February 2013

Jesse Tangen-Mills


An Interview with Guillermo Parra, Translator of José Antonio Ramos Sucre

"The important thing in translation is to give a taste of another poetry," Allen Ginsberg told Guillermo Parra, after sending him to read up on Venezuelan counterculture poets. He has been studying and translating them ever since, and he believes there are more reasons to pay attention to the Caribbean country other than Hugo Chávez's socialism. In fact, thanks to defensive importing taxes aimed at the massive Spanish publishing houses that run distribution in Latin America, Venezuelan readers have begun to turn to their national literature more often. Guillermo suggested that Venezuelan literature is only beginning to discover itself.

Among those discoveries no doubt is Jose Antonio Ramos Sucre (1890-1930). There is little aside from his nearly four-hundred-odd prose pieces that might be called poems, or essays, or short stories; most involve medieval motifs, allusions to Dante and Shakespeare, all of which edge along metaphor, while never fully giving into it. His selected works are available for the first time in English in book form, thanks to Guillermo Parra's obsession with his work. World Literature Today named José Antonio Ramos Sucre: Selected Works one of the top translations of 2012. In addition, Guillermo has published several volumes of his own poetry, Caracas Notebook and Phantasmal Repeats. We spoke about this new Ramos Sucre translation from the University of New Orleans Press and other things Venezuelan over Skype.

In a roundabout way, Allen Ginsberg led to your translation of José Antonio Ramos Sucre.

I guess you could put it that way. I was at Naropa University's summer writing program, which they had for four weeks each summer. For me, it was a great place to be. I was twenty-two at the time and just starting to write poetry. So this was in the middle of getting my undergrad. I spent a month in Boulder. The seeds of translation were planted for me there. I remember Ginsberg lecturing. Many of the authors he brought up he had read in translation. He said even a bad translation can give the reader a glimpse of what that author's work is like.

Then I graduated college in December 1995 and immediately moved to NYC. I lived in New York for most of 1996 and was working at a health food store on the Lower East Side, which by chance happened to be a few blocks from Ginsberg's apartment. One afternoon, he came in to shop with his assistant and I said hello to him, mentioning that I'd studied with him at Naropa. He didn't remember me, but was very polite and shook my hand and told me he wouldn't be going out to Boulder much in the future because of his poor health. That year, I occasionally would see him and Peter Orlovsky, alone and together, walking around the Lower East Side, or at readings at the Poetry Project, though I never spoke with them on those occasions. I have a vivid image in my mind of Orlovsky sitting in Tompkins Square Park one morning reading the New York Times.

He told me about the Venezuelan literary group The Whale's Roof, or El Techo de la Ballena. One of its members was Francisco Pérez Perdomo. In fact, I was able to use his essay about José Antonio Ramos Sucre in the anthology.

What was The Whale's Roof?

A collective of mainly writers and some painters that was active in Caracas in the '60s. Writers who very much identified politically on the left, and were inspired by Fidel Castro's arrival in Cuba, and the sort of impulse that was giving not just to Cuba but to Latin America. They were very inspired by the surrealists, like as I suppose so many in Latin America have been.

You've written a great deal about Roberto Bolaño. Does The Whale's Roof come up in The Savage Detectives?

I don't think they do, but in Juan Villoro's El testigo, a character mentions them in the book. Since you mention Bolaño, I think they would be an equivalent to the Infrarealists. The only difference is that Bolaño's group was younger. The guys from Techo were relatively well connected. Some had already published books as a group. They published a magazine, they had art exhibits, and readings. They were very active although loose-knit.

At the time in Venezuela there were guerrilla fighters that had emerged in the early '60s. These guys were in favor of them -- not directly involved -- but advocating or supporting them. Even though at this time in Venezuela wasn't a dictatorship, these guerillas emerged because they felt excluded. Many had helped over throw Marcos Pérez Jiménez in '58. And when elections were established communism was excluded. That pissed off a lot of them, and they took up arms. Techo definitely were a manifestation of this global counter culture. I believe that Juan Calzadilla -- he's still alive -- was Ginsberg's contact in that group. Juan Calzadilla was in Cuba, at the same time that Ginsberg visited in '65. That's where they might have met and then had a correspondence. Techo did read Kerouac and Ginsberg. That's why they invited Ginsberg to come to Caracas to give a reading. In an article by Juan Calzadilla I translated, he compared Techo with Colombia's Nadaísmo.

