Galician poet Chus Pato and Canadian poet and translator Erín Moure discuss collaboration, Francoism, language rights and iconoclasm.
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I want, first, to ask about the nature of your collaborative work. What influence has your collaboration had on your respective poetic practices, and how has working in each other’s cultural context shaped your individual work?
CHUS PATO: In some ways, writing poetry means to attend: to be attentive to everything to do with the senses, every type of traffic, desert, utopia, absence, thought, sensation, music, dream, darkness, love, life. Above all, it means hearing, listening to the other materials that lift a language toward suspension of its servitudes: toward the suspension of its passwords and impositions; suspension of the delusions of an ‘I’, the delusions of communication. The language of the poem has an osmotic relation with muteness, and it might be said that the absence of articulated language is its power, its possibility; this means stretching the ear, heightening the intensity of our attention.
First and foremost, before continuing, I have to say that I come from a generation educated under Francoism and, as its educational system precluded me from learning languages, I don’t know English. In principle, this is a barrier to any influence from Erín Moure’s poetry on my poetic praxis. But this isn’t the case, as my lack of knowledge has been supplanted instead by an intense friendship of almost twenty years. I can’t conceive of my poetic praxis without Erin’s translations.
Our friendship has brought me along with her into her territories, which are many and diverse. It has meant learning about and being very attentive to other Anglophone poets and getting the chance to read with these poets in a variety of places, from humble bars and cozy bookstores to the most rigorous centres of academic culture in North America and the United Kingdom.
All this implies an amplification, a polarisation, and a tension that fit very well with what I feel is vital to any attempt to write poetry.
ERÍN MOURE: I think it’s more me who works in Chus’s cultural context, though it is still foreign to me, of course; when I am in Galicia, I am no less Canadian. I do need to be in Galicia – to hear Galician, communicate in Galician, engage with my friends and with the cultural and poetry community – to translate Chus well. Our friendship has made much of my learning possible, for certain. We laugh and dream and walk, together. I always know Chus is there to give me support, and not just in translating her: it is simply enough that we are both alive, and that we know and care about each other. We write alongside each other, in so many ways, in our different places. Her concerns in poetry overlap my own and always have, though our work is different. Hers gives me courage for creating my own. And, certainly, the fact of reading Chus and of learning Galician to translate her – not just because she speaks from a minority language for which I have great affection, but because what she brings to poetry is universal – can have an impact on Canadian and UK poetry as well. To other poetries in English. To possibility in language. That’s something that excites me.
Chus, I want to ask you about writing poetry in Galician. There are aesthetics specific to the form and language, and there are politics specific to them. What are the relationships?
CP: Every Galician poet today or in the past can choose to write in Galician or in Castilian, because we all speak both languages. It’s a political decision.
In my case, writing in Galician means a kind of restitution. As a child of Francoism, I was educated in Castilian, although the mother tongue of my family and all my ancestors was Galician. I considered theirs to be my language, too. I’ve always thought that if the legal and republican side had not lost the Civil War, Galician would be my first language, instead of the linguistic conflict that is my true mothertongue.
Writing in Galician is thus the attempt to restore normality, and to do it in the face of Fascism; it is to remain loyal to the Republic, to resist and battle the prohibition of a language, and to claim justice for that language.
Fortunately, the medieval cantigas (of the Iberian peninsula) were written in Galician and, since the end of the eighteenth century, Galician poetry has only grown in quantity and quality. When I started to write, the works of Rosalía de Castro, Eduardo Pondal, Manuel Antonio, Álvaro Cunqueiro, Uxío Novoneyra, Xohana Torres, and Xosé Luis Méndez Ferrín were at my side. The Galician poetic tradition reached the poets of my generation ready for any adventure, and we have been ready to slake our thirst endlessly in its indomitable cascade.
And, Erín, what political and aesthetic concerns are lost and gained when we translate this into English – a bridge language, but also a language with a thick history of problematics?
