“Super Hero Pens, Gigantic Moths, and Oneiric Exhibitionism: An Interview with Chilean Poet Estela Lamat”
Estela Lamat is the author of Sangre Seca (2005), Yo, la peor de todas (2006), and the forthcoming Colmillo molido. My translation of her second book, I, the Worst of All, was recently published by blazeVOX and an excerpt from her new book Pulverized Canine can be found here at the Silenced Press website. The following interview was conducted via gmail chat and Lamat’s only stipulation was that we had to be drinking Chilean wine during the interview.
ML: If you were to write The Inferno, who would be five people you would put in hell?
EL: Pinochet, George W. Bush, my mother, Scoobie Doo, my second grade teacher.
ML: Oh, my goodness…what happened with your second grade teacher? I had an English teacher in 9th grade named Mr. Platt who was so bad that he almost made me stop reading literature and writing poetry.
EL: She was just way too mean and she hated me, but the principal loved me and sued to protect me from her. She actually—and this is quite literal—made me clean the pee of a fucking kid that wet his seat! And of course I didn’t want to, but she forced me, so wherever she is, I really hope she is having a hard time controlling her sphincter and peeing on her navy blue shoes. Terrible taste by the way.
ML: That’s terrible. The sphincter is a great detail for your inferno. Definitely there should be a special place in hell, in the Malebolge, dedicated to bad teachers…I wanted to ask you something about form, since I was particularly struck by the wonderful and intense prose poems in I, the Worst of All. I know many prose poets consider the sentence (rather than the line) to be the basic unit of composition but, in your case, you don’t use punctuation, so it seems like you work in different units…like the phrasal unit, for instance.
EL: Well, I personally don’t engage in questions of form. I do prefer to think about image and intensity as my unit. I like the contrast of the hard blocks of letters against the white page. I have an impulse, an image, a language that seeks its own form. I usually think of breathing as a unit since I don’t use punctuation marks. I make my poems according to the level of asphyxiation I can humbly tolerate or decadently indulge in.
ML: That’s interesting about asphyxiation: can you talk more about that? Is it an asphyxiation of the poetic voice? Of the reader when experiencing your work? Both?
EL: Both. I write and read my own poetry and I do enjoy a certain degree of sadism regarding the reader. I think about the reader hopefully reading my poetry out-loud and therefore having to create his or her own sentences and meanings according to the level of his or her own breathing or vision. It is not at a lot different though if you just read it in your mind. You are still forced, I believe and hope, to surrender to asphyxia and to accelerate, to some degree, your pulse. I want to produce a bodily experience that will also have certain cannibal aspects, where language is eating the reader as the reader consumes language—a double cannibalism and a sadistic writer.
ML: I’m thinking about terms like asphyxiation and cannibalism and am wondering about the category of horror…even in the movie sense (since you talk so much about the visual and the image)…
EL: Well, sure, there is horror included and what you have called my mythopoetic imagination, but even the most frail thing, the most innocuous image presented in a particular way, organized outside of the limits of punctuation, insistently distorting grammar, will lead you to asphyxia. So, you have the grammatical relationship to breathing on the one hand and the image on the other; the conjunction of both should encompass my vision. Now, I know that this word vision is an obscure one and I am not talking about it as a clairvoyant would. It is sometimes a visceral vomit, I cannot deny, but it is also a rational vision, a logical experiment within language traversed by all sorts of passions—horror is indeed one of them—but I have to always come back to the horror of things rendered innocent, not just like the child, the flower, the butterfly, but for instance grammar itself. Commas, colons, etc.
[excerpt from I, the Worst of All]
ML: Mmmm…this is a tasty Carménère that I have here. What are you drinking?
EL: I am having a Santa Ema Merlot.
ML: I was recently looking at Eileen Tabios’ blog Galatea Resurrects and she mentions this secret organization called “Oenophiles for Poetry.” What do you think is the relationship between poetry and wine?
EL: I would dare to say something like “everything,” at least for me in my alcoholic mind. I feel poetry as intensely as I feel wine and vice versa and they both induce in me altered states of language. They both transfix me.
