Photo of Diana Moncada

“My search now is the search for creative freedom”

Interview with Diana Moncada, poet and journalist, currently living in Lima, Peru.

By Alba Cosmo Cruz and Natasha Tinsley

In your essay Apuntes sobre la escurridiza pregunta del ¿para-qué-escribo? (Notes on the Elusive Question of Why I Write?) you speak about poetry as an exercise in self-discovery that offers the key to understanding oneself and one’s experiences. You mention that this comes about after an observation period that later on turns into a sculpting and refining exercise. Would you say that certain truths can be uncovered by poetry or even that only poetry can uncover these truths? 

I wrote that essay a while ago and certain things have changed about my own understanding of poetry, but there’s a lot I wrote about that remains the same. For me, poetry became a form of self-recognition and an exercise to understand my own processes – not just on a personal level, but also when it came to understanding reality, the things that go beyond everyday life, and those things that form a part of life but go beyond what goes by the book. When I wrote Cuerpo crepuscular (Twilight Body)poetry was my rock: a tool for understanding everything, without which it would have been far more difficult to make sense of. Poetry made me pay a lot more attention. It allowed me to sit down and think about why something is the way it is, why the world is like this. As humans we’re constantly distracted, but poetry is a moment of undivided attention: all your senses open up to look beyond the surface, or at least to try to. In that process, what we bring to the poem is always very little and it always says very little compared to what’s being awoken inside of you. That’s the eternal dilemma and one of the most fundamental problems that many poets and essayists have disclosed: the impossibility to say what the poetic truth is – the truth we sense but can’t completely grasp. The poem is like proof of that truth – full of what it is and what it isn’t. It’s a tiny little thing that keeps the poetic truth a secret without ever completely giving it away.   

Regarding those changes in your poetry and your growth as a poet, how do you think having to move from Venezuela to your new home in Peru has had an impact? Was there a turning point in your growth as a poet? Or would you say the changes are down to other events?  

Yes, the move has been super influential and it’s only now that I realise it. If you’d have asked me this last year I would have told you, ‘not at all’. For example, back in Venezuela I’d read some Peruvian poetry, but once I came into contact with it in Peru I began to understand it from within and see it in a new light. Peruvian poetry really moved me, it shook me up both emotionally and intellectually, and it made me realise and question my role in Venezuelan poetry. I guess it’s normal, because you’re moving away from your territory, and that’s then reflected in an emotional journey and a poetic search. On the topic of migration, rather than exile, what moves me most is the link between physically moving away and the mental shift in my head. The process changes the way you see things, your sensitivity, your way of reading, your way of tackling writing. It’s impacted me because when I got out of that bubble, I started to realise that perhaps I wasn’t so keen on the type of poetry I’d paid most attention to up until that point, or perhaps that I was on bad terms with certain poetic traditions. That move, that disorientation has been fundamental for me. It’s like cutting the umbilical cord with Venezuela. It’s horrible to say (laughs), but that’s how it is. Leaving Venezuela has been like cutting the umbilical cord with the Venezuelan poetry canon and opening myself up to other opportunities that have helped me to create the voice I feel most comfortable with. That said, the topic of migration as exile hasn’t touched me as much. My poetry isn’t littered with traces of exiles – it doesn’t touch on that. 

We read that you wrote Los derrumbes (The Collapse) right before leaving Venezuela. Why do you think you wrote it in that moment and not in another? What link can you make between the two events? Did it help you when it came to saying goodbye? 

It might seem like the title Los derrumbes (The Collapse) hints at a devastated country, but this isn’t the case – it wasn’t a conscious decision at least. When I wrote it I never thought of it as a book about my country or the decline I was seeing day in and day out. Perhaps I understand it as more of a devastation of my writing, my processes. Writing it helped me to be more aware of that change in my writing. At the end of the day everything you experience as a poet has an impact on your poetry, although it’s not obvious on the surface, because there’s a sensitivity being affected by various factors. Los derrumbes (The Collapse) helped me to keep going during that transition from Venezuela to Lima. It’s a book about transition, but technically speaking it’s a failed book; it doesn’t represent something I’d like to publish. 

