Ana Luísa Amaral is a Portuguese writer whose unique perspective on existence and experience allows her to enter into conversation with some of life’s most perplexing passages. It has been over 25 years since Amaral’s first published volume of poetry and since then her work has been published widely. Amaral’s work has been translated into numerous languages including, Spanish, French, and Italian. Recently, her book The Art of Being a Tiger was translated into English by Margaret Jull Costa. What follows is a conversation between Amaral with Valorie Ruiz and Matt Fowler in the Spring of 2018 in San Diego.
Valorie Ruiz: Your manuscript centers around the meeting of seemingly mundane and ordinary items with an introspective philosophy of the complexities of these “things”. Do you believe this is your innate nature as a poet, or have you had an interest and education in the field of philosophy? Or, perhaps any poet should ask large questions about our being/condition.
Ana Luísa Amaral: No, I never had a background in philosophy. I can see what you mean though, it is as if there are two lines, one which speaks more of daily life— say the onions, potatoes— those things that seem totally distanced from the poetic. And then there are more reflexive or the abstractions. The thing for me is that I think anything can be turned into poetry. Even a potato can be turned into a poem! As much as love and loneliness, and politics, I really do not differentiate. For example, the onion, which to me is very cherished, for me it is layered, wonderful, beautiful, it has no center, just like poetry, just like life.
So, for me, what I see is that writing poetry, is a very strange thing. It’s like having a radio, trying to switch from station to station, you tune into a station. This is what happens to me in poetry. I think that poets have, these oh I don’t, they achieve a state, where they tune into something, into the words, into the music that exists around us. And like with a radio, sometimes you pick up other stations, other techniques, but you also pick up these moments: moments you can’t really explain. In the 60’s poetry changed, inspiration left and poetry became work and about language, but I think, I still think, there is always that moment that is a mystery for me.
“Shall I take thee, the poet said, to the propounded word?” Emily Dickinson says it much more beautifully. Something like, I am going to choose the word. This happens to every poet, even those that say there is no inspiration.
Matt Fowler: Yeah, exactly, as a writer, you have to know how to choose to write.
ALA: And, before you create your own paths, you must learn the other paths people who have come before us. I think it is very important that every poet learns to write a sonnet, even though, if then you decide to never write sonnets. It’s important in my mind, that you know who wrote the Shakespearean Sonnet and the way it works and the way the Italian Sonnet works, I think it is very important that you educate your ear. To me, that’s fundamental.
MF: Yeah, and it’s important to know, to understand the form, before you try to deviate from it. So, you can do it well.
ALA: Exactly, exactly. Before you try to create your own path, you have to know the paths of the others. There are so many paths. We are walking over dead people, metaphorically I mean.
VR: Learning the forms, it is a respect for the art, for the history of it.
ALA: Exactly, and only if you know what others have written before you, only then can you truly find a new way of writing, your own way of writing. Even the idea of originality and newness is all so complicated. The wonderful and beautiful thing about poetry and art in general, it’s wonderful because, it uses only an alphabet, that is the only thing we have. In English, you have a few more letters than in Portuguese, we don’t use a K, or a Y, and we don’t use a W. That is why the scrabble in Portuguese is such a different process!
We only have an alphabet, and we use these words to communicate with each other. These are the same words that then we translate into the language of poetry. It is absolutely extraordinary, it is the combination that makes poetry. Now how can it be new? Yes, in a way, the variety and combinations are infinite. For me, it is also very important, as it is for most poets, the way the poem appears on the page. How do you say that in English the metagraphica it means literally, graphics of the poem?
VR: We talk a lot about the white space a lot when discussing the form, it could be something similar.
ALA: Yeah, the white space brings us all mostly to an anguish, attention and anguish, there it is all in the white space.
MF: It is interesting, what you were saying earlier, we just have these words, and you can do something so mundane with them, like order coffee, or do something so great like truly change someone’s perspective, or inspire someone, but they’re all just the same words.
ALA: Yes, exactly, this is why poetry can be so important, a very important motor engine, motor of resistance. Even, for example, if a poem is lyrical. I mean poets are always the ones that go to jail in these times. It is obvious, why, because poets work with language. At its core is ambiguity, several meanings, and in a way, it threatens the language of the politicians. The language of power, so in a way it’s threatening. You never fully know what a poet is saying, poetry is elusive, it’s a slant, and it’s exactly that which threatens the people in power. I also believe if the poetry serves anything, it serves to preserve memories. The collective memory. Even though, it may start with, for example a small personal memory, and then a small community memory, it is as Jonn says “Do not ask for the gospel on behalf of whom but on behalf of you”. It is not only the I but the I in you. Poetry works in that way as well, as a very important way of recovering and preserving memory that belong to all of us. And also, beauty which is absolutely fundamental. I mean, poetry is totally useless, but it is symbolic, no you cannot make a chair or a table, but we humans need the symbolic. For some reason, we need it. Our ancestors, for example, put flowers on the graves of the dead, the flowers are not necessary, all they needed was a hole, to hide the body, but it is the ceremony, the ritual that moves us. Poetry and art can be placed in that same way, it is communal.
