Sunday 1 June 2008

Joan Margarit and Anna Crowe in conversation

Joan Margarit is one of Spain’s major modern writers. Born in 1938, he worked as an architect and first published his work in Spanish, but for the past three decades has become known for his mastery of the Catalan language. The melancholy and candour of his poetry show his affinity with Thomas Hardy, whose work he has translated. In poems evoking the Spanish Civil War and its aftermath, the harshness of life in Barcelona under Franco, and grief at the death of a beloved handicapped daughter, Margarit reminds us that it is not death we have to understand but life. His poetry confronts the worst that life can throw at us, yet what lingers in the mind is its warmth and humanity. Bloodaxe Books published Joan Margarit's Tugs in the Fog: Selected Poems, translated by Anna Crowe, in 2006, his first book of poetry translated into English. His work as an architect included many years working on on Gaudi's Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.

A regular event held at the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival.

Below is the transcribed dialogue between poet Joan Margarit and his translator Anna Crowe held at Aldeburgh Poetry Festival in November 2006.

Anna Crowe: Now that you are an "English poet", which you told me once you always wished you could have been, how do you think your poems sound in English? Do they make the same or similar noise as in Catalan? Do you recognise them as your poems?

Joan Margarit: I’m very happy to have a lot of my poems in English, but I am more happy because you are my translator. And the proof that this affirmation is objective is that our book is the poetry book society recommended translation.
In poetry, the Catalan tongue is nearer to English than Castilian, whose lines are generally longer. We can say one English eight or nine syllable line is a Catalan eleven syllable line and a Castilian fourteen syllable line. Also the rhyme in English and in Catalan is similar: it is a faint rhyme, if we compare it with the strong Castilian rhyme.

AC: I know you greatly admire the work of poets like Thomas Hardy, Philip Larkin and Elizabeth Bishop. When, in terms of your own writing career did you begin to read their work, and did you read it in English or in translation?

JM: There’s a good translation of Larkin into Spanish by Alvaro García.
Hardy and Bishop I read by translating them myself with the help of the American poet and critic Sam Abrams.
It’s the best way of reading the work of a poet who writes in another language, translating it.
Now, if life allows me enough time, I shall do the same with Philip Levine, Douglas Dunn and Anna Akhmatova.
Indeed, we’ll translate Douglas Dunn together, won’t we?

AC: Is there someone whom you might describe as your "father in poetry"? Was Gabriel Ferrater’s work important in your own development as a poet?

JM: I am the son of many fathers.
It is the fate of poets who write in minority languages like Catalan.
The most important of these fathers are the medieval ones, Jorge Manrique, Ausias March, and also, Pablo Neruda, Juan Ramón Jiménez and Thomas Hardy.

AC: Would you say that your poetry is typical or atypical of what has been written in Catalonia in the past thirty years?

JM: When I started to write poetry in Catalan, I was absolutely and totally atypical.
I was one of the first poets to separate the vindication of nationalism from the quality of the poetry, giving clear pre-eminence to the latter.
Now, among young poets, this is already the norm.
I think my main contribution has been to avoid literary Catalan and to write in the Catalan spoken by all.

AC: I have translated poems by you that are in a strict form, notably sonnets, and many of your poems are written in what sounds, to my English ears, very like iambic pentameter. What advice to you have for aspiring translators of poetry about the role of form in poetry?

JM: This is the central theme in translation.
One says that “traductore-traditore”, that is “translator-traitor”.
I cannot save the whole poem: it is impossible.
My personal rule is: first, I have to say the same as the original, I cannot say that “the wind whistles” if the original says “the wind sings”.
Second: my translation must be doubtless a poem, a good poem if it is possible.

AC: I believe your friend, the academic Sam Abrams, dedicated an earlier book of translations of Hardy to you, describing you as the ‘soul-mate of Thomas Hardy’, and it was seeing this that led you to explore Hardy’s work?

JM: The story is true and I explain it in my prologue to the translation of Hardy.
Sam had dedicated an essay on Hardy to me, with the words, “For Joan Margarit, kindred spirit of Thomas Hardy”.

