Your story in ten lines
I was born in Chile and left my country when I was sixteen years old.
I was a refugee in the Italian embassy in Santiago, where I stayed for three months together with many other people. In the Embassy there were families with children which has stayed there for many months already. Once I arrived in Italy, I should have carried on to Moscow for my studies, but once in Italy someone said to me: “Chile and Italy are very close at the moment because historical compromise is a political affair they have in common – on one side was Moro and Berlinguer, on the other Allende – and in Italy all eyes are focused on Chile.” And so I convinced myself to stay in Italy. I grew up here and never left.
I tried to put back together this reflection of my identity, which nonetheless was made up of Chile: sure enough I campaigned for a while with Chilean exiles, then I started to write poetry. Indeed through poetry I’m able to self-formulate an identity of mine. At twenty I considered myself to be a Rimbaud. I’d say to myself “If I don’t think of myself as Rimbaud now after all when will I”?
With this attitude I started to get in touch with my broken mirror, getting in contact with Roberto Sebastian Matta, the Chilean surrealist living in Tarquinia, with the Spanish Rafael Alberti (we were very much affected by the postwar period poetry of the Spanish civil war), and the Cuban artist Wilfredo Lam; all masters of contemporary art.
I also had the opportunity to meet the painter Franciso Smythe, who told me about the life in Chile during the dictatorship, the Escuela de Avanzada.
I began to write about art, about exhibitions, about the artists, but not from an art critic’s standpoint, but rather as a street companion.
The eighties were coming to a close and the nineties were starting. The gulf war upsets this environment. The economic crisis, also felt in the arts’ world, creates a barrier between the relations of public institutions and the private ones engaged in supporting culture and galleries stop having a protagonist role, moving aside and modifying its own status in the system.
In Rome one had to start everything from scratch and my attitude was to feel responsible about what was not happening, with the will to make it happen.
I understood that during the whole obscurantism period of the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile, art survived playing a role of vital importance, in spite of the repressive climate. The Chilean peculiarity, the memory of a present/past of absence, of exile, emerged in terms of extreme concreteness, scattering a debate on things which make it rather similar to a map upon which are engraved the routes of a suffered collective condition rather than a solitary journey of exacerbated subjectivity: I felt I was hungry for collectivity. It was like filling up a void and it was at that moment I decided to become curator.
I set up Supermercarte in a supermarket, affirming that art is like peeled tomatoes, like oil: a basic necessity. The national news talked about it for a minute, it was 1993. Since then I decided to deal with contemporary art in a more systemic way – write; organize exhibitions – although my approach is not really museum-centered. I set up exhibitions corresponding to a poetic style, they must have something to do with a story: I set up exhibitions only because I consider them fundamental, not because they pay me and for whatever other reasons. I don’t write poetry alone in a room with a table and a lamp, but I create public and collective poetry.
As I was saying earlier, creating poetry has been an act of self-assertiveness for me. Namely a way of asserting a presence, existing in one’s own right, independent of any third-party concession or validation. But it’s here, however, that the inevitable act of assertiveness, the design of one’s own identity, intervenes. And then the Chilean peculiarity – the memory of a missing present/past, of exile – emerges in terms of extreme concreteness, scattering the debate on things which make it rather similar to a map on which the routes of a suffered collective condition rather than an exacerbated solitary subjective journey are engraved: I felt like I was hungry for collectivity.
A few months ago the Chilean president Michelle Bachelet has appointed me cultural representative of Chile in Italy. I returned home not through the back door this time and now I have a big task and a huge responsibility in respects to my country of origin.
In addition, I’ve been nominated commissioner of the Chilean pavilion to the 56th international art fair of the Venice Biennale (prior to becoming Commissioner, Arévalo has curated the Chilean pavilion in 2001, 2009, 2011, and soon will chair the realization of the curator and essayist Nelly Richard’s project who has been invited from May to November 2015 to display the artists Paz Erràzuriz and Lotty Rosenfeld – respectively born in 1944 and 1943 in Santiago del Chile).
Your family? Did you ever reunite?
No, after quitting the country in 1975, I had absolute interdiction to return to Chile. I was able to return only in 1987, after I had published three books of poetry. I wanted to sue the Chilean government, but then I was able to find a compromise. I went back to present a book – devoted to seven exiled poets of my generation (Roberto Bolano, Mauricio Eletorad, Felipe Tupper and others) – and I found seven interlocutors, seven poets who lived in Chile: I found the right link with my generation, through the arts (I had already given up politics).
I never saw my father again because he died as an illegal immigrant. He died in the year of my return. I looked for him, but we were unable to see each other again. My mother lives alone in Chile.
Besides the Italian, Chilean and Spanish, are there any other great scenes, vibrant with contemporary poetry that you’ve experienced and which is important to be aware of?
At this moment the most vibrant places are those in conflict, especially in Central America: Guatemala, El Salvador. Sure enough there are extraordinary artists such as Regina José Galindo, that don’t only deal with the visual arts but also with the literary ones!
Currently that is the interesting scene.
