Tag Archives: summer 1999

NICK DRAKE: THE BIOGRAPHY

Nick Drake: The Biography

Patrick Humphries
Bloomsbury Books ($24.95)

by Mark Terrill

For those not familiar with the late English singer/songwriter Nick Drake, who died in 1974 at the age of 26 from an "accidental overdose" of anti-depressants, it may come as some surprise that such a relatively meager legacy of work (three albums released during his lifetime, nine tracks released posthumously, comprising a total of 40 tracks) could form the matrix of a full-blown cult of myth-like proportions. Nick Drake performed live maybe a dozen times total, never toured America, and gave only one official interview. Nonetheless, a quick name check of the people and groups who are said to have been influenced by Nick Drake's music includes such diverse acts as REM, Elton John, Paul Weller, Jackson Browne, Everything But the Girl, Tom Verlaine, Matt Johnson of The The, Kate Bush, and Mark Eitzel.

Nick Drake's story is not one of rock-and-roll excess, or of the usual cliches of life lived in the fast lane and burning the candle at both ends; nor does his story have much in common with other rock-and-roll tragedies of his time. Whereas Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Brian Jones, and Jim Morrison all seemed to sort of explode at the pinnacle (or shortly thereafter) of their careers, Nick Drake just quietly imploded in almost total obscurity. But as far as myth-making goes, Nick Drake had it all going for him: tall, good-looking, softly spoken, quintessentially British, and inordinately shy and withdrawn, at times described as "Shellyesque" or "Byronesque," or just plain "elegant," with an inimitable guitar style and a penchant for writing haunting, poetic, introspective songs laced with a delicate beauty that still carry their weight after all these years. But the burdens that Nick Drake had to bear himself were obviously too much.

Despite missing session logs, vanished archives, lost correspondence, and the fact that two of the people who knew Nick best decided not to cooperate with this biography (namely Joe Boyd, Nick's producer, and Gabrielle Drake, Nick's older sister), Patrick Humphries has produced a most informative book, and the Nick Drake that emerges here contrasts sharply with the popular image of the shy, sensitive, introverted songwriter. Classmates from his years at Marlborough College and Cambridge University, where Nick was a popular if not model student, active in both drama and sports, remembered Nick for his "motivation" and "competitive streak," contradicting the familiar image of the withdrawn and virtually catatonic "artist." Nevertheless, this sober account of Nick's life and gradual decline at the hands of the commercial music combine and his eventual death is well supported by many interviews with former session musicians and music business professionals, and gives the reader a multi-faceted portrait of an otherwise enigmatic individual.

An integral part of the mythical aspect of Nick Drake is the cause and the circumstances of his death. Was it really accidental? Was it really just his irreconcilable depression? Was it the music business? Was it failure to come to terms with demands of becoming a star? Was he a repressed homosexual? Did he take too many drugs? Patrick Humphries offers no single answer to any of these intriguing questions, but does provide enough detailed and factual information for the reader to form his/her own conclusions (it was probably all of the above), without veering off into sensationalist muckraking. A sad story, but a compelling one, and an excellent biography of a highly influential and seminal singer/songwriter, well worthy of the myth that now surrounds his short life and untimely death.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 1999
| © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1999

SEEK! SELECTED NONFICTION

Rudy Rucker
Four Walls Eight Windows ($15.95)

by Rudi Dornemann

Rudy Rucker's Seek! offers a behind-the-scenes look at one of the more original minds in science fiction—a field with no shortage of original minds. In a collection that's diverse to the verge of scattershot, Rucker's intense enthusiasm in his subjects is the one constant. Of course, Rucker himself is pretty eclectic. A science fiction writer who got in on the ground floor of the cyberpunk movement, he's also a mathematician and computer programmer. His writing includes books on mathematics as well as numerous articles in various hip new periodicals like Mondo 200021CWiredbOING bOING, and Axcess. Many of those articles are included in Seek! along with essays from such nonfiction SF magazines as Science Fiction EyeThe New York Review of Science Fiction, and The Bulletin of the Science Fiction Writers of America, excerpts from the manuals to a couple of his computer programs, and a few otherwise unpublished travel notes.

