home | navigation                                                                     barcelona review #14

spanish original


An American Foray into Catalan Poetry
by Amanda Schoenberg

Please have patience; this could take a couple of minutes to download.


How does one begin to put together six hours of Spanish conversation, taped in a noisy local bistrot over two sittings, with six Catalan poets waxing eloquent amidst interruptions from people coming and going, a drunken old man with a fondness for Hemingway, and several spilled beers? Or perhaps a better question might be, why would one want to begin such a project? When Allen Ginsberg came to Barcelona he asked what was happening in poetry here, what kinds of styles exist, etc. This interview attempts to answer his question, as well as similar inquiries from our readers, and some general issues of poetic interest. I have put together what I hope to be Part One of an ongoing look at the poetry scene in Catalunya, geared towards both Spanish-speaking and English-speaking audiences. All of the poets are accompanied by an audio-reading of their poetry in Catalan. Some English translations are also available and more will follow. Most of these poets have never before been translated into English - or if they have, it has been by The Barcelona Review.

     A little explanation . . . I'm an American student studying comparative literature, here in Barcelona this summer for an internship with The Barcelona Review. Having accepted this interview project, there were several ways to go about it. Apart from doing five years' worth of research in two weeks on the history of Catalunya and its poetry since the Middle Ages, I decided to use my complete ignorance for all it's worth. In short, conduct an interview in Spanish from the perspective of an American who wants an introduction to the poetry scene in Catalunya but who knows relatively little about Catalan poetry. The result provides just this: an excuse for some often-asked, perhaps redundant, questions, and the opportunity to sit around and get an inside look at some of the most intriguing poets working in and around Barcelona.

      These interviews were done in two sittings at the bistrot El Salón in the Barrio Gótico. The range of styles, ages, and personalities was fascinating. In the first interview, the gentlemanly, late-forties Antoni Clapés scribbled notes while Xavier Canals in his yellow tank-top talked visual, and the younger, even-tempered Melcion Mateu i Adrover got riled up over criticism. In the second interview session, middle-aged Víctor Nik sent in his place a 20-year-old, shaggy-haired poet named Josep Pedrals, who mostly listened. Also present were the lean, long-haired Enric Casassas, of indeterminate age (who cites as his influences "Bob Dylan and my grandmother"); Eduard Escoffet, a poetry recital organizing whiz, also twenty; and Englishman Matthew Tree, writer. In a mix of Castillian, Catalan and a little English, two lively discussions ensued. (We had hoped that Carles Hac Mor and Ester Xargay, who are mentioned in the interview, could join us, but they were away for the summer.) Due to my probing, and some help from Enric, I was also able to contact Dolors Miquel, who offers insight into what to me seemed a curious lack of women in the Catalan poetry world.

* * *

Interview translated from the Spanish by Amanda Schoenberg

Poets interviewed: Antoni Clapés, Xavier Canals, Melcion Mateu i Adrover, Enric Casassas, Eduard Escoffet, Josep Pedrals and Dolors Miquel; local writer Matthew Tree, who has translated many of the poets, joined in.

Melcion Mateu i Adrover

Matthew Tree
(no link)
Enric Casassas Antoni Clapés
Melcion Mateu i Adrover Matthew Tree - No  Link Enric Casassas Antoni Clapés
Xavier Canals Eduard Escoffet Josep Pedrals Dolors Miquel
Xavier Canals Eduard Escoffet Josep Pedrals Dolors Miquel


AS: Some questions common among our readers are: What is happening in the poetry world in Barcelona? What is the poetry like? Can we say there is one unified poetry, united by a common Catalan language?

When I asked this question to the second group, I made a bit of a Spanish blunder. Instead of getting across what I wanted to ask, whether there was one recognizable trend in Catalan, I asked, Is there a poetry in Catalan? Although not exactly the direction I was headed, the response from Eduard Escoffet certainly betrays a little annoyance at this part of the question.

EduardEduard: This is one of those questions which makes us think that the rest of the human race thinks that our language is some sort of pirate code or an inferior state of whatever cultured European language. That is to say, any language with a minimum of speakers is capable of creating its own literature - although there is always someone who takes it upon himself to belie it. What’s happening in Catalan literature? The same as in any other. What’s happening is that people are beginning to realize that we exist, that we haven’t disappeared after all. In Catalan literature there is a little of everything. Although, of course, what one sees at first is perhaps not the most hopeful sight.

