Interview carried out on December 2012 and August 2014 by Jonas (J) Magnusson, member of the Swedish journal OEI, published also in book form.
Jonas (J) Magnusson: Régis Bonvicino, you gave your magazine Sibila, which you have been editing since 2001, the subtitle “poetry and culture,” and later “poetry and criticism,” You speak of Sibila as a “project for freedom.” Can you tell us more about the concept of this magazine and its framework? What were its initial goals and how far you have managed to accomplish them?
Régis Bonvicino: Sibila was created to expand the dialogue with poets from Brazil and around world, not exclusively from Brazil; to have an international point of view, to form a community that could share some ideas around as a certain kind of innovation – contemporary innovation, not one based on the past or on nostalgia. And also to focus on an important issue, one which seems to have been abandoned all over the world, but which is of great importance to literature: literary criticism. In this way, Sibila tries to be free. It thinks and allows others to think, and it conceives of a type of poetry that is strong and independent. At the same time, I feel we’re somewhat alone in that pursuit… a kind of loneliness that we share with local friends and international friends… But I like the project—it’s a project that is always open to change. Starting about five or six years ago, the main goal has been criticism, poetry criticism, criticism on the production of poetry… independent criticism… Art cannot exist without a critical spirit. I could spend days talking about Sibila, which today is among the largest digital archives of poetry in Latin America. All this has been done without government support, grants, public or university funding. I’m glad it’s that way.
J(J)M: How is your editorial work organized? How is Sibila edited?
RB: Sometimes the process can be quite chaotic! We receive a number of contributions and we have a few core writers. None of the work is paid, it’s all volunteer work. Sometimes we create series. The online version of the magazine is low cost, whereas before, when it was printed on paper, the costs were much higher. Making “books” in Brazil is very expensive, and bookstores are not fond of magazines. I’d even say they don’t like books! Thus, in 2006, after 11 print issues of Sibila, I thought it was pointless to continue in the hands of middlemen, and thus we began the digital version. I don’t foresee a return to print issues. Maybe in Europe the situation is a little different.
J(J)M: In your piece, “The Displacement of the ‘Scholastic’: New Brazilian Poetry of Invention,” you go back to Oswald de Andrade and you trace the beginning of the modern period to the early 1920s in Brazil. You quote Andrade’s 1924 “Manifesto da Poesia Pau-Brasil”: “Only Brazilians of our time. The required chemistry, mechanics, economics, and ballistics. All digested. No cultural meeting. Practical. Experimental. Poets. No bookish reminiscences. No comparisons for support…. “
RB: But “Only Brazilians of our time,” in 2011, in 2012, able to address today’s issues. Modernity? There’s slave labor all over the world.
J(J)M: In that same piece, you write: “Here we find, in concentrated state, the issues that all Brazilian poets, of any movement – even independent poets – tried to address. Exporting Brazilian poetry meant then–and still today – to place Brazil in an active dialogue with poets from other languages, so it can stop being just a passive receptacle of influences.” Exporting Brazilian poetry does away with the condition of being “peripheral”… How does this connect the notion of “cannibalism” with the idea of incorporation as “cannibalism”?
RB: The piece of is from the early 1990s. The notion of “cannibalism” is obviously important, but I am not sure if it makes much sense to me as a poet nowadays. Still, Andrade’s manifestos are important because of their openness. Poetry, as I see it, cannot be derived from any formula, and that is what Oswald de Andrade says, in a more refined way. In the isms, the avant-gardes and counteproposals, you can find a thesis, a formula that indicates, in general, the “correct” way to make poetry. I am not fond of many otherwise vital avant-garde movements because of their tendency to rely on formulas, Poetry, as I see it, is something possibly always new, a constant invention; it must be surprising on some level not recognized as literary.
J(J)M: In the first issue of S/N Magazine: New World Poetics (2010), Charles Bernstein published a piece with the title “Our Americas: New Worlds Still in Progress (Part One),” which made reference to Oswald de Andrade’s 1928 “Manifesto Antropófago” as the “first defense against the ‘Western Box’ “ as “a cannibalizing process of self-creation.” “Only cannibalism unites us” […].