AC:You have translated a huge number of Hardy’s poems into Castilian. What is it about Hardy’s work that appeals to you, and why did you translate his poetry into Castilian, and not into Catalan? Was this in order to reach a wider readership? Do you have a favourite Hardy poem?

JM: The poems by Hardy that I love best are Afterwards, A wife in London, Seen by the waits and Shelley’s skylark.
What attracts me in Hardy is the mixture of his Victorianism and his modernity: it is precisely the actual within the classical that I have always searched for. And so I translated him, renouncing his Victorianism more than his modernity, because you can’t keep everything when translating.
I translated Hardy into Spanish rather than Catalan because there isn’t a big enough market in Catalan for so many Hardy poems (about two hundred).

AC: You share another profession with Hardy—you are both architects. Are you familiar with any building he designed?

JM: Hardy’s era is one of transition between the old “Masters of Works” and “Architects”.
His work and mine have been very different.
But we have both carried out a lot of restoration work within architecture, and perhaps it is that which most unites us.
I have spent many years thinking of him while directing my work, winter mornings beside the bonfires which the bricklayers lit on the site with the remains of plank mouldings.
And I have always wished that I had written that long, magnificent poem, Heiress and Architect.

This is indeed an extraordinary poem, in which the words of the two characters are given equal weight in terms of imagery and rhetoric. There’s a strictly fair balance at work – the richness and sensual imagery of the Heiress’s words as against the relentless and annihilating power of the Architect’s replies to her. The verse about the “little chamber” which she wishes him to design is like a verse from Keats’ Eve of St Agnes, written 40 years or so earlier.

AC: Your poetry is remarkable for its tension, balance, a liking for minimal structure: are these ideas that have flowed into your architecture, or have they entered your poetry from your architecture, or is it that these are part of your individual make-up, and therefore characteristics of both? Could you say something about the relationship between your poetry and your architecture? What sort of structures do you like to design? Some would say that both professions call for a willingness to suffer dangerous exposure, to work, sometimes, without a safety-net, as you yourself say in your poem, Safety! Is it fortuitous that you serve both professions or do they share common goals?

JM: As for the relationship between Architecture and Poetry, I would say first of all that the only characteristics that differentiate poetry from prose are concision and exactness.

About concision, I would say that a poem is like the structure of a very particular building in which there is not a pillar or a beam too few or too many: and that if we take away one single piece, it would collapse.

If we take one word away from a poem, or exchange it for another, and nothing happens,
then it means that it wasn’t a poem. Or it was not yet a poem.
It becomes one only when you cannot take away or change any piece of the structure.
But then it will not necessarily be a good poem either: that is another theme which has more to do with the other characteristic I mentioned: exactness: a poem has to say just what the reader needs (most of the time without knowing it).

From this exactness comes the power of poetry to console, because poetry serves to introduce into people’s solitude some change which may bring a greater inner order in the face of life’s disorder.

As far as safety is concerned, I say in my poem of the same title:

with the wind at the top of the scaffolding,
and always facing into the void, because you know
that the man who’s installing a safety-net has no net.

A good poem is found only in that zone of poetry that passes very, very close to the abyss. The abyss of the ridiculous. But without falling into it.

AC: You followed your father’s footsteps in becoming an architect, and later you became Professor of Deep Foundations at the School of Architecture in Barcelona. Did you always know this would be the career you would choose? Was your father proud of you? Did you discuss your work with him?

JM: The relationship with my father was very complicated.

The affectionate poems dedicated to him reflect this
(this evening we will read one called My father’s face).

But the following poem, as yet unpublished, also reflects it.

It belongs to my next collection, House of Mercy,
and the poem is called Saturn.


You ripped up my books of poems
and threw them out of the window into the street.
The pages looked like rare butterflies
that were floating down on people.
I don’t know whether we might, now,
be able to understand each other,
two tired and disappointed old men.
Probably not. Let’s leave it as it is.
You wanted to devour me. I wanted to kill you.
I, the son you had during the war.