Would you say you struggled to finish it? Did you come to a standstill or were you able to carry on writing frequently?  

This is an important topic because when I came to Lima obviously I had all the usual fears that one has when migrating: starting over, wondering how I’d get used to everything, etc. I also came to Lima despite being in a good place in Venezuela as far as my journalism career and my poetry were concerned. During my move to Lima I was writing a lot. It was my way of holding on to Venezuela, of trying not to lose my country. Writing was my way of stopping things from changing and having a steady ground in my new environment, but later on things began to change. In the second year, life began to distract me; I started working, trying new things, things that had nothing to do with neither journalism nor poetry. At that point I came to a stop with my writing, which was necessary because after writing for so long there comes a moment where you have to stop and take some time to process what you’ve already written and give what’s not been written some time to develop. It can only be done by giving yourself time. 

Since last year I’ve started to pick up the rhythm with writing again. In fact, this year they’re likely to publish my book here. It’s called Objeto distante (Distant Object), which I wrote based on the main ideas I had while coming to Lima that I hadn’t yet taken further. In Lima I finished the book off, but I wasn’t sure about it – I wasn’t convinced. Let’s say that the book is still tied to my former voice. One day, while showing it to my boyfriend, who’s also a poet, we started to check it over and I realised where I’d gone wrong. I took the book, went off and rewrote it all in just a week because I’d figured out what it needed: the change of voice I’d already been exploring in other new poems. With this book I already feel a little bit happier. I’m more satisfied than with my previous books because I finally feel I’ve found the voice that represents what I’ve been searching for in my poetry. 

We’re interested to know how your experience has been in the publishing world. What have you learnt from the process? What have been the most rewarding and the most difficult moments? 

As a poet, it’s really difficult to publish a book of poems anywhere. It’s true that it’s more difficult in some places than others. In Venezuela, for example, it’s super difficult, although almost anything is super difficult there. I was very sceptical about the possibility of publishing here because I’m usually a very negative person and I don’t like to get my hopes up about anything. Nevertheless, my boyfriend and a few people I knew from Lima spurred me on. I knocked on a publishing house’s door and the publisher was interested straight away, wanting us to meet again. It was like a stroke of luck: I gave it a shot and I got what I was looking for on my first attempt. 

But even so, I know that it’s not easy to publish poetry neither here nor in a lot of places. Publishing in Latin America is always really difficult; there aren’t as many publishers and the ones we do have are usually independent and have a lot of financial trouble when it comes to printing, distributing, and advertising. It’s always really complicated. But it’s still super rewarding when you are able to do it – when in the middle of the disaster and the instability you’re able to say, ‘I’ve made this a reality’. I’m really satisfied with my book being published, especially because I’m really tough on my own poetry; my self-criticism is horrible. So when I’m more or less sure that it’s publishable and that I have the possibility to publish it, knowing I’ve put the effort in is really satisfying; it’s like a pat on the back.  

It also gives me the motivation to carry on because writers don’t just write for themselves; we like people to read our work. This year I’m going to launch my own publishing house with my boyfriend. But it’s not for poetry, rather for essays, conceptual books, and art books. There are various projects that are all trying to get going, but they still haven’t come to fruition. I hope that it’s possible this year, if not next year. Time will tell. 

In one of your personal blog posts dedicated to Martha Kornblith, you write about the “deep and disagreeable deficiencies of the publishing world”: the tragedy of those works that end up inaccessible to the public – lost due to the lack of reprints. Is this something that worries you or something that’s reflected in your work? Do you think it’s a problem that can be counteracted thanks to the internet and exercises that you yourself carry out in your article by putting poems from these lost books back into circulation? 

