Interview
A Journey to the Primal House: A Conversation with Isaac Goldemberg

A Journey to the Primal House: A Conversation with Isaac Goldemberg

Viaje a la primera casa

Benito Pastoriza Iyodo

Isaac Goldemberg was born in Peru in 1945 and has lived in New York since 1964. He has published three novels, eleven books of poetry, three plays and an anthology. His work has been translated to several languages. In 2001, his novel La Vida a Plazos de Don Jacobo Lerner was selected as one of the 100 most important works of Jewish literature in the past 150 years. He is a distinguish professor at the Hostos Community College (CUNY), where he is also the director of the Institute of Latin American Writers and the Hostos Review.

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BENITO PASTORIZA IYODO: Upon reading your poetic works, the reader has the sensation that s/he is about to embark on a great journey. Where does this journey go?

ISAAC GOLDEMBERG: It goes to the origins, to the primal house, to the individual and collective unconscious, to that point where the self, if it were to arrive, would be able to perceive the very act of Creation, Creation with a capital C. It’s a journey drawn by the desire that every human being has to find him or herself fulfilled. It is also a journey projected toward the future, constantly returning.

B. P. I.: In your poetry collections, there seems to be a conversation with the past. What are you trying to reclaim from that past?

I. G.: My intent is to reclaim a personal and collective history. If, in my poems and narratives, I continue to refer to a familiar and common past, it’s because what interests me about my past and the past in general, is to reclaim my identity as an individual and as a historical being. So in both my poetry and narrative I constantly turn to myth, often trying to achieve a synthesis of the Peruvian and Jewish myths. At this level, it could be said that my work is the rewriting of an experience which is both historical and mythical: the Jewish exile. The first exile refers to, of course, the banishment from paradise: those origins, that primal house that we talked about a while ago. What comes out of my work is the desire to deeply experience the Jewish exile, not only as a historical occurrence but also as a mythical event. In referring constantly to the past, especially in my poems, what I try to do is reclaim a series of myths still present but dormant in Judaism. And, to explore that other part of myself, I try to do the same with the Peruvian myths. That is to say, looking at history not as a mere succession of events but as a collection of facts that unfold from a shared cosmological cosmovision. That’s why my novels or my poems shouldn’t be taken as an autobiography, nor as a true history of the Jewish Peruvian community, nor about a particular provincial life in Peru. All of that only serves as background to present an experience in which the historical participates once more in certain mythical memories.

B. P. I.: Your poetry seems to flow over into the pages of your novels. The same thing happens in your poetry collections where poetry almost becomes prose or an extension of your novels. How do you explain this duality?

I. G.: One time, in another interview, I said that when I write poetry I feel like a poet and when I write novels I feel like a novelist, but the truth is that it’s always been impossible for me to create a clear and emphatic split between the poet and the novelist. In reality, the duality you’re talking about happens like a controlled schizophrenia, controlled in the sense that at every moment the poet must be aware that he is fabricating a poem and not a story: not even a poem in prose. The same thing happens with the narrative: the writer must be fully aware that he’s fabricating a tale or a novel. I prefer the term fabricate to write because the poem, the story and the novel are artistic objects that have very particular demands, demands which at the same time demand to be transgressed if the purpose is to create a work of art – that is to say an object that responds to a particular and unique vision of the world – and not only to repeat a pre-established model. Human beings react to reality, to a vital situation, by making art and I think that the aim of all art – writing included – is to provide a certain idea of the world, but an idea that cannot be repeated, his/her own. And the artist makes art, or tries to make it, through transgression. That’s why, in my poetry, my transgressor self is the novelist and in my novels my transgressor self is the poet.

B. P. I.: Your verses have a phantasmagoric feeling that reminds us of Ramón López Velarde and César Vallejo. Is this a different direction or is there an implicit poetic intertextuality here?

I. G.: Well, I hadn’t really thought about it before, but there is something in my poetry that is reminiscent of López Velarde, but only by coincidence and the fact that we have both worked with elements that belong to the countryside, the Peruvian and Mexican countryside. The phantasmagorical is a natural part of López Velarde’s poetic environment because the Mexican countryside is naturally like that. I remember that in his poetry there are flying gloves, skeletons dancing through the universe, etc. You can also note a Rulfian element in his poems and this is what, in some way, makes us alike. With Vallejo it’s different: here there is an implicit poetic intertextuality. At an unconscious or conscious level, I have an ongoing dialogue with Vallejo, especially in those poems that have to do with my condition as a mestizo. Yes, there is a lot of the phantasmagorical in Vallejo’s poetry, poems where, for example, the narrator returns to his house and no one in his family exists anymore, only the echo of what was and no longer is. I’ve also worked with these elements, with a past populated by ghosts – parents, children – as I say, precisely, in a poem, if my memory is correct, titled “Crónicas”. But besides the phantasmagorical, my intertextual dialogue with Vallejo is fanned by another bellows: that of the telluric force, which comes from feeling that I am the product of a cultural and racialmestizaje. So I’ve also created narrators who show, for example, a religious thirst like the biblical prophets, or I’ve written poems where the numeric symbolism has priority, or where I try to express the thoughts and feelings of mymestiza race. But, as opposed to Vallejo, almost always with a good dose of irony. Rather, of nostalgia and irony. Although, now that I think about it, Vallejo can also be ironic as well as nostalgic. But my irony is not his: irony comes to me from the channels of culture and Jewish literature.