VR: You are prolific as a poet, you’ve done over 15 books in the last 20 years. What is your process in putting together a manuscript? Like we were saying, it’s so different than a poem.
ALA: My first book, I published in 1990 and at 33, it’s quite late, I mean not very late of course, but usually people publish earlier than the age of 33. I didn’t want to publish before that. Actually, my PHD supervisor pushed me, practically forced me, she told me “You have to! You have to organize and publish a book!” But, I did not want to lose, or rather I was afraid of losing the innocence, the relationship that I thought I had with words. And it’s not that I didn’t show people the poems, because I always showed them.
I mean you know, for me, I feel that writing has two moments. The first, a phase of full solitude, the poet with themselves alone, and then the second when the poem is read. Which is another moment and also a mystery. How do we know when to let it be read? The first moment happens in the body, and then when we share— the moment of communication— is the second moment. We write for ourselves in the first place, I always write for myself first, I don’t think it functions any other way, at least for me.
So, this is to say, I have always shown poems, but the audience was always controlled because I knew who I was showing it too, colleagues friends, people I knew. They wouldn’t try, I mean I knew, it was unlikely that they would try to persuade me to write different. That audience was controlled, in a strange way, but it was also a way of making my writing public. So, just like Dickinson, we say, in life she only published seven poems, but that’s not true. She published much more if we believe that to become public—to be published— means sharing our work with people.
What I was afraid of with publishing was that after being read by eyes I didn’t know the critics would influence my way of writing. It’s a very naive thought, maybe, but that is how it was. I felt in a way that I had this relationship of innocence with words and I was afraid of losing it, or having it get tainted. That it would get persuaded or changed, by critics who might say, “Ah! But you should write like that! Or in this way!” That didn’t happen, thankfully, but yes, so it was in a way forced, the way I put that manuscript together. The title changed over time, it was once called The Mistress of What, but the title did become a very weird title, The impossible Burning Bush. And that is how it was accepted from then on. And, I don’t think I ever lost that relationship of innocence with words. At this age, I still can get dazzled by a sunset, or a new word, or these questions for example, being happy with these conversations.
MF: So, building off of that, what does your writing process look like? How do you write a poem, in your way?
ALA: It depends. When my daughter was little, and after my divorce, I was alone with her and I usually wrote at night. Even now I like to write at night, in the silence of the night. Once in while you hear a dog barking. I live in a very small place, a small town, with maybe ten thousand people which is very little for the United States, but I live in a small town by the sea. I could never live far from the sea. When I lived her in the United States I lived at Brown and I couldn’t go by foot to the sea, but it was close enough for me to go to every week. Because I need to see the sea.
Yes, so I write at night when there is no noise, or for example, the opposite, here. I love to write in coffee shops. I belong to that generation, who studied in coffee shops, who held revolutions in coffee shops. Don’t forget, I was seventeen years old when there was the Revolution of Carnation in Portugal. When we had a fascist dictatorship, and I am still of those days, I had many friends who were arrested, it was terrible. But yes, to answer, I still write in coffee shops too. Now, I cannot write in one with a TV or with a radio. I cannot write with music, it’s very funny, but the noise of people talking to each other, that I like.
MF: It’s a nice hum.
ALA: Yes, exactly it is the hum of humanity. That doesn’t bother me at all. Even in these places, I move I move like a dog trying to find sleep. I move around, I find my place, I move chairs and tables to see where the light is hitting, I stay out of the sun but with a little bit of light, it’s as if these external conditions, as if in a way, they can help the poem start.
And sometimes the poem comes, or two lines and they’re bad lines or its a bad poem, or a word comes, but that’s not the word that is going to stay. Maybe that word will just enhance, or call another word, or connect to another word. Sometimes you find a word or two words and those words llama another, pero no llama something like produce or lead to, other words which are going to stay in the book. And maybe the first two don’t even stay, or they move to the middle or the end, but they lead to the other words.
I also draw a lot when I write poems. I draw a lot on the sides. Sometimes I struggle with a word, or a line that doesn’t come. And it is as if that line is possible to translate into a drawing, as if that line has other lines, and I have to make a dramatic drawing. And then the word comes.
