‘We can wake up if we wish’: Autumn Royal Interviews Cecilia Vicuña

By and | 1 May 2017

AR: I had a friend who recently died, and our mutual friend who flew over from Perth to Melbourne for the funeral began to speak elegiacally with metaphor — as she’d not done before — and expressed to me that she saw our friend’s name in every cloud during her flight over. She wouldn’t feel as if she was being ‘poetic’ for saying such things, and yet everyone can be poetic. Do you think that if we focused more on oral poetry instead of written poetry then it would allow for a greater value in terms of what poetry can do?

CV: Absolutely. The position of poetry in oral cultures is of tremendous power and reach. In fact, the oral poets say this plainly: the reach of an oral poem is infinite because it can be sensed, it can be heard, it can be told, it’s alive and moving and changing. We have proof: some of the greatest poems of humanity were transmitted orally for hundreds of years before they were written. This is true of many cultures. It is true of the Homeric poems, true of the Nordic sagas and true of the Mayan tradition. Instead of the written tradition where you need to read a book and the reach is already limited, it makes sense that the orality is wide open. For example, I did a movie called What is Poetry to You? in an oral culture of Bogotá, Colombia, and everybody – the beggars, the children, the police, everybody – had these extraordinary discourses on poetry. When I show the film in places like the U S and Europe people think that I must have scripted it because … how could average people on the street be so smart and have all these complex thoughts? But that is what happens with oral cultures, everybody is tremendously intelligent.

AR: I feel that one of the most disappointing things about Western culture is that if you haven’t been educated in a certain mould or if you aren’t confident in reading, some people feel like they can’t understand poetry and so they don’t even open a book.

CV: But it’s not the fault of the poetry or of the books, it’s the outlook. They have been educated to think that they are ignorant. Because Western education is about teaching that knowledge belongs to an elite. Therefore, you either join through a difficult long struggle or you are devoid of any value. So that is the teaching of this culture, there’s something ingrained in the system and worldview, which we know not to be true. I have done many educational projects with Indigenous peoples and that is one of my principles: that you don’t teach what people ‘ought to know’. On the contrary, you let them discover their own wisdom, they’re own insight, they’re own realisations – those which are infinite once they relax into seeing their own self, their own being. It’s a human thing, everybody has this power and this gift. It’s not something special.

AR: An article by Steve Dickison, ‘For Mnemosyne’, recently published in Open Space, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s online publication, refers to the necessity of archiving as a means to preserve and also disrupt collective cultural memory. The article begins with a quote from a talk you gave at the Poetry Centre in February 2012: ‘What is that knowing that is available to us? […] We are cut off from it because we are cut off, only’. This statement creates an echo, and in order to continue that echo, can you please explain a little more bit about what you mean about ourselves cutting ourselves off?

CV: If you think that you don’t know, you don’t know. But if you think that you may know, if you think that it’s perfectly possible that you have a knowing, then you can find it. So it’s a matter of opening. It’s a matter of releasing the structures that have been imposed upon you, realising that every form of education is an imposition that’s coming from outside your being. I think the liberating force of art and poetry is that it releases you from that, and it puts you in the place of discovering, of exploring, of acknowledging that you have senses, that you have awareness, that you perceive and are paying attention to the precise form of those perceptions. That’s the joy of the poet, the joy of the artist, to focus completely, zero in on those perceptions and see the universe expanding out of ‘a grain of sand’, as William Blake said. Everything has infinite possibilities of knowledge and that’s what it means to be human. We have been brought up to believe that the machine knows better than we do. Everybody believes that now. That’s preposterous! Machines only know how to do operations, they can’t imagine, they can’t imagine the unimagined, they can’t travel like we can to the end of the galaxies just by thinking about it. So, why are we so willing to renounce our agency as creators? That is what is troubling.

AR: In the article, Dickison frames the events of the Pinochet military coup – the overthrow of the Chilean Allende government – as an example to demonstrate the importance of documenting artistic responses to such socio-political changes. How do you see the act of archiving literary and artistic pursuits as a means of confrontation to such atrocities?

CV: We are memory; the memory of our cells is transmitted to our new generations. The cover up of the atrocities inflicted or endured by our ancestors or immediate families engenders indifference and insensibility in next generations, and they somehow carry within themselves an unacknowledged rage that, in turn, becomes a new source of violence. So the cycle of pain and horror is recreated. Only by becoming collectively aware of the pain we inflict on each other is there a chance for change, for a new moral code to prevent it. We need to archive not just art and literary works – often the record of the unacknowledged behaviour we have witnessed, or felt within – but also its effects on others. The social context makes change possible.

AR: Because your work was ignored earlier on, how do you feel about it being more valued and with more attention being focused on its archiving?

CV: I’ve published 25 books in my life, but 90% of my work isn’t published. These books represent only a small part of what I have done and so how do I feel? Well, there’s sadness, there’s a sense of loss. For example, even just this morning, there’s going to be an exhibition opening next week Paisaje: politico / poético (Landscape: Politics / Poetics) at Ch.ACO 2016, Chile’s annual contemporary art fair, in Santiago that includes a work of mine. They asked me to write a little text that goes with the work, and in this text I speak of the mother of the work that I will be showing and the mother of this work is a work that I did in 1974. It is a painting of two women who have become widows at the age of 24. These are my girlfriends – that’s when the military coup happened in Chile, I was 24 – and many of my friends immediately became widows from the persecutions. In this painting one girl-widow is consoling the other girl-widow. I described this in the text and the gallery immediately wrote to me and asked if they could show the work I was referring to. I said no, because I destroyed it. Why did I destroy it? On one hand, because it was so painful to watch this painting I had created, and on the other, it was destroyed because my work was so undervalued and nobody paid any attention. Nobody thought that what I was doing had any significance, so what would I do with all of these hundreds of paintings? I could give them to friends who might throw them in the garbage; even I would destroy them. If you have no meaning for others, you don’t have meaning for yourself.

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