honest, I don't know that many writers these days, on a personal level. During
the nineties, there was a wild group I hung out, partied with, put on events
with, but this group has (sadly) since dispersed. I thought it might be nice to
re-create some of that old-time camaraderie and "the interview"
format seemed a nice, relaxed entry. I also wanted to interview writers who
contributed to the literary community in broader ways, not only as writers, but
as publishers, editors, event organizers, and such. I knew Beatriz Hausner
vaguely, years ago. We reunited accidentally at a reading and she was interested
in checking out a novel of mine. When I went to her place to drop off the book,
she gave me the cook’s tour of her surrealist art collection and pointed out a
crack in her wall that was in need of repair. I volunteered my limited reno
skills and patched the crumbling plaster. Since then, we’ve met up on various
social occasions. I thought she’d be a suitable fit for an interview. That
said, I tried to make the questions pertinent to her situation as well as open
enough for her to elaborate as she saw fit. I certainly benefited from the
experience and I hope others will too. Beatriz is a spark plug of energy, full
of ideas and opinions, and well-worth getting to know better.
1. Will the real Beatriz Hausner please stand up! Meaning, give our readers an overview of who you are, what you do, and why you do it.
I was born in Santiago, Chile, where I spent the first part of my life with the Andes defining my perception of the physical world. I came to Canada with my family before turning thirteen. A sometimes-reluctant Toronto has been my home ever since. In terms of descendancy, I am the child of survivors of what I call The Great Horror. Their sufferings and losses took them to the place of my birth.
I am a mother. Family matters to me.
I was brought up in a home where the pursuit of music, art and writing defined most everything. High school was mostly about enduring rejection from my peers, which only added to my sense of dislocation. By contrast, my post-secondary education, with its emphasis on French and Spanish literature was exciting and was made the richer by the seemingly endless dialogue held during those years with my stepfather, Ludwig Zeller. He introduced me to the writers that shaped my poetics, many of whom I translated into English.
The Greek word “poiesis,” is derived from the verb to make. It pretty much explains how I see myself: I am a maker of things. I make poems through writing and through being in the world. I make events, mostly for others. I have made publishing, also mostly for others. I edit publications, including literary magazines.
I write books. I imagine and ideate poems, which I never seem to have enough time to write.
I am a bit of a dreamer and am constantly seeing the world around me in more beautiful terms than it likely is. At the same time, I feel outrage at the injustice that pervades, grows, and results in the destruction of people and of nature. I have always fought against said injustice, both through my work and my actions. I persist in thinking that human beings are capable of changing the world and themselves.
2. You are often referred to as a Surrealist poet. Are you? If yes, what does this mean and how does it manifest in your poetry?
I am a surrealist. My whole life is a constant aspiring to being in a state of surreality, where reverie, wakefulness, and dream are experienced in their totality, without constraints. Surrealism is a state of freedom, and freedom of the mind is the principal tenet of surrealism. The one is the other, and vice versa. Surrealism is a borderless movement, and has, since its inception, fought against all notions of control, be they by the state, by corporations, by capital, by the dogmas of organized religion, by whatever power structures are imposed on people to deny them the possibility of living as they should, justly, freely. Surrealism is, as André Breton expressed it, a path one follows to reach “le point sublime,” a kind of absolute state, where the real and the imaginary cease to be considered as contradictory.
Being a surrealist means a constant struggle against limitation. Surrealism is subversive, because it proposes absolute liberty of the mind for the individual and for the collective. There is great risk involved. My parents’ flight to Canada, my becoming who I am as a result of our immigration, stem from their political positioning as surrealists. They were basically chased out of Chile for not adhering to any one of the political parties competing for power at the time, for maintaining strict independence.
The principal way for me to express this constant way of being in the world is through the creation of poetic objects. I sometimes use techniques advanced long ago by the first surrealists, like automatism and collage. Mostly, though, I invent, or do whatever works for releasing the images and thoughts that come to me. Surrealism is not a style: it’s a way of being in the world.
3. You live in Toronto and participate in the larger literary scene as a translator, publisher and coordinator of a reading series. What does this mean to you in terms of creating a community? What impact do these involvements have on you and your writing?
