CADENCIANDO-UM-NING, OUTTA VANILLA:
RÈGIS BONVICINO AND CONTEMPORARY AMERICAN POETRY
Since the early 1990's, São Paulo poet Régis Bonvicino has maintained an active and fruitful dialogue with a number of living American poets, notably Robert Creeley, Michael Palmer, Charles Bernstein and Douglas Messerli. In a reverse move, he has also expanded this exchange to an active promotion of Brazilian poetry in the US. As a result of this two-way endeavor, he has produced an interesting variety of works. These range from straight-forward translations of American poetry -published in magazines and later collected in books-, interviews, bilingual anthologies of Brazilian poetry, to more experimental and works less easily pigeonholed, such as his recent and polemical collaboration with Michael Palmer Cadenciando-um-ning,um samba para o outro, published in 2001, to which I shall return. In what follows, I will attempt to trace a couple of salient moments of Bonvicino's trajectory in these conversations, paying special attention to the critical reception of his work, particularly in Brazil, where it has met, not infrequently, with some debate.
Collaboration and dialogue with foreign, and in this case, American poets is not something unknown in Brazilian poetry -since modernismo, passing through both the so-called heroic and second phases up to concretismo and its offshoots- contemporary Brazilian poets have been particularly keen on assimilating and absorbing innovative trends of foreign poetries through translations and dialogue. In terms of the specific case of American poetry, one can think, for instance of the noigandres group (Haroldo and Augusto de Campos and Décio Pignatari, who maintained a brief correspondence with Ezra Pound between 1953 and 1958, while Pound was kept under charges of insanity at St. Elizabeth's hospital, in order to avoid a trial for his notorious radio broadcasts. In addition to corresponding, they sent him copies of the first number of their magazine noigandres, as well as translated a number of his poems from Personae, the Cantos, and the Confucian Odes. The result of their work was collected under the title Ezra Pound: Poesia and published in Brasilia in 1983. One should also not forget the names of Mário Faustino and José Lino Grünewald, who contributed translations of Personae and the Cantos, respectively. I think it would be not be unfair to say that the concrete poetry movement owes a great deal of its strategy and program to Poundian aesthetics and his paideuma.
On the American end of things, it is inevitable to think of Elizabeth Bishop, who lived in Brazil, translated important Brazilian poets such as João Cabral de Melo Neto, and in 1972 organized with Emanuel Brasil the still important Anthology of Twentieth-Century Brazilian Poetry.
So Bonvicino's work with American poets and the American poetry scene, could be seen as a successor in this line of exchanges. However one could argue there are at least two ways in which his work is groundbreaking. First, by establishing this very deliberate and frequent dialogue (Bonvicino is on email with these poets almost daily), he was reacting to what he perceived was the dire need for innovations and fresh models for Brazilian poetry. In his view, by the late 1970's poetry in Brazil had become a form of epigonic concretism, , which, interestingly and as I mentioned, had originally looked to Pound and Poundian aesthetics as a model for Brazilian literary and poetic innovation. The second way in which Bonvicino's move is significant is because has emphasized maintaining exchanges with living poets, stressing the collaborative aspect of the project on grounds of equality and cross-pollination.
As could be expected, these iconoclastic gestures, have met with negative reactions from critics, who have accused Bonvicino of being subject too readily to foreign influences, or when it comes to anthologies, misrepresenting contemporary Brazilian poetry. Since it would be difficult to adequately cover the scope of Bonvicino's dialogues in this short time, I will focus on two important works, his 1997 anthology Nothing the Sun Could Not Explain (coedited with Michael Palmer and Nelson Ascher, published by Sun and Moon Press in LA) and his recent Cadenciando-um-ning, um samba para o outro (Dialogues with Michael Palmer, 2001).
The anthology Nothing the Sun Could Not Explain: 20 Contemporary Brazilian Poets, was launched in São Paulo in May 1997, and was the result of a collaborative effort between an established innovative American poet, Michael Palmer, another well-known American poet, playwright and alternative publisher, Douglas Messerli, and two Brazilian poets known for their interest in translation, Nelson Ascher and Bonvicino. The project of this anthology, as the authors of a negative review in O Estado de São Paulo noted, was an "ambitious and important initiative, since it aimed at being the continuation" of Bishop's aforementioned anthology and the subsequent Brazilian Poetry 1950-1980 (1986), edited by Emanuel Brasil and William Jay Smith.