J(J)M (cont.): In “Poems and Poetics” by Jerome Rothenberg, in 2011, you published an essay which can be read as a kind of counterproposal to Bernstein. In the piece you entitled “A improvável poesia das Américas” (“The Improbable Poetry of the Americas”), you state that, taking into account the role of United States as global superpower, speaking of a “Poetry of the Americas” would necessarily always imply, to some extent, speaking of a poetics of centrality. And the centrality of Poetry of the Americas should, above all, be understood historically. “There are no Brazilian or Spanish American poets who have influenced American poetry. Indeed, as far as I know, the poetry of North America, in practice, is self-referential.” You mentioned that there were cases where “anti-Americanism, or at least a feeling of resistance against the United States, is a kind of missing link in the way certain South American blocs come together,” and you cite Oswald de Andrade’s attempt to “break with the Portuguese colonizers” and his proposal, in a broad sense, to “colonize all the colonizers.” “Let’s separate Imported Poetry from Brazilwood Poetry” (1924, “Manifesto Pau-Brasil”). Are you saying that the “cannibalistic mechanism,” pictured in 1928, expressed in the “Manifesto Antropofágo” is a “‘national filter used to read materials from abroad, is the instrument that will forge a new poetry – a new and different poetry, a ‘poetry for export.’” You go on to say: “These words, directly targeting the Portuguese colonizers, were understood to apply also to the United States […] and there is no shortage of historical arguments for both.” These “basic observations,” thus led you to express skepticism, expressing the opinion that a “Poetry for the Americas” is merely “a hope, a utopian seed, whose unity – paradoxically – when formulated, necessarily introduce the egg of an ideological serpent. Formulated in Charles Bernstein terms, I understand that what stands out is the concept of a benign ecumenism, as a civilizing attempt to tame the savagery of globalization, whose most direct effect for poetry would be to make poets come into contact with one another.” Still, “there is no poetic identity of the Americas. In Brazil we rarely use the term ‘Americas.’ The continent seems to be split – once and for all – into three blocs: the United States and Canada; Spanish America (Mexico, the Caribbean and South America), and Brazil, the only Portuguese-speaking country…”
RB: I wrote the following essay, I like it and I have nothing else to add.
J(J)M: But the concrete poetry of the Noigandres group could, of course, also be seen as the logical consequence of things previously done in Brazil, to the extent that Haroldo de Campos, for example, availed himself a great deal of Oswald Andrade … In any event, whether for good or for bad, it was a very influential movement. And speaking of movements in the abovementioned piece, which you published in Boundary2, you write that “one of the characteristics of twentieth-century Brazilian poetry has been its organization in the ‘form’ of literary movements, echoing European and later North American literary and visual art vanguards.” Concrete poetry was one of those Brazilian movements that, initially, was experimental and exploratory, a trailblazer, but – later – it increasingly became a matter of individual authors and turned quite Parnassian, so to speak. But there were also other experimental movements in Brazil in the decades that followed, such as Poema/Processo, Poesia/ Praxis, “Pornismo,” “Poesia Marginal,” Tropicalism … I know the dialogue with Tropicalism and concrete poetry was important to you in your youth. But the experimental energy of Tropicalism, which began as an artistic counterculture movement in São Paulo around 1967-68, was gone by the middle of next decade right?
RB: Yes, because of the pop music industry, where you have to be commercially successful, you have to address large audiences, audiences of millions. The first years were very interesting, but afterwards Tropicalism lost its exceptional character. There is a great poet from those times, Torquato Neto, who died very young, in 1972, a kind of Brian Jones of Tropicalism, similar to Jones in his tragic, untimely death. Torquato was great lyricist of MPB movement whose lyrics have survived despite the “intervention” quality of the time, unlike the lyrics of almost all other songwriters of the group. He was also a poet, a prose writer of diaries he wrote while he was in an asylum, a filmmaker in the making, a critic, a newspaper columnist. His work still endures. I could also mention the great Agrippino José de Paula, a prose writer and filmmaker. Tropicalism was important because it brought together classical musicians (Rogério Duprat, Julio Medaglia, and others) and pop-stars on the rise, poets and theater people–a peculiar mix. Caetano Veloso is its main figure. Tropicalism promoted–and therein lies its importance–a confrontation with the then hegemonic national-popular ideology on both the right and on the left, because there was a national-popular ideology within the Brazilian right which had commonalities and intersections with the left: for example, the preservation of traditions and “national unity,” so dear to the dictators. Ariano Suassuna, a national-popular artist, supported the military dictatorship. Tropicalism also ended up fighting dictatorship in a complex and intelligent manner. But it came to an end, I think. I never much followed the MPB (Brazilian Popular Music) movement after 1975, when the pop-music industry became all too powerful in Brazil.
