Photo of Cristina Gutiérrez Leal

“The things that we forgive are diluted but they still colour us and how we form emotional attachments”

Interview with Cristina Gutiérrez Leal, poet and researcher, based in Belo Horizonte, Brazil

By Libby Jones and Jessica Noriega

What was your experience of immigrating from Venezuela to Brazil like?

I moved to Brazil in 2016 and when I moved, the Venezuelan migration crisis was exploding, but some of us still had the means to pay for a plane ticket. Anyway, my immigration to Brazil was pretty easy compared to Venezuelan migration in general. I took a plane, I flew from Caracas to São Paulo and from São Paulo to Rio, and it was pretty laid-back. Later on, I went back to visit my family for the holidays, and I went to the border and on from there by bus and the experience is really, completely different!

We read your text “Venezuela el destino más chevere” (Venezuela, the coolest destination) which talks about exactly that kind of long journey.

Yes, one of those horrific bus journeys.

And you have also moved around within Brazil?

Yes originally I lived in Rio, I did my PhD. at the University there, but I only spent a year in Rio de Janeiro itself. I then moved to another coastal city called Vitória, and then I moved to another city further from the sea called Belo Horizonte. Honestly, when I moved to Rio, after only a week there I said to myself ‘I’m not going to stay here long’. As a city it’s just too busy, stressful, there’s too many people, and the pace of life there just doesn’t suit me. It’s maybe good to visit it, stay for a week or so, experience the life a little… It was pretty similar to my home city in the sense that it’s by the sea, the people were basically similar to the people who lived there, but there was something that separated me from them, and it was their hectic pace of life. Life in the other cities has been calmer: Vitoria is like a small, organised, cheaper version of Rio, and Belo Horizonte is so different because there are mountains, it’s not by the sea, just different.

Sometimes I ask myself if I ever win the lottery and I’m able to buy myself a house in any one of those three cities, which would it be? I wouldn’t know which one, because they’re all such different experiences. But Belo Horizonte has a really rich cultural offering so pre-pandemic life was really interesting. It’s a really cultural city, there’s loads to do in terms of theatre, cinema, literature. Many important Brazilian writers were born and lived there, so maybe, in terms of the cultural offerings, living in Belo Horizonte makes me feel less alone, culturally. Vitoria was pretty dead, there was just the sea and a cycle path. And Rio was extremely hectic, and Belo Horizonte is a good middle-ground. You end up meeting people who share your interests, and that’s so important being far away from family, feeling like part of something.

Along the same lines, what is your relation to the word ‘exile’?

I used to say that I don’t consider myself an exiled poet because I think ‘exile’ has certain theoretic specificities to which I don’t belong, because it is related to individual experiences, like people that have been expatriated, people that can’t go back to their country because there’s some political prohibition or because they’re being persecuted. If you’re not banned from returning to the country it’s different, but in a way there is a kind of prohibition, although it’s neither direct nor sanctioned. I think that the words ‘desplazada’ (displaced) or ‘desplazamiento’ (displacement) make me feel more comfortable, because they’re more general terms.

The word ‘exile’, I don’t know, I feel like I’m betraying the term in a way by using it to describe myself, so I’d rather use another. ‘Desplazamiento’ is more general, it carries more meaning in itself, a wider variety of phenomena, of people that have been forced out of their countries. Even the term ‘diaspora’ seems more fitting to me, given that us Venezuelans are living a collective experience and not that individual situation of the ‘exiled writer’. There are four million of us outside Venezuela! I think ‘diaspora’ or ‘desplazamiento’ are more fitting terms to name what is happening to us.