Enric: The styles range from the most classical to the vanguard, up to Dadaism and Fluxus, and all of the visual and conceptual trends.

Antoni: I suppose that what happens here is what happens everywhere, that’s obvious. There is the phenomenon here that there are so many poets . . . I think there are more poets than readers. This phenomenon happens all over. I think that poetry is converting itself into a sort of genre for specialists, and that often these specialists are not even these same poets. I always say that if the poets were to buy the poetry books that are published, at least the system would work!
     I understand that in those countries with which I’ve had some connection, the situation is pretty similar - in England, in France, in the U.S. That is to say, there are small groups that organize poetry recitals or publish small presses. But in general, the mass media says very little about poetry. Therefore, poetry remains reduced almost to the domestic sphere. There are very diverse poetics. . . here we have Melcion, there’s Canals, there’s Escoffet, who is more connected to artistic practices somewhere in between performance and poetry. The existing models are pretty much those that we can find wherever, right?

Melcion: In reference to what Antoni said at first, poetry certainly is limited to a minority audience, but on the other hand there is a great effort being made by many poets to find their own public. And in answer to the second part - about the different poetics - certainly, as happens in art in general, there is a coexistence of very different poetics. . . There is a great variety of tendencies, which many authors try to combine. In one sense, it seems that everything’s valid as long as there's quality - there's nothing new....

Enric: Yes, there is Catalan poetry, just as in every language and every culture there is poetry - the first thing there is, is poetry. Of course there is Catalan poetry, it has nothing to do with Spanish poetry because it is another language, another feeling of paradise, of hell, and of life on earth . . .

AS: Is there a particular circle, or group of Catalan poets?

Enric: There isn’t a group, there’s a universe of Catalan poetry. I know four colleagues, but apart from them I don’t know anyone, and it doesn’t interest me to know them. There is just as much Catalan poetry as there is Irish poetry, or Danish, or Norwegian, or maybe more. Catalan poetry is not the poetry of any minority.

It is interesting to note that Casassas brought up the issue of language immediately, from the first general question, a subject which I bring up again later. The discussion of the coexistence of various styles and poetics in Catalan poetry led me to inquire whether this was something that marked Catalan poetry in particular. This same question led both interviews in very different directions:  in the second group, it veered to the question of confluence of artistic styles; while in the first group, Melcion´s comment sparked a very lengthy debate about postmodernism, the canon and the acceptable models of poetry during and after the Franco era.


Enric: Yes, there is this coexistence in poetry, along with the coexistence of all forms of art. Everyone is trying to figure out the limits of understanding, of the body, of the infinite, or whatever else.

AS: How do you see the relationship between music and poetry, as in your recitals accompanied by Pascal Comelade, for example? (I saw Casassas at the presentation for the last issue of Cave Canis, reciting while Comelade accompanied him on a toy piano). [Cave Canis (Beware of the Dog) is a mixed-media review, including poetry, CD-rom, music, art and visuals, and some surprise tidbits - all in a boxed set. It ran nine "issues" - one for each letter in the title.]

Enric: The coexistence of music and poetry is almost natural. Poetry originates in song. On the other hand, the coexistence of poetry with painting is stranger for me, because poetry was born before painting, as a spoken language, and painting took an altogether different path. I see poetry and painting as running parallel; they don’t touch, but they can collaborate. The relationship is not as clear. But music and poetry can be one and the same.

Whereas, the same question of coexistence of various forms in poetry, put to the first group. . .

Melcion: I think [this coexistence] happens as well in English or Spanish. I think that it's a sign of the times, of a century as disorganized as the one we’ve had.

Antoni: Yes, this coexistence in poetry is a reflection of what I would call postmodernism, right? "Everything’s valid," as Melcion said before. Certainly there are no models like those we’ve had before, especially in Catalan poetry, which always functioned with this sort of system.


AS: What sort of models?

Antoni: I guess we would say, a canon. . . Maybe the word is too strong? So, there used to be followers of these models, but I think now we don’t have this system, now there aren’t such clear references to follow. But, as Melcion said, it's also the century, the times we live in, the new millennium. . .

