Interview and Poems by Alí Calderón Translated by Karla Cordero and Ana Bosch


[The Church of St. Salvador of Chora]

Edirnekapi: Four centuries ago a Byzantine Church
Outside the walls of Theodosius:
concrete & ruins & dust.
My grandfather always
at Our Lady of Carmen at eleven
reflecting? listens to mass?
Light falls from windows upon frescos.
It’s Jesus.
Multiplying loaves of bread. Jesus.
There are fish.
Empty baskets. Jesus.
Someone by my side says, “God”
But what is at the entrance? Nothing. But is nothing? Echoing sounds.
Under indifference
of a Christ Pantocrator
Time has worn the glass
like tiny mosaics
The Baptist reveals
a layer of sand & mortar
the wall is gold and lapis
Now tar.
Hidden for fifteen centuries behind statues of apostles & saints
Love & lord of paraclesion
Lime plaster & dark border signs
Written in Greek: come to me, hurried, overwhelmed—
Inscriptions almost invisible
the cracks
vaults are scaled
stone bricks
Opposite of healing the lame, opposite of lame, the paralyzed
Opposite of what I think is the final verse—
My father answers—“this is only decoration”
“You are the sculpture”—& I pointed toward my chest


The light changes in West Vine & Broadway Street
The cool wind stashes the afternoon
A flying crow cuts through transparency
& the light on the leaves

—the fine strokes of brushes appeared
in high wind souring
of day’s clarity:
supuso una presencia
whispers us into present


You do so much for poetry and poets in your language and for connecting other poets around the world. We wonder how did you begin? At what point in your life did you find yourself interested in poetry?

Well, my father writes poetry as well, so it has been a part of my life since I was a child. As a teenager, I read Catullus and Ernesto Cardenal with passion, Pound’s brief poems and the beat poets too. And I could not drop it. I studied Literature. During my PhD, I specialized in poetry and now, I teach Poetry at a University level. At the same time, I wrote my poems. Then, as the editor of the magazine Círculo de Poesía (, the most read specialized publication in Spanish language; I became more involved in the knowledge of other’s work. I am dedicated to poetry 24/7: as a poet, a critic and an editor.

Bueno, mi padre escribe poesía también así que desde niño era parte de mi vida. De adolescente leí con passion a Catulo y a Ernesto Cardenal, los poemas breves de Pound y a los poetas beat. Y ya no pude dejarla. Estudié literatura. En el doctorado me especialicé en poesía y ahora en la Universidad enseño poesía también. De modo paralelo escribí mis poemas. Luego, como editor de la revista Círculo de Poesía (, la publicación especializada más leída en la lengua española, me impliqué mucho más en el conocimiento de la obra de los otros. Estoy dedicado 24/7 a la poesía: como poeta, critico y editor.

American poet Carolyn Forché once said that all poets write out of their deepest obsessions. What are your obsessions? Passions? What themes and subjects are most intriguing to you and your work?

I’m interested in the structure of reality. I will explain. In Mexico, there is a developing theory supposing that reality — through the space that surrounds us — can be read in the same way that Freud or Jung deciphered a dream. To decipher the dream language we need to interpret symbols. Those same symbols are present around us in the shape of objects or images. This way, what is behind us corresponds to our past; things located to our right, to the most meaningful and important things to us, to our left, to the least important things, and things in front of us tell us about our future. It seems crazy, I know. But this idea finds sustentation in the work of physicists like David Bohm. In the end, it is all about new ideas surrounding the concept of destiny, the fatality, the accomplishment of a script we follow, the synchronicity relationships — some sort of randomness — in our lives. And in the middle of such a forest of symbols and correspondences, the human drama, defeat, and the consciousness of finiteness. It has all interested me always.

Me interesa la estructura de la realidad. Me explico. En México se ha desarrollado un teoría que supone que la realidad, a través del espacio que nos rodea, puede ser leída del mismo modo en que Freud o Jung descifraron un sueño. Descifrar el lenguaje onírico era interpretar símbolos. Esos mismos símbolos se presentan en nuestro entorno en forma de objetos o imágenes. Así, lo que está detrás de nosotros corresponde al pasado; lo que se encuentra a la derecha, a lo más importante; a la izquierda lo menos importante y lo que está frente a nosotros da cuenta del futuro. Parece una locura, lo sé. Pero esta idea encuentra sustento también en el trabajo de físicos como David Bohm. Al final, se trata de nuevas ideas en torno al concepto del destino, la fatalidad, el cumplimiento de un spript que seguimos, las relaciones de sincronicidad (una suerte de azar) en nuestras vidas. Y en medio de ese bosque de símbolos y correspondencias, el drama humano, la derrota, la conciencia de la finitud. Eso me ha interesado siempre.

