On the edge of a cliff
Xavier Farré Vidal in conversation with Josep Pedrals
Foreign readers may find the structure of your books quite puzzling. How would you define these three collections? Are they parts of a series? Are they novels in verse? Is this prose within poetry? Who is an artistic reference point for you? Do you think your work has anything in common with, for example, the work of Derek Walcott, whose poems are quite epic in nature, or that of Vikram Seth, perhaps, and the way he constructed The Golden Gate? Or maybe with some other author?
My books are hybrids, constructions drifting between genres (essay, novel, poetry, story, theatre…), but they are always very coherent because there is no trace of chaos in them either in terms of general structure or the narrative continuum. In fact, my creative intention is inspired by quite classical forms – from Greek-Latin treatises in verse to the Renaissance prosiverso, and then it follows the current of authors-heretics, starting with François Rabelais or Laurence Sterne, and on to Severo Sarduy or Witold Gombrowicz. In addition, in each collection, I dissect all types of subgenrees, which may include thieves’ songs (representative of the 18th century in Catalan literature), sonnets on bloodletting (characteristic of 17th-century humoral medicine), up to Marian hymns (I am, after all, the son of a priest who dropped his cassock, and my religious upbringing was deep and full of love, even though I am an agnostic) or contemporary sestina (resurrecting the spirit of troubadours in the 20th and 21st centuries). So it is mostly a game of mirrors with which I try to present to the reader some refractions of the literary tradition. To the reader, whom I always have in mind and towards whom I have a deep respect.
You have repeatedly stated that in Els límits del Quim Porta (“The Limits of Quima Porta”) you will include approximately 200 poems and that the material could make five independent volumes. Do you think that form would work out too? In other words, do your works take on different interpretations depending on the context in which they are published, and does the multiplicity of visions enrich them?
The most graceful thing about books is that we can read them as we like – interpret them in accordance with our needs or completely by chance; we can practice bibliomancy or sortes virgilianae. Every reader creates their own visions of a particular book depending on what path they followed throughout it. Each time poetic fiction creates a new space of understanding, a new code. It is a bit like with the liar paradox (“everything in this book is false”), but seasoned with a minimum of consistency, giving probability (“a liar must have a good memory” – as the proverb says). Maybe it is just what Valéry called l’infini esthétique, the aesthetic infinity, that is, the very thin link connecting each line with the next.
When Mario Montalbetti analyses and develops the thought of Alain Badiou (in El pensamiento del poema), he finds that the boundaries of language are a mathematical expression and a poetic expression situated at opposite ends of it, and it seems to me that precisely where the language of mathematics meets a backstop, in Gödel’s second incompleteness theorem (“No coherent system can be used to prove self-inconsistency”), there opens the field for the freedom of poetry which, on the basis of metaphors and metonymy, derivation and repetition, creates a new system based on a closed loop of repeated meanings.
Already in the titles of your volumes, you can see the ludic dimension of language, a constant game that becomes even more evident at the time of reading. To what extent do you associate your work with the aesthetics of potential literature, of the OuLiPo group?
I often play with “potential literature”, but I try not to make it difficult to read, but rather to create one more reason, one more opportunity for the reader to look at the work. For example, in Els límits del Quim Porta there is one paragraph in which all grammatical tenses that exist in Catalan appear, but without exposing this procedure and making the game the only axis around which the text revolves; in this case, it is about presenting one of the main characters in the book. Answering the question of “what?” becomes so important that no one even realizes “how”.
You know the Western poetic tradition very well and you are particularly fond of the sonnet. You have produced your own sonnets in numerous versions, and translated quite a number, too. The sonnet is constantly present in the Baroque, but also in the works of Catalan poets of the first and second avant-garde who explore the possibilities of form and language. With this in mind, which traditions have had the greatest impact on you?
