most desperate time of my life. I got the idea far before it happened, in 1975; it was at the time I burned my face and then I remembered that when I was a kid, a really young kid, I remembered having seen an airplane write the name of a soap in the sky. I didn't know if it was a dream or if I had really seen it because it was an extremely old memory. . . . And so then it occurred to me that it would be beautiful to write in the sky. This was 1975 and I was totally desperate, but thinking about this helped me to stay OK. . . .I thought about this, and I was able to escape from the horrors of life.

DB: And in practice, how did this function? How did you find pilots?

RZ: Originally, we tried to do it with the Chilean Air Force, because I thought that if these same guys who bombed La Moneda (the presidential palace) for their government are capable of writing a poem in the sky, then it would prove that art would be capable of changing the world. Of course, it didn't happen. The idea went as far up as a commandante. Then we had some friends who were in the U.S. And I wrote to them and asked if they knew of any agencies that wrote advertisements in the skies with airplanes. And so how it happened . . . it was crazy. I had never even been in an airplane. But we arranged it all. Today I wouldn't be able to do it. It was through pure passion. We were able to get it filmed entirely for free. We sold in advance an edition of Anteparaíso at a time when the dollar was extremely cheap in Chile, and so we came with a lot of money in dollars to finance it. It was totally demented. We came with the idea that we'd get it all done and return in three days, but the weather didn't cooperate. We were dying of hunger at the end of it.

DB:  And where did you stay?

RZ:  We stayed in the apartment of . . . well, I came with Diamela Eltit and another person from CADA (Colectivo  de acciones de arte), Lotty Rosenfeld and she had some relatives who lived in the United States.

DB:  Can you talk a little bit about CADA? When did it begin? Who was in it?

RZ:  CADA began in 1979, and it lasted until 1983. It was myself, Diamela Eltit [and] Lotty Rosenfeld and Juan Castillo, who were both visual artists. And what we did, we called them Art Actions: they were really happenings, political art against the dictatorship and in public places. It was an interesting time.

DB: And were there times when the military or the police responded?

RZ: We were very adept. Everything we did, we did with permission, but we never really stated what we were going to do. For example, we managed to get 10 milk trucks (from Soprole [Sociedad de Productores de Leche]), and when we got them out we completely re-painted them; it cost the manager his job. But they could never catch us. Once, five minutes after we left a bus full of soldiers showed up; we did an action in front of the CEPAL [Comisión Económica para América Latina y el Caribe], a UN building in Chile. And we did them, and we were able to do things that were very powerful.

DB: So if history were different and they had shown up five minutes earlier, what would have happened?

RZ:  It would have been bad. . . . I don't know how bad it would have been.

DB: But wasn't there some protection in being a public figure?

RZ: No, not at all. And at that time I was completely unknown.

DB: Another of your books that's coming out in English this year is INRI, translated by William Rowe [Note: published in 2009 by Merick Press].

RZ: INRI and Song for His Disappeared Love are my most powerful books, the most politically direct of my books. They are two very connected books. One (Song) was written during the dictatorship, while the other was written after the dictatorship when it was announced by the government that many bodies had been thrown into the sea.

DB:  What was year was this?

RZ: This was published in 2003.

DB: And when did the government announce about the bodies thrown in the sea?

RZ: 2002. Everyone knew this already.

DB: And so are you writing now?

RZ: The truth is that Canto a Su Amor, INRI,and In Memoriam are all part of one larger book that I am now finishing. It's about 700 pages. I just finished it. It's not an anthology: it's a new work that incorporates some previously published pieces.

DB: It appears to me that you have relationships with younger writers in Chile. What interesting directions do you see their writing going in?

RZ:  I'm really interested in younger writers. They're able to realize a world that I can't access. And so they awake in me an enormous curiosity. I think they’re invading the forms to come. And there are some extraordinary writers, but who come with a different critique. They're freer in this sense, and this has to do with the Internet. They don't have our same fear of the blank page, and in this group there are two or three whom I really admire, not because they are young but as poets, and they impress me because in our neo-liberal Chile that wishes to be a model for Latin America, these writers realize the inferno that this is. They're political poets, political in the deepest sense of the world. They are truly giving voice to the social state; these writers, and [José Angel] Cuevas.

DB:  We've spoken about Héctor Hernández Montecinos. Who are some others?

RZ: Diego Ramírez Gajardo. Pablo Paredes. Felipe Ruiz. Paula Ilabaca. Gladys González. And somewhat differently, a bit older: Rafael Rubio, Germán Carrasco. They're very interesting writers.

DB: And for these younger writers that you mention, how does the era of the dictatorship enter into their work, or does it?

RZ: These writers are talking more about the horrors of the post-dictatorship years.

DB: And I think that the horrors of the post-dictatorship years, at least economically, come out of Pinochet's economic project.

Originally Published: August 26th, 2010

Daniel Borzutzky is the author of The Performance of Becoming Human, recipient of the 2016 National Book Award for Poetry. His other books include In the Murmurs of the Rotten Carcass Economy (Nightboat, 2015), Memories of my Overdevelopment (Kenning Editions, 2015); and The Book of Interfering Bodies (Nightboat, 2011). He has translated poetry collections from Spanish, including Galo Ghigliotto’s Valdivia (Coimpress,...

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  1. August 27, 2010
     Kent Johnson

    This is a fabulous interview. Zurita is one of the great living poets, his work and life truly amazing... There is more on Zurita here, from a Chile travelogue written by Forrest Gander and me. You can also see a photo of the massive Ni Pena ni Miedo earthwork, which Daniel mentions above:


  2. August 31, 2010
     Suzanne Schneider Ross

    Excellent interview by Borzutzky of Zurita; it opens up Zurita's experiences throughout the horrific Pinochet coup. Regards, Suzanne Schneider Ross Marick Press.

  3. September 1, 2010
     Donald Sanders

    Itis always the poet that must pay the price of change. It is a high price for scribbleing on paper the ideas of your heart and mind. I wish to thank you for my portion that you have paid in my stead. Thank you for this interview.