Portuguese American Journal

Nuno Júdice: One of Portugal’s greatest literary treasures – Interview

By Millicent Borges Accardi

The work of Portuguese writer Nuno Júdice is like a spell. A reverie.  A dark dream with quiet overtones and hidden meanings. Last summer in Lisbon, as part of the DISQUIET International Literary Program, it seemed as if the whole world had been swallowed up and silenced when Júdice softly delivered his poetry to the mesmerized audience at New University of Lisbon (Universidade Nova).

Poetry is the genre for which Júdice is best known, and he is considered one of Portugal’s national literary treasures.  His writing has been translated into twelve different languages, but he is not very well known in the United States where translations of his work into English are still rare. There is only one out of print volume of his poetry published in English to date.

Born in 1949, in Mexilhoeira Grande, in the Algarve southern region of Portugal, Júdice is a prolific writer with an astonishing number of published works including 31 poetry books, 16 volumes of fiction, 11 collections of essays, and five produced plays.

His education includes a degree in Romance Philology, from the University of Lisbon, and a PhD in Medieval Literature from the New University of Lisbon, where he is currently a professor.

He directed the magazine Tabacaria of the Casa Fernando Pesssoa, in Lisbon, in the nineties. Since 2009, he has been the editor of the literary magazine Colóquio-Letras, at the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation.

An essayist, literary critic, and fiction writer, Nuno Júdice has garnered numerous literary prizes. His debut poetry collection, The Meaning of Poem, appeared in in 1972. Just 13 years later, he won two prestigious national awards: the Pen Club Prize, and the D. Dinis da Casa de Mateus Prize, and the Portuguese Association of Writers Award. His book, Meditação sobre Ruinas [Meditation on Ruins],was also a finalist for the European literary prize, Aristeion.

From 1997 to 2004 Júdice served as cultural attaché for Portugal in Paris. He has also served as director of the Instituto Camões in Paris during the same period of time.

Literacy critic Richard Zenith describes Júdice’s poetry as being full of “observation and reflection.” Others have portrayed his work as “conversational in tone, without any evident laboring over the right word here, the special metrical or sound effect there.” (Poetry International).

In this interview for the Portuguese American Journal, Nuno Júdice speaks of five decades of writing, his literary references and preferences, the state of the Portuguese letters at home and abroad, of his creative practice and his work in progress.


Q: How did you start writing poetry?

A:  The first poem I wrote was when I was eight years old. At that time (the end of the 1950’s) there wasn’t much TV, only radio. There were many broadcasts of poetry readings by actors. It was when I listened to those readings that the inspiration for the poems came. I kept on writing until I found my own voice at about 17 to 18 years old.

Q: I was honored to hear you in Lisbon, how did you happen to read there?

A:  I was invited. I have been following the work of the Centro Nacional de Cultura (CNC) since it was founded before the end of the Dictatorship of Portugal, in the 1960s. It was an important center of the opposition to the rightwing Salazar regime and one of the few places where it was possible to go to discuss politics freely (due to the protection of the Church). So, every time I am asked to cooperate, I do without reservation. It was also an opportunity to meet new writers from the USA.

Q: Who are your favorite Portuguese and American poets? Whose work have you been significantly drawn to and why?

A: The Portuguese poets I read most are Ruy Belo, Sophia de Mello Breyner, Jorge de Sena, and Herberto Hélder, who were very important to my own writing. But it was American poetry that guided me to the kind of verse and prosody I use today, namely Ezra Pound and Eliot, and the Beat Generation, first of all, and then e. e. cummings, John Ashberry, Robert Lowell. I have continued to read American poetry, and I try to follow new forms of writing.

Q: Why do you think Portuguese literature is not as widely read as the literature from other countries?

A:  There is a problem in supporting translators from Portuguese to other languages. They should be encouraged. Also, in the last ten years, there has not been a good cultural policy in place, in Portugal–if there is one at all–to promote our literature globally. I don’t know if that will change for the better in the current period of crisis.

Q:  Both Portuguese and Portuguese-American writers seem to suffer from a lack of exposure or popularity in the United States. Is there, perhaps, an identity crisis?  There are great Portuguese poets, but very few people know about them in America. Do you have an opinion? 

A: There have not been enough translators of Portuguese poetry. Our poetry, it seems, has not been appreciated by editors who could give visibility to our poets. There are some Portuguese poets translated in magazines or by small editors, but it is a very small fraction of our dimension in contemporary European poetry. Also, there is not enough support for translation due to the lack of means to publish and promote our poets. Of course, there is Pessoa, but the translation of his work should be followed by the translation of other poets.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I just published a book of poetry in April this year. Of course I continue writing poems but I am also working on a new fiction book. It is always surprising to see how poetry is read in Portugal: my book was sold out in a month, a new edition was published and I think there are not many copies available. Perhaps the actual crisis is making reading poetry more necessary than ever.

Q; What books or stories of yours have been published in English? Are there any plans for future work to reach the United States and Canada?

