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Confronting the Institution of Language: Juan Arabia on Poetry and the Pandemic

By María Agustina Pardini


In the essay “The Poem as a Field of Action,” presented as a lecture at the University of Washington in 1948, William Carlos Williams argues that after the Industrial Revolution, a different zeitgeist possessed the world and new values replaced the old ones. A new subject matter manifested itself in the heart of every society as money talked and poets let their minds be invaded by the industrious armamentarium of the modern age. Williams maintains, however, that the poet is meant to be a man of dreams: “The poet was not an owner, he was not a money man—he was still only a poet; a wisher; a word man. The best of all to my way of thinking! Words are the keys that unlock the mind.”

Williams’s words have a special resonance today, as the world faces one of the worst catastrophes ever imagined. In a world of gray, passive spectators oppressed by unequal and unsustainable capitalist systems, poetry stands as a breath of fresh and golden air, encouraging us to be free even in lockdown times and reminding us that poets are living reminders of the virtues of life and nature.

This is particularly true in Argentina, a country whose editorial market has always been avant-garde and a strong leader in the region. Yet the current world economic crisis, the country’s recession, and the lack of cultural policies designed to support the publishing industry in recent years have put Argentina’s word industry in a critical situation. It is all publishing professionals can do to try to prevent the industry from collapsing.

Publishing houses dedicated to the publication of poetry are at even greater risk because they make up a small portion of the editorial world; Argentina’s literary industry is skewed toward the production and consumption of the narrative genre rather than the poetic one. One of the country’s best-known publishers of poetry in translation is Buenos Aires Poetry, an independent cultural project run by Juan Arabia and Camila Evia. Founded in 2013, the project includes a publishing house and a journal of literary criticism and has so far published more than ten books. Its volumes are sold in Latin America, Spain, and France, and have been translated into French, Chinese, Italian, and English. I recently spoke with Juan Arabia about the history of BAP, its response to the pandemic, and the role of poetry in a state of emergency.

 

Agustina Pardini (AP): Tell us about the birth of Buenos Aires Poetry. How does it overlap with your own trajectory as a poet and translator?

Juan Arabia (JA): Buenos Aires Poetry is a project that was born without me seeking it, because it is, in fact, a consequence of a life spent reading verse. There came a moment when I felt the urge to start translating poetry: I wanted to read, in my own language, poems that had no translation at all. Some years later, Camila Evia and I launched a print journal of literary criticism. It soon became a publishing house specializing in the publication of classic and contemporary poetry.

For the first edition of Buenos Aires Poetry, I translated “Hotel Lautréamont” by John Ashbery (which is a pantoum, a very artificial genre, just like the sestina). Ashbery had agreed to give us a special interview for the first edition, so I felt motivated to translate this extensive, hermeneutical poem that had always caught my attention and had no translation in Spanish. It was my first great challenge as a translator of poetry.

 

AP: Do you find that being a poet yourself affects how you translate poetry?

JA: Eliot used to say that a poet dies the moment he runs out of poetic influences, and I completely agree with this statement. Translating poetry is the best way to absorb it and learn it. The poetry that interests me is secretive and elliptical, a definition that is also present in the old opposition between trobar leu (light poetry) and trobar clus (dark, obscure poetry). I’ve been lucky enough to attend poetry festivals in Latin America, Europe, and China, where I’ve met poets from all around the world with whom I share a very deep literary and ideological appreciation. The contribution of many of these poets has allowed BAP to be a project full of different voices in the same editorial line.


Juan Arabia's translation of Ezra Pound's Exultations.

 

AP: How do you choose which authors to include in the BAP catalog?

JA: After Camila Evia and I founded BAP, it grew to include the work of other poets and critics, including Víctor Toledo, Rodrigo Arriagada Zubieta, James Byrne, Juan Carlos Abril, Wang Yin, and Víctor Rodríguez Núñez, all of whom are currently part of the editorial board. It has become a collective project, one with many faces and voices. We publish classic and contemporary poetry, most of which is suggested by the editorial board. We also receive unsolicited submissions through our platform—our committee reads it and decides if it matches our editorial line or not.

Our readers look for a specific poetic style, one with deep artistic expression. This editorial criterion is not common these days; it has been replaced by another type of poetic production more associated with the “leu concept,” such as Instagram poetry. This relates to what Marcuse called “undimensional language.” I believe poetry is a genre that should not fall into this category, for the sake of its own tradition.

