“… you could be very lonely as a young poet in the world, when that world was Argentina in the Seventies”
MJ: The epigraph to Night Watch is from 16th century Spanish mystic St. John of the Cross. Reading your book I was reminded of Gertrude Stein – can you tell me about your influences?
AB: Yes Gertrude was present from the start. The epigraph signals the importance of what the book’s about but is deliberately ambiguous. However St. John of the Cross is not a major influence. I would say more Las Moradas of St. Teresa of Ávila, La Celestina of Fernando de Rojas, XI century Portuguese ‘cantigas’ and Mozárabe poetry, Garcilaso de la Vega and Luis de Góngora.
In the text there are references to: Djuna Barnes, John Donne, Kierkegaard, Rilke, Clarice Lispector, Ingeborg Bachmann. Patti Smith’s music in London accompanied the writing of Night Watch. Paul Celan, Alejandra Pizarnik, Olga Orozco, Julio Cortázar, Sylvia Plath, Anne Carson, Inger Christensen, Ana María Moix, Thomas Bernhard, classical Greek poetry and theatre, Antonioni, Bergman, Alain Resnais, John Cage, J S Bach, among others, are the artists with whom I like to live.
MJ: Do you feel part of a writing or women’s writing community?
AB: I do indeed – a community of women who, through the XXth Century and the beginning of the XXI, are writing to enlarge our knowledge of a world where the Shoah (Holocaust) was possible, and a totalitarian society is still possible today. Women writers keep saying – using their writing as an art – that we, as human beings, must not forget. To this aim, the artist works with ‘one’s guts from one’s head’, as Auden put it.
MJ: Can you tell me something about your friendship with the poet Alejandra Pizarnik and her legacy today?
AB: I met Alejandra Pizarnik when I was 20 years old. It was the first time I’d met anybody else who lived poetry as an activity you could practice all day and night, at the centre of your life. Unfortunately I discovered that you could also lose your life, because you could be very lonely as a young poet in the world, when that world was Argentina in the seventies. When she died, a few of us, her young friends (thanks to Alejandra’s mother) saved her papers (copybooks, files, library, etc) from destruction.
In 1976, when the well known military dictatorship took power in Argentina and I left for Europe (Barcelona first and then Paris), I managed to get all those archives out of Buenos Aires, and years later, with the help of a woman publisher, Esther Tusquets, and a woman writer, Ana María Moix, in Barcelona, and friends of Pizarnik, such as the leading Argentine poet Olga Orozco and the translator Aurora Bernardez, we published her work.
Her poetry is the starting point from which I began to understand the power of language, when language is the construction of a poem as a place ‘where everything is possible’. She wrote that way. She taught me where to find sources to write from and I learned to recognize the language of a poem. I knew I had to start from the point she had reached. Poetical language is a continuum.
Forty years after her death, Alejandra Pizarnik is a major reference point for young Argentinian readers, and I must say – thanks to translators all over the world – Pizarnik’s poetry is also becoming that reference point in other countries.
MJ: Your collection Night Watch works on so many levels – spiritual quest, love story – but also as an examination of how patriarchal language appropriates and ruptures women’s experience. Are you being read within a feminist or queer context in Argentina?
AB: I am afraid I must answer no to your question. Night Watch has not been read within this context in Argentina. Perhaps because the book never circulated properly. In the beginning the reviews were excellent, written by male critics who pointed tangentially to that context but afterwards everybody always praised the writing but not its different levels.
In the early eighties after the military dictatorship and the Malvinas War, feminism sprang up in Argentina, particularly in Buenos Aires, when the country experienced a sort of Spring of Democracy. Feminist and queer organizations began to speak out, to circulate French and American ideas and theories. But very little happened in a concrete political sense. The first law allowing divorce was passed in 1997. A law permitting women to terminate unwanted pregnancies is still a dream. And no Leftwing intellectuals, women or men, will press the present government of Madame Kirshner, a fervent catholic devoted to Male Principles, on this subject.
Women in Argentina are still the victims of a patriarchal and male chauvinist ideology that survives in every political party, every family, the media, education, etcetera; gender violence is prevalent. You may say that’s true in Europe too, but what I observe in Argentina is how many women are punished and killed, raped, doused with gasoline and burnt, by their sexual partners, lovers, friends or husbands.
The first time Night Watch was interpreted in the context of patriarchal domination was when the book was republished in pocket format in Spain in 1998. That was when critics discovered it, and most of them also discovered its varied levels, saw there was a story being told though its details were not explained, because it was not just one more love story. And new readers, women, but also young men, begun to understand the context and the writing, and the necessity not to indulge in explanations or details or anecdotes or historical contexts, or whatever is normal in a narrative- fictional story. The translator Cecilia Rossi, a young reader herself, understood it completely; that’s why I like her English version so much.
MJ: Can you say something about the relationship with European and American poetry given the political situation?
AB: Since the forties English and US poets and writers were translated by our own best writers and translators, like Jorge Luis Borges, Aurora Bernardez, Julio Cortázar, and many more. Virginia Woolf was translated immediately after the publication of her books in London. We read Orlando and Mrs. Dalloway in the thirties. Eliot, Pound, Williams, Auden, Tomlinson, and a long etcetera, were available in Spanish, not via books coming from Spain, but from Buenos Aires and Mexico.
For example, my professor of English Literature at the university was Jorge Luis Borges. The preferences of my generation were much more for English and US poets than French. In the late Sixties and seventies we read French essays on linguistics and psychoanalysis and English and American writers. Djuna Barnes was first translated into Spanish in 1968 – a brilliant version.
We discovered the best writers of the XXth Century thanks to our translators. The same for the cinema: the Neorealismo Italiano, la Nouvelle Vague, Bergman, and so on. When I was 21 years old I discovered John Cage by going to a concert he gave in Buenos Aires. All that expansion and artistic vanguardism was killed by the military in 1976.
Today there’s a new wave of cultural life in Buenos Aires and a few of the big cities. Poets still read new American and European poetry, but mostly the tendency is to read poetry from Latin American countries.
New Argentinian poetry written by women, as far as I can tell, deals with personal experiences, but it’s both emotional and political at a national level. In fact, the only poetry that interests me in Argentina is written by women, like Tamara Kamenszain or Irene Guss, for example. And from the rest of Latin America too, women poets like Gloria Gervitz in Mexico or the late Marosa Di Giorgio from Uruguay.
MJ: What keeps you going?
AB: I continue writing because I need to know and to understand what concerns me – and us – the world we live in, as women. Give a voice to the voices within us, under the surface of the words we use every day, voices that pronounce suffering, loss, the voices of all of us lost in this present society.
MJ: Thanks so much for talking to us.
Ana Becciú’s Night Watch was one of four Argentinian collections reviewed by Maria Jastrzębska in ARTEMISpoetry Issue 8 – read the reviews online at:
Maria Jastrzębska’s third collection At The Library of Memories is forthcoming from Waterloo Press. She co-translated Elsewhere by Iztok Osojnik with Ana Jelnikar (Pighog Press, 2011). Her work is frequently anthologised and features in the British Library project Between Two Worlds: Poetry & Translation. Her drama Dementia Diaries toured nationally.
Originally published in ARTEMISpoetry, All rights reserved