Born in the Amazon region of Colombia, Juan Carlos Galeano is a poet and an academic. In addition to his interest in Indigenous ecological spirituality, he is the author of several books of poetry and the book Folktales of the Amazon. Galeano is also a translator of North American poetry and director of the documentaries The Trees Have a Mother (2009) and El Río (2018) focusing on rainforest and riverine guardians. He teaches Latin American poetry and courses on Cultures of the Amazon Basin at Florida State University.
On Monday 23 October at the Pontifical University Antonianum, Galeano was guest of the fifth edition of the Festival europeo di poesia ambientale organized by Saperenetwork.
You were our esteemed guest at the Festival Europeo di Poesia Ambientale, which aims to promote awareness and appreciation for the environment through poetry. Based on your experience as a dedicated poet, we would like to know if you believe this goal is attainable.
I think that the first duty of the poet is with poetry. He has to direct all his lyrical talent towards the creation of texts capable of causing amazement and emotion for being alive in community with others. The high quality of his poetry must be inclusive- he must reveal life not only within his species. The air, rivers, animals, and trees are our partners in the web of life, our best travel companions on this Earth, as Buddhism and ancient cultures say. The poet must know that his mind and subjectivities are an extension of the total consciousness of the earth. His voice is there to reveal to the world that all beings, animate and inanimate, are full of potential and spirit. Such a gesture is necessary, especially now with the deterioration of the life of the human species and the extinction of many species. In the face of loneliness and hopelessness due to all the discontinuities, on the one hand wars and atrocities, and on the other the natural catastrophes, caused or not by us during the Anthropocene, the imagination, nourishment in our solitudes, may also be capable of revealing to us the wonder and the mysteries of the interdependencies and connectivity that we are. The fact that I can love a rainbow reveals many invisible ties that unite us. Likewise, our affections for the Earth are derived from our poetic vision, not from the ideas and abstractions that distanced us from it through history. In this, poets have a great challenge. I would never say that a poet should give formulas to change reality. I think that the poet is there to show us the world, not to write political harangues. Poetry must work with the power of the imagination in addition to other forms of activism.
How did you feel when you discovered that Pope Francis quoted two of your compositions, Paisajes and Los que creyeron…, in his writing Querida Amazonia?
It made me happy to know that the Pope had decided to include two of my poems in his text of solidarity with the people of Amazonia. I must add that his 2019 text Dear Amazonia is a great support for the struggles of the indigenous peoples of the Amazon, and, in general, for the environmental movement. Pope Francis represents the Christian community of the planet and embodies an entire system of beliefs that brings together nations and heterogeneous ways of thinking. Imagine what it means, in terms of disseminating environmental awareness, that the most important spokesperson of the Christian church devotes an extensive text to criticizing the relationships of Eurocentric cultures with the people and lands of the Amazon, that have occurred for several centuries. On the other hand, his Exhortation is also an act of affection towards the Earth, and it is a sequel that complements his powerful text Laudato si, published in 2015. With these writings, the Pope expressed a visionary attitude on the part of the church; a new change within the path of renewal, that has been taking place within the Catholic Church since the middle of the last century in favor of social justice and now, in the context of the environmental crisis. That was something that was evident with liberation theology in the early 60’s, regarding social life and now, he speaks out in favor of a good relationship between humans and the non-human world.
In your poetry, you alternate between images where nature appears indifferent to the destinies of man and images where it actively interacts with him. What is your preferred perspective or point of view?
It’s true. I think that this “indifference” of nature is metaphorical for many relationships of our species in the world. My point of view is that we cannot always change the way the surrounding universe behaves. The cosmos has its own laws, and it is a great feeling of ours, hubris, to think that we can alter it. Only a naive and arrogant attitude is capable of thinking that we have the absolute capacity to manipulate life. At times, we alter life and find ourselves begging the gods to restore regularity and periodicity to the world, and they do not listen to us. This matter of the universe, although full of living spirituality, still does not listen to us. My creation of imaginary events and processes of matter, also involves resilience and our survival instincts. In the poem “Game”, this appears through a comedic method. I think that laughter and comedy are positive gestures that help us on our path; they reaffirm life.
to George Auzenne, in memoriam
The sister and brother, mountain, and sea, play tug-of-war with the river that joins them.
One day the sea jerks on the mountain, and the mountain turns over spilling her cauldron of lava
over the land, houses, and people.
But when the sea least expects it, the mountain pulls at the river
and the sea drowns hundreds of animals and fishermen who live on the shore.
“Worst of all, the biggest river allows this foolishness,” says an old woman.
The people beg the universe and the stars to teach this pair of
scoundrels some manners.
The universe and stars say they don’t want to meddle in family affairs.
Translated by James Kimbrell and Rebecca Morgan
In critical studies, there is much discussion about the role of Borges in your work. Apart from him, can you indicate other authors who are part of your personal canon?
