“Words belong to everybody — murderers and victims”

Argentinean writer and Cervantes Prize-winning poet Juan Gelman is back at the age of 82 with an anthology and a whole new book of verse

The Argentinean poet and journalist, Juan Gelman, photographed for EL PAÍS, in 2009
The Argentinean poet and journalist, Juan Gelman, photographed for EL PAÍS, in 2009CRISTÓBAL MANUEL

Juan Gelman has written no fewer than 1,300 pages of poetry. That's how many pages are contained in his colossal anthology Poesía reunida, a compendium of verse just published by Seix Barral in outsize format. Everything is there, from his first lines in 1956, Violín y otras cuestiones , to El emperrado corazón amora, written in 2010.

Everything? No. Never one to sit idle, Gelman has just completed another poetry book titled simply Hoy (Today). "Now I am giving it a rest," he says. "Just for a while, of course. Then I'll re-read it. You need to create some distance."

The 82-year-old Argentinean, who settled down in Mexico after living in many other countries as an exile, was recently in León, Spain to pick up the Leteo Prize, a literary award that has also been granted to Paul Auster, Martin Amis, Michel Houellebecq and eight other well-known authors.

Gelman showed up with his friend Antonio Gamoneda, a writer like himself who won the Cervantes Award in 2006. The following year, Gelman himself accepted the same prize, the most prestigious in Spanish-language literature.

After receiving extensive public praise from Gamoneda at the Leteo award ceremony, an embarrassed-looking Gelman stood up and simply read out Confianzas, one of his most popular poems: " se sienta a la mesa y escribe / 'con este poema no tomarás el poder' dice / 'con estos versos no harás la Revolución' dice / 'ni con miles de versos harás la Revolución' dice // y más: esos versos no han de servirle para / que peones maestros hacheros vivan mejor / coman mejor o él mismo coma viva mejor / ni para enamorar a una le servirán // no ganará plata con ellos / no entrará al cine gratis con ellos / no le darán ropa por ellos / no conseguirá tabaco o vino por ellos // ni papagayos ni bufandas ni barcos / ni toros ni paraguas conseguirá por ellos / si por ellos fuera la lluvia lo mojará / no alcanzará perdón o gracia por ellos // 'con este poema no tomarás el poder' dice / 'con estos versos no harás la Revolución' dice / 'ni con miles de versos harás la Revolución' dice / se sienta a la mesa y escribe ".

("He sits down at the table and writes / 'with this poem you will not reach power' he says / 'with these verses you will not make a Revolution' he says / 'not even with thousands of verses could you make a Revolution' he says // what's more: those verses will not serve to make lumberjack laborers live better / eat better or to make himself eat or live better / nor will they serve to make a woman fall in love with him // he will not earn money with them / he will not get free movie tickets / he will not be given clothes for them / he will not get cigarettes or wine for them // nor bedpans or scarves or boats / not bulls or umbrellas will he get for them / if it were up to them, the rain would soak him / he will not obtain pardon or grace for them // 'with this poem you will not attain power' he says / 'with these verses you will not make a Revolution' he says / 'not even with thousands of verses could you make a Revolution' / he sits down at the table and writes".)

The ensuing silence was followed by applause. Gelman said "I think that's it, then," but the audience who filled the room seemed unwilling to leave it at that, so the poet took one question about the role of writers and the extent to which they are able to influence society. "There are things that should not be asked of poetry," Gelman replied. "These things must be asked of people: to defend their rights, for instance."

There is always dissatisfaction. It is very difficult to capture lady poetry"

Before that event, Gelman had sat down with EL PAÍS for a leisurely chat at Hostal de San Marcos, which was a prison during the Civil War and now serves as a Parador de Turismo, a state-run luxury hotel.

Question. The most typical question that a writer gets is, why does he write? But considering the 1,000-plus pages in your collected poetry works, and the fact that you have a new book coming out, the question that really takes precedence is: why do you keep on writing?

Answer. There is always a degree of dissatisfaction. It is very difficult to capture lady poetry. Why insist? To see whether I finally can. There are people who get tired along the way, but not me, not yet.