AS: When did this change take place?Antoni

Antoni: Here we come to the peculiarities of this country. As you know, until 1975 this was a harsh dictatorship. Under Franco, there were basically, as much in Spanish poetry as in Catalan poetry, two models. One mode consisted of poetry very much connected to reality - "social poetry" in a very broad sense - and the other had very little connection with reality. This poetry continued its patronage of the Middle and Golden Ages.
       In Catalunya there was the problem of the persecution of language, and literature and poetry suffered a great setback; it was impossible to publish. All this aggravated the situation and led to this phenomenon of two kinds of poetry. There were certainly canons that existed or at least some people who marked the guidelines. But then after the 70s these people died and it seems that we won't be reverting to that system. On the other hand, the Spanish and Catalan societies learned to live in freedom, more or less [They laugh]. So in the 80s we begin to talk about postmodernism and all of this. It's true, you know, what we said before, there is the poetry of Casassas, for example, that is much more like "neo-jongleuresque." He sings new things. . . and he is coexisting with people who are still doing very formal poetry or visual or phonetic poetry. They are changing and ex-changing forms and techniques. Just today [July 7th, in the newspaper Avui] there was an article by Carles Hac Mor and he talked about the different poetics that can exist in the same author. Well, Carles has a very unorthodox vision; he says that people coexist in one and the same author. It is the same as saying that there are so many different poetics that make up the poetic panorama; in the end Catalan, Spanish, Italian, or what have you. . . in every author many, many more coexist.


Xavier: Postmodernism is all of this: respect, coexistence, etc. Here we have, for example, the marvelous Clapés who publishes all kinds of poetry (I am quite thankful because he published my book) [laughter], but this has nothing to do with the general dynamics. Today, for example, I saw an issue of a magazine, which considers itself a serious magazine. On an "official" level, well, there was nothing, not Casassas, nothing. . . it was the reduction of Xavierspecialists, mummies, professors, castrators. . . If you’re going to talk about the Catalan effort, you get to Escoffet, right? But instead they talk about turn-of-the-century caligrams - and what’s more, they badmouth them! This is really what there is.
      Besides this fixed domain of the establishment, there is off-Broadway [referring to the present avant-garde circle], and there is off-off-Broadway and that’s where we are [the visual poets].
      They say, "There’s no way to publish a visual poetry book," including something by Joan Brossa, who is incredible! I don’t understand why there is no book on the visual poetry of Joan Brossa.
      It [visual poetry] hasn't risen to an accepted level, there's not even a trace.

Xavier´s argument turns to the exclusion of visual poetry, while Melcion suggests that being excluded is a mark of the vanguard, a risk that poets should accept as they move within that sphere.

Melcion: I don’t think this is something that only happens here. That is, I think the vanguard has difficulty being accepted by the world. Even in the U.S., although performances in the 60s by John Cage and Dick Higgins created a scandal, a lot of people still don’t accept them. When you want to be part of the vanguard, when you want to break with the established language, the risk you take is rejection.

Enric: There is always this restrictive social cloud, in whatever society, that says, "this is what you say, and this is what you don’t say." And whichever artist is outside these boundaries because he or she is trying to break down the boundaries, must continue to try to break them down.

Xavier: At least there are some canals of expression. (My name is Canals, and there are some "canals"). In the last issue of Visual Language, one of the two visual poetry magazines that are more than 30 years old, Richard Kostelanetz, an American poet, dedicates an article to Dick Higgins, who'd just died. He talks about Higgins' work as a visual poet in the U.S., the many frustrations he encountered, how no one would publish him. . . . In VL Dick Higgins was able to write a world history of visual poetry, with examples in Chinese, Jewish and Indian culture. He was able, with the means of communication that exist in the U.S., to contact all the specialists from all these different places in order to write this history. Kostelanetz is complaining. Poor guy. He has a place to complain in. I don’t have anywhere to complain.


AS: You have El Salón [They laugh]. So you have never had anything published, Xavier?

Xavier: I have self-published, like the majority of the uncountables, but not in normal collections; in a collection of Clapés´ and another by Escoffet. I don’t think Clapés is normal [They laugh]. What happens with visual poetry is that it just doesn’t ever appear in criticism.

Melcion : And apart from that, this country lacks cultural criticism. No one criticizes.

AS: Why this lack of criticism in Spain? Perhaps a fault of the university system here? Is there a lack of criticism in both Spanish and Catalan?

