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Between the Covers Cecilia Vicuña Interview

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David Naimon: Today’s episode of Between the Covers is brought to you by World Poetry. World Poetry is a non-profit publisher of poetry in translation, founded in 2017 and based in New York City. World Poetry publishes from a broad range of languages and traditions, bringing the work of modern masters, emerging voices, and pioneering innovators from around the world to English-language readers in affordable, high-quality trade editions. Recent authors have included the Swiss surrealist and visual artist Méret Oppenheim, legendary French symbolist poet Paul Verlaine, and Zuzanna Ginczanka, a visionary Polish-Ukrainian-Jewish poet of the interwar period, as well as authors from Chile, Germany, Mexico, Palestine, and beyond. This spring, World Poetry has published translations from French, Hindi, and Indonesian, including the first English-language publication of Leeladhar Jagoori and Afrizal Malna. For more information and to subscribe to their newsletter, you can visit worldpoetrybooks.com or find them on Instagram @worldpoetrybooks or on X/Twitter @worldpoetrybook. Today’s episode is also brought to you by Concerning the Future of Souls by Joy Williams, an author who was called “quite possibly America’s best living writer of short stories” by NPR. Beautiful, compelling, and wise, Concerning the Future of Souls explores the bizarre and the beatific through 99 stories that follow the troubled and thoughtful angel Azrael, a transporter of souls in an age of extinction. From ordinary people to the famous, to mountains and animals, each story illuminates the fate of a soul and ponders the morality of being mortal. A brilliant crash course in philosophy, religion, literature, and culture, Don DeLillo writes of Joy Williams’ work that it is an essential American voice, giving us a new way to hear the living language of our time, the off notes, the devious humor as the strange, fierce, vigorous, undercurrent we sometimes mistake for ordinary. Concerning the Future of Souls is out July 2nd from Tin House and available for pre-order now. One of the reasons I don’t share the schedule of who is coming on the show in the future is because one moment in the process of preparing for, having, and releasing a conversation into the world that I particularly love is the moment of release. Whether it generates a moment of surprise, joy, or curiosity, the reveal is something that I find really fun and satisfying. There’s an added sense of anticipation for me, of excitement and even impatience on my end to release certain episodes. When a conversation represents aesthetics, a poetics, or a sensibility that hasn’t been on the show before, that is one of these times. In recent years, the conversations with C.A. Conrad, Johanna Hedva, and Joyelle McSweeney come to mind. One thing I really love also is looking back across an artist’s work over many decades, even in some cases as much as a half-century. Something I can only do a couple of times a year, simply because of what it entails to prepare. But if I were a creature with unlimited capacity, I would do this way more often. Conversations like the ones with Nikky Finney, Dionne Brand, Arthur Sze, Hélène Cixous, Rosmarie Waldrop, Jorie Graham, and Ursula K. Le Guin where time and history become inevitably part of how we approach their latest works. Today’s guest falls into both of these categories. Today’s conversation is truly like no other to date in the best of ways and in nearly every way. With a guest who has been making art since the 1960s, whose artmaking life during the decade since intersects with iconic figures in the history of art and writing, not to mention the political events that have changed Cecilia Vicuña and her art along the way. For those supporters subscribed to the bonus audio archive, today’s contribution is a 45-minute interview with the acclaimed translator and even more celebrated National Book Award-winning poet Daniel Borzutzky, not only about translating Cecilia’s book but also a conversation about Cecilia’s importance in the world, how she has helped reshape the Spanish-language canon and it also becomes alongside this about Borzutzky’s experiences translating and working with another iconic Chilean Poet Raúl Zurita. This joins many other long-form translator interviews, including Spanish-language translators Sarah Booker, Sophie Hughes, Megan McDowell, and Suzanne Jill Levine. The bonus audio also includes readings from past guests, whether Natalie Diaz reading Borges or Jen Bervin reading Paul Celan, and much more. It is only one of many, many things to choose from if you join the Between the Covers community as a listener-supporter. Also, every supporter can join our brainstorm of who to invite on the show in the future and every listener-supporter gets the resource email with each episode of the best things I discovered while preparing, the things referenced during the discussion, and also where to explore once you’re done listening. Today’s resource email is like so many of them, oceanic in scope, but also unlike most, it contains four brief video snippets. The videos from each of these conversations that I have are not made public for many reasons. For instance, during my conversation with Cecilia, she takes a phone call from her 99-year-old mother, which is on the video, and a couple of different people walk in and out of the large space she is in during our two hours together, all of which gets edited out in the final audio. But in this case, there are four times when Cecilia wants to show me something in relation to how she wants to answer a question, whether a photograph from her past or a drawing from within the book, or some dyed unspun wool. I’ve included these moments in the resource email, these one or two-minute video snippets where she’s both describing something and showing us something simultaneously. You can check out all of this and more from rare collectibles from past guests to the Tin House Early Readers subscription getting 12 books over the course of a year months before they’re available to the general public at the show’s Patreon page, patreon.com/betweenthecovers. Now, for today’s episode with none other than Cecilia Vicuña.

[Music]

David Naimon: Good morning and welcome to Between the Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host. Today’s guest Chilean poet, painter, visual artist, performance artist, and filmmaker Cecilia Vicuña comes from a family of artists and writers, and studied fine art at Universidad de Chile in Santiago. During school, she created the series Basuritas, the first instance of what she coined as “arte precarios” or precarious art, objects composed of debris, structures that would disappear. These precarios evolved into many different media from collective rituals to oral performances. Her first precario in 1966, The Quipu That Remembers Nothing, was also the first of her lifelong engagements with the quipu, the nodded textile cords that the Andean people, in lieu of a written language, used as a way to record information and encode narratives, something Cecilia has described as “a poem in space, a way to remember, involving the body and the cosmos at once. A tactile, spatial metaphor for the union of all.” After the Spanish conquest, quipus were banished and destroyed, and Vicuña’s work with them has been a vital part of their endurance despite their cultural erasure. Her early poetry written in the 1960s that emerged from what she called her Diario Estúpido or Stupid Diary, a “wild manuscript of unmediated female writing” was censored in Chile for 40 years. In the early 70s, she moved to London to attend the Slade School of Fine Arts as a painter but after the coup that overthrew Salvador Allende’s government, she applied for asylum in England and went into exile, living in London, then several years in Colombia and ultimately settling in New York in 1980. During those early years of exile, she published her first books of poetry, co-founded Artists for Democracy, and made her first documentary film whose English title would be What Is Poetry to You? Her first exhibition before leaving Chile was Otoño where she filled the room of the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes with leaves three feet deep. She’s been doing exhibitions ever since but with a particular upswell of interest in her work recently with solo exhibitions in the last four years alone at the Tate Modern in London, the Guggenheim Museum in New York, Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes in Santiago, Museo de Arte Miguel Urrutia in Bogotá, as well as in contemporary art museums in Madrid, San Francisco, and Mexico City and at the 59th Venice Biennale in 2022 where she was awarded the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement, where in their citation they say, “Vicuña has devoted years of invaluable effort to preserving the work of many Latin American writers, translating and editing anthologies of poetry that might otherwise have been lost. Vicuña is also an activist who has long fought for the rights of Indigenous peoples in Chile and the rest of Latin America. Her artistic language is built around a deep fascination with Indigenous traditions and non-Western epistemologies. For decades, Vicuña has travelled her own path, doggedly, humbly, and meticulously, anticipating many recent ecological and feminist debates and envisioning new personal and collective mythologies. Many of her installations are made with found objects or scrap materials, woven into delicate compositions where microscopic and monumental seem to find a fragile equilibrium.” This honor joins other recent accolades, including the 2019 Premio Velázquez de Artes Plásticas, Spain’s most prominent art award, the 2023 Premio Nacional de Artes Plásticas, Chile’s most prestigious award, and being elected as a foreign honorary member of the United States Academy of Arts and Letters. Cecilia Vicuña is with us today for her latest book of poetry entitled Libro Venado or Deer Book, with Cecilia’s original poetic compositions in Spanish and translations by acclaimed translator and National Book Award-winning Poet Daniel Borzutzky, a book that brings together nearly 40 years of her poetry and her drawings related to the cosmologies, and mythologies surrounding deer. Welcome to Between the Covers, Cecilia Vicuña.

