María Negroni (Rosario, Argentina, 1951) is a poet, essayist and novelist. As a poet, she has published, among other books, Islandia (winner of the award for the best book of poetry in translation, 2001, from the PEN American Center in New York), El Viaje de la Noche (The Journey of the Night), Arte y Fuga (Art and Fugue), La Boca del Infierno (Hell’s Mouth) and Cantar Nada (Sing Nothing). She has also published two novels and several books of essays. She has translated works by Emily Dickinson, Louise Labé, Valentine Penrose, Georges Bataille, H.D., Charles Simic and Bernard Noël among others, as well as La Pasión del Exilio (The Passion of Exile), an anthology of female American poets (2007). Her book Galeria Fantástica (Fantastic Gallery) received the International Essay Award of the 21st century (Mexico).
Alfonso Fernández Cid: María, in your literature the word “island” is repeated on several occasions, the same word that gives its name to this literary festival. What does this word suggest to you?
María Negroni: The word “island” is almost a synonym for poetry. Because in general an island, at least in an imaginary sense, suggests a land surrounded by water, an isolated territory. It suggests a virgin terrain, empty, full of possibilities. An island is also like a human being. We could say that people in reality are islands surrounded by death. In this isolated space, it is possible to create new worlds. The island is like a miniature version of a great continent, just as a poem is. It is like a universe, tiny in size, but open to endless possibilities.
One of my first books is called Islandia (Iceland), which is the territory of the island, in the same way that one says Disneyland, Disney-country. Islandia is the country of the island. I wrote it a long time ago and it was, I would say, a journey but also a kind of tribute to Jorge Luis Borges, who loved Icelandic literature. Of course in my case I created a kind of cocktail because I united Icelandic fairy mythology with a story of a contemporary woman’s journey to another island, in this case Manhattan.
Alfonso Fernández Cid: In relation to this, you have mentioned the principle of the feminine in poetry and fantasy literature. What in your opinion is its true dimension and importance?
María Negroni: This would make for a lengthy discussion, but we could distill it by saying that in fantasy literature and Gothic literature (of which the fantastic is a derivation), and in poetry, there is a principle of insubordination against clear, rational, illuminated thought, reason and order. It seems to me that in these genres, as well as in poetry, there as a kind of emergence from below that comes so as to erode or destroy. And that could be compounded by saying that this emergence is desire. Desire as a disruptive concept is, for me, feminine. If you look you in great works of Gothic or Fantasy literature, always that which is below, in the crypts, in basements, this always has to do with the principle of the feminine, with the night, with the body – desire, basically. The same thing happens with poetry. This is why poetry is so important, because it is here where words realise, so to speak, their greatest anti-authoritarian potential.
Alfonso Fernández Cid: Is the Gothic still present nowadays Latin American literature?
Maria Negroni: Yes. Not in the same way as in 18th-century English literature, but it does have a presence, given that desire, all things nocturnal, that which escapes the world of reason, will never cease to exist. It is always shifting, always taking new faces and new expressions. Latin American fantasy literature of the 20th century is a direct derivation of the English gothic novel. Again I say – a direct derivation. In my book The fantastic Gallery I try to test this premise. The Gothic is present in American film noir of the first half of the 20th century. Do not forget that the American directors who made film noir were German Expressionists who arrived fleeing Nazism and who reinvented Hollywood. The Gothic is very present, with other faces and other names. But it remains in force.
Alfonso Fernández Cid: When you write do you do so from experience or from the unknown?
María Negroni: I have always thought that poetry is a kind of epistemology of unknowing. That is, for one to write, one has to venture into the unknown. Because as George Steiner says, beauty is connected to the idea of rupture, the rupture of the known, the conventional. If one was to repeat something they know already, no aesthetic effect is produced. This aesthetic effect arises from questions that have no answers. For this reason, writing comes from the place that remains unknown and, in any event, the work of the poet is delve into that unknown, because you can always explore further. One can always, as Beckett says, fail better.
Alfonso Fernández Cid: What do you think is the paradise, for a poet? What would be your paradise as a poet?
María Negroni: The first thing that comes into my head is to tell you that paradise would be a library. Because books, in my opinion, are in reality conversations with other books written by other authors. They are like conversations with other souls. So a library would be paradise par excellence. From a personal perspective, I think that the answer would be the same. To read and to write are the same thing. I would almost say that the job of the reader is the most difficult literary occupation – to learn to read. Then I think so, yes. I don’t know if it is wrong to say this, but with books I am absolutely happy.
Alfonso Fernández Cid: You have been, for some years now, residing in the United States, specifically in New York. Has the city left a mark upon any of your works?
María Negroni: I think it has influenced me a lot. I came to New York in 1985. I have had two stages there, with a period in Buenos Aires in between. And yes, New York left me spinning. It is a city that I spent ten years discovering, exploring. I was absolutely fascinated by the city during the first decade, while I was a student. It was a very different New York; I was someone else also. These days the city is a little less interesting that how it appeared to me in the 1980s. It is a city that is has become, as they say in English, “gentrified”. It is a neater city, cleaner, richer. I prefered it before, when I was dirtier, more dingy
Alfonso Fernández Cid: Perhaps you were influenced by the fact that before, it maintained a charm of being an unfathomable city.
María Negroni: This could be true. But now it has also become transformed. Today the city is a little more homogeneous, and very rich. It is like a shopping mall, a huge store. Even the neighbourhoods – where artists hang out, now they have all gone to Brooklyn. Brooklyn is now the new Manhattan. So i find it less interesting, but in any case it is a city that has given me a lot, and I would do it all again if I had the chance. And furthermore, for all the themes that are being discussed in this festival: the space in-between, dislocation, departure from a place, [New York] has been fundamental for me because it has allowed me to have a detached attitude towards my own environment, the Argentinean. It has given me a lot of freedom. In Argentina, I think that I am a sort of unclassifiable writer, that I move constantly, fleeing genres. New York legitimized me in this sense.
Alfonso Fernández Cid: It gave you a certain freedom.
Maria Negroni: Completely. I don’t know if I would have had that freedom if I remained in Buenos Aires.