ML: Kind of like a Rimbaudian “derangement of the senses,” huh?
EL: Indeed, that is precisely that. I am a drunken boat :) The thing is that we should start the relationship between poetry and wine in illo tempore. Once upon a time there was the birth of tragedy.
ML: What’s your favorite geometric shape?
EL: The simple one would be the pentagon. If I wanted to sound convoluted I would say dodecahedron.
ML: I think mine’s the spiral. What’s your favorite game as a chile?
EL: As a child in Chile? Jajaja…it was called or it is called, who knows what kids do these days, elástico. Two girls—I never played this with a boy to be quite honest—hold an elastic band and they start to raise it until they extend their arms and you are supposed to jump it. When the thing is really high you have to come up with techniques and strategies. I was undefeatable. Now I am fat and I cannot jump above my own knees. That’s how far away childhood is.
ML: And I guess no wine as a child too…or am I wrong?
EL: Well, once with my cousin when I was really little we “stole” a glass from the kitchen during a family party. The next thing I remember was my cousin and I were swimming in a big mud puddle outside of my grandmother s house and then being really sick in bed for a week. Poetic justice you might say.
ML: Haha. The mud puddle sounds almost as fun as elástico. I’m thinking about the Oulipo writers and their formal constraints (since wine is our constraint for this interview) and they have this idea called “anticipatory plagiarism” with which they can claim an older writer—like Lewis Carroll—as part of their group. Which writer would you claim as having “plagiarized” your ideas and sensibility?
EL: Shit. Definitely Nietzsche and Huidobro with Altazor. Plagiarists! Cut their heads
ML: It definitely seems like Huidobro is obsessed with speed which might connect to what you were saying about asphyxiation.
EL: Well, I don’t feel particularly asphyxiated with Huidobro’s poetry. I feel totally enraptured. I have to say that there are other plagiarists out there. I guess I arrived too late and what I want to say has been said more beautifully, more intensely, and in a more intelligent manner. What do you think would be a belated plagiarism? The typical one? Mmm…Would this be the realm of gossip or intellectual criticism?
ML: I’m thinking about the big blocks of text in Beckett’s trilogy of novels, his logorrheic rush, though he doesn’t seem to be so much interested in the image.
EL: I will have to die and be born again three times to even dream of writing like Beckett! I do applaud the logorrheic impulse.
ML: I think he has a sense of asphyxiation…a kind of anguished “I can’t go on, I’ll go on” (what a great ending to The Unnamable). If you could have a super power what would it be?
EL: I like so many super powers. I want to be a 100-tongued polyglot! But I would also like to teleport, more than anything. When I was a little girl, I wanted to have a super hero pen that could write my homework for me and have since found out that a lot of people had that fantasy when they were kids…ok, back to the question though. Let’s say teleportation and power over the waters.
ML: I was wondering if you can describe your weirdest or craziest or most terrifying dream?
EL: Well, yeah, I can. It’s quite disturbing. I went to search for sacred help after I had it and went to see this Krishna master so he could interpret my dream but that very same day he was leaving to Peru for good. Lovely. Well, it goes like this: there is this dwarf dressed in black with a white face and no eyebrows and no eyelashes, around 2 feet tall or even smaller and I was in my grandfather’s house and suddenly I looked through the window to a room inside where all my family was sleeping and I realized that they were being massacred by this legion of dwarves dressed in black, even smaller than the one I already described with huge scalpels and knives. They were feasting until one saw me and they all looked at me at the same time. I was so afraid I started to run. I went to hide next to the garage and suddenly I heard a female voice talking very subtly to me. I looked over my shoulder and the dwarf was sitting on a rock dressed like a bride. He was masturbating and started to talk with a masculine voice again. I freaked out and started to run to the front door and he was there again, holding an English card in his hand. He threw it to my feet and it was the 10 of hearts. Then he came running to me and grabbed my leg and started to write on my leg with a knife in a very weird alphabet. And laughing he said to me, “You are going to be mine forever.” Fucking disgusting.
