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A conversation with Randall Couch
I understand there’s a new film about Gabriela Mistral, and you were at the US opening. Please tell us about that, and who came to this opening?
Yes, the Chilean filmmaker María Elena Wood has made a full-length documentary called LocasMujeres (Madwomen) about the poet’s last years, spent in Roslyn Harbor, New York with her young American companion Doris Dana. The film is both a love story and the story of the opening of Mistral’s papers, which Dana had kept largely sequestered for the fifty years between Mistral’s death in 1957 and her own death in late 2007. It also incorporates audio tapes and 16mm home movies of the two women made by Dana, showing a side of Mistral—domestic, sometimes funny, occasionally jealous—largely invisible to the public during her lifetime.
The film had two US openings, one in New York at Barnard (Doris Dana was an alumna) and one in Washington, D.C., sponsored by the Organization of American States’ Art Museum of the Americas and the Inter-American Development Bank. Among the guests in New York was Michelle Bachelet, the former president of Chile, and in Washington, where I was invited to be on the post-screening discussion panel, the Chilean Ambassador (who was traveling) was represented by his wife. In addition to the filmmakers and other dignitaries, Doris Atkinson, the executor of the Mistral estate and Dana’s niece, was also present.
Internationally as well as in the US, people are much more familiar with Neruda, but can you talk about how huge Mistral actually is in Chile? And what factors into her enduring appeal to the Chilean people?
Mistral is an important poet in most hispanophone countries. Her rondas and lullabies are among the most widely known poems in the Spanish-speaking world, learned by children much as we learn nursery rhymes. But it’s hard to exaggerate her stature in Chile. Her image is on the 5000-peso (about 10 USD) bank note today:
and an estimated half million people lined the streets of Santiago to view her funeral procession. She has been since 1945 a cultural icon and potent national symbol—one that both the right and left have attempted over the years to recruit and inflect. Prior to that time, however, the state did not always treat her well.
The reasons for her celebrity are complex and some are unique to her biography and historical moment. Of mestizo heritage, she was born into rural poverty in 1889 and abandoned by her father when she was three years old. She had limited formal schooling but became a passionate and accomplished schoolteacher, rising through provincial posts by tenacity and shrewd networking to the top of the educational hierarchy in Chile while still in her thirties. She was a fervent pan-Americanist, publishing her poems as often in Argentina, Venezuela, or Mexico as in Chile; her first book of poetry was published in the U.S. She was asked by the revolutionary government of Mexico to help form a new secular educational system, and throughout her life she tirelessly worked to improve literacy in rural areas and among the poor, especially among women. Her 1923 prose anthology, Lecturas para mujeres (Readings for Women) was widely used for decades throughout Latin America.
When Muriel Rukeyser wrote in 1968, ‘What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? / The world would split open,’ she might have had Mistral in mind. Mistral’s poetry treated topics like childbirth, breastfeeding, and the struggle of impoverished mothers to provide for their children with a compassionate but unsentimental frankness that shocked many but endeared her to millions. From middle age she lived abroad, earning her living through journalism and serving as Chilean consul at large, aiding refugees from two wars and later helping to found UNICEF and to draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
In 1945, she became the first Latin American to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, and only the second Latin American laureate in any field. Not only had her educational work played an important role in nation-building during a crucial phase in the postcolonial development of Latin America, but her receipt of the prize was a point of enormous pride throughout the region, and especially in Chile, symbolizing a cultural coming of age. Mistral is still sometimes referred to in the Chilean press by the epithet “our Nobel.”
So there are many extra-poetic factors in her appeal in addition to the the subject matter and–especially late in her career–the remarkable force and technical accomplishment of her poems.
