“Hora Zero: Rejecting the Elitists, Bringing Poetry to the Peruvian Public”: An Interview with Jorge Pimentel and Tulio Mora

by Robert Swereda

Author of re: verbs (Bareback Press) and a chapbook ionlylikeitwhenitrhymes, Robert Swereda is a member of the filling Station collective. He studied creative writing at Capilano University in Vancouver. Other work has been published by The Puritan, ditch,, West Coast Line, The Incongruous Quarterly, steel bananas, The Capilano Review, Enpipe Line and Poetry Is Dead.

 

Jorge Pimentel (born in Lima, December 11, 1944) is a Peruvian poet, founder of the Zero Hour Movement (Hora Zero) with Juan Ramírez Ruiz in 1970, and leader of the movement throughout all its stages of development.

Tulio Mora (born in Huancayo, Peru, in 1948) is also a Peruvian poet, the most representative of the so-called Generation of ’70, and, along with Pimentel, one of the most important writers and theorists of the Zero Hour Movement.

Emerging in the 1970s, Hora Zero sought to oppose the dominant powers of Peruvian poetry, questioning the national poetic canonwith the exception of César Vallejo—to advocate a new poetry, one closer to daily life, the underclass, and to the reality of contemporary Peru. It is considered the most important literary movement in the 20th-century in Peru. Poets Jorge Pimentel, Tulio Mora, Juan Ramírez Ruiz, Enrique Verástegui, Jorge Nájar, José Carlos Rodríguez, and Carmen Ollé are considered its most principle figures.

In a planned preface to a re-release of Jorge Pimentel’s Bird Song, published posthumously after his death in 2003, Roberto Bolaño wrote that in the early 1970s, “young Peruvian poetry was by far the best being written” in Latin America, and that much of the groundwork of his own infrarrealismo (Infrarealism)—in part fictionalized in The Savage Detectives—was based on the principles of Hora Zero.

The following interview was conducted via e-mail while the author was living in Lima, Peru in 2011.

 

Robert Swereda: From what I have read about Hora Zero, you wanted to question the national poetry of Peru and advocate a new poetry that revealed lives of the working and lower classes, the reality of Peru at that time. What sort of writing was happening in Peru and Latin America then? Why was it necessary to develop a change in writing?

Jorge Pimentel: The prevailing model at the time was very Spanish, very British, and very French. It could not identify with Peruvian daily life. It was very pompous, full of rhetoric and “sugar.” For example, the poet walking down the street in Lima, on Quilca street for example, would say: “I am walking down Bayard Street.” They were not identifying with their own city, their own country, their own people. They were ashamed of calling things by their actual names. They wanted to be universal from European cities, when they should be universal from your own province in Lima, Peru.

Tulio Mora: What was being questioned was the poetic subject of the self. If you take a tour through Peruvian poetry, you will find mostly lyric poems that never dared to incorporate popular expressions because it sees poetry as “pure,” and “enlightened;” it is a transcendent vision that subordinates or hides day-to-day experiences under a symbolic collage. There are exceptions, of course, such as Gamaliel Churata, or the whole Orkopata Group from Puno in general, and César Vallejo, the indigenous poets, and poetic groups from the ’40s and ’50s, especially the working class poet Leoncio Bueno, or Carlos Germán Belli, even though he starts with surrealism and then builds his poetic diction imitating classical forms and adding some popular idioms. Later on, during the ’60s, we find poets such as Hernández, Hinostroza, or Cisneros, who incorporate daily and domestic experiences without abandoning the vision that poetry must be written with words of “literary prestige.” Another recurrent characteristic of Peruvian poetry is its Eurocentric re-creation. In fact, anything coming from Europe or the great Western cultural centres is still considered better than what we have here. It’s a way to reproduce the centre-periphery relationship on a national level: the centre is Lima or the coast, anything else is peripheral. And even though the best Peruvian poetry comes from the periphery, it is not mentioned when building the canon.

On the other hand, it should not be forgotten that when Hora Zero was created, the country’s political context was very favourable toward popular expression: rural migration toward big coastal cities (represented by one of Jose María Arguedas’s fundamental poems: “To our creator father Tupac Amar”), especially to Lima; the military government of General Velasco; and on an international level, the youth liberation movements (May ’68, the Tlatelolco massacre, Prague Spring); the hippie movement, the Vietnam war, etc. And let’s not forget that in such a context, we had an important poetic reference in the Beat Generation (Ginsberg, Kerouac, Ferlinghetti). A lot of Anglo-American poetry was being read in Peru at the time, from Whitman to the Beats. Pound and Eliot had a cult following, but we were also reading E. E. Cummings, Williams, MacLeish, Lowell, etc., even though we would read the translations instead of the original English versions. But yes, my generation was formed basically with Anglo-American and Latin American poetry rather than with Spanish or French works, which were dominating Peruvian poetry up to the ’50s.