Q. Dissatisfaction with what's already been written or with what you still want to write?

A. With what's been written, at least in my case. [...] In reality, people write about very few subjects, but the longer we live, the more we read, the more we learn, and each one of those subjects can be considered from this different viewpoint. And this new viewpoint requires its own form of expression, which cannot be any of the previous forms. Dissatisfaction is born from that.

Cervantes defended the need to reinvent language; I try to go beyond the limits"

Q. Very often you take grammar apart and turn a verb into a noun. For instance, you take the noun "world" (mundo) and turn it into "to world" (mundear). Is language too limited for you?

A. Deep down, from Cervantes and up to our times, this has always been said. Cervantes came up with neologisms and defended the need to reinvent language. In my case it is an attempt to go beyond the limits.

Q. And what do your translators have to say about that?

A. I think I've managed to pull them out of their own logic [laughs]. I've been lucky enough to have excellent translators. They break their own languages to make the attempt, although it is not always possible.

Poetry, atrocity and exile


The 82 years in the life of Juan Gelman and the nearly 30 books of poetry he has published in that time would be enough to fill the careers of several writers. These are some of the milestones in his life.

1930. He was born on May 3 in Buenos Aires, the only Argentine-born child of a family that emigrated from Ukraine two years before that. His father, José, was a railroad worker and a carpenter; his brother Boris used to read out Pushkin to him in Russian, and his mother, Paulina Burichson, the daughter of a Jewish rabbi, made sure he studied piano. After dropping out of chemistry studies and working, among other things, as a truck driver, Gelman started a career in journalism in 1954. Two years later he published his first book, Violín y otras cuestiones (or, Violi n and other questions).

1962. He published Gotán , an anagram of tango. Sentimental, political and witty all at the same time, this book made a name for Juan Gelman, who by then was working with the musician Juan Carlos Tata Cedrón. "That woman looked like the word never," was the opening line in the poem that gives the book its name.

1965. Gelman published Cólera buey (or, Ox cholera), a project that grew with the passing years and which brings together "a poem to Comandante (Che) Guevara and the remains of nine books that were never published." This work heralded his newfound maturity, in which he uses a language that skips grammatical categories and creates verbs out of nouns, and vice versa.

1976. On August 24, the military dictatorship kidnapped his daughter, his son and his daughter-in-law, who was pregnant. The latter two never reappeared again. The baby was handed over to the family of a police officer in Uruguay. It took Gelman 23 years to find her.

1980. Hechos is his first book born out of exile. It was written between Buenos Aires and Rome, and is an expression of horror at the dictatorship.

2007. Now living in Mexico, Juan Gelman is awarded the Cervantes Prize. His acceptance speech in Alcalá de Henares was a call to never forget. "They say the past should be left alone, that we should not have eyes in the back of our heads, that we need to look forward and not insist on opening old wounds. But they are perfectly wrong. The wounds are still not healed. They are there in the subconscious of society like a simmering cancer. Its only treatment is the truth, and later justice. Only then can people really begin to forget."

Q. Some people say that poetry is precisely what gets lost along the way in poetry translations. Do you agree?

A. That depends on the translator, and each language has its own logic. Pavese was right when he said that in order to do a good translation, it is not enough to know both languages, you also have to be familiar with both cultures... I think that translating poetry is harder than writing it. I myself began translating things, and it didn't go well.

Q. Who have you translated?

A. I translated... what's his name? I'm so sorry, some people have gaps in their memory, but I have the Grand Canyon... Evtuchenko, the Russian. Also some things by Bertolt Brecht, and Cavalcanti, Dante's master.

Q. Do you speak Russian? I say that because of Evtuchenko

A. A bit, yes.

Q. Your parents moved to Argentina from Ukraine. Did coming from a family who spoke a different language and later living in exile influence the way you look at language?

A. I think so. We spoke four languages at home: Yiddish, Russian, Ukrainian and Spanish. Our parents told us to speak Spanish, but we lived in the [Buenos Aires] neighborhood of Villa Crespo, so out in the streets I heard Russian, Polish, Arabic, Romanian... Something must have remained in me from that multitude of sounds.

Q. Traditionally, poetry with a critical undertone comes in a clear format. Yours is the opposite case: your revolution begins with the language. Is that a conscious thing?