A major responsibility, it appears, was thus tacitly laid on the selection that Bonvicino and Ascher made to present to the American poetry public. Expectations, predictably were high, and also predictably were not met, in the view of some. The same reviewers from O Estado that I previously quoted, also found fault with, among other things, the selection of poems by poets like Torquato Neto, Ana Cristina César and Paulo Leminski, which, in their view, were not represented in their "poetic rebelliousness and conuntercultural intervention". There were also protests against the exclusion of certain figures (notably Sebastião Uchoa Leite, José Paulo Pes, Orides Fontela, Adélia Prado, and Armando Freitas Filho), the apparent contradiction of the criteria of selection -the claim by the editors that the poets included had no common program, but shared similar procedures-, the supposed "victory" of the paradigms of "concretism" and "post-concretism", and a perceived homogeneity and partiality of judgment. In a word, the usual objections one would expect in these cases, and which the editors of the book had already anticipated: " Anthologies always run the risk of excessive partiality or superficiality. We hope to have kept these evils at distance. However, it should be clear that other selections can and must be made […] This is only our reading of what is most significant and representative in modern Brazilian poetry." (Nothing the Sun, p. 35) (Interestingly, when quoting this passage from the anthology, the disgruntled reviewers, left out the "only" making the final statement of the editors on their selection less tentative than it really is).
One interesting observation by these reviewers, the fact that in the anthology 60 of the 98 poems describe some sort of landscape, be it natural or urban (which in their view reinforced a literary, learned relationship and subsequently merely grammatical apprehension of the world) was taken as departure point by another mixed, but less confrontational review of the anthology, published in the important monthly Cult in July of 1997 . The reviewer this time began by explaining the irony in the title of the book, taken from a poem by Lemiski included in the anthology. "Traditional images of Brazil depict a very bright sun illuminating a beach with a woman lying on the sand", explains the reviewer. "The sun, thus, is our coin to attract foreign tourists". Leminski's ironic dystic "nada que o sol/ não explique" also pokes fun at a general theory of how the sun supposedly influences the Brazilian way of life.
The selection thus ironically entitled by Bonvicino and Ascher, rejects these folkloric clichés about Brazil, deliberately choosing to privilege a poetry that centers on the urban landscape and urban experience, as well as intimate landscapes they prompt. The reviewer, who in contrast to the previous two does not disagree with the selection as representative of tendencies in current Brazilian poetry, goes on to note, that for the American reader this landscape of poets will echo the poetics of a William Carlos Williams, or more recently a Robert Creeley. Indirectly, this observation reveals a program that the editors cannot be faulted for: the need to present not only what is "representative" in Brazilian poetry at the time, but what could or would be interesting and relevant to the American poetry reader. This seems particularly important in the case of Brazil, and the case of Portuguese-language poetry in general, which is still relatively unknown to the poetry audiences at large in the US.
Regardless of the individual merits and flaws of Nothing the Sun Could Not Explain, it is undeniable that it sparked the interest in Brazilian poetry in the US and was followed in 1998 by another competing anthology Outras Praias: 13 Poetas Emergentes/Other Shores 13 Emerging Poets, organized by Ricardo Corona and in 2000 yet by another one "Lies About the Truth", also organized by Bonvicino in an issue of New American Writing. Nothing the Sun, then fulfilled its aim of breaking new ground: as co-editor Michael Palmer had expressed in an interview to Folha de São Paulo , the editors were aware that the anthology did not attempt to be definitive but rather "a first gesture, the opening of a door through which many contemporaries will transit in the future". When asked about which readers the anthology targeted, Palmer said "readers and writers interested in flux, echoes and mutual fertilizations on a world scale."
This felicitous expression "echoes and mutual fertilization" is an apt description of Cadenciando-um-ning, Bonvicino's collaboration with Michael Palmer, which I mentioned at the beginning, a collection of poems, translations, essays, interviews, and drawings which resists easy classifications. This project received a brief but virulent review by Reynaldo Jardim in Folha . The review, superficial as it is, merits discussion,because it exemplifies some of the ways in which this sort of experimental work irks certain types of readers and critics.