Antoni: You ask why there is no criticism. This is a very good question. I think this lack of criticism, in a profound sense, is pretty constant in Catalan literature in this century. In Spanish literature there is a lot of criticism, because of the extension of the language among other things. But here, with reduced margins and the many problems we’ve had with language, I think this is one of the gravest problems. There is no rigorous criticism. In the newspapers there are only little critiques done by one’s friends. Also, the university lives with its back turned to reality. That is for sure. Poets don’t recite at the university. The literature students do their masters, their theses on authors from the XV century, which is fine, but that's not enough.

Melcion: The university here is pure historicism.

Eduard: The university is already a lost cause. Yes, certainly, there is a lack of criticism, but normally - and I don’t say this is in reference to Clapés - people who complain of the lack of criticism think they’re the best in the world and they don’t read anyone else. That is, I can criticize that there is no criticism, but what can I do about it? Nothing.

EnricEnric: I know the weak point in my book already, but apart from what I already know, no one says anything. On the other hand, there are advantages. The only real critic is the public. Poetry is the first thing to evolve and the last thing to disappear. As long as language exists, there will be poetry. The literary investigations and scientific texts come later. Criticism is not as important as other things. However, when there is a poet who is really doing something new, and a critic talking about what the poet is doing, the critic is an artist, and it’s a very special thing.

Eduard: Apart from rigorous criticism, I think that the fundamental thing missing is curiosity. For example, university professors have to let themselves get to know authors who are under 70 or 100 years old. There is a lack of curiosity for forms of poetry outside the habitual. There is no critic in Catalunya capable of saying the least thing about the vanguard of the Fifties up to the poetry of today. And in visual poetry, there is no one with even the least training. I don’t know if there is any critic capable of investigating a book of Xavier’s. Besides, there is a connection between poetry and whatever else, so that perhaps you cannot understand one of Enric’s poems without knowing a Bob Dylan song.

Amanda and MelcionAS: Melcion , you’ve studied at Cornell University, in Ithaca, NY. What differences do you see between the system there and the Spanish system?

Melcion : The university is better there. They have a stronger infrastructure, more libraries, and the system is better for its level of interaction, it's more informal. But for me the ideal would be somewhere between the two. I think that for the university students in the States, there is an excess of criticism, so that there comes a point when no one is interested in literary texts anymore. People read Jameson, and the rest of the theorists, but they don’t read the literary texts. They don’t read Baudelaire, or Joyce. . .

AS: They don’t read the "canon" in the American university?

Melcion: Exactly. That’s why monsters like Harold Bloom appear, criticizing, reappraising; in part, a logical action. Also, apart from the university, perhaps the lack of criticism is idiosyncratic to this country: it can be a little "carnival," questioning only particular works, but not questioning the notion of a national culture - or what lies behind the values of the society.


AS: Without a doubt, the following question is pretty common: why do you write in Catalan, if you have both languages at your disposal? Is there a political element involved or just that it is your language and that’s that?

This question, asked so frequently of Catalan writers, provoked a combination of eye rolling and annoyance. However, the language question remains something intriguing to those of us who do not live in an officially bilingual autonomous region.

Enric: I don’t see anything political; what is political is that you ask me this question. From there I start the political discourse, but up to that point there are no politics involved. It’s a language, period.

AS: All right, but the question is often asked: Why limit yourself to a smaller audience if they are both first languages, if you are bilingual?

Enric: Everybody except English-speaking people, everybody in this world is bilingual. Everybody has the choice between English and another language. . . They are not both first languages and I don’t believe that by writing in a language spoken by more people, you have a wider audience. That’s bullshit. I could write in another language, like Samuel Beckett, but the normal thing is to write in one’s own language.

Matthew: The point he made is an interesting one, because your question is political. Because if we were sitting in Slovenia, or Iceland, you wouldn’t ask someone why they write in Icelandic. You would take it for granted that an Icelandic would write in Icelandic, so it is political.

Xavier: I had an American acquaintance who told me that she lived in the middle of the country, and that there they weren’t aware that people here speak other languages . . .Spain, toreadors, Flamenco. . . If you live in a small culture, you don’t think to question it, on the contrary.