A. That is a difficult question to answer because, in a way, all of this puts pressure on you and rebelliousness comes out of it. But it is not a voluntary thing, it could never be.

Q. Should rebelliousness be expressed with a language that is common to all or one that is completely different?

A. When it comes to poetry, one cannot make any plans. I remember how the Korean War broke out in the 1950s. Of course, all the Communist poets, including the French ones, wrote poems attacking imperialism. The only one who did not was Paul Éluard. His colleagues told him: "How come you're not writing a poem about this serious thing?" And he said: "I only write about these things when the exterior circumstances coincide with the interior circumstances." And that is applicable to everything.

Q. In a conversation with Antonio Gamoneda, you said that civilization is going to hell in a handbasket. Are there no models to follow?

A. I don't see any. But we should make a distinction between civilization and culture. Western civilization seeks extreme development, and look where it got us. In general, it used to be politics that ruled over the economy. It hasn't been that way for years, but now it's really shameless: the heads of state get together to take orders from the International Monetary Fund. This seems extraordinary to me. I don't see how capitalism is going to get out of this one. Probably at the expense of millions, and I'm not talking about dollars.

The IMF calls anything that goes against its own wishes populism"

Q. What to do, then? How do you see your own country, Argentina?

A. What they're doing in Argentina is trying to return to classic capitalism, which is already a step forward, since it is based on production, not on financial plays. How can it be that Greece is on the brink of bankruptcy? A country is not a company.

Q. Can politics take the helm without falling into populism? That's the accusation that is usually leveled against the government of Argentina.

A. The IMF thinks that populism is anything that goes against its own wishes. The definitions are very vague. Argentina is seeking a return to a capitalism where the most important resources - oil and so on - are state-controlled. The world is ruled by free trade, yes, but this freedom is not applicable to millions and millions of people. It's a scandal.

Q. What about the criticism against Argentinean leader Cristina Fernández? What about the charges that she is trying to control the media?

A. There has never been as much freedom of the press as there is now. If one hears about that kind of criticism, it is precisely because everyone is free to say whatever they want. It's not that this government is free of errors. Ratings agencies are downgrading Argentina because it is swimming against the tide.

Q. Isn't there a certain dose of personality cult going on?

A. This happens in every country where there's a leader.

Q. Do you think that's a good thing?

A. I think it's a factual thing.

Q. There are factual things that we rebel against.

A. When I say it is a fact, I mean that I don't like [Venezuelan leader Hugo] Chávez, for instance, but after so much berating him, it turns out that the man gets the votes he needs. There is something sociological between the leader and the led. In Crowds and Power this is explained quite well.

Poetry and art enrich human existence and are a form of resistance"

Q. Speaking of crowds and minorities, you've always said that poetry is a form of resistance for the mere fact of existing. Can there be resistance without a great social presence, without a lot of readers?

A. Poetry, art, all those things that enrich human existence, are a form of resistance. With poetry you're not going to put food on the table and you're not going to start a revolution, but it makes the person who comes near it a richer person inside. The fact is that the internet provides access to a large amount of poets who were not accessible before, in all languages, great poets... and lots of amateurs.

Q. You began as an amateur too, sending poems to a magazine.

A. True. And I worked for a long time as a journalist. I lived off poetry and made a living from journalism.

Q. Words were always your raw materials. Did you never get writer's block? How do you sit down and write after the disappearance of your son and daughter-in-law [see sidebar, opposite page]?

A. Now you're making me think... I don't know, really. All I know is that after everything that happened, I cannot write the way I used to. I do know that. I couldn't write the way I used to.

Q. Is the fact that victims and executioners use the same words a problem for a writer?

A. Look, words are like the air: they belong to everybody. Words are not the problem; it's the tone, the context, where those words are aimed, and in whose company they are uttered. Of course murderers and victims use the same words, but I never read the words utopia, or beauty, or tenderness in police descriptions. Do you know that the Argentinean dictatorship burnt The Little Prince ? And I think they were right to do so, not because I do not love The Little Prince , but because the book is so full of tenderness that it would harm any dictatorship.

Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS