“Sound follows the sense and sense follows the sound”—An Interview with Mexican Poet Alí Calderón – curated by Ming Di

Alí Calderón (1982, Mexico City) is a poet and literary critic. Author of Imago prima (2005), Ser en el mundo (2008), De naufragios y rescates (2011), En agua rápida (2013), and Las correspondencias (2015). He received the prizes of Poetry Ramón López Velarde (2004) and Benemérito de América (2007), and was fellow of the Foundation for Mexican Letters in the area of poetry (2003-2004) and fellow of the National Fund for Culture and Arts (2009-2010). He is a professor of Hispanic American Literature at the Universidad Autónoma de Puebla, director of the Mexico City International Poetry Encounter and co-founder of the Círculo de Poesía Magazine (circulodepoesia.com).

Ming Di: Have you been to Sarajevo? Have you really travelled on the Trans-Siberian railway? Your poems remind me of my teenage years when I dreamed about being in faraway places. You write with such details that I seem to see realities of those places but in dream-like fragments. Everything is so surreal. Your voice is private and intimate yet you make personal feelings entangled with history so that nothing is too private to share with the public. Can you talk about these poems and how you mix the individualism with a larger world?

Alí Calderón: Yes, I have actually been to those places. We are talking about in situ poems, postcard or snapshot poems. In those poems, I try to show the hidden relationship between a place and the “self”. I try to create an atmosphere of the moment, a moral or affective image of a certain location. I started doing it thinking about Balzac. La rue parisienne is connected with the inner life of his characters. The name and the history of the place help to form the symbolic dimension of the poem. I write poetry thinking about Freud and Jung. They deciphered the symbolic language of the unconscious. But what would happen if those symbols help us to “read” the awakened reality, the everyday life and works in the same way they do in dreams? If so, the unconscious would surround us, a universe of symbols and signs would talk constantly to us about who we really are. We only have to read those symbols. That’s what I want to project in my poems: how places, objects, images, people doing this and that, everything has a correspondence with the self in another level of sense. A real vortex. All this formulation is proposed by the theory of the Mexican poet Mario Calderón.

MD: This is amazing. Who is Mario Calderón? A combination of Mario Bojórquez and Alí Calderón?

AC: Oh no, he is a poet, a Mexican poet. He has developed a very interesting view about poetry and philosophy. He thinks he has “discovered” that personal unconsciousness is not reduced to a mental dimension. In fact, it would have some kind of materiality. Something, at the same time, cuasi-mental and cuasi-physical. The unconsciousness can be read through the objects (things, people, images) that surround us. He just published a book in the US, Reading Our Surroundings(Valparaíso USA, 2019) where he explains this theory. I really like this because experimental poems work with forms and, in this case, poetry works as a vehicle to search new possibilities of sense.

MD: I think we have pre-memory of some kind of pre-experience in a location unknown to us until one day we set foot on it and there comes a déjà vu sensation. That’s how I feel about Sarajevo and Siberia. You have another poem without a title that starts with this line: “Now that night is a carnivorous flower that feeds on shadow.” I’m deeply touched by the music in this poem (or I should say the English translation by Jeremy Paden.)  I notice that you don’t use footnotes to explain your poems and many times you don’t even use titles. Do you have a real narrator (be it I or you or he or we) when you write poetry?  How do you create a tone that makes trivial objects in earthly life sound mystic and mythological?

AC: On the form, I follow Mallarmé and Barthes: everything has a meaning on the page. I also follow the Italian futurism and the techniques of French avant-garde. Maybe Octavio Paz was the one who taught Mexican poets to read and write this way. A poem is similar to a musical pattern, even in the context of experimentalism.

In “The End of the Poem”, Paul Muldoon asks: who speaks in the poem? I think that poetry, and others écritures du moi, become so powerful because of lyrical intentions. I mean, a poem is an invocation to reality. The truth has the structure of fiction, as Lacan used to say. Now the French use the word autonarration to talk about this mixture: to speak about life, real life, using all techniques and rhetorics of literature.