AS: OK, but to return to Matthew's statement: That's different, isn't it? The language of Iceland is Icelandic, Slovene in Slovenia, so it doesn't beg the question. The question seems valid for a country where the native has recourse to another native language. Just curious.

MatthewMatthew: Hate to split hairs here, but what you're saying is based on the assumption that Spanish is a 'native' language to all Catalans: it isn't; many Catalans regard it as a second language, and of those, many regard it also as an imposed language, one that they would prefer not to have to speak. Remember that sixty years ago there were barely any native Spanish speakers in Catalunya (as opposed to people who were competent in the language). In this sense, the historical sense, we can say that the native language of Catalunya is Catalan, period, and the current huge influx of Spanish a development that is extraordinarily recent. Having said that, the coexistence, nowadays, of two languages means that for every Catalan individual there is a different sense of what is their native language and what is not . . . . Do people ever inquire why some Catalan writers choose to write in Spanish? This has always seemed to me a more unusual choice.

Eduard: It is an insistent question, with an easy answer. I have always spoken and written in Catalan and I am not going to change my language to write a poem. I can’t talk about my mother or the dog that bit my pant leg in Castillian or English when I talk to them in Catalan. For me, Castillian Spanish doesn’t feel like my own language. I don’t think that any Cuban who lives in Miami Matthew and Eduardand performs salsa is going to sing the songs in English, although perhaps he doesn’t even use Spanish to go the store. Here it is different. If everything we do is in Catalan, why can’t we write in it as well? When the Catalans dominated all of the Mediterranean no one asked this question. And when the French dominated Great Britain, all of the rich spoke French, and left English to the plebeians. Matters of history. . .

Antoni: Writing poetry in Catalan is something that, for me, has a strict component of naturalness. I think one writes in the language in which one dreams. And my dreams are in Catalan. I don’t think that people can be bilingual or trilingual: no Swiss, for a neutral example, would admit to being trilingual. I think that we are essentially monolingual, and that the acquisition of language is through the first sounds that a child learns from his mother and it is these which configure the basic linguistic universe. Afterwards, from the community, one can learn - and love - other languages, one can dominate them perfectly, including being able to create in them. But I am not sure that one can write poetry in a language different from that which emanates from the most intimate corners of oneself. It’s evident that, on the other hand, to write poetry in Catalan implies a limited diffusion of one’s work. However, poetry is always a minority language. Having said this, it is clear that, especially in Catalunya, for historical reasons (radical prohibition of the use of Catalan after the victory of fascism in the Civil War, a situation that lasted 45 years), the use of Catalan still has a political element - exactly equal to the use of Castillian.

Clapés is the only poet in either group who concedes a hint of the political in writing in Catalan or Castillian.

AS: You said before that one notes the difference between poetry written in Castillian and poetry written in Catalan, what are some of these differences?

Enric: Each time you change languages, when you begin to speak another language, you enter another universe completely. In the end, poetry is the same, in Yorba or Japanese, but each language has its own texture, which is what’s important in art, right?


AS: We're interested in the responses to the following excerpt. Two years ago, in an interview with The Barcelona Review, writer Quim Monzó said:

Catalan is in the middle of a process which will make it like Irish or Occitan. It's in its death throes. Sometimes I think that the Yiddish writers, like Singer, must have felt something similar to what I feel: that the country is vanishing from under my feet.

What do you think? Do you agree? It must be frustrating at times.

Antoni: I don´t think that it is dying. We’ll see what happens in a few years. Never in our history have there been the means that exist now. That is to say, Latin and I don’t know how many other languages, have disappeared, all right, but the circumstances that we have now we’ve never had before - the possibility of communication, etc. But there is the sensation that there is effectively a sort of "Irishization." One time when I was in Ireland, I was in a pub about midday and there was a television program on in Gaelic, and no one was watching. Suddenly, Boom!, the news comes on in English and everyone was watching. I thought, "Wow, this is what is going to happen here!" If it's frustrating . . . well I don’t know, there’re so many frustrations that it doesn’t come from any one thing!

Melcion: I don’t think that we are going to see it disappear. What I see is an impoverishment. On the one hand, there was this ideal of pure Catalan, rescued from the Middle Ages and modernized more or less artificially, and now you see that it is falling into the opposite extreme. The mass media imposes a standard that is more "folk" - it's incredible - or they want to impose a standard that works for Barcelona, but not in other Catalan-speaking areas - Valencia, the Balearic Islands, etc.