A: I have a book, Meditation on Ruins, translated in English by a small editor, Archangel Press, Prague-London. It was published more than ten years ago. In the USA, I published a few poems in magazines, but none of my English translations have been able to find an editor yet. Anyway, a new book, The Cartography of Being, will be available this year on a Kindle edition: it is a bilingual anthology of fifty one poems that covers the years of 1967 to 2005.

Q: Some of your images are dream-like. Rapturous. What role (if any) do dreams play in your poetry writing? 

A: It is perhaps what impact surrealism has left on my imagination. I was never a follower of that literary movement, but painting was, and still is, a very important inspiration. The works of André Delvaux, Dali and Magritte, for different reasons, have given me ideas for poems.

Q: Your work is often funny and often, also, trance-like or like music or a prayer. Which poems do you prefer writing?

A: Of course, I prefer those that are more profound and that reach the sphere of the “soul.” For this, I mean, using the word in the sense of German Romanticism. I use both, past and present, to create a “Wholeness” that nourishes life and poetry.

Q: You read an ekphrastic poem about the painting Susana and the Elders. What other paintings have inspired your poetry?

A:  I like painting very much. It started when I was 16 years, during a summer I spent in Paris taking a course in the History of the painting at the Louvre. Very often, paintings are the subject of my poems. Some years ago, I created a blog where I would publish a poem next to a painting. It is still available at http://aaz-nj.blogspot.com/

Q: What advice do you have for other poets?

A: The most important is never stop reading poetry. It is the only way to learn. That is how you find what makes poetry a different language.

Q: What is the best advice you ever received?  Either related to writing or life or both.

A: To be patient. Literature, and poetry in particular, is much more than just a hundred meter running competition. It is more like a marathon. In the beginning there is a multitude, but very few runners will reach to the end.

Q: Do you remember the first poem you wrote?

A: It was a poem written when I was a child, I was inspired by a gothic tale about the skeletons of two lovers that leave the tomb (as ghosts) and dance together while bells ring at midnight. I was always attracted by the fantastic and, later, I was very interested in Edgar Poe and horror films such as Dracula with Bela Lugosi, and all that – but I treated those subjects in the ironic sense, of course. It was also a décor for some poems I published after 1972 in my first books. . .[the fantastic] does not interest me in the same way, but sometimes the supernatural world returns to inspire some poems or tales.

Q: Do you have a revision process?  If so, what is it?

A: Practically, my poems are written in a final form. If there is anything to be changed, it is only very small details. With the novels, the writing process is different: each one of them has many versions before arriving to the last version ready for printing.

Q: Do you believe in “automatic writing”? 

A:  Sometimes I practice it, and I think that, in many ways, all poetry writing is automatic. I don’t think that if you consider each word, each idea and each image of a poem, you can arrive at a conclusion. Poetry contains its own unique logic that always pushes you in one direction, and it is not possible to react to it.

Q: Since 1975, Portugal has been experiencing notable social and cultural transformations. How has this affected your writing?

A: Although my poetry also reflects the new reality in a very indirect way, those transformations are more present in my fiction. Those changes have given me the opportunity to write about how the transition process from Dictatorship to democracy has interfered in our way of life and in how we otherwise look at our past.

Q: Again, the country is undergoing a new cycle of change with the current demoralizing financial crisis. How optimistic are you regarding the future of the country?

A: The current crisis has not affected (yet) our identity, which is very important. The problem is that the government and the political class have lost the trust they had inspired in the people who voted for them. The alienator measures of economic restraint and the way salaries are being “confiscated” to pay for our national debts, for the most part assumed by foreign advisers, can make Europe look like an obstacle to the pursuit of a democratic government. This is due to the fact that we know those who were elected may not be able to accomplish their own government programs because they are being forced to implement the programs that international organizations are imposing upon them. This problem is not only Portuguese and I must say that we have been very patient with the austerity measures.

Q: Do you visit the United States frequently? Have you given readings or lectures in the US? If not, would you like to?

A: Only once, in the nineties, for readings in Brown University; in the House of Poetry of New York, and in Pittsburgh.

Q:  Is there anything in particular about the United States that you like? Have you visited any Portuguese-American communities in the US? If so where?

A: As I told you, that visit did not give me an idea about the United States that could change my European and, more precisely, my Mediterranean attachments. But I have also a close approach with South America. I just translated a large anthology covering 100 years of Colombian poetry. My interest in American poets is still present in my literary work.


Millicent Borges Accardi is a contributor to the Portuguese American Journal. She is a Portuguese-American poet, the author of three books: Injuring Eternity (World Nouveau), Woman on a Shaky Bridge (Finishing Line Press chapbook), and Only More So (forthcoming from Salmon Press, Ireland). She has received literary fellowships from Canto Mundo, the National Endowment for the Arts, and California Arts Council. Last fall, she was a visiting poet at The Muse Writers Center in Norfolk, VA. Millicent lives in Topanga, CA. Follow her on Twitter @TopangaHippie

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