Literary paths to the roots

from the Buenos Aires International Book Fair, with Facundo Leone

Last January, during the hottest week of the year, I had the pleasure of talking with Facundo Leone, who needs no further introduction than to say that he is the best bookseller on this wounded planet — perhaps adding “son of the rigor and the tango”. Between camparis and inflatable pools we talked about the healing power of poetry, of the poets Estela Figueroa, Claudia Masin and Gabriel Okoundji, and of literature in digital spaces.

Until May 16 you can find him at the 46th International Book Fair of Buenos Aires, representing the bookstore of the Fondo de Cultura Económica.

How can poetry heal? Whether in the physical, emotional, spiritual sense...

I think of confessional poetry as a cathartic mode. It is what interests me the most, because it is a real person (the one who writes). I was reading a lot from here (Argentina) too, what I was telling you about (Roberto) Juarroz, who was a fan of (T.S.) Eliot's poetry, and said "there is an Eliot writing in Tucumán that we don't know." I, for example, was exploring Entre Ríos and Santa Fe. In Córdoba there are also a lot of poets. There is a lot, a lot of poetry in Entre Ríos that is excellent and that, for me, is as good as any international poetry. And you know yourself much more and your roots, which seems to me the most important thing. It is good to explore other languages and to know about Russia, to know how the people of Poland lived after the second war, which ended, great, but nothing really ends. No one is going to come fix the things they destroyed. At one point I was reading the history of Poland. It had millions of invasions since the fifteenth century, you see? It seems to me that there is a kind of idea of the history of your country, which leaves a mark.

When it comes to healing?

When it comes to healing and understanding each other, because one way to heal is also to understand yourself, your context and your whole family. And how did you get here too. Then be at peace with who you are. And it seems to me that we should be grateful that we maintained that level of horror, violence and desperation. Of having lost everything we had and that you can no longer identify any houses because they are pure rubble... really as the Italian had said that day as soon as the pandemic started, when he went to by pasta at the supermarket and there was none and he said to the cameraman: "I hope that something real happens to you, because you did not experience anything. I lived through both wars.” Saying, this level of desperation for something invisible when I watched the bombs drop. That thing seems to me to be very current, inventing something and making it so huge that it becomes lame. It seems to me that this is why there are so much anti-vaccine issues, until your father dies, who is right next to you, but you don't realize it until shit happens, and then there you are going to get the vaccine. I was also reading… I'm beating around the bush now.

¨The literary taste is very special and it's very necessary, it makes you break out of the cycle you're in.¨

Yes! But at the same time let's talk about the elephant in the room: is there post-covid poetry already?

The problem with confessional poetry is that it's me-me-me-me-me-me. And it ends up being boring because at the same time, going back to the old man's phrase, there is a reality that can be criticized. Wait for something to happen in order to write something. I saw an autobiography of a 26-year-old girl. You were born in '94, what the fuck happened to you? Nothing! And it's not in Mongolia or in Kosovo. Maybe she is interesting but I see it very often in the bookstore. Little things that you put on a blog, but I don't know if it's for printing.

Why not? Only good stuff can be printed? Consider that the access to have a blog means that you have Wi-Fi, then it means that you are under a roof and that you have some type of device. Bad can't be printed?

No, in fact they are printed the most. Good books are less common. If we are going to be that cynical, out of 40 books that I pick up I will like 5 or 6. In my opinion, I hold a path towards the things that I like. And then you close yourself off, but it fuels a lot of things for you too, because literary taste is very special and it's very necessary, it makes you break out of the cycle you're in.

You are also lucky if you had a good professor of literature who made an impact. There is too much information and formation to understand a problem and sometimes it is the formation what causes the problem. How does a book reach your hands?

Yes, but hey, what I was also going for in the literary path that one chooses is that afterwards it ends up being good. I work in bookstores, so I get everything all the time. So it's easier, but it's much more the pleasure I felt having found a book I've been looking for for years, that suddenly I had it in my hand because I looked for it a lot, do you understand? Then the book might or might not be good. But that search has a lot to do with the book... it makes things prettier...

And another question occurred to me as you were talking… that's a problem, I have to be active in the listening.

No. Never repress those voices.

