Writing Poetry to Silence:
A Conversation with Hofstra University Professor
and Poet Miguel Ángel Zapata
~with two poems~
Interview conducted by Madeleine Carroll
Hofstra University MFA Publishing Fellow
and Managing Editor for Issue 2 of AMP
edited by Janet Kaplan
Miguel-Ángel Zapata, professor of romance languages and literatures at Hofstra University, is one of the most innovative poets of his generation in Peru and one of Latin America’s most influential poetic voices today. Among his most recent published works are the celebrated Hoy dia es otro mundo (Today is Another World), and La Nota 13 (Note 13). He was awarded the 2011 Latino Literature Prize in the Poetry Category for his book Fragmentos de una manzana y otros poemas (Fragments of an Apple and Other Poems). He has also published: La ventana y Once poemas (The Window and Eleven Poems) (Mexico, 2014), Ensayo sobre la rosa (Essay on the Rose) (Lima, 2010), Un pino me habla de la lluvia (A Pine Tree Tells Me About the Rain) (Lima, 2007), El cielo que me escribe (The Sky That Writes Me) (Mexico, 2002), Crows (Mexico, 2003), among others. His poetry has been translated into English, French, Italian, Portuguese, and Russian. MAZ has also published several books of essays on poetry, articles on art and poetry, critical editions, and anthologies of Peruvian, Mexican, and Latin American poetry.
Madeleine Carroll: I want to ask how you came to be a poet. At what age did you start writing, and what inspired you to write in general?
Miguel-Ángel Zapata: Well, I believe I was around fourteen years old. I discovered poetry through nature and music. I wanted to talk to the trees—literally. I wanted to speak to the sea, to the sky, the big windows of my house, and I expected some response. One day I decided to write to see if I got any response from the waters or the sky, but there was no response. In time, I realized that it was better this way. The wait allowed me to continue writing poetry to that silence that is perhaps as perfect as God. On the other hand, music was essential to my beginnings as a poet and, as I am still learning, music is still a fundamental part of my life. I liked listening to music for violin and cello. That kind of music gave me the rhythm and especially the emotions that allowed me to write poetry. That music came to me like a river, like an inevitable rain, penetrating my spirit. At the beginning it was a combination of sweetness and sadness, with the cello especially, which is still my favorite instrument. It happens the same way with jazz or any other kind of modern music, including Peruvian rhythms. As you know, I have been playing the Peruvian cajón (wooden box) since I was twelve, and I still play it. Writing is a similar experience to playing music. The sounds come from inside. The same thing happens with words.
MC: That’s beautiful. I’m a musician myself; I play the viola. And I see there’s such a connection between music and writing. Music really is a language, and I feel like it must have inspired me to write in some way. I grew up mostly playing music and then I started writing as a teenager. Whether you’re listening to music or playing it, music opens up a part of you like nothing else can.
MÁZ: I totally agree. A while ago someone asked me which writers have influenced my craft. I mentioned Kafka, Paul Celan, Vallejo, but I added that the Symphonia Concertante for Violin and Viola by Mozart has given me more than a hundred novels.
MC: Wow, I have to listen to that one now! You’ve written many prose poems as well as line-broke verse. I’m curious to know what you admire about writing in the prose form and what that process is like for you.
MÁZ: I think the prose poem is a forest that asks you to walk through it freely. The forest will be the metaphor or the symbol, or the thickness of a poem, how complex it is and how it is so immense. The prose poem has more possibility than verse because I can span myself and open my thoughts, my soul and my spirit with total freedom.
MC: I’m thinking of your poem “Los muslos sobre la grama” (“Thighs upon the Grass”) which tells a story about how you see a girl jogging through a cemetery. Do you feel that the prose poem allows you to add more narrative to your poetry—in addition, of course, to focusing on images?
MÁZ: Definitely. I was riding my bike in California in a place that I thought was a nice park. The weather was perfect, as usual. And all of a sudden I saw a woman jogging through the cemetery. It was the first time in my life that I’d seen someone doing this. Suddenly, the sprinklers turned on and I thought I was in paradise. I’d seen something beautiful in a place that was supposed to be depressing but became pleasant and pristine.
MC: In that one, you say that she was a “feather” above the ground. That was a beautiful image.
MÁZ: When I saw her it felt like she was floating more than running.
MC: I want to ask about process, how you think of a new poem. Do you think of an image that sparks a desire to express it in some way?
