“Desire for Something that Doesn’t Exist”:

Interview between Reina María Rodríguez and Kristin Dykstra

Translator’s note: I conducted this interview on June 18, 2001. The questions grew out of the experience of translating The Difference / La diferencia, a manuscript based on Rodríguez’ 1998 collection, La foto del invernadero (The Photo of the Greenhouse). Rodríguez won her second Casa de las Américas award with Foto. In that collection, as in some of her earlier work, Rodríguez blends everyday imagery and colloquial language with defamiliarizing, often overtly intellectual, material. However, Foto is a distinctive commentary linking a particularly interesting historical moment to a wide range of topics (such as aesthetics, urban space, local and family life, political and spiritual iconography, utopias and disillusionment). Rodríguez remarks, “I would like to find the thing we call ‘authentic,’ something that wouldn’t be a reproduction. There’s a desire for something that doesn’t exist, something that would come to me in the real time that I’ve lived.” Originally recorded in Spanish, this interview took place at Rodríguez’ rooftop home in Havana after we worked on some of the translations together.

KD: In college, you studied the history and preservation of art. Although you didn’t continue in these fields professionally, you have drawn on both painting and sculpture in a variety of ways for your writing. You often use visual art to provoke explorations of time and space, the self and the other. Painting appears in The Photo of the Greenhouse, such as in the final poem, “Imagine.” But as the book title hints, you also were also thinking about photography. How did these visual elements contribute to your experience of writing the poems?

RMR: I’ve always wanted poetry to see an image, to make it transparent, more than hearing it. The poetry that we have always had — in the past — at school, what we’ve always read — is more sonorous than visual. But things matter to me that can’t be said that way, that maybe you can never say that way. I studied art history but switched to Pan-American literature, and I also pursued museum studies first. That field interested me very much, and if I had continued to study it, I would have had a special interest in restoration. I see The Photo of the Greenhouse as a book that comes out of a time of great exhaustion, in which all landscapes are submerged. Photography from a magazine, The UNESCO Courier, served as a starting point. I was trying to really desacralize something, using “her” — “she” is the device that I currently use to resolve issues between the “you” and the “I” — “she” is a writer who turns the pages of a magazine, trying to pull the past out of its depths, trying to find it. The past is lost in the photographs. The project is an homage to The Courier. It’s a trip that you never take, so there’s no need for a vehicle, or even for… a great desire. It’s a trip you make during the moment of great exhaustion. And the poems are cold. They’re like reproductions of poems. Now that I’ve re-read the collection — because for a long time, I didn’t go back to it — I even feel that it’s frozen. The image has no passion or exaltation: it’s more like all of the images are dissected. And there’s a relationship to painting as well. Painting interests me very much. I always wanted to be a painter. I didn’t have the gift. But I did always want to paint with my poems, and this seems to be something very ingenuous. More than a cerebral image, an intellectual complexity, I’m interested in the visual representation t hat the text lacks.

I always think that a poem is an approximation of exchange with something that is a substance, that is inexpressible, that really can’t be translated. In other words, there’s always a translation, even between one’s hand and the paper itself. I remember writing letters about the most personal things, and I always tried to write them by hand. I thought that gave me a closer relationship to my writing. Later, of course, I worked a lot on guidebooks and other texts that I was taught to make using a machine. And I felt less distancing, less like a spectator of the page itself. I think that’s very good, because it’s part of the great and habitual vice that I have involving the self, the ego. Anyway, all of these landscapes are recovered from memory. They’ve been put into The Courier as a pretext, placed inside some photos, in a determined location, in a museum, as a pretext for creating relationships. One thing belonging to me is placed with another that is very far from belonging to me, or that maybe once belonged to me. It is the creation of a relationship that I deal with. In other words, culture is important to me — not so much as a history with chronological dates, but as a form of learning from having gone to museums, from having gone to see this or that, as an appropriation in the moment when I relate things to something else drawn from my daily life, to something from my world, to the smallest thing I can find. I don’t see culture as directed from the inside toward the outside. I always try to inject it from the outside into the subject. Not the other way around. In other words, there’s no subject that gets injected into culture. The subject comes from culture, from what’s outside the painting, building, play, or page of universal literature, and it moves inwards.

