‘We can each dream to be a different poet from who we are’: A Conversation with Galician Poet Yolanda Castaño, curated by Ming Di

Yolanda CastañoYolanda Castaño (1977-) is a poet, editor, columnist, and culture manager (Galician Audiovisual Academy Award as ‘Best TV Communicator 2005’). She has published 6 poetry books in Galician and Spanish (“Depth of Field” and “The second tongue” are her last titles). She has won the National Critics Award, the Espiral Maior Poetry Award, the Fundación Novacaixagalicia, the Ojo Crítico (best poetry book by a young author in Spain) and the Author of the Year Galician Booksellers’ Award, and finalist of the National Poetry Prize. She organizes monthly poetry reading series, festivals, literary and translation workshops, all of these hosting local to international poets (Galician Critics’ Award Best Cultural Manifestation 2014). She was the General Secretary of the Galician Language Writers Association. She has also translated four books into Spanish and Galician (of contemporary authors such as Nikola Madzirov and Marko Pogačar). Part of her work has been translated into twenty five languages and published as chapbooks in Chinese and Macedonian.
Ming Di: Did you start writing poetry in Galician or Spanish? What inspired you initially? Is there a separate tradition of Galician poetry or Galician literature in Spain?

Yolanda Castaño: I was really young when I started writing poetry, only 7 years old. I was in contact with the two official languages that we have in Galicia, Galician and Spanish, so I naturally started to combine both languages. Then, as a teenager, I established a link and a commitment with Galician language. And it is now solid, strong, firm and irreversible: I always and only write in Galician, even when I can perfectly translate everything shortly afterwards into Spanish, which I do in fact.

Yes there is a separate tradition of Galician literature. It is a different one, with its own history, names, circumstances... If the poet’s motherland is his/her language, the Galician literature is the one that’s written in Galician language (which is, as you know, a Romance language as old as Spanish, spoken in the Northwest coast of the Iberian Peninsula, and was actually the same language as Portuguese in the Middle Ages and is still so much in common nowadays). This Galician literature had a ‘Golden Age’ at the Middle Ages, with a rich tradition of troubadours (as Occitan in Southern France), then it encountered the so-called ‘dark centuries’ and finally in the XIX century the ‘renaissance’, with a female name of a great romanticist poet on top of the list: Rosalía de Castro.

The two literary traditions inspired me at the same time in the beginning: the rhymes in Spanish and Galician together with the nature and emotions felt by a 7 years old. My family and teachers encouraged me and supported me. At 13 I started winning the first prize of ‘minor’ poetry contests and at 17 I won a literary prize that published my first book as part of the honor.

MD: Were you required to learn Spanish or you acquired it naturally? Under what circumstances?

YC: I am somehow conscious of the fact that Galicia might be perhaps one of the last secret treasures of the Iberian Peninsula, and I am happy that you had the chance to visit it and to know much more about its richness and diversity within Spain, far beyond every stereotype (as you have seen, we don’t have bullfighting here! nor flamenco! We are maybe more connected to our Celtic roots, green landscapes and rich medieval heritage.)

Since Spanish is nowadays the language of power, language of media, and access to globalization, it always takes extra effort to maintain Galician. The sociolinguistic situation regarding the coexistence of two languages doesn’t only point to the number of speakers but speakers that really want to speak in that tongue. Spanish is the language that is the strongest and considered ‘best’ among Galician speakers (the colonist language attracts people who have low self-esteem). So, Spanish is massively all around (in media, education system, etc.) We belong to a bigger superstructure called Spanish state, in which some Galician populations insist on not using Galician, in the sense of survival of the fittest. And there is a huge number of populations speaking Spanish worldwide... So the fact is, yes, it is acquired practically or naturally as you say.

MD: You have a degree in Spanish language and literature, what made you decide to write only in Galician? Is it due to “identity” issue or promoting “small” languages? Why is it important to you?

YC: I was and still am quite skeptical about “universities” (at least here in Spain). When I was finishing my secondary school I already had a book published and had a clear idea that I wanted to be a poet and work on poetry. I doubted if I could go further through academic studies, even with an outstanding record! So I’d rather finish whatever BA as soon as possible and concentrate on creative writing. Real education and enrichment come through many other different channels: workshops, readings, friend’s suggestions, reviews, and even poetry festivals. I didn’t want to waste too much time moving out of my city to go to the university because I needed time to write poetry, to meet other poets and even start organizing my first poetry projects. Since the University of my city didn’t offer Galician but only Spanish degree, so that’s what I got. As soon as I finished it, I started to fly worldwide with my own poetry.

