In Conversation with Brazilian Poet, Angélica Freitas

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  • March 24, 2020

Angélica Freitas is an acclaimed Brazilian writer whose poetry addresses topics of feminism and LGBTQ issues, in dialogue with poetics of the past. Her second collection of poetry, Um Útero É do Tamanho de Um Punho (A Womb is the Size of a Fist) recently became the subject of an attempted censorship in the state assembly of Santa Catarina, Brazil. In the fall of 2019, Freitas and the editorial staff of Poetry International came together to discuss this censorship, as well as her first collection of poetry, Rilke Shake, published in 2007.

Alyssa Buzby: As an active writer in this specific time and climate, do you consider your
writing to be political?

Angélica Freitas: I think I have always considered my writing to be political. Right now, we are living through a very difficult time in Brazil in which we are suffering censorship. Plays have been cancelled and projects are not getting state funding anymore because they go against what our president thinks. So, everything related to LGBTQ communities, you can just forget about. What happened regarding my book,  A Womb is the Size of a Fist, is that it is required reading in the State of Santa Catarina, which is located in the south of Brazil, a very conservative place. One politician must have found out about it. I’m sure he doesn’t read poetry; someone must have told him about it. They asked, “how is a book such as this one required reading?” It goes against Christian values so they think it shouldn’t be read. Up to now, there isn’t anything they can do about it. They don’t want it to be required reading, but the exams are in November. So, they won’t be able to do much.
I laugh about it. I think it’s ridiculous, but I know it’s a cause for concern because if they do something about it, it will be the first book censored in Brazil in our current political times. Again, this is ridiculous. We shouldn’t allow this to happen. If they do something else, I will have to talk to lawyers and see what I can do, but, up to now, they haven’t been able to do anything. There is only an attempt.

McKenna Themm: When I was reading your poetry and its use of language, form, and content I felt like you deliver poems that “shake up” what may be our preconceptions of the world, people, and famous poets. I know that you chose “shake” as part of Rilke Shake , playing off of “milkshake,” but I was wondering if we could interpret “shake” as being “investigative” or “laughable”? Can we interpret the title of the poem in that way?

Freitas: Yes, I think you could think of it that way. When I was writing this book—this book is actually a collection of poems I wrote over, I don’t know, a seven or eight year time span; it’s kind of an anthology—it had to do with all of the reading I was doing at the time. Most of the reading was by canonical writers. I think it was my attempt to do a different sort of reading. I was reading Gertrude Stein. I could have written a poem à la Gertrude Stein, but no, I just decided I would have her as a character in one of the poems. I put her in the bathtub with me, which is pretty intimate. When you look at that you might think, “oh, you shouldn’t be allowed to do this; you should have more respect for the canon.” But my relationship to literature is very playful.
After some time, I realized what I was doing. I didn’t really decide, “I’m going to write a book of poems with literary characters.” No, it was natural to me because I was doing all this reading. And, well, when you say “shake” in Portuguese, everybody will relate it to “milkshake.” It’s really popular. I don’t think Brazilians ever think of the verb “to shake.” But, if you say “milkshake” everybody knows what that is, only we pronounce it differently. It’s very much a part of our culture. And, well, I like milkshakes. I have to say that. Then, one day I came up with this title, Rilke Shake, because I like playing with words and it summed up what I was doing. You know, after you’ve written a book, you realize things that you hadn’t realized before. People tell you things that help you read the book. And, I was like, “yeah, yeah, this is exactly what I was trying to do,” like, “shaking up” literature. I was really aware of it when it was published. It became so obvious.

Anna Alarcon: I’d like to ask you about a specific poem of yours, “Woman is a Construct”, published in Granta a few years back. The poem itself feeds into Simone de Beauvoir’s idea that “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman,” that gender is essentially a social construct. I’m particularly interested in the last lines: “nothing will change – /nothing will ever change – /woman is a construct.” There’s a feeling of utter defeat in these lines. Do you often feel defeated in the face of women’s current position in society? If so, how do you combat this feeling, either in your life or in your poetry?

Freitas: Well, I used to feel a lot more defeated than I do now. When I wrote this poem—I think it was in 2009—things were very different in Brazil in regards to feminism. I remember the first feminists I ever met were in Argentina. I moved to Argentina in 2007 and I met a group of women who actually declared themselves to be feminists, and I was like, “wow!” At the time, most of my women friends would say, “I’m not a feminist, but…” I’m sure you know people like that. “ Não sou feminista, mas…” I used to be really frustrated because it seemed that the women around me didn’t realize the most obvious misogyny. I have these male friends from college who posted pictures of themselves on Orkut taken at different touristic spots, like Notre Dame, and they were holding pieces of paper that said, “ eu gosto de mulheres gostosas”, which means, “I like hot women.” I looked at it and I was like, “okay, this is not right. You can’t do this.” So, I wrote to one of them and he didn’t see anything wrong with that. This sort of thing happened in Brazil and women didn’t take any offense, so that was one of the things that prompted me to write about machismo and misogyny in an ironic tone. I was feeling frustrated and angry, but when I feel frustrated and angry I don’t lash out at people, I just make fun of them. It’s what I try to do, anyway. When I wrote those two lines, I was really like, “okay, women aren’t doing anything about this, so, nothing will change, nothing will ever change.” Now, I am more hopeful even though things in Brazil are going badly. We’re suffering an enormous backlash. But, things are different, so maybe things will change.