However, the word ‘exile’ will always exist in a sort of literary sense. I think people speak more about ‘exile’ when they’re analysing literature, but all that has changed a lot. In fact, I’m studying the opposite of exile in my current photo project, which is ‘insilio’, and the theoretical considerations around the term have changed a lot in the last 30 years. Lots of theorists prefer to speak about ‘community’ as something positive and not that long-suffering community far away from their homeland, wanting to return, but rather a community that has managed to set up roots in a different location, to leave behind the saudade [nostalgia], as they say in Portuguese. For example, in this project that I am starting about ‘insilio’, many of the categories shift around a lot. Exile represents a geographical movement i.e. you leave your city, move from your country. ‘Incile’ makes you leave, but not necessarily your country, rather within yourself. In this sense, I think what is happening to ‘inciled’ Venezuelan poets is really interesting. There are a lot of people that I see, who haven’t been able to or don’t want to leave, but they don’t live in the same Venezuela as I did, nor the same as others who did leave. So, no one is really living in Venezuela in a sense, some of us are “exiled”, and others are inciled, without even having moved away. So, this internal journey counts as a ‘displacement’, which also has implications for writing. So, all these terms are bouncing around in my head, which is why I have trouble trying to decide on one or another.

[The topic of incile] is really being investigated, I’m currently studying it from the perspective of one Chilean writer, Diana Eltit, who during the Chilean dictatorship stayed in Chile and also from the perspective of Ena Lucia Portela, a Cuban writer who stayed in Cuba during the totalitarian regime – she actually said to herself ‘I’m not leaving, I’m an incile’. There’s also a Puerto Rican writer, Eduardo Lalo, and he says that we’ve paid too much attention to ‘the exile’ and has said ‘I’m proposing another category, the ‘one who stays’ (el quedado). Which are the implications of this category? It really interests me a lot because I think it links me to the country even more, more than ‘exile’. But everything is a work in progress, it’s all being thought about, maybe if we have this conversation again in two months I’ll say, ‘No, I’ve firmly decided that I’m an exile’, who knows.

Another term that would also fit is ‘desarraigo’ (uprooting), which features in your poetry collection ‘Estatua de Sal’ (Pillar of Salt). In one of the poems, you mention the ‘uprooting’ within the school exercise books, so we wanted to ask you about the concept of ‘diaspora’ and how there can be a geographic movement but also that thing of feeling distant from the inside, inside your own body, inside your own home.

I actually thought you were going to bring up another poem about uprooting, I had thought about another poem, and I’d forgotten about the exercise books one. Sometimes you don’t realise you keep on repeating things your poetry. I definitely think that my personal experience has been one of many ‘migrations’, lots of movements without moving much physically.

Despite my upbringing in a very religious family – my family are evangelical Christians – my mum worried a lot about school. She never had the chance to get a good education, she only reached sixth grade, which is why I say that she didn’t know how much I was distancing myself from my home through books. From my home that wasn’t a refuge, that house that wasn’t a place of nice things but actually of oppression in many ways, because your heritage and your genealogy weigh on you. So, what your grandmother did, what your mother did, what your older brother did, that keeps creating a timeline, a meaningful line which naturally you get wrapped up in.

School was really an escape from that for me, and then so was university, and I got so involved in that. Even today, I’m a teacher because it was a way for me to detach myself from some things that I definitely wasn’t connected to, like religion. People find shelter in religion, which sometimes is really good and other times really repressive.

That’s also something we noticed a lot in the book, that obviously the title is a religious reference and in the first poem ‘Ars Poetica’ (the Art of Poetry) it’s a firm declaration of intentions, ‘I have come to speak to God in his own language’. In another interview you said that you write to put things into order and to put yourself into words. Is there some kind of subversion in the use of this religious language to disconnect yourself from religion?