Even when he's being fairly straightforward, as in his highly readable "A Brief History of Computers," Rucker's quirkiness occasionally emerges. Who else would move so fluidly from "huge mainframe computers like UNIVAC and IBM" to the "Moloch whose mind is pure machinery!" section from Allen Ginsberg's "Howl"? Who else, in the course of describing German electronic computer pioneer Konrad Zuse, would casually mention that "the Nazi government's science commission was unwilling to fund Zuse's further research—this was the same Nazi science commission which sent scouts across the Arctic ice to look for a possible hole leading to the Hollow Earth." Rucker isn't just an oddball, however; he has a firm command of his subjects, be they mathematical or literary, and the odd digressions and eccentric linkages introduce new perspectives on them.

When he moves further afield, into less well-known territory (like cellular automata or the cosmological theories of Andre Linde) or more personal topics (living in Jerry Falwell's hometown, travelling in Japan, looking at paintings by Bruegel), Rucker's style resonates with the subject matter. This resonance peppers his essays with brief moments of illumination, epiphanal sparks that show us how odd a place the world is. In Rucker's prose, the "sense of wonder"—that traditional science fiction touchstone—takes on a new edginess.

It's no surprise that the essays cross-reference his fiction here and there. To a great extent, Seek! is an inventory of the stuff that Rucker's dreams are made on, and he often makes the crossover from "real world" to fiction explicit, as when he closes the "Science" section of Seek! with "Tech Notes Towards a Cyberpunk Novel." He begins the book's "Art" section with "The Tranrealist Manifesto," in which he lays out his program of appropriating real people and situations into fiction and mixing them with archetypal science fictional tropes.

To use a science fictional trope of Rucker's own invention, this eclectic collection is a good starting point for anyone wishing to twink Rudy Rucker himself. As he defines it:

"Twink" is an SF word I made up; to twink someone means to simulate them internally, to let their spirit take possession of you . . . Using a computer analogy, we can compare the body to hardware, and the mind to software. The personality, memory, etc., can all, in principle, be coded up to give the individual person's software soul. . . . Given enough information about another person, you can twink them.

Reading Seek! one gets not only "enough information" but enough of the right kinds of information— scientific, literary, political, culinary, spiritual, etc—-to mentally build a virtual Rucker and look out at the world through his eyes.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.


Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 1999
| © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1999

The Prose Poem

by Eric Lorberer

AS CHARLES SIMIC HAS WRITTEN, "The prose poem has the unusual distinction of being regarded with suspicion not only by the usual haters of poetry, but also by many poets themselves." It's true that as an oxymoron the prose poem declares war on genre, rocking a boat that would be kept steady by those in search of publishing contracts or tenure. Yet at the same time there is no denying that the prose poem has come into its own as a genre: more than one journal is devoted solely to its practice; reams of critical prose have been written analyzing (and not so tacitly supporting) its methodologies; and a few very good anthologies are in print, offering useful surveys of the form. Most significantly, since the Pulitzer Prize was awarded to the aforementioned Mr. Simic's 1989 book of prose poems, The World Doesn't End, the number of prose poem collections published has increased exponentially—a publishing explosion which has taught us that the prose poem is not one thing but many, a hydra-headed beast that in continuing to give pleasure will continue to elude definition.

Thus, in the midst of this prose poem renaissance, I offer here a few comments on some recent titles which I believe illustrate the wide diversity and growing potential of the form. I hasten to point out that I have left out dozens of other books, most notably new releases by Polish masters Czeslaw Milosz and Zbigniew Herbert—this because I wanted to place the authors discussed here on what may be a particularly American spectrum, encompassing traditional, personal, and experimental approaches to the prose poem. But I hope the books discussed here are representative of certain things going on in the vast universe of the prose poem, and that any books I've left out might, if placed in useful proximity to these, create interesting constellations.