Both Neruda and Mistral were public poets. That is, they were known to the public and addressed public issues that triggered discussions. They were parts of the national discourse. In the US, we don’t have anything like that, since our public doesn’t care about any poet. What a far cry from what Whitman envisioned. He actually thought our country would value poets more than any other! It has gotten worse and worse from Whitman’s days. I was just in Harpers Ferry, a kind of John Brown theme park. It’s interesting to think back to John Brown, because he triggered an explosion of poetry, with hundreds of poems published in the immediate aftermath of his raid and hanging. Back then, Americans still considered poetry to be an essential response to, and perhaps even shaper of, national events and crises. Now, poems are completely irrelevant, and a major reason for this is the mass media. Americans are most indifferent to poetry because our country generates more nonsense and distraction than anybody else.
Well, Mistral spent most of her adult career outside Chile, partly to avoid conflict with and constraint by officialdom, and of course Neruda after he became an active communist had to flee the country for many years to avoid arrest. Nevertheless it’s true that, at least for much of the twentieth century, Latin American society generally has had a tradition of respect for education–partly because for so long it was scarce and something to aspire to–and for poetry as a marker of a cultivated sensibility. The same was perhaps true of the U.S. a couple of generations earlier, during an analogous period of national development, which would take us back roughly to Whitman’s era.
At the turn of the twentieth century in provincial Chile, where few people could afford books and libraries were rare, newspapers carried the burden of print culture. Mistral published her first poems and essays as a teenager in the local newspaper. In the cosmopolitan dailies of the capitals, literature received regular and vigorous coverage, something that continues today, perhaps to a greater extent than in North America.
You can see something of the dynamic in the story of Neruda’s late series of Odas elementales, which were both a critical and popular success. In the 1964 article, “Some improvised reflections on my works,” he describes how they came to be:
“The initial stimulus came from a newspaper in Caracas, El Nacional, whose director, my dear friend Miguel Otero Silva, asked me to contribute a weekly column of poetry. I accepted, asking only that this collaboration of mine not be published in the Arts page of the literary supplement . . . but in the news section.”
For the series, which began in 1952, Neruda not only insisted on abjuring the class division between the bourgeois arts and the proletarian news, but he was moved to develop a plain, everyday, populist literary style. As it turned out, only a handful of the more than two hundred poems collected in the four books of odes were published in El Nacional, but the idea of the vast audience of a national newspaper buoyed his creative program and resulted in some of his most widely read books.
In Vietnam, they used to arrest poets, but now, they’ve learnt from us. Communists used to ban everything, but now they’ve learnt from the US, and I’m talking about countries like China and Vietnam. Instead of banning everything, pop music, porn and romance novels, etc., they’ve learnt that the best way to control the masses is to drown them in bullshit. The Vietnamese no longer arrest poets because they’ve realized no one is reading them. My best friend in Vietnam, Nguyen Quoc Chanh, writes more politically aggressive poems than any Vietnamese, ever, and yet he’s not arrested, because everyone is watching Lady Gaga, Madonna, Titanic and Korean soaps, etc. They will still call Chanh in to interrogate him for a few hours, just to intimidate him and make his life uncomfortable, but they’ve refrained from arresting him, since that would only turn him into a cause and make him famous. There’s no point in arresting a poet, since no one is paying attention to him anyway, and that’s the new situation in Vietnam, and what we’ve long had in the US.
As for your argument about mass media making poetry increasingly irrelevant to public life, I don’t disagree except perhaps to observe that as McLuhan would have predicted, the advent and use of ubiquitous broadband-networked digital media and communication devices have begun to alter our perceptive, cognitive, and executive functions in ways that most of us are entirely unaware of and that cognitive psychology and neuroscience are only beginning to map. There’s less need for totalitarian governments to push propaganda on the scale they once did, since ‘users’ will happily keep pushing the digital distraction dispenser button on their own. So only the most threatening (to the authorities) activity needs to be policed. Maintaining independence of mind (not just political independence, but what used to be called subjectivity) now requires making mindful choices about directing one’s attention and preserving the ability to focus. Some people, including some philosophers and artists (including poets), look forward with excitement to a cyber-enhanced subjectivity “unanchored” to individual bodies. But that’s another discussion.
