The Flip — Paraty International Literary Festival described Portuguese poet Matilde Campilho as “one of the most interesting novelties in contemporary poetry”. In a talk with mART, the author speaks of her poetry book Jóquei and how it transformed her along the way. Written “in a double language” that is, in fact, the same (Portuguese), she says the book was “an act of great freedom”.
After our talk, Ms Campilho accepted mART’s invitation to recite one of her poems to our readers. She chose “Estação do trem” (Train station, in English), but the sound you hear in the back, in this video, is from the road traffic at Macau’s Avenida da Praia Grande.
By Sofia Jesus
Matilde Campilho went to Brazil “to stay 15 days,” in 2010, but ended staying “a few years”. “Everything changed from there,” she tells mART.
Looking back, the “most visible” aspect of that experience is her poetry book Jóquei, firstly published in Portugal, in 2014, and last year in Brazil.
“This book would not have existed — not in this way — if I hadn´t lived in Brazil. And that is clear in the book, written in a double language, being the same [language], but with double accentuation.”
“Brazil represented a moment of transition, a moment of passion for a city, almost as one person falls in love with another. But it was a relationship from which I got out without sorrow, without grudge. Almost like those couples that separate — they don’t even divorce — and stay very good friends,” the author tells mART.
Ms Campilho is now based in the Portuguese capital, Lisbon, but goes to Brazil frequently. “My physical and emotional base is Portugal now. But Brazil is always home, also.”
The first poem in Jóquei, “Fur”, was the first Ms Campilho ever published, she says. It was first published in Brazilian newspaper O Globo. As for the book, she says “it gained form” as she did, “along the way”.
“I was a foreigner [in Brazil], I was in a land that wasn’t my own, everything was new for a while, and then, when it was no longer a novelty, it was the novelty of belonging to a place that wasn’t mine. And the book accompanied all this,” she explains.
Ms Campilho says it was with this book that she started to realise that a kind of axis was being drawn. “Every day I woke up to write. One thing was my work; another was my job. I had several jobs and realised my work was this [writing].”
Half of the time, she would write individual poems. “And then, slowly, I began to realise that it had almost a timeline. And half way along the path it started to turn into a book. And, near the end, it was clearly a book that was being drawn and built between two cities.”
The streets influenced her a lot in the process of writing the book Jóquei. Not only the streets in Rio de Janeiro and in Lisbon, but also all the references from other writers’ books, which were “very important”. She read a lot, including authors such as T.S. Elliot — “he was always in my pocket” — Walt Whitman, Lawrence Ferlinghetti. “I used the Beats [the Beat generation was a literary movement in the US] a lot — or I let them use me — for the rhythm; there is a certain orality in poetry that, at the same time, is mixed with the fact it is a poetry of street observation. And the street has a rhythm.” Among her influences were authors from the American region, and even more common things such as a Presidential speech in Uruguay.
Jóquei has multiple voices and allusions — to authors, places, musics, films. What links all the patches together?
In a way, she says, the book could almost resemble life, “with its daily observation,” its daily “amazement,” including the sad part. “It was what I felt at the time, in the outside world. It was a quilt of patchwork of new things that happened to me.” And then, “in the process of passing that to fiction, to poetry,” she drew a map full of “characters, heroes, micro-heroes, little corners in cities” — including cities she never visited, like New York.
Research played its role in the process, but she stresses she was not interested in this or that country. “It was more like ‘in this corner, at the grocery shop of Court Street somewhere…”
Some poems have elements from others, including characters. “It is like when you go on a bus and you look at different places [as you pass by them]. But in the end of the trip, that was a trip. And everything was connected.”
Samba and fado
The mixed use of Portuguese from Brazil and Portuguese from Portugal in Jóquei was something that happened “from within”, not the other way around. “It was not something very rational at the beginning.”
During her time in Brazil, Ms Campilho quickly picked up the accent — which she still seems to have, here and there — of the Portuguese spoken in Rio de Janeiro. It was easier to “put on a little accent” in daily life, like when “catching a taxi” or “buying bread”. It all happened naturally, she explains. “My friends were mostly Brazilian; I spent many days on a row without speaking or hearing people speak Portuguese from Portugal.”
After a while, even her thoughts started to emerge in Portuguese from Brazil. “I even dreamt in Portuguese from Brazil.” So, “it was only natural that writing was contaminated by that”. As her reading was, while in Rio de Janeiro.
Did the book, which also has passages in English, somehow show that poetry and the way it makes use of language — sometimes so difficult to translate — was not something that untouchable after all? “I know very few things that are untouchable,” she replies.
“I touch something and that thing changes itself; and, at the same time I touch it, that thing changes me. So, there should not be that fear, [that idea] of putting poetry on a specific altar, or classical music on a specific altar, because all this gets mixed. As I was listening to Leonard Cohen, I was listening to Bach. Everything made sense.” And she states she did “not try in anyway to attack any language”.
“This book — mainly this book — was fruit of a great freedom at the time.” And, “as a first book is never written with the intention of being published,” Jóquei was a book she wrote along her way. “And I could write in whichever way I wanted. It was my book.”
Was it an act of courage? “No. It was an act of a great freedom. These were small acts of freedom, which also transformed me.”
Ms Campilho says writing this book kept her company. Its characters, its little corners were part of her life. “I would sit, no phones, because I was there, I was having fun and I was very focused. And as I was building this map on a paper — first without realising it, and then realising it — I was also building something new in me.”
The book has both sadness and joy, “sometimes one was masked as the other”. Like life itself. “And that would have to do with the fact that I moved a lot between Portugal and Brazil, and they are exactly that. Portugal is known as a country of sadness, and Brazil as a country of joy. In reality, both are false. Nobody is always sad, and nobody is always joyful.” The question, she says, is which one each country highlights the most. “What I know is that both certainly highlight beauty. And the funny thing is in the end — and you can see it in the lyrics — fado and samba [music styles from Portugal and Brazil, respectively] often say the same thing, the words are the same, but the rhythm is different. Some you listen standing, others dancing.”
Ms Campilho has been often quoted as having once said “poetry cannot save the world but it can save the minute”. That sentence, said at Flip — Paraty International Literary Festival, almost turned into a slogan, but the author reacts: “I was not there to teach any lesson.” She does say if she has a heart attack she would hope for a doctor to show up, not a poet. But poetry does have a function, to her. “Poetry, literature, music, cinema, beauty, aesthetics, save moments. It is not even a question of saving. It is of introducing something new.” Novelty “opens the eye”, and when that happens, “you get more focused”.
In the end, Jóquei — not the one on the shelf, but “the A4 sheets, the computer” — resulted in “great peace” and “joy”.
Ms Campilho writes every day. She writes at her desk, but “the outside world generates many notes, mental or physical, in the paper”.
She currently has a programme in Portuguese radio station Antena 3 — every Sunday, from 11pm to 12am. She has also written chronicles in newspaper Público. “I have several jobs. But now, they are all work. And that is a great luck.”
Asked about her future plans, she does not reveal any specific project. “There is the past; there is the future. I work with them in literature — one is memory, the other is projection, desire — but the present is what I have,” she says. “I work a lot with ‘the now’ and life hurts a little bit less like this.”
There are things she would like to do in the future, of course. “But I know those things tomorrow unfold, some get erased, new ones come along. I know there are things I have to do everyday and I do them. And I appreciate them. I’m not going on like ‘what if’.” And she enjoys the “serenity”.