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Buenos Aires, Argentina
June 2002

Apart from everything, far from the world

Interview by Lautaro Ortiz

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Born in Santiago de Chile on May 3, 1927, Rosenmann-Taub is an enigma even for Chileans. Some go so far as to maintain that he is an invented writer, but in fact he exists and has a voice and a face. He lives in the United States, "apart from everything, far from the world." Celebrated as a literary figure only by a few poets and critics, such as Armando Uribe Arce, Miguel Arteche, and Hernán Diaz Arrieta (Alone), he is unknown even by the anthologists of that Andean country. Nevertheless it is possible to track him, not only in his birthplace but also in Argentina and the U.S. A descendant of Poles, Rosenmann-Taub was revealed as a person of literary promise when he received the Premio Municipal de Santiago (Municipal Prize of Santiago) in 1951, at the age of 24. At the beginning of the 1970s - when "Chile ceased to be Chile" - he lived in several cities in the United States before settling in northern California, where he dedicates himself exclusively to writing, music, and drawing.

He is a leading candidate for his country's next Premio Nacional (National Prize). The image of Rosenmann-Taub is being slowly reinserted into the literary world by a group of adherents and scholars of his poetry - brought together in the Corda Foundation - who, besides keeping the web page www.davidrosenmann-taub.com up to date and distributing CDs with the poet's voice, have announced that within six months Ediciones LOM will publish two books by the poet: the mythical Cortejo y Epinicio and the unpublished Auge. In this interview, conducted by e-mail in December, 2001- one of the few he has given in his life - he recalls his beginnings as a writer and his stay in Buenos Aires, where he published four of his principal works.

Works: El Adolescente, in the literary magazine Caballo de Fuego, 1941; Cortejo y Epinicio, Cruz del Sur, 1949 (awarded the prize of the Chilean Writers' Guild); Los Surcos Inundados, Cruz del Sur, 1951 (Municipal Prize for Poetry); El Regazo Luminoso(unpublished book that received the 1951 National Poetry Prize of the University of Concepción); La Enredadera del Júbilo, in the literary magazine Atenea and Cruz del Sur, 1952; Cuaderno de Poesía, Taller Edición 99, 1962; Los Despojos del Sol: Ananda Primera, Esteoeste, Buenos Aires, 1976; El Cielo en la Fuente, Esteoeste, Buenos Aires, 1977; Los Despojos del Sol: Ananda Segunda, Esteoeste, Buenos Aires, 1978; Al Rey su Trono, Esteoeste (written with Nahúm Kamenetzky and with drawings by Rosenmann-Taub), 1983.

Chilean poets speak of you as a cult writer. Does this image please you?

"I believe that art demands so much of the artist that there is no time to think of readers. And to think of readers is to sell oneself. Or rather, to betray oneself - I want for myself always to be the reader who approves of what I write, as being something indispensable.

"I would repeat the sentence of Paul Valéry: "I prefer, to many readers, one reader who reads me many times." Is a writer called a "cult writer" because he has a persistent group of readers? One thing is the art that endures in spite of everything and another thing is the art that is famous. In general, the public has no knowledge of the art that happens in its era; the public only gets that which, with "intelligent" promotion, sells. The values of an era are, one supposes, the saleable values of that era. "Values" are something else again. Curiously, what was read the most is what ends up read the least. What flattered and entertained the public follows them to the cemetery. The public's tastes get buried along with the public. And the authors who couldn't find a publisher, are, later on - after they die - the successes in the bookstores. I don't believe that any English publisher contemporary with James Joyce would have thought he was a novelist whose books would be published by the millions."

Do you accept that Chilean critics categorize you as a surrealist poet?

"I, a surrealist? The surrealists who created the movement, Breton and Éluard, have a certain intellectual worth. As poets, I must confess to you, I find them very poor. Éluard seems insignificant to me. Reverdy, who belonged to that movement, is more picturesque but basically just as poor as the others. I know there was a group of surrealists in Santiago..."