It is true that there is a political reason behind the decision of choosing Galician as my literary language. Linguistic matters are always political as well. In terms of quantity (number of speakers, of potential readers, and market) Galician literature is not less or smaller than Lithuanian, Georgian or Belarusian literature and definitively bigger than Slovenian, Icelandic or Latvian and even connected with two of the six most spoken languages in the world: Portuguese and Spanish. The crucial problem is that Galician is a stateless language. It is just one of the 4 official languages within Spain (together with Catalan, Basque and Spanish). The worst thing is that the political reason often makes it less attractive to potential translators, foreign editors, poetry festival directors, readers, etc.

However, I never take the side with the survival of the fittest, the law of the jungle, of the strongest and most powerful. I truly think poetry is exactly the opposite: it is not the numbers or quantities but the subtle and necessary voice of the minority, the alternative, the nuance that matters. I find more coherent writing in a minority language, and think that poetry itself is a minoritized language these days too. Poetry is an alternative language, alternative to the speech of the power, the language of mass media. An alternative space where one can talk about a different language and to dream a new world.

I aspire to give it a status, to refresh modernity and the future to my own language, Galician; to spread the news of its long literary tradition and to highlight my identity as Galician.

MD: Do you translate your poetry into Spanish or do you re-write the poems in Spanish? My question is, is there a re-creation process in translating your own poetry? (Personally I can never “translate” my own poems because I always end up writing new ones.)

YC: I think I need to wait a while before translating my own poems. I’m very slow when I write. I remember there were times when it took me 10 months to finish a single poem. When I finally consider a poem ‘finished’ it is at last solid and consolidated. That means I make many ‘changes’ and ‘corrections’ before I consider a poem ‘finished’ but once this happens I usually don’t touch a single word any more. That also makes translation easier. I think I can do it with no major problems (I usually ask for some proofreading of course) and I don’t make big changes. Translating is itself a creative exercise, and for me it is also very stimulating creatively speaking.

MD: Do you ever write poetry directly in Spanish? If you were to write poetry in Spanish, would you do it differently than in Galician? Does your mind work differently in the two languages?

YC: Since I was a teenager, I’ve never written directly in Spanish again. I only write in Galician first, and later I translate my poems into Spanish. I’m not very sure about how I would write directly in Spanish, but I would guess that different tradition works for different writing impulse...

MD: How do you think your poetry is different from the work by other Spanish or Portuguese poets?

YC: Galician contemporary poetry is in general different and develops itself within a particular frame, condition, and characteristic. It can’t be mistaken with Spanish or Portuguese literature, as they both have their own histories. For example, and to make it over-simplified of course, I often think Galician poetry looks less ‘realistic’ than Spanish. I also find it more connected with modern practices (renewing the channels and means, exploring new spaces) than Portuguese. But perhaps sometimes a little bit self-referential, closed to its own tradition.

In my personal case, I try to open myself to as many international influences, new experiences and different ways of expressions. I try to find honesty, to be creatively ambitious and also to take some risks sometimes.

MD: You travel to Latin America frequently. Where is your favorite place in Latin America and why? How similar or different do you find Latin American poetry from Spanish or Galician poetry?

YC: Galician language is quite connected with Portuguese (since they were both born as the same tongue) and Spanish (as we received all the influence of this language since we fell under the kingdom of Spanish Catholic Kings; and still do today because it is co-official here in Galicia). These two languages are the most spoken ones in Latin America where, in addition, many Galicians emigrated (Galician is a very migrant people, for example, in Argentina all the Spanish migrants are called “gallegos” (Galicians) because they came mostly from our region; it is also said that the fifth Galician province is located in Buenos Aires, and we still keep many speakers around Latin America). In Latin America I always feel at home; I’ve found many connections; and I really feel comfortable that any cultural shock is never too hard to overcome. It is like a more relaxed and colorful Spain, so rich in culture as well as nature. It is passionate, expressive and full of personality. Very authentic and true, genuine. I have recently fallen in love with Cuba. I also love Nicaragua, where I am going back next month. I absolutely loved Venezuela, Mexico and Peru.

To be honest, I often find Latin American poetry more vivid and free than Spanish one. Less attached to realism, or down to earth if you want, or even restrained sometimes. I’m of course making it definitely too simplified and generalized, and that is always the same as lying, but it seems to be less cold and calculating rational or intellectually speaking, somehow... That’s perhaps why we Galician poets sometimes feel more easily influenced by Latin American than Spanish poetry!

MD: Who have influenced you most and made you the poet you are today?

YC: I think that personally meeting contemporary international poets has been somehow an important experience for me. Being as precocious as I was, quite often I met a poet first and then read her/his work. Apart from that, from the Argentinean Alejandra Pizarnik to the Galician Méndez Ferrín, from the Peruvian César Vallejo to the Andalusian García Lorca, from Sylvia Plath to Mark Strand, they all have influenced my work. I can recognize influences by foreign poets or even Galician colleagues (including my own generation, like Olga Novo or María do Cebreiro).