Antoni: One thing for sure is that languages are living organisms, the same as societies, and everything changes . . . .you have to accept that that is the way it is.

Melcion: Yes, but I think here one confuses the standard of the mass media with literary language, where there is a wider range of usage - from the most colloquial to the most cultist or dialectal.

Xavier: Within the problem of communication, there is the problem of bilingual communication. When Franco won in this country, he prohibited speaking in Catalan, except in the nuclear family, because he couldn’t control the nuclear family. Do you think now that with the Internet and all the means of communication and all the technology, one couldn't control the nuclear family? There are many linguists who think so, that the nuclear family could also be controlled. This is a really grave matter. There is a fantastic movie about after the Civil War, and it has a great image. There is this little boy who only speaks Catalan in the closet.  I think now, if Catalan was forbidden, he wouldn't even be able to speak Catalan in the closet.

Eduard: The truth is that it doesn’t worry me too much. What worries me is that governments can exercise control over a language or that politics takes possession of something as alive and indomitable as a language. And above all, what worries me most is that because of questions of resistance, I am not allowed to utilize my language in a normal fashion. That is, I don’t know if it's dying or not. The only thing I ask is that I don’t have to be ashamed to speak it, because I don’t know any other way. If, when we all go, the language dies, the truth is that it doesn’t worry me. I won’t be here and I will have done the little that I could: the least little thing can save the world.


AS: How does the imposition of Catalan as the first language in schools change the situation?

Enric: This is not imposing Catalan, this is the natural system of Catalunya. The imposition was the 40 years of imposing Spanish from Madrid.

Matthew: For certain. The law about the inclusion of Catalan in schools was introduced in 1984 (when more than fifty per cent of the student population was already using this system) with the agreement of the parents. Curiously, it was in those parts where there were more Castillian speakers that the system was most wanted. And so after that, the government of Catalunya thought that it had enough support to do it one hundred per cent.


AS: How would you describe yourselves? What type of style do you use - free verse, experimental, classical, what?

Melcion: I try to use a poetry that appears very conventional in its form: strophic poems, but in order to question appearances. It can appear more or less "realistic," but it is always questioning from the perspective of the coming or the going.

Eduard: Personally, I am difficult to categorize. I search a lot and I intend to try a little of everything. I would say I find myself closer to experimental practices and closer also to a conception of poetry that's more "underground" and at the same time very direct, in need of contact with the public.

Josep: It just depends how it comes out of you - sometimes you can write fourteen verses without even realizing it.

Antoni: My poetry has evolved toward a more nude style. I have never used regular metric forms. My poetry is not very formal in this sense. I write by hand, not on the computer. Therefore, there is a visual aspect to the poem. This is very important - visual in the distribution of spaces that mark pauses and ways of reading. Basically, my poetry is a poetry that tends more to silence, that questions poetry itself, that questions the feeling of writing and that basically revolves around a series of elements: time, memory, writing....  Each time, the theme of silence comes up more. In Japan there was a painter, a contemporary of Goya, about 150 years ago, Hokusai. He painted Fuji repeatedly and he created his paintings each time with fewer and fewer elements. He said that he would end up painting a point. He said it was a condensation of discourse, that in that point you concentrate all of your potency. Sometimes I joke that I'll end up writing poems of only one word. I don’t know if they would sell better, but it doesn’t matter much to me.

Xavier: My form of expression is visual poetry. It is a meta-language, because in each poem you question the very form of writing.

Enric: Me? everything: free verse, metrical, classical and popular verse.

Matthew: Enric is being a little too modest. . . He mentioned that he uses at least four styles and some of his stuff can be seen as heavily influenced by the whole Beat generation. He has written stuff that rings like the Russian avant-garde before the war; he has also written stuff which is following all kinds of poetic styles, dating back 500 years. And yet they’re all markedly his own.

Enric: Yes, taking the Beats, Dada, the whole breaking of the frontiers of art, the more primitive way of song - for me it is one of the most powerful structures in poetry, the song....Everything is allowed since Dada, since the 20th century. Every work needs a known structure. Each work has its own structure, its own technique. Each poem demands a structure. If you find it, a poem comes out; if you find the poem, the structure comes out. Everyone has their own preferences and limits. For example, I haven’t touched the visual aspect much. I always base myself in free verse, but that is also another road.


