Mariela Griffor is the author of The Psychiatrist and Declassified (Eyewear Publishing, 2013, 2017) and translator of Canto General by Pablo Neruda (Tupelo Press, 2016). She attended the University of Santiago and the Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro. She left Chile for an involuntary exile in Sweden in 1985. She is publisher of Marick Press. Her work has appeared in periodicals across Latin America and the United States. Mariela holds a B.A in Journalism and a M.F.A. in Creative Writing from New England College.
Cal Freeman: Can you talk about the poetry scene in Chile when you were young? Who were some major Chilean poets who influenced you? In what ways did poetry, politics, and resistance intersect in Chile in the early 1980s?
Mariela Griffor: When I was younger, poetry was vital to my existence, as it is now, but I was so immersed in that world that I could see everything through this frame. Now I have many different perspectives from where I can see and write. The first time I fell in love was with a poet. Of course he would later on earn a ‘posthumous’ degree in electrical engineering because he was smart in many areas, but at his core he was a real poet. His writing was superb. I often wonder what would have become of him and his writing if he would have lived long enough to have a “career” or an opportunity at being a poet. There is a much unknown little book out there in Spanish with poems by him that I collected through the years. His family owns those so I have not translated them into English. I hope someday I can do that, too.
Poetry, as I was saying before, was vital.
The student movement needed to go back to Gabriela Mistral, Pablo de Rocka, Vincente Huidobro, Nicanor Parra and especially Pablo Neruda to find a true national identity. After the military coup d’etat, with Pinochet at the head of the regime, writing was censored. And it was censored in the news, in the newspapers, in the schools, freedom of speech was viewed as a confrontation and in opposition to the State. So writers and artists, journalists, fiction writers, poets and teachers represented a group that needed to be censored, controlled and discredited and put down to allow the propaganda of the Military Junta to take place. We then, the students, found that we needed to remember who we were before the Military Junta and started a massive gathering of poets celebrating Neruda every year, we started poetry clubs, we got engaged in volunteer work in the South where small villages didn’t have resources to teach people to read to the children, we brought books and poems and we opened a bigger vision of the world.
I learned to play in the streets or at home the playground games of Gabriela Mistral. That made deep impressions on the subconscious as you may know! Poetry, politics and resistance intersect at all levels in Chilean life. We say: you lift a stone in Chile and you find a poet!
CF: Could you talk a bit more about the poet you refer to as your fist love? How did the two of you meet? What were the circumstances surrounding his untimely death?
MG: We met in 1980 when I was nineteen and he was twenty. I studied Spanish Literature and he studied engineering at the State Technical University (under the military government it was changed to “Universidad de Santiago”). The way I met him was really different. I heard about him and he was very charismatic. One time there was a protest inside our University and he was standing on top of a table, giving a speech against the surveillance of the “guardias de azul,” the name came out as a sort of joke about the color of the guards’ clothes. He was opposed to the carrying of guns inside the University. He was speaking about this because the practice of guards carrying guns caused people to show more respect (fear, in reality!) for guns than for knowledge and it was one of the most polemic discussions we had at the Technical University. It was never very clear how he died. Different confessions from people working for the military government were so contradictory that we never had clarity about the circumstances of his death.
CF: How did you become interested in poetry initially? At what age did you begin writing verse? Do you remember the first poem you composed?
MG: My entire life. I used to recite pieces by Garcia Lorca in front of my grandmother and, from a very young age, I knew by heart the ‘rondas’ (playground games) by Gabriela Mistral. I used to “stage” the poems for my family when I was 6 or 7 years old. I studied Spanish literature in college. I wrote in high school and in college and became very aware that writing would not leave my life and that I would have to make a serious space in my life for writing when I came to the United States. After a few years I quit my job in a bank and told my husband I would write the rest of my life and I would not make an important financial contribution to the family, but I would do my best. He was OK with that and I went back to school to finish a BA in journalism and an MFA in Poetry from New England College. A few years later I wrote a serious poem called “Prologue I.” It has a total clarity about trying to find my own voice and space in the world of writing. It is a poem that opens the door to the English language as a surrender to a new, real or invented, life. A better life, I believe.