Cecilia Vicuña: Thank you, David. 

DN: This book has multiple origin stories. One of them is your 2004 visit with your partner James O’Hern to The Lower Pecos Canyonlands to study the 4,000-year-old rock paintings of a deer jaguar dance where many of the petroglyphs are now submerged under water because of the damming of the river. Another is your 1985 encounter with Jerome Rothenberg’s book Fifteen Flower World Variations, which engaged with the deer dance and deer songs of the Yaqui Indians, a book you translated into Spanish but in reality, you said it translated you. Since then, there’s been a bi-directional influence between you and Rothenberg. When you edited the Oxford Book of Latin American Poetry, you included work translated by him. He’s also translated you and your 2011 limited edition Chanccani Quipu made of knotted cords and bamboo. Lastly, you traveled to South America with him in 2004 on a performance tour and you met your life partner at one of the performances of the Deer Song that year. I say all of this because Jerome Rothenberg has just passed on in just the last couple of months and in your honoring of him, you called him not only a great poet and a dear friend but an hombre iluminado. Deer Book opens this way, in both Spanish and English, “Dear, deer, this book is for you, your singers and translators, Jerome Rothenberg and James O ‘Hern,” so I thought we could start by conjuring Jerome’s spirit. Perhaps you could share anything you’d like about him but also maybe speak to the ways your encounter with his work has shaped or informed this project of yours, the Deer Book.

CV: Well, I’m very glad that we’re speaking about this book, especially I’m very glad to speak about Jerome Rothenberg. I became aware of Jerome Rothenberg in the 60s actually because I was a teenager back then but I was already a poet and I was reading this extraordinary magazine called El Corno Emplumado, and this magazine was a sort of meeting point between the avant-garde of US, the [inaudible] poetry of the time, and Latin American avant-garde. As a teenager, I encountered this magazine and I immediately wrote to them and sent my poems and outrageously, they published me when I was 18 years old over there along with extraordinary people like Thomas Merton, Ernesto Cardenal. It shows you a magazine that is not only focused on great names but also welcomes newcomers, teenagers. I was so in love with this magazine and this magazine published what I believe is the first translation, a book of translations of Jerome Rothenberg’s poetry. So I received his book, of Jerry as a gift in Santiago. So many years later, I am in London, as you described, studying art. There was this fantastic poetry festival and I was just the girl in the audience. I was in the hallway and I saw coming towards Allen Ginsberg, Jerome Rothenberg, and another person. Of course, I knew who they were. They didn’t know who I was. I was just a teenager. I was so much in awe. I came to Jerome and I said, “I read you translated the El Corno Emplumado,” “Oh,” he was such a welcoming person. Anyone could approach him. He would treat you as an equal, like not as a student bothering you. A few more years go by and I am here in New York. Accidentally, I came here just to give a poetry performance and I met someone, and I stayed and still I’m here. But in the early 80s, I began doing a series of Latin American literature in translation. I was the editor, so I picked the authors and the translators, and that put me in touch with a set of wonderful poets and translators of the US. Among them, I met Eliot Weinberger and David Guss, and it was through David Guss, especially that I met Jerome Rothenberg in a different setting, in a setting of friendship at the home of David Guss. We started talking and it was as if we had been friends all the time because we both had a story of connectivity through the connection between Latin American poetry translation and US poetry. I would read everything that he published and also, I should say that I was forgetting a very important thing. The El Corno Emplumado was a great, truly great magazine, a pioneer and it was killed, the magazine, by the massacre of Tlatelolco in Mexico City, which is a massacre against the students and the workers that took place in 1968. That massacre was the first instance of violence that set off all the series of dictatorships and military coups in Latin America from the late 60s to the mid-70s. When that happened, Sergio Mondragón and Margaret Randall, who were the editors, had to flee Mexico City and Margaret went to Cuba and Sergio Mondragón came to Illinois. When he was in Illinois teaching at the university there, he created a series of Latin American poetry in translation and he decided that a 20-year-old Cecilia would be the second book in this series. That’s how I was invited to come to the US, to work on the translation of my book. So we translated the book that has never been published to this day. But I took the traditional Greyhound bus journey from New York to San Francisco and I found myself in the City Lights Bookstore. This is 1969. 

DN: Wow.

CV: What do I find the definitions of sacred? I’m living this extraordinary anthology and I immediately related to that because I was already on to Indigenous poetics because the movement of interest on Indigenous poetics had begun at least in South America in the 50s, and 60s so there were plenty of publications and I was fascinated by that already. But he took this notion to a new level, to a new degree that made it first of all global, and the quality of the translations is a book that you can read forever because it’s full of so many magnificent discoveries and insights because he would write these little comments on the poem, so it’s like a door. It’s full of doors, doors, universes, not a regular book. [laughter] For all these reasons, when Jerry and I met, I had full awareness of who he was. I was in awe continually. In 1985, the Deer Book began. I believe it’s the time when he published for the first time the Flower World Variations. So this is a miracle, a work that he did to me. One of the most beautiful works. The Flower World Variations is not only a total translation as he said to describe his translations of oral performance poetry but it’s really beyond that. It is a spirit translation because Jerry didn’t know the language in which these poems were sung. After I encountered the poem, I read it and I instantly translated the 20 Cantos. I didn’t think for a second. I read it and I translated it immediately. I put it away because it was to me as if the lines of this poem were so full of life, so full of dimensions. If anybody has the patience to discover this poem, it’s a poem that has no beginning or end because it is like a journey in space-time to the ritual of the deer dance. The deer dance, as I discovered after I began researching it, is probably one of the oldest dances that exist in all continents. Even though scholars believe that this particular one may be 500 years old, some say 2,000 years old, the concept that is behind it as a perception of the relationship between the deer, the land, and the period of language is far, far older. All of that is present in these majestic, minimalist compositions that are circular because everything is repetition and this light, this variations, as if this were a leaf in a tree that moves in a different way. That’s how the lines behave, like living things. My hair stands on end because I translated this poem and as I said, I put it away. Another 20 years go by and it seems that there are cycles of 20 years in this story. [laughter] Like the Maya, they have these Maya cycles. My life story is very much like that. So 20 years go by, this is the year 2004 and my partner had left, and I was very sad. Jerry happened to be visiting New York and he saw my sadness, and he said, “Why don’t we do a tour of South America?” I said, “Yes, of course.” We had actually talked about that a few times but nothing happened. That time, I sent an email after we talked and the next morning, we had so many people inviting us to perform. We had five countries inviting us in South America because one email to a poet in Buenos Aires led to another email in no time, so the next morning, we spoke and said, “We can’t go to five countries. Let’s go just to four countries.” [laughter] Before leaving on this tour, just before leaving, I think I was or he was, I don’t remember the particulars, but I think I was invited to the Bowery Poetry Club by [inaudible] and another poet. I said, “Okay, but for this tour to really be what it should be, it has to be in New York.” This is a South American tour that begins in New York. So the first evening should be Jerry and I at the Bowery Poetry Club. We’re just about to begin the performance. Usually, because we have read a few times together, Jerry would ask me like five minutes before, “What are we going to do?” [laughter] That’s typical of him and of me very often. I said, “Well, I have this translation that I did of a poem of yours 20 years ago,” “Really,” he says, “You never showed it to me,” and I said, “No,” “Why?” “I don’t know. I wanted to read this and you read the English, and I read the Spanish very well.” In no time, we did this reading and I have a recording of it. I couldn’t read it. I sang it. If you have seen performances by Jerry, he never reads straight. He always reads in performance. This was an electrifying moment, at least in my life. I believe this moment had the power to call into my life the man I love because all day after the performance, my partner James O ‘Hern called me. It turns out that he wasn’t in the performance, so we met and he began to tell me about his experience of the deer because James lived, I mean he grew up, he was born in Laredo, Texas and this is of course, the Chihuahuan Desert, is the peyote land and is also part of the sacred land of the deer, so he begins to tell me, and it’s like I saw the poem converted into a living experience. I was in awe that I was meeting him because to me, he was a gift of this translation. The extraordinary thing is that the Yaqui Yoeme, which they call themselves Yoeme now, theorized the myth or the story that the deer dance is actually a translation of the speech of the deer. They also say that it was a woman who heard this speech. I was able to translate it. Even though currently it is a male song, this myth does exist. It’s a disregarded myth that nobody pays attention to but it made a lot of sense to me that a woman could be able to translate the language of the deer.

