I need a strike of lightning in my mind
Samantha Barendson in conversation with Marta Eloy Cichocka
Marta Eloy Cichocka: In your biographical note we read: “a French, Italian and Argentine poet who was born in Spain, grew up in Argentina and Mexico, to eventually live in French Lyon”. Since you are fluent in French, Italian and Spanish, I wonder how you define yourself in these languages. For example, two terms for women practicing poetry coexist in Spanish: both una poet – a female poet (in tandem to un poet — a male poet) and una poetisa — a poetess. At the same time, some new-generation poets firmly dissociate from the latter feminine form as outdated and condescending. Are there, from your perspective, any differences between practicing poetry when you are female or male? Or is it a stupid question?
Samantha Barendson: This question provokes me to offer several answers. Until recently, I used to define myself as a “poet” because I didn’t want a label of “woman” or “woman writer” to be attached to me, which could suggest a different literary label of “women’s poetry”. Nevertheless, after hearing a variety of opinions, many of which came from Quebec, I came to agree with the fact that any occupation, any profession could be male and female, and there was never any debate in Spanish as to whether it was possible to say “female doctor”, “female teacher”, “female architect”, “female cook”, or “female engineer”. On the other hand, the word “poet” sounds a bit like the word “tourist”: asexual, because it fits both genders. Indeed, it is said: un poeta or una poeta. Poetisa is another term for a woman practicing poetry, and so now I use these words interchangeably, depending on what meaning the person’s gender I might want to emphasize.
But it is not that important to me. It is much more important for festivals and other types of literary events to invite as many female as male poets. I have seen plenty of shows where there hasn’t been a single woman; many readings and meetings that six, ten or a dozen guests were invited to, and all of them were men. Every time I see something like this, I try to write to the organisers to highlight this lack. Mostly they don’t care; at other times, it turns out that they didn’t realise it; sometimes they are ashamed and try to take this information to heart – that women exist… – to prepare a more inclusive programme of the next event. It infuriates me that we have to be reminding them like that — and I guess we will have to for a while still, I think… On the other hand, I am talking about only those who forget us, but in many cases invitations are sent to female poets and male poets, without any difference.
In Polish, feminine word forms are still a hot topic — and so are poetic quotas, especially in the context of festivals or literary prizes. The second question that comes to my mind is: how long have you been practicing poetry? What was the first impulse for you to write poems — and in what language?
I have been writing since 2004. The impulse was the contact with the poetic anthology Los cuerpos del delito by the Valencian poet Alfons Cervera. In three nights, I wrote 64 poems in Spanish, in response to his poems. Alfons was my inspiration, my “muse” and my first reader, and so my first volume was born: Los delitos del cuerpo.
It is worth explaining this word play: if cuerpo del delito is corpus delicti , or the object (literally: the body) of crime, so delito del cuerpo can mean bodily vice. You are an intercultural, as well as intercontinental being, evolving between Argentina, Spain, Italy and France, but not only: how are these evolutions reflected in your work?
Every project I have done has been a surprise to me. Poems from Los delitos del cuerpo were born in Spanish because they were a response to other lyrics in Spanish. But, in that case, why didn’t I continue writing in that language? The volume Le citronnier, which is about the death of my father, should have appeared in Spanish (the language of my childhood) or Italian (the language of my father), but it did not: it was written in French. I imagine that the French language provided me with the distance that was necessary for me not to fall into pathos in dealing with such intimate experiences. Then I wrote a few more volumes in French because, after all, it is the language of the country I live in. And yet, last year, I wrote Alto mare in Italian. It is a sensual and intimate story – and a book that came out of nowhere. Why? I don’t know.
All in all, I guess the language is just material I can choose to work on with a particular piece. It is white, green or red clay from which you can create thousands of products.
And what were your literary inspirations, your favourite books, your masters in the discipline of writing?
At university, I studied Ibero-American literature. I was raised reading such authors as Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortázar, Alejandra Pizarnik, Mario Benedetti, Alfonsina Storni, etc. Then I worked in a bookstore where I was in charge of the poetry section. That is where I started reading female and male poets closer to my generation. This is how I discovered characters such as Jean-Marc Flahaut, Marlène Tissot, Estelle Fenzy, Frédérick Houdaer, Fabienne Swiatly or Thomas Vinau (in France) and Herménégilde Chiasson, Emilie Turmel, Gabriel Robichaud, Monica Bolduc, Charles Sagalane or Mélissa Verreault (in Québec), or a lot of other female and male authors from around the world who motivated, inspired, or even fed my writing with their writing.