I discovered that languages though are alive and they reflect who we are at a particular moment, they are also tools for our humanity. So I believe that if we embrace totally our experience as individuals, we will find the connection we are seeking at a determinate moment, with a larger universe than ourselves. In the end for me, the words, the placing, the search, the playing are the most important elements in my writing. I don’t write conclusions. I write because I have a strong desire to find answers and sometimes poems bring that. But I always have to write more poems to repeat the exercise and arrive at a better understanding of the world. I don’t remember exactly when, at what age, I wrote my first poem. The total awareness of writing poems in English appeared at the time I wrote “Prologue I.”
CF: What year did you write the poem, “Prologue I”? What about this poem opened up the possibilities of writing for you?
MG: I wrote the poem “Prologue I” in 2000. It was not published until 2007 after many revisions.
As I was writing the compact and heavy lines of the poem I was going through a series of conflicts—internal and external conflicts. I was asked to serve as an Honorary Consul for Chile in the US and it was a great surprise since I was in exile since 1985. It was a time of reflection, of pondering, but I knew that I needed to move on and I wanted to do that. I felt I was ready. I wanted to be a new me. I saw so many refugees, immigrants, exiles in Europe, and I knew I didn’t want the same tragic nostalgia for the homeland to overshadow my future life. I had kids to raise and I wanted to create a positive environment. So I did the best I could under the circumstances. I said yes to serve under the government of Michelle Bachelet, not only for what I was going through but also because I thought it would mean a new beginning in my relationship to Chile. But I also said yes to myself. I wanted to create a new path for my new life in my new home. Michigan was at that time the perfect place in many ways. I come from the South of Chile so the landscape is very similar, full of lakes, forests and beaches. Michigan reminded me of some of the best of Chile. Michigan was not the best place for writers but I have to recognize there were so many inspirations around me that it was difficult to avoid. I live in Grosse Pointe, outside of Detroit. a place where writing was present no matter the difficulties in promoting it.
At the end of the street is the house where Eugenides wrote his first novel, The Virgin Suicides. One of the parents in the high school was Marianne Williamson. Joyce Carol Oates worked earlier at the University of Windsor where I spent some time doing readings the first couple of years. My writing group was composed of very well-known local writers, one of whom usually sold over 100,000 of her books every time she had a new title. “Not like now,” she would say, “a bestseller author needs to sell only 10,000 copies to be called a bestselling author!” My mentors at Wayne State Journalism School were very well known writers like Jack Lessenberry and Benjamin Burns, editor of the Miami Herald for many years.
My first published poems opened a way to this new path. At a certain point, the pain of being so far away from the familiar and dear to you, transformed into curiosity and a desire for a more fulfilling life.
CF: You recently did a comprehensive translation of Pablo Neruda’s Canto General: Song of the Americas, for Tupelo Press. Jeffrey Levine has called this book the most important in Tupelo’s prodigious catalogue. To paraphrase a question you ask in your introduction to that book, what does Canto General have to do with your personal story?
MG: Canto General is the story of a continent and so it is the story of my life. Neruda wrote this book under persecution. He wrote that poem knowing that if the government had found him he would die. Nonetheless he wrote the most beautiful lines of love to the country, to the motherland I know. Every time I think about it I become emotional because that book transformed me at such a deep level from within I was a completely different person when I finished reading the poem. Before that, I would say I was one bitter poet, thinking the world owed something to me. I was definitely in a state of denial and also in a state of shock in front of my own reality as an exile. If I have to be more exact, I would say I was losing hope or my humanity was dying. Canto General is such a powerful literary piece that I’m amazed that people still do not understand the poem in its entirety. It is not a complicated magnum opus but the most profound magnum opus of the twentieth century. I remember I did have some similar experiences when I read Don Quixote. But Don Quixote woke up other sensibilities in me. Canto General put me together when I thought the structure of the world completely forgot a space for me or for minds and souls like mine. It gave me back some of the faith I lost on the way here. I will be forever thankful to Tupelo Press and Jeffrey Levine for believing in this project!
CF: Talk a bit about the genesis of Marick Press. Who were some of the important poets you published early on? What role did you see the press serving in the field of contemporary poetry? What are some of the most important works of translation you’ve published through Marick, and could you talk a bit about why they are significant? What are some of the most vital works in original English that appeared with Marick? What role will Marick serve going forward?
MG: Marick Press started as an homage to a Chilean poet. This homage was a way for me to cope with my own losses. I lost many good friends. Very close friends, when I started this “enterprise,” thought it was a very sweet idea, though it was a really complicated to put in progress for financial, time and space reasons. I have to tell you that all of the poets in our ‘list’ are important. All of them are important to me and some of them are important to American literature, but all of them speak to me in a language that is universal. Many of the books translated into English had a previous English version that was bad or inadequate, such as the book INRI by Zurita. I put him in contact with Alison Granucci who was happy to take him into her list of poets at Blue Flowers Arts, a literary speaker’s agency. With this new translation, Zurita embarked on a new journey with his INRI.
That is what happens with books sometimes: we reprint them and fix them, and renew them and suddenly they become better than ever! Personally I think Kjell Espmark is one of the most important poets alive. And I’m not saying this for his position at the Academy but for the profundity and scope of his work. He is indeed a great poet but because he is in the position of giving the Nobel Prize, he’s had to refuse some of the most important literary prizes in the world. For sure he will never be given the Nobel either since he sits on that committee. In Sweden, Spain, China and many other countries there is no doubt he is one of the most important poets we ever had. Many may think his experience is so Swedish so as not to be universal enough. I do believe the landscape is unfamiliar to the west. I lived in Sweden and it takes a while before we fit or sit comfortable. The cold weather and the darkness creates a strange combination in the mind but the human experience there is not more different than in any other part of the world. You will realize his work is as universal as it can be. Remember that Transtromer and Espmark were contemporary. They were literary pals since they were very young. In Scandinavia Espmark’s stature is big as the sun! The other writers at the press are some of the most accomplished writers you can find: Franz Wright, Alicia Ostriker, David Young, Ilya Kaminsky, Robin Fulton Macpherson, Katie Ford, Susan Kelly DeWitt, Robert Fanning, etc. Our list is long.
MG: The Psychiatrist is not a mental illness book, despite the title, but a collection of political poems where I try to search for answers. It is about political idealism, motherhood and the shifting ground of modern society, across cultures and nations. Declassified is a book about relationships in politics, family; it is at times enigmatic or erotic depending on the poem but at the center you will find a search that is more secret, inward between husband and wife, mother and daughter, political pals, poet rivals, etc.
CF: How does your diplomatic work inform your poetry?
MG: My diplomatic work has NADA to do with my poetry! I think they are not linked at all. It may be because I do think that my diplomatic work is a job and the other—poetry—is my art. I don’t see the relation but it may well be that I’m missing some links here, in which case if I become more aware I will use it in the name of poetry, of course! You see, what I do is totally different than what a Cultural Attaché may do which is to promote cultural events, promote meetings with writers, artists, etc. What I do has to do more with services, such as powers of attorney, visas, birth certificates, advice on different issues such as deportation, immigration, return to country, elections, etc. These things connect at some level, if you like, with poetry but at a minimal level. I like it that way, that way I can keep things separate.
CF: You say that for a time you were a “bitter poet” who felt the world owed something to you. At what point was this? Was there anything that jarred you out of this bitterness? Can bitterness inform our verse in productive ways?
MG: I had been bitter for a long time. But that kind of bitterness brought me to dark places where I could not see with clarity what to do. I have brothers and sisters that have technical degrees, and my father used to say he didn’t worry for them but he worried for me since I studied Spanish Literature. Three of my sisters have technical degrees from the Catholic University and that ensures them a job. I always struggle with finding a job. I do other things on the side to be able to make a contribution to the family but it is undoubtable that my passion is in writing, these poems we are talking about right now, that apparently don’t do so much. And I would say many don’t understand because our experiences are so different. It is also true that sometimes I want to write poems from the imagination but as a poet that has been touched by radical events I prefer poems that come from experience.
I don’t know exactly when I stopped being bitter but for sure I know I’m a very different person now. I’m not sure if this change had something to do with the exterior world—that in reality, things are not so much different than before—or maybe it is this dislocation, this way of not belonging to one place but many, that changed my perspective. I’m not bitter for the past. I embrace each day with an open eye and certainly I wish I could make a tiny little contribution to making that day better for me and the others around me. Bitterness is a force but it can be very destructive and can kill you literally or kill your spirit.
There is a film that is one of my favorite films, called “What the Bleep Do We Know!?” It is a quantum mechanical version of reality. That bitter woman in the film is exactly the person I was many years ago. People learned how to deal with their own issues in different periods of life in the film. Quantum mechanics should not be underestimated! Bitterness can be expressed in verse if you can also carry a bit of light into the poem, for balance, aesthetics, to fight cynicism in the poem. Both sides can make for a good combination of themes, I believe.
CF: Given your experiences of authoritarian repression and resultant exile, what are your thoughts on the current US administration? Do you think poets have a responsibility to respond to the political situation?
MG: Wow! This is a tough question because I tried to avoid political positions but I guess it is impossible to do this since politics plays such an important role in our lives. I used to believe that there were not such things as art for the sake of art, but if you think about it there is enough “political space” to be whatever kind of writer you want to be. I don’t try to test the limit of all my non-politically-correct ideas. I write poems because at some point this gives me certain sorts of answers. I discover some sort of sublime or harsh reality. I didn’t see this before! I write poems to deal with my own questions. I also enjoy the writing process, the placing of words, the replacing of words, the heaviness or the lightness of the line. But, above all, I write for me and the people that like my work. I don’t write to wake up a higher consciousness about the political state of my country, our country or any country in particular.
Poets have only one responsibility: write great poems, the best poems they can. Everything after that is so individual and personal, even the kind of poetry is so personal and individual and that it is so arrogant to give advice. Some editors or publishers want poets that write a certain kind of poetry, but they are looking to fill a need (fill the need of their presses), but it doesn’t mean you need to write to fulfill the needs of a press. If you want to be published, you will have to balance all of this. Some poets will respond with their work to give answers to the political situation. In the end, we just wish poets to be judged for their work on the page, work which is different from their activism. I know the difference very well.
In my own case, if you want to know about the way I feel, think, work—read my poems. I put everything I got on the page. If I’m not protesting in the streets as an activist, it doesn’t mean I don’t have sensibilities or I’m oblivious to the current political status. My experience with authoritarian repression was brutal. Years of exile and separation from my family and country was beyond painful, it was devastating. If I ever am able to describe what I went through you probably will have a difficult time believing me. Repression at the level we experienced makes you rethink and reevaluate everything in your life. I can see certain patterns in the US situation that are very worrisome. But nothing compares with what I saw in Chile yet. I usually advise regular citizens that I meet, “keep your politicians accountable.” If you see those people are responsible for the death of hundreds, thousands or millions of people, or they are reckless in front of the health or financial well-being of those same people, rethink whether you should keep them in power. We put them there, right?
We are all part of institutions, perhaps we are the part that doesn’t count so much because we accept, believe and trust what our politicians tell us, what they will do for us. But what happens when they don’t? What happens to those people who died because they didn’t qualify for social security, health care or have financial means to buy a house or a car or pay their children’s college? What happens if millions lose their houses, default on their mortgages and get into debt for life and they don’t know how to fight back? What happens in the end to all of us when we keep silent? I’m not sure what are the most viable solutions because, for sure, I know there are many alternatives. There are solutions to these problems.
I’m not sure if these questions are in the hands and minds of the poets to solve. I believe we can be part of the answer, I just don’t know exactly in what way our contribution to society would be more efficient. We are not in a higher dimension than the rest of the world. I hate when writers think the world owes something to them! I think life is difficult at many moments and poets and writers that are so sensitive that they think society is not giving them enough attention or praise. I think we can just write despite all the odds—our first and ultimate “mission” is to write.
Cal Freeman was born and raised in Detroit, MI. He is the author of the book, Brother Of Leaving (Antonin Artaud Publications/Marick Press) and the pamphlet, “Heard Among The Windbreak” (Eyewear Publishing). His writing has appeared in many journals including New Orleans Review, Passages North, The Journal, Commonweal, Drunken Boat, and The Poetry Review. He is a recipient of The Devine Poetry Fellowship (judged by Terrance Hayes); he has also been nominated for multiple Pushcart Prizes in both poetry and creative nonfiction. His second collection of poems, Fight Songs, is forthcoming from Eyewear Publishing in the fall of 2017. He currently lives in Dearborn, MI and teaches at Oakland University.