The Roof of the Whale was part of that critical group that helped bring Ramos Sucre to readers. Ramos Sucre had been not ignored, but not really read. His complete works were first published in 1956. But these guys really helped bring him back, or establish him.

What did they like about him?

I don't know necessarily what it was that drew them in. But they saw him as taking his own path and doing something no one had ever done in Venezuela in terms of poetry.

Can you situate Ramos Sucre within his social context?

Born in 1890, in the city of Cumaná, the oldest city in Venezuela. It served as its port until the end of 1800s. So Ramos Sucre comes from this lineage, the Sucre family in particular is quite prominent. I guess it's the equivalent of aristocracy. He's a direct descendant of Antonio José de Sucre, a commander of Simón Bolívar's army, considered very crucial in Venezuela's revolution. He died very young. Sort of a heroic figure. Just the other day, I was talking to a friend who mentioned to me that he had read that Ramos Sucre's mom would constantly remind him he was a descendant of this guy.

Ramos Sucre's father died when he was fifteen. So the family had this prestige and came from a wealthy background, but they were basically poor after the father died. Ramos Sucre was a top student at his school, and so the way he was able to go to Universidad Central de Venezuela, a close friend of his, also a poet, Cruz Salmerón Acosta, ended up telling him to come to Caracas and said, What my dad gives me will cover you too, so come to Caracas. And as soon as Ramos Sucre got there, he started publishing in newspapers.

What's Caracas like around then?

He arrived there in 1911. That would have been right in the middle of this long dictatorship with Juan Vicente Gómez who was there about thirty years, right before the oil was discovered. Caracas was very, very small, the biggest city in the country, still the city of los techos rojos because of the colonial style of most of the houses. It was very isolated from the rest of the world. There was the port of Cumaná and there's one in La Guaira. It was still a pretty small area and walkable. There's an anecdote that Ramos Sucre used to go walking around at night. Very different from Caracas today or even twenty years after his death.

Also, I would say socially conservative. One interesting factoid is that many of Ramos Sucre's texts were published in the newspapers, because there was censorship or self-censorship. One of the consequences of that was that many short stories and poems were published in the newspapers during those times as a way to fill up space.

Being a Sucre opened many doors for him, as a descendant of this guy, but he also impressed many writers, intellectuals that he came into contact with, with his brilliance and hard work. If you look at the history of his publications it just kept growing and growing. There weren't really publishing houses, so he wasn't publishing books. I suppose the newspaper is where your name would get out.

Then he got a diplomatic position, right?

He worked as a high school teacher, then he got a job as an interpreter in the foreign ministry. He did both of those things in Caracas along with studying and writing. At the end of his life, in 1929 he was given this position as a consul for the Venezuelan consulate in Geneva, Switzerland. He took it, and that's how he ended up dying there in the summer of 1930.

He stopped in Hamburg, then Italy. Basically he went to two different clinics to help him with his insomnia, which he had been suffering from for several years. That was a big thing for him. The suffering from that eventually led him to suicide. There's only one biography of him, so there's a lot of stuff missing to put together the pieces of his life. One topic that hasn't really been looked into is that he was taking sleeping aids. The kind of sleeping aids on the market at the time were opium-based.

Is there any evidence of the kinds of literature Ramos Sucre was exposed to in Europe?

The only documents that we have are the few letters that have been published. He mainly wrote to his brother, a cousin of his -- who it seems he was close to. In those letters he mentions impressions. When he was in Italy he thinks that Goethe was in that town Merano in his journeys. I have a feeling those months were just months of anguish and stress for him. In a letter that he wrote, he says, I haven't written a word in two years. So, in other words, although he published two books in 1929, according to the letters he didn't write afterward. However, in the anthology I did include one poem he wrote in Europe. It's fascinating because it was not included in any of his three books. This was a poem that was published in El Universal, the newspaper he often wrote for, in 1931, in the middle of an article by a friend of his, José Nucete Sardi, who was writing about his friend a year later. His friend got the poem from someone in Ramos Sucre's family. He wrote it and he dated it, Geneva, 1930. He doesn't mention anything about Europe, but he does mention Leopardi, a poet that he very much identified with.