When I began writing the book, I only wanted to speak in that language in particular. I don’t know if it’s the same in England or Spain, but in Venezuela there was this trend of wearing t-shirts that said ‘I speak something’ and it was a huge thing. There was a time when lots of t-shirts said, for example, ‘I speak ‘Friends’, with a bunch of words associated with the series Friends on the t-shirt, or ‘I speak Maracucho’ (Maracucho is an dialect from the city of Maracaibo). it got me thinking about my own language, which wasn’t actually Spanish but rather ‘Evangelese’, and I said that I was going to write a poetry book in Evangelese using all these words that were part of the linguistic universe of my house, this language was spoken all the time. If someone did something bad they would say ‘May the Lord rebuke the Devil’, things that I’m sure non-Evangelical mothers don’t say. Or if someone did something bad, my mother or my grandmother would say ‘That doesn’t edify you’. Who uses the verb ‘to edify’ to tell off a child who’s eating ice out of the freezer? It creates an alternative language to the one we use for everyday things. I decided that I wanted to write poetry in Evangelese, my motivation was purely about the language. It ended up being just that, a subversion, there was a lot of anger there, I didn’t realise that I was creating such angry poetry. In the end, it ended up closing the cycle, like, ‘I’m going to say that because I’m becoming something else’.

It wasn’t intentional, but now I read it and people comment on it and I can’t say that it wasn’t that at all. Really it was a way of naming things from my childhood from my teenage years and also naming myself after that, which is why I establish limits. When you disconnect yourself from something that makes you who you are, like a member of your family, a member of society, when you leave the pack, you begin a search for what makes you who you are – if the Cristina from before was a woman, heterosexual, Evangelical, from the coast, I was ticking things off the list. So identity came to be something about all the things I wasn’t. Now I’m not this. This whole process of constructing an identity, which is not essential, it’s given to us, we’re not born with it. I think poetry does that really well, or tries to, constructing something again. Hence Pillar of Salt: that’s me looking backwards, looking at my home, and that already breaks the link between meaning and its signifier. I think that the processes of representation are extremely productive, a lot more productive than perhaps psychological treatment sometimes – not that I think therapy doesn’t work. But in poetry there is a creative process, which is really interesting. I ended up subverting and forgiving in many ways, and now my relationship with the Church is much more relaxed. When I go back to Venezuela I go to church with my mum, no problem at all. So I think that the book helped me to put some things behind me.

There’s also one of your poems called ‘Cristina’, so in this process of ‘undoing’ things, in a way you’re also getting rid of everything that was around your own name, which came from Martha Cristina.

The one about someone dying


My mum always told me about the day she gave birth to me, she feels some kind of devotion to that. She always tells the same story about why she called me Cristina. And when I was writing the book I asked myself, ‘Why would my mum name me after someone who was dying?’ and that’s where the poem came from. I also thought about Christ because Cristina comes from Christ, and of course I couldn’t miss out on the chance to add another biblical reference and link it to my story, to find a metaphor to guide the poem. It was an easy process. Even now I really enjoy Bible stories, all the language in the Bible is so rich poetically.

It’s really connoted language. Along the same lines, the symbol of the tree is really interesting, as it has a dual meaning. It features in your poem about the tree with the forbidden fruit, which is of course about temptation but also the tree itself has roots and is a way of being connected to your home and homeland.

Yes I absolutely love the image of a tree, if I could I’d write hundred of poems about trees. The problem is that there’s already a lot out there about trees. Eugenio Montejo, another Venezuelan poet, has the most beautiful poem about trees. As much as the process of writing the book was a type of subversion, of renaming things, you can’t escape where you come from; it’s not something you can deny, or you can deny that it’s there, but it is there, regardless. Like the roots of a tree that you might not see, there are trees whose roots are deep underground, whose roots are spread thin and wide, whose roots poke up from the ground a little. So it is like that subversive narrative, which makes us who we are but we’re not very aware of it. We only see the branches, the flowers, sometimes. But the root is what makes you grow; makes you stay put and that we don’t see. So that’s why I really like the image of the tree, and of course there is a tree in the Bible, I can’t write about the tree without talking about the tree of knowledge, about Eve, all those things.

You said that lots has already been written about trees, but your new work is about water and you begin by saying that this one topic has already been done to death and how could you add any more, but then you go on to write about it. We’d also like to know a bit about how you chose this theme; is it because of the relationship you have with water having lived close to the sea? What does it mean to you? Among all the interpretations and connotations of water, is there one that stands out for you as being the most special or important?