For example, when I take some personal history to use with “a moment of blackness,” [i] I link it to a text that I love by Virginia Woolf, using her character of Minnie March. It’s a way — to my understanding — of seeing where I can go when I recreate literature and art, when I reproduce it by appropriating things for myself. Not really as formal intertextuality… that has never mattered to me. Mannerisms, genres — those things — they’re what critics study, the people who have a different way of using the work. I’m interested in appropriation as it relates to the impossibility of my coexisting in the present time with these writers. And also to coexisting with these different moments, from history and from culture, from the history of man in process. Everything comes out of this world of “Jigs and Lures,” a piece about my mother that’s part of a later collection [ii] : I’ve always believed that the sincerity man achieves is the greatest artifice there is. It affects relationships with objects, works of art and literature, people, with everything. That’s where you find some quality or leap, right? A leap of consciousness, or of language, or of one’s way of being able to appreciate the value of things that came before. I don’t know if that makes sense… I’ve never talked about it before.

KD: I’d like to ask about a series of related concepts that you’ve just mentioned. Using postmodern philosophy, one can link restoration to reproduction, representation, and problems of relation. Can you speak a bit about how philosophy may have been important to you while writing this collection — for example, with the articulation of problems involving simulacra?

RMR: Right now I can’t talk about specific texts. I read a lot of literature — mostly French thought — at a particular moment here, during a year when there was a great deal of need. Sometimes I’d read Derrida and examine the construction of the metaphor he was creating. I didn’t have formal preparation for this reading; furthermore, I’m not at all interested in doing a rational reading, or even a theoretical reading, of theory — and much less a technical reading. I appropriate it as text. By this I mean that theory matters to me insofar as it serves my creative purposes, as an element to see further inside creation itself. To see how far I can go. In this case, yes, I was reading Marshall Berman’s book, All That Is Solid Melts into Air. It’s a book about the city, about how a city becomes a postmodern city, and why. I don’t know if you’ve read that book. I also read Baudrillard. I read a lot of Lyotard. I read Foucault. But fundamentally, beyond the individual texts — of which there may be nothing left — I think the constant interest for me in all the books I’ve written has centered on the idea of being something reproduced within the space of underdevelopment, in pseudo-socialism, in kitsch, in a tropical region. In other words, how do you inject any world or place with what Jorge Zalamea has said — that there are no pueblos, and there are no underdeveloped peoples? Creation itself exists in no place.

For example, when I read Roland Barthes, I tried to create my book Travelling [iii] thinking about Barthes — with all the difference of kitsch, of working with low-quality photos. But moving down through all these levels, because I believe in recycling, all the residues have given me possibilities to see what I can receive or touch. What concerns me, for example, when I make use of something, is that in any of the developed countries — “developed” in the sense of industrial and economic development — I’m looking for many things that one can’t really perceive. I try to convert those things into language. Let’s say — a store full of stones. I suddenly see amber — a whole series of stones, many of which I can’t identify — and I know they’ll become part of the texts. Texts that will come. But what is at the outside is always a structure. My concern is reproducing the objects in my own habitual way, in the space where I’ve already conceived of the image or metaphor. In other words, each one of those new words — they don’t come out of dictionaries, because I’ve never been interested in flipping through dictionaries. I know that Sylvia Plath looked up words in dictionaries, but what’s important to me is getting a word when it has been used. When it has vitality. So I pick up this amber when it has a story for me, something to do with a relationship, with something that’s always testimonial. And I’m going to encompass the amber within this invoice of effects and sensations, as they are put into me by the object.