I imagine if things would have worked out for him, he would have cured his insomnia, stayed in Europe, and it would have been incredible for him. He was so well read in all the classics. For his love of Shakespeare, a trip to England would have been top of the list for him.

It's strange that alot of his material feels like it takes place in Europe. He doesn't say it explicitly, but it was the impression I got.

Yeah, he hardly every mentions Venezuela, in terms of place names. It takes place in a sort of bookish universe. It's one of the reasons that I find a connection with Jorge Luis Borges. Everything starts with reading for them. They write as readers first. Ramos Sucre taking characters from Shakespeare, or mentioning other authors. Interesting enough, in Caracas, he had three different booksellers that he would order from. He would order books through them. Two were in Paris and one in London. My impression is that he would have been up to date on contemporary writing in Europe. They know for instance that he had several copies of Baudelaire, and that he read in the French.

How did you go about obtaining the rights?

With Ramos Sucre I was lucky because the rights were in public domain. It was shocking to me to realize a translation into English had never been undertaken. There had been translations in Portuguese and French, but not English. For me, for the process, it was important to go to Cumana, see his grave, take walks in downtown Caracas. Go to the National Library and see the first editions of the books that he himself published. I was going back and forth to Venezuela alot then, but I didn't have a contract for this book, so I was just working on this among other projects. Things kept falling into place.

When did you start working on the anthology of Venezuelan poetry?

That's obviously not published yet, but this magazine Typo is going to put out an excerpt from it with twenty different poets this summer. So some of it will come out soon. I'd say I started on it around 2005. It starts in my mind at least with my blog Venepoetics in 2003. Through writing the blog -- which I started as more of an extension of my diary -- it became more translation oriented. I started it with the intention of writing about Venezuelan poets and translating some of their work, and then I started becoming a translator. I'm not like this expert translator. I still feel like I have so much to learn.

What do you like about translation?

These last two or three years, I've been focusing much more on translation. I still write, but I haven't been publishing my own stuff. It feels you're being an actor. I like that feeling that I can disappear behind this work, and I'm still being a poet, working with language, having those fun moments -- which is why I write. It gives me a mask I can put on to enter this other person's work. I can compare it to maybe what actors like about acting. They can live these other realities through acting. It's the same for me with translation. It's that pleasure of inhabiting someone else's work and a way to educate about myself something I really love, which is Venezuelan literature.

You've described the contemporary lit scene in Venezuela as thriving.

I'd say in the last decade or so, one of the things that I've noticed, there seems to be a lot of activity going on in terms of publishing, readings, book presentations. I think blogs had an effect in the mid-2000s in terms of Venezuelan writers. That's sort of fallen off, but through Facebook and Twitter there's still a lot of contact.

The topic of Chávez comes up endlessly.

That was the next question.

One of the results of the political conflict or sort of confrontation over the last decade, is that it's been good for writers and readers somehow. It's a difficult situation in Venezuela, but people have reacted by going toward writing and reading as a way of understanding the country.

Then censorship isn't a major problem in Venezuela as many people think in the States believe.

What do you mean?

Well, if all this publishing is going on and this dialogue is happening via words, then there's not much state censorship. Maybe there is of journalism, but not of literature.

Definitely not. I should also mention there's an import control established by the government that restricts how many books people can import. It makes it hard to import books. That means books from Spain, in particular. Not as many have been flowing over in recent years. Consequently, some people have said that has forced Venezuelans to read their own writing more. But I would say the literary communities, writers in Venezuela, are very divided. Politically divided. Within the writing communities there are a lot more gray areas. There are still bridges of communication among writers that you might not find in other sectors of society. Some Venezuelan writers or readers or intellectuals will tell you they don't think it's a boom, just a really active time. I want to make it clear that I was born in the States. My dad's from Caracas. I lived in Venezuela a total of seven years. My views are from someone not living there every day.