 

AP: What have been the biggest challenges of running BAP?

JA: Essentially speaking, the biggest challenge is and will always be economic. Launching BAP meant leaving everything aside and focusing solely on it. The project is our main priority, and that is why it can finance itself. BAP also has a strong presence in countries like Mexico and Chile, and this has allowed us to strengthen our cultural and economic bonds with other places.

The size of each special collection’s print run varies. For example, we usually publish two hundred copies of books in the Pippa Passes collection, five hundred copies of magazines and special editions, and one thousand copies of books in the Abracadabra collection. Our most reprinted publications are the ones dedicated to Ezra Pound, Arthur Rimbaud, and Dylan Thomas.

 

“Poetry speaks well of us all.”

 

AP: What is BAP doing to respond to the COVID-19 crisis? What do you think is the role of poetry in a pandemic or state of emergency?

JA: On the editorial level, both large and small publishing houses have decided to sell books in a digital format, offering special discounts to customers. However, the intention behind this system is to perpetuate an economic structure whose sole purpose is to protect the monopoly of the corporate publishing industry. In Argentina, poetry tends to be sold mostly in independent, specialized bookstores with carefully curated catalogs. Big chains here are not very interested in selling poetry.

In the face of the COVID-19 crisis, Buenos Aires Poetry has allowed readers to download almost all of the catalog for free. I don’t think that this will replace the print format; however, I have to admit that it has made it possible for readers around the world to access the catalog with just a click, and that is always positive. This kind of sharing has benefited us, too: the Internet Archive allowed me to get rare books by Ezra Pound and Mina Loy that are very difficult to find anywhere else. Moreover, our latest book, Poemas escogidos by Mina Loy, translated by Camila Evia, is already online and available for download.

One of poetry’s many roles is to confront one of the oldest institutions in the world: language. In “Hotel Lautrémont,” Ashbery wrote something I consider to be true: “Research has shown that ballads were produced by all of society working as a team.” This is a good opportunity to consider all the good and bad things this society has created; poetry speaks well of us all.

 

AP: What kind of response are you getting from readers to making all BAP's books free to download?

JA: Readers are incredibly grateful. Some, from other countries, have even suggested sending money in return for the books. We didn’t accept it, of course. There are also many people asking for books in paper format, even more than before.

Buenos Aires Poetry has never received any institutional or academic financial aid. I think that technological platforms have pushed aside the traditional model, in which only corporate publishers had a voice. Production and distribution platforms have multiplied infinitely. Take the case of Amazon: not only does it sell books, it also prints them, delivers them, and does everything in between, and it has much more influence and generates much more profit than any other bookshop in the world. And, I repeat, this is possible thanks to the technological advancement we are living with these days.

 

AP: What are BAP's plans for the future?

JA: We have a lot of plans; for the time being, the idea is to continue preparing material for the website (we upload ten to twelve publications per week, including translations and reviews). Collections will keep on growing—the biggest one, Pippa Passes, in honor of Robert Browning, will soon include one hundred publications. This collection includes contemporary poetry from all around the world: Spain, France, Italy, and Latin America. We’ll also be adding Mina Loy’s anthology and a new Hart Crane book to the Abracadabra series, which publishes classic poets.

I am now working on the translation of Cathay by Ezra Pound, which includes an epilogue written by Forrest Gander. I am also editing a special issue on Poetas Videntes by Arthur Rimbaud.

 

Juan Arabia (Buenos Aires, 1983) is a poet, translator, and literary critic. In addition to publishing five books of poetry, he has written extensively on John Fante and the Beat Generation. He has translated Arthur Rimbaud, Ezra Pound, and a book-length anthology of the Beat poets. His books of poetry have been published throughout Latin America, Europe, and China: El Enemigo de los Thirties (2015), L´Océan Avare (2018), Desalojo de la naturaleza (2018), and Hacia Carcassonne (2020), among others. He graduated from the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Buenos Aires and holds a master's degree in American literature from the University of Edinburgh. He is the founder and director of Buenos Aires Poetry

 

Related Reading

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Published Jul 6, 2020   Copyright 2020 María Agustina Pardini

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