In other words, for every object or action, there’s a sensation that will relate to it. So there are never adjectives to qualify nouns or subjects; instead, they qualify actions, desires, or feelings. Because it’s the world I try to make, like in this book. But The Photo of the Greenhouse became a cold book, one documenting the complete renunciation of the real. A book with the fake shine coming off postcards and the masks worn by books; a book about culture as something that’s already reproduced, where we can never actually get to any kind of sensation or origin. Instead we just accumulate and accumulate scraps, pieces, fragments. And in that sense, yes, it addresses postmodernity. Of course, not explicitly. Although there’s that shirt. [iv] I was just rereading the text and I realized — it’s that shirt travelling through posters — it’s a way in which I see the postmodern man, but at the same time I’m playing with him. I’m playing with him because I would always like to find the other, the other person. In other words, I would like to find the thing we call “authentic,” something that wouldn’t be a reproduction. There’s a desire for something that doesn’t exist, something that would come to me in the real time that I’ve lived. For that reason there aren’t really places in this book. I think the only one is by the pool in “the one who’s diving,” and that’s Saint Petersburg. Because when I was there, I found this time that interests me. And there was the man from the train, the old woman officiating in a church, the time of war, and the time of greatest velocity. I know that I liked those places. To make a comparison, there’s a book called Saint Petersburg, a very clear novel, somehow. It talks about all the distance there is, temporally. It’s like Marshall Berman’s book, because it too is a city taken up th rough those fragments; with the loss of the subject, they can make the city itself into a subject, can make it the same city that’s being contemplated… everything passing through it.

KD: Another important issue in The Photo of the Greenhouse is spirituality. Photo is almost a text that wants to be sacred — maybe profane at the same time. You seem to want to provoke a confrontation between signs that must be resolved in some spiritual fashion. For example, Photo blends eternal imagery with imagery specific to a contemporary context from the island, from the streets of Havana. You combine Cuban spaces with places you’ve “known” through texts or through journeys. How did you come to create these confrontations in the poems? And why did you need to explore spirituality at the time?

RMR: I always follow Pessoa — the world is inside you. With Photo, it’s about trying to find a place to produce the greatest proximity to the poet you want to be. Or to be a hack writer, an “escribidor,” which is the word closest to what I mean. To also be someone who’s trying to reproduce a poet’s spirituality. I personally come from a completely common background. As a girl, I had a semi- or pseudo-Catholic upbringing, a family with a mother who believed in God. Every night before bed I’d say, “Mama, God willing, until tomorrow,” and then I experienced the losses of my father and my brother, things that made me much more impressionistic. Distanced me from religiosity and religious practices. Made me… doubt, in an absolute sense. But at the same time, they caused me to retake some kind of divinity or spirituality from some constant presence. Maybe from my own guilt complex. I mean, from things as simple or elementary as trying to give, trying to share; I think there’s a certain greatness I’ve read about in Gandhi’s writing, for example. Or Gurdieff, when he takes Katherine Mansfield to Fontainebleu to die surrounded by cows. I know I’ve never really achieved it; everything is always partial. But I’ve tried to make writing itself the only “symbolic” salvation, in quotes, and in that sense, Photo seems to me to come from a photo we had from my childhood. There was a little house out back, and “she” imagines it as a greenhouse, but it’s in the photo where “she” thinks about how she’s making writing, thinks about how to become a writer. It’s nothing more than a journey — you try to see where “she” deals with language, language handled as language, let’s say, to embrace the sense of being a writer. And it seems to me that what appears to be sacred, finally, is not. That what she tries to make sacred is finally what she most wants to desacralize.

