Where the Sidewalk Bends: Interview with Sylvio Fraga

By Rachel Morgenstern-Clarren

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Sylvio Fraga was born in Rio de Janeiro in 1986, moved back and forth between the US and Brazil until the age of thirteen, spent his teen years in Rio, earned a BA in Economics at the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro (PUC-Rio), directed the Antônia Parreiras Museum in Niterói, then went to NYC for his MFA in Poetry at NYU, and now lives in Rio again, where he mainly writes music and poetry. So far he has published a collection of poems, Among Trees (Bem-Te-Vi, 2011) and a translation anthology, O Andar ao Lado: Three New North-American Poets (7Letras, 2013). In 2013 he also released the album Rosto (Face). He lives with Flora and a little mixed breed dog called Panda, the two main characters of his next poetry book. Our interview was conducted over email this past month.

Rachel Morgenstern-Clarren: Do you have a writing routine? Where do you like to work? What does your writing space look like?

Sylvio Fraga: I usually like to write in the morning, starting early. But I’ll write at any available time. I like to work on the living room table, but I’ll work anywhere I can sit down. My writing space is mainly this computer on a bare table. But I’ll write freehand if necessary.

RMC: Which writers and musicians were the biggest influences on you while you were growing up between Brazil and the US? Were there any hyphenated artists who particularly inspired you?

SF: When I was growing up, I wasn’t so much into reading but I loved music, mainly what my parents put on at home or in the car. João Bosco, Milton Nascimento, Rita Lee, Paul Simon, Billy Joel, Caetano Veloso, Yes… The first art I loved and assimilated was music.

When growing up I wasn’t really aware of hyphenated artists. Nowadays for sure. Chico Buarque is one of our greatest songwriters and now is a celebrated novelist. I haven’t read any of his books, but it’s nice to know someone can divide their time between two arts and be happy with their work. Chico apparently does one at a time, a few years composer, then a few years writer. Vinicius de Moraes certainly became an influence, but much later. I knew songs he wrote with Tom by heart much before I read his poetry. In my case I really can’t live without music or poetry, I need to jump from one to the other practically everyday. They feed off of each other creatively, even though I don’t mix the two in the sense that my poems never become my lyrics. And when I’m depressed with a bad poem, I run to the guitar, vice-versa. 

My first real shock with literature came much later, I think, and I started writing poems before actually discovering the wonders of reading poetry.

RMC: What gave you that first real shock?

SF: I think my first shock came from writing! A teenager poem, but the feeling of having walked in the woods and then sitting down to write about the experience in verse was an epiphany. I mean, that is still how I write a lot of my poems. (The last poem in Among Trees is about this day.) Then came a poem by Borges my sister gave me when I finished high school, called “Happiness.” I remember being astonished by “Everything happens for the first time but in a way that is eternal.” The other shocks came right after: Keats (“Then felt I like some watcher of the skies…”) and João Cabral de Melo Neto. I remember having bought a book by Cabral, leaving it for two years on my bedside table, trying to read him, but always failing. Then one night, again out in the mountains, a poem of his jumped out of the page and knocked me out. “Menino de Engenho.” Not one of Cabral’s best poems, but it was the one that allowed me in, and I know it by heart to this day.

RMC: Why did you decide to study poetry in the US? Why was it important for you to return to Brazil afterwards?

SF: I had just graduated in Economics and spent almost two years trying to resurrect a small fine arts museum, the Museu Antônio Parreiras in Niterói. So I was feeling very distant from what is most important to me: music and poetry. I decided to get away from Rio for a bit, live near my sister, something that hadn’t happened since she was in high school in 2001. I returned to Rio because it’s home, and I wanted to get the music career going with my carioca band.

RMC: How did you come to be in charge of ressurecting a fine arts museum?

SF: In 2008, I went to an exhibition at Caixa Cultural that claimed to be an important retrospective of Parreiras’ work; mostly paintings and drawings borrowed from the museum. But it was a terrible exhibition in many different respects and, at the same time, the museum was falling to pieces. So I wrote a harsh article criticizing the whole situation—intellectually and financially—and Globo published it. The Secretary of Culture read it and after consulting two specialists in Brazilian painting, who happened to be my good friends and Art History mentors, she invited me to direct the museum. Kind of a “can you walk the walk?” (During college I studied with these two guys much more than I studied Economics.) It was an incredible and difficult experience. But we gave the museum back its dignity.