EM: English is, yes, problematic; not only is it hegemonic, unlike Galician, but it is very absorptive of influences – from all over – without marking difference. I risk homogenising the authors I translate, and this is something I am constantly aware of, and that I actively write about. English is, though, a bridge language, and as such it is important to translate into it as it gives people in other cultural, linguistic, and national communities access to the work of Chus Pato. In my own work as a translator, I try not to suppress the Canadian difference of my English speech and writing, as translating Chus into Canadian English is one thing that can help make Galician difference present in English. It’s English, but it’s not from ‘the centre’. A small thing, perhaps, but it is something. I translate to share the urgency of what Chus does – her pushing of language, her breadth of understanding of European history. Her radicalism or experimentalism in language also pleads in its very sinews for justice for peoples, for the right to self-determination and to one’s own mothertongue or native language. This, too, is important to me.
You are both working out of contexts where the relationship between nation-state and linguistic communities is fraught – between Spain and the Galician, Catalan, Aranese, Basque communities, and between Canada and First Nation communities. They’re both nation-states with a history of barring, educating out, and breaking the genealogy of languages. What can writing do for these fraught relationships?
CP: To what I’ve already said on this, I’ll add that writing in Galician has both advantages and difficulties. Galician is beloved and at times hated by the people who speak it, and the loss of speakers is a reality that alarms us. The transmission from parents to children is complicated for two obvious reasons. On one hand, we are a country that bears the weight of two centuries of emigration and, as well, still bears the weight of Francoist prohibitions, which did not end in Galicia with the current democratic period.
We are children of parents who had to rip from their own mouths the language they spoke as children and throw its words away, as if getting rid of something abject, so as to forcibly learn a language that was never their mothertongue. These mothers, these parents, did not want their children to experience that same pain.
To have Francoism as one’s first language, to have a linguistic conflict for a mother tongue, is violent, humiliating, and irremediable. To write in that language is the same. In this lies the greatness and also the difficulty of the decision to write in Galician.
EM: I think I could answer more as to what translation can do when languages’ generational transmissions have been broken by government policies, like Canada’s past policies of the forced removal of children from Indigenous nations to residential schools. Translation validates the importance of writing in those languages by valuing what is written in them, by reflecting to the world that they have something to offer to humanity, to the human condition, to the possibility of humans thinking – particularly in this time of environmental disaster, when we vitally need such thinking – as well as being vital for maintaining the specificity of an individual culture and cultural DNA.
At the same time, as young Dene filmmaker Sinay Kennedy, from Clearwater River Nation in Saskatchewan, demonstrates in her recent short film Plus qu’un stéréotype / More Than A Stereotype, young people who have had their language genealogy broken have not lost their culture. Indigenous people, as I know them, have resilient and adaptive cultures, underpinned by strong ethics of sharing and community. They are people of the present and of the future. They are still fighting for justice for their peoples and for their lands; they still don’t have their fair share in Canada, in any sense. Today, they are at the forefront of environmental struggles, here to protect water and land for the future. It is important that we work alongside each other, and that we newcomers listen to their speaking, however they choose to speak, and support their actions.
In my own poetry, over the past 25 years of my practice of 50 years, I’ve made space for multiple languages and tongues simply because they are in my head, part of my thinking. In my most recent book, The Elements, I went as far as to include a poem in French translated into Galician. It does not exist in English, this poem. The book is English, and so the poem physically incises a different spacing there. To me, it’s important to demonstrate that English is not an infinity pool that contains all poetic thinking, and that part of reading in English – being intelligent in English, being alive in English – is to confront and respond to the material and sonic presence of other languages.
Chus, your practice pushes what language is and does, and how, as poetry, it relates to, works on, and works from our world. You’ve been called an ‘iconoclastic’ writer. How do you view that label?
CP: I believe, and it wasn’t me who came up with this, that poetry is a language within the language in which it is written. A language of its own that keeps faith with what is an immemorial poem and never written down, and yet one that changes in accompanying the age in which it is written. The language proper to the poem is a limit-language, one that palpates, that touches via the senses, the limits of the standard language we use to think, to narrate, to communicate with each other. Yes, I would say that this poem always exists at the limits, the borders, the frontiers of the sayable.