Yes, it’s something that worries me. I feel the lack of a sustainable publishing policy is an illness in Latin America. Things like this happen frequently: books are published, but never reprinted, and they get lost. We especially see this in the works of previous generations. In Venezuela’s case, there are really important books for the Venezuelan poetry canon that go twenty years without being reprinted – books that you can’t find anywhere except in a national library that lacks a conservation policy and where everything’s going downhill. In general, I find the same thing happens when I talk to friends and other poets from Peru or Chile; there’s always this neglect when it comes to editions. This is also down to an economic issue: how difficult it is to print in our countries. 

But with Venezuelan migration, the fact that we Venezuelans are everywhere, has made our poetry more well known. We’re making noise. Our poetry is being taken to new places. It seems to be something very positive about the generation I belong to. 

It’s something I talk to my friends about a lot: arriving in a new country, interacting with other poets, giving them a Venezuelan poet’s book and sharing, creating an interest for Venezuelan poetry and everything Venezuelan. This movement is one of the positive things about such a difficult migratory progress for Venezuelans. We’re very inward-looking and this process has made us open up. 

How do you think COVID has influenced the cultural and artistic world? Do you think it’s allowed us to see the importance of artistic productions or has it had the opposite effect? We could view culture as something very important, because it’s what’s kept us sane, but it’s also true that it’s possibly the field that’s invested in the least and the one that suffers most in periods of crisis. 

It’s a really complicated topic. There are also a lot of opportunities in the digital world. There’s a whole world to explore beyond the PDF that you post online. There are a lot of opportunities to share poetry and create digital projects. In other words, not projects that adapt to the digital world, but ones that were born digital. The pandemic has changed our lives completely and sped up the digital transformation, which, at least in Latin American countries, has been super slow. I think it’s been difficult, but I feel there are a lot of opportunities we still don’t see very clearly. It’s a challenge, but we have to find a way to publish digitally – in other words, not take the rules of a physical book to a new format but rather make the most of the new format and create new ways of reading based on that. There are interactive books, platforms, and hypertextual novel websites that take you all over the place and that’s where gifs, memes, and hybrid writing styles come in. You have to change the chip and think, ‘Here we are with an abundance of opportunities’. As Jorge Carrión said in one of his columns, algorithms are today’s editors. So, it’s a challenge putting things out there on the internet, it’s another world to fight in, but it’s also a moment of collaboration with people from other countries. I feel these opportunities are now more visible than ever because of the pandemic. I think that’s what we can make of all this. 

In your article De las mujeres que migran entre la jauría (Among the Women Who Migrate in a Pack), you lament the ‘silence’ that one is subdued to when moving to a foreign country. You mention how ‘our tongues shrink’, how we become ‘stunted’, and you ask yourself ‘why can’t I be me?’ We’ve seen a connection between what you explain in this article and what you express in your poem titled Máquina distante (Distant Machine), where you write ‘“you’ll lose your voice / you’ll lose your story / you’ll be an obsolete artefact, full of mould”. What links do you see in all this? We imagine there were certain expressions you used to use while communicating from day to day and it’s very likely that, while moving, you’ve had to give them up and get used to other ones. Perhaps that comes with moving away from your home, your roots, and everything you were before. 

Yes, totally. For me, ‘perder el habla’ can be read in many different ways. It’s losing your voice when writing poetry, for example. I didn’t originally have my own migration process in mind when writing, but you could think of it like that. Even while being in a country that speaks your language, the language used to express yourself is different and there’s a load of words we say here that are taken the wrong way or that have a totally different, even violent or rude meaning. The same thing goes for the rhythm of one’s voice, the tone, and everything that defines you as part of a linguistic area; when in a different place, the message you communicate gets easily confused. Within that process where you, as a migrant, try to adapt to the new area, their language, and their idioms, at the beginning you feel you’re losing yourself a little bit, that you’re losing your identity. 