There’s something I go through when I decide to write and it’s a search for originality, something that tortures all of us writers. Because in theory we all want to do something new, something original with language, because that’s what all the greatest writers have done. It’s not about the theme, but rather about the type of language. But as much as I say that it’s not important, as much as I know it’s not important to be original and it’s better to be authentic, because actually the idea of originality is extremely problematic, even the most so-called ‘original’ poets aren’t alone in having written about something, there’s always some kind of prior reference, someone writing alongside them. But this search for or this denial of originality, both processes happen at the same time, and they make me think about who has already written about what I want to write about. So of course, when it comes to water, there’s lots out there. So I realised that I didn’t want to start writing the poetry without being able to say that I’d already read what’s been written about water, and you know, I wasn’t trying to reinvent the wheel! I was trying to pay homage to everyone that already writes about water.

And of course it has to do with the fact that I was born by the sea and grew up in a warm climate; You don’t always realise just how much these things affect you if you grow up in a place where there are no defined seasons until you move somewhere where there are. In my city, I was only used to one type of climate, whereas most people, like you guys probably, experience separate seasons so you’re used to the climate changing throughout the year. For me, living in a place where it’s always 30 degrees and near to the sea, it gives you certain characteristics that are difficult to leave behind. So the sea was the first reference but really, the book is about water in general so there’s the sea but also rivers and lakes.

And recently a book came out by another Venezuelan writer called Flora Francola, which is all about the sea. Her book, and others by Venezuelans with references to the sea, made me feel part of a community. I know that interpretations of the poems or books sometimes escape their authors, but the book is about forgiveness, and I chose water because it dilutes things. Things like grudges, memories, and I thought that the metaphor or the image of water was powerful because you can say that it doesn’t make things disappear, but it dilutes them, whether it pollutes the waters or not, it dilutes them in the end. It’s not like other hard materials or stone like, you can throw a stone in the sea and it will disintegrate over time. I thought this imagery would help me write a book about forgiveness, which hasn’t been written about all that much. Because forgiveness, peace, happiness aren’t very productive themes when it comes to poetry. Anger, loneliness, heartbreak, those are all productive. Whereas I found very little about forgiveness and I thought that water would be the answer to putting into words a process as complex as forgiveness, which in the end leads to forgetting or something like that but not as strong.

This idea came to me while I was in the Rio Negro river which is in the Amazon, and it has one part that’s completely black and the other a lighter colour, and you can see where the two meet, which also happens in a river in Venezuela. And I saw it and I thought ‘This is the perfect image for the complexities that forgiveness entails’. Because the Rio Negro has some minerals that make it black and the other river is lighter because of different minerals. So I thought about how the things that we forgive are diluted but they still colour us and how we form emotional attachments. So my intention for the book was to talk about forgiveness.

I don’t know if you noticed, but the last few poems are like ‘I can’t talk about resentment anymore’. But it’s all a work in progress. Sometimes I say ‘No, it’s all ready to go, I’m not going to change anything else’ and sometimes I think I have to go back to it. But yes, water is a great resource, and frankly never-ending.

Actually there’s also a poem that says ‘forgiveness doesn’t fit in the Spanish of my home’, and another poem written mostly in Portuguese. What is your relationship with Spanish and Portuguese like for your poetry? Has moving to Brazil changed that relationship and does that affect your poetry?

I hadn’t thought about that at all to be honest. I really don’t know how people who write in a second language manage, but I really admire them, especially WWII poets who stopped writing in German and picked up French or who moved to the US and started writing in English. Even people nowadays who leave their home country and leave their mother tongue behind. I really don’t know how they do it! I find it really difficult to write poetry in Portuguese, I don’t feel like I have enough knowledge of it yet to do so. But I have given it a go, and I think it’s good because writing in a language that is not your own is most like what writing poetry is like, because you’re stuttering all the time. So in Portuguese, both in real life and when writing poetry, I’m constantly tripping over my words. I’m always thinking ‘Oh I could say that in Spanish so much better’, I’m always looking for ways to say things in Portuguese exactly how I would say them in Spanish, and this process is really creative.

