“Poetry is like flowers on a grave” — an interview with Ana Luísa Amaral

Ana Luísa Amaral

Ana Luísa Amaral – one of Portugal’s most acclaimed authors – was a guest at this year’s Prague Writers’ Festival. She is a professor at the University of Porto, publishing works in comparative literature and feminist studies, and also translates the works of William Shakespeare and Emily Dickinson. Her first volume of poetry was published in 1990. And many further original collections of poetry have been published ever since. She spoke to Jenoféfa Beta, a Czech poet and a songwriter.

What inspired you to start writing poetry?

Everything and nothing at the same time. I’ve been writing poetry since I remember, even as a child. I believe there is a mystery in writing of poetry that really you cannot understand, no one can. Even though it’s work and technique and grammar, there’s also that part of mystery in that.

And what inspires you?

What inspires me? It can be everything. It can be a tree, a smile, my daughter, loneliness, politics… It’s the world, truly.

How would you describe your poetry? Is there something typical for you style of writing?

Well, I can say what critics say… (laughing)

…and what do you think?

About my own poetry… it’s difficult to characterize it. I think that from the very start there was always the issue of the syntax. I believe that every language has its limits. There are limits that if you transgress, you fall into the realm of incomprehensibility, even silliness. But there are limits which if you transgress you fall into the realm of strangeness, which is a good realm. It moves you, disturbs you. Not disturbing like making you upset, but it should move you, truly move you. I do this with the syntax. I play with the limits of my own language. I don’t do it on purpose. It comes through music, the rhythm.

Could you maybe talk a little bit more about your creative process? Is it like you feel “the urge” to write, or do you sometimes come back and forth and edit the text?

It depends. Sometimes I just write it. If you’re blessed enough, if you’re very lucky, then it can be a few minutes. And sometimes it happens during the night, if you’re really quiet… if you create the circumstances, they come.

And do you always carry a piece of paper with you? To put your words on paper?

Always. I can’t write on my computer. Not poetry. I need to feel the paper. The pencil. And sometimes I rearrange it on the computer. Because of the way the poem looks on the screen. I believe that poetry starts with the body. Our mind belongs to the body. We cannot separate emotions from the reason. Feminism knew that. Long before the scientists.

You mentioned feminism — how do you understand feminism? What does feminism mean to you?

The very first thing that occurs to me — and if I want to define feminism with one expression – human rights. It’s as simple as that. Feminism for me, first of all, it’s not against men. Secondly, it’s not something that tries to reverse the situation — to put men in the house and women in the workplace — all these stereotypes.

Is it still an issue in Portugal? These stereotypes about feminism?

Yes, it is. And not only in Portugal. I mean the world is not just Europe. It’s other countries, for example Saudi Arabia where women are still stoned to death.

So for you feminism is global?

Absolutely. For me there’s no “feminism”, it’s “feminisms”. “A woman” is a very empty concept. There’s “women” — plural. And we are wonderfully different from each other. Just like men and women are different, we are all different from each other. I can’t compare for example a woman from Amsterdam and a woman from, let’s say, Thailand. There are some things, of course, on which all feminisms agree — to empower women. Their visibility.

How do you explain women’s invisibility in literature?

It’s a matter of two things. First of all — who defines the parameters. Who says “this is good, and this is bad”. Who makes the literary canon. When you look at the Western canon — it’s only men.

Have you personally experienced this barrier for women writers to be acknowledged in literature?

There are barriers, of course. But I can’t complain very much. I’ve received several prizes.

What do you think is the factor that makes it more difficult for women to be acknowledged?

Several circumstances. There’s this simple example — when women started to learn how to drive, many years ago, they would hear “ah, a woman driving”. If you say these things to a child from a very early age, of course a child starts to internalize them.

So do you think there is a lack of support for women?

Yes. I think that it begins very early. In education. Subliminally, socially. It could be small things — for example what we see in a movie. Feminism is a good thing not only for women, but for men. For all of us. It’s a question of human rights. And also a question of human dignity. I think it must be very difficult, for example, for a boy to hear “boys don’t cry” and these things, you know.

Do you believe that poetry, or literature as such, can change this?

I do. Because I believe that literature, or maybe especially poetry, deals with possibility. And it can be a “counter-diction” to the official discourse. And it moves you. It can move us, make us act. Make us feel and think at the same time. Poetry more, because I believe that poetry is freer than fiction, first of all because fiction is more attached to the laws of the market. I never saw in a bookshop, for example, a reproduction of a figure of a poet. Novels sell more. Poets don’t have agents. Novelist, all of them practically, have agents.

Why do you think that poetry is somehow seen as less popular, less approachable?

I do believe that it’s more difficult to grasp.

…but you also said that it’s more emotional, so maybe there is a way to connect to it more?

Yes. But it is harder to grasp than fiction. But when you do grasp it, it moves you more, for the simple reason that in one line you can condense what you’d need four or five pages for to say that. Poetry is connected to what is more atavistic in us. I don’t know when poetry was born. But I think it was in the beginning of the human species, probably in those days when we started to put flowers on the graves of our ancestors. Those flowers are not necessary. You can just dig a hole and put the body in, so why the flowers?

So poetry is like the flowers on a grave?

Yes. Because it’s symbolic. It’s beauty. And it’s a memory. This is why in dictatorships poets go to jail. They don’t have guns, they don’t have weapons, their only weapon is the word, but the word is very powerful. And what poetry can do with the word precisely is to condense it to the point where you have three words, and in three words you say it all. It can be lethal. The political discourse tries to be a discourse of certainty, whereas poetry has this ambiguity that they can’t grasp. I can give you an example from my country. There is a beautiful line by a Portuguese poet Sophia de Mello Breyner, and it’s a short poem that says, “the old vulture sharpens his feathers”. The poem was forbidden. It only says this. Salazar, our dictator, he had this nose like a vulture. If you read that without the context, you can say “OK, she’s speaking about the bird”, but it was symbolic. That’s the power of the poetry. That in certain circumstances it can rise and have a certain meaning. And hundreds years after that, it can have a different meaning.

What are you plans for the future?

A new book of poems, actually two. Then to complete the translation of the sonnets by Shakespeare. Then to continue with poems by Emily Dickinson. And a novel.

What is the theme of the novel?

It is a historical novel. It’s a continuation of the previous novel, which was more poetry. I’m not a novelist. It’s a little weird. It’s a little bit like The Waves of Virginia Woolf, that ambiguous territory. It does not have a story. It’s feelings, love, poetry, history, nature.

And then also travel. I will be in the States for a month, because of the book. Then Brazil. And Chile and Colombia.

I wish you good luck with all the plans and thank you very much for your time and for the interview.

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Photo: Alžběta Možíšová