The radical poet and activist talks about an identity crisis in his native Chile, condemns racism against the Mapuche, and calls for Latin American unity
JAIME VALDIVIESO is one of Chile’s most important poets and has published more than 25 books in his homeland and abroad, ranging from essays, short stories, novels and poetry. Among the collections he has contributed to are Che in Verse (2007, Aflame). He has taught and lectured about literature in a number of countries including Cuba and the United States. He was exiled after the 1973 coup and lived in Mexico, where he wrote a number of important works. He has been an active champion of Mapuche poetry and been involved in a number of initiatives to gain greater recognition for the country’s indigenous people and their literature.
Is poetry a thriving art form in Latin America, or is it ailing? Is it a medium for young people or are they being seduced by the temptations of modern mass culture?
I believe the principal value of poetry continues to be testimonial, that which serves as a type of spirit-o-meter to detect the state of the soul of our peoples. These days youth poetry is distinguished by its rebellion against social injustice and its obsession with the sexual as a reflection of and witness to what is happening in society. Alongside this, they are seduced by mass culture and above all musical shows.
What is the role of the poet today?
As it has always been: the best social and human testimony, the best instrument of anthropological and epistemological knowledge that society has.
How has technology transformed the poet’s work?
In the same ways it has transformed mankind and society. This is characterised by the absence of a poetic “I” as can be seen in the greatest creative force of recent years, Juan Luis Martínez, now deceased for 15 years, in his book La nueva novela.
Who, in your opinion, are the most important contemporary poets in Latin America and Chile?
If by contemporary you mean living poets: Nicanor Parra, Oscar Han, Carlos Germán Belly, Jorge Boccanera, Efraín Barquero.
What are your influences in literature and poetry?
Neruda, Vicente Huidobro, Saint John Perse, Walt Whitman
Do you read the poetry of the English-speaking world and do you have favourite English-language writers?
As well as Whitman, John Ashbery, T.S Elliot, Edgar Lee Masters.
What are you working on today?
I have just finished the book Salvaciones, which is a collection of very varied poems written over 25 years to the present day.
Many poets of your generation suffered persecution for their beliefs. Are the poets today political? Where are the sacrifices?
Much less political than existential. They are more uninhibited and more globalised than before and richer in cultural and material references.
You have long been an activist on the left: why have so many of Latin America’s great poets been on the left? Is there such as thing as a reactionary poet?
Because the poet does not live in an Ivory Tower. From the moment a poet takes up the pen he is more or less committed to society, and a society that is eminently unjust. Moreover, most poets belong to to the lower or middle classes. As such, a reactionary poet is virtually impossible.
You have referred to the role poetry can play in nurturing Latin American unity. Why do you believe Latin American unity is so important at this time?
Because every day there is greater consciousness of the fact that we are exploited countries, and that the best solution is unity, above all in those moments in which the greatest exploiter, the United States with its globalising, consumerist plan, has been exposed as a failure.
Are you hopeful that the new administration in Washington will make a difference to US attitudes towards Latin America?
I believe that after its failure, beginning with Cuba and later with Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador, and to a lesser extent Brazil and Paraguay, it is left with no alternative, above all with a President with a little bit more up top than an ignorant, dishonest fool like Bush.
Is the social-democratic path chosen by the left in Chile in response to repression ever likely to deliver meaningful change for the poor?
Unless Chilean leaders become aware of their lack of identity and the evils that this brings for the whole of Chile, I do not believe important changes will occur.
You have been a champion of the Mapuche and of their poetry: what is your explanation for the initiative by Gustavo Quilaqueo to form a political party, Wallmapuwen, and what are its chances of success?
In times in which the Mapuche people continue being persecuted, in which the Chilean State does not recognise the immense historic debt it has to the Mapuche people, any and all efforts to participate and pressure the State are positive.
Is there racism in Chile against the Mapuche, and have the authorities done enough to eradicate it?
Chile is the most racist country in the Americas and that with the least identity for not recognising to this day its mestizo origins and reality, and this is explained by its contempt for the Mapuche and the fact that it does nothing important for them.
Do you have a favourite Mapuche poem and what is it? Can you render it either in Spanish or the Mapuche language for us?
It is a poem by Elicura Chihuailaf Nahuelpán which speaks of the family ethic and of the Mapuche cosmovision. It is called “Sueño azul” (Blue dream) and begins by telling us about the house where he lives in the countryside a few hours from the city of Temuco, about the flowers, the birds, the rain and and the sheep, then goes on to talk about the family, his grandfather, his father, who were both Loncos, that is, tribal chiefs; then about his mother, her knowledge of medicinal plants, the value of the family, its history, about its ethics and cosmovision etc. A beautiful and notable poem. Together with Elicura, we organised the First Encounter on the History of Chile between Mapuche and Chilean writers in Temuco in 1994.
About the problem of a lack of identity in Chile and its identification with Latin America, do you have something important to add?
On the arrival of the Spanish in the XVI century, Pedro de Valdivia, contravening the Crown’s orders, shared out lands as well as indigenous communities. This established the institution of the Señor, owner of lands and Indians, which meant that the future owners of the haciendas were the real owners of Chile, of its society and politics. Señores who privileged European descent and institutions, always believing themselves to be white and European, (the English of the Americas), with which they created the racism, contempt for indigenous people and disdain towards countries with Indians, blacks and mestizos. Thus the researcher Paul. S Reinch could say in 1905: “Chile’s is the only aristocracy in the world that has complete and recognised dominion over the economic, social and political forces of the State in which it lives.”