MÁZ: The image usually comes to me unexpectedly. In my particular case, it usually it comes after I read a great poem or when I am taking my usual walks or riding my bike in the open air. I’m more interested in the sky than in the buildings. Tall buildings don’t inspire me, but beautiful bridges do. I usually try to imagine what is behind that tall building or behind the bridge. Poetry, in this way, allows me to feel some kind of spirituality. For example, I can see a pine tree or the ocean, and these images make me feel happy. I never write when I feel kind of sad. It has to be a sweet sadness. I live in a house that has a patio and six junipers. I feed the wild birds every single day, and every time I see them eating, it makes me feel like I should write a poem about life and nature. It comes from there and it also comes from reading poets I admire. I like to read spiritual poets like William Blake and, more recently, Charles Wright.
MC: It seems that nature opens something within you to want to be creative, to produce something and add to the beauty that you see and hear around you.
MÁZ: Yes, of course. And that happens particularly when I walk through New York City at night or when I climbed the city of Machu Picchu in Peru.
MC: You are also a Professor of Spanish at Hofstra University, teaching all levels of Spanish and a variety of literature courses such as Latin American poetry, Literature of the Fantastic, and The Short Story. Does your profession influence your writing?
MÁZ: Definitely. When I’m talking about poetry in my classes and reading the masters of Spanish poetry, I am recreating myself. Despite the difficulty of teaching poetry, I believe you can share poetry with your students by reading it aloud and listening to their comments. All the comments about poetry are valuable. I think we have to transmit the emotion that poetry produces in us, rather than just trying to teach it. Borges would be happy with this way of sharing poetry.
MC: I also want to talk about your poem “La Ventana” (“The Window”), which I absolutely love. You recently did a reading here at Hofstra as a part of our Great Writers, Great Readings Series, an event hosted by the English Department and MFA Program in Creative Writing, where each semester renowned writers hold readings and conversations with students and the general public. At your reading, you read “Thighs Upon the Grass” and “La Ventana” in the original Spanish, among others. “La Ventana” opens with the line, “I’m going to build a window in the middle of the street in order to not feel lonely.” There are obviously many ways one can grasp meaning in the poem. You capture the contradiction of solitude or loneliness and the desire to reach the outside world. This rang true for someone like me who is more introverted, but also what it feels like to be a writer, since a writer’s life can often be a solitary one.
MÁZ: Yes, I like what you said. Even though the craft of writing poetry can be a solitary activity, it can also be really social. I am an extremely social person.
Poetry can be a window to look into the other side. “The Window” was born because I was reading Kafka, who was a solitary person, and I saw the word “ventana” (window) in the blue notebooks that he published, which contain notes, comments, short stories, etc. And I thought about how it would be if I could do something unusual like build a real window in the middle of a street or an ocean. This poem came to me while I was driving. The first line came to my mind, and I felt that poetry had given me the tools to escape my solitude in that precise moment.
MC: I love the juxtaposition of wanting to see both “el cielo y una vela”: “the sky and a candle.” It really captures the whole essence of the poem.
MÁZ: The candle is a symbol, like the window. It allows us to see through the other side. It looks almost invisible. It means peace, hope, sadness. A candle, a little flame.
MC: I want to end with a question coming from someone who is fairly new to writing. Do you have any advice for writers who are struggling to find their voice?
MÁZ: I think we always and constantly have to ask for our voice to come back. Sometimes, if we believe that we have found our voice, we might be lost again. I think we have to be humble. Sometimes we’ve found our voice in a poem but then we have to keep searching for new ones. We have to keep looking for that light that sometimes hides, but it is there, always. I don’t know if I would use the word “advice”; I would probably give you some suggestions—specifically, to read poetry, not just poets from your own country, but from all over the world. I think that a good fiction writer must read good poetry in order to be a good fiction writer. Latin American poets read more “American” poetry than Americans read us. Latin American poets read poets from all over the world, in translation. I recommend that you or any good fiction writer read Rilke, Rimbaud, Paul Celan, George Trakl. Also, it is imperative to read the Italian poet Alda Merini; she’s fantastic. Also, Delmira Agustini from Uruguay, one of the pioneers and best writers of Latin American avant-garde poetry. She died when she was twenty-eight years old, killed by her jealous husband. She is a poet everyone should discover. I would also suggest reading Alejandra Pizarnik from Argentina, one of our contemporary poets. I always recommend the poetry of César Vallejo from Peru. If you want to read great Latin American fiction, read Pedro Páramo by Juan Rulfo, all of Jorge Luis Borges, García Marquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Julio Cortázar.
MC: Thank you so much for speaking with me today and for your wonderful insights. I want to add that one of your books— Uno Escribe Poesía Caminando (One Writes Poetry Walking)— was recently translated into Italian: Uno Scrive Poesia Camminando. Over the years, your work as been translated into English, Portuguese, French, and now Italian. What does that mean to you, to have your work span several languages?