When you begin writing a poem — how does it usually begin? Which comes first — idea, image, music, or form? And why?

The idea. I believe that the poem is a vehicle of knowledge, of revelation. From the “What do I want to say” I build a verbal universe, a linguistic texture and a syntactic procedure that may work for such content (which is never entirely precise). What is said and how it is said, I think, must target the same spot. Sometimes, however, there is an interior urgency that sets the rhythm, form and even the topic. It does not happen all the time, but sometimes it does. In the end, the form is solely the container of our inwardness.

La idea. Pienso que el poema es un vehículo de conocimiento, de revelación. A partir de “qué quiero decir” construyo un universo verbal, una textura linguística y un procedimiento sintáctico que puedan funcionar para ese contenido (que nunca es del todo preciso). El qué se dice y el cómo se dicen, pienso, deben apuntar hacia el mismo sitio. A veces, sin embargo, hay una urgencia interior que impone ritmo, forma y aún el tema. No me pasa siempre pero a veces sucede. A fin de cuentas, la forma es únicamente el recipiente de nuestra interioridad.

Who do you see as your audience? Does your audience matter? Since you also promote poetry tirelessly in your own country and around the world — what does it mean to build an audience for your work? For other people’s work?

I believe that such question can be answered in two dimensions. A few years ago, a group of friends and I asked Gabriel García Márquez, how do you know what kind of book you will start writing? I write the kind of book I fancy reading, he said. There is, then, a splitting. I construct a book for myself according to my formal and thematic expectations. I construct a tone able to explain who I am and what I think at a given moment. I do not think in anyone else’s mindframe. However, I am a historic subject, and I am sure that I share visions, sensations, with the people of my environment. We all aspire to lend our voices to the time we are living.

Creo que esa pregunta puede responderse en dos dimensiones. Hace algunos un grupo de amigos le preguntamos a Gabriel García Márquez ¿cómo sabes qué libro vas a comenzar a escribir? Nos respondió: escribo el libro que me apetece leer. Existe entonces un desdoblamiento. Construyo un libro para mí mismo según mis expectativas formales y temáticas. Construyo un tono que explique quién soy y qué pienso en determinado momento. No pienso en nadie más. Sin embargo soy un sujeto histórico y estoy seguro que comparto visiones, sensaciones con la gente de mi etorno. Todos aspiramos a que nuestras palabras le den voz a la época en que vivimos.

Which European & North American poets are most influential to your work, if any?

I read a lot of poetry in other languages. I find it fundamental to be contemporary to the poets of the world and to know, as much as possible, other lyrical traditions. Among the poets of our time, I have read much of Adam Zagajewski and Wislawa Szymborska. In English, I read Paul Muldoon (he has a fantastic poem, “Cuba”), Alan Jenkins (“Moths” is an exemplar poem), Sujata Bhatt (“Sherdi” is a very powerful text). I am interested in the poetry of Dennis O’Driscoll, Donald Hall, Paula Meejan (her poem “Child burial” is a shock from which one does not recover easily). A few years ago, I knew the work of Kim Addonizio and Ilya Kaminsky. They are poets that especially interest me. I am not at all interested in the poetry of Charles Bernstein or Marjorie Perloff, but to me, their theoretical approaches, are the most important. Without a doubt, the poet that amazes me the most because of his lyrical power is a Portuguese poet, whom passed away in 1997, Al Berto. He is a magnificent poet. I read a lot of poetry and take things from here and there. I think about Petrarch. A poet is like a bee that drinks from the best flowers to produce its honey. That is the aspiration. The originality is in the way one assimilates all sorts of influences, musical, literary, etc; in the way we are capable of creating a collage from that continuum named reality.