The review works in sly ways: it opens not by directly attacking Bonvicino, but rather by quoting Wilson Bueno, another important poet (perhaps from an unidentified review of Bonvicino). The reviewer chides Bueno for praising Bonvicino as one of the "most expressive voices of contemporary Brazilian poetry"; this statement, he writes "is a vulgar and innocuous cliché that does not honor the intelligence of the ex-editor of Curitiba's paper Nicolau". Here, the reviewer exhibits his love of efficiency: two birds with one stone, one might say. In a move that might seem either malicious or misinformed, the reviewer then proceeds to emit himself the judgment he might have wanted from Bueno: "Régis is on the same cultural and creative landing as Décio Pignatari, the de Campos brothers and is more audacious than avant-garde names of contemporary literature in Brazil or abroad". What exactly this may mean is unclear: if one assumes that the reviewer is misinformed, he might be erroneously equalling Bonvicino's current work the original proposals of the noigandres group, from which it is separated by more than a quarter of a century and by deliberately different aesthetic choices. On the other hand, to say that he is more audacious than avant-garde names is at best devious compliment, since it implies Bonvicino is not a member of the avant-garde. If anything has distinguished Bonvicino's work thus, this has been a relentless drive toward innovation.
The reviewer then goes on to complain about what he deems "esoteric" nature of the title -a reference to Thelonious Monk's tune "Rhythm-a-ning" and which alludes to the improvisational nature of the book (to which I shall return)-, the "somewhat confusing structure of the book", the lack of information on Marjorie Perloff's identity, the "inexplicable presence" of a poem by Mário de Andrade in the volume and which "has nothing to do with the texts of Régis or Palmer".
The infuriated critic might have saved himself some aggravation, had he read the brief but informative note by Bonvicino at the beginning of the volume, where he explains all of these and other things, for instance, that the book's title comes from a line in a poem by Palmer where he "recounts" a visit to São Paulo in May 1997: "the animal alphabet/ passed overhead /with his twenty-three wings / rhythm-a-ning, a samba for the dead". The poem struck, so to speak, a samba for Bonvicino who then understood the project not as a "translation" but rather as a "dialogue of mutual risks". The "inexplicable" presence of Mário de Andrade's poem, is also explained in that note: Palmer was reading, among other things Andrade's Paulicéia desvairada and in literal and veiled references to his poems, Palmer "honors with affection and humor" Mário de Andrade and other Brazilian authors. These poems, in turn inspired further poems by Bonvicino, in an experimental process that I previously referred to as "cross-pollination". This jazz-like improvisational process is not, as the critic claims, confusing, esoteric or hermetic. It is rather, a bet on the experimental, a desire for the new, which often meets with initial suspicion and rejection. The reader's frustration with the difficulty of this type of writing, however, must be acknowledged, not explained away, or dismissed. It is a significant, meaningful difficulty present in many types of modernist writing (an extreme case, for instance, Gertrude Stein), and which demands of the reader, as Palmer states and the reviewer notes "active participation in the construction of meaning."
So rather than conclude, with the baffled critic, that "Cadenciando-um-ning não deu samba", I'm more tempted to end this talk about Bonvicino's North/South poetic conversations with another experimental piece, Charles Bernstein's homophonic translation of the opening lines of another Bonvicino poem. The original goes "Me transformo, / outra janela" - stressing the instability of the self, as it looks though alternative windows, alternative concepts of poetry, translation and collaboration. In the same vein, Bernstein's homophonic piece, literally echoes these concerns adding to the original a distinctive emphasis and a new flavor: "Me transform -O! / outta vanilla".
1- "Antologia aposta em momento pós-concreto" Rodrigo Garcia Lopes e Maurício Arruda Mendonça, O Estado de São Paulo, 24 May 1997.
2- "O sol urbano da poesia brasileira" Heitor Ferraz, Cult, July 1997, pp. 15-17.
3- I preferred to focus on the reactions of Brazilian critics, however one important positive review by Guy Bennett was also published in Folha de São Paulo on July 5, 1997. Bennett discussed the general make up of the anthology and praised the anthology for "examining issues of language and writing, and by so doing dialoguing in a wide sense with other cultures."
4- "Fertilizações culturais" Folha de São Paulo, May 4, 1997.
5- "Ning não deu samba" Folha de São Paulo, July 10, 2001
Copyright © Régis Bonvicino