DN: I love that. Well, I want to ask you more about the deer songs and dances. Your book is as much engaged with flowers as it is with deer and this is because of the flower-deer connection in the Yoeme tradition that the deer are associated with the flower world. I tried to learn a little bit before today about the many worlds of the Yoeme, the enchanted world, the mountain world, and the flower world and others, and how the flower world is not the same as the plant world but it’s the plant world in bloom, a place of sacrifice, meaning labor, the work of bringing the immaterial into the material world, a place where warriors go when they die, and also a place deeply connected with deer who are seen as great healers. But the thing that I learned that I can’t stop thinking about and which really reveals how little anyone can understand this system from the outside of it is that we don’t really have the words to describe what the flower world is because the word “world” is inadequate because it isn’t a space or a place in the way that we might think of it. The different worlds actually have agency themselves. The worlds can decide whether they want to show up or not for a given person who wants to go there. That, in a way, it’s both a world and a being, or at least, that’s how it seemed to me in the little bit that I listened to and read. When the Yoeme people want to do a ritual together or ceremonial work together, they say, “Let’s meet in the flower.” But I’d love to hear your understanding or thoughts about the connection between flowers and deer, which you explore quite a bit in the Deer Book.

CV: Yeah, everything that you say makes absolute sense because finally, after so many years of let’s say epistemological oppression from the West, the West is opening up to understand the fact that the notion of space-time, the notion of language, the notion of what is the relationship, for example, between deer and flower, is not at all object-oriented. Now, you have a flurry of books, of explorations, of text. It’s like the Western world is opening up to the flower and at the same time, the Western world is exterminating all the flowers of the planet. We are at the very crucial moment of human history where it will be allowed for this opening to these multiple perceptions of what other worlds really are. We have the chance to shift human culture from destruction to loving, to caring for this extraordinary creation, which is this planet and us as part of the planet. I believe that this agency of the flower is what, for example, I don’t know if I will come to it from a different perspective, that in Western science, Darwin is like the great hero of the last two centuries I could say and Darwin, at the end of his life, discovered plants, discovered, for example—and this I believe is in the last text that he wrote before dying—that at the end of each root of a plant, there is a brain. He was so blown away by what plants really were. He felt that plants were really the thing that we need to study and that we need to understand what makes this planet a living planet. Of course, after that, you have the discovery of fungi and mycelium, which actually—and this is in the book, in my Deer Book—the fact that plants existed first in the ocean and were only able to colonize the land because of symbiosis with the fungi. These are the things that are blowing people’s minds right now, the fungi, the plants, and the flower concepts. The flower concepts are lagging behind because they’re so involved in indigenous thought and to value indigenous thought, you have to value first of all the living communities that are still believing that experience of a different worldview. My view is that we have to transport ourselves to a different state of mind and that is what the flower really means from my perspective. When I understood that the Yoeme sages said, “The flower is not a flower, it is a state of mind,” and whose mind is that? It’s the mind of the flowers, of course. We, as humans, are like the children of the plants because without plants, we wouldn’t exist. The plants breathe out what we breathe in. Our bodies function feeding from the food that photosynthesis creates. Without photosynthesis, we couldn’t exist. All these I learned from the flower world of Yoeme people because once I started to see the place they assigned to the flower and even in Jerry Rothenberg’s work, including his anthologies, poetries from Mesoamerica, you see that the flower world is already present in Maya poetry, already present in Mexica, which is the real name not for the Aztecs but Mexica poetry is everywhere and you begin to enter into the flower world. You see that in Siberia among the shamans over there. We see that it is in Africa. It is in all the continents where different species of deer exist. So, what is this agency? What does this agency want from us? This agency, for example, according to the Popol Vuh as translated by Dennis Tedlock, another crucial person in my understanding of poetry and close collaborator of Jerome Rothenberg in the early days of the creation of what they call ethnopoetics, he says that according to the Maya, what the gods—which is one of the names of this agency—wanted from humans, they wanted to hear poetry. I believe the root of the deer dance poems is the human willingness to learn from the teacher who is the deer because in their view, the deer sacrifices itself. He’s not hunted. He gives himself. It’s a transformation of victimhood into empowerment and empowerment consisting in giving, not in taking. It is the opposite view of what we are doing. So it’s high time for us to pay attention to this world view because this is not just a fanciful world of poetry. This is the worldview that the Earth wants because it benefits everybody. It benefits the Earth and all species. It is beyond ecology. It is a transformation of the joy of being alive.

DN: In the spirit of staying with plants, I wanted to ask you something about the notion of seeds. I was reading an interview of you in Asymptote, which is prefaced by an anecdote of you approaching Salvador Allende in the early 70s to suggest a national day of the seed, a proposal to re-green the country where seed beds would transform squares into forests and into gardens. Allende laughed and said, “Chile wasn’t ready for this, but maybe it would be ready in the year 2000.” Your Asymptote interviewer, Sarah Timmer Harvey, she then flash forwards in her preface to 1999 and your Cloud-Net project to New York about climate change that existed throughout the streets of the city and the lukewarm response it received from the art critic in the New York Times with Sarah suggesting perhaps by this juxtaposition that Allende was perhaps too optimistic about the year 2000. [laughter] I think of your reflection on your experience of being a girl in Chile that despite all the incredible women artists in your own family as models, that to be a girl was to be diminished and later censored when you wrote about the female erotic. But not just in Chile. You’ve talked openly about being a mestiza woman in the United States and the way one is dismissed or diminished, about your guerrilla art projects like Sidewalk Forests in the 1980s being derided or not engaged with. You are now seen as someone who did land art before the land art movement but were never thought of as part of this movement. You yourself at an event for your disappearing Quipu’s exhibition talked about how the land art movement was very masculine, where the artists shaped the land to their vision, and that your work was actually the opposite of it in gesture. I bring this all up because you said once that seeds were the keepers of inner time and can wait thousands of years to sprout. In the last decade, there has been a sudden and sustained upswell of interest and reconsideration of your work in the bigger art world, with your work being looked at finally on its own terms and in the most prestigious places. I wondered if you saw this sprouting of interest, this blooming of interest as indicative of something larger than an interest in you, if you saw this as indicative of a shift in consciousness around the themes and methods that your work embodies.

CV: Yes, just a simple answer. [laughter] Another thing about my family was a family of artists and a family of gardeners at the same time, so everybody in my family, both sides, mother and father, were all gardeners. They all have orchards. The women especially would have the studio, the kitchen, and the orchard. That was the model I lived with until I was nine years old, then the entire family moved from the countryside to Santiago actually, then the city moved to the place where we live now [laughter] this whole city because Santiago became huge. But when we live in this place that was called La Florida, it’s now a very poor, violent neighborhood because Chile, since the coup, has been taken over by the corporations, by the foreign mines, and by the narcos, so it’s a very violent place now, the total opposite of the paradise in which I grew up surrounded by this either wilderness, little forest or orchards. I was taught by my grandmother actually to create a little garden. I had a little orchard when I was four or five years old. [laughter] Of course, everything died in the orchard because I was dumb and I didn’t know how to water it. But I remember suffering when I saw my first little lettuce die, so this notion that why is everything that I did silently and being despised all my life suddenly all the same things, in a sense, is definitely not due to me or anything that’s necessarily in my work. It is, like you say, a shift. I remember when I experienced the shift, usually in my performances, I did things that made people very uncomfortable. For example, I would begin singing not at the podium but at the entrance of the hall, outside the bathroom, or in the hallway, then I would be attaching people with a little rock, a piece of thread, or something and everybody moved away and nobody wanted to be touched. I persisted, persisted, [inaudible] because for me, the fact that people wanted it or didn’t want it, it didn’t matter. [laughter] What mattered is that poetry wanted that. I obey what poetry wants, not what people are ready to accept or not accept, so it didn’t bother me. Of course, it had many other consequences, like I would be poor like this dog and all that but it didn’t matter. One day, I was in one of these performances and I began using my pen like this to write in people’s hands. I did it in the first person, I did it in the second person. By the third person, I grabbed the hand of someone and I saw other hands offering themselves to be written down. I saw that, and at the very moment, I realized something had shifted, something had changed. This had never happened, that people would volunteer to join in the spatial form that I’m improvising at the moment. That happened I would say perhaps 10 years before this explosion of interest. There was a progression, a very slow progression for me to sense that something was shifting and the moment of transformation of that despite my work happened actually in the year 2017 at the Documenta 14 in Athens where I created this monumental poem in space. It was called Quipu Womb that was 10 meters tall and like a river of menstrual blood. When that happened, I remember an opening night, suddenly the director Adam Szymczyk sends a messenger to tell me that I have been invited to be the speaker for the artists and they were more than 120 artists over there, and I would be meeting the presidents of Germany, Athens, and all the journalists and TV stations from Europe at the foot of the Quipu.

