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Juan Carlos Galeano in Conversation
Juan Carlos Galeano is a poet, translator, and essayist born in the Amazon region of Colombia. He has published several books of poetry, and has translated North American poets into Spanish. His poetry inspired by Amazonian cosmologies and the modern world, has been anthologized and published in international journals such Casa de las Américas (Cuba), The Atlantic Monthly, Ploughshares, BOMB Magazine, and Drunken Boat. He lives in Tallahassee, Florida, where he teaches Latin American poetry and Amazonian Cultures at Florida State University.
Robert Fernandez: Where are you from in Colombia?
Juan Carlos Galeano: I was born in the Amazon basin of Colombia, in the area of the Caquetá River, not too far away from the mountains. There, I saw lots of rivers coming down from the eastern branch of the Andes and beginning their journeys snaking through the basin in order to reach the Amazon River.
RF: Tell us what it was like growing up in the Amazon basin.
JCG: That Caquetá area was one of the many frontiers where modernity was pounding heavily. Big tracks of rainforest were being turned into land for agriculture and cattle ranching. I remember being fascinated with the purple color the sun took thanks to the fact that the sky was covered with smoke during almost all January and February, the time when settlers were burning the trees. No need for sunglasses, then, right? As you can imagine, back in the 60’s and 70’s displacement of indigenous peoples and deterioration of animal habitats were pretty bad. My childhood in Amazonia, in some ways, was comparable to the life of that of any kid growing up in close contact with nature in traditional cultures. I was enjoying everything around me. The good and the bad. Nevertheless in the midst of the projects of modernity and clearance of the forest there were still the indigenous people and their descendants around. Many were survivors from the genocide perpetrated against them during the Rubber Boom at the beginning of the 20th century. But most of them had been able to keep their belief systems, knowledge of the forest, some traditions. And let me tell you, when talking about those views of Amerindians in general, one can see how nowadays such indigenous knowledge and wisdom is still alive all over Latin America. That is evident and it is reflected in current constitutions such as those of Ecuador and Bolivia, documents that give personhood and legal rights to mountains, bodies of water and other non-humans.
So Amazonia for me was a twofold experience, mythical and also physical, if you wish. While my father and other settlers were obsessed with colonizing the place, building stables, bridges, houses, tables and chairs, I was hanging out in canoes with indigenous kids and fishermen who would talk about trees, animals, places and fish as if they had souls. So, in such a sentient realm of theirs, of course we felt spirits in the air, in the trees, in the water, everywhere. In the evenings I loved hearing tales about those supernatural creatures, but later when in bed I could hear them walking on the roof or outside, so it was scary too. On the other hand, when my friends and I weren’t at school, swimming, or having fun diving from the tallest branches to the river, we were playing soccer in the shore and sandbars. And soccer was like a religion for us, —we played even under the full moon. Other nights, the stars were felt as if they were the ceilings of our houses. Almost every afternoon the sky was busy handling lots of quarrels between the sun and the clouds. Fascinated by all that, for sure, I tried to write some verses in my teenage years, without much success. I think that now some of my poetry portrays many gestures of that land, and reveals my sympathies for that world.
RF: You’ve written a book on Amazonian folktales, and your poems sometimes have the feel of folktales. What is it about the folktale that attracts you?
JCG: No doubt that folklore and the mythical mode are very obvious in my poems. Such things stems from the oral narratives of indigenous peoples and newcomers in the basin. For folktales, like country songs or blues here, certainly teach one how to tell a story. And I owe that not only to those stories of my childhood in the Colombian Amazon but also to the years of traveling on many rivers and in forests of seven countries of the basin for over a decade. I listened and recorded lots of oral narratives from fishermen, hunters, loggers and small town dwellers. As you know, from those years of fieldwork, I obtained the fabric for the collection Folktales of the Amazon. So folk storytelling helped me to develop a narrative style, a poetic voice. In regards to imagistic traits and plain language, I must say too that my poetry had been originally influenced by the Japanese poetic tradition of haiku. That was the only kind of poetry I was able to read as I was trying to learn English after I came to the States. I liked the poetry of William Carlos Williams too. To that I would add the influence of other poetics such as that of Surrealist poets, particularly those from the Eastern European countries, as well as the sense of irony of Latin American poets like Nicanor Parra. Many times, using the Amazonian style, my poems tell stories portraying the mythical and the fantastic in a matter of fact way. Such is the case of my collection Special Report on the Wind, published in Spanish, a cosmology of the wind’s journey through a variety of geographies and world historical and mythical narratives. Some poems from my book Amazonia often work like small myths adopting a non-serious tone to suggest things that are terribly serious.
RF: You’ve done work on poetry during the period of Colombia’s “La Violencia.” What drew you to the subject? Can you talk about the poetry that came out of that time?
JCG: Speaking about “La Violencia” in Colombia, by the way, that was the very reason I was born in the Amazon. My parents, like many others, had fled the Andean areas and went to Amazonia to avoid getting killed. That period of Colombian history during the 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s really epitomizes the absurd ways in which ideologies take over the lives of humans. Can you believe that in Colombia people of the same racial and socioeconomic conditions, who had the same love for their lands, trees, animals, and mountains engaged themselves in such fratricidal, nonsensical civil wars? Quarrels of our many anthropocentric silly narratives, I guess. But they did, simply to follow the orders of “the fathers of the nation,” the egotistical few who had been responsible for the uneven distribution of wealth. They were people with the same kind of backward ideologies, who had been running the country since the independence wars from Spain in the 1800’s. And to be honest with you, I don’t admire the poetic production that came out of that civil war. Unfortunately most of the socially committed poetry produced during that time lacked innovative traits, which is something that we poets must display as our contribution to our literary tradition, right? They fell into political opportunism, imitating the poetic constructs of the Romancero Gitano (Gypsy ballads) from Federico García Lorca in Spain or Pablo Neruda’s political poems. I think that a poem has to be a poem (and I will let everyone imagine what I mean) before being the expression of any “truth” of a political idea or any other sort of social or power agenda. If at the end of the day, the aesthetically pleasing poem happens to coincide with a social concern, that should happen beyond the original intent.