Furthermore, the lyrical I is a constructive intelligence. “He” is in charge at the moment of choosing a linguistic stimulus to achieve an emotional effect. This lyrical I has a memory, the memory of all poems, poets, topics, rhetorical devices that precede him. The lyrical I has a Tradition (the addition of all techniques of poetry writing from Homer to us, at least). We write knowing that. This is a post utopian era, as Haroldo de Campos thought: to be aware of the entire history of literature that precedes us when we write a verse. That also empowers us to say, as Abdellatif Laâbi did, “to write as if the history of poetry started with me”.

All this (a poetic signature: the poet, a constructive intelligence, a name in the literary champ, several artistic and political traditions, and other public languages) is speaking in the poems.

MD: There seems to be so much going on behind your poems. In “Mexican Democracy I.” you’ve found a new language to write political poems: kidnapping on the news, political campaigns, “migratory reform”, poverty, welfare, and corpse of a new born baby. A collage of events around us. “Mexican Democracy II.” is an epic. So powerful. The metropolitan life, distorted modern society and archeological references, all blended. Real and surreal at the same time. How do you develop a music that builds realities on a prehistorical tone?

AC: Pressure and counter-pressure are a couple of words that, as Charles Altieri has pointed out, might help us understand the dynamics of poetic thinking. I speak Spanish, Mexican Spanish. I’m supposed to write about violence and poverty. A woman is murdered in my country every seven minutes and, in Latin America, 350 million people are living with 1.25 USD per day. Trump dreams about bad hombres and walls. I write in Spanish. I cannot avoid all this and write poems as if I were living in Switzerland. The real question is how, using poetry as an expositive method, are we gonna talk about being someone in our own time. I decided to write about this violence using an allusion to history. The Great Temple of Tenochtitlan (ancient Mexico City) was inaugurated with over 70,000 human sacrifices. I juxtaposed both eras to show the brutality of realities.

I saw once, on a website, “Blog del narco”, how the drug cartels presented the bodies of their victims, middens with chopped heads and arms and hands and legs, etc. Just as in Aztec times. An image like this one, appeals me to inquire: what is happening in México? What is a Mexican? How to understand our time? What am I saying when I say “I”?

This is a composite poem in the sense that Tony Hoagland gives the term, it is a collage, a poem of dysraphism. And it is a poem of appropriation. Several voices talk here: Hernán Cortés, Bernal Díaz del Castillo, Spanish romances, etc. On parallel, I use contemporary words. It is a strange mixture. The time of the poetry is the time of the unconscious: there is no past nor future. Everything is present, the present of the massa confusa. So I can use words from several periods of time in history, slangs; I can create words or I can use aphaeresis. Dysraphism. This is American, I mean, inhabitant of this continent. Sound follows the sense and sense follows the sound.

MD: Like polyphonic music. Do you identify yourself as a Latin American poet or a Mexican poet? Why?  How do you define Mexican poetry?  I remember I was a little bit disappointed when I heard for the first time how Latin American poets talk so much about Spanish literature. But then I realize you have such a rich heritage if you take Spanish literature and all the Spanish speaking world as your own. Who else have influenced you as a poet besides Octavio Paz?

AC: Mexican literature is very rich. Octavio Paz is a consequence of that richness and vitality. We have at least 700 hundred years of very interesting poetry. Poetry written in Spanish and poetry composed in native languages. We have a high educated audience for poetry. We read Mexicans, Latin Americans, Spaniards and we have a long tradition in translation. I’m proud of Mexican literature. Mexico reads poetry from all over the world. We inherited this anxiety from Octavio Paz, too.

In spite of this, it’s the time of panhispanic poetry, a poetry from a huge linguistic nation: the Spanish. 600 million people are thinking the world in Spanish. 40 million are doing this in the USA. Literature written in Spanish from the 20th Century on has been a Golden Age: Antonio Machado, Federico García Lorca, César Vallejo, Jorge Luis Borges, Vicente Huidobro, Pablo Neruda, Octavio Paz, Nicanor Parra, Jaime Sabines, Eduardo Lizalde, Ernesto Cardenal, García Márquez, Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa, etc, etc. Terrific tradition. After Octavio Paz, I think of four poets as cardinal points for our poetry: RaulZurita (Chile), Néstor Perlongher (Argentina), Efraín Bartolomé (México) and Luis García Montero (Spain).

