Portuguese American Journal

João Martins: Creating new meanings and new forms – Interview

By Millicent Borges Accardi, Contributor (*)

Born and raised in Manteigas, mainland Portugal, the poet and sculptor João Martins earned a degree in Theology at the Catholic University of Lisbon where he dedicated himself to teaching and education. His father was an artist, and Martins was raised to value both the written word and visual arts.

In 1986, he arrived in the United States for a month-long visit, and he ended up relocating to New Jersey with his family. A Jury Casa de Cortes – Leiria prize winner, Martins’ literary influences include Ruy Belo, Pablo Neruda, José Luis Peixoto, Ted Koser, and Carlos Drumond Andrade.

He has published seven books:Exercício de Pintura (poetry); A Estrelinha da Serra (short stories);Cânticos Paralelos (poetry); Intervalo das Palavras (poetry); Quando toda a Esperança é Azul (biography); O Seu Nome Era Maria (illustrated poem); and Mãos Verdadeiras (poetry).

A group of book sculptures by João Martins.

A group of book sculptures by João Martins.

A member of the Portuguese Writers Society and founder of ProVerbo – the cultural arm of the Portuguese Sport Club of Newark, NJ – Martins organizes cultural galas, literary events, and other club activities. Boavista Press recently published his bilingual poetry book, ‎Quando Menino Eu Lia – I Read as a Boy (October, 2014).

In this interview for Portuguese American Journal, Martins discusses poetry,his  Portuguese heritage and his wood carvings of hands and books.

You relocated with your family to the US in 1986 after a vacation, why did you decide to stay?

We came for a family wedding and enjoyed a three month vacation in the US. Anticipating future opportunities for the kids, new perspectives, challenges, we decided to stay. But we always have kept close ties with the family overseas.

You have written a poem where you describe your relationship with being Portuguese. Would you mind sharing it with PAJ readers?

broken English

"My hand". Wood sculpture by Joao Martins.

“My own hand”.
Wood sculpture by João Martins.

my speech and my accent may be broken
my dreams are intact.
even if dreams can bed dreamt in any language
it’s easier to dream
with the words we learned
with mother’s milk and dreams
as universal as a heart

at home we dream and speak polyphonically
in my childhood language I taught my children
(and here relying on the ties of distance and time)
in their language I learned
the new colors of dreams
and word by word, dreams by dream
and with the words of the heart

"Book with many stories". Wood sculpture by João Martins.

“Book with many stories”.
Wood sculpture by João Martins.

instead of broken ties
we have tied arms

since the time that feelings remained
from roots of other times
and dreams bonded roots to fruit and future
this same future is like a book
now with new pages, new words
new shared dreams.

old words will continue to be used
and timeless emotions
to build the dreams of tomorrow
like yesterday and beyond
the language and words
relating the hearts.

For our readers, can you describe the theme of your latest book: Quando Menino Eu Lia…– I Read as a Boy?

A fascination with and a love for words….The book is about the menino, the young boy, who has lived inside me since I was a boy, from my early teens of reading the books that I borrowed from the book mobile. In a certain sense, some autobiographic appointments directed me within the writing, reflecting on them at a distance. And the menino keeps looking for the meaning of the words, trying to make sense of them, new meanings, new senses.

What is the significance of the title I Read as a Boy?

As a boy, I read everything that came my way: history, stories for young kids, all the books that I was able to bring home from the mobile library, a max of six, I think, that I would read under the blanket at night with a flashlight to not disturb my parents and siblings.

I was anxious to learn everything–literally–reading sports papers, religious books, stories, books from the library… Then I discovered the grownups’ vocabulary, and all this process of becoming an adult, flashbacks to a young age, toward the natural development of learning new words, discovering new worlds.

Can you share an excerpt from the book?

The first verses in the beginning of the book set up the concept and the story unfolds:

I read as a boy …
Boy’s books in boy’s
words with boy’s tales

JM_photo_11as a boy I was in a hurry
to walk to learn to run
to read and do many other
things the grownups reserve for themselves.
I went from dream to dream
inching forward from tiny step onto tiny step
as big as the age
late in coming.

I read little tiny lines
uppercase letters were
grownup letters
tall words in the eyes of a boy.
on the sly I read the books

"Maria's hands". Front (top) and back. Wood sculpture by Joao Martins.

“Maria’s hands”. Front (top) and back.
Wood sculpture by João Martins.

I devoured in the library
that every week
waited for me wandering
in the town square the square of ideas
I read and read and more I wanted the
[boy’s stories
or of the boys
since poetry was to me still unknown
of later verses
which I would keep in memory’s pockets
and recited even without knowing
it was possible to write
differently. and books aggregated
ambitions difficult words
meals of pleasure and writing
as in my six year old postcard
sent from far beyond the beach.

The book is bilingual. It could have been in Portuguese or English only. What made you decide to present the poems in both languages?

After publishing seven books in Portuguese (the language I was born into and feel more comfortable writing in), I decided to share my poetry with the Portuguese American community where some readers are not so comfortable reading in Portuguese, as a way of trying to reach that audience and make new connections.

What makes a great poem?

That readers find new meanings for the words. If someone, after reading my verses and, because of that, kisses the one she or he loves, and thinks — wow!–then, it was great for me to write that line. A poem must wake up the senses!

Can you describe where you write?

A table, a computer, my hands and pieces of paper where I write thoughts to digest and later reflect and develop.

