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Poet to poet: Adriana Lisboa on writing poetry and living on the edge

Adriana Lisboa on being adrift in the world and finding home in language

Adriana Lisboa writes fiction too, but identifies primarily as a poet. Photo: Julie Harris
Adriana Lisboa writes fiction too, but identifies primarily as a poet. Photo: Julie Harris

Movement is everywhere in Adriana Lisboa’s poems. There are fish swimming/ up my legs/ former circus bears lodged/ between my ribs/ cyclical migrations taking place/ around my wrists. Born in Rio de Janeiro, Lisboa spent her formative years in Brazil. There was a brief period in France, studying and performing music. The last 12 years have been spent in various parts of the US.

Geography is an inevitable preoccupation. Last year, she spent three months dividing her time between New Zealand and Cuba, contemplating the nature of islands. A previous trip took her walking in Japan, retracing the footsteps of the poet Basho. “I don’t really feel as though I belong to a specific place," she says. “My roots aren’t geographical. They have to do with people or friends. I enjoy the sense of being adrift."

Lisboa writes fiction and poetry but identifies primarily as a poet, even though her first collection Parte Da Paisagem (Part Of The Landscape) was published only in 2014, nearly 15 years after her first novel. “I’m really concerned with the word, with the tiny particle that makes a text a text," she says. The distance between prose and poetry, she believes, is not vast. There is always one major fiction project, which occupies her for a few years, and while she’s immersed in that, there will be departures for poetry. “It’s like you’re filming something," she says, “and you know it will take a while to complete, but you take pictures sometimes, of things that are related to what you’re filming and sometimes unrelated—it’s a way of taking snapshots."

I tell her that the idea of poem as snapshot reminds me of something Charles Simic said: that the secret desire of poets is to stop time. Lisboa nods. A poem can be an invitation for the reader to step in and change their relationship with time. “One thing I like to do a lot is to go back in time. I like the rhythm of memory, of going back, of repeating. I like themes to repeat, because that’s how memory works, it’s that cyclical quality of time where everything repeats itself, but comes back with some differences." Her Basho project, which involved translating his travel diaries into Portuguese, was also an exercise in resurrecting memory. “It seems like such an important gesture in these times, when we take so little time to do things and we’re always in a hurry—the idea of travelling on foot and observing things. Today, we take pictures non-stop, but Basho would just write a haiku."

In her poem Keeping Time, she writes, On my wristwatch/ instead of numbers I read/ now/ now/ now. Time is immobilized, time is an old cuckoo clock that inflates its “spring-lungs" and sings. In Collective Noun—I have tattoos that are forgotten/names of forgotten/ civilizations. Remembering and excavating are twin obsessions. When she was in her 20s, Lisboa says, she had a strong desire to write about family and relationships. “In Latin America, like in India, the family is very strong, it can be a burden at times, as you know, and a lot of love and nourishment. I wanted to write about the violence that is hidden behind those structures." As she moved away from Brazil, her themes changed. “I wanted to explore the idea of belonging and dislocation, about migration, what it is to be an immigrant, that idea of being completely far away from everything—your language, your religion, your family. Not because you wanted to but because you were forced to."

I like themes to repeat, because that’s how memory works, it’s that cyclical quality of time where everything repeats itself, but comes back with some differences.- Adriana Lisboa

I ask Lisboa whether she thinks of language as home, as sanctuary. She writes mainly in Portuguese, and has won several awards for her work, but she occasionally writes in English or Spanish. “I notice my writing changes if I write in another language. There are certain things I can say better in English or Spanish." But Portuguese, she concedes, is the language her heart goes back to, the language of home, family, friends. “I carry it with me. It’s very personal, but I don’t like to be too attached to the idea of language as home because I think it can impose limits. I like the freedom of being able to navigate through other languages…. I feel I can be precise in English, and because I didn’t grow up in that linguistic landscape I’m less at ease, and the fragility of that experience interests me."

There is a fluidity to Lisboa’s experiments with language and geography. She tells me she doesn’t feel part of the literary community in Brazil or the US, that the position of the poet is, in any case, insignificant. There is a tree growing in the middle/ of the rocks/ of my mouth, she writes, several insect colonies/ reside there. To commit to writing poetry, she believes, is to be willing to work on an edge. “You don’t walk, you don’t run, you crawl, you find those margins. You will have readers, they will be few, but they’re special, and I’m okay with that space."

She thinks of poetry as a way of bearing witness. There are things she writes in her poems that she would not approach in her novels: current politics, for instance, because it can make the novel seem outdated very quickly, whereas poetry offers the possibility of glimpses. You can connect the personal to the public. “I come from a country that is going through a terrible political crisis and I live in a country that’s going through another terrible political crisis, and one can feel without hope. But these events speak of something bigger, something that’s coming to all humans, the feeling of being part of a society or not, feeling angry and how to deal with that. These are the essential themes—that we need to belong and sometimes we cannot belong. I don’t want to write pamphlets. For me that would be too little. Literature needs to do more than that."

This is the first of a three-part series where poets talk about their art and inspirations.

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