Roberto Sosa: “Poetry is pain”

Roberto SosaCasual readers of this series might think that focusing on poetry is a strange way to try and shed light on the ongoing political crisis in Honduras. But in fact, poets are held in very high esteem in that country, and especially since the 1960s, when a new wave of socially conscious poets emerged, Hondurans of all classes have tended to view poets as uncorruptible truth-tellers — a valuable and perilous profession in a country where political corruption is so deeply engrained.

To shed some light on the social context and on the profession of poetry in Honduras, I decided to translate a short interview with Robert Sosa that I found in the online archive of La Prensa Literaria, the books section of Nicaragua’s La Prensa newspaper. This originally appeared in March 2004 under the title “La Poesía es dolor.”
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Interview by María Antonia Martínez de Fuentes

In his garage, an entire era has been preserved. A portrait of Che Guevara and an orange ’69 Pontiac prompt an inevitable trip back in time, to those years when rebellion gave him strength and anti-militarism was his obsession.

In every corner of his house — in the cramped living room, on the way up to his study, ensconsed in the middle of his impressive library — one finds small tributes recalling those charismatic bearded figures of four decades ago.

It’s all an homage to that tragic time in Latin American history. His head is never without a brimmed beret, and no one can remember ever seeing him without a beard.

In his exceptional literary production, poems always burst forth with abundant energy, often at the same pace as the atrocities commited by abusive dictatorships spawned by the shadow-side of capitalism. His works are a response to poverty, injustice, and the global inequalities that create divisions among us.

In his 70s, the poet Roberto Sosa still speaks passionately about the pain involved in writing poetry, about his unabashed pride at surviving the “gifts of age” without pain, and about managing to preserve his most valuable possession as a writer: his conscience.

Let’s sit down there, between the old Pontiac and the Che portrait, to begin our conversation with him.

 

How does a poet live in Honduras?

In my case, I’m devoted to social interaction, which is an important complement to my literary life — for one thing, making contacts simply helps keep me going. Engaging in chit-chat, giving interviews like this — it could be worse!

Has the situation with poverty improved at all?

No, quite the contrary. Today it seems as if we’re below the poverty line and we’ve become accessories to misery, and sometimes to what could only be called sub-misery. There’s a very clear social degradation in Honduras, one that can’t be hidden, and it diminishes us all in a truly terrible manner.

Your best-known works, without a doubt, have been the ones fired by denunciation, by social critique, by rebellion. How do you remember your first twenty years of literary work, that is to say, between the publication of Caligrama [1959] and Un Mundo Para Todos Dividido [1971]?

With Caligrama the dimensions of my poetry were taking shape, and they expanded further with the publication of Los Pobres in 1968. By 1971 I had published Un Mundo Para Todos Dividido, and from then on I’ve continued much futher along the path I embarked on then, which is to denounce without contributing to factionalism. I’ve never belonged to any political party, either national nor international, both out of class consciousness and, it must be said, my conscience as an artist, because I had and have a responsibility to my country, my society and my time.

Do you consider yourself a revolutionary? Do you feel that literature has been a favorite weapon in revolutions, especially in Central America?

No, literature doesn’t provoke revolutions, or if it does they’re restricted to literary circles, but it does assist in social reconstruction, both immediate and far-reaching. It’s an aesthetic reflection of the way things are, to the extent that it captures the critical elements of a society: corruption, for example, betrayal, treason, impunity, injustice.

There are critics who assert that your work is of watershed importance in the history of Honduran poetry, dividing it into two sections: pre-Sosa and post-Sosa. That your poems begin to confirm the definitive acclimization of the avant-garde. How do you explain this?

I can’t explain it — those are the views of critics and literature professors who share responsibility for such value-judgements in the first place.

Is today’s Roberto Sosa — aside from physical changes, of course — the same as the one who raised the flag of denunciation, a direct and ferocious denunciation of dictators and militarism? Have your point-of-view or your philosophy changed over the years?

I continue to defend the principles I put forth in that era. I cannot repent. I believe I’m making and will continue to make my own way; I could never change to the extent of making some ethical or aesthetic adjustment that would mean the renunciation of the values I’ve defended for so long.

What do you think about corruption? Do you feel it’s the most serious problem in Honduras right now, or are there worse problems?

Corruption has begun to take the shape of a professional calling. I’ve heard it said that in hotel registers, well-dressed people from the “high life” even write “corruption” down as their profession.

When you write, what audience do you have in mind? Which do you think is your most important audience?

When I’m writing, I’m absolutely not thinking about any addressee. I write concentrated within myself and I can’t think about the fate of what I’m writing, because that would become a huge obstacle in the creative process. But yes, my ambition is to write for a great number of readers. If a piece of writing is equal to the inspiration, it’s for the people — though “the people” is an abstraction in this country. The people, this multitude that translates as “people” in Honduras, is a fearsome reality, but can be made to seem manageable as an abstract noun in the mouths of demagogues, for example.

Why lamentation?

Because poetry itself is painful; poetry isn’t an easy thing. It’s a complex construction that entails plenty of sweat. Ninety-five percent is sweat.

In Honduras are there more poets, more novelists, or more short-story writers?

It’s practically a poetic country. There are more poets than anyone.

With all your experience, what advice would you give to young people who aspire to write serious poetry?

Who am I to give advice? But I can say that one does need to read voraciously, work hard and never let oneself be seduced by the imp of publicity. In reality, each writer is a special case and all writers have their own structure, their own worldview, and it’s impossible for any one writer to point out a road for the others. There’s only the general rule that one must be honest, just like with anything else.

What are the great loves of Roberto Sosa?

Poetry, my family, and my country, among other things.
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For another, longer and more interesting Sosa interview in English, see this one, by his translator Jo Anne Englebert. He talks about his childhood in the province of Yoro — famous for occasional rains of fish — his largely self-directed education, and his search for a new aesthetic:

I was attracted by testimonial writing. I suspected that this type of writing came closest to the truth. And for me, truth, a specific truth, had to be the basis of poetry. Honduras was not a folkloric reality, it was a transcendent reality, and this transcendence had to find its aesthetic formula: we had to find an exact base and the form to express it — this had to be balanced, integrated, like two halves of the same thing. I started from the social reality, the life I lived, the city, reflected in mirrors and tried to find the form.

His remarks at the end of the interview about women and the feminine image in poetry are also very interesting.

Translations of Sosa’s poetry into English include The Return of the River and The Common Grief, both translated by Jo Anne Englebert for Curbstone Press, and The Difficult Days, translated by Jim Lindsey for Princeton University Press. All three are bilingual editions, and both translators are adequate, if not always inspired.

2 Comments


  1. This brought a smile to my face Dave…

    Sosa’s translator, Joanne Englebert, was a beloved college professor of mine.

    She spent countless hours trying to teach me the art of translation; despite her efforts I was never adequate, tho I could, once in a while, be inspired.

    I haven’t thought of her in years…

    Reply

    1. Ah, small world! I’ve always figured she must be a pretty fine person. Sosa dedicated one of his poems to her. I believe she’s brought him to NJ to guest-lecture at least once.

      Reply

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