There are many kinds of poems, and the ones that interest me are those that do not evade the existence of the historical avant-gardes. I’m not saying we should write like the poets of the avant-gardes, but I do see the line they traced as one that opened up the world in which we live, and it’s good for poetry to know and engage this inheritance that changed our relationship with language. It’s the heritage of limits and of the linguistic turn: we know that no language is innocent and that, without language, thinking and knowledge are not possible.
As I indicated at the start of this interview, the poem that I value is one that transforms me; it’s that poem which brings linguistic servitudes to a close and signals a writing that’s free, and in being free allows whoever reads it or writes it to be free as well.
To be free is from my point of view the greatest aspiration. If this is being iconoclastic then I can gladly accept not the label but the word.
Always against the idols.
And, Erín, do you feel you’re translating an iconoclast, and are you one yourself?
EM: I don’t know if I am an iconoclast. I neither ‘attack’ nor ‘destroy’. I cherish. I consider poetry to be akin to a thinking, a seeking of possibility and not a set of closed forms always in one sole language. I’m an allergic person, a queer person, a woman, a daughter of an immigrant, and have never have been ‘inside’ the game. Even my name is strange in English, to English. My mother spoke another language but did not pass it on to me because of the shame and fear inculcated in immigrants. When she was dying, she wanted to speak to me in that language, to hold those words in her mouth and sound them again. It was as if she was bringing her own mother close to her once more. But I was only able to understand a bit: ‘very good’, and ‘I don’t know’. In my own work, maybe those are my touchstones. I listen to and work for language, and for the possibility of thinking in poetry that can exceed the narrow straits of logical and accepted discourse (which is often not logical at all). Who we are ethically – as human beings, as search procedures, as persons – and how we relate to each other, is critical to me: how we can exist and be as persons and as citizens. These being my primary propulsions, of course I want to translate the work of Chus Pato.
Chus Pato is one of Europe’s greatest contemporary poets. She lives in Galicia and writes in the Galician language. m-Talá, her sixth book of poetry and first in her pentalogy Decrúa (Delve), appeared in 2000. All five books of the pentalogy, translated by Erín Moure, have appeared in English: m-Talá, Charenton, Hordes of Writing, Secession (published with Insecession by Erín Moure), and Flesh of Leviathan. Her books have been published in Portuguese, Dutch, Spanish, and Bulgarian translation, among others. The original Hordes of Writing in Galician received the Spanish Critics’ Prize in 2008 and the Losada Diéguez Prize in Galicia in 2009. In 2013, the Galician Booksellers’ Association fêted Chus Pato as Author of the Year. In 2015, she became the first Galician poet to be recorded for the sound archives of the Woodberry Poetry Library at Harvard University.
In November 2019, she read from her works with Erín Moure at The Queen’s College, Oxford University, as part of the Translation Exchange’s International Translator in Residence program.
Erín Moure is a Canadian poet and translator of poetry and poetics, based in Montreal. She has published 18 books of poetry, a volume of essays, a book of articles on translation, and two memoirs, and is translator or co-translator of 18 books of poetry and two of non-fiction (biopoetics), from French, Spanish, Galician, Portuguese, and Ukrainian. In Canada, her work has received the Governor General’s Award, Pat Lowther Memorial Award, A.M. Klein Prize twice, and has been a three-time finalist for the Griffin Prize (two of these for translation). 2017 saw publication of a 40-year retrospective of her work, Planetary Noise: The Poetry of Erín Moure (edited by Shannon Maguire) from Wesleyan University Press, along with her translation from Portunhol of Wilson Bueno’s Paraguayan Sea (Nightboat Books), and her translation from Galician of Antón Lopo’s Distance of the Wolf: A biography of Uxío Novoneyra (Fundación Uxío Novoneyra). Her most recent book is The Elements (Anansi, 2019), and most recent translations are a co-translation with Roman Ivashkiv of Ukrainian poet Yuri Izdryk, Smokes (Lost Horse, 2019) and a translation from the Galician of Lupe Gómez, Camouflage (Circumference Books, 2019).
As International Translator in Residence at The Queen’s College, Oxford, in November 2019, she completed a translation of Chus Pato’s Un Libre Favor (The Face of the Quartzes).