“My writing has always been spurred by obsession”
Claribel Alegría, Nicaraguan-Salvadoran.
the most joyful and loving poet
our country has ever known,
died on January 26 at the age of 93,
leaving Nicaragua a shining monument
of 30 books, nearly all of them poetry.
Just two months earlier she was in Madrid
to receive the 23rd Queen Sofía Prize
for Ibero-American Poetry.
These were her words that day,November 13, 2017
To the ladies and gentlemen of Salamanca who this year are celebrating—and I with them—the 800th anniversary of their wonderful university’s founding, it is with great honor and joy that I receive the prestigious Queen Sofía Prize.
It was five in the morning. I was sound asleep when my nurse, Elsy Duarte, woke me shouting “Congratulations!” I groggily roused myself and told her that my birthday had already come and gone five days earlier. “No!” she said, “it’s not for your birthday; they have awarded you the Queen Sofía Prize!” I had a hard time understanding, but then I remembered my husband Bud, who died more than 20 years ago. When he was granted the prize for the first time, he said to me, “A prize like this is what I want for you.” When I just laughed, he continued, “Worst of all is that when they give it to you, I will no longer be here, and we won’t be able to share it.”
So this award is very important to me beyond its prestige, and I want to dedicate it not only to Her Majesty Queen Sofía, but also to my mentor, our great Juan Ramón Jiménez; to his beloved wife, Zenobia Campurbí; and to Rainer María Rilke, who with his book Letters to a Young Poet showed me my vocation.
“I grew up in a machista society”
I was born and grew up in an aggressively machista society. Among my generation in Central America, a middle-class girl had the option of marrying and becoming her husband’s housewife, or staying chaste and virgin, baking traditional pastries for her nieces and nephews. A peasant or working-class woman’s only option was to become a slave to her husband and children.
All over Latin America, until just a few years ago, women who stood out were rare. Names like Alfonsina Storni, Delmira Agustini, Gabriela Mistral, Juana de Ibarbouru, Claudia Lars, without mentioning the greatest of all, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz—who more than three hundred years ago proclaimed, “O foolish men who accuse / women with so little cause”—were spoken of with something approaching astonishment and dread.
The majority of girls in my generation, from families with economic possibilities, did not even finish high school. You could count on one hand those who received a university degree. I suspect that Sor Juana, in her time, elected to become a nun for the opportunity to receive an education, which otherwise would have been forbidden to her.
“I already wrote, but in secret”
I wanted to study medicine, but my father, an old-school doctor, looked at me with horror and said absolutely not, that medical students played rude pranks with discarded body parts and that he was not willing to expose his precious daughter to such filth.
I had to spend three years learning to knit, cook fine cuisine and play “Für Elise” on the piano before I finally rebelled and threatened to become a nun or marry the first man who asked for my hand and then immediately divorce him. This was a master stroke, since in those days a divorced woman was an atrocity.
They immediately sent me to study in the United States. By that time I was already writing, but I had kept it well hidden. If my secret had become known, my women friends would have thought me an odd duck and my male friends would either have felt cowed in the presence of a literary pedant or would have assumed I was a loose woman.
“I call my political poems, poems of love”
These days many girls study literature in university and know what’s going on in the world. In my case, shortly after arriving in the United States, I had the good fortune of meeting Juan Ramón Jiménez, who became my mentor—a very tough one in fact—for three years.
My poetry then was lyrical. It never occurred to me at that time to write poems that reflected the misery of my two homelands. I thought Central American dictators were inevitable, so beyond remedy, like the earthquakes and storms that battered my region. But I changed over time and began to write poems that reflect the suffering, the injustices and the cruelties. More than political poems, I call them love poems.
In my most recent books, I talk a lot about mythology. I identify with Penelope, Artemisia, La Malinche; I even identify with Medea. Greek myths have had the most influence on me. I know that you, Your Majesty, know a lot about mythology and this makes me feel even closer to you.
In Paris, and then in Mallorca, my husband and I would avidly follow the news from Central America. What was I doing in Europe while my nations were silently suffering the implacable repression of the Somoza dynasty in Nicaragua and the rotating coronel-Presidents in El Salvador?
In September 1979, two months after the triumph of the Sandinista revolution, we travelled to Nicaragua for six months to research the epic tale of Sandino and his successors in the FSLN, for a book we would write and then publish in Mexico with the title Nicaragua, the Sandinista Revolution.
Social and political concerns have a certain tendency to slip into my poetry, simply because the political situation in Central America is one of my main obsessions, and I have always written spurred by obsession. My overwhelming obsession, however, is to try with all my might for my next poem to be less imperfect than the last.