ML: Wow! That’s quite terrifying and profane and also rich with signification. What interpretation did you get? I’m particularly interested in the alphabet…
EL: Well, as I mentioned, the Krishna guy who I heard was an expert left. I went to talk to this woman who gave it a very simple explanation, something like, “oh, you have a trauma” and I was like, “no shit, never heard that one before!”
ML: The writing on the body reminds me of a Kafka story—I think “The Penal Colony”—in which the executioner engraves the law on the prisoner’s back…have your dreams ever been sources for your poetry?
EL: Yes, it is “The Penal Colony”…mmmmm, I think so unconsciously, but I do not wake up and write in verse my dreams. I usually have to talk about them though. My oneiric exhibitionism if you wish.
[excerpt from I, the Worst of All]
ML: I’ve seen a little bit of Pulverized Canine, but I was wondering if you can talk about your manuscript in progress.
EL: Well, no :)
ML: Ok, maybe can you say something about the intriguing phrase “pulverized canine”?
EL: Oh yes, colmillo molido. It’s quite disgusting actually. I used to grind my teeth, so one day I woke up with the feeling of having eaten a moth’s wing, like a dusty feeling, and it was a piece of my canine and that made me start one section of the book that is a letter from Estela Lamat to Estela Lamat 13 days after being dead. This idea of colmillo molido later transformed into the title since the whole moth situation made an interesting detour possessing pretty much the whole book.
ML: It seems like the moth was there in the second book [I, the Worst of All] too—“like a moth charred in the lamp of its own desires.”
EL: I have always been obsessed slash terrified with moths. I love their ethical attitude toward death. They are monstrous; they are blind; they are guided irremediably by their desire; and they burn. But I truly hate them. I had a disturbing incident with a moth in Brazil. It’s also part of my third book. A huge albino moth with two big black balls as eyes collided against my eye ball. I almost puked. I was and still am traumatized.
ML: That’s pretty intense. We’ll definitely be eagerly anticipating Pulverized Canine. What do you imagine yourself doing in an alternate life?
EL: I would like to be a perfumist and travel around the world smelling flowers and herbs and spices.
ML: That sounds fantastic! Though it seems proximity to flowers might put you in contact with big monstrous insects. If you could be an herb, what would you be?
EL: I would be basil! I would be drunk on myself and my own smell. Well, I can deal with certain monstrosities as long as they are not moths! I prefer a snake, a huge reptile, but I hate the blind epileptic flapping of their wings. Ok, no more moths for now. Salud!
ML: Salud! I think the word albahaca is much more interesting than the word “basil.” I was wondering if you can describe some of the differences that you perceive between Spanish and English.
EL: I like the liquidity and fluidity of Spanish. I believe, if we come back to Beckett, it is a logorrheic language; it adores itself. It is everything but synthetic. Everything is redundant. You can write endless sentences and coordinate ad infinitum. I am new to English, as you can tell. My words are very precarious, so I cannot really point out at too many differences without bullshitting you a little bit.
ML: You’re too modest. Spanish definitely feels like a very fast language (especially when I try to speak it!) Ok, some more mundane questions: what’s your favorite cartoon?
EL: Spongebob, of course! I will have to say that Family Guy is also a favorite though.
ML: Spongebob is brilliant…I’m planning a post on Spongebob actually.
EL: You should. There should be a MA in Spongebob, at least a grad class at NYU, don’t you think?
ML: I would do a post-doc in Spongebob studies.
EL: Let’s start the Spongebob quotation book then.
ML: How about your favorite cartoon as a little girl? Or do you still consider yourself a little girl? ;)
EL: Still a girl. I am not sure about how little; it depends on the day. Astroboy. It was my passion and something that in Chile was called Festival de los robots.
ML: Have you ever written a poem about a robot?
EL: No, I haven’t. I don’t have the artistry. Maybe I will. Maybe a robot can write poetry instead of me while I smell albahacas.
ML: Haha. Ok, one last question…or really a request. Can you do a quick self-portrait only using the keys of your keyboard?
EL: Yes, I can.
ML: Brilliant! Thank you for your time! Salud!
EL: Cuando gustes, salud!