Where the Sidewalk Bends: Interview with Paulo Henriques Britto

By Rachel Morgenstern-Clarren

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The title of Paulo Henriques Britto’s most recent poetry collection, Formas do nada (Forms of Nothing), should tip you off to the kind of writer he is—concise yet expansive, simultaneously straightforward and existential. His smart, playful poems, usually written in Portuguese but occasionally written in English, have titles like “Cinco sonetos frívolos” (“Five Frivolous Sonnets”), “Duas fábulas sem moral” (“Two Fables With No Moral”), and “Of consciousness as a kind of toothache.” He has applied his signature stylistic mix of the colloquial and high brow to both poetry and fiction; he also writes literary theory and criticism, and is a prolific translator from English into Portuguese. These days, much of his time is spent teaching translation, creative writing, and Brazilian literature at the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro (PUC-Rio). The following interview was conducted over email this week.

Rachel Morgenstern-Clarren: Where do you like to work? What does your workspace look like?

Paulo Henriques Britto: By “work” I suppose you mean writing and translating. I usually work in my study, an L-shaped room next to my bedroom. There’s a long sort of workbench with two computers and a printer, a file cabinet for Xeroxed texts and clippings, and bookcases on all the walls.

RMC: Do you listen to music while you work, or do you prefer silence? If you listen to music, what kind?

PHB: When I write or translate I usually listen to music, either instrumental or sung in a language I don’t understand, mostly classical or jazz.

RMC: How do you balance writing, translating, and teaching? Do you practice all three every day, or does one of those take up significantly more of your time than the others? What does your daily artistic routine look like, if you have one?

PHB: These days much of my time is spent at the university, teaching, supervising, correcting, and attending meetings. Even when I’m in my study at home, part of my time is taken up by preparing classes, correcting papers, and answering e-mails related to PUC. Translating takes up most of the remaining time—afternoons or whole days when I’m not at PUC, including Saturdays. I read and write mostly at night, and on holidays and vacations. No artistic routine to speak of.

RMC: You’ve translated over 100 books from English into Portuguese, by everyone from William Faulkner to Elizabeth Bishop, Philip Roth, and Wallace Stevens. Which of those writers do you think has had the biggest influence on your own writing?

PHB: Stevens, I think, was a strong influence when I was in my twenties and thirties. I also write short stories, but the fictionists who I think influenced me the most are writers I never translated—Machado de Assis, Franz Kafka, Julio Cortázar and the Polish novelist Witold Gombrowicz, who lived in Argentina from the 30s to the early 60s.

RMC: Except for two stints in the United States (Washington DC, 1962-64 and San Francisco, 1972-73) you’ve spent your whole life in Rio de Janeiro. The “Old Country,” as you said, is Tijuca—a city bus ride away from your current neighborhood, Gávea. If distance is necessary to write about home, how does it affect your writing about Brazil to live in the same city where you grew up?

PHB: I wouldn’t say I write “about” Brazil, except, of course, for my essays on Brazilian poetry. One or two poems of mine are recognizably Carioca, and most of my stories are set in an urban environment that’s explicitly or implicitly Rio, but I don’t think the setting is all that important. That is, local color isn’t really my forte. And the distance that really counts isn’t spatial—it’s temporal. Tijuca is just on the other side of the mountains, but it’s forty, fifty years away.

RMC: The Clean Shirt of It, a selection of your poetry translated into English by Idra Novey, came out in 2007. How did it feel to be on the other side of that writer-translator equation? Did it change your translation process, or your understanding of your own work?

PHB: It made me more than ever aware of how much a translator is a sort of author—not quite the same thing as an author proper, but certainly a closely related species. One concrete effect it did have on me is, it made me begin translating some of my own poems from English into Portuguese, and vice-versa, something I used to think wasn’t really feasible; I thought I wouldn’t be able to resist the temptation to revise. But no—it’s turned out to be perfectly possible, and now it’s something I do regularly.

RMC: MFA programs are hugely popular in the United States. You teach creative writing (in addition to translation and poetry) at PUC-Rio, one of the only schools in Brazil that offers such courses. Can you comment on how the methods or goals of teaching creative writing differ in the United States and Brazil? Do you think that the number of MFA programs will increase in Brazil in the future? How do you think that would change the literary culture here?

PHB: Well, I can’t really compare the two methods, because my knowledge of creative-writing programs in the US is quite limited: I took two optional courses back in 1972-73 (one quite good, the other rather chaotic), when I was a film student at the San Francisco Art Institute. But I can see one major difference in the way writing is seen in the two countries. In Brazil, most people don’t think of writing as a profession; very few Brazilian writers make serious money as writers. This has to do with a number of facts. One of them is that a large percentage of the books published in Brazil are translations. Here’s an example: a lot of writers in the US specialize in “science writing,” that is, vulgarization (in the most positive sense of the word) of subjects like astronomy, cosmology, bioengineering for a wider public. You know—Carl Sagan and Oliver Sacks. In Brazil, this market niche is totally occupied by translations. Another problem is the fact that very few Brazilians read books with any regularity. But literacy figures are rising sharply, a fact that sooner or later (hopefully sooner) will have a positive impact on book sales. Also, an unexpected consequence of the Internet is that more people are writing to one another instead of talking on the phone. Maybe the growth of creative-writing programs will help, too. Right now I’m supervising an undergraduate at PUC who wants to write fantasy novels à la George R. R. Martin—that is, he wants to make money as a writer, not exactly the usual motive for majoring in Letras for a Brazilian of, say, my own generation. Whether these programs will increase at all in the near future is anyone’s guess, but certainly not at a very fast pace.

RMC: In spite of the number of talented writers here, Brazilian writers often talk about the lack of readers in their own country. What effect does this lack of anticipated readership have on what Brazilian write and how they work? Is it freeing to have less of a focus on marketing and publicity, or do you think it makes you and other contemporary Brazilian writers more concerned with being translated and having an international audience?

PHB: You’re right. On the one hand, it does give you some freedom, since you’re not in it for the money (though this might be changing, as the answer to the previous question indicates). Which is why we have so many fledgling writers aiming too high—way too high sometimes; young geniuses trying to come up with the Next Big Thing in fiction before they learn to write decent dialogue. On the other hand, it makes some writers write with an eye on an international readership, which probably isn’t a good idea, because it may (and does, in one or two actual cases I know) result in stereotyping—one more novel about teenage desperados in Rio slums, or—heaven forbid!—a second Paulo Coelho.

RMC: What is your favorite Brazilian book that hasn’t been translated into English yet?

PHB: It’s hard to mention just one. I’ll give you two or three novels: Cornélio Penna’s A menina morta; Graciliano Ramos’s Angústia; Carlos Süssekind’s Armadilha para Lamartine. Also, Guimarães Rosa’s Grande sertão: veredas, certainly the greatest Brazilian novel of the twentieth century, has been translated, but by all accounts the translation is very unsatisfactory.


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