Leo mucha poesía en otras lenguas. Me parece que es fundamental ser contemporáneo de los poetas del mundo y conocer lo más possible de otras tradiciones líricas. Entre los poetas de nuestro tiempo, he leído mucho a Adam Zagajewski y a Wislawa Szymborska. En inglés leo a Paul Muldoon (tiene un poema fantastic titulado “Cuba”), a Alan Jenkins (“Moths” es un poema ejemplar), a Sujata Bhatt (“Sherdi” es un texto muy poderoso). Me interesa la poesía de Dennis O´Driscoll, Donald Hall, Paula Meehan (su poema “Child burial” es un golpe de que uno no se recupera rápido). Hace unos años conocí el trabajo de Kim Addonizio y de Ilya Kamínsky. Son poetas que me interesan especialmente.

No me interesa en absolute la poesía de Charles Bernstein o Marjorie Perloff pero sus planteamientos teóricos me parecen de la mayor importancia. Sin duda, el poeta que me causa mayor asombro debido a su potencia lírica es un portugués muerto en 1997, Al Berto. Es un grandísimo poeta. Leo mucha poesía y tomo cosas de aquí y de allá. Pienso en Petrarca. Un poeta es como una abeja que bebe de las mejores flores para producir su miel. Esa es la aspiración. La originalidad radica en el modo de asimilar las influencias literarias, musicales, etc., en el modo en que somos capaces de lograr un collage a partir de ese continuum que es la realidad.

What about poets from other regions of the world such as Africa, Asia?

At the moment, I am translating a Palestinian poet, Najwan Darwish. I am interested in the power of his political discourse. In Irak, there are poets that I like because of the way they make us bite the dust from the debris: Adnan Al-Sayeg, Jamal Jumá y Talib Abdelaziz are excellent.

I am interested in the pithiness of China and Japan, and the capacity of suggestion from its arsenal of images. I am currently reading Saito Mokichi, born in the same year as Pessoa and our own Ramón López Velarde. The poems to his mother are very touching. Not long ago, I read an interesting anthology: Language for a new century. Contemporary poetry from the middle east, Asia and beyond edited by Tina Chang, Nathalie Handal y Ravi Shankar. I know little about African poetry, but I remember reading a very interesting poet from Mozambique, Rui Knopfli.

Ahora mismo estoy traduciendo a un poeta palestino, Najwan Darwish. Me interesa la fuerza de su discurso político. En Irak hay poetas que me gustan por el modo en que nos hacen morder el polvo de entre los escombros: Adnan Al-Sayeg, Jamal Jumá y Talib Abdelaziz. Son excelentes.

De china y de japón me interesa la brevedad y la capacidad de sugerencia de su arsenal de imágenes. Estoy leyendo a Saito Mokichi, que nació el mismo año que Pessoa y nuestro Ramón López Velarde. Los poemas sobre su madre son conmovedores. Hace poco leí una antología interesante: Language for a new century. Contemporary poetry from the middle east, Asia and beyond que editaron Tina Chang, Nathalie Handal y Ravi Shankar. Conozco poco de la poesía Africana pero recuerdo haber leído a un poeta de Mozambique muy interesante, Rui Knopfli.

You are at the center of the new generation of poets writing in Spanish. Which new poets from the Spanish-speaking world should be immediately translated into English?

There are 500 million Spanish speakers. We have, therefore, a very vital poetry. In each country, there are many good poets. Our wealth is the great plurality of proposals. I believe that the English language must get to know Mario Bojórquez (México, 1968), Federico Díaz-Granados (Colombia, 1974) and Fernando Valverde (España, 1980). They are the strong poets of their generations. All of them believe again in emotion, in lyrical intensity, in the discovery of zones of existence, without of course neglecting the construction of the poem.

Hay 500 millones de hablantes del español. Tenemos por tanto una poesía muy vital. En cada país hay muchos buenos poetas. Nuestra riqueza es la gran pluralidad de propuestas. Creo que en ingles deben conocen a Mario Bojórquez (México, 1968), Federico Díaz-Granados (Colombia, 1974) y Fernando Valverde (España, 1980). Son los poetas Fuertes en sus respectivas generaciones. Todos ellos vuelven a creer en la emoción, en la intensidad lírica, en el descrubrimiento de zonas de la existencia, claro, sin descuidar la construcción del poema.