J(J)M: You published a book of Leminski’s letters to you. In Boundary2 you characterize Leminski’s poetry as simultaneously reflecting “the emptying out of the avant-gardes that have become consumer products” and conjoining “tensions between innovation and the contemporary spirit, from a standpoint of Brazilian independence and dialogue.” Finally, you go as far as stating that Leminski can, “through denial, rescue the ability to innovate and diversify that characterizes contemporary Brazilian poetry, an ability that goes beyond the militant discourse and rigidity of poetry movements…”
RB: Leminski was important. He wrote Catatau (1975), a long hippie, Joycean prose work, a great book. He is very well known in Brazil. He really deserves to be mentioned. He is still better than 97.5% of the poets writing today.
J(J)M: You mentioned a few times Ezra Pound’s phrase that poetry is “news that stays news.”
RB: Yes, I agree with this phrase from Ezra Pound. He was referring to the newspapers: you read an article you like and you keep it. A week later, you take it out and reread it. This is a concept of innovation I like because it has a basis on reality. A poem that was once innovative will always be useful for something, for making you think, etc…. But I do not use the concept of innovation as often as I used to. I am not that fond of the historical concepts of innovation anymore. Innovation needs to be redefined. I do not know exactly what “innovation” could mean, for example, in the United States, since they are, by definition, the land of innovation… So “innovation” has a specific meaning in the US, another one in Brazil, yet another one in Sweden, in China… Innovation is a relative concept and can become a contradiction if it is conceived as a tradition.
J(J)M: There are also many artists in Brazil who explicitly define themselves as “artists of invention”; people like Paulo Bruscky or Abraham Palatnik …
RB: Yes, but I cannot say that about myself!
J(J)M: Last time we met, we discussed, among other things, the notion of the avant-garde and its disappearance as a contemporary form. But at the same time, Sibila could be read as an example of the fact that writing histories, or alternative histories, of those avant-gardes is a task that still remains to be done…
RB: I agree and disagree with you. You seem to want to force relationships, but art is very dynamic and different time periods propose a variety of challenges. Sibila’s parameters are different.
J(J)M: And we mentioned the example of Julio Plaza. You were friends with him, and you wrote in Sibila a few times about his “Poemóbiles” (1975), for example, his mobile poems, or books-objects. Could you tell us something more about the importance of Julio Plaza and how you think about him today?
RB: Julio Plaza was and is an unjustly forgotten artist. Perhaps he was coopted by lower and baser interests. He was born in Spain, lived in Puerto Rico, and met a great Brazilian artist, Regina Silveira. He subsequently moved to Brazil. Plaza was fleeing General Franco’s dictatorship, and he ended up finding another dictatorship here in Brazil. His political consciousness was impressive, and he possessed a strong critical mind. He belonged to the tradition of Marcel Duchamp and the Spanish anarchists, but not superficially so. He was very serious, very radical. He abandoned art – as a critical gesture – many years before he died. The oblivion that Julio Plaza has fallen into is unfair because, in fact, he is one of the most important names in Brazilian art. I only have good things to say about him, and, between 1975 and1983, we coedited a magazine called Qorpo Estranho. Julio Plaza was a mentor to me, just like his wife, Regina Silveira. We studied, worked, thought, thought politics, art, at the same time, with an oppositional feeling, with the feeling that we could be free. In Brazil in the 1970s we had dialogue and a community of poets, visual artists, thinkers, MPB musicians and artists.
J(J)M: You’ve published a dozen books of poetry. The first, Bicho papel, in 1975. What kind of book was that?
RB: The dictatorship was the main theme of that book. At the time, I was stunned by the dictatorship. I was a student of Frei Tito de Alencar who in 1969 was tortured and driven to suicide by the dictatorship not long after. That had a huge and long-lasting impact on me. Actually, I never talk about my poetry or very seldom feel the urge to say something about it.