It happened to me at the beginning in really simple situations: calling things by Peruvian names as I no longer knew what people called them in Venezuela. So you end up conflicted because language is also your identity; language defines you as part of a community. 

So for a writer, the fact that your prime material is language does play a part, it does move you. After getting involved with my new country I realised I had started to internalise the slang; it had begun to coexist with my own customs I’d brought from Venezuela, making me more sensitive to my relationship with language. In poetry and writing there’s a conflict, a very active relationship with the language from the foreign country and the country you’re a part of, which is reflected in poetic language. It’s full of tension. I suppose this is why I spoke about ‘our tongues shrinking’ in the article about migration, because as new arrivals we learn to be quiet to try to understand the natives. The same thing goes for the poem Perderás el habla (You’ll Lose Your Voice)but in a different sense: the loss of one’s poetic voice. 

Changing subject, we wanted to know how your image of Venezuela has changed since you left. Do you feel nostalgic? Has it made you view your country differently? From a more political perspective, do you think it’s better to take a realistic and crude focus that encompasses the hurtful aspects of the current situation? Or would you like to promote a more positive perspective that values the beauty and wealth of Venezuelan culture? 

The image I have of Venezuela at the moment is really upsetting. Unfortunately I’m not at all positive when it comes to this topic. I see news about Venezuela all the time and I am up to date with what goes on, but the message I get from there and from the stories my mum tells me become part of a country that I don’t know, and it’s totally overwhelming. I started to feel that way in my last few years of living there. It was the small things where I lived that made me feel that way; certain streets had changed a lot since I was younger. My experience of Venezuela, more specifically in Caracas where I used to live, was that everything I knew began to crumble away, everything was becoming ugly, everything was being destroyed; the images were really disturbing. That change, the transformation of my city and my environment, affected me a lot. Despite this, it didn’t come as too much of a surprise, because the Venezuelan crisis has been brewing for a long time. Now, since being away, there are clichés I remember and dream about with a lot of nostalgia: Caracas’ sky; Caracas’ light; Caracas’ greenness; and certain, very specific parts of the environment where I lived. But the rest is all hazy – like a ghost town for me. A lot of the time I try to imagine what it would be like to go back, to walk through the streets I used to walk down, but it’s difficult because the image I have of it now is really confusing. I don’t recognise it. That’s the sensation I have of the country now in general. I suppose I’ll go through various stages – the normal process when migrating.  

But since I left Venezuela I feel like I could be anywhere. I feel like once one leaves their home country, in reality they could settle down anywhere; it doesn’t matter where. I’m in Peru and I have a lot of affection for the country, but I could be absolutely anywhere and it wouldn’t make a difference. I’d just grab my suitcase and get going. I feel like your land, the place where you were born, and your family home all tie you down, and once you leave you’re like a permanent outcast; you could live wherever. 

What are the questions that most appeal to you nowadays when it comes to writing and which ones do you want to investigate through poetry? 

I’m interested in the possibility language gives us to create new connections, exploring language in a more tangible way, and finding a syntax that, despite its anomalies and apparent disorder, can still communicate a lot of things to you. 

My search now is the search for creative freedom. Sometimes one will say they’re really free, but it’s difficult to truly be free when writing because we write with a lot of complications: the writers you want to be like; the ones you don’t want to be like; the traditions you don’t want to be a part of; and your own judgement. Sometimes we’re prey to our own demands, the expectations we create for ourselves, and in the end we stop being as free to create as we thought we were. I feel poetic freedom is something I haven’t mastered yet, but it’s something I strive for. What I want to master now in writing is giving it a go and working at gaining that freedom. I’m interested in continuing the search I’ve started with my latest book to be published. The book is shaped by machine-time, by that mechanical clunking, and by the relationship between the mechanical and the human hand. I’m also writing another book about duration, or at least that’s how I see it. I want to explore by using various discursive registers and different voices in the same book, as well as by making the space and format significant features. I want the book to not only be a container but also content and to expand the poem beyond its limits.