So, with noise, in the silence of the night. But it’s never been dramatic. Like I’m never driving and suddenly I have to stop the car and write the poem. No struck by the muses, no dramatic moment.
And one more thing I want to quote from Emily Dickinson.
“I dwell in possibility.” It’s very strange, the opposition of prose should be poetry, and therefore, poetry means possibility. To dwell in poetry is to dwell in possibility.
Poetry is possibility, it’s openness.
There’s a very interesting poet from Argentina, Diana Bellessi, I don’t know if you have heard of her. She once wrote, that the time in poetry is totally different than the time in fiction. Because the relationship between time and poetry is different. She uses the image of a hummingbird, she said the hummingbird is the only bird that flies in all directions, back and forth, zig zag, en frente y para tras, en frente y para tras, it is not like the other birds that flies straight forward. And if I want to depart from this image further, I would say, this is why: because poetry condenses, in a way that fiction doesn’t, sometimes we say in three stanzas what they need three pages to say. Because poetry is a language of compression, it creates a weird thing of time. This is why I say that poetry preserves. A novel in the most traditional way, has this chronological story within the novel— past, present, future— whereas poetry condenses everything into a single breath, an instant, the three elements with which we define time. And yes, it moves, in a very weird way, between these elements.
Poetry anticipates the world and views. I was saying two days ago in a class those words by Blake from “Auguries of Innocence”, “To see a world in a grain of sand,” “Hold infinity in the palm of your hand.” When he wrote this, he knew nothing about science and micro neurons, and yet he describes the experience that neuroscience came to discover, the neurons in the brain. Like when we see pain or joy in the other person. Like when you smile I smile. When you laugh, I laugh. This is why poetry can also be a way of building communities of bringing them together, and yes, also very dangerous in that regard.
That’s the beauty of it, the tremendousness of poetry.
MF: And, now, more specifically: can you speak a little bit about the aims of your project, Intersexualities?
ALA: It belongs to a wider project within my center of research, called Literature and Frontiers of Knowledge, the politics of inclusion. I belong to board of directors of Institute of Comparative Literature at the Margarida Losa center, so we have a common project for politics of inclusion, intermediality, cinematography, intertranscultural readings (poetry of exile, literature of exile) and then intersexualities, the line I run. This consists of three strains mostly, one that has to do with literature and feminist studies, then feminist studies and gender studies, and another which cross literature, poetry mostly, and science, and the third is about poetry and sexualities. So, we work on queer studies and theory, lgbtq studies, and that’s mostly what we do.
Our team includes about 17 people from totally different countries. Many from Brazil. They are all also so connected to social movements. Which I feel is so important. It’s important that this research has some impact on people’s lives. It’s not only about these abstract things— like an analysis of something which is only useful for a few elect people. Like for those who understand how stylistic devices work. But with these politics of inclusion it is absolutely necessary that either we study poetry and literature from the point of view of resistance, or that the research we carry on has some impact. It is important, because it has to do with people’s lives. So, for example, on the first and second of June we will have a big conference of queering Brazilian Studies. We’ll have people who work with transexualities, queer sexualities, and bisexualities, and we are bringing them together. There are people who know nothing about queer studies and are interested only in feminist studies. And this is alright, we don’t need to be interested in everything, each aspect is necessary, and you cannot go to certain parts of the world and force, say in countries where women are killed for being women, we cannot force them to look at all studies. We need to bring to them the information they need, and then go from there.
I read an essay from Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak called “Can the Subaltern Speak?”. One of the cornerstones of postcolonial studies. It was very important for the rising of post-colonial studies. She speaks about the strategic essentials. And so, I think, sometimes I have to, in certain positions, think only in the context of men and women, or only about women, I have to think sometimes in terms of stable identities in order to help move into and solve other issues. And I think this is what feminist studies has to do too. There has to be a way for us to bring together queer theory and studies with feminist studies and lgbtq studies. Sometimes they are against each other and it is important we bring them together. And yes, sometimes they butt heads. But they have to unite forces. They have to unite against the common enemy. There is the patriarchal identity and society as their common enemy.
Valorie K. Ruiz is a Xicana writer fascinated by language and the magic it evokes. She is an MFA Candidate at San Diego State University where she works with Poetry International. Outside of her poetic work, she enjoys exploring digital literature and can be found working on her Twine game (Brujerías) or making galaxy gato themed websites in her spare time.
Matt Fowler was born in Los Angeles and grew up near Baltimore, Maryland. Their work has appeared in online and print publications, including, The San Diego Poetry Annual, Homestead Review, and Dangerous Constellations Journal. They are an MFA candidate at San Diego State University. They are an editorial assistant at Poet Republik and Poetry International. Their work explores the exhausted human condition.