paulo da costa interviews Eugénio de Andrade
Eugénio de Andrade is the most loved of the living Portuguese poets and the best known outside his country. He is thin, slightly hunched by the weight of nearly eight decades of life and there is a visible frailty in the way he walks. His hair is pure white. Of himself he has said he is a mixture of brutality and tenderness.
In 1994 the city of Porto offered him a house with a view to the sea and the small colourful fishing boats rocking by the shore. The house was designed having in mind that a poet was going to inhabit it. The house is white. A non- profit foundation was created in his name and its offices occupy the main floor. His books are published by the foundation. In the basement one finds a performance room where book launches and readings take place. The poet lives upstairs.
As I prepare the tape recorder for the interview Eugénio de Andrade informs me he does not give interviews. He will make himself available for a conversation with me and although I am free to take notes he will not allow me to record this conversation.
He does not think much of the electronic advancements and their impact on writing and reading, “I don’t forego the smell of ink,” he says. He considers the new technologies an impoverishment. He writes by hand, likes the texture of paper, the pleasure of holding and re-reading. We are sitting in a fully equipped office despite during the interview the poet repeatedly stressing his disdain for technology. A staff person takes care of those matters for him. He seems surprised that I had booked this interview with his secretary via e-mail and well before travelling to Portugal.
Eugénio de Andrade asks me a few questions about Canada, confesses to know little about the letters of our country. He adds that he does not read many contemporary poets any more. “Paul Celan is the last great poet,” he states. He is curious to find out where I live in Canada. When I mention the prairies, the Rocky Mountains, he asks me if I know the poetry of Wallace Stevens, the North American poet he most admires. He asks if my Nepalese hemp hat is a traditional Canadian hat. He says he does not travel much, but if he were younger he would like to see Canada. Eugénio de Andrade is visibly disappointed that I am not an enthusiastic reader of Shakespearean works. A little later he insists I should re-read Melville’s Moby Dick and this time in the original language, not in Portuguese. “Moby Dick is the most important work in the English language,” he states categorically.
“I prefer the company of children, I have no patience for adults,” says the poet who spends part of his already rare public engagements visiting schools. He is selective of the schools he visits. “I don’t want to see any student yawning” he emphasises, “communication requires a process of receptivity from the listener and if such does not occur, contact cannot be made”.
“White, silence and desert are three words that fascinate me,” and in his poetry those are words he returns to time and time again. He has published more than 70 works of poetry, including translations of Sappho, Ritsos, Lorca, among many others. He published his first book when he was nineteen although he has since rejected the book and removed it from his bibliography. Eugénio de Andrade considers his work bucolic, in the sense that his poems portray a countryside that exhales the smell of manure and is not a countryside where damsels are dressed in peasant garments.
Asked why birds are such a recurrent presence in his poetry he says. “Poets work with obsessions carried from their childhood. I was born in a tiny Beira Baixa village [a poor interior province of Portugal] and born in the world of farming, the world of olive oil presses and cheese-making. Surrounded by the world of plants and animals. Have you thought what our world would be like without the song of the birds?” he asks. Later, he confesses his particularly fondness for the sparrow. He likes their plainness, their unassuming greys.
Apart from Fernando Pessoa, Eugénio de Andrade is the best known and most translated of the Portuguese poets. As a culmination to numerous earlier awards, he received the Portuguese Writers Association most distinguished award, the Lifetime of Literature Prize. In the last year he has been awarded three international prizes: Premio Extremadura (Ibero-American Prize), the Celso Emilio Ferrero (Iberian Prize) as well as the most important prize in the Portuguese speaking world, the Camões Prize. Andrade is one of the very few Portuguese poets read widely by Portuguese people. His books are a rare and phenomenal success in the world of Portuguese poetry. One of his latest books, a personally compiled anthology of his favourite Portuguese poems, sold out in a few hours. Many of Eugénio de Andrade’s books are increasingly available in English. In 2000, Guernica Editions of Canada has published Dark Domain, (translated by Alexis Levitin). He speaks fondly of his long time English translator Alexis Levitin, who has been translating his books since 1985. Eugénio de Andrade has 45 titles translated into twenty languages, a formidable feat for a poet. He proudly shows me several foreign translations of his books.
Eugénio de Andrade considers most of the present Portuguese poetry pedantic and unnecessarily adorned. His poetry carries an apparent simplicity, “a lightness, the supreme quality according to Goethe. Portuguese poetry,” he states, “has a heavy hand.” He adds, “The lightness and simplicity of my poetry makes it the incredible success it is. I am one of the few Portuguese poets who is more accessible and actually read by the people.” His most popular book “As Mãos e os Frutos” (1948) is in its 20th printing. “Numbers that not even the ‘Mensagem’ of Fernando Pessoa has reached.” He says with satisfaction. “I have never written words like saudade, caravela, fado. Those are common national sentimentalities in Portuguese poetry”.
“Poetry and truth, the ethic and the aesthetic, go hand in hand as Goethe told us.” For Eugénio de Andrade poetry is the supreme art form, everything else is secondary. Prose is the poor child of literature, although he is quick to point that the novels of Tolstoy are poetry to him. “Poetry is a kind of music,” he adds. Andrade is a lover of music and spends much of his time listening to chamber music, from Bach to Bartók. He is clear that poetry is his life and that he has lived for poetry. The rigor he imparts to poetry is not a science-like rigor but derives from the obstinate sense as proposed by Leonardo da Vinci. Eugénio de Andrade searches for exactitude in his work, he searches the exact words for each poem and despises anything that is not exact. “In its end result poetry has to be capable of communicating.”