I like writing in Portuguese because I’m writing exactly what I think true poetry is, which is taking a language to the maximum to say something which normally wouldn’t be so effective or real or honest. And this process of writing poetry in Portuguese has brought me a lot of satisfaction on a creative level. So I feel in the middle of a process of looking for words, expressions, metaphors, of dealing with the insufficiencies that I think Portuguese has in expressing some themes. Only in this latest collection is there a poem which is actually in Portuñol (a mixture of Portuguese and Spanish), because I think that’s our official language, those of us in Brazil who speak Spanish, we’re always mixing the two. If one day I do write something in Portuguese, it probably will be in Portuñol because I find it hard not to bring some Spanish into it.

I’ve been incorporating so many things from Portuguese into my Spanish without even realising, like sometimes I stop and think ‘wait, this verb doesn’t even exist in Spanish, why did I think that’. But when it happens in my poetry, I leave it in, because well, poetic licence! I’ve found that whole process really productive, but also frustrating, because I never say what I want to say and think ‘I’m completely satisfied with the poem’. My Spanish is completely polluted with Portuguese. I live with another person from Venezuela and at home we never say ‘vaso’ (cup) anymore, we say ‘copo’, which is the Portuguese word for it. Or we never say ‘esto no salió bien’ (it didn’t go well) we say no ‘deu certo’, which is of course Portuguese. So I think my relationship with Portuguese has developed naturally, I’ve incorporated it into my life, and honestly I don’t mind it happening.

I have some Venezuelan friends here, mostly other literature students I met at university who live here, and when they say something in Portuguese they correct themselves and say it in Spanish. I don’t bother with that. I like the mixture that’s come from having moved here and being in contact with the language, it makes me feel more like a part of the country that welcomed me.

I don’t feel like I’m betraying my Spanish in any way because no language is an institution, or a mantra or something like that. Even Spanish isn’t enough for me when it comes to expressing things, which is why I write poetry.

I think poetry is born from that, the lack of being able to put things into words in your language, and so you have to create an image or a metaphor, which in the end says it better. So my relationship with Portuguese is pretty easy going. I wouldn’t say that I speak it extremely well, but it’s a beautiful language. What I think it lacks is anger! I always say that anger is missing from Portuguese, and so there are things that I simply can’t say because it’s too loving, it’s too friendly, it’s an incredibly nostalgic language, but it does lack anger. So when I want to write about that, it’s just impossible to do in Portuguese. I have to go back to Spanish, which has a certain anger to it, the guttural ‘r’ sounds make it sound like that. Anyway, it’s all an adventure that’s ongoing.

At the minute I’m ‘perfecting’ my English and Portuguese always pops up for some reason, never Spanish. And that’s really exciting because I go to say something like ‘I am…’ and a Portuguese word comes to mind and it’s a really lovely sensation I’ve not felt before, because it’s my second language. So I’d never before experienced being bilingual and speaking various languages. But again, poetry is another language, a strange language that some of us cultivate. So that’s why my relationship with other languages is so casual. I can say that it’s normal that Portuguese is polluting my Spanish, I don’t mind. The only issue is when I teach Spanish classes because my students will ask me how to say something and all I can remember is the Portuguese or the English!

Speaking of English, have you read the translations of your work, in English for example? What do you think about that?

I look at the translations like whole other poems, like, I didn’t write that. I am completely distanced from those poems, but it’s a huge honour. Whenever I see one of my poems translated I send them to my mum and say ‘Oh my God, look how far I’ve come!’. I always think ‘wow’ there are people who want to do that for my poetry. I honestly think it’s marvellous, like the German translations for example. I only wonder if it will sound the same, in terms of the tone, like will it sound the same in German and Italian, and sometimes I wonder if something is lost. I find the rhythm of them really interesting, I wonder how they approach that, because I only know Portuguese and a bit of English, but I don’t care about what’s lost because I think there’s always something lost in translation. I’m okay with that.