T R A D I T I O N A L

If there is a tradition to the American prose poem, it is perhaps most readily identified with the post-surrealist vignettes published by figures such as Russell Edson, Robert Bly, and hordes of others—a wave that crested around the late sixties. Collecting work since this time period, Jack Anderson's Traffic: New and Selected Prose Poems (New Rivers Press, $14.95) is a textbook primer on the peculiarities of the form. Strengths are in abundance; the traditional prose poem tends to be absurdist yet darkly moving, fabulist yet subversive of narrative, and relatively short, all of which Anderson employs to great effect in poems such as "The Somnabulists' Hotel," "The Pregnant Teapot," or "Life on the Moon" ("Like anyplace else, it has its problems"). Metaphor is used or suggested relentlessly, often buttressing a dream logic, and language is powerfully yet unobtrusively measured out, hiding careful craft within seemingly straightforward sentences—as in "The White Chapter," which begins with dazzling economy and deftly buried rhymes: "In this part of the story you wake up and find that everything is white. Morning and evening alike, the sky will be washed by searchlights." Yet like its verse cousin, the prose poem can often be hokey rather than jokey—as in "Golden Moment" in which Anderson takes us through a Macy's Gold Toe sock sale and tries to convince us "I have just experienced a golden moment of epiphany." Nevertheless, Traffic assembles years of prose poems from a skilled practitioner.

Morton Marcus has also been publishing prose poems since their heyday, and his latest book, When People Could Fly (Hanging Loose Press, $13), is a meaty collection. More than most prose poets he flirts with the true prose genres: --a few of the pieces here feel like "sudden fictions"; even more feel like essays. Witness the beginning of "The Mussorgsky Question": "The Mussorgsky question is an intriguing one: Should he be taken seriously as a composer, or was he merely a talented dilettante?" The introduction of the absurdist trope that Mussorgsky was in reality a character invented by Dostoevsky and the attendant mini-narratives that cluster around this idea ("Periodically realizing that Mussorgsky was not where he had left him, Dostoevsky would hunt him down and bring him home…") do little to allay the tone of essay, however inventive. Marcus also has the tendency to preach in his poems ("Once people laughed all the time"—guess where that one is headed?), but when he gets right down to business ("There was a man who kicked the universe in the ass"), his parables are rich, humorous, and filled with lessons that are felt in the solar plexus rather than filed away in the intellect.

Should the reader think that what I am calling the traditional prose poem belongs entirely to previous generations, two recent books by Peter Johnson should correct the impression. Johnson, editor of The Prose Poem: An International Journal, plants himself firmly in the tradition, though he tends to be more metapoetic and more sarcastic than his forbearers, aspects that marry darkly in many of the poems from Pretty Happy! (White Pine Press, $12), such as "Poet Laureate":

They said they'd kill my son if I didn't go. It was gray as brain outside, and I could hear the caissons rolling. They tied me to a microphone and ordered me to say something startling. For a moment, the whole world hushed. Later, the President gave me the Genius Award and reunited me with my son, who himself was proclaimed a Wunderkind and given a little plastic crown to wear instead of the customary cap and bells.


Yet good as the poems in Pretty Happy! are, they are outdone by the suite offered in Love Poems for the Millenium (Quale Press $5), a subsequently released chapbook from a new publisher whose focus is prose poetry. Here, our hapless narrator travels the world with his (imaginary?) lover "Gigi," touring the major cities and seeing them through the lens of a deftly comic eroticism. But what really elevates these language-rich love poems above their predecessors is that they do not slow down; brimming with energy they race toward their own delight rather than making sure we get it. In a short preface Russell Edson claims that they are "poems that prove there is such a thing as the American prose poem," and though I wouldn't have thought to say this about any prose poems but Edson's own, he may well be right about these playful gems.

