By Millicent Borges Accardi, Contributor (*)
Perhaps best known for an artistic performance piece at the Lisbon Zoo, where he locked himself in a cage near the monkeys with a sign reading “Homo Sapiens,” Alberto Pimenta is an engaging, lively poet, and performance artist.
Born in Porto, Portugal, in 1937, he spent 17 years (1960-1977) in Germany teaching at the University of Heidelberg, only returning to Portugal a few years after the 1974 Carnation Revolution and the dissolution of the Fascist Salazar regime. Throughout the 1960’s, Pimenta was famously part of an experimental poetry movement promoting vanguardist theories. Led by Ernesto Manuel Geraldes de Melo e Castro (known as E.M de Melo e Castro), Ana Hatherly, and Herberto Helder, the movement created works that fused poetry with graphic design. His book of poetry, Rise ten tastes in the mouth, (1977) summarizes his social and political discontent.
Happenings or poetic performances in which Pimenta has participated in include, The Pig Brother, Homo Sapiens (1977) and Homo Venalis (1991), held in Lisbon where the poet was displayed for sale at the Church of the Martyrs. He is also famous for penning his own one line bio (which he still uses) “A. P. was born in 1937 and is not dead yet.”
His work includes books, essays, poetry and translations, namely Ode pós-moderna (2000), Grande colecção de inverno 2001-2002 (2001), Tijoleira (2002), A encomenda do silêncio [Antologia] (2004), Marthiya de Abdel Hamid segundo Alberto Pimenta (2005), Imitação de Ovídio (2006), Indulgência plenária (2007), Planta rubra (2007), and Prodigioso Acanto (2008).
Pimenta now resides in Lisbon. For this interview for the Portuguese American Journal, conducted in Portuguese with translation by Nuno Soares, letters and post cards were exchanged through the mail for over a year. Pimenta does not have a television or a computer. He has said that he wants “to know nothing of the Internet.”
What is your heritage? Family background?
My father is from Miranda do Douro (Trás-os-Montes on the border of the Douro river and Spain, amid a very wild landscape) from a family of small farmers. My father lived in Porto, where I was born. He was a serviceman. My mother is a native from nearby Resende; it’s the setting of a mountain range in Eça’s [Eça de Queiroz] A Cidade e as Serras, a charming place. She is from a family of lawyers and doctors (maybe of Jewish heritage, I don’t know).
What is your academic background?
A Bachelor’s in German Philology.
In our lifetime, all new experiences alter the routine – and immigration/emigration alters it all and all at the same time. At once. It begins with the enchantment of a fairytale and then the fear of overcoming difficulties sets in as is what always happens. In a fairytale, it is amazing to be the naïve child, receptive to everything and then suddenly a conscious adult, fearful of danger. As such, it is different being a prince or a cobbler. So, economic conditions, the social and cultural lives of immigrants play a role. This leads to the new experience becoming bitter or sweet. Both are necessary.
Who are your favorite Portuguese poets? Can you quote a few lines from a poem and explain its significance to you?
In my opinion, it’s hard to talk about poets or, let’s say, artists that I prefer in absolutes. They vary according to my mood, according to my emotional needs, and mostly opinions have varied over time. For example, you don’t enjoy reading James Joyce at 20, neither would you like Almeida Garrett’s Frei Luís de Sousa at that age. Jazz, you listen to it at night, but not in the morning or on waking. Therefore, cautiously answering your question: Camões, Garrett, António Botto, Cesário Verde (I staged him on television), Almada-Negreiros, and I can’t forget Aquilino Ribeiro and Eugénio de Andrade. See:
I used these lines as a beginning – a motto – for the reading I presented, called “Última Lição” at the Universidade Nova de Lisboa, in 2007. Since then, I have felt challenged by the first lines and tried to understand them for an hour, the duration of my talk.
Do you read American writers?
Certainly! Poe, Whitman, Pound, G. Stein, W.C. Williams, W. Stevens, Emmett Williams, John Giorno, Tom Johnson (the last two are more for listening and watching than reading).