I have already written elsewhere that when we went to the streets looking for hippies, in the Beat fashion, we found Andean immigrants instead. What were we supposed to write about with such people? That’s why Hora Zero contaminated poetry with the popular expressions that were already used by Vallejo in The Black Messengers (Los Heraldos Negros) and Trilce, by Churata, and by the ’50s Generation (mostly by Mario Vargas Llosa, Oswaldo Reynoso, and Miguel Gutiérrez). Because, as the Russian critic Viktor Shklovsky would say: poetry is passed down not from father to son but from uncle to nephew. And then, Miguel Gutiérrez already warned that contemporary literature descends from Hora Zero’s poetry.

RS: What effect did the writing of César Vallejo have on Hora Zero? How did he stand out from other Peruvian writers?

JP: Vocabulary wise, no influence. Vallejo’s influence for us was his life and his risky, ground-breaking work.

Vallejo was completely different. There is a Before Vallejo and an After Vallejo. And there’s also a before Hora Zero and an after Hora Zero, from the ’70s onward.

RS: Was there any influence from previous writing and art movements such as Dada, or the Beat Generation, and how did you differ from these?

TM: To highlight what I mentioned in the first question: besides the Beats, we were influenced by Latin American poets, such as Nicanor Parra, Ernesto Cardenal, José Coronel Urtecho, Carlos Drumond de Andrade, Juan Gelman, and by the Latin American and European avant-garde, since we did not believe poetry should be only popular, but experimental as well.

JP: First, we placed our conviction in making a new kind of poetry that would reflect what we are in this country, in Peru, Latin America. We had a high regard for all avant-garde movements; we admired them but did not copy them. We considered ourselves a very different avant-garde movement.

There is a quotation by the poet Rodolf Hinostroza, along the lines of: “I’d rather watch the Rímac than the Thames.” And another one: “a naked cholo is superior to a Greek nude.” These are his statements in Leonidas Cevallos’s anthology, Los Nuevos. This was the breaking point for Hora Zero in the ’70s, which prefers to watch the Rímac rather than the Thames, and would rather have a naked cholo than a Greek nude. Here we thrust another spear into Peruvian poetry, dividing it between before and after Hora Zero. We were reflecting the Other, not the Ego. We were reflecting the inner migrations of people from the Andes, who would come down to the coast, to Chimbote, and we were betting on the naked cholo, to make him universal through his mythology, his poverty, his customs, the way he sees the world, the way he walks, laughs, lives, survives … his poverty, his melancholy or his frustrations … Starting from there, we thought of making our poetry universal.

RS: After the movement of Hora Zero had started a following and had branched out, writers from Callao, Chiclayo, Chimbote, and Iquitos had joined, and not only poets, but visual artists as well. The idea was to break from the conservative, elitist literary circle of Lima. What was the reception from readers and other writers who were more conservative? How did you deal with their response to this?

TM: The truth is, HZ was born from students from both the inner provinces and from Lima, from Federico Villarreal University. So the provinces were present from its inception, which was the “Palabras Urgentes” (1970) manifesto. And yes, at one point HZ wanted to be an artistic movement, not just a poetic one. That is why it has painters, novelists, filmmakers, photographers. We weren’t able to achieve that, but many of these artists were always with us, as you can see in the Hora Zero, los broches mayores del sonido anthology.

The reception from conservative writers was ferocious. They didn’t like the fact that some youngsters, who had not yet been published, were criticizing them for imitating European poetry, for being centralists, for not revealing their life experiences in a direct way. And ever since, the battle has been ferocious. Even writers from our own generation, such as Abelardo Sánchez León and Patrick Rosas, are against us. HZ divided Peruvian poetry 40 years ago, and today’s young poets know that. They are less passionate, so they read us with a different, more objective point of view, and they confess we made fundamental contributions to the new aesthetic that came out of Peru after the migrations, the internal conflict, and the Fujimori regime. We belong to a group of movements that, back in the ’70s, were building a plural, multi-ethnic, hybridized culture, as the great poet Gamaliel Churata wanted since the ’30s, or Arguedas, who spoke of “all the bloods,” or even some philosophers or poets from the ’20s, like Vallejo, Mariátegui and Basadre, who called for an “Integral Perú.” It is from these principles that the “integral poem” was born.