I want to bring up the Gunter Grass brouhaha. First off, the poem only caused a stir because of who wrote it. Had this poem been written by anybody else but a German Nobel Prize winner who had hid his service in the SS, then no one would have noticed it, so there was no power of poetry at work here, but only the knotty issues of the author’s biography, and the very literal contents of what he said in regard to Israel, which he had chosen to embed in something that only vaguely resembles a poem, at least in English translations. Though Martin Earl has pointed out that its poetic attributes are much more pronounced in the German original, he concludes that it is “little more than confused agitprop.”
It’s interesting that Grass chose to publish the poem in the Süddeutschen Zeitung, the largest German national daily newspaper (unlike Neruda, in the Culture section). I’m not competent to judge the poetic qualities of the German, but whatever they may or may not be, they seem not to be points of contention. The burden of the poem, though it appears to consist of things that had already been said by others, and though countering the West’s official silence about Israel’s nuclear capability, seems to be the issue, so the poem might as well have been a prose op-ed. Grass’s controversial biography and the cultural capital of the Nobel do appear to be catalyzing factors. The brouhaha, as you put it, usually starts (in the venues I’ve encountered it) with the question of what is politically acceptable to say in public and then quickly progresses to the old intractable questions about justice and exceptionalism rooted in the Middle East’s troubled history. All parties leap to a hair-trigger defense of prepared positions, so the provocation could have come from anything.
When we speak of public poets and the public poem, we are basically talking about poetry’s relevance to the community. In this regard, it is curious to consider the enduring resonance of somebody like Edgar Lee Masters. Though he’s seen as a lightweight by the contemporary poetry professionals, he will outlast most of them. Your thoughts on this?
When I was in high school in the early 1970s, Spoon River Anthology (written in 1915) was widely performed as a theater piece and today it still is. Like Mistral’s early work and Neruda’s odes, it can provoke thought and be emotionally moving for anyone, without special training. So it’s no surprise that such work retains a popular audience, to the extent that it treats aspects of human experience that are still recognizable to readers or viewers. ‘Difficult’ art, including poetry, offers its own great rewards, but the ability to recognize and appreciate these is acquired, requiring educational initiation into the aesthetic and philosophical histories that make the art meaningful. Not everyone has the time or inclination to pursue such education. So, to the extent that an art’s history remembers the new, not the good, it asks for a professionalized audience as well as professionalized producers. This is just another route to the cliché that there are more writers of poetry than readers of it. So it would seem that a poet today must either take up the challenge of developing intelligent alternatives to this teleology of marginalization or be content to create primarily for, as Pound put it, a circle of harsh friends.
We can see parallels in discussions about the role of poetry in the “Arab Spring” uprisings. The poet, filmmaker, and writer Nasser Farghaly last July noted (quoted in the Granta blog) that “the dialectic that has characterised the Arabic contemporary poetry scene for the last fifty years was very evident in the revolution; this is the dialectic of revolution in poetry, or revolution by poetry. Should a poet employ poetry to serve a political purpose? Or should the poet revolutionise his own poem, regardless of the subject that it deals with?” And Egyptian poet Ahmad Yamani pointed out that “the main role of poetry was played by poems already written from pre-revolution years, not especially written for this particular uprising. The slogan which all the Arab uprisings that we are witnessing now used – all of them – is derived from a poem by a late Tunisian poet” that was written in the early 20th century.
Randall Couch edited and translated Madwomen: The Locas mujeres Poems of Gabriela Mistral (University of Chicago Press, 2008), which won Britain’s biennial Popescu Prize for Poetry Translation and was one of two finalists for the PEN Award for Poetry in Translation. He is a regular panelist on the podcast series PoemTalk sponsored by the Poetry Foundation, PennSound, and Kelly Writers House.
He has published essays and book chapters on Ezra Pound, Gabriela Mistral, Harryette Mullen, and on ethics and reception in poetry translation. His poems have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies including Best New Poets 2005. In 2000 and 2008 he was awarded poetry fellowships by the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts.