Joan Brossa

Joan Brossa: an atypical poet
Brossa - askatasuna (catalan)1
Brossa bookcover la clau
Brossa - poemes visuals (alemany)11
This interview was conducted by Marta Nadal. Translation by Graham Thomson.

'Art is life and life is transformation.' This quote from Fregoli that serves as epigraph to the book Joan Brossa has dedicated to the performer can undoubtedly be applied to the character of the poet himself, who this January [1991] has been designated 'writer of the month' by the Institució de les Lletres Catalanes. Brossa, who defines himself as an atypical poet, is a man who has always striven to avoid stagnation and monotony in art, and this being so, research, as a constant transformation and evolution, has been one of the principal characteristics of his work and one of the axes on which he has articulated it. Joan Brossa is currently preparing a retrospective exhibition of his work for the Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid, which will range from his first object poem, dating from 1943, to the most recent work, as yet unpublished. We are in Brossa's apartment, an orderly dwelling that contrasts with the somewhat clichéd image of the poet in his rocking-chair, surrounded by newspapers scattered on the floor. Once the interview is concluded, however, we go up to his studio, three floors above in the same building, and there we rediscover that Brossa atmosphere that had been missing: the collection of rocking-chairs, the apparently disordered heap of newspapers and magazines, various object poems, the photographic postcards of Fregoli ...

At the moment you're preparing an exhibition of your work in the Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid. How is it organized and what material will you be showing there?

The suggestion was made to me by Queen Sofía. The exhibition will be a fairly complete retrospective, because from what I've been told there is a lot of space at our disposal in this museum: this means we can exhibit with a certain thoroughness. It will be a retrospective show ranging from the first object poem, from 1943, to the most recent work. There will even be previously unseen pieces. The exhibition will open on the fifth of February and will run for two months.

The Institució de les Lletres Catalanes has designated you 'writer of the month' for January. Were you surprised by the nomination? You have published a considerable amount, and yet you have never received the recognition you deserve, at least not from the critics. What do you think of all this?

Well, these are reactions on the part of the literary scene that are a bit beyond me. What I can say is that I have always been an atypical writer, and that in Catalan literature there have always been writers of this kind, not much (or at all) approved of by the 'loyal' elements. Take the case of Salvat-Papasseit, or indeed that of Foix, who seems to be valued more for his mediaevalism than for his contribution to the avant-garde. Foix was writing on the outside, all his life. I tend to think of Catalan culture, which is such a small affair, as a street where the sun only touches one little part; the fellow who, either because he's been given a helping hand, or because he's been doing the helping, finds himself in the sunshine, has no desire to give it up until they kick him out. By which time there's a whole queue of 'substitutes' waiting for their chance to take his place. There is always an official culture and an underground culture, and this would be the case with Foix, and with others before him, such as Llull. Llull, if he were alive today, would certainly not be to the liking of Triadú, for example, who would regard him as a heretic. Now, of course, he has the benefit of distance. The French didn't like Rimbaud either, and then when he was dead they made him the official maudit poet. During his lifetime nobody was interested in him. And here in Catalonia the same thing is happening, but it's all a bit more of a problem because this is a small culture. There is only one register, or at least only one accepted register. Over the last few years I've published a series entitled Els entra-i-surts del poeta: these seven books - not the little booklets of poetry that poets usually bring out, but proper books - have not yet received any kind of comment, any in-depth criticism. What do you make of that? Writers here have to watch out for their subsistence, for their presence. I really don't know what this kind of situation is due to; a lack of curiosity, perhaps! When the people in charge of this 'official' culture suspect that something doesn't have the ingredients they're looking for, they marginalize it. That's normal, isn't it? What it means is the accumulation of a lot of nothing. Maybe if you were to die!
Perhaps it's due to the conservatism of our culture.
Catalan culture really is very conservative. I don't recall whom it was who said that to write in Catalan demands, first and foremost, an act of prudence.

Do you situate yourself within this 'underground culture' that runs parallel to the 'official' culture you were talking about?

Certainly. I'm right inside this culture: this atypical culture. Some people think I'm kidding, but it seems to me that I'm very much in line with contemporary currents. The trouble is that this is only apparent to those on the outside. On the inside there is no stimulus to form an opinion that goes against the general current.