Grace Li: Going back to what you said about playing with the canon, do you feel your poems are engaging in a conversation with writers that have come before you?

Freitas: Yes, I think so. I believe writing is a conversation of sorts. They’re not going to reply to you, or anything, but you’re constantly referring to the things you’ve read. So, yes, I would say so.

GL: I noticed you referenced European writers in many of your poems. Is that a tradition in Brazilian poetry?

Freitas: Probably. In South America, we’re always looking outwards. In the 50s, they were still looking to France for references. Not really with concrete poetry, though; they were looking towards Ezra Pound. But in the 19th century, let’s put it that way, or the beginning of the 20th, France was still very much the place that people would even travel to to get their influences. There’s one thing that Oswald de Andrade, who was a modernist writer, once wrote, called the Anthropophagic Manifesto. He said, “I’m only interested in what is not mine,” and I really like that. So, for me, it doesn’t really matter which country it’s coming from. Of course, because I like the English language, I’ve done a lot of reading of American poets and English poets. For me, it’s a part of learning the language. I can also read some French and Spanish and a bit of German, so I would say that my influences are these countries. But, no, I’ve also read a lot of poetry in translation. But what Oswald de Andrade said is really dear to me.

Nils Ljungquist: I was wondering if you could please describe your relationship with your English translator and how closely you worked with that translator?

Freitas: It’s interesting, because Hilary Kaplan, my translator, went to Brazil to visit a colleague from Brown and found my book totally by chance at a bookstore in Porto Alegre, in the south of Brazil. The title, “Rilke Shake,” called her attention. She went to a bookstore—I think the largest bookstore in Porto Alegre— and she found my book because the title appealed to her. Lots of people in Portuguese say this title is ridiculous. I don’t care, I mean that’s how Hilary discovered me; it has served some of its purpose already. And, also, I must say that Brazilians are, not all of us, but, yeah, the poetry scene is kind of conservative. Well, it depends on where you look actually. But when I started publishing it was much more conservative and people said, no, I shouldn’t make puns with Rilke. But, anyway, Hilary found my book in this very organic fashion. She had to write a paper for, I think it was, her PHD and she started translating some of my poems. We exchanged a lot of emails. I was living in Argentina at the time, so she went to Buenos Aires to meet me. After that, I’ve come here a couple times. We’ve become good friends and we’ve worked very closely trying to negotiate the best possible terms in English for what I was doing. I gave her a lot of work, I think, but she did the job really well. I think she decided to translate because there was an affinity for the work. That’s the best that can happen to you if you’re a translator.

NL: In your poem “statute of dismallarmament,” you include the English word, “people,” in the Portuguese version and the Portuguese word for people, “pessoas,” in the English version. So I was wondering what your thoughts were on maintaining a foreign word in the poem?

Freitas: Well, I did this a lot in my first book of poems, but mainly because of the sounds. That’s the only possible explanation and I also like having a foreign element in a verse. It’s like a little surprise, so that’s why I think I did it.

NL: I had a question regarding the use of the internet for publishing. I read that a lot of your poems were actually published in blog form. So, I was wondering, what the current situation is in Brazil with people using online publishing, with regards to possibly using it as a platform against the institutions and to give an alternate voice. Do you see more younger people utilizing it?

Freitas: I think things are slightly different now. Some people have blogs and there are some magazines online in blog format but the thing that’s really important in Brazil now is publishing your chapbooks or your zines. We have these independent book fairs, which are really nice, and you see lots of people selling their own publications and exchanging them, so it seems that we are going back to paper.

Sandra Alcosser: What about the publishers, do mainstream publishers tend to be more conservative?

Freitas: Yes.

AB: So is there a lot of self publishing going on?

Freitas: Right at this moment, yes, people are discovering xerox machines again. Like, “wow, this is wonderful; I can make my own books.” And zines are popping up and I have friends who are doing this. Younger people, but also people who have published books before, are doing this because its fun. We have lots of independent presses in Brazil right now, which I’m glad about because, ten years ago, they didn’t exist. There are a lot of independent presses that are publishing translators, also.

Julia Flores: Earlier you mentioned that you wrote Rilke Shake over a period of seven to eight years. I was wondering if you could talk about how you assembled this anthology.

Freitas: I worked with an editor. I had, for myself, made an order of poems and I sent it to him and asked him to help me. So, it was really something we had to agree on. I thought that, organically, it was the best order. I didn’t really have to think much. I think there is a part of it which has more characters and it’s more playful, but it wasn’t really difficult. You know why? Because they all had something in common, which is this attempt to read poetry in a different way.

Paula Stacey: I think we’d all be interested in hearing other Brazilian poets you’d recommend we read.

Freitas: There are many excellent poets right now, writing very powerful verse. I have to say I don’t like making lists, I feel I’m committing great injustices by leaving important names out. So if I had to make a list, I would mention some poets who are now between their 30s and 40s, poets I read and who make me want to keep writing: Marília Garcia, Ana Martins Marques, Marília Floôr Kosby, Adelaide Ivánova, Tatiana Pequeno, Fabrício Corsaletti, Ricardo Domeneck, André Capilé. You should definitely check them out.

Angélica Freitas’ Rilke Shake, translated by Hilary Kaplancan be purchased through Phoneme Media. Um Útero É do Tamanho de Um Punho can be purchased in its original Portuguese through Companhia das Letras.

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