AC: You say in your poem, ‘Elegy for the architect, Coderch de Sentmenat’, quoting him, that "architecture cannot disturb…that the house should be virtuous and humble, …not made in vain, original, sumptuous". You are one of the five architects responsible for implementing Gaudí’s plans for the Sagrada Familia. What do you yourself think of it? Can you say when the building might be finished?

JM: At the present pace of construction the Sagrada Familia —The Holy Family— will take about 30 years to finish.
It is financed without any help from any official body, only with donations and the price of entry tickets.
If I were religious I would say that it is a miracle.
But it is the most visited monument in the whole of Spain, even more than the Prado: two and a half million visitors a year.
It is the work of the maturity and old age of one of the greatest architects there have ever been:
a cathedral that is made generation by generation.
To continue this, for me as an architect, is both thrilling and an honour.
But I also think it is a marvellous folly.

AC: You write in Catalan, but almost immediately start putting the poem into Castilian. Can you tell us how this came about?

JM: A person may have one or several cultural tongues, but it may be that none of these allows you to enter the place where the poem is.
As in fairytales, it is about entering a crypt and you have to know the password that opens it.
All these questions are irrelevant when the mother tongue and the cultural tongue are one and the same.
When they are not, the cultural tongue may be a cathedral built on top of an inaccessible crypt.
I consent to the poem in Catalan and immediately plan in this language the skeleton of the poem. I work at it a lot and, generally, the final version bears little resemblance to the first.
After, all the versions, modifications and fresh starts that the poem suffers at my hands I make in Catalan and Castilian at one and the same time.

AC: You grew up in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. Can you paint a picture for us of what life was like at that time for anyone living in Catalonia, where the language was proscribed in any form?

JM: I will answer you with a story.

A few years ago the President of the Spanish Government was Sr Aznar.
One day he invited to have lunch in his residence of Moncloa Palace two Castilian poets, one Andalusian, one Basque, one Gallego and me as a Catalan, to ask us to write the words to the national anthem (the words it has are never sung because it is obsolete, from the time of Franco).
My reply when he asked me how I would write it was:

1st) Dear Mr President: It’s lucky to have an anthem with no words.
Anthems are usually a series of grandiloquent words that are often insulting or aggressive towards other nations.

(For example, the Catalan anthem says
“With Castilian blood, we will make red ink
for painting the four bars of the coat of arms of our country”).

Let’s go on as we are, with an anthem without words.

2nd) Also I said to him: Dear Mr President, now I will explain to you
what the flag and the anthem mean for me.
When I was little, Franco had destroyed the Republic and forbidden my language, Catalan. Those cold mornings, in the little village where I lived, they compelled us to start the day at school by singing, in Castilian—a language that most did not know—the Spanish anthem.
To do this, one child held the flag-pole and another, standing on tiptoe, lifted the fabric of the flag and stretched it out in front of the class.

I still remember the special smell
of that special fabric that is used in making flags,
a smell that came back to me when they made me kiss the flag
when I did my National Service, which was compulsory.

Mr President, I told him, if you want me to make a poem out of all that, I can do it, but I doubt whether it will produce the anthem you are asking me for.

AC: You spent your adolescence in Tenerife, your treasure-island, as you call it in your poetry. Were the oppressive effects of the Franco dictatorship felt less rigorously there? Did your parents continue to speak Catalan at home?

JM: It didn’t seem like Spain:
Indian businessmen, links by ship (the plane was still of little importance) with America, Portugal and the UK more than with Spain.
Free port, free from taxes, few inhabitants, calm and peace-loving. A very sweet Castilian that I learned at once as though I were one of them.
Far from everything, in the middle of the sea, tourists almost non-existent…
The treasure-island!

AC: I would like to ask you about your daughter, Joana. She was born with Rubinstein-Taybe Syndrome, which meant that she had a mental age of about four, and suffered from severe motor disability. She needed crutches or a wheelchair to get about. She died of cancer when she was thirty, five years ago now, and you have written many poems to her and about her. How difficult was it for you to accept the hard facts of Joana’s disability?