B. P. I.: Does your poetry offer a theology of a common God forgotten by man?

I. G.: More than forgotten, a reconfigured God. And yes, also a common God; common in its sense of a current ordinary entity – in the best sense of the word – as much as not being anyone’s private property. Many of my poems make reference to God; in others God plays a leading role, not with the purpose of grasping His divine essence, but rather questioning the role He has played as an active agent – an agent created by human beings – within the history of humanity in general and the history of the Jewish people in particular. In this way, God appears as a type of “common” being, as a historical character who has had an important role among the Jewish people since the Genesis and, as such, becomes an extension of the consciousness of those people.

B. P. I.: Is there a battle against forgetting in your work?

I. G.: Of course, of not forgetting the past: that’s the watchword. The collective memory sustains my identity. It is through memory that I can register myself in the flow of history: I am, therefore I remember where I come from and where I’m going. Memory is that shelter where I can reorganize and give new meaning to the past. For me, to remember is to re-create. It’s not merely returning to the past but adapting the past to present circumstances.

B. P. I.: Why do you return to poetry in an environment where poetry has lost prestige to the novel?

I. G.: Well, I don’t believe that good poetry has lost prestige. What happens is that there’s a lot of bad poetry now and this makes poetry in general less popular and less prestigious than the novel. Of course, there are also bad novels, completely hollow, that say little or nothing. Many people read them, true, but this doesn’t mean that these novels deserve any prestige. You ask why I return to poetry and, as I’ve never left it, I suppose you’re referring to why I write it. It’s not a voluntary thing. It’s something that imposes itself in a natural way without my knowing. I see, I hear anything and suddenly images and words start to come up which immediately – without meaning to and as if by magic – take the shape of a poem. Of course, inspiration is not all of it: then comes the work of fabricating the poem.

B. P. I.: What’s your opinion of poetry produced by Latinos in the United States?

I. G.: In the first place, it’s a poetry with multiple and heterogeneous tendencies. It’s a phenomenon so rich in its manifestations that you can’t talk about one particular style, nor one particular theme. Each nationality, each ethnic group, has a considerable number of valuable poets, poets who are producing an important body of work not only in terms of what they’re producing on this side of the river but in their own countries as well. If we were to mention names – which I won’t do because there are many and you always run the risk of leaving somebody out – the list would be endless. There are poets of all nationalities, and more appear every day; poets that write on a wide variety of subjects in Spanish, in English, in both languages or in that hybrid creature called Spanglish. Not everything that’s written is good, of course, but as a whole there’s a high level of quality. What’s important is that the poetic dialogue between the poets from here and from there, as well as between poets living in the United States, continue to be constant and fruitful.

B. P. I.: Could the United States be regarded as the new Hispanic homeland for many Latinos who come to blend their cultures and idiosyncrasies in this country?

I. G.: Yes, in a certain way. Blending our cultures and idiosyncrasies in the so-called and historical “melting pot” seems accurate to me, but we should be able to accomplish this without it meaning that we incinerate our differences. I think that the watchword should be the following: to be equal to others and, at the same time, different. I think that the new Hispanic Homeland in the United States should be built on a background of the comings and goings of our identity and the new “American identity”, with our own language and the new language, with our own history and the history of the United States; a homeland where Latinos can see our own Latin identity reflected and where “Americans” who aren’t Latinos can see their “Americanism” reflected, but in a mirror that offers the image, not of a one dimensional “Americanism”, but of a multifaceted one.

B. P. I.: Could a Hispanic literature representing a multifaceted reality come out of the United States?

I. G.: I think that Latino literature in the U.S. is following a similar course to that of Jewish literature in Latin America. In the same way, Latino literature has already developed a “Latino” “American” discourse in the United States. Latino literature, as a writing with the marginal status of a minority discourse – like the literature of other ethnic groups – serves an important function as the counterpoint to the official discourse. In this sense, Latino literature offers a challenge to the canon established as the “authentic voice” of the United States. That is to say, a literature that questions the process by which the accepted truths have been established. Therefore, the Latino point of view is not divorced from the social environment; rather it offers the possibility of a dialogue-discourse of change. Another odd phenomenon in this process is that the Latino population in the U.S. is so vast, especially in cities like New York, Miami, Chicago and Los Angeles, that writers no longer feel that they’re living “totally” in exile, as happened in the past with writers who moved to Europe, for example. This gives Latino writers the chance to explore more freely, and from a different point of view, issues such as what it means to be Latino and “American”. That is to say, explore the hereditary identity and the new “American identity” at the same time, fruit of the mestizaje of the two Americas and of two or more languages. And to that end they make use of Spanish and Spanglish, and even standard English, and English made impure not only by the infusion of Castilian words and phrases, but also by the changes in syntax that a language is subject to when those who speak it have another way of thinking and seeing the world. Because of all of this, and to get back to your question, I do think that a literature particular to Latinos already exists and that it represents a more multifaceted reality. I think that Latinos in general, and writers in particular, are building a collective homeland of the spoken word, knowing that to build a collective homeland of the spoken word implies stepping back – and/or building bridges – between the old and the new, between the lands of banishment and the new promised land. And they know that for this a language has to be built, a language – it could be Castilian, English or Spanglish – that expresses the collective experience of Latinos in the USA, a language that serves as a mirror to see themselves and to see the other, a language that is the reflection of the determination of the Latino community of this country to interpret itself. Latino writers know that the subject of ethnic identity, instead of becoming outdated, remains current for the cultural, social and political life of the United States. That’s why a large number of them are writing about issues related to their origins, their culture and their language. And it’s precisely this quest, undertaken from a multicultural and multilingual perspective, which keeps driving them to design a Latino reality that is multifaceted and not monolithic.

-The Societé des Poetes Francais, an ancient organization that has welcomed the most important poets of the world, recently invited Isaac Goldemberg to read his poems.

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