DN: That’s amazing.

CV: Suddenly, the Quipu converted me into a speaker and it was a moment so immense because when I began speaking, the presidents, ministers, and so forth were at regular distance, maybe two, three meters from me. By the time I ended, they were very close, like a meter from me and some of them had tears in their eyes. What I was speaking of, I was speaking that the time had come for this river of menstrual blood that has been denied for thousands of years, now is the connector to the cosmos and connector requesting a culture of solidarity so that we would stop the destruction of the Earth, the destruction of people and cultures, and join to create a different kind of culture. You think of the moment of possibility that was lost with that Documenta 14 that was attacked fiercely by the art world, then that essence that Greece allowed for this, then was converted into a place for the far right to do. We are further away from that possibility of creating a culture of solidarity with the plant world, the animal world, the world of all cultures, and world traditions. But precisely, because we’re further away, it is more urgent than ever.

DN: Yeah. Well, in Libro Venado, when we spend time with flowers, perhaps you could say we’re spending time in solidarity but it’s also very sexual, full of eros, so it makes sense to me when you say that life on the planet depends on the intelligence of flowers. You explore how the mouth and the flower co-evolved at the insects’ oral sucking, and the sucking of the floral tube, each sucking each other or how in Flanders, traditionally, women would display their genitals to the flax plant, that at the sight of their vulvas, it was believed that the plants would grow with greater velocity and you say quite wonderfully, “Down with dresses, up with plants,” which I just love. Here’s a small collection of things you say in these flower poems that link flowers and poems, “The flower is the plant’s sex, the poem is language’s sex,” “Pollen is the exhalation of the flower, the poem is the exhalation of the author.” “The leaf is the translator of light. Photosynthesis is the equation of love and also the first poeticizing,” and that the human lung is a flower that blooms in speech. I also love how you say in Nawat, “The flower is flower and song,” and that in Greek, the word “ánthos” from which we get the word anthologize means to gather flowers. In that spirit of flowers, I’m thinking we could hear a couple of flower poems. Perhaps we could hear Boca y Flor in Spanish and English, then hear Antofilia Electricidad Estática in English.

[Cecilia Vicuña reads from the Deer Book]

CV: I love the selection of quotes that you build a long poem from.

DN: Oh, good.

CV: Also, this notion and your selection of this poem, the idea that it was through pleasure that evolution took place.

DN: Yes. 

CV: [laughter] It makes so much more sense than in any other thing because what is it that we really seek? I mean a baby is born all of us seeking pleasure, you know? It’s the same with insects and with plants. I learned this from my mother. My mother walks into a garden and she says, “I’m coming, I’m coming,” because she’s responding to the call of the flowers and the plants. My mother is completely in tune with that. I grew up knowing that was the case. I didn’t pick it from books. I picked it from my mother’s speech to the plants and therefore I could feel that she was speaking the truth. I never thought this is my mother speaking to the plants, not at all. It was a conversation. It was a very different thing.

[Cecilia Vicuña reads from the Deer Book]

DN: We’ve been listening to Cecilia Vicuña read from the Deer Book, poems translated by Daniel Borzutzky. You’ve said in interviews that you consider yourself a poet first and foremost. That everything else you do, whether installations, your work in fiber arts, performances, or paintings emanates from being a poet. I know your grandfather also knew both Neruda and Mistral, and that your home was full of poetry. I want to spend some time with what makes your poetry and your relationship to language distinctive. I was listening to David Delgado Shorter talking about the deer songs of the Yoeme and he stressed that for them, the deer is not a symbol. It’s important to realize that the deer are not symbolic. That it is easy for us in the West when we speak representative languages to think that the deer must mean something abstract. Shorter talks about non-representative languages, what he calls generative languages, languages where when people speak them, they speak worlds into being, that they create worlds with speech. When I hear this, I think of your poems and I also think of you saying, “The poem is not speech, not in the Earth, not on paper, but in the crossing and union of the three in the place that is not.” Another thing I really love about what you do with language is how you break apart words to create or unleash new meaning, whether you emphasize the word flow within flower so that flower is also flow-er or the word conocer in Spanish which you break apart into “con” and “cer” with and to be, so that to know is to be with being. But you also similarly put words together to create new words “oye ve,” when you say “la planta oye ve la luz,” you’re saying the plant sees, hears the light. I guess I was hoping maybe you could spend a moment talking to us about how you see the relationship of language to the world itself.

CV: If we follow the perception that most people have lived with what language is in the history of humanity, we find that it seems that language was part of humanity, not at the time that it had been believed until now which could be a few thousand years but longer than in the past. It wouldn’t surprise me that eventually, we would learn that it has been maybe half a million years that we have had language. Our perception of language now is reduced completely to fit the reductionist view of the world. That language is just the sound that we make but it ain’t that. I think the function of poetry throughout the millennia has been to show us that language is a living force. How is it a living force? Because if we just think of the notion that it is a shaped breath that creates it, think of that shaped breath, is that material? Is air material? Is breath material? You see the definitions that we live by are so inadequate. Since I was a little girl, my mother could say, “But my darling, you don’t speak like a regular person. You have words in your mouth as if they were fruits.” You see that my mother always intervenes with her perceptions. Her perceptions, my mother is Indigenous and she didn’t know it. She thought that she was a regular Chilean white person until I did the DNA. [laughter] But she lived by different perceptions like the word would be a fruit in your mouth. Think of that. If we think of the flower not as a physical material reality but as a blossom of energies that are compounded into a life-giving force, which is pollen and that this pollen can only exist through being eaten, translated by the bee for example, or by the pollinators, did you know that for example, the way honey is created, I chew it and I pass it on to you. You are another bee. You chew it too and after we have all chewed it, it becomes honey. I think of language more in those terms. Language is something that we chew, that we feel. It certainly has agency. Language has agency as I perceive it the same way flowers have agency. The agency may be just to persist, just to go on, just to find other speakers, just to find other echoes, other sounds, other music, other vibration. If we accept that all these languages are really that, everything vanishes and everything becomes radiant, and full of beauty. So why have we chosen violence? It’s nonsensical. It’s only through the awareness that I think the Indigenous elders transmit and the poets transmit that we have a chance, a human chance because if we follow this reductionist path, it will end up killing everything and killing us in short order. A conversation such as the one that we’re doing serves the purpose of an agency that is far larger than we are. But I suppose someone like you who loves plants, who is an herbalist, and someone like me who grew up a gardener, we communicate like the plants do through vibration. Like bees, the bees communicate with each other by the sound of their breath? Isn’t that the most beautiful thing? How is that different from our speech? It’s not very different.

DN: I love that. Well, this book is not only bilingual but meditates a lot on the act of translation and of caring of things across that the word translation implies. Before we talk about translation, we have a question for you from the translator of Libro Venado, Daniel Borzutzky, an acclaimed translator. He’s the winner of the American Literary Translator’s Association Award and the Penn Award for Poetry in Translation, with many translations that include, among others, several books by Raúl Zurita for Action Books. He’s even more well known for his own poetry, winning the National Book Award for The Performance of Becoming Human and shortlisted for the Griffin Poetry Prize for Lake Michigan, and his new collection coming out this summer is called The Murmuring Grief of the Americas. For people who are subscribed to the bonus audio archive, there’s going to be a long-form conversation between me and Daniel about translating this very book. Here’s a question for you Cecilia from Daniel. 