JM: This difficulty, overcome day by day, has been our life, that of my wife and me.
She and I have dearly loved, and we dearly love our son and other daughter whom we have.
But Joana, because of her very helplessness, has probably been our great love.
A poem which reflects very clearly all these feelings is Sonnet in two cities.
It was written in Paris, in the Hôtel de l’Avenir.
Avenir means future in French.
There is first a quotation from a song of Leo Ferré: Thank you, Satan.
It says: Le rouge pour naître à Barcelone, le noir pour mourir à Paris.


Hôtel de l’Avenir, the final night :
Paris shows off her evening through the glass.
What luck to be approaching sixty -
my Porte des Lilas - wearing a smile.
What luck not to have been a sad man,
nor you a sad woman. Hurts
toughen us, make us compassionate.
What luck these two daughters. And this son.
What luck to be able to see, beyond the glass,
a city that does not exist, our own:
Ferré sings Verlaine, and the rain lays
its red and black reflections on the night.
Red for being born in Barcelona,
black for the night-trains to Paris.

AC: You have said that wherever you find yourself, you always try to imagine her being there also and how she might feel. What would you say to the argument that a loss like this is best put behind you, that a line should be drawn under the past? Why is it of the utmost importance for you, as a person and as a poet, to go on remembering her?

JM: Losing a father or mother you become an orphan.

Losing a wife or husband you become a widower or widow.

Losing a son or daughter has no name.

And everything that has no name is an object of attention on the part of poetry.

In general, requiems find expression, more than in the plastic arts, in music and in poetry.

AC: You have written about Pablo Neruda, whose work you greatly admire, and who, like you, had a mentally and physically handicapped daughter, but whom he sent back to Holland with her mother, while he returned to Chile, and never wrote any poems about her. In your poem, Motorway, you suggest he lost something important by not making her a part of his life.

JM: Neruda speaks only in a vague, irrelevant and remote poem about his daughter, Malva Marina, in his complete poetic work, in which he left no subject untouched and which is more extensive even than that of Thomas Hardy.
It seems to me that this is the proof that this question was an emotional black hole in his life.

AC: And lastly, for you, how should Poetry behave/what should Poetry be like?

JM: There are poets and intellectuals who attribute the lack of interest on the part of many people in poems which are unintelligible to the poor preparation or the insensitivity of these people. This is a field where there is an abundance of intent to confer an important role to things that are mere unrealities, and even philosophers have contributed to it, whose seriousness in deliberating these questions does not excuse their foolishness. This is the absurdity provoked by the alienation from poetry on the part of many readers, in a kind of self-destructive ritual by some intellectuals who seem to aspire to a poetry that says nothing and is read by no one.

If I can put it this way, the easiest thing is to write a bad poem that cannot be understood. It’s a bit harder to write a bad poem which may perhaps be understood. It’s much harder to write a good poem which cannot be understood. And, finally, to write a good poem which can be understood belongs by right only to the classical poets.

Joking apart, it seems to me that the only valid poetry is the kind that can be understood, and I can only come close to the concept of understanding a poem by saying that it is a process of going in and coming out. What is called, in information theory, a black box. One piece of information goes in and another comes out: a person goes in with a particular inner state, what I would describe, keeping the analogy with information theory, as a degree of disorder. A degree of
disorder means fear, misunderstandings, moods of sadness… Factors which are continually threatening inner equilibrium. This person comes out of the poem with a lesser degree of disorder or, if you like, more ordered. Understanding a poem is a process of going into and coming out of a black box.

There are few black boxes that our loneliness may somehow go into and come
out more consoled, more ordered, in short happier. Poetry is one of these, the one
which I personally have closest to hand together with music.

Anna Crowe was raised in England and France and is a poet, translator and creative tutor living in St. Andrews, Scotland. She is also the co-founder of StAnza, Scotland's Poetry Festival, and was its Artistic Director for seven years.

Bloodaxe Books published Joan Margarit's Tugs in the Fog: Selected Poems, translated by Anna Crowe, in 2006, his first book of poetry translated into English. To order from, go to this page:
American readers can order from

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