It bothers me a bit if I’m the one translating something, but if it’s my work being translated then all I am is grateful and I’d give my blessing for them to do whatever they want with the poem. I’ve come to understand the translator as a kind of co-author, and translation as a really creative process. I don’t feel like I could say to the translator ‘hey, I don’t like this word here’, I don’t see myself ever doing that. I just say ‘thank you and do whatever you like’. They’re good people for attempting it, they must feel some kind of intrinsic goodness because it helps us build bridges with others. It makes us communicate in a way that otherwise we wouldn’t be able to do. Especially for people who don’t have access to another language. For me it’s priceless, this act of kindness. I never read them and think ‘Well, that could be done better’, or at least with the translations of my own poetry. When I’m doing the translation, I push myself a lot to lose as little as possible. But my own poems all seem beautiful and perfect in other languages.

It’s interesting you say that because it’s true that, even though you may lose something when translating it, poetry is a kind of universal language, one that unites all the others.

Exactly, I always say that on the one hand something is lost, but there is also much to be gained. Translators have to resolve linguistic issues and in that there’s also much to be gained. Translation is really its own field and complicated within itself. I’m currently working on translating the work of some Brazilian poets into Spanish and the process is really lovely, I feel like I’m writing, like, translating of course but writing and creating things. With creative processes there’s always something gained or something lost, but there’s always some kind of advantage, especially in terms of language, which is ultimately what matters to us creators.

That also creates a community of readers, not only those who speak Spanish but also those who speak other languages. That links to another question we have: how do you feel that the internet and social media have helped you form this community of readers and other writers who are part of the Venezuelan diaspora?

When it comes to the internet, I only have things to be grateful for. I think the internet has saved a lot of lives, both literally and metaphorically. My only conflict is that I think sometimes social media can cause a lot of anxiety, and I think we have to be really careful with the importance we give to what strangers on the internet say. The majority of psychologists today should prescribe closing social media profiles as a therapy, because being with people all the time isn’t healthy, in my opinion. Like, spending too much time with your partner or best friend will cause issues because you need space and time alone. So social media can make you feel like you’re always around people, so in a way, I think the time we spend on social media can harm us a bit.

But that’s nothing to do with literature. In terms of literature, social media are a wonder! They’re amazing, they create communities, their reach is bigger than any publisher’s has ever been. They put so many people in touch. I’ve read so many things because I happened to see a tweet, I liked the poem, I looked up who it was by, I downloaded a PDF and read all their work. I’ve done that so many times. I’ve seen my own poetry on social media. There are always people saying things and I’ve often said that no one would have read my work, or maybe twenty people would have, my friends and my mum, if not for social media. So I think the internet in general is really valuable for spreading work around and creating a community. It’s a fantastic tool that I hope never turns on us, and keeps uniting us.

On that topic, has the publisher that released your first book in print disappeared? Have they published anything else?

They publish very rarely because physical publishing has gone out of fashion given the speed with which digital editors can and are publishing things. It can sometimes look like publishers who still produce physical books are a kind of museum. You know, they sometimes put together collections whereas other publishers are like ‘New book, new book, new book, buy it, download it!’ and their output is so overwhelming that we can easily think that this other publisher isn’t producing anything because they release one or two books a year, which is typical for a small, independent publisher. But there are small independent publishers who are publishing digital books, like, maybe 30 every year. For example, at the minute I’m arranging to have Estatua de Sal published digitally, which is so exciting because it’ll be at everyone’s fingertips. And Donde hay agua, I also wanted to be published online, free to download, and I still hope it will be because traditional publishing takes so long and frankly the world has moved on.

Congratulations on that digital edition! There are a lot of websites now that publish work without going through an editor, sort of self-publication, and in this way the ability to write and reach an audience is being democratised. What do you think about that?

