Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa.
A few days ago, during supper with friends I hadn’t seen for years, one of them, Neil, asked about my new career as writer. I quickly summarised what the last three years of my life had been like and spoke, too, of my previous career as an advertising copywriter. He then asked if I’d given up work to devote myself to writing. I explained, in a jokey way, that writing was of course also work, although his remark, far from offending me, very much chimed with my own idea of writing: something which, though it has all the ingredients of a job, remains, in work terms, ambiguous to say the least.
An ambiguity fully corroborated by the fact that, in order to write, you don’t have to travel to a particular place and remain there from nine to five. Nor do you have to be employed by a company or be interviewed by some human resources department, or invest in expensive equipment. At its most basic, all you need in order to write is the desire to do it, a pencil and some paper. In extreme cases – St John of the Cross, for example, who committed to memory a large part of his Spiritual Canticle while in prison – you don’t even need a pencil and paper. Ultimately, all you need in order to write is the desire to do it.
I don’t know why I write. When people ask me, apart from a few clichéd responses, I can’t really say why. All I know is that I want to. And that desire to write at all costs has a lot to do with my friend Neil’s comment, because writing, when stripped down to its bare bones, is more like play than work. You play with your own words, with your readers, with reality and even with what cannot be articulated, as is the case with poetry.
For me, the Brazilian poet, Manoel de Barros, captures that ‘uselessness’ perfectly when he writes:
Everything that leads us nowhere
and that you can’t sell at the market,
for example, the green hearts
is food for poetry.
That path – supposedly a waste of aesthetic time – was also the path travelled by Georges Perec’s Bartlebooth, by Werner Herzog when he wanted to transport a steamship over a steep hill, by Captain Scott, who froze to death only a few kilometres from the supply depot that would have saved him and his travelling companions. Letters addressed to various people were found in his tent, along with his diaries. The diaries tell us that he was still writing the day before he died and describe, in detail, the hell they endured up until their final moments. There was something else as well, perhaps not as ‘useful’ as those writings or as the rolls of film, but, in my view, far more intriguing. Next to the tent were the sixteen kilos of fossils they had been dragging across the ice for weeks in the cruellest, most inhuman conditions imaginable. Why didn’t they just ditch the fossils? We will never know, but it may be that without that ‘useless’ weight, they would have made more progress each day and might – who knows – have covered the 19 kilometres that separated them from the supply depot and salvation.
When I die, I hope that whoever finds my tent will discover a lot of useless things: the countless aimless strolls through the plains of my childhood, the thousands of hours devoted to reading books, many of which I can’t even remember, but, above all, the hundreds of pages I wrote and then discarded. Pages that were both useless and necessary, because, without them, the published pages would make no sense at all.
History may have given the glory to Amundsen, but poetry is reserved for those who drag rocks over ice.