JP: The elite tried to exclude us from everything, including recitals, and they would close the door in our faces when we looked for jobs. The Peruvian elites are very closed, and they influence too many arenas, especially the cultural ones. A lot of poets in the Hora Zero movement had to travel abroad in order to survive, and we had a lot of divorces; families were lost and were hit by a powerful apparatus that tried to discredit them. Hora Zero was making them lose their lyrical poetry, their alienated and francophilic world. They were a snobbish, mannerist elite. This is why we took refuge in our unity, and we made sure that each one of our poets had their bus fare, a little bit of rum, some cigarettes, and some spare change for a payphone in case of an emergency. And also, a plate of cebiche, which was our best therapist—we discovered that key limes, with fish and salt, could break any depression.

RS: After some time, people began to get jealous of the reception, freedom and independence that the following had created. A lot of poetry recitals in national universities were actually violently sabotaged. What exactly happened? Were there ever thoughts of ending Hora Zero after incidents like these?

JP: Number one: we were not following the poetic guidelines given by leftist political parties, which endorsed a situational poetry.

Number two: we were not following the proposal made by Soviet social realism, endorsed by the Communist party and by the Shining Path. They wanted a poetry made up of “long live the workers!”—full of slogans to put on a pamphlet. This caused us problems not only with the right-wing parties, but also with the left.

Number three: this is why we proposed the “integral poem.” We wanted to see life in its integrity and express it through an integral poetic language that would drift apart from mere lyricism. The integral poem incorporates mythology, history, day-to-day life, stage, cinema, every possible register, but always in verse. We wanted poetry to stop being a sad lament; we wanted to empower it, to develop it as whole as life itself, while looking intently at the street, through words.

TM: Our relationship with mainstream Peruvian poetry was harsh, as I already told you. At universities, literature professors (who were usually poets criticized by HZ) went to great lengths to discredit us. This is why, during the ’80s and ’90s, the poets that came out after us did so with great violence that we could not understand, but it was because they were repeating the lessons taught by their professors.

In other cases, we had a fascist reaction. For example, at Villarreal University, the HZ recitals were sabotaged by the APRA party thugs up until they were expelled from that university. Some of them never went back to university, others transferred to the Teaching Academy (La Cantuta), ruled by the historian Juan José Vega. Incidents have not only been literary (like not inviting us to festivals, recitals, or not including us in anthologies, with the exceptions of Alberto Escobar and Ricardo Gonzáles Vigil) or political, but they have also tried to stop us from working and being able to make a decent living. And despite all that, we kept going, because we had something very clear: if we had challenged everybody, then we had to stick around to prove we were right. I believe the reason HZ is still being talked about is because among its members, we always had a strong writing discipline.

RS: In 1973, Hora Zero had deteriorated, and both of you had spent some time in Europe. When you returned to Lima in 1977, you got together to re-launch Hora Zero for its second stage. How was your time in Europe an influence on your ideas for the movement, and your own writing?

JP: Influence? There wasn’t one. What I realized was that we were following the right path, as Peruvians, Latin Americans, and members of Hora Zero. Your official birth certificate may be given to you by the church or the State, but our other birth certificate was “Palabras Urgentes,” the big manifesto that I wrote with Juan Ramírez Ruiz, that breaks apart from all previous Peruvian poetry.

TM: One observation: I was not a part of the HZ that was born in 1970, but of what we called the “second stage” (1977). But I was close friends with all of them, and I went to their recitals, and participated in one of their congresses (1972). Actually, in 1973, as a result of that congress, HZ went into a crisis. Jorge was fighting with the other founder, Juan Ramírez Ruiz. Jorge took off to Europe, and by the time he came back, the movement no longer had an active, organic life. The second stage came out of the popular movements that were fighting to overturn the right-wing military dictatorship of Morales Bermúdez. This is where I came in, alongside poets such as Dalmacia Ruiz-Rosas and Roger Santivañez, who were younger than the rest of us. And on an external level, we incorporated the Chilean-Mexican Infrarrealists and HZ International, which was founded in Paris by Enrique Verástegui and José Carlos Rodríguez, who founded the first HZ.

I don’t think Europe had such a big influence on me; I was there for a short time. Also, European poetry was no longer part of my poetic canon. I continue reading it and I prefer it to Anglo-American works that are too spent/wasted already. Poets such as Miłosz, Symborska, Brodsky, and Enzensberger are fundamental for me; I read them almost daily.