Visual and/or conceptual artists such as Tracey Emin have had more influence on my work than most of the classic poets. I am influenced by the films I watch, the songs I listen to, the video clips I see, the paintings and photography, the pictures and performances and even the commercials I watch. I even think that the trips I have taken have made me the poet I am today.

MD: You write about beauty which many woman poets try to avoid writing about. Why? What do you try to convey? Is beauty a metaphor and why do you choose it to work for you?

YC: I think they avoid it because it’s a controversial and delicate issue. But in the last few decades, women in literature have historically changed from objects of thought to subjects of thinking. In some of my poems I deal with the image of me that others loot at. Up to a certain point, I can be responsible of my own and personal image, but they must also be responsible of their looking. And what does their way of looking show? What does that looking reveal? In my opinion, among other things, there are many gender prejudices, prejudices against women writers. (Woman’s body is always a problem, if not in a positive sense, then the opposite.) An image that doesn’t fit with the present stereotypes of women writers can really disturb, disgust or divert the attention to what really matters: our work. I try to struggle against all that with unforgiving courage, critical thinking, and also with some irony and sense of humor.

MD: We both run translation workshops. What do you try to achieve in your translation workshops?

YC: Considering the limited channels for circulating poetry in translation, workshops can really strengthen our networks. In translating others’ work, we can each dream to be a different poet from who we are. We can explore new ways of writing and try different creative process. Translating each other really gives new life to our work. Translation workshops provide us with new ‘calling cards’ to enter new markets (new circles, new projects, possibly new books, new readers). The samples of our work in new versions can really be keys to new poetry adventures. For me, these wonderful projects can also enrich our heritage of world poetry in translation. And through the workshops and networks, we can quickly and easily access different and very recent literary practices from all over the world, directly in our own languages.

In our poetry translation workshop we also try to make Galicia the hosting territory for international writers/translators, taking the chance to show them our identity, landscape, history, culture, literature and language. Working and living with us for a whole week can be a good way to know us. New contacts, friendships and even projects are born each year from the workshops. And it’s always an honor and a pleasure for me.


by Yolanda Castaño
translated by Jonathan Dunne

First it was a disorder
a girl’s harmful abstinence we were poor I had nothing
except rickets poverty before I bitterness lacking a
parabola of complexes a syndrome a ghost
(Equally ill-fated to miss or lament it)
Shadowy reef which breaks my necklaces.
First of all it was an evasive gill which
wouldn’t make me happy touching me with its breath
I’m the plainest face in the school playground
insipid expression which sows nothing anywhere
have it or not give up get used to swallow it
crows covering clouds sentenced to eternal cold
a patient gale a private deprivation
(I was a convent girl they all end up
anorexic Lesbian spare
the rod spoil the elbows heads
cunts and consciences).
I closed my eyes and violently wished
once and for all to become what I was.

But beauty corrupts. Beauty corrupts.
Shadowy reef which wears out my necklaces.
Morning conquers and the throat contains a portent.
Silly little thing! you were obsessed with covering with crosses
instead of content.
It was a slow dizzy blossoming of flowers in winter
The rivers jumped back turned into waterfalls roses
butterflies and snails appeared in my hair
The smile of my breasts added fuel to airplanes
Beauty corrupts
Beauty corrupts
The tightness of my stomach escorted spring
conch shells overflowed in my miniature hands
my highest compliment pinched my ventricle
I no longer knew what to do with so much light in so much shade.

They said your weapon will be your own punishment
they threw my virtues in my face this
club does not admit girls with red painted lips
a dirty seaquake perverted usury which
can have nothing to do with my mask of lashes
mice went up to my room fouled the drawers of underwear
litres of scrap tar secret spying litres
of control litres of slanderers kilos of suspicions raised
with only the tense arch of my eyebrows you should be tied up
given a grey appearance your features erased with acid
to stop being me in order to become a writer?
they demonized my long thin neck the way
I have hair at the base of my nape this
club does not admit such well turned out girls
We distrust the summer
Beauty corrupts.
Think hard if this is all worth it.
Ming Di is a Chinese poet and translator, author of six books of poetry in Chinese and one in collaborative English translation, River Merchant’s Wife (Marick Press, 2012). She taught Chinese at BU before moving to California where she lives now. She has translated four books of poetry from English to Chinese and co-translated four books from Chinese to English including Empty Chairs – Poems of Liu Xia (Graywolf Press, 2015, finalist for the Best Translated Book Award in 2016). She edited and co-translated New Cathay – Contemporary Chinese Poetry (Tupelo Press, 2013).