Have you visited the US?
I found your wonderful poems on the Internet website “Poems from the Portuguese,” which features poetry by Portuguese writers in English translation. Are you involved with other joint ventures between writers in Portugal and other countries?
In Italy with Nanni Balestrini; in Germany with Eugen Gonringer, (I even published an original book in German, Verdichtnugen, Vienna, 1997). For example, in 2001 I participated in MARKERS – an alternative bi-annual in Venice, Italy – by invitation of Emmett Williams, of the central organization in Poland, and in collaboration with the Spanish José-Miguel Ullán (multinational collaborations can be difficult).
Has your work been translated into English?
No. But in 1985 (27 years ago), the magazine Micromegas (Cedar Islands, Iowa) published some of my poems. And the addendum “Culturas,” from Diário 16, April 16 of 1987, published Pimenta alongside (John) Ashberry!
How has the literary world and work of Portuguese language writers changed since Salazar?
As the Salazar regime ended, and the time leading up to it, literature evolved. At first, creative work centered on exalting the change; then it expanded little by little to include other Lusophone countries. Books started to circulate as expected and, within the new African Portuguese speaking countries emerged a specific literature, sultry and astonishing, which until then had not been known in Portugal.
Everybody assumed that literature was a forbidden art during Salazar’s time. False. What it was – we know it now – the authors with strong ideas and style, like Aquilino Ribeiro, knew how to deal with universal themes and how to underline fundamental ideas of freedom. So, they flourished. Others used systematic metaphors and allegories to mirror (almost in a recurring way) the political situation as a sort of code.
What books would you recommend to someone just starting to read Portuguese writers in English translation. For example, the five or six “must have” books which define Portuguese literature for you?
I still have difficulty with the word “must.” In arts, I guess that everything can be and nothing shall be necessary. Likewise, I insist on the need for an aesthetic reading, with individual taste reflecting the canon. I would recommend Frei Luís de Sousa of Almeida Garrett; several novels by Eça de Queiró; S. Banaboião Anacoreta e Mártir of Aquilino Ribeiro and the poetry of Eugénio de Andrade. You don’t even need to talk about Fernando Pessoa because I believe there has been too much writing about him already. To speak of a poet like him, one needs to know all of the poetry ever written and to have a lucid passion for the poet. Pessoa may have reached a saturation point.
Could you share what writing activities have been most successful for you?
Successful? Only other people can tell. I am not concerned about work that has been finished. What I know well is the beginning and revision of it; the long perseverance of days and nights filled with work. Performance poetry always brings me immediate satisfaction, and a finished book offers me a subtle pleasure with a subtle reception, since it is after the fact.
About translation, although it is never finished, it only brings pleasure when it is a small text (poem) and the result is a good one. Translation is the truest example of a work-in-progress.
What do you think are recurrent themes in Portuguese poetry?
Portuguese writers have a liking for lamentation. Of course! It is a universal theme and its essence is present in all of the classics in Mannerism, in Baroque, in the Romantics – although it is not present in Modernism. But, in every culture, lamentation is a thematic and stylistic theme. In Portugal it is the lost glory, the existential discomfort that leads to “saudade.” Always a view of the past in the present. Consider Fernando Pessoa’s work for instance.
To follow up in regards to the evolution of current European and Portuguese politics. To remain current.
What frustrates you?
So many things! Personally and socially: to witness, for example, the social and cultural regression of Europe ….
Did your parents pass down Portuguese legends to you such as folklore or superstitions?
Certainly. Legends, mostly local, the interesting “enchanted” Moirai (in Greek mythology, the Moirai (are known as the Fadas [Fates], white-robed incarnations of destiny who controlled the metaphorical thread of life of every mortal from birth to death) and naturally what you call superstitions that hide very, very old knowledge.
It should be said that I have an interest in Astrology, as you can verify in my fictional essay, entitled L’Edera del Dubbio by Carmen M. Radulet, Rome (2006), Filo, or in Palabras para Larva, Barcelona (1985), Editions del Mall. The most important and significant god for me is the Greek Kairos, who is not exactly serendipitous. Kairos believes in the right or opportune moment (the supreme moment) in which something special happens.