P E R S O N A L

It may strike some as odd that at the fulcrum of the traditional and the experimental should be the personal, but for the prose poem it is resolutely true; to speak from the first person in prose and end up with slices of poetry rather than (or at least in addition to) memoir is the great achievement of Stephen Berg's book Shaving (Four Way Books, $12.95). "It doesn't even matter who we are," the book opens, and indeed, the archetypes rise from the individual acts and thoughts remembered here to haunt us like ghosts. Too rambling to be tidy yet too lush to be journal-ese, Berg's prose poems present and investigate the unadorned "I" in all its activities: reading, talking, jerking off, facing death, demanding sex, shaving—in short, all those things by which we know ourselves to be ourselves. As Berg says of the charcoal portraits on the cover, these poems too "evolve to the death of self," cradling that motion in the fragile basket of memory and rushing it, coursing it through language, toward understanding. Never mind that Berg's desire is more romantic, a desire for "some essence of the self that wept and laughed, grateful for another's face, some chance at sanctity we can't stop revising like a hopeless poem that chokes us, some crumb of I, me you, her, us, some . . . something"; on every page his work enacts the more disturbing shadow of this desire: "Sometimes a kind of psalm—parable without ending, no point, no moral, nothing to use or live by—is what I hear, its rending unidentifiable brute tone, its plot of helpless non-human eyes meaning God knows what." Metaphysics aside, that Berg has imagined these 'parables without ending' into the discourse of the American prose poem is nothing short of amazing.

E X P E R I M E N T A L

It should be no surprise that "language poets" as well as lyric poets are attracted to the prose poem: if the key mechanism of verse is the line, then the key element of prose might be said to be syntax, and the prose poem offers a limitless field in which to experiment and play. I can think of few poets as familiar with the complexities of syntax as Rosmarie Waldrop; renowned as a translator as well as a poet, Waldrop has spent a lifetime de- and en- coding word combinations with a philosopher's acumen and a collagist's sense of composition. Her latest book, Split Infinites (Singing Horse Press, $14), presents three long sequences of prose poems bookended by two verse sequences. As elsewhere in her work, she eschews narrative from within the sentence rather than as a genre; thus referents and tenses shift in steady rhythms, and verbless descriptive fragments abound, as in this paragraph/stanza from the title poem:

Lilies with heavy pollen powdering priestly fingers. Indiscriminate application of adjectives. The next day my throat was swollen. To the extent that sex is in the mind I threw snowballs.

Knitted together by sound, Waldrop's nouns ask us to place them in a memory centrifuge, much like a succession of jump cuts can create a singular coherent whole. And the repeated suggestion of history, personal and otherwise, give these poems a further anchor to ground their central tension: "How choose between drama and grammar? Blue jeans rather than tending a tree through summer and winter." That Waldrop walks this tightrope so nimbly makes Split Infinites a wonderful book, perhaps the best of its kind since Lyn Hejinian's legendary My Life.

Laynie Browne's The Agency of Wind (Avec Books, $12) also contains verse as well as prose, but its deployment of the prose poem is too unique to avoid mention here. With an overarching tale of a girl on hallucinatorily interesting travels, Browne's prose at times recalls Lewis Carroll's:

I sat on a rose couch and drank rosebud tea. At first I said I wanted to sit on the rose couch, but then it was suggested to me that there was more than one rose couch. We asked the waiter to dry one off and pull out it's thorns so that we could sit more comfortably.

More often, the surrealism is distinctly latter day: "I am told, you must construct the future of mandolins." But it is Browne's subtle negotiation of the line and the sentence that are most noteworthy here. Her techniques are varied: regular paragraph/stanzas; more archly presented blocks of justified poetry/prose; and—most often and most intriguingly—short stanzas/paragraphs, sometimes only a single line, that read as either prose or verse, doggedly riding the fine line between the two for as long as possible. This, more than her Wonderland, makes The Agency of Wind a dizzying and magical encounter with language; serious readers of prose poetry should not fail to make its acquaintance, though it will surely challenge the stability of their preconceptions.

Finally, there is Kristin Prevallet's Perturbation, My Sister (First Intensity Press, $10), an exquisite prose poem cycle masquerading as "a fiction" (or vice versa). It is, however, no more narrative than its source text, Max Ernst's 1929 surrealist collage novel The Hundred Headless Woman (her poem-paragraphs each take as their starting point one of the collages). Here, for example, is one of Prevallet's paragraphs:

The child who dares to let a living bird loose in the garden of plastic flowers and immobile flying insects is taking a risk that, if discovered, would be punishable by death. For a dead bird thrown into the middle of a living willow tree will emerge singing sweetly, and to reverse this law of nature would disprove the religion of the arterlife, and humiliate the generals who send children to war, believing in it.

