Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Artist Interview: Gabriel Amor, Spanish Writer, Poet and Pragmatist by Odilia Rivera-Santos

1. What did you unlearn in school? 

I unlearned dogma by studying art and history in college, which helped me to examine religion in a critical manner rather than unquestioningly accept the received wisdom I had been doled out in catechism class.  I recall finding out that the Virgin Mary had only been declared a Perpetual Virgin in the mid 20th Century.  That was a shocker!  How could the Church be in the process of working out basic dogma nearly 2,000 years after THE FACT and making decisions about key figures so long after their deaths?  Then I began meeting people who disrupted me with their talk about gospels outside the canon, Jesus having siblings, Mary Magdalen not being a prostitute, etc.  As I read and learned more, my initial shock turned into delight at the rich and varied traditions within Christianity.   I also came to understand the dynamic between artists and their patrons.  It was an eye-opener to see the "before and after" versions of Caravaggio's works, especially The Incredulity of St. Thomas and St. Mathew and the Angel.  I loved the original, the way the angel grabbed St. Thomas by the hand in order to get him to write the gospel -- more coercion than inspiration.  I grew interested in how artists are coerced into altering their output in order to meet the propaganda objectives of their patron, which in the past was often the Church.

Another unlearning took place as I realized how many times the Bible had been translated to arrive at the English version I knew while growing up.  I had surmised that the bible had been in Latin first, but I hadn't figured out that the Latin version had been translated from Greek, nor had I considered that the original text was in spoken Aramaic and only later transcribed by men who had never met Jesus.  I was fascinated to learn how translation helped create a schism between the Eastern and Western churches because of the way concepts such as transubstantiation suffered in the move from one language to another.

Somewhere in my Junior year, I recall telling my professors that their classes had disrupted my beliefs and given me no new ones in return.  One replied: "Good, then I have done my job."

2. Name your three favorite writers. Why do you admire their work? 

I absolutely resist naming favorite writers.  First of all, I tend to blank on that question, which is embarrassing for a writer, or else I suddenly develop an inability to recall names, which is perhaps worse.  Then, once I start to think about it, I can't limit myself to a few favorite writers because there are so many and, anyway, the list evolves over time.  For example, in high school I would wince whenever we were taught Shakespeare.  (A good part of the problem was the way it was taught.)  But one day the school took us on a trip to see a performance of Twelfth Night.  Suddenly I "got" Shakespeare.  Now, I really enjoy reading his work or watching it performed on stage.  I recognize his genius.  Who else could coin so many expressions that survive to this day?  I admire the way he writes verse more so than the structure of his plays; the way he can tweak word order to communicate so many layers of meaning or solve a rhyme.  Shakespeare gives actors and readers such a rich selection of options.  I think about Shakespeare when I translate because moving between Spanish and English requires rejigging word order.

In terms of contemporary English-language poets, I am a huge fan of Sarah Lindsay.  I've read her book, Twigs & Knucklebones cover to cover numerous times and I cannot find a single poem that I don't like or that isn't well-crafted.  I saw her read at the 92st Y and I was mesmerized by her unadorned delivery.  She reads with the conviction of someone who knows that the words are all that matters.  Her beautiful inclusion of scientific facts and her interplay with fantasy and point of view strike me as brilliant.  I also like the poets Neil Rollinson and Kim Addonizio for their imagery and humor.  I like writers who write what I want to write, what I would write if I had their talent or initiative.  There is often that first knee-jerk reaction, that anger or envy that I could've, would've, should've written THAT but they beat me to the punch.  That feeling soon fades to be replaced by admiration and joy at the experience of reading such good work.

T.S. Elliot blew me away when I was in undergraduate school.  The epic nature of his writing, its universality and timelessness so grounded in specificity.  I used to recite The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock in its entirety.  Part of The Wasteland, too.  Well, all the bits in English.  I confess to being a bit bothered by Elliot's use of foreign languages.  I feel like rewriting his poems entirely in English as if to affirm his great skill.  Why mess with that?  Having said that, I'm working on an updated Spanglish version of The Wasteland and Prufrock for a series of paraphrased poems I call poeta ladrón.

And that's limiting myself to my first thoughts about English-language writers.  Well, poets really, although I read much more prose and non-fiction than poetry.  I was a fan early on of the classic 19th and 20th Century novels, so of course this means the French and Russians.  (I read them in translation.)  Don't even get me started on Spanish-language authors.  But I'll mention that Sylvia Molloy's book El común olvido is a masterful take on nostalgia, storytelling and remembrance, and that it took me a while to realize that she was inserting English terms into the Spanish prose because she does it so effortlessly, and without indication to the reader (no italics or quotation marks) that it mimics the way some of us bilingual folks think.  Reading in Spanish is always a good kick in the ass, if only because the conventions around punctuation are explored in great depth and after a while I can't recall if the quotation marks go before or after the period in English or in Spanish.  I like that, because language is not entirely logical.  Two negatives do not make a positive in Spanish.  Perhaps they shouldn't in English either.  That should only be a rule in math, and only in multiplication for that matter..

3. If you could have video of any time period, which would you choose and why? 

I would want to see something ancient, like classical Athens, Egypt under the Pharaohs or even Babylonia.  Or, of course, first century Palestine.  I'm a history buff, so I'd need a lot of videos. Better yet, I'd ask to time travel and miraculously be able to fit right in: know the language, land in a position of privilege (being from the lower classes was no picnic back then and I have a strong and sensitive olfactory system.).  I want to observe the Mayas and Aztecs.  I want to see Buddha sermonizing in India. I'd like to follow a Viking ship around for a while.  I'd love to witness the original encounters between disparate cultures, like when Europeans first arrived in the Americas.  Not the death and destruction, just the looks on their faces.  I want to be in Cordoba during the height of Moorish culture.  I'd like to visit Toledo under Alfonso X.  Can I chat with Alexander the Great?  Or, for that matter, Cleopatra.  Who was the better kisser?  I'd definitely need a lot of videos or a really good time machine with an incredible warranty.

4. What story do you enjoy retelling? 

I'll never tire of telling the story of the day I accepted my Nobel Prize.

5. What is your ritual prior to creating something new?

I do lots of cleaning and organizing before beginning a new project.  I clear out the old to make room for the new.  I also read something good in whichever language I'm writing.  I get distracted by everything and anything once the rush of creativity starts to take over.  I want to eat, have lots of sex, watch bad TV and mop all the floors.  I put it off as long as I can because once I'm in, I'm in for good.  I yield to the muse only with much trepidation.  Then again, my muse is a massive bitch with a chip on her shoulder and sharp high heel shoes that she enjoys digging into my cheeks.  (Those would be my nalgas not my mejillas.)  She dirties all my dishes, leaves my fridge empty, smokes like a bandit (although she doesn't inhale . . . or swallow for that matter) throws shit around and complains endlessly about my so-called obsessions: order, cleanliness, transparency, minimalism.  I reel for days after she visits me.  I end up with hard-to-explain debts, wondering where I put my tax returns and why I can't find my keys anywhere.  I'm constantly hungover because she loves Campari cocktails almost as much as I do.  I think it's the red color and the way it soothes your stomach so that you can eat just that much more.  Yeah, she's quite a handful and I hate her.  And I never want her to leave.  And I love her.  Let's face it, I get the better end of the deal. 

I feel the urge to shred some papers . . . 

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