AS: Do you write on the computer or by hand?

Enric: It depends - if you’re in a café. . . there are many things that I begin by hand and when it is clear, I continue with the computer. There is something about a computer that can be dangerous for the poet . . . it is very easy to correct, to erase, and to go back. And there are no traces, things just disappear. If you write by hand, you can see what you’ve marked, with what force you’ve marked it.

Josep: I write by hand, in a notebook, and always with the same pen.

AntoniAS: There is an American poet named Gary Snyder who uses an extensive filing system, even for poems. His writing is more like doing research. He says that poets shouldn’t be afraid of organization. What system do you use? (I noticed that Antoni has been taking notes on small scraps of paper and in a notebook throughout the interview.)

Melcion: For me, writing is very physically uncomfortable. I always end up on the computer. Also, since I work as a translator, I spend many hours in front of the computer so it's the most familiar, most comfortable way for me. I have a notebook with my notes and lists of words, it’s very disorganized, its order is only valid for me.

Antoni: I always take notes. I am always going around taking notes and noting things. So then, there is a moment that you find something that seems to work and from there you construct a poem. Sometimes it’s an idea, sometimes something evident, something you’ve found in music or art, and from there you organize a poem. Sometimes I'm pretty methodical, but everything's done by hand.


AS: The writer Nuria Amat said that books protect one from the risk of death and the weariness of life. What do you think? How important is literature in your life?

Antoni: How nice. But man, if you have cancer, how can they protect you. . . The French philosopher Montaigne said that there is no human suffering that cannot be minimized or reduced by two hours of reading. I think there is a book for every occasion, every moment, just like music.

Xavier: Visual poetry is pretty important for me. And of course, as it is visual poetry, the plastic part has a lot of importance in my life, and literature also, but less so. Something else - when we say, "literature," it is a bourgeois construction from the XVII century. Therefore, if "literature" can be, for example, graffiti that we see when we go out, then it has an enormous importance. But if literature is what bookstores understand as literature, then I would have to say, not so much.

Eduard: The last thing we can look for in literature is importance. It is inevitable, yes, but important, no.

Enric: I think just the opposite. It is the only thing that is worth any trouble, the poetry of life. Poetry is like life. Poetry is life. If I can get more apples than you before you eat them all, this doesn’t interest me at all.

Eduard: Literature is not "important" because it's already here. It's not important that I have two hands, because I’ve always had them.


AS: What do you read? Poetry or other genres? Who are your influences - in translation or original?

Xavier: I think we are influenced by everything. I read visual poetry theory, Dick Higgins for example, as well as other poets. Normally visual poetry interests me more than other forms. I find narrative pretty heavy, pretty boring. I read more essays than books, because I find them more alive. In English, Richard Kostelanetz, the magazine Visual Language.

MelcionMelcion: One looks for a tradition to make his or her own, from the Greeks until now. In English, apart from the classics, among the modernists of this century, I like Stevens, Eliot, Pound, Auden, and then John Ashbery and A.R. Ammons. I like Dick Higgins as well. I read poetry more than narrative. I'm always reading something in medieval Catalan. In Castillian poetry, I like Garcilaso de la Vega, authors from the Golden Age and the "generation of ’27." There is an Argentinean writer I like a lot, Ezequiel Martínez Estrada. In English fiction I read Ondaatje and David Malouf. I also like some African writers, including Ngugi Wa Thiongo.

Antoni: I don’t have a television, so that gives me three or four more hours than the general public has. Basically, I read poetry or books related to poetry. I was an avid reader of novels - above all, French novels, Flaubert, Proust - but not anymore. I have more of a French base than anything, because in the "dark years," we were taught French, not English. In poetry I am interested in everything. In narrative very little. There is a Spanish author I like very much, José Valente, a very important poet. When I read works in translation, I read the original version, out loud, more than anything to see how the poem breathes. I read John Ashbery a lot. I'm interested in Ginsberg, in "Howl." Although he talks about the 40s and 50s, it works here and now.