While studying the sonnet, I delved into many traditions, because I wanted to draw a real map of the general evolution of this genre. Inevitably, the sonnet is an Italian and originally Italianized genre, which, however, follows a different path in each tradition (the Spanish sonnet is glorious, the French sonnet is extremely vivid, the English sonnet is very rhythmic, the Catalan sonnet – very liminal). Ultimately, I divided the history of the sonnet into two great periods.
The first wave, Petrarchan in essence, flows into the first national-language literatures, and is thus part of the humanism that created modern Europe and then solidifies into Baroque and Neoclassicism. For example, the first sonnets in Polish could be read as a discussion between Calvinism and the Counter-Reformation (Grabowiecki – Naborowski) and this great period would end with Krasicki, Bohomolec or Załuski and his library.
The second wave of the sonnet, in a Romantic, Symbolist and Avant-garde spirit, branches again with the expansion of national movements and is the origin of the contemporary sonnet, with its distortion of the stanza, adaptation to artistic sensibilities that are distant to us (there are some sonnets in Chinese and Japanese) and subversive sensibilities (shredded and careless sonnets). We could say that in Poland it starts with Mickiewicz, and then with the poets of Young Poland, and goes all the way to Grochowiak and contemporary poets.
Another element present in your work is humour and your literary games of pastiche – a completely postmodern formula. Earlier, we touched upon the subject of tradition, so I would also like to ask you how you perceive the embedding of tradition in a layer of humour, often turning the form into pastiche.
Literature without irony can turn into a sermon. I have always been a supporter of looking at life without excessive dramatizing, without thinking about the valley of tears or the feeling of the tragedy of life – with the awareness of my own ridiculousness and mediocrity, because it makes me feel more human. Humour is part of the metaphysics of life, of saving laughter that admits its sinfulness, but does not bask in it, does not seek absolution in a cheap, inept manner, but also does not whip with the eternal confiteor on its lips. We are sinners, indeed, but not lechers or scoundrels.
One of the most prolific branches of contemporary Catalan poetry is poetry of a more oral, recitative character. In Polish poetry, in turn, the significance of this trend is much smaller. You professionally deal with poetry recitals – both devoted to your own work and performances created with other poets. How much importance do you attach to the orality of your poetry?
Rhapsody (which means “weaving from” in Greek) is my main professional activity. I treat it as one of the ways to transform poetry into a living act. This is, of course, both a compositional and interpretative task, as in music, and each of these aspects has to be worked on in a different way.
However, the fact that I recite poems has less and less influence on my own writing. With experience, I slowly began to understand that the reader is free to deal with the text, ad libitum in the performance of a piece, which depends very much on the communicative situation. The art of recitation is ephemeral, as a result of which it places the poetic text in the spoken context and both serves it and uses it. I try to be more and more didactic in the way of transmitting the written word and more pedantic in its communication, paying special attention to every word.
As we mentioned before, you have translated numerous poems and other texts, some of which – like Waiting for Godot – might have been very difficult. When you look at your own creative work, what problems would you anticipate when translating it into other languages?
I hardly ever think about potential translations of my poems. And even more, some seem to me to be completely untranslatable. I am currently preparing a collection entitled Els motius, understanding this word both as a diminutive of the Catalan word mot – “word” and motiu – “motive, wake-up call”, and at the same time “training in motion”.
It seems to me, however, that from my work, which is very abundant, it is possible to extract a lot of verses that are very simple to translate into another language, very illustrative and based on universal language resources.
Among the central themes of your work, you can also mention limits, boundaries or borders – something the title of your latest book refers to. The limits of art, work and identity. Are you looking for reflection with the reader on the subject? Can every border, every limitation be erased?
I love walking along the edge of a cliff, but I never throw myself off it. Risk and temptation keep me motivated (“motives” again!) And they make me realize that there is always another way out. This is my way of being a foreigner to life itself – an approach that prevents our vision of the world and of its cruel miracles from ossifying and appearing excessively common.
translated by Miłosz Wojtyna (www.languageextreme.pl)