Books are important to me, because books have a time. And in that time, which is a physical-real time, I begin to see the year’s end, because the light is a certain way; I’m seeking out the scent of the sea, just like animals. It’s a time of thirst. Profoundly so. And in the case of my novel, “she” is a girl who’s painting scenery in the middle of what she’s writing, where she pretends to believe, and everything she finds ends up being insanity and unbelief. So, I think, in this book, it’s like that. At the end, in the final text, are all those ephemeral things; they’re between ephemerality and permanence. Mandal is there, a poet disappearing with the movement of the air. The wind takes him away. Or the fragility of trying to close oneself off, as we all know. And really, language, or having known something, or having searched for it in culture itself — these can’t make us arrive at any higher state, what we call the soul. But the attempt always exists. I think this is a purely profane book, one that’s just an homage to The Courier and lacks humor. Because I lack humor. I’m too pathetic to be able to believe that you can make fun of things. It’s that act of making fun of things that has innocence. It’s the act of making fun of things, performed by a girl — one who’s not about to turn 49 [v] , who’s not getting to her half-century mark, because she still has that innocence of laughing or making fun of things. I can’t resolve my own lack of humor. The novel’s motion… I think I’ve tried to think about that, because it would be very interesting. It’s something that Cuban literature lacks, exactly that: humor. There is a certain humor that the greatest Cuban writers have. But it’s very difficult; we are a country with a culture leaning towards the pathetic, very transcendentalist, with the desire for self and for dista nce, which gives it the character of the island. But in this case, I think mine is a desacralizing book. All of the landscapes get erased; they deteriorate; they’re purely “intellectualized,” so to speak. They’re cold. And they don’t have a humor sufficient to achieve that other way of making fun of things, the joke by or about the intellect, a conscious joke. In this case, the joke is just that of a girl who says, “Well, now I have nothing else to do. This is what’s left for me, right? I’m ripping pages out of a magazine.”

KD: You’ve said that you’re not interested in intertextuality as a textual experiment, an avant-garde gesture. But you do employ a great deal of intertextuality, and you particularly draw on modernist writers. Would you talk about your interest, for example, in Samuel Beckett and Virginia Woolf?

RMR: Yes. I meant that in the sense of trying to do it, consciously. I take up the work and biographies of authors that matter to me, of course, as do many people. Other people impose their own readings. I impose a reading of those authors who, in some way, have an affinity for me. I like Beckett very much because in his work, I feel the motions of language. All the movements and actions that matter to me happen on the level of language. If I were to think of a great poet, it would be Virginia Woolf, because Virginia manages to narrate and create a fable; above all, she writes feelings, or as she says in Mrs. Dalloway, “the sensibility of impressions,” which I think is the greatest thing to which a poet can aspire. It’s not so much about writing a story. In other words, it’s complete. She has the fable, and at the same time she has the power to go along deconstructing language, what language is, on different levels. She does this to the point of creating another kind of representation, another level for her writing. So, from these authors who are most important to me, it’s about everything they do with the movements of language, more than about structure. It has more to do with actions. I’m also very interested in Blanchot, because I remember reading Thomas the Obscure, which seems to be a novel… Sometimes it’s not the novels that are most well-known or most representative of a culture… But I was thinking that he was there. I went to France. He was alive and sitting in some park when I knew nothing about it, didn’t know this novel existed. I was able to read the novel in the way you read things here: when you can get the book, when it happens to be around; when someone has been able to bring it, or someone brings a photocopy of it. That’s what happened with Blanchot. I couldn’t say what happened, exactly, in the story, because the language’s motions were the motions of memory.

For example, that’s what happened with a movie that we talked about a lot here, Tarkovsky’s Nostalgia. I think that movie tries to be an anthology of all of his movies, because in Nostalgia, he tries to incorporate the western world into that place, a temple without a roof, where out back are the little house, the lake, and the dog. True, this image of Tarkovsky’s, what most grabs my attention, is a place somewhere in Italy; I don’t know where it was filmed, but it doesn’t matter. I felt that the image went beyond the screenplay. There’s the case of Stalker; it’s a movie with a script which, for me, the image surpasses; it’s a movie testing out what it means to have a script. And in the case of another Tarkovsky movie, I felt that the image was the concept. So, in that sense, I’m very interested in everything concerned with a language, with converting this language into action. And it’s not a story that can be told with words, then, or with a particular language. So for that reason, Beckett. You feel the void, you feel the voice that accompanies it; what jumps out is really the voice. What follows you the whole time during the reading is the voice. How to make it corporeal, how one can feel the sound, by way of a book: its voice. And those are the writers who interested me the most.