First of all, I must reiterate that Jorge Luis Borges was an influence that inspired me. First with his poetry, in his books such as Fervor de Buenos Aires (1923), there are poems that suggest a tenderness towards the non-human world. However, The Book of Imaginary Beings (1967) by Borges inspired me to write my collection of poems Yakumama (and other mythical beings (2014), a book that is currently being translated into Italian by the scholar Michela Coletta. Such collection includes spiritual beings who are guardians of the Amazon, written and based on my memories throughout the years of listening to the oral narratives that convey the ecological religiosity of the Amazonian cultures. I haven’t read much from Italo Calvino, but Invisible Cities is a very popular text that definitely touched me because of the power of his imagination. Surrealists have also been important to me, particularly Henri Michaux. I think the great mythographers in the 20th century, Calvino, Michaux, and Borges, have been influential. On the other hand, William Carlos Williams’ poems and imagism of the North American poetry, as well as Japanese poetry through haikus and tankas, fascinated me. Also, Nicanor Parra in Latin America. However, what was fundamental and what made my poetry radically change, born from the contexts of European and Latin American Parnassian and symbolist poetry, was listening to that great legacy of oral narratives, full of prominence of the non-human world; with roots in forests, rivers, and worldviews of the people of Amazonia. That was a major influence on the mythopoetic method of my poetry.
The initial note of the Italian translation of Amazzonia (Del Vecchio editore 2022) mentions that you made slight changes to the text of Collezionista. Could you please provide details on what these variations consist of?
In reality, it was a very simple modification, pointed out by the Italian translator Silvia Valisa. In the original Spanish text of the poem Collezionista, which appeared in the Italian magazine Poesia in 2016, I said, “The pebbles are planets whose history the boy forgets every day at school.” For the text in Del Vecchio’s edition, I decided to eliminate the word “boy” and leave the subject implicit in the verb in Spanish. Dr. Valisa, a cultural researcher and respectful translator of the texts, wanted to warn of this in her prologue for the reader.
You were born in Colombia but currently live and teach in the United States. Is the language of affection and poetry limited to Spanish, or does it also extend to English?
Although I have written poems in English for myself, the truth is that I have only published my poetry in Spanish. Without a doubt, we know that thinking or writing in other languages enriches the imagination and creation, since a language is a worldview. I know that there are admirable cases of authors who have written in other languages, authors like Nabokov, or Fernando Pessoa himself to a lesser extent, who have written in English. What I have enjoyed is listening to poems read in English and Portuguese. When I like a poet from different literary traditions, I read him aloud in English. But the language of my affections and writing is and will always be Spanish. It is the language that I heard at birth and with which I have shared my affections and expressed the affections of others and Amazonia.
One last question: What is the reaction of the inhabitants of the Amazon when you talk about your poetry?
It’s interesting that you ask me that, because I remember having shared my poetry when I spent time in the rivers and the jungle with my friends who were fishermen, hunters, and shamans in the different countries of the Amazon basin. I did it many times at night, after they told me stories about spiritual beings from their places. Then, as a gesture of reciprocity and gratitude towards them, I read them the drafts of some of my poems. I liked to see them laugh and to see they liked some of the texts. The reason was simple; we had a similar imagination. Their poetic vision of the world and mine had animist roots. As you know, animism is actually the oldest religion on Earth. It is a way of seeing and feeling the entire universe and the earth as a great living being. That’s why I think it makes all the sense in the world, and it’s not crazy that the ancestors of our species thought that the river that gives us the water we drink, and a plant that feeds us, are beings of magical spirituality. Imagine, if our species thinks of God as a being with omnipotent powers over the entire universe, and also a being that no one has seen in its material form, then all the more reason for the first cultures of the human species on Earth to begin to think with feelings of gratitude, that the matter of the world also possesses a powerful spirituality, and that is why they worshiped it. Don’t you think so? It is such a legacy of wisdom, gratitude, and care for other beings, who make our lives possible, and an attitude of those cultures that we must learn for the present if we want to stay alive. Neither the Moriches palm trees, nor the breeze, asks us. They just give to us. Anyway, I think they liked my poems because they contained that sense of spirituality in which they believed. I had also sensed in my poems, that the spirits of their forests such as the Curupira (guardian of the forests) or the Yakumama (mother of the waters) are symbolic imaginaries of the dynamic processes of social life and matter, of all beings, whether animated and non-animated, that coexist in Amazonia.
With one foot pointing ahead and the other pointing behind,
the Curupira walks through the jungle and tends to the animals,
braiding the young palm trees’ hair.
Hunters swap the Curupira cigars for his secrets.
The Curupira puffs the cigars; animals, trees, and fruits appear
in the path of his smoke.
But the men shouldn’t make off with all the animals, trees, and fruits.
The Curupira could blow smoke to erase the animals, trees, and fruits.
Blow all his smoke and make the paths vanish.
He could also tell the animals his secrets for hunting men.
Translated by James Kimbrell and Rebecca Morgan
- Carlo Pulsoni è il coordinatore di Insula europea (http://www.insulaeuropea.eu/carlo-pulsoni/).