Many writers also have their own blogs where they publish their writings, which before would’ve been a much slower process, waiting on a publisher. It’s a bit complicated actually because there’s so much and sometimes you don’t know how to filter it. Which is why actually I like websites that curate content, that recommend other avenues to follow. Because there’s a lot out there, there’s never been so much information in the world as there is now. I’m grateful to those who do it, to those who put authors together. Those of us who remember the transition from reading in a library to having books in PDF sometimes find it a bit overwhelming, with so much within reach and thousands of PDFs waiting for me to read them.

Going back to something you said earlier, about the difficulty that poetry has to express things, that poetry expresses things that can’t be said with everyday language. It reminded us about the idea of the defamiliarization of language and reality and the creation of images. What do you think the relationship is between images and words? We’ve read about your love for photography and in Estatua de Sal there are also one or two photos. Does the image come first, is it built through words, or do they go hand in hand?

Well, that was basically my PhD. thesis and I could talk about it for days, but I’ll try to be brief. First, the image has its main meaning, which is that the image is a representation. That’s why we talk about poetic image and photographic image. And when I talk about image, in poetry, I mean poetic image; what we do with language and not a photographic image. But honestly, at the beginning I found it so boring just studying literature alone which is why I was interested in seeing the connections literature has with other arts, because it doesn’t exist alone and I think it’s so important to see what those connections are like.

Nowadays it’s much easier to see a film based on a book for example, but that’s one of the more obvious connections. A screenwriter takes a book, turns it into a script, shows it in the cinema – it’s one of the most obvious relationships for me. It requires talent and has a certain technique to it, but for me, I was more interested in the aesthetic side of things, the methodology of photography which could also be applied to literature or which are the procedures that one has but not the other. How do they work together or do they even work together? So that was always really interesting to me. And when I began taking photos, my idea was to take a photo that was a photographic representation of a story I’d written (eons ago I used to write short stories!). So I wanted to write these stories and take a photograph because I once read an essay by Cortázar that said photography is to short stories what cinema is to novels. I was trying to see which type of art could better express ideas.

Now I’d say that ranking the arts is a bit of an unfair task because they don’t operate following the same procedures. However, when I was doing research for my PhD, I saw that more often than not they are ranked. For example, the surrealists said ‘We’re now free from words because photography has arrived, and it describes things better than words. We’re not going to waste any more time writing because if anyone wants a description, let them take a photo’. Other people like Susan Sontag, for example, said ‘No, I prefer a description of someone’s face over a passport photo, more can be said through a written description about a person’. So this age-old war began about deciding which one could say things better, which is so interesting. But I’m mostly interested in projects where both arts work in collaboration without being in competition about expressing things better, more like one art filling in the gaps the other one has. Because the word ‘ineffable’ exists, which literally means the impossibility to say something with words, not the impossibility to say something but to say it with words.

I think that language, all languages as communication tools have this point of ineffability where it can’t give anymore, it can’t reach any further, you’ve taken all you can from it and you can’t say what you want to say because it can’t be said with words. In that way, photography can say things with an image, not say it better but just say it. So I love this whole process. When I read my own work I realise that there’s a lot of photography in my writing because I apply methods from photography to my creative process. Like, trying to leave something in its ‘purest’ state and put it into language.

A hundred years ago photography wasn’t even considered an art. Because there was no creativity, it was just copying reality. Whereas now we know that it’s not true, that the photographer’s viewpoint matters; you can make an object look bigger from the angle of the photo or make it more illuminated, whatever you like. And the way that photography can play with perspective is much more direct than what language can do. So all of these theoretical considerations are of course in my poetry, and I like bringing it in, mirroring these processes of putting things in perspective, thinking like ‘if I were to take a photo of this resentment, how would I do it?’. Looking at how things look from certain angles; if I close the curtains and it’s all dark, how does that look? Or if I take it with a bright light, what happened then? And these are all methods from photography, from painting actually, illuminating an object, letting less light fall on it, putting it somewhere where the light is cooler or warmer. So these methods, almost scientific, when applied to poetry are extraordinary. And in photography, when you take artistic photography, these processes are typical of literature, of poetry, because you take an object and make it look like something or say things beyond what is actually there. A photo of a bike leant against a house could be any bike, but if you lean it against a tree and put a sepia filter, then you’re saying something else. And this is a process from poetry because it’s all about connotation, of saying things that aren’t associated with the dictionary definition of the thing. So I love the collaborative side more than the competition between the arts.I’m really interested in this ineffability and when a text just can’t give anymore, then maybe you need a painting or a sculpture or a piece of music to say what you want to say. You know, we all listen to music without any words that moves us, how does it do it? So I think all of these processes together form a whole universe of meaning, and that maybe we miss out on that if we only focus on one aspect of literature.