I meant to say — I got a little off the topic — about this intertextuality: a long time ago, I read a marvellous book. God, I forgot what it was. Well, it’s a theoretical work about intertextuality. I can’t remember the title now. But I used it a lot to write Páramos. [vi] So that’s something else. The desire, at that time, was about sensation, about giving it a validity and an interlocutor who was very intellectual. I also went through — although it’s not important to me to think about a public for which I write — I write for me — but there was an era when I was surrounded by a group that I loved very much, being there together. In other words, for me, the people around me are always a point of reference, like places of arrival, like mirrors. And in this case, I didn’t want to feel incapable of putting all of it — the learning, the knowledge — into my creation. And I think that Páramos is a book where you can most see the recourse to intertextuality. Because at that time, too, apart from a systematic way of thinking, there was no school of philosophy or philosophy magazine, nothing like that. We had a great need to be saying what we were thinking. I had a friend who said to me, “I know I’m always thinking, because I never think.” And it’s because we had this terrible complex. At a given moment, we felt that ideology was supplanting thought. That’s a real conflict. More than being from my generation, I think it’s from the next one, the one that continued after us. There was a rhetoric — a rehashing of thought from the French or German world — and with very little grounding, really, in Cuban literature itself and in Cuban thought of the nineteenth century. In other words, it was grafted onto the culture. This isn’t bad, for me; I think we had very few other options at the time. And that thought was a very interesting o ption. It passed quickly, but in my case, more than anything else, it left me Páramos, marked with the traces of those authors. Above all, with postmodern thought.

KD: When you speak of a “we,” do you mean the group that met at the rooftop apartment which is your private home, but which has also served as a more public, cultural space?

RMR: Yes. I think that with my generation — well, generations never mattered to me. I always got along with the people with whom I had some aesthetic affinity. I didn’t really have that with my generation. In my generation, there was a lot of machismo. I think it’s more or less the same now. But to try to enter that world in order to be equal to the men, let’s say ... For me, to say “equal to the men” implies a hierarchy. I’ve just wanted to be just one more person in the group, mostly with the next generation of writers. And it seems that I haven’t really achieved that. I never liked to be labeled that person, that woman, that woman in the group, you see? More than anything, the generation after mine was very influenced by all of this French thought that I was talking about before. I find that striking. At that time, when I had to find something else to do, it allowed me to open up possibilities and desires. I was coming out of a background in Hispanic-American literature; the Boom had hit its peak, and I had had enough. First I had been writing a lot of poems that were indigenous; I felt a relationship to that America — the America of Arguedas, Cesar Moro, and Vallejo. Without abandoning that relationship, I think that Jean Portante was someone very important for my search for other modes of relation.

KD: Why?

RMR: Because he came to Cuba, and we met many times; he introduced me to a lot of books. Because of Jean, I looked toward other places. I wrote a book about him. It was never published. It’s all in notebooks. About Indians, really. I had this strong relation to Aboriginal culture. But Jean’s vision, which was not about creating a hierarchy based on one thing or another but about the entrance of other visions, was very important for me. So were my readings in Russian literature. I have a debt to some Russian authors, in spite of the distance. It’s not related to the time when the Russians were here, but to Marina’s [vii] world, Akhmatova’s world, to suffering, to the pain in that literature. For example, in Marina’s case — I’ve read relatively little of her prose ... I haven’t had enough time. But she is a person who draws on everything. What matters to me — it’s also something I’ve read in a book by John Cage, and in work by other authors — is incorporating everything. In other words, not differentiating between what is literature and what is the life that I’m living. I think that conserving it there as the work… it’s like capital accumulated toward our possibility of really achieving a powerful state. Not greater, but broader, a passion or a form. Because in each of my books, what has always mattered is the human form of existence itself. Existing and seeing what is happening. Now, it’s my bones getting to that stage, the knees changing shape, the kind of flabbiness, the way of looking or laughing — all the levels of… seeing the human form as a phenomenon. I’m not a photographer, but in a certain way, this is another relationship to photography, right? The act of seeing the disaster. Trying to see all of the rubble, the traces. That’s what matters the most to me.