Daniel Borzutzky: Hola, querida, Cecilia. I am speaking to you from Johannesburg, South Africa where I’m here for a few weeks for some literary things. Tonight, I had dinner with a writer who is a big fan of your work and so you should know that even in South Africa, you are followed, cared for, and admired and I promised this person I would get them a copy of the Deer Book. My question is as follows: Having witnessed and been part of several readings and performances of yours, I’m always struck by the effect you have on people who encounter your work. You’re an artist who definitively changes people’s lives and it’s amazing to witness, and a privilege to be around. My question, however, is a way of getting you to talk about the artists who have changed your life. The Deer Book maybe gives us some hint at this. It’s filled with quotes and references to many, including César Vallejo, Gabriela Mistral, Lezama Lima, Indigenous thinkers, scholars, and poets, then outside of the Americas or outside of Latin America, [inaudible], William Carlos Williams, Jerome Rothenberg, and Dennis Tedlock among many others. I want to ask the question two ways. One, who are the writers who changed your life? I’m interested in the artists as well but I think maybe for the purposes of this interview, who are the writers who changed your life? And two, how do you understand your own literary lineages? I don’t think this is a question I’ve seen you addressed before and I’m excited to hear your answer. Alright. Miss you. I hope to see you soon. I can’t wait to hear this interview with David who, of course, asks such generous and thoughtful questions as well. [foreign language]

CV: How wonderful to hear Daniel from Africa. That is a wonderful message and incredibly difficult questions to answer because we could speak for hours.

DN: We could.

CV: And so in terms of who are the writers that changed my life, I think, and the first one is Vicente Huidobro. My grandfather had been involved in the group that published in Chile, Altazor for the first time so this book was in my house. I was a teenager when I began reading this poem, a book-length poem. I remember vividly that up to then, I thought that poems lived in the books. But when I encountered Altazor, I distinctly felt that I was flying, that I was in a different space-time whereby my body and my soul were in a position that was like in the dreams but it wasn’t a dream. I was with a book in my hand. I think I understood viscerally that poetry was something else, that it was only visiting the page accidentally but in truth, it was a completely different reality and that there was a certain kind of writing that reflected that reality as a trace, so that, I got from Altazor. I read it from beginning to end the same way I read the deer song from beginning to end without breath, without stopping, and at the end, as if you know you have read that poem, long poem, the poem begins to dissolve and it falls like rain on the page. There are no more words. It just sounds like that, so to me that was really like this world that was brought up by the poem also dissolved in your eyes. It was very much like if you have ever eaten some of the sacred plants, the sacred plants are tissues and take you to a world, then bring you out of that world. I would say that that was the most decisive influence I had as a teenager. The second one I would put in that category is a book assembled by León Cadogan. He was a translator of the Mbyá-Guaraní, the poetry of the rainforest. This book was published in the 60s and I still have my copy. I read it in 1966 when I was 18 years old. I encountered that poetry and I knew that that was not again, like Altazor. It was not on the page. It was a universe that you entered. You are welcome in that universe if you are in the right state of mind and that connects again to the deer, the flower world. You can only see it when you are in a particular state of mind. Sacrificial beauty, which is the definition of the flower world, is exactly what you find in Mbyá-Guaraní or the poetry of the rainforest, Paraguay and in the south of Brazil, and in the north of Argentina. You see that there is a constant in the notion that oral poetry or written poetry have that power. Then about the lineage, that is even more tricky because I have to be hiding the fact where I believe true poetry belongs because one cannot speak about oneself really that is one of the no-nos of the ancient tradition. I believe I am part of this ancient tradition. I have encountered shamans from different cultures and they speak in a language that is even though the words may be in Spanish, it’s a different kind of language. I know that they belong in that lineage. The lineage that I admire most is the lineage of oral traditions that have been transmitted through writing in China, for example, in the Laozi, the Tao Te Ching, or in Africa or in Latin America, like I just described. What is this lineage? I could pinpoint a moment when, for example, the Indigenous poets of the Americas that may have written, for example, the Maya writers who wrote in their lower-graphic writing system, when they were conquered or [inaudible] by the Europeans, they translated their writing to alphabetic writing and they created the Popol Vuh. The Popol Vuh is the testimony of a double translation, a translation of the wrong universe, and a translation of a writing system to an alphabetic system. The same happened in Peru. In Peru, the first generation of Indigenous writers who adopted alphabetic writing, which is my case, did the same thing. They translated an oral tradition that may have been kept in Quipus. So this lineage of translators of languages that exist in other sonic dimensions, and other, I would say, I don’t know if the phrase epistemological dimensions exist into a language that can give a hint in Western languages of what is involved. I suppose when Daniel speaks of how people respond to my work, I think it may be because I never lose sight of the fact of that translation which is like a miracle because even if you can compose a little phrase, if that phrase transmits an iota of the universe that is experienced, then the translation that you have done belongs in a lineage. So the lineage is really an act of love, admiration, and respect for where you come from and where you will go if others pick up your work for the future. None of this is up to us except the feeling of total respect.

DN: Well, I wanted to share some of your thoughts on translation within the Deer Book. One includes the thoughts of Jerome Rothenberg saying, “Translation, alongside original creation, is a testimony of the collective nature of poetry,” and you saying, “Translation disrupts what is not there, what is not written, not thought, the wetland of the eye on paper, the quantum of reading,” and also, “The language of the deer poems is the vapor of the desert wet from the rain. Translation is the fine rain, green accelerating light,” and “Every beginning is a translation, the body is a translator. There are no creators, only translators.” But the thing I most love, which is related to this, is how your notion of going across becomes a notion of crossing boundaries of identity across species. In the little I learned about the deer songs, which you’ve already alluded to this today, but in the little bit that I learned outside of the book, I learned that the person who becomes the deer in the deer song dance, the song that they sing as a deer, as a deer singing to the humans is a song that says to the humans, “You are the flower world.” On the one hand, the flower world is a place that one can go to and a place that can choose whether to be available or to be experienced. Something that is seemingly apart from us, and yet the deer nevertheless sing to us that no, we are this world. This reminds me of many things in the Deer Book. A couple of lines from your poems go, “The eye alone is nothing. Unfolded it is the all enchanted,” and, “At night he becomes a name to transmit the art. By day he recovers its animal form to sacrifice itself.” You also have this anecdote about Violeta Parra where you recount that she would say, “Here comes the little cloud, when she sensed a poem coming at her like an animal, a cloud animal, the birth of the poem in the animal’s language.” You talk about how in the poem dance, like the deer song dance, different consciousnesses are exchanging where subject and object dissolve or subject and object change places where no one is exclusively human or twig or animal, and all of this reminded me of something you said in one podcast about being at a gathering at an action in Chile on behalf of the glaciers where you said that instead of looking for words or thoughts which are already so colonized, to begin with, you described yourself as connecting to and extending your heart’s antenna, describing yourself as becoming like an insect or becoming an insect. I wondered if we could speak to this interspecies communion, which seems so different than the way we are warned or cautioned against in the West. We are always warned away from what Ursula Le Guin would describe as “fellow feeling” with other creatures where it seems like we emphasize the dangers of seeing ourselves in other beings rather than the dangers of not seeing ourselves in fellowship with other beings.

CV: I would like to show you something in response. Tell me if you can see this.

DN: Yes, I can. Is that you?

CV: Yes, that’s me.

DN: You with the rooster?

CV: Yes, so that’s the little adobe house that we lived in the countryside. Look at the size of that rooster, you know?

DN: Yes, it’s huge.