RF: Who are some of the poets who have emerged from “La Violencia”?
JCG: Among many other poets, Jorge Gaitán Durán and Eduardo Cote Lamus were part of a community of writers grouped during the 50’s around the magazine Mito. Without being socially engaged poets, they wrote very compelling poems about “La Violencia.” Their contribution was weeding out the flowery and ornate language that Colombian poetry had for a long time due to a pervasive influence of the Parnassianism of the turn of the 20th century, still present in Colombia 50 years later! As you know Parnassianism and Symbolism had reached their peak in Latin America through extraordinary innovative modernist poets such as Rubén Darío in Nicaragua and José Asunción Silva in Colombia. (And we are talking about Peninsular and Spanish American modernism, which you know, is different from American modernism). That “Violencia” in Colombia never ended. Afterwards, it just simply morphed into a state of guerrilla warfare against the state fostered by the Cold War. Later, from the 80’s on we had more guerrillas, paramilitary groups, and other criminal bands funded by the cocaine drug trade. This cauldron for more social inequalities, political unrest, terror and killings of thousands of Colombians has been the context for contemporary poets such as Juan Manuel Roca. He has been an innovative poet influenced originally by German poetic Expressionism, whose writing contains everyday life and surrealistic imagery portraying the troubled life and dreams of the country for many years. Other relevant voices that have emerged from all the processes of violence, concerns about gender issues, and transformation in the society are those of María Mercedes Carranza and Piedad Bonnett.
JCG: My interest in translation started after coming to the States as I began to read contemporary American poetry. One of the poets was Charles Simic whose conversational style, irony, and amazing inventiveness, mixing the comic and the tragic, was very appealing to me. But the important thing about Simic was that he was a translator of some great Eastern European poets like Vasko Popa, Novica Tadic, Alexander Ristovic, and others from that region. Of those, Vasko Popa was a unique poet, and a true mythographer. In that sense he is like Michaux, Calvino or Borges. Also he had an imaginative voice strongly rooted in the folk storytelling traditions and mythological motifs. So his poetry ended up challenging me, as I was coming from a traditional culture as well. That experience of learning from those poets from other languages was a type of multiculturalism. And translation is real multiculturalism, interconnectedness. Cultures and living species that don’t connect and exchange with others, get isolated, suffer impoverishment, get weaker. Living involves processing, translating, and interpreting the world to keep going. When thinking about the translation of poetry we are talking about getting the affections and emotions of lives and languages in distant lands. A poem is nothing but a vehicle for humans (and all the feeling nonhuman worlds) speaking with emotion through our bodies as we write. But, really, translation must be a true act of love for the poetry of others. We must be careful. Translation should be an austere experience, something Zen. By saying this I think the translator must be respectful of the poetry being translated. I don’t mean that the version of the work in the new language is going to be a pure and unaltered product. Of course, it is going to have traces of the poet who gave new body and clothes to that poem that comes like a migrating soul from distant lands, like my friend poet James Kimbrell once said. What I mean is that there are cases of translators who try to write their own poetry, inscribing themselves on the poems of other poets, distorting them, messing them up. One piece of advice in that regard should be to be careful—please don’t try to write your poetry using the poetry of others, unless you are creating “versions” rather than actual translations.
RF: The Service/Learning program Journey into Amazonia, which brings students into the Peruvian Amazon, seems like a natural extension of your work as a writer. Can you tell us a bit about the program and your involvement with it?
JCG: It’s an academic program created after I had been stationed in the Peruvian Amazon for almost a year during the pre-production stages of the film The Trees Have a Mother (Films for the Humanities and Sciences 2009). Being there, documenting the philosophy of life of forest and riverine dwellers, and researching about the many ill Western constructs about the Amazon during those days, moved me to think that an appropriate way to really grasp a closer understanding and perspective about Amazonia, similar, as much as possible, to the one that the dwellers of that land have, was through cultural immersion. Which is to say, by going to Amazonia, by feeling it. So through the Journey Into Amazonia program that I lead at Florida State University in the Peruvian Amazon, students are set to live with Peruvian families, spend time in rivers and forest, and work in a variety of settings. Those places range from hospitals, schools, libraries, orphanages, Indigenous organizations to NGOs which help people with food security projects, building latrines, raising small animals, etc. At the end of their experience, one hopes (and, thanks to the spirits of the waters, it happens), that their understanding of Amazonian poetics, and the sensorial experience of being there has allowed them to develop a new view of the non-human realms of the world and about themselves.
RF: What have you been working on recently?
JCG: I continue to work on expanding the collection of poems Yakumama and other Mythical Beings published last year, which is a project of re-mythologizing Amazonian myths across the basin. I have been also working on a collection of poems on rivers, and “their” multiple subjectivities. As you notice, I am still engaged in unfolding poetic projects that began in that land since the days of my childhood.