Enric: I read everything, narrative, essays, poetry, grammar. In English I read the original. I prefer to read Jim Thompson, William Blake - of the last few years I don’t know anyone. I’m not interested in the contemporary, because it's like you are in the trenches together, we know we are in the same fight, but we don’t need to ask how the other is shooting. If not, then you have to become a critic and read everybody and that is not possible unless you are a literary professional. Being a professional is bullshit in literature.

JosepJosep: Now I’m reading the works of G.K. Chesterton. My mother influences me because she says very strange things sometimes. She’s dyslexic, and very curious sentences come out of her, and I use them. I know what I try to imitate. . . the Catalan noucentisme [the early 20th century Catalan artistic movement].

Enric explains that Chesterton was part of a circle of writers here in Barcelona in the 20s.

Enric: My grandmother influences me, through her baby songs, which I guess was the first poetry I ever heard. My grandmother and the radio. . . But influence in poetry is very difficult, because maybe I will discover my influences ten years after I write a poem. I knew it, but I had censured myself, maybe semi-consciously or totally unconsciously. I think that it is the French poet Max Jacob, or that it is a medieval troubadour, when really it is Fatate, a Catalan poet.


The basic question, where are the women in Catalan poetry, led to an obvious answer - not here. Somehow asking six male poets didn’t provide a clear answer for why Catalan women poets don’t seem to be as well-known as their male counterparts. The second group all offered various female names, but had no idea why the women are not going to as many readings, why Ester Xargay seems to be the only name that comes to mind. Enric offered me the name of Dolors Miquel and said, "ask her." Which I did, and found she had some interesting responses to the question. See interview with Dolors Miquel

AS: Where are the women?

Antoni: The Catalan women writers have suffered from a double marginalization: for being women, and for their language. The second condition has varied in a positive way much more than the first. However, I don’t think that the big picture is much different from what happens in other societies and cultures.

Xavier: Women are still much worse off than the men. For example, there are almost no female visual poets. That's how it is....

* * *

This is clearly an interview meant as an introduction. I would like very much to return to this project in a few years - or a few months. Will Eduard Escoffet be organizing readings at universities around the world, Antoni Clapés be the spokesman for the new poetics of silence; Melcion Mateu writing in-depth critiques of Catalan culture; Enric Casassas performing in New York accompanied by his grandmother on toy harmonica; Xavier Canals publishing his own magazine in which to complain; Josep Pedrals dedicating poetry to his mother? What I hope to communicate to readers is the broad scope of ages and styles and personalities that exist within this relatively small poetic community, as well as some possible answers to the fundamental questions of style, history and the ever-present language debate. Questions of language and politics, which at first seemed fundamental to me, became somewhat less important - or rather, important for their relative unimportance in the lives of these Catalan poets.

Amanda "Cheesy Grin" S

Amanda Schoenberg

e-mail: amwarmice@yahoo.com


To hear the poets read their poetry in their native Catalan, click here. All the poems are printed in Catalan. Some are accompanied by an English translation, with more to come.

We invite your questions/comments concerning points raised in the discussion. General comments can be sent to the editor at bar_rev@retemail.es. Individual questions/comments to specific poets may be directed to them at the same e-mail.

See also:  Corner, a review from the San Francisco Bay area, which featured in Oct. 1998, an issue on the Catalan Avant-Garde. Most of the issue is in Spanish or Catalan, but for you bi- or trilingual readers, there's much on offer. 
© 1999 The Barcelona Review                                 
The Barcelona Review would like to thank the poets who took part, Amanda Schoenberg for taking up the challenge and remaining quite calm when she realised the enormity of her task and Susana Andres for going over the Spanish. Thanks also to Nick Reddel for explaining Cool Edit therefore saving me a vast learning curve.

This interview may not be archived or distributed further without the Barcelona Review's express permission. Please see our conditions of use.
navigation:                                       barcelona review #14   mid-august to mid-october 1999
-Fiction The Waffle Code - Steve Aylett
William the Killer - Kristin Kenway
Perfect - Marcy Dermansky
Against the Door - Margarita Saona
-Poetry Special Round-table Discussion with Six Catalan Poets
Interview: Dolors Miquel
Poems in English:
Antoni Clapés | Enric Casassas
Visual Poetry:
Xavier Canals

Ernesto Mestre

-Quiz Vladimir Nabokov
-Regular Features Book Reviews
Back issues

Home | Submission infoSpanish | Catalan | French  | Audio | e-m@il www.BarcelonaReview.com