RMC: Your anthology O andar ao lado, published in 2013 by 7Letras, is a generous selection of your translations of three contemporary American poets: Matthew Rohrer, Jon Woodward, and Matthew Zapruder. If you were to do another anthology, translating three mid-career female American poets, who would they be, and why?

SF: I chose the three not only because I admire their poetry, but because they were the first contemporary poets, man or woman, to have an impact on me when I arrived in NY. So now I don’t know who the female poets would be. I recently translated a big part of Chelsey Minnis’ latest (and last?) book for a magazine, so she is probably one of them. She writes strange little poems that work best in large (but not huge) groups. Funny and ironic but at the same time charged with emotion.

RMC: What have you found to be the main points of contact between contemporary Brazilian and American poetry? In what ways do you think they’re the most divergent?

SF: I don’t know how to answer this formally. Both Brazilian and American poets have read the twentieth century poets, the world is globalized, we have access to information, and we are humans living in the same time period. So I feel there are endless points of contact, people everywhere trying many different things in poems.

In the US, there is an actual poetry world, tons of awards, grants, conferences, three hundred MFA programs, etc. In Brazil, there are many poets spread about, but few awards, few events (that I know of, not my thing), no MFAs, very little criticism outside academia. Being a poet in Brazil has a very different feeling than being a poet in the US.

Brazil has few poetry readers, but the statue in front of Copacabana beach is Carlos Drummond de Andrade! You’d think it should be Pelé, right? I guess the revolutionary collaborations in Brazilian popular music between composers and poets such as Tom Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes brought poets (and lyricists) a special status and admiration, even though few people read their books. Maybe that ignorance helps with the mysticism.

RMC: Tell me about your musical collaboration with Matthew Rohrer, which strikes me as several types of translation at once—between English and Portuguese, between written and oral language, and between writing and music. Have you done any others? Do you have any more in the works?

SF: When I was taking his class at the MFA (a wonderful class!) I sent him a song and asked for lyrics. What he wrote was much better than the song I sent him, so I wrote a new song to fit the lyrics. Funny how that worked out! Nothing remains of the original composition. The song is called “Blue Whale.” I sing it in English. It’s our only collaboration, but it would be great to do some more.

Writing lyrics is harder than anything else I do, harder than poems and “pure” songs. The reason is simple: when I want to work, I write a poem or a song, and only rarely does the song come with lyrics. I have to write them after the song is done. So it becomes more of a chore than a creative impulse.

RMC: The poems in your first collection, Entre árvores (Among Trees), are generally short, in standard forms (usually couplets or tercets), with a strong attention to rhythm and rhyme. Do you usually know from the start if you’re writing a poem or a song? What is the difference between the two for you? Do music and writing serve different purposes for you creatively/emotionally, or are they interchangeable?

SF: The strong attention to rhythm and rhyme in Among Trees came mostly from João Cabral. Funny that he hated music. What a poet! He is decently translated into English (semi-impossible chore), and many of the best poems are excluded (because of the impossibility).

My songs always start on the guitar or humming into my phone somewhere. So when I write lyrics, I’m already fitting them into the song’s structure. The real doubt comes when I have the craving to make something but don’t know if I should grab the guitar or sit at the computer. In that sense, music and poetry are interchangeable. They are not interchangeable on the days I know what I want to work on. But it’s no more than a feeling. Like the desire to eat apples or bananas.

RMC: What role does nature play in your creative process and in your art? Do you have favorite hikes around Rio or the tri-state area?

SF: I love the outdoors. I can get very sick of city life, traffic, people rushing around stressed out, social obligations, etc. I haven’t had the opportunity to get sick of nature. I never get sick of Panda, my little mutt, and I take her everywhere. I don’t know how nature enters my creative process, but being so important to me as it is, I end up going to it as a kind of emotional home base, and that is a stimulating thing, creatively.

Haven’t hiked in the tri-state area. In Rio I go to the mountains of the Serra do Mar.

RMC: Do you think your background in Economics has had any influence on your many artistic endeavors? If so, how?

SF: Economics helped in the sense that I was forced to learn things I didn’t really care about, so certainly my brain muscles got stronger. I was also forced to have discipline.

RMC: What are some of your upcoming projects (musical, literary, or otherwise)?

SF: The main projects are the second book of poems and the second album. Both are coming along and will probably be published/released in 2015. I would like to publish another translation book, not sure what to do. I’m always translating, but to confront a full volume, an intense passion has to be going on. 


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