INTERVIEW WITH THE POET WHO TAKES CARE OF PARKING LOTS
(taken from http://www.cubaencuentro.com)
Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo
His name sounded euphoniously like a remix of Victor Hugo with Hölderlin and Santayana. He was in Matanzas one Saturday in the late afternoon, between the lampposts that illuminate Freedom Park. “Look at him,” they whispered, “that is Hugo Hodelin Santana.” And I saw him, his solitary silhouette crossing under the broken chains of a statue with bare breasts.
A legend, I felt: like everything since our provincial modernity has banished any poetic aura – a sick legend. Who expected to stumble across an interview in the city of Carilda Oliver Labra, where I discovered the antithesis of the Premio Nacional de Literatura. It was, in fact, the lean and noble ghost Hodelín Hugo Santana (Matanzas, 1955). A minor poet, sidelined first by himself. Unpublished for the rest of the world, whose thoughts were rendered almost speechless in this other world. And I forgot my grand projects and I set out to recover at least the echo of that voice.
“I am very bad at interviews,” he said as he ushered me into a little house at the top of his city. And indeed he was, which is optimal for me as an interviewer. He seemed to be a poignant poet who did not want to hurt anyone with the impact of his words. A hermit of writing, without reference to the bohemian publishing gossip: “I’m an engineer and I work in a construction brigade, but when I stand before my writing I am very much alone.” He really dismissed any bucolic notion of living “incommunicado in a box”: In fact, the new authors converse with their texts and put them in anthologies as if they belonged to the youngest of Matanzas poetry.
With only a couple of published poems, both by the local publisher (The Old Man 2003 and Confessions of a Poet While Taking Care of a Parking Lot 2007), the author thinks that his work is already divided into two parts by “something that’s kind of mysterious, because my first book had as lyrical a tendency as a baroque or Gothic church, full of decorative elements; then I went through a phase in which I didn’t write anything, without meaning to (I don’t think poetry is a daily career that you can plan) and without being able to explain it by the influence of what I was reading. I even told myself: I have already written enough crap and maybe it’s better that I’m not writing anymore. The thing is that when I felt the need of writing again, everything now was a little thin on the bone, from a more direct and even flat vision. Like the style of the architect Mies Van der Rohe: “Less is more.”
And it’s true. But it’s not certain. His two very brief books each include only one single narrative poem, divided into ten parts without a title. You tend to believe that you’re reading verses so effective that they have survived an unfortunate translation. Between 2003 and 2007. there occurred a break in the language and in the author’s age (in an anti-chronological sense, of course), but the debacle he recounts remains unchanged: uneasiness in the face of the eternal, the emptiness of contemplating, now half-heartedly, a leading part in the drama of History, the monotonous rhythm of death as the culmination of the human carnival, the desire that involves not only the intellect but also the body. And none of it startles a reader trained in disasters. On the contrary.
A close friend of Luis Marimón (1951-1995) who died in exile virtually unpublished, Hugo Hodelín Santana claims to be “a poet of the eighties.” Although “as a child I was a bookworm and read everything that fell into my hands; now the only thing I do is reread my favorite authors,” among whom he named, hesitatingly, Mayakovsky, Baudelaire, Milton, Pound, Bukowski (“all before Eliot, in whom I find less”), Baquero and the same Luis Marimón.
“Nor am I very competitive nor given to publicity, in spite of both things really interesting me. I have friends, work companions, and neighbors, but my personality likes solitude. Without renouncing the cosmic, in my poetry I am like a boxer who enters and leaves the center of the ring hanging on the ropes (I knew many promising of champions who failed in the tournament of their lives). So that, more that from one city, I am an inhabitant of books and poetry, where I travel more and better.” Like Lezama Lima and his notion (nation?) of “immobile wandering,” I think. I, like Lezama Lima, in his 50-plus years are man in Mantanzas even lives simply with his old mother, who I don’t know if she ignores verses like “all hope constitutes an unimportant fact” (2003), or “opening your legs in front of the beards”/and the good whores/whores and whores/persecuting me everywhere/inconsolable.” (2007) (“Beards” are a reference to the government.)
Hugo Hodelín Santana defends himself before my accusation: “I have a verse that says Art does not obey Reason. Thus originality does not worry me, although I do fear repeating myself. Every poet has to be auto-visionary, but I don’t believe my verses are exalted (between agony and calm, something in me wants to be expressed urgently, but not in an overwhelming way) nor am I programming or going out looking for the poorly-named “bad word,” so common today in Cuba. By education and sympathy, I never was a marginal person: nor have I felt separated in the least, however much they say I am a damned poet. Even when I speak, it’s hard for me to use strong words.”
But yes, he’s a marginal person, of course (perhaps poets always are). A man of short texts but long breath in his resistance against the day-to-day tedium of the brain and on the island. Perhaps he is not a poet who is damned (a circumstance that in Cuba always means politically), but yes, he is a mental marathon runner who, from the top of Matanzas, rereads and accumulates his notes like someone who jogs on a path dressed in white.
From the poet Hugo Hodelín Santana emanates the grandeur of every being for whom the present is now more precarious (this was my impression upon saying goodbye, under a reproduction of Modigiliani as ancient as the original) and whose future is only the past which he distills, domestically, in his poems, while “gaunt/seated/I see the police patrol pass/and I wave small flags/like a schoolboy/in solemn acts.”
(The “small flags” refers to the little Cuban flags that are passed out to people to wave at mass demonstrations.)
Almost in the street, he gave me the gift of some advice as a comprehensive tip for my generation: “Keep a community and be the least egotistical possible through words; don’t mislead the poet or the spontaneous child into our inevitable adult mutations; don’t stop and listen and make a case for yourself, as someone wiser said: if no one hears me, I hear the stars.
And then and there I left Hugo Hodelín Santana, without knowing if I would return to see him soon or never, his transparent regard transfixing him from that observation platform at the edge of the Cuban midnight.
Translated by Regina Anavy