José Kozer (Havana, 1940) is the protagonist of one of the most original literary adventures of our times. A descendent of Czech Jews (on his mother’s side) and Polish Jews (on his father’s), in 1960 he continued the ancestral diaspora and settled in New York where he lived till 1997 and, after an interval in Andalusia, settled finally in Hallandale, Florida.
Beyond any external geographic coordinates, we are facing a man whose existence we should seek on the latitude of language. As he has proclaimed on more than one occasion his true homeland is language, or, which is the same, the unreality of language. Every day in this world, at the end of a recurrent morning ritual, Kozer writes a poem. A man who has written more than ten thousand poems [at the time of the interview, the number now reaches 14,160 poems] puts several notions of poetic creation in crisis. Regardless of the importance of this writing (whose undoubted quality there is no need to insist on), his attitude towards language is fascinating. His greatest ambition is to bring all vocabulary into the realm of the poem. José Kozer is a machine that unceasingly processes every class of verbal material. Every register of language, from the most unlocatable localisms to clinical, scatological, propaedeutic, philosophical, suburban jargon, everything goes, everything can be metabolised by the stomach of a poem.
Harried by a series of public commitments and personal projects, José Kozer, whom many consider the most important poet in our language, granted this short interchange with Diëresis.
The last decades of the past century consolidated a phenomenon which had been gestating long before and now, undoubtedly, is one of the pillars of western culture: the remix. A philosophy, you could say, that legitimates every kind of cannibalism during the creative process. To what point is the incorporation of others’ texts into poetic discourse an authentic practice?
Years ago, talking with Nicanor Parra in New York, he said something that knocked me flat: nowadays there is room for everything in poetry. His judgement was like a dike breaking, like floodgates thrown wide open and I remember I felt a liberating sense of delight. A recognized poet was giving me the leeway my restless spirit needed at that time and still needs. Others’ texts incorporated into one’s own text are first of all a homage, a wink between writers, a way of participating in the tradition from a new, less orthodox, perspective, a less exclusive way that doesn’t stop being respectful. Every poem is a rescuing of the cultural heritage, a way of re-attaching, re-knotting, upholding the links, the continuity of the world and protecting it. It’s a way of letting the poem move along riverbeds that are every time more numerous. Each riverbed with its own twists and turns adds material to the text, and the accumulated material, the suggestions, detritus, ignorance, apocryphal citations, literal citations, are part of what sustains what’s called a work, an opus. A word I’m not very fond of. Opus, Oh Pus, Obra, a Mexicanism: “obrar”, to defecate.
The use of computers to produce literary texts is a fact that marks the literature written today. Writing the way Dylan Thomas did, producing a clear copy of his poem over and over on a typewriter, is not the same as working with the assistance of Microsoft Word’s features, its contextualised menus, stylistic suggestions and the immediate visual presentation of the text in an almost infinite variety of fonts and formats. Do you think the production of the text using these types of platforms can be a detriment to poetic writing or, on the contrary, do you see it as an opening on new possibilities of expression?
The computer has freed me from carbon paper, from the mistake that would make you rewrite the entire poem, type it again, and by the way always have to do this according to the fixed linearity imposed by the writing process. The computer has given me a greater degree of freedom when it comes to correcting poems. I write by hand, never directly on the screen, I’m incapable of that, but I correct on the screen from my notebook of poems, which allows me to add, to improvise, to eliminate, to go back, to amuse myself, play, undermine, clean up, improve, maybe worsen. Didn’t Rimbaud say il faut être absolument moderne? The phrase suffers from excess. I prefer it without this “absolument“, so one can be a modern without in any way cutting oneself off from the tradition one loves. Is being modern rejecting Villon and, through Villon, Ezra Pound? To be modern is to use the advantages, almost the virtues, offered by the virtuous and virtual computer and to balance this artefact with the use of the hand that tears up, scribbles, slips, runs, stops, and feels like a living body above the slippery paper. The situation is ideal: technology supports me by facilitating my life as an amanuensis. Tradition puts at my disposal, via the servant Google, all books, the intertextual references I already have or could have, and all this with a click, a light touch of the key. Of course, needless to say, all this is useless without talent and devotion, talent and work, detachment from the ego and immersion in the poetic moment, without a spontaneity like that of the Japanese calligrapher who meditates, then suddenly casts his ideogram down on the silk paper or rice paper. The lack of talent, and of the risk having talent involves, can never be concealed. It’s obvious that almost all the bad poems that appear, and there’s a swarm of them, come from the lack of talent which informs the work of a high percentage of poets. That’s why from the Siglo de Oro, out of who knows how many aspirants to “glory”, only a dozen remain.
The poet César Vallejo at one time said, “What matters in a poem is the tone with which it says something and, secondarily, what is being said”. Nicanor Parra has this enigmatic line “I say one thing by another”. Dylan Thomas went so far as to say “the sound of the words is what’s important”. The amazing development of linguistics has given a scientific base to approaches of this kind. Do you think that one can write and, as follows logically, read a kind of poetry where the signifying has absolutely nothing to do with the signified? To what point is the poem a suitable receptacle for the transfer of feelings, opinions, states of mind? What is poetry for?
