Santiago Vizcaíno’s first book of poetry, Destruction in the Afternoon (2008), won the Premio Proyectos Literarios Nacionales award from the Ecuadorian Ministry of Culture. He only began sending out his work a year ago, but already over 20 of his poems have taken by Bitter Oleander, Connotation Press, Dirty Goat, Lake Effect, Per Contra, Saranac Review, and Words Without Borders. He studied Communication and Literature at the Catholic University of Ecuador, and has an MA in Cultural Studies and Literary Heritage Management.
SJF: Poetry Parnassus will offer a unique opportunity for some of the world’s leading poets to share with each other, as well as a new British and truly international audience in London, their work and their philosophy on contemporary poetry. Is this dialogue something that is important to you and your practise as a poet?
SV: Of course it is important to me. The knowledge of what is being produced in diverse countries as well as the enjoyment of the cultural atmosphere in another place allow one a new outlook on one’s own work. The feeling of the journey itself brings about a change in the perspective of the work of each poet.
SJF: Moreover, do you think this dialogue can have an impetus or agency for change in contemporary poetry and beyond? Perhaps increasing the width and reception of poetry from outside each individual country involved?
SV: The dialogue between works and authors is always enriching. These settings allow one to approach the artistic task which in other circumstances would be very difficult, due to the very nature of lyric poetry. Poetry has, if you like, two sources, the reading of other writers and the personal experience of the poet. To be able to share with a creative person from Taiwan or Croatia, to give two examples, creates an opening to other registers, to voices whose cultural reality is distinct but none the less comprehensible. It isn’t just contemporary poetry that gains from this, but also the literary tradition of each people.
SJF: And do you think poets have a responsibility to engage with their peers, and not maintain themselves solely as singular artists, in order to proliferate poetry and to support others?
SV: I think the poet has a responsibility to his language. Poetry is what he does with it, it is the result of arduous work with the instrument that allows him to name the world. The solitary artist is the one who has understood this premise. The one who, naturally, has nothing of the egotist about him, for each creator in his turn must be aware of the literary tradition of his people, and carry it on his shoulders.
SJF: Destruction in the Afternoon, your first collection, won the Premio Proyectos Literarios Nacionales award in Ecuador. Did this success come as a surprise?
SV: Of course it was a surprise. A surprise that allowed me to become aware of exactly what I had chosen. That is to say, aware that this is a craft, like no other, a very dangerous craft. Destruction in the Afternoon was the result of many days of frustration, of anguish, and of heaviness. I really committed myself to that text. A prize has no meaning, or perhaps it does, namely the chance to eat and drink well for several months. Ah, what a surprise.
SJF: Had you been writing from a very young age or did you allow time to pass before publishing your work?
SV: To write and to publish are two totally different things, though they don’t seem to be. One is always writing, sometimes more, sometimes less. It doesn’t matter when it began. One notices that one is accumulating projects—since each poem is a project—and one tries to get out from under them. To win a prize or publish a book of poems is also a form of exorcism. Sometimes poems lie dormant for months or years, growing or shrinking. From some of them nothing remains. But there comes a moment when one cannot bear them anymore. And then books of poetry are born.
SJF: What epoch, or style, or individual poet has had the greatest influence on your own work?
SV: I try to read whatever falls into my hands, though I can’t deal with it all. I abandon many books in the middle. On the other hand, there are many authors whom I respect and most of the time they are not poets. I am much more influenced by prose narratives, essays, and philosophy than by lyric art. The very distinction we make between genres seems to be antithetical to the creative act. I remember many more poems and verses than I do books of poetry or poets themselves. The era, the style and the influences are not part of my work as a writer, that’s the task of the critic.
SJF: Something not often mentioned about the Poetry Parnassus project is the fact that the participants, beyond 200 of them, will vary greatly not only in nation and style, but in age. Do you think projects like this, which allow such a specific opportunity for dialogue between poets from around the world can play a significant part in inspiring and shaping new generations of poets as they come to prominence?
SV: Each poet is a spokesperson for the experience of this gathering. If at least a small part of the work of each author manages to reach another cultural universe, then we are saved. Following generations will be nourished by what comes from virtue of their own work, or not. When each writer returns home, he will confront, once again, the blank page, transformed for certain by the sum total of influences received from the distinct voices and styles he has encountered. Perhaps that is the only thing that matters.
SJF: Do you think, at this time of flux in the world, that an event the size and scope of Poetry Parnassus might provide a real forum for leading poets to begin a dialogue about the political implications poetry might have in the future, and vitally, how this might come about?
SV: Poetry Parnassus is an enormous platform for any poet. We will be coming together to read poems and to speak about poetry. It is a miracle occurring in London at this very moment, but it is also a miracle that will have a small repetition in a small city in South America. Poetry must always have to do with the world and in all its particulars, for it says what it says and more beside. Such meetings are necessary, but they are peripheral to writing. I believe that first of all we must concern ourselves with doing our work well and then the future will come, and that will once again become the present and then soon enough the past.
SJ Fowler (1983) is the author of four poetry collections. He has had poetry commissioned by the Tate Britain and the London Sinfonietta, and has featured in over 100 poetry publications. He is poetry editor of 3am magazine, Lyrikline and the Maintenant interview series.