CV: So according to my family, this rooster thought that I was a little hen and he took it and wouldn’t let anyone come close to me. [laughter] So he was like my boyfriend or like my little husband. Everybody remembers this story. I remember thinking about it, of course, nobody told me that he was a rooster and I was a person so I believe that we exist when we come into this world in a completely open space where we are nothing defined and that is what humaneness is. The word human is so beautiful, it means Earth, person, it’s the same root as humus. What is Earth? Soil itself is a living creature. Soil is not a material, soil is alive. So if soil is alive, if we’re being alive, who are we? We are bacteria walking about, we are this, we are that, we are everything. We can’t really shift or move to another state of mind if we are of any idea. Ideas are limited. Instead, there is something that is not yet an idea, something that does not have yet a name, but has a knowing, has a sensing. Sense, the Latin origin of the word, sense means direction. Light has direction. Creatures have a direction. They are coming from somewhere, they are going somewhere, so are we. We are moving towards water, towards food, towards nourishment, towards each other, towards [inaudible], towards love. So if we perceive ourselves like that by a non-definition, then everything is possible. You know what to do. You know it way ahead of words. One of my books that very few people have seen, because it was done, it was like a practically handmade edition of probably 50 copies, it’s called Beforehand. Just two days ago, I saw someone doing an artwork inspired by that book, so it has some circulation, but the book was a poem composed based on the notion that I read in the New York Times Science section, this probably happened in the 80s, that there was this discovery by a neuroscientist, Damasio is his name, very well known scientist. He says that, for example, when you meet someone, our hand sweats, micro sweats, that is so small that you don’t even see it. What this micro sweat indicates is that your system, your nervous system has already decided if this person is good or bad for you. I read that and I thought of the word “beforehand.” You see, we know beforehand, we are anticipatory selves. So we have to open up to that knowing that comes before words, then words are a different kind of creature, then language, then poetry is a different kind of animal. When I say the poem is the animal, it’s not a metaphor. It is a reality because this notion that language creates reality is not a notion. It is a real thing. Are we going to be ready to accept that? Because if we do, then immediately an instantaneous respect has to unfold for the notion that we live within all these languages that are exchanging and affecting interconnecting with each other in a wave of life.

DN: Well, there was something that you mentioned in the Deer Book that so captivated me and connected for me to something that’s happened recently in science, too. While you do focus primarily on deer in the Sonoran Desert, we do learn about deer in Buddhism and deer in Siberia and in South Africa. In your namesake, the vicuña is a relative of alpacas and llamas. They’re the same order of creature as deer. But the wildest thing you mentioned is that deer and whales are relatives, and indeed they are also in the same taxonomic order as each other. A small prehistoric deer-like creature that was the size of a house cat is considered by many to be the missing ancestral link of whales to the land. I love this idea that deer and whales and vicuñas are related. It all made me wonder about whale song in relation to deer song. One of your albums of poems and chants, Kuntur Ko has a song that begins like the sounds of a whale called Ballena Azul, Oro De Oir or Blue Whale, Hearing Is The Gold. But the reason this is on my mind is also because of a very recent breakthrough we’ve had around whale song. Most people think of the songs of the humpback whale because of that famous album from the 70s that was a bestseller, I think most people probably presume that all whales sound like this [whale sound playing]. But it’s actually remarkable how different another type of whale sounds, more different than similar. Here’s the sperm whale [sperm whale sound playing]. We recently discovered that this clicking that the sperm whale does is actually a speaking in phonemes which suggests the possibility that they might be using, like us, a representational language, something much more complex than we were able to understand or perceive before now. It opens up the possibility that they may be using language like no other creature we have encountered. The researchers say, “Sizable combinatorial vocalisation systems are exceedingly rare in nature.” One example of this are bees, which use a context-dependent system of combinations that are assembled into phrases. But their phrases are not vocal, they’re in dance. But this possibility that maybe one day we will decipher the whale alphabet and be able to speak to whales and understand what they’re saying back, it also makes me think of the way you break words into phonemes and bring phonemes together to form new words. But I wondered if you had any thoughts about the mysteries of the deer-whale connection or about whales. Either way, maybe this could just be a lead-in to hearing another poem and we could hear Disrupted Hallucine.

CV: Yes, yeah, that’s absolutely beautiful, and it also has been recently discovered that the elephants have names for each other. It’s like we’re opening up to the incredible complexity and beauty of animal languages at the same time that we’re exterminating them. So I can tell you about the whale, the appearance in my life. Chile is the country or the territory that has the most whales in the world. I only learned that recently because Chile, like the colonized place, is always looking away from what it really is. Therefore, most of our whales are now in danger of going extinct. But the Indigenous people of Chile—and this was my entryway to the Indigenous oral poetry world—I must have been much younger than in the stories I told you already and I encountered a little leaflet and this leaflet told a Mapuche story of what was their interpretation or a myth about death. People died and the whales would take the spirit of the dead and take it to the Isla Mocha, an island in front of the coastal southern Chile, where there is a different universe. The whales had the function of transporting the spirit from one dimension to another dimension, from life to death and life again. I read that, and that is when I understood that Indigenous people of Chile were not what people, colonized Chilean people, despised them and think that they were poor and they are dark and they are this and they are that, but it was the actual opposite. They were in touch with the radiant, absolutely magnificent reality and I needed to learn from it. I remember vividly that that was the first time that I understood that indigenous poetry was something else that happened even before Altazor. So when I learned doing the research for the Deer Book, that whales and deer were related, I immediately thought of that, of that transport from one dimension of being, one other dimension of pain. That’s why I think the deer fortress of the world, it’s one of the constants that deer, because it’s sacrificed, is the killing. You may die, but you’re given life in another dimension. You may die, but your death is feeding other creatures. So, life and death as a continuity of love and unstoppable beauty, that is the message that you get. Even as a child, I got that beautiful transmission. I don’t remember the second part of your question.

DN: Oh, no, the second part was just to hear the poem Disrupted Hallucine.

CV: Okay.

[Cecilia Vicuña reads from Libro Venado or The Deer Book]

DN: We’ve been listening to Cecilia Vicuña read from Libro Venado or The Deer Book. So in engaging with this idea that you say in the book, “No one is exclusively human, twig, or animal,” it’s often about questions of the meeting of eyes, both in the hunt and hunting, but otherwise. I know a lot of your early paintings were burned by the Chilean dictatorship, but several that I know of involve eyes in a way that trouble the sense of self or an individual self. For instance, in 1977, a naked woman, possibly you, intertwined in embracing and straddling a vicuña. But the more you look at it, it isn’t physically possible that she’s straddling the vicuña. Instead, it’s bodies that have been intersected with each other, and we only see one eye of each of you, as if together you make one face. Another painting of the same year is of your mother who similarly has half of her face obscured, but this time by a guitar, a guitar that itself has an eye. Just like the vicuña painting, the two eyes finish a face or make a face. You’ve already alluded to this, but I wanted to move maybe from the eye to the mouth, which we’ve already talked about in relationship to the insect and the flower. You’ve talked about your fundamental moments of transformation with literature have been where you felt like the poem wasn’t entirely on the page. There’s many ways this book is not on the page or is not contained by language or only language. One of them has to do with orality. In the spirit of Deer Song and Whale Song and human chanting, this book really has a deep engagement with the oral. You and James started a foundation to preserve and nurture oral traditions called Oysi, which is a word you both invented and could be interpreted in Spanish as “Do you hear? Yes!” or “Today? Yes!” But also hearkens to an ancient Gaelic word meaning “young deer.” In Libro Venado, you engage with orality directly; you speak of the first written transcription of a Quechua story and how it begins with what you call an imprecision. With the phrase, “It is not well known,” and how not knowing, “maintains the oral matrix of this transcription.” A couple of things that you say in the book about sound, “The flower is the ear of the gods. The song of the plants is pure sound. They ate flowers to hear. There’s no cosmo vision, there’s cosmo hearing. The glyph of music is flower. To hear is to heal, hearing the unheard door.” The one that leapt out to me the most is, “One’s voice is the sound taken as game in a ritual hunt at the time of one’s birth.” One’s voice is the sound taken as game and a ritual hunt at the time of one’s birth. In other words, it’s almost as if one’s voice is one’s deer. I guess I wanted to give you a chance to talk about the oral within a written work, how you preserve, evoke, or conjure the oral in written words on the page, and maybe you could also speak a little bit when you’re speaking about oral, about your interest in fluids with regards to orality, where you say human humility is humidity or a salivation, a salvation, or that the living world and song depend upon the other, that if we exterminate oral languages and cultures that sing the relationship between water and song, that the worlds rise up and forest fires engulf us. Talk to us a little bit about, as a writer, as I hold this physical object with words that are seemingly fixed on the page, how you keep or create that space that hovers off of the page.

