Poetry as the Site of a Collision — Mexican Poet Tedi López Mills
TEDI LÓPEZ MILLS was born in Mexico City in 1959. She has published ten books of poetry, several of which have received national prizes in Mexico: Cinco estaciones, Un lugar ajeno, Segunda persona (Premio Nacional de Poesía Efraín Huerta), Glosas, Horas, Luz por aire y agua, Un jardín, cinco noches (y otros poemas), Contracorriente (Premio Nacional de Literatura José Fuentes Mares), Parafrasear, and Muerte en la rúa Augusta (Premio Xavier Villaurrutia). Her most recent book is a collection of essays, Libro de las explicaciones (Editorial Almadía, 2012).
López Mills’ other honors include a 1994 Young Artists grant from the Fondo Nacional para las Culturas y las Artes, a 1996 fellowship from the U.S./Mexico Fund for Culture to translate Gustaf Sobin, and the inaugural poetry grant awarded by the Octavio Paz Foundation in 1998. She has translated into Spanish the work of numerous American, English, and French poets, and most recently, Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red. López Mills has been a member of the Sistema Nacional de Creadores de Arte since 2009.
What attracted you to philosophy as a student? What are the philosophical questions that you return to in your own writing?
I studied philosophy so as not to study literature. I think that was my primary reason. When I was going over career possibilities (obviously not many in my case), the idea of interpreting, analyzing, classifying, and taking apart books that I had read and would read with absolute pleasure and intensity frightened me and made me get away from literary studies.
Philosophy taught me more about questions than about answers. In that sense, there was nothing literary about it, although it had everything to do with books and reading. Nietzsche had already been an important author for me in my adolescence and, naively enough, I had the impression that all philosophy would be like his: passionate, angry and almost poetical. That, of course, is not true. It can be arid, self-obsessed, complicated to the point of being almost an insane use or rather misuse of language.
As to philosophical questions, they’re not a specialty of philosophy, but questions that I’m sure everyone asks oneself frequently: about nature, self, time, reality, subjectivity, goodness, badness, mortality, immortality. In a way philosophy gets rid of the neurotic edge that many of these questions may acquire and gives them a tradition, a form.
I suppose philosophy crops up in my poetry, I hope ironically, and is of course a deliberate presence and influence when I write essays. In a strange way the abstraction one comes up against in philosophy seems to lead me towards imagination and poetical paradox. But maybe that means that I’ve merely corrupted its whole purpose.
Are there philosophers or theorists writing today whose work especially interests you?
I’ve read Clement Rosset recently, but I tend to go back to the original authors. Not frequently, though. I now read more history than philosophy. I’m terrified by all the things, mere facts that I don’t know, and I’m trying to catch up. Also, I prefer reading poetry, essays, novels. Once you lose the habit of philosophy, it’s difficult to re-adapt yourself to its procedures; they seem useless or desperate, then you remember that they’re exactly that, and an anguished boredom begins to threaten you. So you (I) close the book.
As well as being a poet, essayist, and editor, you are a translator of French, English, and U.S. poetry. What draws you to translate a particular poet’s work? Who is your favorite poet to translate?
Fascination draws me to translate a certain author; the desire to listen to those words in Spanish and to share them. Also, more personally, the desire to be infected, contaminated, influenced.
I don’t really have a favorite poet to translate. I’ve worked on Wallace Stevens, Gustav Sobin, Anne Carson, Marianne Moore and many others. When I read Pound, Eliot, Williams, Bishop, I immediately feel the urge to translate, but they have been translated and published so many times in Spanish that I’m not sure I would be able to do a better job.
I’m planning to translate Rimbaud’s Illuminations next year, inspired in a way by what John Ashbery did.
Readers will find references in poems such as “Leyendo a Virgilio / Reading Virgil” (from your book Horas, published in 2000) to classical politics and legendary battles. How does contemporary politics enter your work?
Modern poetry has forgotten how un-pacifist poetry was during long periods. In any case, there’s something surprising in recent poetry and poetry festivals: the innocence and goodness of most poets. They’re always on the right side and become even more popular by making their message very public. In a sense this attitude has over-simplified any political discussion in poetry, which is very true in Mexico: poets pointing their finger at what other poets are not doing for the country, the people, etc. So the solution sometimes is demagogical: one includes all the good causes in one’s poems so as to get strong approval and applause when one reads out loud. Complicated, baroque poems are usually found guilty of not taking reality, political reality into account. And some poets give in and write simple poems about everyday life. I’ve noticed in poetry festivals that this kind of social urge to please the public has created an international lingo among poets.
I do think that one of the consistent messages of your poetry is “It’s not that simple” —whatever it may happen to be under discussion. For example, your book Contracorriente is richly complex in form, and the poems critique reductionist notions of the “genuine” or the “authentic.” Where do you think your drive toward the complicated and baroque comes from? How does it interact with your use of symbolism?
Not all my books are as complex as Contracorriente, and that probably sounds like a confession of guilt.
The poems in Contracorriente are complicated and baroque because they are throwing themselves away as they move: from A to Z. It’s a symbolism which tries to make fun of itself, of its own reflections in these muddied and dirty waters. That’s where these poems travel and crash against themselves; the words break, tear everything apart, hurt anything that pretends to be essential.
Your poems often have outdoor settings, frequently featuring animals, and I know that you love animals. I often feel a tension between the natural or pastoral and the constructed in your work — for example, in descriptions of the vegetation of a garden and the wall that holds it in. Do you consider yourself an ecological poet, and/or a person interested in ecology?
I live in an ecological disaster on a daily basis. I’m deeply aware of everything that is dying around me. I know it sounds dramatic and surely I exaggerate, but Mexico is a very serious example of constant ecological crimes. So yes, of course I consider myself interested in ecology, but no, I don’t think of myself as an ecological poet. In a city as huge as mine, nature and non-nature are constantly colliding and overlapping.
I don’t think you sound overly dramatic. We are all struggling. When I read poems from Contracorriente that describe trash clogging up an urban river, I think about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. I would say that recent scholarship in ecopoetics is concerned with the sites of collision that you describe, and with the way that ecology intersects with culture. But I’m also remembering another poem from Contracorriente: “my false, my melancholy brother, devotee of an unpolluted past, always longing/ for yesterday” — critiquing the idea of seeking purity, whether in “nature” or in memory. Am I right in guessing that the descriptor “ecological poet” brings up for you the associations of over-simplification that you described earlier with regards to politics?
I tend to think that poetry should always be the site of a collision.
The brother in Contracorriente is really my brother. The book begins with him and takes him along through all the poems as a presence and a witness who is in constant danger.
Any message, no matter how truthful or urgent it is, can become an over-simplification in the hands or words of poetry (or politicians). I guess it depends on where the speaker, the self of the poet, places his or her voice. One has to be part of the problem, not part of the solution. That’s where innocence and goodness have to be careful of not becoming a very public and pleasing rhetoric.
Although you travel widely and have lived abroad, you have said that you consider your place of birth, Mexico City, to be your lifelong home. What makes Mexico City your place — for life and for art?
I lived in Paris for many years and even considered the possibility of staying there for good: in that most perfect and beautiful of cities. But becoming a professional foreigner scared me, and being obsessed and out of time with my own country seemed like an undesired fate for me. After all, here in Mexico there is an immediate dialogue or even monologue with one’s literary community. Although that sounds rather pompous. I came back to Mexico so that I could stop talking about Mexico in an almost folkloric way. I remember one night in Paris I found myself crying while listening to Los Panchos — vernacular music — and I told myself: this cannot go on. Time to go home. And so I did.
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