Jorge Cáceres, for example.

"Perhaps, but I am sorry to tell you that I have never read him. Probably something by that group fell into my hands, and something took away my interest in reading them. A poet who is connected to surrealism - although, in reality, he created a different movement - was Vicente Huidobro. It's similar to the situation with Alfonsina Storni. She committed suicide. Huidobro didn't. But there are many ways to kill oneself. I knew and know many suicides who are going about healthily. Nevertheless, Vicente Huidobro is more of a poet than all the French surrealists. What is new, especially what wants to appear as new, ages very quickly. The surrealists promoted automatic writing. In any activity, to act automatically is dangerous. With the automatic one does not go very far. The term surrealism denotes, actually, to transcend apparent reality. True literature has always been surrealistic. Examples? Quevedo, Cervantes, Teresa de Ávila, Martín du Gard, Miró, Thackeray, Ecclesiastes, Murasaki, Bunin, Proust, Sarmiento. To be fair: surrealism wanted to give weight to madness, to the act of letting oneself be carried away by madness. In that sense it was right, because the world wants to be crazy and it practices unrestrained madness."

To what do you attribute your isolation and your rejection of Chilean literary circles?

"For many years my family needed my help. I had to work very hard. I didn't have time for literary circles. What little time I preserved was consumed by my poetry and my music. In the 1970s, when Chile ceased to be Chile, I moved to the United States. I knew some Chilean writers - good people - who warned me against artistic milieus, since there is no incompatibility between being a "writer" and being a gangster. I remember, for example, Pedro Prado, Eduardo Barrios, Joaquín Ortega Folch, Luis Durand: beautiful people. I remember Antonio de Undurraga, generous, enterprising, almost heroic. I remember Augusto Iglesias. I knew that he was one of the members of the jury that awarded me the Premio Municipal, and I went to thank him. He said: "You don't know how many people I have fought with, but I liked your book, and good books are rare. I imagined that you were a much older man. The fact that you are a young man makes the prize all the more justifiable. I am glad to have fought for it." And when I attended the award ceremony, I received a lot of aggression. A writer, a good man and talented as well, Manuel Rojas, sensed the negative atmosphere and said to me: "You are with me, don't worry." He was tall and tough. But there were also men who were as optimistic as they were generous. Armando Uribe, with his great curiosity and exquisite sensibility; Jorge Hübner, Miguel Arteche, Carlos René Correa, Luis Merino Reyes, all of them modest, open to tradition and to the new. But I had very little time for participating in literary circles. That is still the case. My creative work does not permit me to do so. A true artist is a surgeon who never abandons an operation in the emergency room."

Could you define your poetic work?

"There is an idea about poetry as a literary text. That is a very limited view of what poetry is. Poetry is in everything. My poetry is what I extract from the poetry of life. And what is the poetry of life? The reason, if there is one, for the non-reason of existence. That is one level. Other levels you will be able find in one of the books that I am going to publish, in which I comment on some of my poems."

You once mentioned a housemaid who robbed you of a large number of poems. Were you able to retrieve some of those texts from memory?

"Yes, it was a theft. But I could recover some of what was stolen: dreaming has been a great friend. In dreams I have succeeded in rescuing some poems. But they represent a very small proportion of what was lost. In this way, I fully recovered "De Ceniza", a poem which I much regretted having lost. In that poem I wanted to express that to fear for the life of the being we love is only a little less terrible than to lose that being. There do not exist, for me, temples other than those which we build by means of reciprocal love. And, of course, they are temples of fulfillment. The lack of this love - loving someone who loves me - is what, in my judgment, leads to the building of temples which contain only emptiness. And in my parents I inhabited that divine temple. The war in Europe had just broken out; we had received horrible news from the very few relations of ours who remained there. My father fell ill with desperation. I saw the powerlessness of my mother. The thermometer showed a very high temperature. I suffered the terror of the possibility of my father's death. I was twelve years and four months old, but consciousness has no age, and my external internal eyes contemplated another war: that of my father battling with the omnipotent enemy. I wanted a poem which would be worthy of my father. My father recovered. I had him with me for many years; I continue adoring him. My invisible temple, before, was visible; now it is only invisible. Invisible temples do not need gods, because they are gods."