J(J)M: Earlier today, I heard a reading that you and Charles [Bernstein] did in New York a couple years ago and there was this funny piece from 2006 called “Definitions of Brazil,” written in collaboration with Charles:
“Brazil is located on the southern tears of the Americas
Brazil is a jungle with snakes who eat cakes
Brazil speaks Lebanese, Portuguese, Japanese, Guarnaríse, Tupiese, Inglese
Brazil is an adulterating medley of intoxicated syncopations
Brazil has no relationship with itself because it has a relation only to itself
Brazil lays its cool hands on your hot head
Brazil was colonized by Indians who turned the Portuguese into natives
Brazil’s Tolstoy is now doing tricks in a favela
Brazil is a land of palms and psalms
Brazil is the model of a model
Brazil is a charm bracelet that has become the necklace of the continent: São Paulo more European than St. Paul, Brazillia more bureaucratic than Geneva, Rio more alluring than Boca
“They’ve got an awful lot of coffee in Brazil”
In Brazil, the cuckoo sings “macaw, macaw, macaw”
Brazil is private property of no man’s God and no woman’s Fury
The patron saint of Brazil is its dreams, just as is its Devil
Brazil is a carioca not a polka
Brazil is Carmen Miranda’s Tutti Frutti hats, Caetano Veloso’s all-weather tropicalismo, Bebel Gilberto’s number on the charts.
Brazil is the Ellis and Tom “Waters of March” International Airport and Spa
Brazil is caipirinha with feijoada (caipira with fedora)
Brazil is home of the cassava or tapioca, what you call yuca, or mandioca or aipim or moogo or macaxeira or singkong or tugi or balinghoy or manioc
Brazil is the black mask of the PCC inscribed with the words traitor, betrayer
Brazil is 186 million stories, 186,000 poems, but only these definitions
Put your stocks in Brazil and your bonds in China, or is it the other way around?
Brazil is a figment of the imagination of the Amazon
If Pelé is poet laureate of Brazil, without ever writing a word, then Ronaldo Gaúcho is the Nijinsky, without ever having set foot in the Ballet Russe
Brazil is not emerging it’s proliferating
The official religion of Brazil is not just samba but macumba and umbanda, tarantella and churrasco
Candomblé is the Brazil wood of world philosophy
Brazil is Fred & Ginger Flying Down to Rio with Dolores Del Rio
Under the veneer of its vivacity, Brazil is violent, a vile viper playing a violet viola.
In Brazil, anything goes for a chance, for a price, for a piece, for a dance, for a fight, for a night; jeitinho brasileiro is born free but everywhere in chains
Brazil’s face never shows its heart even when they are identical
Brazil stars Bob Hoskins, Jonathan Pryce, and Robert DeNiro
Brazil was written by Terry Gilliam and Tom Stoppard
Brazil is concrete and syncretic
Brazil is impenetrable and forgiving
Brazil is cannibalizing and carnivallizing
Brazil is a baroque barcarolle with a bossa nova beat
Brazil’s Lula is a little loco, but not as loco as Lucy
On Ipanema beach, at the very moment when dusk turns to night, you can hear Orpheus singing for Eurydice; he sings an elegy called Brazil
In Brazil, the real is the only currency that counts”
RB: Yes, the poem has a funny origin. Arkadii Dragomoschenko, the Russian poet, came to Brazil in 2006, for an event organized by Alcir Pécora and me. The event was called “Poetry in a Time of War and Banality.” And Dragomoschenko asked me to write a few poetry lines about Brazil, in English, for him, a poem that he intended to publish in Russia, in a newspaper. A poem based directly on Brazil! I had never written a poem of this kind before, and never would have thought to do it, to talk about Brazil as an ‘abstraction,’ but Dragomoschenko insisted and insisted. So I wrote a few lines, twenty or twenty-five and he was very happy with the result. Except that my English is far from perfect and I did not feel confident about it. So I wrote to Charles and said I wanted a poem in English, in that along those lines. In other words, I became Charles’s “director.” He took some of my lines and “improved” on them following what I had told him. It ended up being a collaboration.