“There are no trivial subjects”
Machismoz/i> in Central America, slowly and against its will, has had to allow women into business offices and the media. In Nicaragua after the triumph of the revolution, for example, women began to hold important posts in government and other spheres. We have even had a woman President. The women writers of the First World broke molds in the 1920s, but it wasn’t until the 1940s and 50s that the ranks of women writers in the Third World began to swell visibly.
Then the feminine liberation movement arrived in the 1970s. Women began more aggressively to demand equal rights in the editorial field and to prove that they should be listened to. This leads us to a question that has plagued women writers for generations: is there masculine literature separate from feminine literature? If so, what is the difference? I think there are two kinds of literature: good and bad. And the author’s sex has nothing to do with the quality of his or her work. As Sor Juana rightly put it, intelligence has no sex.
It is true that frequently there are subjects that men prefer and others preferred by women. I suspect there are very few novels written by women that concern, for example, a truck driver who travels cross-country. Nor are there many men whose novels deal with the different stages of pregnancy.
Like Virginia Woolf, I think literary language should be androgynous. There is neither male nor female writing. There is good writing and there is bad. I also don’t think there are any trivial subjects. Any subject, as inconsequential as it may seem, handled by a good writer will become a work of art. In literature the how is more important than the what.
“I didn’t have a room of my own until I was 55 years old”
In 1928 Virginia Woolf was invited to give two lectures on “Women and the novel” for audiences composed mainly of young women. She responded with the text A Room of One’s Own, which was later published in book form. The book is brilliant, sharp, a 157-page essay in which she asks why, before 1920, it was virtually impossible for women to become relevant writers. In the end she simply said that for a woman—and here I quote her verbatim—”It is necessary to have five hundred a year and a room with a lock on the door if you are to write fiction or poetry.”
This may appear completely arbitrary, but Virginia Woolf had an aunt in Bombay who fell off a horse and died as a consequence, and she left her niece 500 pounds a year for the rest of her life. As for a room of one’s own, I know exactly what she was trying to say. I never had such a luxury until I was 55 years old: a room where I could shut myself away, change speeds, reach an altered state of consciousness, pace the room from one side to the other, recite my poems out loud and know that no one was going to interrupt me.
“Writing poetry is a delicate undertaking”
Having survived more than half a century on the battlefield of literature, many narrators and poets, young men and women, have asked me to give them some advice. The first thing I tell them is that I agree with Virginia Woolf about having even a modest income, and a room of their own where they can defend themselves against intruders. Then, especially in the case of poets, I give them the same advice Juan Ramón Jiménez gave me: “When you are working on a poem,” he would say, “after you finish it and put your pen down on the table, open one of your favorite books of poetry and read a poem that has particularly made an impression on you. This will give you both humility and ambition, and it is possible that the muse will enlighten you.”
Speaking of pens, I personally find it impossible to compose a poem on the computer. Narratives or articles, no problem; poetry, never. I need my pen and unlined pages with three holes punched at the edge to fit in green binders. It’s an idiosyncrasy, I know, but idiosyncrasies are terribly important in an undertaking as delicate as writing poetry. And speaking of unlined paper and bindings, I must confess that ever since I published my second little book of poems, I have had a place for seedlings that my husband gave me as a gift: my notebook where I jot down ideas, dreams, thoughts, fragments of readings that have moved me and, of course, the first drafts of my poems. Some of my notes lie dormant there for months or years, until one day upon re-reading them something clicks and I find myself writing another poem.
When it comes to women writers, I advise them to free themselves from the sense of guilt that stems from not being perfect housewives, and to observe what Joseph Campbell said: “Follow your bliss”—follow your calling.
To conclude, I would like to read you two fragments from a long poem, the most recent one I have published. It’s called “Endless Love” and expresses what I feel about words: that they never let us go.
My earthly adventure / is intangible / I would forget / that I exist / that I barely am / an instrument / of rough wood / and muted voice. / Sometimes / sadness comforts me / the echoes comfort me / voices that stampede away / and that I never / heard. / The universe has broken / in a thousand pieces / this threshold one piece / a ghost / with trees, / its music within me / I would that my lips / pronounce words / words disjointed / solitary / and magical / words like leaves / to shade the spell / of these branches / that are stirring. / Could they be dead loves? / I am dizzy from the silence / I close my eyes / I dream / another dream / in my dream / another reality / yet unknown. / Volcanoes of words / some spew fire / others lava / they reach my feet / the igneous rocks / I bend my knee before them / as before an altar / they are perhaps the relics / of a darkened world / defenseless creatures / that bring forth / my tears / forgotten words / that just now I drink. / Their igneous beauty / chokes me up / words in other tongues / that I fail to understand / I lull them / I please them / words that I devised / or others invented. / Let us drink you and I / to the words / the soaring words / that reach you as well / to the black trees / that sharpen / my anguish. / Let us drink to the song / that becomes flame / let us drink to the flame / and the conflagration.