What are you presently working on?

"On what I work on all the time: poetry. At present, I'm dedicating myself to the last revisions of the volumes of Cortejo y Epinico, of which only the first volume has come out (there are four in all). Los Despojos del Sol comprises numerous volumes, and I am working on all of them. Two books are finished: En un Lugar de la Sangre and Auge. I hope soon to publish La Mañana Eterna, which is the second chapter of the work whose first chapter is El Cielo en la Fuente, and I hope this year to finish the commentaries on El Cielo en la Fuente. Then, I will devote myself to the revision of País Mas Allá and of another work which is quite long. In addition, a selection of my poems with my commentaries is almost ready. With these commentaries I want to assist in the understanding of the essence of my work: the causes and the effects of existing: the secret of why I am in order to be here: why I am here in order to be! To aid in the understanding of some of my poems will, I hope, aid in the understanding of all of my poems, which constitute one Book. To read a true author requires that he be read in his entirety, as a single book."

Why add commentaries to the poems? You speak of "assisting in the understanding": do you believe your poetical world is not easily accessible?

"You can read in a few days, at leisure, Dante's Divine Comedy; but if you expect to read it truly, you would need to have recourse to information; one doesn't live long enough to read the serious bibliography concerning Dante and, even so, many points remain obscure. What a pity that Dante did not write commentaries. If you think of Adolphe or The Magic Mountain or the poems of Baudelaire, what is of real value in these works? The value of a work is in the timeless knowledge that it gives us: the greater precision of individual experience. If it does not give us that, it offers us very little or nothing. It is not a matter of my work being not easily accessible but rather of providing more access to it. Commentaries, when they are serious, aid in entering into the knowledge of the essence of the work. Books that deserve to be read require clarifications."

In this task of commenting on your work there is also the job of rewriting; is poetry also a constant job of correction?

"For me, always, writing has taken a lot of time: it is not an easy task and I believe that when it is easy it is not worth the trouble. In any activity of life it is marvelous to have the opportunity to be able to perfect. In daily life, at least, we are unfortunately not able to go back to the same situation and prevent a failure from having taken place. Rarely do life's circumstances permit us to perfect something. Art has this possibility."

I know that you studied music for a long time as a complement to poetry.

"No, I didn't study music to supplement the poetry. I studied music for the sake of the poetry and for the sake of the music. I had marvelous teachers: my mother, who taught me from when I was two years old, and, much later on, Olga Cifuentes and Roberto Duncker, who taught me piano. I studied harmony, counterpoint, and composition with Pedro Humberto Allende, in my judgment the greatest of South American composers. I have already recorded, privately, more than a hundred CDs of my own pianistic work. I want to make it clear that it was not a matter of nourishing my poetry. Poetry is not just a written phenomenon, it is also an oral phenomenon. Poetry and music are arts in which time is transformed into space, as painting and sculpture are arts in which space is transformed into time. One must not confuse the written text or the score with the happening of the work. The greater part of the music that I know, I listened to with a score in order not to depend on the interpreter. A poem is a score. A sonnet and a sonata happen in terms of sound. How to understand a musical work without hearing it? How to understand a poem without hearing it? One must not forget that most music and most poetry are neither poetry nor music. I also studied anatomy and botany, I audited courses in astronomy; mathematics and physics interest me deeply. But my poetry is my experience. To do anything correctly which produces benefit, which gives more knowledge, which has nothing to do with perversity, to do something good well - that, for me, is art."