Oh I know! Last time I was reading that book that I want to show you, an anthology of Nicaraguan poets who talk about the Nicaraguan Revolution. And the book, in addition to using different tones, includes authors with opposite views, shows how the revolution used poetry as a battle tool, giving workshops, teaching people to read and write. Towards the end there are poems by people who did not know how to write and created poems in these workshops. They were very simple, as if to tell you “today sunset happened at six”. Regardless of whether that sounds poetic to you or not, which I think it does, I think the revolutionary gesture was that they were not just inviting someone to observe and write what they feel or come up with, but were also inviting people to enunciate themselves, to say, “heeeyyyy, I'm here”.

One of these post-war poets says something very simple, very brief, "today I heard the birds again" (they had left because of the bombs and then came back). That tells you a lot of things. First the emptiness, the solitude, the total silence of night and day, and in the hustle and bustle, perhaps about to dawn, again the birds. That's it. It is done. I do not need anything else.

An act of faith?

Yes, yes, as a bit of hope, as if to say “if they came back, maybe something can be done here, maybe something can be born here again”. It is something very brief but at the same time it has an impressive force. Its brevity is so strong, it may not tell someone anything, but also the context is very important. If you put a date and a place on it, then it has roots. It seems to me that when the poem is well rooted, it works. A look from the outside will always be a look from the outside. Back to pain...

¨There is much more truth in pain than in other types of poems, did you see?¨

I talk about healing and you talk about pain.

Well, but I like a lot of poems that are luminous. There is much more truth in pain than in other types of poems, did you see? The feeling, when you have a feeling of writing a poem it's usually because there is a lot of pain, so then, it is inevitable to write. When you are in a good moment you have no need, you are living that moment of happiness. Then it's more impressionistic, remembering that photo you took of those flowers and that field behind the church. But you write it later, you see? It is a search for that happiness that you had.

Do you care about the role that poetry has in digital spaces?

I find it much more difficult for someone to find a book than to have a cell phone. In that sense, it is more difficult for that person to look for a book, to find it, to buy it. Maybe something will come to them that they see there online. It can be in the form of a song too, because poetry is music, right? Music can make you chant something you would never say, it sets you free. The sound frees you and I love that way of connecting with literature, but from what I see in bookstores... younger people are taking refuge in this virtual space and it seems much more difficult to give them a book and have them actually read it. And the other half of the romantic youth, like this Netflix series type, they piss me off. And the other thing is fear. The fear of not understanding. People don't buy because they think they won't understand and that's another wall created in people, in themselves.

Now I have two questions.

I should ask you a question.

Foto de

No, no, this is for Galaxia 2000, I can't do a self-interview. Contemporary poets to recommend? They have to be alive.

Estela Figueroa, she lives in Santa Fe. God, take care of her because if not I'm not going to be very sad, I want to go take her flowers and a whiskey and talk to her because what she does seems impressive to me. She is not as well known as she should be in Argentine literature. Claudia Masin, from Chaco. She is also at that level. They told me she's pretty crazy, but you can't ask a poet for everything. Gabriel Okoundji, a French-speaking poet from the Republic of Congo, I just read a little book of his, from Evaristo publishing house. In case they are listening, I'd like their new books (laughs). They are actually sending books, they are quite cool.


What do you think about downloading books from the internet? The person who is downloading the book usually does it because they cannot buy it...

Or because they can't access it either cause it's not produced locally. Now there is a strong development of independent publishers. But I remember a time when it was impossible to get a book. I was obsessed with a Spanish author and I found a PDF with his entire work. I chose the first option in Google and it came out, that's wonderful. I printed it. I will never go against that because there are things that are not even translated. But I have something with my hands that I need to be able to grab the book, make it mine, mark it and let it grow old by my side, is to approach literature.

Poema de Raúl González Tuñón

You will be until May 16 managing the stand of Fondo de Cultura Económica at the  46th International Book Fair of Buenos Aires. What can you tell us about it?

The fair is good because you meet, in addition to the booksellers, the publishers, distributors, you have them all together, and it's a small community, it's a family. We are few and we know each other a lot, right? To be able to know the machinery behind the book, behind those papers packed with words, there is a lot of work. And it's humble people, it's people who work, you see? You need to have a resistance to hold the fair because there are a lot of people, a lot of demand, long hours. Is very gratifying seeing the work of a friend distributed, seeing how people ask for it, seeing how they come back to thank you for having recommended that book, being able to run into that writer, shake his hands and tell them in person how that literature changed you.

We had two years without the fair. And in these two years the number of book imports has increased a lot, not only from Europe or the United States, but, what surprised me the most, is the space that contemporary Latin American literature began to gain. We have a million more books, our Venezuelan and Chilean colleagues, from all over Latin America, and that is great, it is very enriching and it makes me very happy.
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