Prevallet rightly says that Ernst's work reflects "a cesspool of subconscious refuse that the reader of his collages can then reconstruct into her own disjunctive narrative." In Perturbation, My Sister she has not only accomplished one such eloquent reading, but by reordering her takes on Ernst into a progression of her own devising, she has also created a new text which, given the luminous wholeness of each prose segment combined with the slippery progression of narrational meaning, encourages a similarly active and imaginative approach. It is no accident that the prose poem has been so powerfully adopted by surrealists and their kin, and Prevallet's work celebrates this association by turning the in-between nature of the prose poem toward her subject matter.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 1999 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1999

David Wojnarowicz

Fever: The Art of David Wojnarowicz
Rizzoli ($35)

In The Shadow of the American Dream
The Diaries of David Wojnarowicz
Grove Press ($23)

by Eric Lorberer

From his first gallery exhibition in 1980 to his death in 1992, David Wojnarowicz blazed a trail in the art world that continues to invite commentary. In a decade dominated by obfuscatory Reaganist politics he was the anti-Reagan, his work either parodying American economic imperialism or lamenting the concurrent erosion of our social consciousness. That he could do this without a shred of political correctness revealed him to be an artist of true vision rather than a simple reactionary, and it is one reason among many that his work outlives its biographical origins.

These origins are repeated like mantras in nearly every assessment of Wojnarowicz. Abused by his parents, he survived as a runaway on the streets of New York, making money as a male prostitute. One of his paying lovers encouraged his artwork, giving him crucial support at a crucial time; a subsequent mentorship by photographer Peter Hujar cemented his sense of himself as an artist. His career runs synchronous with the AIDS crisis, and watching friends and lovers fall ill and die, hearing politicians spew homophobic venom, and eventually testing HIV positive himself, all become intricately woven into his creative output.

Yet this tight web of correspondences ultimately does little to communicate the import of Wojnarowicz's art. For that, we need the art itself, and it is amply presented in Fever: The Art of David Wojnarowicz. Published in association with a retrospective held this year at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York, Fever shows the myriad tributaries that fed Wojnarowicz's work. Intuiting that gay life within a post-industrial culture was twice-removed from the mainstream's falsely mediated picture of reality, Wojnarowicz developed a strategy of confronting the viewer with this realization. It is at first gentle, even humorous—as in the 1979 Arthur Rimbaud in New York series, 24 photographs in which Wojnarowicz's lover, wearing an eerily flat mask of the iconic poet, is depicted in various locations (on a subway, at Coney Island, shooting up on a pier) as if haunting this contemporary wasteland. In subsequent paintings, sculptures, and collages (often using maps and money), the symbolism is heightened, creating disturbing muralistic images that seem to contain violent prophecies. In later work, such as the infamous Sex Series, grainy backdrops, newspaper reports, and telescoped scenes reveal the outside and the inside all at once, a new kind of X-ray in which vision has so thoroughly seen reality that it is impossible to ignore.

Fever thus documents Wojnarowicz like never before, constructing a sense of wholeness around the artist's rather disparate output. This is especially difficult because Wojnarowicz worked in so many different media and often at the same time, yet Fever shows us a man with a mission no matter what the methods used. His lesser known sculpture and installation work are revealed to complement his more recognizable paintings and photographs, and all the artwork is presented nonchronologically, enhancing the portrait of a unified artistic vision (even while it hides the developmental stages in the artist's career). The book also includes samples of Wojnarowicz's published writings, and four essays in this book discuss the power of Wojnarowicz's vision from slightly different angles, each concluding that ultimately this work speaks loudly and strongly about things which are in danger of being passed over in silence. While all four of these essays are insightful introductions, none truly plumbs the depths of the art, especially from a formal perspective—but that simply means that there remains more to discover, and more books to be written, about the achievement of this singular American artist.

