Open Letter to Forrest Gander and Copper Canyon Press
I have recently been having a conversation on Facebook with one of my favorite poets, Forrest Gander, concerning the upcoming release of The Lost Poems of Pablo Neruda, which he has translated into English. Specifically, we were talking about Copper Canyon’s kickstarter campaign to raise money for the project. My reaction to this campaign has been negative because I feel it is excessive. Copper Canyon is trying (actually they have already reached the goal) to raise $50,000 to supplement the $50,000 they have already raised through major donors to fund the total project cost of $100,000+.
Specifically, here, I want to reply to one thing Forrest said to me: “…Bill, with all the things to be paranoid about, ur paranoid about an all poetry press publishing a translation? You have a reputation as a champion of poetry. I want to continue to think of u that way.” I do want Forrest, and everyone else, to continue to think of me as a champion of poetry, and to that end I want to answer now a little more formally and completely to explain the apparent enigma as to how one might be a champion of poetry but not of this project. And, indeed, how one might even find offensive the suggestion that if one is not a champion of this project, one is not a champion of poetry.
For me, Pablo Neruda is on the short list of major influences. He was one of about five poets who made such an impression on me in my early 20s that I decided what I wanted to do with my life was devote it to poetry. I was impressed with his use of metaphor to reveal the world’s complexity, and with how, through metaphor, he could trace the implications of a personal emotion or sensation into the realm of the social and political world. I was a budding Marxist, and Neruda’s humane communism, based on love and respect, was exactly the sort of utopian vision I sought for an anchor.
In the Fall of 1973, while I was bumming around the country, fresh out of undergrad at Arkansas, I was working as a carpenter in Missoula, Montana. I had gotten as far as Missoula before I ran out of money, so I had rented a trailer there and gotten this job to work until I could afford to move on. One day—we were working outside on some sort of truckstop building— we were on lunch break, sitting on the ground eating out of those lunch pails carpenters always used to carry. One of the guys had a radio and we were listening to the news being conveyed to us by Paul Harvey (whom all of them loved), and, in between the usual inane jokes and comments on female anatomy by the workers, I chanced to hear Paul announce that Nobel Prize winning poet Pablo Neruda had died… of cancer. Harvey used one of his signature pauses before that word, cancer, to bring home the tragedy of it, that this ubiquitous disease, for which there was no cure, had brought down even the Nobel laureate.
Cancer (or actually “heart failure”) remained the official story, as we know, until just a few years ago. And yet we of the radical left knew, by 1974, that Pinochet had killed him. I don’t remember the exact left-leaning news outlet where I read it, but it has been common knowledge among activists ever since that the “cancer” that killed Neruda was capitalism—that Pinochet’s coup against Allende, which was quite openly sponsored by the CIA and was less openly but still definitely promoted by Kennecott Copper and other American corporations itching for a piece of Chile’s rich resourses, included an order that Neruda be killed. Neruda, like Allende, was assassinated, and he was assassinated with full complicity, perhaps even active involvement, of U.S. actors.
Actually, I am not a champion of poetry, and I don’t want to be thought of as one. There is an awful lot of poetry in the world we’d be better off without: all those volumes of protestations of identity, whose heartfelt cries conceal their basis in ethnic competition; all those psalms and reiterations of the angsts of the petit bourgeois, the sad mortality of the rich; … I’m not a champion of that. And the reason I am not is because of poets like Neruda, who teach us what it is possible for poetry to be and do and what its rightful place is in the political and social arena.
I’m not a champion of poetry, but I am a champion of a certain thing that poetry does, sometimes, at its best, when it finds its level. It’s a great event when that happens, because the public discourse is elevated and begins to find new ways to represent truth, and perhaps some part of the defensive violence that is ripping the world apart can be averted then, momentarily.
I applaud these Lost Poems being finally released, for Neruda represents one of those rare moments in which poetry engaged the political discourse and wove itself into the social fabric. One could imagine a campesino, leaning against a tree while his mule drinks, reading from a torn and folded plain white volume. That was what Neruda was to South America, a champion and poet of the people.
What if these Lost Poems were released, completely unadorned, in a cheap binding that would fit in a pocket? What if it were given away to labor unions? Or sent to every MFA student in the nation, most of whom have never heard of Neruda. Silly pipe dreams, I know, but I could accomplish any of them with 100k (I mean 50k, after rights….).
This lavish project, with its appeal for funding based not on the text but on a faked cult of personality… showing off the handwriting instead of the discursive fabric… with its full-color reproduction (or rather production, for it is producing a new text in a new social milieu) of a black and white event… making of the social text an art object, with its case binding suitable to grace the coffee tables of the ivy league… this has nothing to do with Neruda, and I am not its champion.