You have said on more than one occasion that you think of yourself not as an avant-garde writer but as a writer of your time.

I constantly say that. How do I know what they'll be doing fifty years from now? I try to be in line with today's currents with as much sincerity as possible, because nowadays fashions are very dominant. It's whatever is fashionable that counts these days, regardless of whether it's genuine or phoney.

How do you appraise the current literary situation?

What I see is a lot of mediocrity, inside and out. It seems to me that this is a problem of schools. If writers want to be on the same wavelength as the public, they have to do what that public wants. Our culture is biting it's own tail. It's the same in the theatre; you have to go only as far as the public wants, and the public is not always right. A writer of plays, like any other writer, has to have things to say and problems to resolve, if you subordinate those problems to the taste of the box-office, you can't evolve, and that's what's happening now.

That is to say that a lot of today's cultural output is just so much commercial product.

Yes, yes, a commercial product worthy of the supermarket! But I do believe that the writer who really connects, who has things to say and the means of saying them, is above the fashions. For me, the saddest thing is to be a success and nothing more, because the queue is long and there's somebody else right behind you. Whatever is really in tune and interesting, on the other hand, is immovable.

Your work has always had close links with the visual arts and music. Do you think that these arts have evolved and stayed in touch with the times more than literature has?

I am absolutely convinced of that, and I've often said so. I would say that this is a problem of education; people in general are more visually advanced, their level of appreciation is higher. Look, I'm not in the first anthology by Castellet and Molas, but there's a drawing by Tàpies on the cover. If Tàpies could be there, why couldn't I be there? That shows how out of step things were, but fortunately that is changing. Painting and music are more universal, they have a market and a projection that literature, which has to pass through the translator's hands, doesn't have; what is more, there's a team of intellectual bureaucrats 'a kind of official climber, and there are lots of them now' who choose and select.

Close to Salvat-Papasseit, to the avant-garde Foix, to Wagner and to the north in general, do you consider yourself - in addition to being an atypical writer, as you said before - as having the Romantic spirit?

It's possible. Really, I think there's a little of the Romantic in everyone, and of the classical, too. I admit that I feel strongly attracted to the Nordic spirit: to Wagner above all, but also to Ibsen, Strindberg, and Hoffmann. There's a certain type of Mediterranean who feels strongly attracted to Wagner; it's a curious phenomenon, due, I think, to the fact that people always want what they haven't got. Wagner himself went to Venice to die.

Which of his operas do you regard as most important and innovative?

That's a tough question. Tristan and Isolde is a very important work. I would certainly choose it some of the time. I consider it be one of the sources of contemporary opera, and there's no doubt that it's the most revolutionary of Wagner's dramas. I only go to the Liceu to listen to Wagner. Opera as opera doesn't interest me. I have always said that the Ring of the Nibelungen, with its four parts - Rheingold representing water; Walküre, the earth; Siegfried, air and Götterdämmerung, fire - is the ideal novel. It has a series of crises, a very tight plot that embraces the reactions of everyone, and it also has music, which is something I miss in the novel. To me, the novel is an opera libretto without music. It's lacking a lyrical element that would fill it out; in Wagner, however, it's there. The music is intimately bound up with the story: a network of leitmotivs, a whole subterranean explanation that guides you through the dialogue.

In addition to poetry, you have also written plays and a novel. What do you see as the boundaries between the different genres, if you believe such boundaries exist?

I think there is only one genre. In literature, as in music, there is only one. Of course, this can be put into prose, into poetry, into theatre, according to the individual's needs, according to what is to be expressed at that moment in time.

Is the practice of visual poetry a consequence of finding language, writing, to be limited?

No. Or in any case, it's an evolution. I'm not very fond of theories. I do something, and if necessary, I analyse. What I like is the root of the impulse. In poetry there are some themes that lend themselves to a certain metric, and others that don't. In this respect, Poesia rasa is a book that presents different literary stances. In that book there is a mix of genres and also, as you say, different positions with regard to literature. I have a horror of being pigeonholed. I have always had a golden rule: to work without binding myself to the results of the work. To be free. If one day I found that I was too much in demand and that the work was getting on top of me I would pack it in and go back to being 'clandestine'. I don't want to be a victim of the market, as so many others are.