A small room, containing hundreds of books, hundreds of CDs, (classical and Portuguese folk music), hundreds of wood-carved sculptures, (my collection), some from my father’s pieces and some mine. A computer where I drop all the “small pieces of paper notes,” and where I can write, correct, change, without wasting too much paper…

What major project are you working on now?

Ferry Street Rua da Palavra, a poetic vision of three friends on the iconic street of Newark, NJ, where you find a multicultural flow of words, colors, habits.

"Book". Wood sculpture by Joao Martins.

“Book”. Wood sculpture by João Martins.

palavra de rua palavras na rua
palavra que é minha palavra que é tua
palavra quebrada o corpo é que sua
palavra da noite pintada na lua
palavra de amor ou palavra nua
palavra que é o nome da rua

Street word

word on the street, street words
word that is my word and yours
word of a broken body that is yours
words of the night painted on the moon
words of love or nude words
word that are the name of a street

What are you reading?

A desumanização by Valter Hugo Mãe; Os memoráveis by Lidia Jorge; (two novels of contemporary and renowned Portuguese writers) and poems by Charles Bukowski.

Do you have any upcoming public readings?

Not confirmed yet, but Rutgers University, Newark; Princeton University, both in NJ, Portuguese elementary schools in Newark, Long Branch, and Elizabeth, NJ, and… many, many more, I hope.

What is your “day job”?

As a property manager, I deal with papers and construction projects. Poetic?No!. But it provides me with lots of human experience in dealing with different people, cultures, words. I would like to have more time available to write, but, at same time, I like being in touch with people to listen and share.

Besides writing, you create sculptures. What attracts you to this art form?

Call it passion, I’ll say: woodcarving, especially carvings of hands… and books. Always the poetic meaning of the hands, the richness of wood mixed with books and hands! The wood natural colors and grain, where you can read stories, and bring you memories and words.

What inspires your wood carvings?

My father was a carpenter and, besides many beautiful pieces of furniture, in his late forties, he started doing “sculptures,” small animals and anthropomorphic figures with tree routes, later developing his technique and in bas relief and other figures.

I never worked wood with my father before I went to carving school, but I grew up between tools, wood and sand paper… Even today, the smell of cutting fresh wood takes me to my young years, the sensibility of my hands caressing the wood, feeling the wood grain…is an incredible sensation.

My father gave me several pieces of his carvings. Not the tools… he used to say that he needed them!…I started collecting, buying sculptures, visiting antique shops, fairs, flea markets, until six years ago I said to myself: “It is time to try it…”

What do you hope to achieve with your art?

When I create on a piece of paper or wood, I expect to send a message to a potential reader or observer. Art is communication. What a craftsman creates, he expects that someone will be able to read behind the book or the object.

What can a piece of wood give you when you work it? Peace, sensibility, power of creating, power of giving. Without thinking about the “eternity,”, will be a statement of what you think and believe.

"Guitarist's hands". Wood sculpture by Joao Martins.

“Guitarist’s hands”. Wood sculpture by João Martins.

Can you describe your art practice?

After a few years admiring and collecting carved pieces, a light went on my head: “Why don’t you try it yourself, with your own hands?”

Every Saturday morning, religiously, I drive to American Woodcarving and Art School (Wayne, New Jersey).

Usually I work with pictures of what I want to do, using my own hands as a model, other times, I have a “picture” in mind, and I start creating, building my own path, until I’m happy with the physical results and the message. Not necessarily until is perfect (always subjective, you always can do more), but until I believe that the piece itself has a clear message and, why not, some poetry!?

Have you had a gallery show?

I had my first personal exhibit July 2014, in Newark, the community where I have been working and living for the last 27 years.

It was difficult to sell my first pieces. There is a sentimental value, a personal attachment you cannot quantify. It was a surprise for most of the people who know me, because they didn’t know I created art. On the other hand, the visitors’ presence and their love for my wood work was a surprise!. The show brought me a sense of personal accomplishment because of the general public’s acceptance and celebration of my artwork

What inspired you to sculpt a series of hands?

To put your hands on a piece of wood can mean tenderness, softness, caring, power. There is always for me a poetic sensibility. Hands can reveal personality, weakness, pride.

How many pieces representing hands do you have?

Probably around sixty: twelve “hands,” about forty wooden books, landscaping, and reliefs. Some take as long as one hundred hours, others fifteen or twenty. When I do a piece, it is not necessarily for sale. Sometimes it’s difficult to be separated from my work. My sculptures are like my own children. But if my work stays behind closed doors, nobody is able to see them and enjoy them. So, I decided to open my mind to the idea of selling…

What is your favorite piece?

I see all of the imperfections in my woodcarvings! The sculpture of my Mom’s hands making lace. It depicts real meaning. Also the hands of the Portuguese guitar player, honed more than hundred and twenty hours of dedicated work. But I consider myself a beginner, always eager to learn. I admire the sculptures of the Italian artist Remo Belletti and Brazilian Cicero D’Ávila, contemporary artists. Incredible sculptures.

Is there a special place close to your heart?

Nothing like our home (a nossa casa)–how we keep calling today, the house where “we still live” in our small village in Portugal. My Mom still lives there. My dad has passed away, and the four remaining family members live thousands of miles apart. But, like [the novelist] José Luis Peixoto expresses it so beautifully, “The smells, feelings and laughs are the same.”


(*) 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

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