It is true that I have for most of my adult life been involved in writing, in translating the writing of others, in organizing literary and artistic events to promote those writings. I have been a publisher, and in my education and day job as a librarian, I have worked tirelessly to expand the reach of literature and art for creators. I have volunteered my time and expertise to Public Lending Right, as a member, and as Chair of the Public Lending Right Commission. I have, over a span of 40 years, been a leader where advancing literary translation is concerned. It is all part and parcel of being a participant and an advocate for book and reading culture.
Building community, as I have done, has been wonderfully satisfying, because I have been able share with others.
The impact of these activities on my own writing, on my own trajectory as a writer, has been minimal.
4. Have you noticed a change in the local literary scene, pre- and post-COVID?
Covid has necessarily made the local literary scene less vibrant.
5. What is your interpretation of the term “career poet”?
There is zero chance a professional poet can make a career of writing in Canada. Not in the truest sense of the term, namely being able to live the writing life. The possibility of being a person of letters is, for all intents and purposes, almost impossible in Canada. This is mainly due to the destruction of infrastructures built during the second half of the Twentieth Century, including government programs conceived to support writers, publishers, libraries, bookstores and other means of distribution and promotion of literature.
In my experience, the demolition of literary culture in Canada began in the late 1990s, with the takeover of publishing by the multinationals. Brick by brick, the carefully constructed edifice that was book and reading culture was dismantled, with the tacit consent of the various governments that came to power during those years. Arts councils’ budgets were cut, resulting in changes to writing and publishing programs. Independent publishers lost important sources of revenue as Canadian public libraries adopted neoliberal models and “downsized.” Over time, short staffing meant that there were fewer staff available to provide services, such as reader’s advisory. Services and collection development were centralized and made less responsive to local needs. Canadian libraries were flooded with books published by the very multinationals responsible for the demise of many literary publishers. Independent bookstores went bankrupt with the advent of entities like Indigo, and soon after, the cannibalizing of book distribution by online companies like Amazon. News sources did away with book reviewing and writing about authors and literature. The list goes on…
6. What keeps you writing poetry given there are fewer poetry publishers and even fewer poetry books being sold? Or am I wrong in this evaluation?
Getting published has not been my motivator for writing. It wasn’t for lack of trying. Until about ten years ago, publishing was mostly a sad experience of rejection for me.
The literature of surrealism, which I am a part of, has, since the beginning, been largely ignored, or at best, treated as a kind of affectation by Anglophone North American literary culture. Poetry is marginal enough; writing surrealist poetry is doubly marginalizing. I spent most of the beginning of my writing life translating the work of great writers, like César Moro, Rosamel del Valle, Humberto Díaz Casanueva, Enrique Molina, Olga Orozco, and many more. In fact, translating such high-calibre poetry provided me with a fantastic education as a poet.
In 1996, I was able to publish small selections from my translation of some of these poets in an anthology titled The Invisible Presence: Sixteen Poets of Spanish America 1925-1995. As I envisioned it, the anthology was to be the foundation and basis for an ambitious translation project, namely the compiling of Selected Poems for each of about eight Spanish- American poets. In that manner I hoped to introduce these extraordinary poets to North American audiences. As hard as I tried, I was never able to find publishers for my translations. US publishers simply weren’t receptive, and Canadian publishers could not afford to publish books that were not eligible for support from the Canada Council. The problem was, and continues to be, that the Canada Council remains structured around nationalist policies. Translators of international literature like me, who translate poetry by mostly dead writers, are unable to contribute to Canadian literature. I changed course, and focused my energies on writing my own poetry. I showed my work to Karen Shenfeld, the late Matt Cohen, Christopher Dewdney (both were Writers-In-Residence at my place of work), Steven Heighton and Albert Moritz. Every one of them was encouraging and supportive. Albert helped me edit my first book and it was thanks to his and Richard Olafson’s good offices that Ekstasis published my first book of poems, The Wardrobe Mistress.
I tried, with my second book of poems to find a publisher in Ontario. They all rejected my manuscript. I ended up publishing Sew Him Up myself with Quattro Books, the press I helped found with the late Luciano Iacobelli, Allan Briesmaster and John Calabro.