CV: Of course, there’s no answer for that. But we will try something like this hovering effect. The relationship, let’s say, between water and sound has already been pursued by scientists who have demonstrated that with certain sounds, water rearranges molecules to create these geometric figures that you can see in the microscope. It is not a theory that water and sound are related through vibration. And it is not a theory that flowers and song are related because the testimony exists in multiple languages. As a child, you witness that, for example, look at this, any person, not a member of [inaudible] calls you “Ah” in front of a flower. See?

DN: Yes. [laughs]

CV: So, how many people, “Ah,” they go like that so there is something in us that recognizes that the flower is an expression of a reality. It’s not just an object. If we follow that path, we can imagine the moment of composition. When if you are writing something, it seems to me that if you have an absolute ingrained visceral respect for the place where the poem comes from, then there is a small chance that some of that universe will manifest of its own accord in the relationship between the words. That’s why syntax and the order of words in poetry is the difference between good and bad, is the difference between poetry that will last and a poetry that will die. What accounts for that is something in our inner ear, our sensibility. Why is it that some people cultivate their own sensibility to sound? It must be through pleasure, the same principle of the insect and flower. It’s that it gives you a little something, like, is it an orgasm? Is it a sense of absolute delight? Like certain flavors as opposed to others that you sense is not in the sound but is transmitted through sound. That’s the beauty of sound. That’s the beauty of what is it that words actually do. We have written a lot about this. They combine silence and sound. They combine what you see with what you hear. How was this created? It was created collectively through millions of years of speech, of understanding and deciphering speech. The same way that the whales came up with their clicking phonemes. For example, we know now that the monkeys have 100 words that all monkeys from all species can understand. We as poets, if we are in the presence of these realities and fully respect and engage them, with the awareness that what you just quoted is actually a Kariña Concept. Kariña is an Indigenous people from the rainforest of Venezuela, also in the travel because they live in the Orinoco River and all these places are being destroyed brutally. But the notion that your voice is captured by another creature and feeds another creature for me is like mathematics. It must be that way. It’s not a theory. It is an observation.

DN: Well, maybe we could hear Multiform Sap Saliva in Spanish and English, the short poem.

[Cecilia Vicuña reads from Libro Venado or The Deer Book]

DN: Another way I wanted to step away from the page for a moment is regarding performance and ritual, two things that are very present in this book, too. The book feels both very serious insofar as it engages with, I think, deep existential issues, for instance, the health of the planet. But it’s very playful. It makes me think of a video I watched about how you prepared for and installed your Sonoran Quipu in Tucson, an exhibit that begins before your arrival in the city, where you asked individuals and organizations across the city to gather natural and human debris from gutters, kitchens, studios, and gardens which were all amassed in the museum. I watched this video of you meeting with the various museum curators together, maybe 10 of you who were going to weave plant and industrial materials into something together. What was interesting to me about the video is your process with them, which involved singing, chanting, and dancing. Above all, this cultivation of a sense of play, and I think of childlike discovery, people were at the beginning variably open or hesitant, one to the next. But it was ultimately very infectious and permission-giving, I think. I love that the idea of how you are having the community itself bring together the debris of their own place where they live and then to sing and dance and play among it to bring this debris together into something else that’s more than its parts, what you call The Quipu of Encounters. There’s a sense of playfulness and discovery in this book itself, too. The different colored pages, the movement between typed words and handwritten words, the pages that accordion out and unfold way outside the confinement of the book, the pages that are sideways to the book, the transparencies of leaves or of petroglyphs, where when you turn the page, you see words through them, running your hand over the cover where it feels like the drawings have been etched into it. Every sense feels activated in reading the book and it makes me suspect that the book comes together, perhaps in a similar spirit to the way the Sonoran Quipu comes together. But I was hoping you could speak to this aspect of Libro Venado.

CV: Yes, that’s a wonderful thing. I’d like to see that video. [laughter] It is true that when you come to the museum or when you compose a book, people perhaps imagine that this is a very serious affair. But in truth, I always encountered, and now we will speak about the museums that the creators and the people who have been gathered as the helpers, they come with this idea that the artist is like a ruler, like a dominant force that will decide this goes here, this goes there, and so it’s natural for people if you feel that you’re in front of a figure of authority that you are sort of reduced, in Spanish we say [inaudible] it’s like you are little. Very well, so first thing when I come, I am not in that space, so they can’t tell in no time that I am not a figure of authority. So when you don’t have the idea of authority but you have the sense of absolute delight, and I don’t have to think, I am there instantly, naturally. Because look, I arrived at this museum and they had gathered, but mountains. I had enough material for that exhibition. [laughter] You could see that people took it to heart and they brought incredible things. So I begin to dance and go like that and so please, and as you say it is infectious because there are no walls. I don’t have the preconceived style of behavior or mode of behavior. I am just responding like an animal would do. If a dog enters into a room, the first thing he does is smell, move the tail, and find out what’s going on, you see. I’m the same, you see. [laughter] I live with animals all my life, so I know how animals are, and I know that that’s the way you really learn because you have to be aware of everything. Now how to translate that with the book. I lived with this book all the way from 1985 until when it was published, I believe it was this year, ’24. You should have seen the chaos I lived in with hundreds and hundreds of poems that didn’t make it to the book, hundreds of drawings that didn’t make it to the book. In the end, the composition of fragments is what creates the book and everybody intervenes in that. I did a performance together with Rosa Alcalá and Daniel Borzutzky precisely in Tucson Arizona in the same museum. I believe it was before the book was published. But I remember that at some point, even Daniel intervened that he said, “Oh, these poems that have a particular relationship should be ahead of the book,” and I shifted the position because any position of everything that’s in the book was equally absurd. So how did I order them in this map that you speak about, which I will show to the audience.

DN: She’s showing us an accordioned map that’s handwritten on many, many yellow accordioned pages. Almost as probably as tall as she is.

CV: Yeah, probably, yeah. Almost.

DN: Almost.

CV: Because I was confronted with this tremendous chaos of several, several years, I naturally began to create this sort of animal relationships. For example, in a living place, if you put together certain plants, they don’t like it. Some are very happy together. It’s the same with the creatures, it’s the same with the poems. Poems have friendship with other poems. They have affinity with other poems. For example, the ones that relate to the concept of the “I,” the dissolution of the “I,” “I” meaning me, not eye, the eye. But in Spanish, the “yo” can be “yos.” I have a book published that was inspired by a graffiti I saw in a bathroom. [laughter] This was in Madrid, I entered to a bathroom and it says “soy,” which is “I am” written backwards, so it becomes “yos”. It becomes a plural “I”. So that’s the title of my book. It’s “Soy Yos.” Who are we? Are we plural I? At least. And then in the language Yaqui that I studied a little bit in order to be able to understand better the translation that was possible from, because my translation is sort of in between the Yaqui poem as it was transcribed literally by the anthropologist in the 40s, Carleton Wilder, and Jerry’s version, published in 1985. My version is like a cross between the two, but I really consider it like a cloud that hovers. Because I believe that oral poetry has that capacity to hover, and this hovering is an invitation, it’s an invitation to move there, to go there, to go to this space that is common, collective, undefined, because that’s where beauty resides, that is where the encounter, true encounter, where you are, I think on a level, that’s an American expression, on a level is not from the notion of controlling, ruling, or deciding, but of learning, sensing, and feeling.