One of those hypothetical books might well dwell on Wojnarowicz's writing, and new fodder for such a text has just been added with the publication of In the Shadow of the American Dream: The Diaries of David Wojnarowicz. Editor Amy Scholder acknowledges that selecting from twenty years of personal writing by an avid journal-keeper is an impossible task, quickly noting that others "would make different selections than I did," but she offers here an extremely readable and moving self-portrait. The book begins with a 17-year old loner on an Outward Bound expedition, struggling to understand who he is, and ends with a thirty-seven year old artist who, faced with his imminent death, knows. The journey between, of course, is what makes these journals fascinating.

Diaries, of course, hold the promise of intriguing personal revelations, but since Wojnarowicz's life and sexuality are so radically out in his other work there is little of that here; instead, the process works happily in reverse, showing the inner joys, the struggles beneath the skin, of a life so dominated by surface. One such revelation contained in these pages is that Wojnarowicz conceived of himself as a writer first. While he rarely discusses his visual art in these diaries, they are rife with his love of words: he is hopeful when an editor shows his work to Anne Waldman, delighted to be published alongside Jayne Anne Philips, and passionate about Lawrence Ferlinghetti's poetry. One can hear him, here as in his other published works, assimilating lessons from writers such as Genet and Burroughs, to whom he owes a great deal. Had Wojnarowicz completed the novel he wanted to write, it would probably have led to a fuller understanding of the role writing played in his artwork. As things turned out, the AIDS crisis set Wojnarowicz and his work on a trajectory in which there was little time for fiction.

In the Shadow of the American Dream does contain a wealth of personal recollection, and while Scholder is clearly trying not to intrude on the reading experience, she might have offered more in the way of notes; Wojnarowicz names a panoply of personal referents that might resonate more deeply if we had more information. The book also reproduces a handful of original pages that are doubly illuminating—it seems that Wojnarowicz could not resist making his journals themselves into art objects, incorporating photographs, drawings, quotations, etc.—and as such, I wish this aspect were more present. (Perhaps they even warrant a show, and a facsimile edition might result.) But I set these two small quibbles against the larger pleasure of reading Wojnarowicz's prose. As early as 1971 we see a writer in touch with the rhythms of communication:

We walked up to the freshwater pond and I caught a snake. A little garter snake. He started puking so I tossed him into the bushes. Imagine that, a sick snake.

Later, while in France, his syncopated observations are an image-ridden delight:

. . . shades of Fellini with young painted-face girls in blooming fur coats walking with a waggle of the hips down the sand past old weathered fishermen and couples sleeping curled in the sand before their incredibly long poles stuck down into the beach with lines trailing into invisibility in the surf . . . the water a very strange blue ratty dogs barking from different spots at us . . .

And of course there is the constant evocation of (usually anonymous) sex, in prelude, in medias res, and in joyful aftermath:

I had a head full of things I wanted to say but couldn't. I tied my sneakers and left his apartment, walking down the carpeted stairs past curving walls with green printed paper, old and musty but with a sense of unspoken class . . . and turning a corner to head east and downtown I suddenly smiled, seeing grass stains on my trousers for the first time in years.

Through it all we see a constantly evolving artist at work, one whose goal is simple, or at least simply put: "Delighting as well as shocking that angel within my forehead."

The fact of the matter is that if Wojnarowicz had never created a single art object he would still be a published writer justly praised for his autobiographical texts. Close to the Knives, his "memoir of disintegration," is a masterful rant against the conservative status quo masquerading as memoir, while the monologues that comprise The Waterfront Journals—monologues which, as the diaries tell us, "were not written down with the aid of any tape-recording device but were the bare sections of one-way conversations that I retained in memory till minutes, days, or weeks later when I would write them down in journals and scraps of paper and in letters to friends"—reveal a keen appreciation of voice and character. The conflation of memory and image is all important to Wojnarowicz, one reason why these diaries, like the more crafted stream-of-consciousness of his book Memories That Smell Like Gasoline or the unusual comic book collaboration 7 Miles a Second, are so successful.

It is likewise true, of course, that had Wojnarowicz never written a thing he would still be an artist of enormous power and importance. But the fact that he spoke so eloquently in both these languages should be recognized. Fever and In the Shadow of the American Dream may be the most recent additions to the Wojnarowicz canon, but let us hope that they will not be the last.

