An Interview with Víctor Rodríguez Núñez

The poet speaks about recent developments in his writing

Víctor Rodríguez Núñez (Havana, 1955) is one of Cuba’s most outstanding and celebrated contemporary writers. Collections of his poems appear throughout Latin America and Europe, and he has been the recipient of major awards all over the Spanish-speaking world, most recently Spain’s 2013 Alfons el Magnànim International Poetry Prize for his book, desde un granero rojo (from a red barn). Known as a charismatic reader, he has been a riveting presence at most of the major international literary festivals for over a decade, having read in more than twenty countries. In the last several years, Rodríguez Núñez has begun to develop an enthusiastic English-reading audience as two book-length translations of his work have appeared in the UK, along with a chapbook in the United States, as well as poems in prominent American and British journals.

In addition to being his translator into English, I have the distinct honor of sharing my life with this wonderful poet. The interview took place at our kitchen table one morning after a round of revisions to my latest translation, his book reversos / reverses (Madrid: Visor, 2011). Our conversation focuses on this collection.  

— Katherine M. Hedeen

KMH: reverses belongs to a cycle that signals a radical change in your poetics. Could you talk about this process in general and specifically with regard to reverses?

VRN: I’ve always written poetry by hand, but beginning in the late nineties, I started to use the notebook as a way to frame my work. This really changed my method and my poetry. In the case of reverses, I used an old, red notebook with Picasso’s famous sketch of the great Peruvian poet César Vallejo that I’d been given in Nicaragua in the late eighties. There were a few notes already there, so reverses has its beginnings in a completely different moment than the present. That notebook survived all my movements, the different places I’ve lived in the past twenty years, and I finished it about three years ago.

I’ve been using this method since around 1999. What’s changed is that I no longer write poems, I write poetry. When I write, I’m not interested in the structure; it’s the process itself that’s most important. In other words, my strategy is precisely not to have a strategy, but to have a tactic. That practice is to write constantly. The topics and themes appear by themselves. This happened in the case of reverses, but it’s the way I’ve written a number of books, like Actas de medianoche [Midnight Minutes] (Havana: Letras Cubanas, 2008), tareas [homework] (Sevilla: Renacimiento 2011), deshielos [thaw] (Todmorden: Arc Publications, 2013), desde un granero rojo [from a red barn] (Madrid: Hiperión, 2013), enseguida [straightaway] and el cuaderno de la rata almizclera [the muskrat’s notebook].

KMH: Doesn’t this process mirror “automatic writing” or the “interior monologue”?

VRN: Absolutely not. It’s not completely irrational; there’s a balance between rationality and irrationality and it all has a method. Everything I write is related to the medium I use. In other words, I finished writing reverses when I filled that notebook.

KMH: What happens next?

VRN: I begin transferring those words written on paper to the computer. From one line written in the notebook, I might get a whole page, and from a whole page of notes, I might salvage a line. In this second phase, the person who “works” the poetry is a very different person from the one who initially wrote it. I see it as another person who is also me. One of me writes and the other fashions, transforms. The dialogue between these two sides of me is the result.

KMH: Do you consider writing by hand a kind of freedom to be irrational whereas the computer limits you, draws boundaries, represents coherence?

VRN: Not at all. I do my best to respect the me who’s writing by hand. In this entire process, I’m not the least bit interested in constructing a poetic subject, but rather a subjectivity. I want a poetic subject who’s like the person I am, that is, someone with a certain level of incoherence.

KMH: In the case of reverses, how long did the whole process take?

VRH: It took many years; I started it in 1989. But the last phase went quite quickly. I finished the notebook and immediately began to transfer what I’d written to the computer. But in general, I’ve found that this way of writing has freed me, I’m constantly jotting notes down.

KMH: Let’s talk specifically about two poems from the book that appear in Asymptote: 8 [outsides or the groundhog gorges on twilight] and 10 [sanities or you’re a tempest in a teapot]. What do these two poems speak to?

VRN: 8 is about contemplation, and normally when we discuss this term, there’s also some reference to nature or otherness, what is outside of us.  Yet, the poem suggests that though contemplation has traditionally been considered to be a passive act, it is actually quite active. In contemplation, we always choose to highlight certain elements of what is outside of us, and what is outside of us also intervenes. There is a dialogical relationship between our insides and the outside.

10 has a lot in common with 8. One of the things I’ve proposed in my poetry is to emphasize that poetic form is ideological. I’ve tried to move towards a poetry without borders. That’s why I don’t use punctuation or upper-case letters, and why I incorporate devices like enjambment and ellipsis extensively. I want my poetry to be the closest it can be to reality without being realist. Realism is very different from reality.

KMH: While Cuban poetry spans a myriad of topics, there are certain themes poets on and off the island tend to privilege, like what it means to be Cuban and the political situation they live. Yet, your poems from this latest cycle don’t explicitly address those ideas. To a certain extent, you don’t write the way a Cuban “ought” to. Could you talk more about how you approach the themes of nationalism and politics in your work?

VRN: Let me begin by saying that I don’t think any poet has the luxury of choosing how he or she writes, they write the only way they can. And everything you mention in your question is of great interest to me. Cuba’s political situation is very important to me, as is identity. The way all of it manifests itself in my poetry, however, might be distinct. First of all, I am absolutely against nationalism. In my view it’s a completely perverse ideology that’s justified humanity’s greatest crimes. It’s an ideology that’s based on difference, which is, in most cases, completely arbitrary. To say it another way, identity that’s based on identification—not differentiation—makes a lot more sense to me. And for that reason, I identify with places that aren’t necessarily Cuba. There’s no reason for me to limit myself. I can leave the island and still be Cuban, but differently, and that’s exactly what I want to be. I don’t mean to disappoint those who expect me to write in a certain way, but I’m not interested in stereotypes, or anything that isn’t authentic, that doesn’t come from a great expressive need. I refuse to change my style to make a good impression on someone, to get a book published, or to be successful in the United States or in Cuba or anywhere. It’s the only way I can write.