I can only refer your question to my own work, to my own ongoing experience of strangeness. For me, and I get called a neobaroque poet, a poet of difficulty, none of this is true. I don’t even consider myself a poet, and I don’t say this to ingratiate myself with anything or anyone. The word in itself turns me off (remember that Lorca on being presented by one person to another, and hearing the later ask him if he was the poet, answered: If you say so.) Once again, just as I believe in fortifying traditional elements with a dose of contemporary or “modern” structures, I believe that the signifiers engage with what is signified inevitably and naturally without any great problem, so that in a poem I note, I repeat this is my own case, how I am writing it or I see how it is being written (he runs, I walk) and how on one side the poem in its particular development tells and sings in the traditional way, to my middle ear, sometimes an inner listening, and this story (sometimes Chinese) has spaces, pauses, lines where what is being told is skewered by the presence of language in its purity. Let’s say there are moments when the signifying tyrannises the text and then rests and again yields to the story, the signified, to the biographic content which we know as biography is unimportant: both dance, both tyrannise, both put on airs, and in a rather mysterious way both interweave, collaborate, wink at each other and mix their streams to flow out into the final outcome of the poem. Pardon the gloating: it’s wondrous.
In one of his famous letters Rainer Maria Rilke draws the attention of his disciple Franz Xaver Kappus to the relation between art and life: “Living in any way one can still prepare oneself for art without knowing it. In anything that is real one is closer to art than in unreal, semi-artistic duties that appear to have a certain closeness to art but in practice deny and undermine the existence of all art.” A highly visible characteristic of a good part of contemporary poetry is its self-absorption. Poetic explorations scratch deeper and deeper into language. There’s a kind of proliferating literary cannibalism, extremely remote from the daily activities that engulf the common man. How does José Kozer, a poet nourished as much by the spoken and written word as by his external circumstances, view this phenomenon?
Once again you’re speaking to me of a middle way, what in ancient Greece, Zen Buddhism or Confucianism itself is considered the ideal, the golden mean, the intermediate point (the intermediary, the intercessor) between extremes that perhaps often lead to the most resounding failure (excesses seem to me more and more abominable.) The final Celan or the Joyce of Finnegans Wake have worried me for decades: two writers I love, whose final attempted works make me doubt extremes. I read Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy and I have access to it and feel at home; I read the last poems of Celan in translation and I respect them in their intention, as the expression of a devastating loneliness, of an impossible to assimilate experience (the Nazi concentration camps) but (and the ‘but’ is what obsesses me) I don’t understand, I don’t hear, I’m lost, I see nothing. I hum these portmanteau words and end up with water draining through my fingers, with nothing to show for it, desolate. Maybe this desolation, this devastation, is what Celan needs to impose (Celan who, they say, said that poetry exposes but doesn’t impose). Finnegans Wake has wonderful accessible passages (like Anna Livia Plurabelle) much less than in Ulysses, but there are a few, the rest turns me upside down with language, where in the end, through excess and saturation, the word play or paronomasia hides the living presence of the text from me. For me its humanity falls apart, its baroque play undermines its function as something to be read. Am I unfair? I say this from a brute limitation in myself, an inaccessibility which, in my impotence, I can’t get beyond or do anything about.
In The Electronic Revolution William Burroughs denounces the existence of a lethal threat for the human species: the virus of language. In his disturbing treatise the North American offers various formulas to “demagnetize language” and so free ourselves from the virus. Antonin Artaud said a phrase that seems to go along the same lines: “I am an idiot because of the astonishment of language, because of the bad formation of language.” Do you think the poetic word has some public enemy in sight, some adversary to confront? Does the poetic word still harbour some possibility of redemption for humankind?
I believe, not blindly, in poetry. These days I am rereading Cavafy, the introduction by Auden, which is wise as always. This poetry, no doubt traditional as much as modern, as risk-taking as opaque with concealment in its transparency, from a tiredness within me at night that I feel is ancient, from the closeness of my death, of my anagami (that is my not having returned to Cuba, my place of no return) allows me to remake myself, to untie myself, to be another, to be inside the “negative capability” of Keats referring to Shakespeare, and, thanks to poetry, for a few moments to reach the state of Cavafy, that almost utopian space or perhaps the space of every utopia where I am not I, and so I can go to sleep in my own tiredness, in detachment from personality (that horror) from the world’s opinion and my own opinion (back in his day Heine said that up to his own times people had convictions but now, in modernity, people have opinions) (what a beautiful saying – everything is atoms and stars, the rest is opinions). Thus I can dismiss myself and, so dismissed, be someone outside time, not eaten by time, that daily sleepiness. I can feel free of the burden I am, free of one’s own existence (the laws of Manu lay down that the gods’ punishment is that man is condemned to exist). Redemption? Uff. A fancy word too much loaded with false religiosity. Humankind? A term, like so many, that winds up a pure abstraction, ungraspable, unreal to the maximum. I believe as never before that a good poem, a cantata of Bach, a motet by Charpentier, a painting by Constable or Delacroix, an idea of Wittgenstein or Camus is what gives me life, and that is what I need, what gives me life: the rest is just trash and drivel, stagnant water that if I let it build up in me rots my soul, a soul in which I believe less and less. In its place I believe in the mind, in the breathing head.
* This interview was originally published in Spanish in Diëresis magazine.
Translation from Spanish by Peter Boyle.