RS: In 1978, Tulio had travelled to Mexico; meanwhile, Carmen Ollé and José Carlos Rodríguez were in Paris, befriending writers from Greece (Dimitri Analis), Morroco (Tahar Ben Jellon), as well as French writers (Tristan Cabral & André Laude) and publishing manifestos and leaflets. This was known as the Hora Zero International stage. How was it decided to make the movement international, instead of exclusively Peruvian or Latin American? How did it benefit from getting out of Peru?

JP: The International Hora Zero movement was organized by the Iquitos poet, my brother Jose Carlos Rodríguez.

And we received no benefit from it. It was all about expanding the movement, which finally became a liberation movement for universal humans because alienation and oppression happen not only in Peru—they happen worldwide. The big novelist and poet Roberto Bolaño understood this and joined Hora Zero with the Mexican Infrarrealists—that happened because of Hora Zero.

TM: From its first stage, HZ already had contacts with the Infrarrealists, who formed as a group in 1975. If you read Roberto Bolaño or Mario Santiago, they both state that they are an extension of HZ. As for HZ International, it was a dark foreshadow of what would soon be happening in Europe: the fall of the Berlin wall, of bureaucratic communism, the warnings of the damage the planet was suffering because of capitalism, and on a poetic level, criticism from academic poets and linguistic poets. You know, that kind of poetry exists everywhere. It’s what we call the completely uncommitted poetry.

RS: From the late 1970s to the early 1980s, Hora Zero was seen as a grassroots movement that sought to collect multiple cultures and classes to decentralize and democratize poetry and the arts. Recitals, marches, and statements took place in shantytowns, parking lots, universities, and bars in downtown Lima. What was the reaction of the general public to your bringing poetry to the common person?

TM: That is an excellent question. Certainly, our true objective was to incorporate popular language and lower class characters, with a dramatic edge, following Pound and Eliot, when they establish the difference of the three poetic voices regarding the function of the poetic subject: the Self (lyrical), the Other (dramatic), and Us (epic). What we really wanted, deep down, was to invite readers to write their own poetry. This was the French-Uruguayan poet Lautrémont’s dream back in the 19th century. This was our utopia, the one we tried to create at those recitals you mention not just in Lima, but in Huancayo, Pucallpa, Chimbote, Cerro de Pasco. The identification of the “common person,” as you call him or her, with our poetry is so tight that many non-specialized readers know us, at least by name, or they have only heard of Peruvian poetry through HZ. This was the most accurate demonstration of our democratic spirit, which nobody can argue against today.

JP: It was excellent. We had massive recitals of 700 or 800 people in parking lots that we would rent when they were empty on Saturday nights. We would put on poetry, salsa music, Andean music, and sell ham sandwiches and cold beer. We would sell tickets and end up with a big party, but with poetry. From Versailles-esque chamber recitals, we took poetry out to the streets, to parking lots, to “canchones” (big empty spaces that served as dance halls for Andean immigrants in Lima’s downtown area). We would rent these venues and have our recitals there. This was done by Hora Zero back then, and we continue doing it. Our recitals never have less than 200 people. This is why, 40 years later, we are still out there, ahead of the curve, and we still publish. Each one of Hora Zero’s members has around four or five unpublished works, and that keeps us current.

RS: How do you feel about contemporary poets, Peruvian, Latin American, and throughout the world? What changes have you seen in poetics over the years?

JP: We are concerned by the works of the Hora Zero movement, and the Mexican Infrarrealists.

On a personal level, I keep myself updated with what is being produced around the world, from Derek Walcott up, and down, everywhere. But I believe our poetry to be as important as any major poetry around the world. And I’m telling you this with great confidence and honesty. For example, “Cementerio General” by Tulio Mora, my own “Tromba de Agosto,” “Ética” by Enrique Verástegui, and Juan Ramírez Ruiz, with “Las Armas Molidas.”

TM: Starting around the year 2000, we began to find some very interesting poets in Peru: Irigoyen, the author of a very good book; Jerónimo Pimentel, who is making very consistent steps in each of his books; there is Victoria Guerrero; Giancarlo Huapaya, a great re-creator of experimental poetry with a popular language. I love them. I think they are the offspring of the fusion between the Eurocentric, academic tradition of Peruvian poetry, and the one HZ represents: peripheral poetry, with Cesar Vallejo in the middle, and far superior to everybody else, of course, because he is among the three or four great Spanish-language poets of all times. What I see right now is that we are finally able to speak of a Peruvian poetic tradition, as Eliot would describe it: a canon of works that are recreated, prolonged or transferred to different contexts. Today, a young poet may be reading foreign works, but he can just read Peruvian poetry in order to build his own voice. This is what we wanted in HZ: to give a space to all existing poetry in the country. We still have a long way to go before reaching that goal; ideally, poetry would be written in every existing language.

