Víctor Rodríguez Núñez - “Poetry helps me to live” - Hindustan Times
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Víctor Rodríguez Núñez - “Poetry helps me to live”

Mar 04, 2024 09:33 PM IST

During an interview conducted at the Mumbai Poetry Festival, Núñez spoke about the racism against Latin Americans in the US, and poetry’s power to oppose

You have read your poems at literature festivals in more than 40 countries. What was it like to be in India? Have you been here before?

Cuban poet Victor Rodriguez Nunez reading out his work at the Mumbai Poetry Festival 2024 (Courtesy the Mumbai Poetry Festival) PREMIUM
Cuban poet Victor Rodriguez Nunez reading out his work at the Mumbai Poetry Festival 2024 (Courtesy the Mumbai Poetry Festival)

This is my second trip to India. I have participated in festivals in New Delhi and in Goa and now Mumbai and Kolkata. India is a marvellous country, with a cultural richness that I hope everyone admires as much as I do.

When did you begin to think of yourself as a poet? Have your reasons to write changed through the course of your life? 

I began to consider myself as a poet when I was 17 years old, just finishing high school. The reason I write has been consistent throughout my life: It helps me to live. I believe this has always been the primary function of poetry, and that it will continue to be so.

How did you manage to have so many collections of your poetry published throughout the world? 

Now that number is closer to 100. I have published 18 books of poetry, each of them with re-editions, as well as a number of editions of my selected poems in Spanish and in translation in 15 languages. How did I manage it? First off, I work very hard every day. Of course, my participation in many international poetry festivals has given my work exposure. Like all good things in the world, there is a little bit of mystery to it all and I can’t explain it completely.

“I am not worried about being mistranslated. I do not want to control the meaning of my poems. A translator is perhaps the best reader that I can aspire to have.” - Victor Rodriguez Nunez
“I am not worried about being mistranslated. I do not want to control the meaning of my poems. A translator is perhaps the best reader that I can aspire to have.” - Victor Rodriguez Nunez

How does it feel to have your poems translated into languages that you don’t know? Do you worry about being mistranslated, or do you feel a sense of detachment from your own work?

I am not worried about being mistranslated. I do not want to control the meaning of my poems. A translator is perhaps the best reader that I can aspire to have. And a fundamental aspect of my poetry is to have the reader participate in the creation of the poem. The only thing I ask is that the translated poem also be a poem, even though that might contradict what I have already said.

What does it mean to write poetry that is true to your Cuban roots but is not nationalistic? Why is nationalism a source of concern for you in today’s times?

Nationalism is the most perverse ideology of our times. It implies exclusion, marginalisation, and repression of the other. It is based on differentiation and what I want to emphasize in my poetry is identification. For example, I feel more identified with some Indian people than some Cuban people, and this is at the core of my poetics.

As a person who divides his time between Havana in Cuba and Ohio in the United States, what feelings come up every time you transition from one place to another?

Like moving from one planet to another. The realities of Cuba are very different from those of the United States, from the social system to nature and culture. And still, in both of these worlds, I find people and things I can identify with.

How have histories of colonization and socialism in Cuba influenced the kind of poetry that has been written and is being written in the country?

I think that from the late 19th century on, Cuban poetry has been looking for an alternative to colonialism and capitalism. That means an alternative to exploitation, oppression, and repression. This quest is at the core of poetry, not only in Cuba but everywhere. Poetry opposes every kind of ideology because ideology makes everything seem natural and familiar. The main purpose of poetry is to defamiliarize.

As a professor teaching in the United States, what challenges arise for you when you see systemic racism against people of Latin American heritage?

One of the major forms of racism that people of Latin American heritage face is linguistic discrimination. For example, one of the significant challenges that I have faced in the United States is not being recognized as a poet because I do not write in English. Although Spanish is spoken by 62. 5 million people in the US, which is almost 20 percent of the population, it is still considered a “foreign” and thus an inferior language. All of us who speak another language besides English in the US are simply considered the other. For me, as a professor and a poet, one of my main objectives is to challenge racism. I do it in the classes that I teach and the poems that I write.

You have worked in Colombia and Nicaragua as well, and probably continue to be in touch with people there. What are some of the contemporary trends that you see in Latin American poetry?

I don’t see a dominant trend in contemporary Latin American poetry; it is very rich and diverse. There’s colloquial poetry and neo-baroque poetry, and many, many other kinds that are perhaps even more compelling. For example, the voices of women poets in Latin America are louder than ever. And right now, poetry written in indigenous languages is becoming more present. I have no doubt that in 20 years, Latin American poetry will not only be in Spanish and Portuguese but in many languages that represent the true diversity of our continent. I welcome this change.

What kind of mentoring support do you offer younger poets?

Some of my closest friends are younger poets. I’m not interested in teaching them anything, but I do offer them my support by helping them to get the word out about their poetry. For example, I help to get them published and I translate them. I do so with great pleasure.

What role can poetry play in times of war and genocide?

From the start, poetry is a matter of verse, a matter of rhythm, and verse opposes every kind of adversity, be it natural or social, personal or collective, including the most criminal — war. This is the power of poetry; to oppose.

Chintan Girish Modi is a freelance writer, journalist and book reviewer.

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