And as I was saying before about the group, yes: I needed to feel recognized in relation to a male-oriented culture. Not for the sake of being a feminist. But for the sake of being a person who tried to be there, to be there along with what was coming out or happening. And that effort exposed me to the contributions of people who had left their homes to go out searching, hunting for other contexts. That was striking for me. It was a time when you couldn’t get a 40-watt lightbulb for reading. A time when we got used to being hungry. And I think that profusion of words, language, theory was like food that fed us during a whole period of time. I don’t know — I imagine that other people have experienced it too, elsewhere in the world. I’d like to mention something about Argentine writers. I’ve read a lot of work by Argentine authors, both poets and novelists. There’s an author I love. I’ve read only three or four of his books. But if someone could say that I have similarities to another living author, this is my contemporary and I love his work. Arturo Carreras. He manages to create a fable, to make the story of something greater by starting out from the story of his family — his mother in a hair salon, the most humble details. And he uses that material to get to the greater theme: death, and man’s impossible relationship to death.

18 June 2001, Havana

[i] This text is forthcoming in the anthology Violet Island and Other Poems.

[ii] ”Jigs and Lures” is from Catch and Release / Coger y dejar (not yet published at the time of the interview).

[iii] Travelling was published in 1995 after a delay of several years.

[iv] Refers to the poem, “patas de caballo” (“horse’s hooves”), in Foto.

[v] The interview took place shortly before Rodríguez’ 49th birthday (July 4, 2001).

[vi] Published in 1995, Páramos was awarded both the UNEAC prize for poetry and the Julián del Casal prize.

[vii] Tsvetaeva.


Reina María Rodríguez: These poems were originally published in Reina María Rodríguez’ 1998 book, La foto del invernadero (The Photo of the Greenhouse), with which she won her second Casa de las Américas prize. Previously she published numerous collections, winning not only her first Casa de las Américas prize (in 1984) but also Cuba’s Julián del Casal and National Critics’ prizes and Mexico’s Plural award for poetry. Today Rodríguez continues to live and work in Havana. She is known not only as a poet but as the host of an important alternative cultural salon: for two decades her home has been both a private and a public space. Intellectuals gather at her rooftop apartment, the azotea, to present work and discuss their ideas with a degree of freedom not always found in official cultural institutions. Although she states that the departures of many fellow intellectuals have affected the level of cultural activity on the island, Rodríguez continues to seek new challenges and opportunities. She now works with Antón Arrufat to edit their new magazine about poetry and poetics, Azoteas.

Kristin Dykstra: Time’s Arrest / La detención del tiempo, a collection of Kristin Dykstra’s translations of poetry by Reina María Rodríguez, was published by Factory School Press in 2001. A.BACUS will feature recent translations in a special 2002 issue dedicated to Rodríguez. Previously, Dykstra co-translated the Rodríguez anthology, Violet Island and Other Poems (forthcoming from Green Integer Press); selections will appear in boundary 2: An International Journal of Literature and Culture and have been published in Hopscotch: A Cultural Review 2:2 and Zazil 1. Dykstra is guest editor of Mandorla: New Writing from the Americas 7 and edited the Factory School web project “Seven Cuban Poets” (at www.factoryschool.org). The interview with Reina María Rodríguez, “Desire for Something that Doesn’t Exist,” was recently published in Spanish as “Un deseo de querer eso que no es,” in Actual: Revista Literaria (from the University of the Andes, Venezuela).

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