Do you believe in the inspiration of muses – or do you rather insist on systematic work and every day practice that gives rise to proficient skill?
I believe in female and male muses. [Laughter] I am not capable of getting up every morning and sitting down to write at my desk. I need a strike of lightning in my mind, a lightning triggered by some sort of encounter, some reading, some opinion, no matter what — and only starting with that lightning can I begin to write.
How do you judge 21st-century phenomena that remodel the literary landscape and democratize poetry, like creative writing workshops, social media, Instagram and instapoetry?
Poetry is gradually gaining itself a place within the cultural horizons of new generations of audiences and readers. “Poetry” ceases to be a word that you associate badly, or one that is reserved for the elite. What is happening now seems quite wonderful to me. During the forced isolation triggered by the pandemic, I discovered a plethora of Instagram accounts where I could listen to poets from all over the world as if they were sitting at my place in the living room. I have also been involved in different meetings of this kind. I especially liked #Poetrybar in French, Spanish or English with the spectacular Naian González Norvind (https://www.instagram.com/naianaian/). I just don’t know if this ferment will translate into an increase in sales of poetry books. But better this than nothing.
How would you describe the literary landscape in France in 2020?
In France, the will to support artistic creation is palpable, but there is still a lot to do. When I travel to Quebec, my jealousy arises when I see how authors are treated there. Quebec is proud of its artists, helps them, promotes them, subsidizes them so that they can travel and propagate their work. In France, that is not the case: being an author is treated like a hobby, and you always have to have another job to be able to make a living.
After all, I am happy to live in France, though, where the poetic work is so rich and diverse. We are a beautiful, broadly branched family and we have cousins all over the world.
Your description of the practical reality of being an author sounds familiar… Do you think it is possible today to sustain yourself in any way just from literature or, to be specific, from poetry?
Today, it is hardly possible. Many authors say they live off writing, but in reality they have to accept proposals to run writing workshops or something like that. To me, it has nothing to do with being an author. I can write, but I can’t teach or run workshops: these are two different things.
Of course, there are authors who live off their writing: that top ten who publish year in year out another book, similar to the previous one but one that sells; there are also those who have had a bit of luck and earn enough to pay their rent and feed on noodles; plus those whose partner have permanent employment, and their salary helps them to survive difficult times.
But to live off poetry… that’s different. Especially when you consider that poetry and theatre constitute just 1% of book sales, which is as much as nothing. What allows you to earn a little are author meetings and poetry readings, all the more so now that any kind of performance should be rewarded. Reading poems combined with music, dance, video, sound, performance… If one agrees to be in the south of France one day, and the other day in the north and spend all weekends away from home, they can make a living like that. But again, writing has nothing to do with reading to an audience. Not every author is able to step onto the stage and make a performance out of his work. These are two different things.
This year you were supposed to visit Poland, a Central European country par excellence, and yet often marginalized, although inspiring at a social cultural level (as evidenced by the names of Copernicus, Chopin, Skłodowska-Curie, Conrad, Polański, Kieślowski, etc.). What Polish authors do you know and appreciate?
It is a tricky question. I am aware of the shortages of my knowledge of Polish culture and I could use recommendations. From what I recall, Isaac Bashevis Singer had Polish nationality before he accepted American citizenship: he’s one of my favourite authors since I discovered him through the film Yentl.
I remember reading Witold Gombrowicz’s Ferdydurke many years ago, but I don’t think I would have put this book on my list of favourites. In contrast, I really like the poetry about love and death that Halina Poświatowska wrote.
I also know Tadeusz Kantor’s work because I work at the École Normale Supérieure in Lyon, where there is a theatre of Kantor’s name.
Actes Sud and Noir Sur Blanc both have a good selection of Polish prose. Contemporary Polish poetry is translated into French by Isabelle Macor for the Lanskine publishing house. But if I were to recommend one book that really broadens horizons, it is the anthology Poesía a contragolpe: a cross-sectional selection of 64 new generation Polish poets translated into Spanish by three translators, Gerardo Beltran, Xavier Farré and Abel Murcia. One last question, no longer tricky, I hope: what are you working on now?
I have just finished a book called Americans Don’t Walk. It’s a poetic tale about the journey between New Orleans and San Francisco I embarked on last year.
Also, I’ve had a novel in my computer for three years now, but I can’t finish it. I am missing the strike of lightning…
And I’m looking forward to another good idea. It will show up sooner or later.
translated by Miłosz Wojtyna (www.languageextreme.pl)