Is the art of translation important for your own practice? How much poetry in translation do you read? What are the joys of translation? What are — if any — the dangers of translation?

Mexico has a great tradition of translation. Octavio Paz was a fantastic translator. In the Hispanic world, especially in Latin America, we are very open to the influences of foreign literature. We believe in what the Brazilian Oswald de Andrade called “the anthropophagical reason,” a little bit like Chakrabarti’s concept of provincialization.

I read a lot of translations; I translate little, only the poems that dazzle me. Translating is a complex way of reading. By translating, I pay especial attention to the formal elections of such construction intelligence that some call style.

When Hernán Cortés came to Mexico, he was amazed for what he saw in Tenochtitlán, the capital of the Aztecs. He wrote a letter to the King Charles V, in which it was read: “I do not write further because I do not know the name of things.” That is what I look for in poetry. To be amazed in a way in which there are no more words to describe the astonishment. That is the greatest risk in translation: the ineffability. Because, in the end, let us recall, poetry remains in what has not yet been said.

México tiene una gran tradición en la traducción. Octavio Paz fue un traductor fantastic. En el mundo hispánico, especialmente en Latinoamérica estamos muy abiertos a las influencias de la literartura extranjera. Creemos en eso que el brasileño Oswald de Andrade llamaba “la razón antropofágica”. Es un poco el concepto de Chakrabarti de la provincialización.

Yo leo mucha traducción. Y traduzco poco, solamente los poemas que me deslumbran. Traducir es un modo complejo de leer. Al traducir me fijo especialmente en las elecciones formales de esa inteligencia de construcción que algunos llaman estilo.

Cuando Hernán Cortés vino a México se maravilló por aquello que veía en tenochtitlán, la capital de los aztecas. Le escribió una carta al rey carlos v donde le decía: “y no escribo más por no saber el nombre de las cosas”. Eso busco en la poesía. Maravillarme de tal modo que no haya palabras para referir el asombro. Ese es el mayor riesgo de la traducción: la inefabilidad. Porque al final, recordemos, la poesía está en lo no dicho.

We know that you do speak English. Do you also read poetry in English? Have you considered writing in English or any languages other than your mother tongue?

I read English fairly well, but I speak it rather poorly. I read a lot in English. Poetry magazine is delivered to my home. I am constantly reading books of the North American critical tradition: Mark Strand, Tony Hoagland, Edward Hirsch, Robert Pinsky. I enjoy Charles Simic’s prose very much. However, I have not thought of a crossover. If a language is, above all, a world vision, I am made in the baroque spirit inherited from the Spanish language spoken in Latinamerica. The crosslink with other languages and the linguistic complexity derived from miscegenation are the subject of my interest.

Leo bien ingles pero lo hablo mal. Leo mucho en ingles. La revista Poetry me llega a la casa. Continuamente estoy leyendo los libros de la tradición crítica norteamericana: Mark Strand, Tony Hoagland, Edward Hirsch, Robert Pinsky. Disfruto mucho la prosa de Charles Simic. Sin embargo no he pensado en el crossover. Si una lengua es ante todo una vision de mundo, estoy hecho del espíritu barroco que nos hereda la lengua española que se habla en latinoamérica. Los entrecruzamientos con otras lenguas y la complejidad linguística a partir del mestizaje me interesan mucho.

You have met poets from many other countries and you have been in touch with even more by e-mail and other forms of communication. What in your view is the best country for a poet to live in? How supportive is Mexico in the area of the arts specifically in regard to poetry?

Mexico is a country in which Literature is bolstered. There are many incentives for writers (grants, writing fellowships, awards, festivals, etc). In that sense, Mexico is a privileged country. No other Hispano-American country can be compared. The State practices this patronage that is, of course, dangerous. Criticism to power cannot be made if you are under its protection. We usually have domesticated poets.

México es un país en donde se apoya mucho la literatura. Existen muchos apoyos para escritores (becas, estancias de escritura, premios, festivals, etc). En ese sentido, México es un país privilegiado. No hay en Hispanoamérica un país que pueda compararse. El Estado ejerce este mecenazgo que, desde luego, es peligroso. La crítica al poder no puede ejercerse si estás bajo su protección. Solemos tener poetas domesticados.

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