My luck turned with the wonderful Jay and Hazel Millar, of Book*hug Press, who have published three of my books since then: Enter the Raccoon (2012), Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart (2020) and now She Who Lies Above (2023). They are the best publishers a poet could wish for.
As to the ever-diminishing number of publishers in English speaking Canada, the answer is simple: writers, and by extension, readers are not well treated in this country. I have no idea why, as a collective, we don’t protest, object, and demand change to the rules that govern the funding of writing and publishing at the Canada Council, for example. A review of their objectives and procedures is sorely needed, with the participation from stakeholders, namely writers and publishers.
7. You have a new poetry collection with Book*hug, “She Who Lies Above,” hot off the press. What can you tell us about it?
She Who Lies Above is a book of verse and prose poems built around the figure of Hypatia, the Neoplatonist philosopher and mathematician who lived in Alexandria in the fourth century A.D. Most of what we know about Hypatia can be gleaned from letters, or fragments of letters written to her by her student and friend, Synesius of Cyrene. I was introduced to the letters of Synesius to Hypatia by a friend. At the time, I was taking part in a poetry festival held yearly in Trois Rivières, Québec. Sitting there, watching the immensity of waters flowing down St. Lawrence River, it occurred to me that Trois Rivières could very well stand in for Hypatia’s Alexandria, and that I could merge the present with that early period of Byzantine history. It was there that I came up with the idea of inventing, writing the letters of Hypatia to Synesius.
The entirety of She Who Lies Above is written around the invented relationship that develops inside that correspondence, and the things and events that emanate from the correspondence, which I also invented. The whole is an expression of my own experience as a poet, as a librarian, as a person interested in the generation, the development, and the means of preserving knowledge.
In literary terms, She Who Lies Above is the result of an exploration of writing as a means of constructing mental spaces, where poetic diction can clearly express the many voices that inhabit each one of us. I do this by means of merging genres: poetry, fiction, and a kind of meditative prose, or essay, in order to create layers within the whole. In this way I create a world that can be inhabited by Hypatia and Synesius, by characters from the past and the present, and by important players in library history, like Challimachus, who was both a great poet and a bibliographer, or the modern classificationist, Ranganathan.
Weaving itself through the book is the theme of alchemy, an art that serves perfectly as a metaphor for creativity and the extraction of meaning. The whole is told by Bettina Ungaro, my double, an omniscient author, who, like me, is a poet and a librarian.
8. Poets deal in words. What is your favourite word? What word strikes your funny bone or makes you feel uneasy/awkward for no particular reason when you say it? Why?
My favourite word is the Latin LIBER, because it means FREEDOM, LOVE and BOOK!
The word NONETHELESS has always struck me as a perfect little word. It sounds wonderfully round and luscious, while it encapsulates the very essence of the English language for me: subtle expressivity, discretion, elegance.
9. Do you feel that poetry has the power to end war, hunger, discrimination and environmental destruction in the world?
Yes! I feel poetry can transform human beings and, by extension the world.
10. Do you have any advice for anyone who’d like to be(come) a poet?
Read the English classics well. Read a bit of the Greeks and the Latins. Read the classics of other literatures in translation. Use the library. Get obsessive with the 821 (English language poetry) section of the Dewey decimal system, but do it in an unplanned way, so that you can begin to compare one work with another. Copy good poems by hand, and if you have a good memory, learn as much poetry by heart as possible.
11. Add any additional comments of your own choosing. Manifestos included.
I’ve gone on long enough!
September 25, 2023
Beatriz Hausner has published several poetry collections, including Sew Him Up (2010), Enter the Raccoon (2012), Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart (2020) and now She Who Lies Above. Her books have been published internationally and translated into several languages, including her native Spanish, French and Greek. Hausner’s translations of Latin American surrealist poets have exerted an important influence on her own writing. She was President of the Literary Translators’ Association of Canada, Chair of the Public Lending Right Commission and is the current Editor in chief of ellipse. She lives in Toronto where she publishes The Philosophical Egg.
Photo credit: Clive Sewell