As a translator of Uruguayan poetry, I am always telling the world that Uruguay is a country full of poets. And that’s true. But it is also a country with a population of 3.3 million. Mexico is a country of poets—with a population of 126 million.
I love sheer quantity and the amazing diversity of Mexican poetry. There have been good anthologies: I turn time and again to Reversible Monuments: Contemporary Mexican Poetry, edited by Mónica de la Torre and Micheal Wiegers; Like A New Sun: New Indigenous Mexican Poetry, edited by Víctor Terán and David Shook and the anthology of Mexican women poets, Sin puertas visibles, edited by Jen Hofer. This past year, at the Banff Literature Translation Centre, I had the amazing privilege of meeting the Mè´phàà poet Hubert Matiúwàa and hearing him speak and read his work. I featured one Mexican poet, Sergio Loo translated by Mark Statman and Efraín Velasco in issue 17: http://www.tupeloquarterly.com/a-folio-of-poems-by-sergio-loo-translated-by-efrain-velasco-mark-statman/
But I have wanted to bring more Mexican poetry to TQ readers. This feature, curated by poet and translator Ezequiel Zaidenwerg, offered me that chance. As we discussed the project, I realized I had begun thinking of this as the “Beyond Paz” feature—Paz meaning Octavio Paz, the best known, most widely read Mexican poet in the United States. I was modeling this, I realized, on my habit of thinking of South American poets who are outside the canon—whether because they are women, indigenous, LQBTQ, or just young—as “Beyond Neruda.”
“Beyond Paz” and “Beyond Neruda” to me are not references to current critical or poetic thought inside Mexico or South America, but the habits of American readers. We, and I will include myself here as a poet and teacher of creative writing, have had a habit of settling for one poet in translation per country, or sometimes only one per continent. I have been pushing hard to get more and more South American poets who are “Beyond Neruda” translated into English and published in the U.S. So this feature is “Beyond Paz” in the sense that these will be Mexican poets new to many readers.
But when I mentioned this as a possible title for the feature to Ezequiel, he came back with a suggestion from the poet Hernán Bravo Varela of “Una traición más alta,” which is a reference to the famous poem by “Alta traición” (High Treason) by Jose Emilio Pacheco. In it, Pacheco says he does not love his homeland, that her abstract glory is more than he can grasp. But that he’d give his life for ten places, for certain historical figures—and three or four rivers. And I think this captures perfectly the relation between any artist and their country, its history, literary canon, and landscape. So from this new generation of Mexican poets, poems that are “a higher treason.”
Una traición más alta: Contemporary Mexican Poets will run in two issues—five poets in this one, five in the next. And that means more stunning, surprising Mexican poets in Tupelo Quarterly!
Q & A with Ezequiel Zaidenwerg by Jesse Lee Kercheval
Jesse Lee Kercheval: How did you select the Mexican poets included here?
Ezequiel Zaidenwerg: I’ve been traveling to Mexico every year (and sometimes several times a year!) and reading, meeting and befriending local poets for over a decade now, so I’d like to think of myself as one of the top Argentinian specialists in Mexican poetry living in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Jokes aside, I’ve always been amazed by how strong and diverse the poetry scene in Mexico continues to be, and how fast it seems to change and evolve –every time I visit, I bring back a few great new books with me. As for your question, anthologizing isn’t exactly the most pleasant of jobs: you’re faced with the unsavory task of leaving out more people than you are actually allowed to include, and I suspect many a friend whose work I admire will be upset by my selection. This said, in choosing these ten poets, I didn’t only take my own personal taste into account, but tried to find a balance that would reflect the range and diversity of contemporary Mexican poetry.
JLK: What do you think these poets bring to the reader?
EZ: I think they bring a lot of different things, and I also believe they pose extremely diverse and exciting challenges for readers to actively engage with –in sum, I’d say they demand very different modes of attention, which by the way is one of the reasons why I’m personally so fascinated by poetry as a genre. The five poets I chose for the first part of this feature couldn’t be more different from each other. Luis Felipe Fabre is most interested in blowing up old traditions and forms to explore the collisions between the archaic and the modern of which the contemporary is a result. Maricela Guerrero’s El sueño de toda célula [Every Cell’s Dream] is a unique book that tackles ecology, politics and gender with a poetic voice that is as tender as it is fierce. Daniel Saldaña París is a virtuoso and versatile writer, and these poems manage to be grave, neurotic, absurd, enlightening and hysterically funny, all at the same time. Isabel Zapata is also a wonderful essayist, and I suspect that’s why she has mastered the difficult art of making the poem think while it never stops singing –no small feat indeed! Xel-Ha López Méndez is, in my opinion, one of the most remarkable voices to emerge in the past few years; she’s always poignant and precise in her calculated sparseness, which also makes her the most Argentine of all Mexican poets.
JLK: You are a translator yourself, and a poet as well as an editor. How do you find these three sides of your art work together?
EZ: It’s usually said that all good translators are good writers; and, while it’s true, I think it’d be more accurate to turn the phrase around and say that all good writers need to be good translators, in the broadest sense of the word –which is actually the one that counts the most. I could go on and on about how these three sides of my work are inextricably linked together, but one of the things I enjoy the most about being an editor and a translator is that although it puts you in the control room (and I do like control, I must confess), your job is actually to set the stage for other people to perform and shine. Translating and editing are also immensely humbling and joyous experiences that happen to make writing much more difficult –they warn you against trying to add to the conversation if you actually have nothing particularly interesting to say.