The line of liberty, of literary independence that characterizes you is very closely related to your investigative spirit.

I am very interested in this investigative aspect. Both in poetry and in painting, there is a background of investigation that is fundamental. When you know how to do something, you turn into a kind of manufacturer of yourself. There are a lot of painters who can be called manufacturers of pictures. They always lie with the same words: the ones the dealer of the moment asks for. I am very afraid of that, because it represents, in effect, a definitive stagnation of the person.

The most classical poetic forms, such as the sonnet, have also been the object of your researches, haven't they?

Yes, because I have been able to manipulate them. Even the sestina. One person who is very aware of this is Josep Romeu i Figueras, who has written a sensational study of my contribution to the sestina. In my latest published collection of the sestinas, the last of all is visual.

What led you to visual poetry?

I started off writing poetry in the classic sense of the literary code, and I decided to write theatre precisely because I was looking for another dimension to flat literature; I thought that theatre would offer me that other dimension. Perhaps it was the movement. In poetry, I started off working the language a great deal; after a while I started to notice the thickness of the wig, and then it was a case of taking off this wig and revealing the head of the poem. There are a lot of people who never make that move. All of this led me - especially in Em va fer Joan Brossa to a very expressive poetry, anti-rhetorical, direct, without too many adjectives, but with a vibration; this vibration, if you haven't got it, you can't learn it: either you have it or you don't. What the Spanish call duende, magic. And duende, as Lorca said, is not a thinking, it's a being able. And from there to the visual poetry is another step. It has all been a process. At the same time, because I was working during a difficult period, I was interested in publication, but it wasn't my main objective. It seems to me that everything has come about in a very coherent way, not at all gratuitous, and one thing has gradually developed into the next and in this way an edifice has been formed. A communion, a contact between different things that correspond with one another. Now it seems to me that the time has come to run up the flag on the roof.

From what you have said, it seems that the activity of poetry is, in your case, almost a craft process.

Yes, but the idea has to be there. It's simply that there are lots of ways of expressing it. Craft activity on its own is not enough; it has to be accompanied by a subtle aura.

What do you think should be the function of the poet?

It seems to me that the poet should help us to save our identity and escape from the mediocrity in which we're immersed. If the poet doesn't do that, he becomes yet another swindle. I want the poets to get their hands dirty. It justifies the fact of getting clean, if you've first got dirty. These days, artists lie a lot. We have to try to stop lying and turn art into an instrument of understanding. But then there's a problem: the vehicle. Every age places in your hands an instrument that, if you use it well, can be a transforming element of great power. For example, it seems to me that visual poetry came about on account of the importance of the image in our world. Society makes available to you a series of codes that you can easily make use of; for example, the fact that people are accustomed to seeing an arrow and understanding the message. And so this whole system of language can be applied to poetry. In effect, it's going back to pictograms. The origins of writing give us pictograms and ideograms. You have to rediscover in the image of the letters the trace of a lost figure.

In this respect, do magic and conjuring, as an integral part of your work, also signify a return to the most basic origins?

They are the origin and at the same time a possible salvation.

Do poetry and magic interpenetrate?

Poetry and magic are the same thing. Art is a metamorphosis, basically, and magic, too, albeit on a different level. The sad thing is that neither the magicians nor the poets understand this.

Someone whom you admire and to whom you pay tribute in your work is the quick-change artist Fregoli.

For me, Fregoli represents the ideal of the poet: giving a lot with little. Fregoli performed plays with up to ten characters all on his own, coming on and going off, continually changing his persona without losing the rhythm of the play. He had one foot in comedy and the other in quick-change; he invented a dynamic genre, the precursor of film. In the last volume of Poesia Escènica there are quick change monologues. They can't be staged because there's a shortage of quick-change artists. In Quiquiribú, however, which the Teatre Lliure put on when we were not yet free (lliure means 'free' in Catalan), Rosa Novell and Domènec Reixach did some quick-change numbers that came of very well, in spite of their lack of practice.

To conclude: what do you think of Tàpies becoming a member of the Real Academia?

Which one has gone soft, Tàpies or the Academia? Up until now it has been perfectly normal for people to become members of the Academia when they got old. In 1966 Joan Miró refused to join. Can it be that postmodernism has changed things so much?

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