A collaborative interview: paulo da costa and Shane Rhodes interview Verónica Volkow.
Verónica Volkow, born in Mexico City, is a poet, a translator, an essayist and a photographer. Until the age of eighteen she lived in the house of her great-grandfather, Leon Trotsky. She has written exhibit catalogues on Arnold Belkin, Francisco Toledo, Christine Couture and Nicholas Sperakis and translated the works of León Trotsky, Víctor Serge, Henry Michaux, Michael Hamburger and Elizabeth Bishop. Verónica has published three books of poetry: La sibila de Cumas (1974) Litoral de tinta (1979) El inicio (1983) and two books of essays: Graciela Iturbide, los disfraces (1984) and Diario de Sudáfrica (1988). She is also the Cofounder of Comité Mexicano contra el Apartheid (Mexican Committee Against Apartheid) (1988).
In English Veronika Volkow’s poetry can be found in the following publications: Mouth to Mouth – Poems by twelve Contemporary Mexican Women, Milkweed Editions, (bilingual edition) and Where Words Like Monarchs Fly – A cross-generational anthology of Mexican poets in Translation, Anvil Press.
filling Station: Can you provide a brief description of your writing life so far?
VV: Well, I started very young, when I was a teenager. I started publishing poetry books, then I went into other genres. I went into criticism, and lately I’ve been trying to write some narratives. I’ve also written chronicles: I went to South Africa during apartheid and wrote a book about everyday life in South Africa.
fS: You’ve also done translations.
VV: I’ve translated several American and French poets — John Ashbery, whose work I love very much, and Elizabeth Bishop. I translated Elizabeth when I was very young and I think to a certain extent she was an influence on my work. Lately I’ve been working on Saint John Perse’s work, which I find fascinating and very difficult to translate.
fS: How do you feel about the translations that other people have done of your work?
VV: I usually have to work a lot with the translators. Translation is a very difficult task.
fS: How do you translate somebody like John Ashbery? I’m quite fascinated by that, because Ashbery is one of my favourite poets and he’s hard enough in English.
VV: Well, you need a lot of time. It happens like poetry — you have to be very patient. I mean you cannot have Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror translated in three days. I worked on it for over a year. The poems had to grow and reveal themselves. It’s a very intimate relationship with a writer. I love translating; it’s the closest you can get to another writer. The best reading you can get is through translating.
fS: In one of your poems you write, “hunger is the first eye of the body.” What is the hunger that makes you write?
VV: I suppose the hunger of being.
fS: How would you describe that hunger? Is it an emptiness that needs to be filled?
VV: Octavio Paz says we are all dancing above the void. It’s an ontological need. But particularly in Mexican poets, it’s a very strong thing. I see it in Octavio Paz’s work, this need or ontological lack. It’s very important for Mexican writers — I feel it in myself as well.
fS: Why do you think it is particular to Mexican writers?
VV: I think silence. We live in a culture where many things are silenced, so we have to write them. At least, that is my experience. You see Octavio Paz’s work: it’s wonderful because it’s a dialogue with the most important moments of culture, of western culture. It’s reaching out and trying to integrate that culture into his dialogue.
fS: The hunger of dialogue, almost.
VV: It’s a hunger of dialogue and a hunger of trying to understand things.
fS: Do you find intersections between your criticism on photography and your poetry?
VV: I find intersections every time I explore a new genre. When I started to explore the essay, I became another writer. I could explore other territories with words. Now I’m trying short stories, and it’s the same thing. There’s another possibility of being, in different spaces.
fS: Images of darkness, night, absence of light occur frequently in your poetry. What is it in you that gravitates towards those images?
VV: An old book of mine, El inicio, it’s a book that explores the sense of touch. Touch has its own specific way of understanding the world that is not through light. Metaphorically, it has its own light. Coming into light, coming into being from darkness, or from non-existence towards existence.
fS: It almost sounds like it’s the void you dance over.
VV: Well, this need of being born through words, of existing through words. We poets have that problem with silence. We have that problem with void.
fS: To quote one of your line in response, “how long does death last?”
VV: Since you’re born.
fS: There is a definite sensuality in your writing. Do you find any one language is better at expressing the erotic, at expressing the sensual or libidinal?
VV: It’s such a personal search. I’ve found American poetesses have wonderful erotic poems. I don’t think it’s a question of language. I think it’s a question of sensitivity.
fS: Do you find any marked differences between the poetry you’ve been reading and writing in Spanish and poetry in English?
VV: What I love about many American poets is the way they explore their own experience. I love that trend. We belong to a different tradition where the centre is displaced from the self, from the personal. Maybe a more abstract self that explores atmospheres or lights or a situation. Mexican poetic tradition comes from a more impersonal self.
fS: Do you think there might be a difference in Mexican and American poetry because of the very different colonial histories of the two countries?
VV: Definitely. We are very much influenced by baroque poetry and the baroque sensitivity. It’s our way of integrating, of putting together so many different worlds that constitute the Mexican identity, from the Pre-Hispanic to the Spanish and then to the Modern. Baroque is part of the Latin American understanding of the world.