“Brazil is located on the southern tears of the Americas” (The Brazil is in the tears / shears / North/South cuts of the Americas) – this is a line from Charles, because of the double meaning of “tears”. “Brazil is a jungle with snakes who eat cakes” is my line. “Brazil speaks Lebanese, Portuguese, Japanese, Guarnaríse, Tupiese, Inglese” – is typically Charles! “Brazil is an adulterating medley of syncopations intoxicated” – again, Charles. “Brazil has no relationship with itself because it has a relation only to itself” – this is mine, in the same way that “Brazil lays its hands on cool your hot head”. This came from a song by the Rolling Stones, a line from “Sister Morphine” by Mick Jagger / Keith Richards / Marianne Faithfull: “Sweet Cousin Cocaine, lay your cool cool hand on my head” … Sometimes “Definitions of Brazil” seems like a chaotic poem, but since Charles is a very organized poet, I would tell him: I need a line with two Vs and a line with two Ds, just after the line with the two Vs, and a rhyme that position and …
J(J)M: Besides poet and poetry editor, you also translated a great deal of poetry: Jules Laforgue, Oliverio Girondo, Robert Creeley, Charles Bernstein, Michael Palmer, Douglas Messerli…
RB: Yes, translation is important for me, but it is also a source of issues. I had very inspiring contact with Robert Creeley, Douglas Messerli and Charles Bernstein, who translated me as well as Michael Palmer. When I was invited in 2011 to participate in an event called International Poetry Nights in Hong Kong, the Chinese translator wrote to me: This is very hard for me. I can’t understand a single line. Please send me some fifty poems, so I can choose… But I don’t like to talk about my poetry. I hate it when a poet goes: “My poetry, my poetry, my poetry” “Me and my poetry, I and I, we invented this, we did this and that, back then and on that occasion.” I have never spoken of myself in a poem – in that sense my poems are quite objective. Italian Neorealist Cinema, Rossellini, Fellini and Antonioni, have been a constant reference for me – stronger than the influence of poets – because of their proximity to a certain reality … with their habit of shooting on location in cities in ruins or rural areas during the postwar period in Italy, their detailing of the everyday life of the poor, the city as ruin, vertigo. I quite like The Human Voice by Jean Cocteau, from 1930, a dramatic monologue that Rossellini turned into a great movie, for example.
J(J)M: Among the Brazilian poets, you have often called attention to João Cabral de Melo Neto.
RB: Because João Cabral de Melo Neto is a very objective poet. He is not an objectivist–he is very objective in his poems, and very dense, very grounded… and for me, perhaps, the greatest poet of all time in Brazil, a major author whose work deserves to be translated into all languages.
São Paulo, June 2014
RB: I have already thought about writing a Brazilian history of poetry, including foreigners who lived here. Many poets from abroad, interesting poets who lived in São Paulo, but whose poems are never included, even though they were written here… The great Lebanese Elias Farhat, who lived in Curitiba, if memory serves me well; Blaise Cendrars; Giuseppe Ungaretti, who lived in São Paulo three or four years; the Portuguese Jorge de Sena; Elizabeth Bishop, who lived in Rio and Minas; the Romanian Stefan Baciu, a “parassurrealist” who migrated from the far right to the extreme left and lived in Brazil in the years 1950/1960; and others. I don’t have the time, but that other story, the international history of Brazilian poetry, should be written. It’s not a matter of “influence” these poets and their poems belong to us, and should not be excluded. Brazilian nationalism is very negative in that regard. And that’s why I said that Julio Plaza was a great Brazilian artist.
J(J)M: Last time we spoke of Sibila as becoming increasingly a review of poetry criticism, and I would like to ask again what is, or what has been, your notion of criticism or criticality.