MÁZ: I feel very happy because I don’t believe writers can survive these days without being translated into other languages. You definitely reach an international audience. And I want to thank you for your kindness and your time and all your good questions and comments.
Two poems by Miguel-Ángel Zapata
Thighs upon the Grass
I am writing because of the girl I saw jogging this morning in the cemetery, the one who floated against the dead. She ran and her body was a feather that swayed against death. Then I said in this kingdom sports were good not only for the heart’s delight but also for the orgasm of sight. Seeing her run in her little transparent shorts I concluded that cemeteries don’t have to be sad, and that the girl’s steady gallop gave the landscape another perspective; the sun took on a reddish hue, its vague light giving life to her skin, her golden hair shining upon the gravestones and again I thought that death was not the subject of tears but rather of joy when life continued vibrating with thighs upon the grass.
– Translation by Suzanne Jill Levine
Los muslos sobre la grama
Escribo por la muchacha que vi correr esta mañana por el cementerio, la que trotaba ágilmente sobre los muertos. Ella corría y su cuerpo era una pluma de ave que se mecía contra la muerte. Entonces dije que en este reino el deporte no era bueno solo para la alegría del corazón sino también para el orgasmo de la vista. Al verla correr con sus pequeños shorts transparentes deduje que los cementerios no tenían por qué ser tristes, el galope acompasado de la chica daba otra perspectiva al paisaje: el sol adquiría un tono rojizo, su luz tenue se clavaba dando vida a la piel, los mausoleos brillaban con su cabellera de oro, y volví a pensar que la muerte no era un tema de lágrimas sino más bien de gozo cuando la vida continuaba vibrando con los muslos sobre la grama.
I’m going to build a window in the middle of the street in order to not feel lonely. I will plant a tree in the middle of the street, and it will grow to the astonishment of the passersby. I’ll raise birds that will never flit to other trees, and they will remain perched and chirping to the surrounding noise and general disinterest. I’ll grow an ocean framed within the window. But this time I won’t grow tired of its waters, and the seagulls will circle high above my head. There will be a bed and sofa beneath the trees so that the flame will have a rest from the waves.
I’m going to build a window in the middle of the street in order to not feel lonely. That way I will be able to see the sky and the people that pass by without speaking to me, just like those vultures of death that fly but are unable to rip out my heart. This window will illumine my loneliness. I might even open another window from the middle of the sea then see the horizon shimmer like a firefly with crystal wings. The world would be far away, across the sands, over there, where loneliness and memories exist. Anyway, it’s inevitable that I build a window, especially now that I no longer write or walk beneath the desert pines, even though today seems to be suited for the discovery of unfathomable lands.
I’m going to build a window in the middle of the street. How absurd, they’ll tell me, a window so that people pass by and stare at you as if you were a madman who wants to see both the sky and a candle flickering behind the curtains. Baudelaire was correct; the one who looks outside from an open window sees less than the one who sees a shut window. Because of this, I have shut my windows and have run out into the street, in order to not see myself illumined by the shadow.
– Translation by Anthony Seidman
Voy a construir una ventana en medio de la calle para no sentirme solo. Plantaré un árbol en medio de la calle, y crecerá ante el asombro de los paseantes: criaré pájaros que nunca volarán a otros árboles, y se quedarán a cantar ahí en medio del ruido y la indiferencia. Crecerá un océano en la ventana. Pero esta vez no me aburriré de sus mares, y las gaviotas volverán a volar en círculos sobre mi cabeza. Habrá una cama y un sofá debajo de los árboles para que descanse la lumbre de sus olas.
Voy a construir una ventana en medio de la calle para no sentirme solo. Así podré ver el cielo y la gente que pasa sin hablarme, y aquellos buitres de la muerte que vuelan sin poder sacarme el corazón. Esta ventana alumbrará mi soledad. Podría inclusive abrir otra en medio del mar, y solo vería el horizonte como una luciérnaga con sus alas de cristal. El mundo quedaría lejos al otro lado de la arena, allá donde vive la soledad y la memoria. De cualquier manera es inevitable que construya una ventana, y sobre todo ahora que ya no escribo ni salgo a caminar como antes bajo los pinos del desierto, aun cuando este día parece propicio para descubrir los terrenos insondables.
Voy a construir una ventana en medio de la calle. Vaya absurdo, me dirán, una ventana para que la gente pase y te mire como si fueras un demente que quiere ver el cielo y una vela encendida detrás de la cortina. Baudelaire tenía razón: el que mira desde afuera a través de una ventana abierta no ve tanto como el que mira una ventana cerrada. Por eso he cerrado mis ventanas y he salido a la calle corriendo para no verme alumbrado por la sombra.
– De El cielo que me escribe (2002)