DN: Well, speaking of plural “I’s”, I want to end with a last question by someone else. But before we have that person ask a question, I have a preface to it. I want to ask a question in advance of the question that’s going to come to you from the artist and poet, Jen Bervin. First, I want to say that this book, Deer Book, is one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever encountered. I didn’t really know Radius Books before now, or not very well, but the attention to detail feels like an act of love. The book feels like it’s the result of a collaborative attentiveness to texture, image, color, the hand, the finger, and the eye, and it keeps us in our bodies. Jen Bervin’s work is also incredibly beautiful, whether her engagement with Emily Dickinson’s Envelope Poems in her book The Gorgeous Nothings, or the book that we talked about together for the show, Silk Poems, which is narrated by a silkworm, a creature that we’ve evolved with that doesn’t live without humans, and a creature that creates a substance that is biocompatible with our bodies so that we can create biomedical sensors made out of silk, and they can be inserted in us to monitor conditions. Jen put some of these silk poems etched onto these silk sensors, and these were placed into some human beings. Or her work with the fourth-century Chinese poet, Su Hui, one of the first woman poets in the written tradition. She wrote a reversible poem, structured on an astronomical gauge that charted planetary movements around the North Star. The poem itself was a textile rendered in silk in five colors in a 29 by 29 grid that can be read in many directions and can produce nearly 8,000 possible interpretations. I bring all this up because of your mutual love of text and of textile, not to mention your mutual engagement with a non-human. Thinking of textiles in your work, I think of how the Incans were a fiber-based society, not just the Quipus, but they invented the first suspension bridges 300 years before Europe did, and these bridges were made out of grasses, and their armor was similarly fiber-based. The Quipus like Su Hui’s poem were textiles and also connected to the stars. You and Jen both talk about the association of fiber arts with women and feminism. You also add that weaving is something bacteria do. It is primordial. When someone weaves of any gender, we are connecting with something way beyond us. Before we bring things home with a question for you from Jen, I wanted to give you the opportunity to talk about texts and textiles, especially because early on in the Deer Book, we get a close-up full-page photograph of a woven textile which has a facing page of a pictograph of a deer, and that your namesake, the vicuña, the cousin to the deer, its fleece too was also woven and burnt in sacrificial offerings to the mountain gods. So if you have anything you’d like to say about texts and textiles and relationship to the Deer Book, that would be wonderful.

CV: Yes. I love Jen Bervin, and I love her work, and I have always felt sisterhood with her research and mine, even though it looks so different. She uses technological means that I could never make sense of, so I have tremendous admiration for her. My sense of text and textile comes from the commonality of handling the thread I have here. See, I think I began to understand the connectivity between text and textile in a different way when I was in Lake Titicaca. I encountered that in the marketplaces, women who sold herbs and remedies sold this kind of material, unspun wool.

DN: Yeah, it’s beautiful.

CV: Unspun wool dyed in colors. I asked the lady, “What is this for?” She looked at me like I’m a complete idiot, “How can you ask something so silly?” [laughter] She says, “This is for the offerings of the llamas, because the llamas carry this in their ears like that. This is placed in their ears in a ceremony, an ancient ceremony that is still carried out.” I began to study what was behind it? I learned that for the weavers and for the shepherds, this represents the cosmic gas where water is formed in the spaces between the galaxies. That because the llamas, alpacas, and vicuñas depend on water, it is the relationship of water and life that is embodied by this unspun wool. So it’s like this, you could say perhaps in Western terms, that this form of wool is like a fractal of the cosmos and eventually, a few years ago, it was acknowledged that water exists in the cosmos precisely in the intergalactic space. So how did the shepherds know that? You see, they learned it from the streams, they learned it from the springs, they learned it from the wool itself. That’s what has happened to me, that I have understood from handling this material, that this material behaves very much like words, like sound and silence shaped. That’s the origin of my poem, Palabra e hilo, Word & Thread, where you can make a parallel between how this works, this works as a space and emptiness. For example, what is wool? Wool is a composition of molecules that allow for different forms of emptiness between the molecules, and that is what creates the vicuña wool to be the most extraordinary wool in the planet, because there’s more space, there’s more emptiness, and this emptiness is like the dark constellations. The people of the Andes don’t read the sky as relationship start to start. They read it as the relationship between the empty spaces. That’s poetry in me, you see. In the space of the page and in the space of the poem, you are composing emptiness as well. That is what creates the beauty of the book, that the page is composed sensing that emptiness as a space that gives life to everything.

DN: Well, here’s the question for you from Jen.

Jen Bervin: Dear, Cecilia, it’s Jen Bervin. Hello, love. I adore your new book. I think it’s your best yet. The Deer Book will go down in my pantheon of deeply beloved books. I received it, luckily, on the same day that I received a chapbook from Madhu Kaza, and hers is called Lines of Flight. It’s from Ugly Duckling. That’s her first out. They had so much to say to each other. I want to read you a little bit and follow it up with a question for you. So this is Madhu Kaza writing. “If you’re writing against capitalism, say you needn’t write in the language of anti-capitalism. If you’re listening to plants drop down, write flower language, write by the light of flowers.” My question for you is what light are you writing by now? Love you, dear.

CV: Well, only Jen could ask such a question. [laughter] You know, I think it’s in the book, the answer. Let me try to find it. Because years ago, I suddenly saw a flower. This flower was composed of connectivity in between love, light, language, and life. This poem landed as a drawing, because poems know if they’re going to be a song or if they’re going to be a drawing. As you see in the poem, there are these kinds of drawings, which represent as if it were a flower composed of crossing energies that meet each other. Another one that involves the tracts of the deer, that’s there, see two of these. It is in this manner that I see light as a form of energy that crosses energies. So what is the light? For example, there is a book of mine that I wrote in the 80s that is about light to a great extent. Because I was in the Andes and I observe a mating dance of the hummingbirds. I don’t know if you have watched this that the lady hummingbird is standing in a twig, in a branch and she does nothing but just looks like that, and the male who wants to seduce her comes and moves his breast in fast angle shifts that will throw light and it is because they have evolved this iridescent breast and they know how to weave the light into a dance by moving their body very fast one way or the other. What is the lady reading? The lady is reading the dance of light, the flashes of light. That is what caused me to create that other book, that is the “La Wik’Una” book. La Wik’Una is a textile, but it’s a textile that weaves light.

DN: Well, let’s go out with a final reading of a poem, a last reading of the poem Last Page, Border of the Deer Book.

[Cecilia Vicuña reads from Libro Venado or The Deer Book]

DN: Thank you, Cecilia. It was so great to spend these two hours together.

CV: Thank you, David. It was absolutely beautiful. I really thank you from the bottom of my heart. Your questions were not regular questions. Your questions were poems themselves. It’s really beautiful. Everything that you said was really important. Thank you so much.

DN: We were talking today to Cecilia Vicuña about her latest book, Libro Venado or Deer Book, translated by Daniel Borzutzky. You’ve been listening to Between the Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host. Today’s program was recorded at the volunteer-powered, non-commercial, listener-sponsored, full-strength, makeshift home office of me, David Naimon. You can find more of Cecilia Vicuña at ceciliavicuna.com. For the bonus audio archive, we add a 45-minute conversation with Cecilia’s translator, the poet Daniel Borzutzky. This joins many long-form translator conversations, readings, soundscapes, and craft talks in the bonus archive. The bonus audio is only one possible thing to choose from when you join the Between the Covers community as a listener-supporter. Every supporter can join our brainstorm of future guests and every listener-supporter receives the supplementary resources with each conversation of things I discovered while preparing, things referenced during it, places to explore once you’re done listening, and in this case, four little video excerpts from the conversation today. Additionally, there are a variety of other potential gifts and rewards, the bonus audio archive, to the Tin House Early Readership subscription, getting 12 books over the course of a year, months before they’re available to the general public to a bundle of books selected by me and sent to you. You can find out more at patreon.com/betweenthecovers. Or if you prefer a one-time donation, you can do so via PayPal at tinhouse.com/support. I’d like to thank the Tin House team: Elizabeth Demeo and Alyssa Ogie in the Book Division, Beth Steidle in the Art Department, Becky Kraemer in Publicity, and Lance Cleland, the Director of the summer and winter Tin House Writers Workshops. Finally, I’d like to thank past Between the Covers guest, poet, musician, composer, performer, and much more, Alicia Jo Rabins, for making the intro and outro for the show. You can find out more about her work, her writing, her music, her film, and performances at aliciajo.com.