When you left Chile in the Seventies, if I am not misinformed, you decided to leave for the United States to study oriental sciences.

"I received a grant from the Oriental Studies Foundation, but that foundation did not award me the grant for oriental studies. It was a grant without any requirement of that kind. Under the auspices of this foundation, in the 1970s I gave lectures, in New York and California, about my poetry and about Juan de la Cruz, Juana Inés de la Cruz, Monet, Vermeer, Beethoven, Ravel, Albéniz."

In the United States, have you been in touch with other Chilean writers, for example Díaz-Casanueva, who lived in that country for some years?

"No, I have not contacted Chilean writers here."

What are the differences between the Chile that you left after the fall of Allende and the country that you chose as your place of residence?

"For me the United States is a refuge in which I can work with very few distractions."

What is your political and social vision of your country?

"Look, the world is one house. If you find yourself in the bedroom, but the living room is on fire, would you tell me that you feel comfortable in the bedroom? Nothing is solved if everything is fine in Latin America and bad in Europe, or fine in Africa and bad in Asia. If the whole world is not fine, the whole world is badly off. How can one talk about Latin America and Europe?: a family is a family; I can't say that I am well just because I am well; if I am well and others are ill, I am ill myself. As long as the whole family is not in order, I would say that I am in bad shape. This is a planet where there are human beings, not Chileans or Argentines or French. To speak of white, black, yellow, Anglo-Saxons, Arabs, Latin Americans, Jews, is artificial. What is natural is that we have a head, a trunk, and extremities."

In the years 1976, 1977, and 1978, you visited Buenos Aires. How do you remember your stay in this city?

"My memory of the Argentines began with my mother, who spent part of her early childhood in Argentina. She had beautiful memories. That made the idea of Argentina beautiful for me. Besides, two very dear relatives lived there: my aunt Isabel, in Buenos Aires, and my cousin Gregorio Bermann, the well-known doctor, in Córdoba. I almost settled in Argentina. I thought that the person who could best inform me as to whether Buenos Aires would suit me was Victoria Ocampo, the Argentine personality I most respected. I went to see her. She was enthusiastic about El Cielo en la Fuente which, later, in 1977, I published in Buenos Aires. She said to me: "This is no place for you. You are going to provoke a lot of envy. And the most powerful weapon of the envious is silence: the attack of silence. When you publish books, take them to La Nación and you will see that they are not going to want to publish anything, not a review; they won't even acknowledge they received your books. Listen to me, because a true Argentinian is telling you this." That's exactly how it happened."

Nevertheless, in Buenos Aires you also published Los Despojos del Sol, Ananda Primera in 1976; Los Despojos del Sol, Ananda Segunda, and even a new edition of Cortejo y Epinicio in 1978.

"That's right. I suppose there must be many copies in the libraries. Those books were published and, after trying to open some doors, which I found closed, I didn't do anything more about it. In those years I was working on many projects. I am interested in literary creation, not what happens to it in the world outside. I felt that Victoria Ocampo was telling me, with honesty and delicacy, what she considered right. We all know that literary milieus depend a lot on cliques: centers of power in which the stars do not accept competition: the inhuman phenomenon of wanting to have everything without sharing it. This situation is not peculiar to Buenos Aires. It arises in every field, not just the literary ones. I must tell you that, when it came to other areas, in Buenos Aires, I certainly met many charming people of good will."

Finally, what Argentine works do you find most worth keeping?

"Martín Fierro and La Vuelta de Martín Fierro are very strong. Facundo andRecuerdos de Provincia by Sarmiento are two of the best books in Spanish. Facundo is not only the most brilliant of Argentine books: its density is comparable to that of Unamuno. Sarmiento, careful or careless, is always full of vitality. Two Argentine authors whom I find powerful, despite their weaknesses, are Eugenio Cambaceres and Enrique Larreta. For a long time I have not heard any mention of the extraordinary Benito Lynch."