Click here to purchase In the Shadow of the American Dream from your local independent bookstore
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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 1999 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1999

Words Created out of Lives: An Interview with Elena Poniatowska

by Jay Miskowiec

Elena Poniatowska is one of Mexico's most widely translated and celebrated living writers; her books such as Hasta no verte Jesús mio and Tinísima (Penguin), a biography of the Italian photographer Tina Modotti, have bridged the gap between fiction and essay, while texts like Nothing, Nobody (Temple University), which describes the aftermath of a devastating earthquake, and Massacre in Mexico (University of Missouri), have given voice to the humblest elements of Mexican society. In 1998, she published five books, including the novel Paseo de la Reforma (Bantam) and Cartas de Alvaro Mutis, a book based on the relationship she developed with the Colombian writer during his imprisonment in Mexico during the 1950s.

Recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, an Emeritus Fellowship from Mexico's National Council of Culture and Arts, and honorary doctorates from the University of Sinaloa and the New School for Social Research, Poniatowska was born in Paris in 1932 of a Polish/ French father and a Mexican mother. Ten years later the family moved to Mexico, where Poniatowska has since resided, becoming a citizen in 1969.

The following interview took place December 23, 1998, at Poniatowska's home in the colonial neighborhood of Chimalistac, Mexico City. We spoke about her country's current political climate, as well as some of her recent publications.

Jay Miskowiec: How do you differentiate between your fiction and your journalistic writing?

Elena Poniatowska: I think their processes are totally different. For me journalism is a very anguishing process. When you write for a newspaper you enter into a rhythm, a rhythm that justifies everything. First of all you talk a lot—you talk while you're writing the article, you talk about it after it's done, there are lots of phone calls, no? And moreover it has an instant gratification, because what you write today you see published in the paper tomorrow, for the good or the bad, on the first page or the fifth, well displayed or hidden. Then when you reread the article you say to yourself, Ay! How barbarous, it's no good, I didn't write that, I forgot something else, here I was incorrect, there I wrote down the wrong number, all those errors one makes and always justifies with being in a hurry. You say to yourself, well if I'd had three or four more hours it would've turned out better, but I had to turn it in. It's quite a distinct rhythm, one you put yourself into like a motor going a thousand revolutions per minute.

In literature, however, you don't have to render accounts to anyone but yourself. When one is accustomed to journalism it's very difficult to change rhythms; changing channels is very painful. Why do I use the word painful? Because one loses all the support journalism gives you. First of all you're before the blank page—it's a great adventure to face the writing desk with whatever you say depending on you yourself, no? And it can be good or it can be really bad but it's all on you. So for me going from one rhythm to another is what takes the most work. Moreover I'm an insecure woman. I think if I had been someone sure of herself I never would have done so many interviews.

JM: Insecure? How so?

EP: I feel insecure because I've always been the friend of important people but only while I'm also their journalist, while I follow after them, while I'm their reporter who gathers their words. Though I can be quite impertinent during interviews, in the end I imagine that people consider me more a journalist than a colleague. Now I would prefer to dedicate myself to writing novels. After all, I've been in journalism since 1953. Forty-six years; that's a lot of time. I think I've given everything I could to journalism.

JM: You write in the epilogue to Letters from Alvaro Mutis that after he got out of jail you never saw each other again, except on a few social occasions. Why not?

EP: For a very concrete reason. I think he didn't want to see people that would remind him of jail. Not that I was ever going to talk to him about jail, I never would have touched the subject—I'm not so foolish. I just don't think he wanted to talk about it.

JM: When you finally went to his house for the first time last year, you wrote, "He probably thought I was going to put him into check." What then was the risk for him? Bad memories?

EP: Well, the risk would have been that I insisted on talking about the crime that sent him to prison, and that I would have judged him. But I would never be the judge of anything. But putting him "in check" meant to ask questions he didn't like, to ask him questions he would have had to answer. Mutis guards his privacy closely. He told me, "These letters will only be published because they concern you; if not, they would never be published."

JM: In Paseo de la Reforma, one of the characters comes to understand that "it was possible to have a life created by words." Do you agree?