RB: Criticality is a way to make things clear, or to ask questions about poetry, or art, to dialogue with them, with a certain distance… Critique is crucial, criticism is an inseparable part of the literature, but in Brazil does not seem to exist for now. I don’t know what it’s like in Sweden…
J(J)M: On a note printed on the flaps of your latest book, Estado crítico, Alcir Pécora highlights three movements of your writing process. The first would be the “rough record” of an event, the enumeration of chaotic activity and things as they present themselves to the eye of the beholder. “If Alexandre Astruc spoke in 1948 of the stylo-caméra or camera pen, through which film saw itself as language, Régis Bonvicino’s poetry emulates, so to speak, neorealist film and produces camera pen that produces a language not subject the scheme of things experienced by sight.” The second movement would be the juxtaposition of these images in an attempt to find coincidences, internal symmetries, the sounds and rhythms of their collisions: “a strategy of immanent shock [that] rarely resolves in a sophisticated depiction of objects but rather in a dynamic narrative that can keep them in motion. “The third and last movement would appear as ‘residual energy force generated by the friction of scenes [that] unfolds as a brief commentary on the poetry itself being built’ along with a ‘distressed restlessness that pervades the poem’” …
RB: As a poet, I am a researcher. I walk around and observe, I come back and observe, and I talk, and I read … It’s a special kind of research. I never sit down and write a poem from my own inspiration. It’s not a poetry coming out of my work space, written from my desk. It comes from me walking, talking, feeling, observing, researching, reworking … It takes me a long time—I write and rewrite because I try to be very precise, to write poems in a very precise way. Thus, the material I find or I take from the media is always mediated, reworked, appearing more as a surprise within the poems, rather than a premeditated effect. And all the poems are interconnected – Estado Crítico is a book, not a collection of poems. It took me five years to write. A very slow kind of work…
J(J)M: Could you tell us a little more about Critical State?
RB: Estado Crítico as in “critical condition” … The best way to talk about it, to think about it, is through the poem with the same title:
It’s the sarcophagus of a piranha-wench
It’s a near-sighted Tarzan
Scanning a blue sky
It’s Silêncio Nightclub
It’s a fink finking Drummond
like a fire extinguisher
It’s Sá-Carneiro’s translation
It’s Baudelaire in twelve equal payments
It’s a babysitter for bugs
It’s a tractable Jean Genet
The middleman pushes ostriches
It’s the incredible portable bathtub
in the apartment where
Maiakovsky killed himself
J(J)M: Yes, but critical conditions are not necessarily something that can be reduced or explained too much. Critical conditions are also vital conditions?
RB: Yes, in this sense I agree! Never thought of it that way, but you’re right, critical conditions are also vital conditions.
J(J)M: Your poetry is a lot of different things and also touches on a lot of different things… There’s a certain oneiric aspect to it, a kind of vertigo…
RB: Yes, perhaps a poetry of vertigo… In the poem titled “Hong Kong,” for example, because I didn’t understand Hong Kong, I enumerate the things I saw there, because I was unable to synthesize further. So that kind of poetry is oneiric in a vertiginous sense, due to the clash between the poet and the street, the censorship that I try to record in one line as: “It’s a grave with a deck overlooking the ocean” or “China paying off Hong Kong.” Hong Kong tries to maintain its civil liberties in spite of Beijing.
It’s eternity and sincerity
in the back of a bus
It’s the deck of the old Bank of China
It’s a fog screen
It’s the new Bank of China
In the night skyline, jutting out
It’s a missile fired from Beijing
It’s a Daoist monk in robe
treading the Hyatt Regency’s red carpet
It’s water from a waterfall spraying the train tracks
seen from the hotel room
China paying off Hong Kong
It’s self-mutilating beggar hunting for his income
It’s a boy biting a cigarette in the morning
It’s a tie tied to a clothes hanger
inspired by Italy
It’s loudspeakers blaring Jobim and Astrud
in Lamma Island
It’s green beans and ground beef
It’s a weight-loss drug for overweight monkeys
It’s avant-garde bottles for jasmine tea
It’s the building of the old Tung Choi Street market
collapsing, water spinach
It’s a toothless Chinese man in a watercolor
It’s the poet Yu Jian’s bald head producing clean, renewable energy
in a hotel lobby
It’s an attack by neon Buddhas
It’s a flamboyant tango dancer
It’s a grave with a deck overlooking the ocean
It’s an Amazonian parrot on a golden perch
Perrier-Jouët champagne in a flute glass
It’s Tin Chan Temple
a gigantic Buddha
a Coca-Cola freezer in his belly
It’s “Delay no more”
stickers at Ladies’ Market
Diu lay lo mo, f*ck your mother
It’s an Audi with tinted windows
A half, full moon
It’s a cloud above the sea
Later on, the sun
* Translated into English by Odile Cisneros
- In Portuguese: Criticalidade e vertigem: uma entrevista de Régis Bonvicino