There are projects with photography and literature in the same book. Sometimes I think, ‘Well, the photos aren’t doing anything here’, it’s as if they put them in because they were friends with a photographer and said, ‘Why don’t we make a book together?’ Sometimes it doesn’t add anything, like putting two people in a place together but they don’t speak at all. I think it’s a relatively new thing, but also ancient. It’s not just about putting things together, but more about showing what the medium is capable of. In that way, through intermediality, things can be said, photography, literature together express something, talk to each other, converse. There are also those other kind of projects like ‘I have a friend who’s a photographer, he took a photo and I’m going to write taking inspiration from it’, and those kind of collaborative projects are really good. I find them really interesting on an academic level and also from the perspective of a poet, although I’ve never really considered having a book like that. Estatua de Sal has one photo. The publishers asked me for one but it doesn’t have anything to do with the project

I think we’ll keep seeing that kind of thing in the future because visual culture is really popular at the minute. How many photos are taken every day? How many are downloaded? There’s actually a Spanish writer, Joan Fontcuberta, whotalks about the idea of us being in the era of ‘post-photography’, because every photo has already been taken. That’s his theory. We have to do something else with photography because every photo that we could ever imagine has already been taken; a wedding, a war scene, a dead animal, a beach, any object. So he says ‘What are we photographers going to do now? Everything has already been photographed’. That doesn’t happen in literature, not everything has been said. We haven’t exhausted language.

Joan Fontcuberta does exhibitions about falsification. For example, he takes photos dressed in a soldiers’ uniform, and puts them in a museum under the guise of an exhibition about some war, but they’re not real. They’re photos he took in some kind of disguise in a random place that could be a battlefield. He tries to get away from this idea that photography always tells the truth. In literature, photography has been used a lot as a way of documenting things, and we know that even though photography is a chemical process of lights, mirrors, reflectors, that it can tell lies, and we’ve all seen it. In Venezuela we have a really good term ‘foto-trampa’. I’m not sure if it’s just in Venezuela or the rest of the world, but when someone is really photogenic but in real life they’re not so beautiful (in terms of the cultural construction that beauty is), we say that the person is a ‘foto-trampa’, that their photos lie. Photography has always told lies. Susan Sontag said that ever since we discovered photography, it has lied. So the queen, kings, priests, would have photos taken and people would look at their elegance and splendour and say ‘I love that, I want that’ but in real life it wasn’t like that at all.

It can be people or even cities for example, because if you take a Rio de Janeiro from a drone, it looks like the most beautiful city in the world, completely extraordinary. But if you live there for even two days, even with enough money to live and eat, it’s utter chaos and stress. It’s not the same city they showed in the opening of the Olympics. So aerial photos can lie about the pace of life in cities like that. Because of course, a photo of a beach is beautiful, and true, but it’s like taking a photo of a place all made up. Of course, you want to show it in its best light. So the relationship between photography and truth and lies is interesting and there’s some literature out there on it from people like Mario Bellatin, Diamela Eltit and Joan Fontcuberta who has a book called ‘La Cámara de Pandora’ (Pandora’s Camera). It’s in Spanish and really good and controversial. Anyways, what I really love is literature in dialogue with other things, because literature alone began to bore me at 19 years old.