On a Latin American level, what I perceive is a dangerous step back, a product of the cultural crisis of Fukuyama’s so-called “end of history” and the globalization of the neo-liberal model that has dramatically broken the European Union and put the U.S. on the verge of decadence. The U.S. is like Imperial Rome in disgrace, but like any empire trying to ferociously defend its ideology, it has endangered the planet, entering a decompensation process that may be irreversible after 500 years of capitalism, which mistakenly took the goal of humankind as pillaging and draining the planet, rather than being part of it. It has not corrected this mistake, and now all that genetic, biochemical, and environmental development that took billions of years to accumulate has been put on the verge of extinction in just 500 years.

Poetically speaking, this step back is reproduced in the so-called linguistic literature, in the ideological and environmental lack of commitment. But I think the more this crisis deepens, world poetry will return to what it’s always been: a collective critical creation.

RS: Tell me of your favourite memory from your experience with the movement of Hora Zero, and what was the most important lesson you learned?

JP: As any avant-garde movement, Hora Zero is an ethic, a moral life discipline, a brotherhood, a brotherly solidarity. And let me tell you one thing: for us, poetry is also philosophy, and the biggest source of knowledge and authenticity. In an Hora Zero poem you can fit 500 pages from a novel, an essay, a play, music or movies. This is what an integral poem is all about, and we write them in huge books, many of them still unpublished. History, geography, culture, mythology, street-life, magic, achoramiento, and aputamadramiento (ghetto aesthetic)—our response toward cultural mannerisms that is all contained in an integral poem.

Anecdotes: we have a million of those. We were living in a community. In several houses. All the poets came from the inner provinces. We had a food storage, with cans of tuna, cooking oil, coffee, sugar, and rice that were given to us. One day a can of tuna got lost. So we put the poet and painter José Diez on trial—he now lives in the Netherlands—and we asked, “Who stole the can of tuna?” So, Diez raised his hand, and crying, said, “I stole it, but I won’t do it again.” And we hugged him, and he was forgiven. That is one in a million.

The lesson: we bet on something with our blood, risking our own lives in this undeveloped country, and we won. We didn’t win any money, but we won our freedom and humanity. We were right. And you have no idea what we went through for it. But we don’t complain; our poetry is alive and out there in the world.

TM: For me, it was time we went, in 1977, to a protest in Plaza San Martín, with thousands of people from different labour organizations, unions, political and religious groups, after a long Undetermined National Strike that only ended when the Moralez Bermúdez dictatorship announced they were leaving power. I remember we had gathered early at my house (the one in Jr. Torres Paz, where the second stage of HZ was started, with the “Contragolpe al viento” manifesto) and then we went to Bar Queirolo with a big bed sheet, some paint, a paintbrush, some nails and a big plank of wood, and while we drank rum, ate, and listened to Héctor Lavoe songs, we made a flag that had as a slogan “Power to poetry.” With that banner we marched that night, to the astonishment of all the other protesters, who were carrying banners with anti-dictatorship slogans.

RS: If you could have done anything differently, what would that have been?

TM: Is that even possible? It’s not. HZ was what it had to be, and its influence, 40 years later, has only just started. As far as I’m concerned, I should say HZ saved my life.

JP: I wouldn’t change a thing. We are still as honest and radical as we were 40 years ago. Especially because we turned out to be right. Peruvian and Latin American poetry changed after the Hora Zero Movement.

RS: What advice would you give to new and young writers?

JP: I’d tell them not to believe in crap. And to be free. And to try new ways of expression. Poetry is power; it is infinite and insatiable. To stay away from political parties that enslave the mind and turn poets into clapping monkeys, and especially to fight for democracy and freedom. The solution is not in economics—it is in culture, in poetry. It is possible for everybody to have something to eat, but it is much harder for everybody to be a poet. And that is total revolution.

TM: I would tell them to be intransigent, rebellious, self-demanding, to avoid lying to themselves, and to take any feedback with disbelief, especially if they start receiving praise. Those who care about the comments and reviews that appear in newspapers are not poets. A poet is the one who transcribes how the world shivers at our survival.


Author of re: verbs (Bareback Press) and a chapbook ionlylikeitwhenitrhymes, Robert Swereda is a member of the filling Station collective. He studied creative writing at Capilano University in Vancouver. Other work has been published by The Puritan, ditch,, West Coast Line, The Incongruous Quarterly, steel bananas, The Capilano Review, Enpipe Line and Poetry Is Dead.

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