MD: Spanish, like Arabic, has made the literary continuation possible in so many countries across continents, compared to the small languages in Europe and Asia. I’m impressed by your knowledge of poetry in other countries. When we first met at the Granada festival in Spain, you talked about Bei Dao and Misty poetry in China. But my knowledge of Mexican poetry is very limited and even contradictory: I’ve seen homage to Octavia Paz among many poets but I’ve also read young poets who try to escape his influence. How would you describe the poetry scene in Mexico? Can you also introduce a few aspiring poets in other Latin American countries?

AC: Octavio Paz is a big critical and poetical reference. He published his last book in 1987. A lot has happened since then. There are festivals in several countries and a lot of magazines that make possible this panhispanic poetry. There are several and various styles and languages: ethnopoetics (José Vicente Anaya from México), irony (Manuel Vilas from Spain, Frank Baez from Dominican Republic, Marisa Martínez Pérsico from Argentina), self-narration (Valeria Tentoni from Argentina, Raquel Lanseros and Elena Medel from Spain), allegory (Federico Díaz Granados from Colombia or Fernando Valverde from Spain), documental poetry (Mijail Lamas from México), experimentalism (Enrique Winter from Chile), pærsona (Victoria Guerrero from Peru or Gustavo Osorio from Mexico), feminism (Peruvian poets like María Emilia Cornejo, Carmen Ollé, Giovanna Pollarollo, Mariela Dreyfus, etc).

MD: I recognize several names you just mentioned through English translations and festivals.

AC: Please, pay attention to two particular poets: Jorge Galán (El Salvador) and Mario Bojórquez (Mexico). Galán is a powerful voice with surprising imageries. Expansive poetry. Bojórquez has the most craftsmanship among our poets. He puts literary techniques at the service of the rapture and fracture of the self. They are both poets of fervor, in the sense that Zagajewski gave to that word. We need a good anthology in the United States of contemporary panhispanic poetry.

MD: Absolutely, even though Forrest Gander has done terrific work in translating panhispanic poetry as you call it and Juan Felipe Herrera has promoted Hispanic poetry in a great deal—to name just two for now. Oh it was Herrera’s book Mayan Drifter(1997) that made me interested in Mexico. I was so fortunate to participate in your poetry festival in Mexico City during the one hundredth year celebration of Octavio Paz. Paz and Borges from Argentina introduced ancient Chinese philosophy and literature to Latin America such as Taoism and Chuang Tzu. Great minds belong to all nations anyway. And all ethnic nationalities share some ancient cultures. Migration. Migration. Migration. Do you remember we had Chifa in Peru? And also, I remember how astonished I was when facing the Sun Stone for the first time, tears bursting out—I saw my ancestral remnants in Mexico. I have been more and more fascinated with the indigenous cultures in Americas. Don’t you think you have Asian blood in your Hispanic flesh? And your poetry?

AC: I had a grandfather. Everybody called him “el Chino”, “the Chinese”.

MD: Your grandfather on your mother’s side or father’s side?

AC: My father’s side. In fact, he looks like as if he was born in Sri Lanka or Pakistan. In the last century in Mexico, a Chino was somebody that came from Asia: Chinese, Indian, Pakistaniat, Arab. Everything was the same. And yes, I remember that festival in Pautarcambo, Perú, in the deep Andes as some kind of zen teaching. We were in front of a quechua audience that barely understood Spanish, remember?

MD: Of course. Four hours drive over mountains and mountains, then—we walked into history or pre-history. It’s the end of the continent at least. I totally forgot Chile further down south.

AC: It was awesome because, in fact, I think poetry is a strange or even radically odd experience, something that awakes us. To write Poetry is to watch with a different set of eyes, to talk from another place. Something similar to migration. To write means to give up your comfort zone, your aesthetic safe place. Mexico, Latin America in general, is a strange place for an eurocentric mind, just like Asia. Such places offer a lot of possibilities to think poetry in surprising ways. Chakrabarty used to say, pointing out our “peripheral condition”: let’s provincialize Europe (…and USA). Instead, I think we have to emphasize our connected histories (it’s a concept by Sanjay Subranhanyam): the poetic migration, the flux of ideas, forms, visions. Post-utopian time: to read poetry from all over the world. To deal with several lyrical traditions. I guess that is the future of poetry. Whoever has ears, let him hear.