In Brazil, where I collaborate with Pádua Fernandes, poet and theologian, they call me the “psychic-poet” because some of my poems predict the future. My mother also taught me about premonitions. For me, though, it is not like that – it is taboo.
In November, I’ll be publishing a new poetry book and I’ll give an exclusive reading.
In your work is there something that you are trying to accomplish but haven’t?
About creative work, good! I believe every artist works to reach a point that is always unreachable, like the proverbial carrot dangled before the donkey’s eyes.
Can you describe the place where you write?
I always write at home, like the cavemen artists who painted (we assume) in the place they lived. I often think about writing when I am at the café, in the garden. Sometimes, I scribble ideas on bits of paper or on the edge of a newspaper.
What inspires you about literature?
I don’t know. I do collages, I paint, I do performances and lyrical and visual poetry readings. It’s hard to communicate acoustical and visual sensations into words. Shakespeare and Rimbaud were the few writers who were able to do so. Great literature has an emotional impact, but I don’t know if it inspires. If inspiration is something natural, it should be an unconscious emotion for us, present in everything we read. Inspiration is inside of us always.
Portugal once was a major empire throughout the world and not even then did we produce what is called “high art.” There are almost no classical Portuguese painters, or Portuguese music, or what one would call a formal Portuguese school of art or tradition. In literature, there are some good writers. Normally, they were dependent upon foreigner models (Petrarca, Góngora & ca.). Studying Petrarca, studying Aristotle, and more classical writers such as Virgil influencing Camões. Even though, Camões has been widely translated . . . And we shouldn’t forget the “Sonnets from the Portuguese” by Elisabeth Barrett Browning.
There is also Almeida Garrett. He is important, but only narrowly known. Pessoa is studied to the bone. At the university level, Portuguese Studies are usually associated with Spanish departments which don’t benefit either, giving no relative consideration to both. Nowadays, Portugal is a poor small country with poor small arts.
In regards to our great literary tradition, I recommend reading the opinion of Ronald W. Sousa (The Rediscoverers, Pennsylvania University 1981).
Get to know each other’s work, get to know the people they write about and feel compassion.
Why do you think so few Portuguese writers are translated into English?
Translation requires two attributes: a high linguistic capacity and a great sensitivity. Also, being open-minded and to love the work so much that it becomes urgent to translate it. When someone learns a second language, as well as his mother’s tongue to translate for money or to translate as an academic exercise, it usually results in a poor translation.
In the case of Portuguese literature, only academics have been dealing with translation. Literary translations are few and far between. Doesn’t Portuguese literature deserve more? As an example, the greatest works (um buraco na boca by António Aragão, Funchal, 1971) is not even known by most Portuguese people. The lobbies of literary intellectuality are somewhere alive but are irrelevant and asphyxiating. A necessary book, by K. David Jackson, As primeiras Vanguardas em Portugal (2003), (Ververt – Iberoamericana), would help readers understand this issue.
Recent Posts by Millicent Accardi
- Community: Arthur Lemos – The Man and His Music – Interview
- Darrell Kastin’s mystical world of fantasy and intrigue – Interview
- Book: Antidote – By José Luís Peixoto – Review
- Arts: Christopher Sousa’s bold and brilliant painting – Interview
(*) Millicent Borges Accardi is a contributor to the Portuguese American Journal. She is a Portuguese-American poet, the author of three books: Injuring Eternity, Woman on a Shaky Bridge (chapbook), and Only More So (forthcoming). She has received fellowships from CantoMundo, the National Endowment for the Arts, Fundação Luso-Americana (FLAD) and California Arts Council. Recently, she taught poetry at The Muse Writers Center in Norfolk; University of Texas, Austin; The Gathering at Keystone College; Nimrod Conference in Tulsa, and the Mass.Poetry Festival. Millicent lives in Topanga, CA. Follow her on Twitter @TopangaHippie