We are rediscovering what is known as the poetry of dissidence (indeed at the Chilean pavilion in the next Venice Biennale we will be talking precisely about this period of obscurantism, a period we lived through so long ago).
It isn’t in Mexico City one needs to go today to find excellent poetry, but in Ciudad Juàrez! In Ciudad de Guatemala!
What does Rome offer you and what do you give to it?
Rome is a city you can live in as a foreigner, remaining international. I lived through great times when people stopped you and asked where you’re from; they wanted to know all about you. Today that’s no more the case. I saw the first Eritrean and Filipinos arrive here, when in Paris I’d see the metro packed with foreigners. I saw the arrival of immigration and witnessed the change. My city is the landscape: Rome with the ponentino making it a fantastic city. everything else does not work, especially the infrastructure. Unfortunately.
A talent you have and one you’re missing?
I have the gift for synthesis; I can’t play an instrument.
What do you like to drink and eat?
I like cold white wine a lot and soups – especially with pulses.
A book you have with you at the moment and the music you love?
Given that I live close to Bomarzo (in the north of Lazio, in the province of Viterbo) at the moment, I recommend a book, which I always have with me, in every moment: Bomarzo by Mujica Làinez – Argentinian writer and essayist – good friend of Borges. He visited the Parco dei Mostri, I recommend you to see. The park belonged to a disfigured and hunchbacked prince of the Orsini family in the ‘500s that lived on the edge of society because of his physical aspect. Nevertheless he was a philosopher and a great poet. The family was forced to marry him off and succeeded. The woman who was chosen initially didn’t love him because of his imperfect body to begin with, but then ended up madly in love with him thanks to the fineness of his spirit (he was a great poet).
I think Lewis Carrol wrote Alice in Wonderland after having paid a visit to the park! And many others have been inspired by it! Such as José Donoso for example with his L’osceno uccello della notte (The obscene nocturnal bird), Salvador Dalì with Tentazione di Sant’Antonio (The Temptation of St Anthony). At the head of the park there is a large monster mouth carved in the rock, upon which the words “Here all thoughts fly” are inscribed. The villa is a true poem of love.
I love all Brazilian music, for example Vinicio de Moraes.
What do you do to lead a slow life?
I don’t drive and don’t want to learn, this way I really slow my pace. In Venice for instance I feel at home, I don’t know whether I will ever reach an appointment or if there is high water or not… I also really like the Aeolian Islands, like Lipari and more specifically Ginostra for example. There also you’re never sure you can go out the next day or if nature has decided you can’t; whether you can leave or not. I really like Sipicciano (Graffignano, Viterbo), where I live at the moment.
Do you still believe in poetry as a narrative category, I mean to keep on bookshop shelves, or do you believe it’s a category more adapted to social networks, to communal places which are ‘faster and more instantaneous’?
I believe the printed press and books make up our education: getting rid of them would create an educational void.
Nothing gratifies a person like the smell of pages and the used aspect reflected by a secondhand book. I really like bookshops that sell only secondhand books; they have a history.
Poetry is a category, which still stimulates other arts, and people still buy. It taught us to speak in Latin America. We are an identity thanks to our authors.
Poetry is part of education. Writing it today? If you think you can do something else with it besides writing a book maybe it becomes more contemporary. Something else in the sense of breaking through on social networks or on a manifesto that says “I’m an artist” or that publicly interrogates itself on what is culture… Therefore poetry may be seen as a stimulus, such as the Chilean artist, Alfred Jaar, as done in Milan: he has created several manifestos with messages around the city during two of his exhibitions. This strategy is certainly poetry.
Even graffiti with a sentence can disturb your day. Until the word will remain essential, poetry can continue to exist.
What have you learnt until now from life?
Others exist. I can’t do anything without others. If you don’t go forward with others, you’ll get nowhere.
Young South American poets to keep an eye on?
I don’t read Latin American contemporary poetry anymore, the last things I read were by Regina José Galindo, less know as a poet and better known as a visual artist. She is one of the most beautiful persons I’ve ever met. In one of her performances she was throwing poems to the wind hanging from a crane.
There are poets who have courageously revolutionized language such as Giuliano Mesa (1957-2011). It’s like discovering a Sanguineti in the 60’s!
We are also looking for contemporary poets, who do you recommend?
I met one not long ago but I’m biased. He contacted me because he wanted to publish a collection of poems with some of my texts which I had no intention to publish. Then at some point the publication arrived: Le terre di nessuno (nobody’s land). When I saw the selection I liked it a lot. They will edit one of my books now. The editor is a very young man, Oscar Saavedra Villarroel, who recently read a collection with some of my work and decided to contact me. He is a writer and a poet. He also does workshops with schools. He has a beautiful and useful attitude. He encourages children; he offers them an additional possibility to develop their personality.
Have you ever read Claudio Naranjo? He is very similar to Jodorowsky, Ignazio Matte Blanco and to Matta, the big figures of Chile. They are in some ways the foundation pillars of our contemporaneity.
Translation by Paolo Witte