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Small Scenes, Big Issues: Poet Captures Day-to-Day Existence In U.S., Venezuela

Brian Hardzinski

Venezuelan poet Arturo Gutierrez-Plaza has spent his career crafting poems exploring the scenes of everyday life. He told KGOU’sWorld Views he views poetry as a way to maintain the experience of childhood discovery as you learn new words, and how to use those words to unfold the tapestry of language.

“Poetry is mostly an answer to a question that we didn’t know before we started writing,” Gutierrez-Plaza says. “If you pay attention to reality, you can feel the same thing. You are discovering the mystery of reality in everyday life in the same way that you can discover the mystery of the language.”

Gutierrez-Plaza’s work captures the essence of everyday experiences, like doing laundry on a Sunday morning in his poem 414 Ludlow Avenue.

Hear Arturo Gutierrez-Plaza read his poem "414 Ludlow Avenue" in the original Spanish.

But Gutierrez-Plaza explores larger themes of transformation and division in his native Venezuela, which transformed from a rural to urban society and became one of the largest exporters of oil in the world during the 1950s and 60s. He says readers can see how that transformation occurred in Venezuela by studying poetry, and what he calls a “semantic triangle.”

“The relationship between these three points – the poet, the poetry, and the society – you can see along the history of the Venezuelan poetry how this relationship is changing too.”

Venezuela has been fraught with violent protests and political instability in recent years, especially since the death of President Hugo Chávez. Gutierrez-Plaza says the political, economic and geographic divisions in Venezuela’s society are mirrored in the culture.

“There is a kind of official culture and official literature that the writers and the intellectual and poets who are supporting this government are playing a different role than poets and writer and artists that are against the government,” Gutierrez-Plaza says. “If a poet died in Venezuela and he’s against the government, it’s very likely that the Minister of Culture, he’s not going to say anything about that. But if you are a writer from the government party, the government is going to commemorate your works, and your life.”

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SUZETTE GRILLOT, HOST: Arturo Gutierrez-Plaza, welcome to World Views.

ARTURO GUTIERREZ-PLAZA: Thank you for inviting me.

GRILLOT: Well you have been such a prolific writer over your career, and much of your literary work has been in the form of poetry. You've been described, in fact, and your poetry has been described, it seems you're motivated to discover everyday life. You want to describe small scenes in life. Can you tell us how poetry allows you to do this? Discover the small scenes of everyday life?

GUTIERREZ-PLAZA: Well, in fact, I think that poetry is in everyday life. I try to put in words the first experiences that we have when we were children, and we discovered the words, we discovered the language. And I think that poetry is a way to maintain that kind of experience, and then sometimes we forget that the everyday life is a mine of new experiences. Also, I think that the common language, the language of everyday life, is also kind of a ground of exploration of new experiences everyday. Sometimes we cannot see the wonderful of life, because we see, every day, the same thing. But it's not the same thing. And also, the language is different in every way we can arrange words to construct a new link to reality. A new way to experience reality. I think that poetry is mostly an answer to a question that we don't know before we start writing. Writing - we start to discover that question, the question that posed the writing, but in the act of writing we discover that, not before. If you pay attention to reality, you can feel the same thing. You are discovering the mystery of reality in everyday life in the same way that you can discover the mystery of the language and the reality in the same act of writing. Then I have tried to write poetry that is constructed with everyday language, too, and about everyday life.

GRILLOT: So, you've brought some poems with you today. Can you give us an example of a poem that you've written about everyday life that helps us understand and describes our lives in these small scenes in many different cultures?

GUTIERREZ-PLAZA: Yes, OK. Well, I can read one poem about my American experience. I lived in Cincinnati many years ago, and then I wrote the poem about the experience of laundry on a Sunday morning. This poem is called 414 Ludlow Avenue:

En los lavanderos, en esos sótanos oscuros de los viejos condominios del Midwest, allí donde el aire pesa y suda con monotonía, sin siquiera la gracia de lo antiguo, lo duradero. Allí donde los gatos negros se esconden sin que los sepan sus dueños. Allí los inquilinos no hacemos señas sin mirarnos, no dejamos anónimos recados. Allí descubrimos nuestras intimidades, nos desnudamos, nos abandonamos, dejamos nuestras ropas a medio lavar, a mitad de camino, colgadas en algún perchero, u olvidadas en un impúdico meson. Así vivimos en este amable manicomio, paseándonos desnudos, sin darnos cuenta.

GRILLOT: That is a really great poem. That definitely captures the essence of doing laundry, right? And the small scene in that in many different places around the world. Very, very great.

