The Other Tiger: Poetry’s hidden side – (Interview with Richard Gwyn)

Richard Gwyn grew up in Wales, and studied at the LSE. He lived for many years in Greece, France and Spain, and has travelled widely in Latin America. A poet and novelist, he is also the editor of an anthology of poetry from Wales, The Pterodactyl’s Wing (2003). His first novel, The Colour of a Dog Running Away (2005), set in Barcelona, received international acclaim and has been translated into many languages. His memoir, The Vagabond’s Breakfast, won a Wales Book of the Year Award in 2012. He has translated poetry and short fiction by many Latin American writers, especially from Argentina and Colombia, and is the author of A Complicated Mammal, the selected poems of Joaquín O. Giannuzzi (2012) and The Spaces Between, poems by Jorge Fondebrider (2013). The Other Tiger, a major dual-text anthology of contemporary Latin American poetry, containing work by nearly 100 poets, was published by Seren in 2016. Between 2007-13 he reviewed fiction for The Independent. His alter ego writes about literary and everyday matters on Ricardo Blanco’s Blog. He is Professor in English Literature at Cardiff University.

Alephi , sent an interview questionnaire to Richard Gwyn, on the occasion of the publication of “The Other Tiger” and below are his responses:

Alephi: First of all, we congratulate you on your book, ‘The Other Tiger: Recent Poetry from Latin America,’ being selected by the reputable Wales Arts Review as one of the best 10 published in 2016. How do you feel about this moment of pride?

RG: Thank you for asking me to do the interview. I appreciate the fact that an Indian magazine shows interest in this work. At the same time, it is nice to get acknowledgement on your own patch, and I appreciated the coverage in Wales Arts Review, as well as reviews in other Welsh outlets (Poetry Wales, New Welsh Review, Planet). The book has also been well received in Latin America. I have just got back from a tour of Argentina, Chile and Uruguay, where we presented the book with readings by local poets in Buenos Aires, Valdivia and San José (Uruguay) and I did interviews with national press in Argentina and Chile. We also had a nice review in the Scottish Review of Books. However, I have not received a single review in any English publication to date.

Alephi: We would like to know the parameters that made you select the Latin American poems for your anthology and whether your perspective was political or purely aesthetical

RG: My selection was based on personal choice, first and foremost, but guided by certain structural principles and constraints. I decided fairly early on – after translating around 40 poems – that I did not wish to make an anthology based on an historical, linear basis; nor did I wish to make a ‘geographical’ anthology, with separate sections on each country. It seemed obvious, after a while, that what the book demanded was a ‘thematic’ structure; and in the end I devised an almost biographical development of sections or chapters so that if read in its entirety – which no one would be likely to do – it could read as a vast, multi-voiced novel. So the perspective was neither political nor strictly speaking ‘aesthetic’, but rather was based in an idea of narrative, in which the political, the biographical, and the metaphysical all play significant roles.

Alephi: At the global level there is a niche for the Latin American poetry. How does the political idiom or perspective of the Latin American literature, which has produced greats such as Pablo Neruda and Octavio Paz, operate among the contemporary poets?

RG: I think that most Latin American poets are all too well aware of the heritage you mention, but we should also bear in mind the influences from the indigenous world (and indigenous languages) and the imported influences – particularly from France, in certain countries, and from Spain and the USA almost throughout the continent. There is a niche for world poetries, perhaps, but it is a certainly a very specialist one in the UK and North America, where the myopia towards literary work in other languages is staggering. The amount of work by mediocre writers translated from English into Spanish far outweighs the work of exceptional writers from Spanish translated into English.

Alephi: ‘The other tiger’ is, in fact, an imagery created and popularized by world renowned Latin American literary stalwart Jorge Louis Borges who used it as a metaphor for historical, political and landscape features. Now you have used it as part of your title. What is the perspective behind it?

RG: The phrase elicits the notion of what is hidden behind the poem; the part of the poem that is impossible to reach, and the reason for the poem’s existence. If we imagine poetry as a metaphor, the other tiger is the thing it is a metaphor of.

Alephi: How do you view the modern Latin American literary environment and the social condition?

RG: Pretty much as I view the rest of the world’s: literature can only be a reflection of the world we live in, and the prognosis at this precise moment is dire. It goes without saying that we are living through a perilous period marked by extreme global confusion, and led, certainly in the West and no doubt elsewhere too, by individuals who behave without much sense of responsibility towards either their fellow citizens or our planet. Environmental concern may come top of the list, but that is not to forget the massive problems arising from war and the subsequent refugee crisis, mass migration, international terrorism, poverty and recurrent drought, famine and flooding. Latin America is, to some extent, protected from the most direct consequences of some of these issues, but globalization means that nothing that goes on in the world really happens in a discrete space: everything is shared. And in this sense, Latin American writers – if we can speak of such a generality – have their own demons to face. Perhaps a single poem, María Rivera’s ‘The Dead’, providing insight into Mexico’s ‘narco’ violence and the social misery it sows, can provide your readers with some kind of a notion of what the book seeks to convey. At least, this is a part of the story: not all of it, by any means, but after four years work, if I was asked which poem taught me most, this would be it. see link here: https://richardgwyn.me/2016/05/10/3436/

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