EP: That's an illusion on my part, I think, because I've always felt I lead a life created by my obligations or that I create for myself a series of obligations, but that's not to say then I'm a victim of them. I don't know how to achieve liberty through words, so I attribute to my characters what I haven't been able to do myself.

JM: It's said the one thing we learn from history is that we don't learn from history. A year and a day after the massacre of 45 people in Acteal, Chiapas, what has Mexico learned from that event?

EP: Well, as we've seen so far there has been no reaction by the government. But you have to consider that if the government could never find the killer of Cardinal Posadas in Guadalajara, nor the killer of José Francisco Ruiz Massieu, nor the killer of Luis Donaldo Colosio, much less are they going to solve or do justice to what happened in the countryside of Acteal, in one of the poorest places in Chiapas that had already been quite a headache. Nobody is going to be satisfied with the Attorney General's White Paper [the official government report on the killings in Acteal], nobody's going to believe it. On the contrary, everyone knows that there are paramilitary groups in Chiapas acting with the aid of the government, and that the counselors who wrote the report put the PRI officials in the best light.

JM: But beyond what the government says, what has Mexican society come to understand from Acteal? That is, what does it do with its knowledge of those events?

EP: I think that Mexican society has indeed learned something, because you see now a lot of young people, by their own means and their own financial resources, going to Chiapas. This seems notable to me: they go to Chiapas in a very disciplined way and work in a very disciplined way. They make peace proposals, and they're ready to take initiatives. They're ready to give their help, completely motivated by the enormous sympathy they feel for the EZLN guerrillas. It's not just something on the Internet. I believe the most important thing that came out of that was all these kids, all these university students and people from the provinces who are very organized and disciplined. That's an honorable attitude.

JM: In a recent article in Proceso [a Mexican news magazine], Carlos Monsiváis writes that Mexico has a vigorous tradition of the success of impunity. How can that tradition be ended?

EP: Carlos is referring there to the absolute corruption that never punishes the corrupt. The higher the government post, the more difficult it is to punish the person. It's harder to punish a cabinet member than a kid who steals a bun on the street corner. So we have a long tradition of corruption and impunity that exists in every social strata. It exists in the president of the republic and in all his cabinet members, and of course it exists in lesser functionaries where corruption is so obvious. Customs, for example, on the border towns is a hold-up, a frightening robbery. And here we are in Mexico City, in the biggest city in the world, and probably one of the most violent cities in the world, a place where they warn you not to go out at night. We practically live in a state of siege.

JM: Is it then an inevitable situation? What kind of politics can impact it?

EP: I would cite NGOs [Non-Governmental Organizations], which have really delivered a lot. In 1985, when the earthquake happened, they often accomplished what the government could not. During that period civil society emerged—from the Boy Scouts to the Salvation Army. The Salvation Army won the respect of everyone because they were very efficient and always did the most possible; they had good coffee, good tacos, good milk, good sandwiches. So people trusted the NGOs, as well as the religious organizations. They made their donations—whether clothes or money—in churches, because they thought they wouldn't get stolen there.

JM: Five years after the uprising of the EZLN, do you believe the "political space" which Marcos has spoken of has been created?

EP: I think they have won a political space, although the accords of San Andres have yet to be fulfilled. Moreover they have honored their word to be soldiers who use rifles so as not to use rifles again. They arose in arms in January 1994 but it was very clear that Marcos didn't want to use them again. On the other hand the zone has been completely militarized and none of the problems of the poorest people of Chiapas have been resolved, and they go on living exactly as they did during the Conquest.

JM: What is the significance of Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas's election as mayor of Mexico City?

EP: Well, I think it's very important, keeping in mind that Cárdenas took over the direction of something that was already very corrupted; he took over the direction of the most difficult city in the world with the most difficult problems in the world as well. But at least he has made moral decisions that no one made before.

JM: In your opinion, what has been his greatest accomplishment?

EP: Look, in Mexico not to steal is already a great success. It's horrible to say but it's the truth. To have a leader people know isn't stealing is already a triumph—it's to win the first battle against corruption.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 1999 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1999

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