GUTIERREZ-PLAZA: Thank you. Maybe in English it's better (Laughs).
GRILLOT: (Laughs) I don't know about that. Well your larger work in terms of your scholarly work beyond the poetry you've done, you've written so much, has been described as way to focus on the construction of cities. So let's get to your work in Venezuela, as a Venezuelan, on the construction of cities in Venezuelan poetry through the transformation of rural areas into an international center of petroleum. This is very interesting. Can you tell us more about that focus and what we can learn by examining this transformation from those rural areas to international center of petroleum? What do you mean by that?

GUTIERREZ-PLAZA: Yes, the Venezuelan case is very interesting because at the start of the 20th century, Venezuela was a mostly rural country. More than 80 percent of the population lived in rural areas in that time. At the end of the 20th century, it was completely the opposite. More than 80 percent of the population lives today in urban areas. And that transformation was possible because of the petroleum. Venezuela was the most important exporter of oil in the world in the 50s and 60s. And this is still an oil country, petroleum country. Then the country changed rapidly, transformed from a rural country to an urban country. And also, I think, the register of that transformation is in Venezuelan poetry. We can see in Venezuelan poetry how that transformation occurred. Also, I think it's important to understand that there is a kind of triangle, semantic triangle between the poet, between the poetry, and between the society. The relationship between these three points - the poet, the poetry, and the society - you can see along the history of the Venezuelan poetry how this relationship is changing, too. The function of the poet in society, the function and the conceptions of the poem, the poetry in the society, and the society itself, in the same way, the language of the poetry is incorporating the urban imagination into the text, into the poem. Also, the poet is part of the poem. The poem is a kind of mirror of the poet. In any society the role of the poet is absolutely different. It's not in the center as in the end of the 19th century. Now the poet is in the margins. He's playing a different role in society. And you can see all these things in the poem itself.

GRILLOT: Well I have to ask you, Venezuela's obviously been going through some difficult times lately. This transformation that you're referring to, that you can see in the poetry continues to play a role. In today's society there's still a lot of transformation and shifting what it seems, from an outside observer, to be that Venezuelans are still experiencing a significant amount transformation and transition. So as they've been dealing with some of these troubling times, the violent protests, the political instability, what do you think is motivating this, and how do literary people and writers like yourself have a role to play? How is it affecting your work and your ability to engage in the creative process? How are you relating now to this society that seems to be struggling with where it's headed?

GUTIERREZ-PLAZA: Well, in fact this situation has been unique in the recent history of the country. The cultural scene in Venezuela has been affected in the same way that the whole country...the whole country is split. It's divided into two parts. And in the cultural area, we all live in the same situation. It's really difficult because each part is segregated from each other in many ways. But there is a kind of official culture and official literature that the writers and the intellectuals and poets who are supporting this government are playing a different role that poets and writers and artists that are against this government. The dialogue has been broke in two. For example, if you are against the government, if you're a writer, and intellectual or an artist, and you're against the government, you don't have access to grants from the government. You don't have access to publishing houses from the government. You don't have access to exhibitions and that kind of thing. This is very particular of these times. It's the first time in the life of the country that we are living in this way. It's interesting because many writers and intellectuals and artists that were leftist artists in the past, now they are against this government. Sometimes we understand outside that Chavismo, Chavist groups are left, and the other groups are right. That is absolutely wrong. In Venezuela it's not that easy. The process is more complex. Most artists and writers were traditionally leftist people. The problem now is that the dialogue in the whole country, the whole cultural area in the country, is almost impossible. If a poet died in Venezuela and he's against the government, it's very likely that the minister of culture, he's not going to say anything about that. For example, I have this book. This is the major Venezuelan poet in the second part of the 20th century. He was published in an Oklahoma City publishing house. He passed away five years ago, and the government didn't make any mention about this. And that's very sad. But if you are a writer from the government party, the government is going to commemorate your works, and your life.
GRILLOT: Well, Arturo, I know this is a very challenging time in your home country, so we are paying attention to what happens there, and wish you well, and thank you so much for sharing your work with us today, particularly your poetry. It's a great thing to have on our program, so thank you so much.

GUTIERREZ-PLAZA: Thank you. Thank you very much.

Copyright © 2014 KGOU Radio. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to KGOU Radio. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only. Any other use requires KGOU's prior permission.

KGOU transcripts are created on a rush deadline by our staff, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of KGOU's programming is the audio.

Brian Hardzinski is from Flower Mound, Texas and a graduate of the University of Oklahoma. He began his career at KGOU as a student intern, joining KGOU full time in 2009 as Operations and Public Service Announcement Director. He began regularly hosting Morning Edition in 2014, and became the station's first Digital News Editor in 2015-16. Brian’s work at KGOU has been honored by Public Radio News Directors Incorporated (PRNDI), the Oklahoma Association of Broadcasters, the Oklahoma Associated Press Broadcasters, and local and regional chapters of the Society of Professional Journalists. Brian enjoys competing in triathlons, distance running, playing tennis, and entertaining his rambunctious Boston Terrier, Bucky.
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