Where the Sidewalk Bends: Notes from a Poet in Rio

By Rachel Morgenstern-Clarren

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Shortly after sundown on February 2nd, I boarded a snow-covered Boeing 777 in New York City, my bags stuffed to just under the weight limit with clothes and books, and landed the following morning on a palm tree-lined tarmac in São Paulo. It’s been eight years since I last passed through customs in the Guarulhos International Airport en route to the coast—a semester abroad in Salvador da Bahia when I was 21—and much has changed in those intervening years. On the sports front, of course, Brazil is on the brink of hosting first the World Cup and then the Olympic Games. But big things are happening on its literary front, too. Brazil was the guest of honor at the 2013 Frankfurt International Book Fair; the government is pouring money into the translation and promotion of Brazilian literature abroad; and the Paraty International Literary Festival (FLIP) continues to draw ever bigger names and crowds. Rapid economic growth and increased cultural influence are afoot, and I’ll be living in the epicenter of many of these developments, Rio de Janeiro, for the next nine months. It’s a complex, unpredictable, exciting time to be back.

So why Rio? Rio is the birthplace of everyone from famed novelist Machado de Assis (the namesake of my local metro stop) to prolific contemporary writer Adriana Lisboa. It has also been the adopted home of expats like American poet Elizabeth Bishop (whose tumultuous relationship with Brazilian landscape architect Carlota de Macedo Soares was recently fictionalized in the movie Reaching for the Moon). Having just earned my MFA in poetry and translation, I’m now living in this cultural capital to compile, translate, and edit an anthology of contemporary Brazilian poetry tied to the idea of place, exploring the linguistic, cultural, and geographic diversity of the country through its creative writing.

Like many people who find themselves inexplicably drawn to Brazil, I came to Portuguese initially through music, through Tropicália. The Portuguese spoken (or sung) in different regions of this enormous country is wildly varied: a reflection, just as in the US, of the populace’s indigenous, African, European, and Asian roots. Since the 16th Century, Brazilian dialect has been shaped by forces of colonization, slavery, and immigration, resulting in the Amer-Indian (mainly Tupi-Guarani), African (mainly Yoruba), European (mainly French and Italian), and Asian (mainly Japanese) lexicons being folded into the Portuguese like tapioca flour into pão de queijo batter. Not to mention the abundance of American English words recently imported through pop culture and commerce (think “shopping” pronounced SHOW-ping for “mall”). The result? Regional variations ranging from a sing-songy baiano rhythm to the clipped paulistano pace to the seductively slurred consonants of cariocas. And since part of a poet’s prerogative is to “weird” the normative language, anyway, my anthology will feature poets whose use (or abuse) of language embodies this range of sounds and styles.

Translation is, at its most fundamental level, a conversation. A conversation between languages and between cultures. Although I’ve been able to collaborate with Brazilian writers over email, I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to have these conversations in person, and to experience first-hand the people, places, and things that inhabit their work in order to do them justice in English. Less than regional poetics, I’m interested in poetry where elements of a place—food, slang, architecture, fashion, weather patterns, etc.—seep into the writing.

One poet (not to mention editor, critic, and translator from the French) who I’ve already begun collaborating with, Caio Meira, was kind enough to pick me up from the airport and drive me to my apartment when I first arrived in the city. On our way, we stopped by the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro to pick up his wife from work. Within minutes of meeting the brilliant Lina, a biochemist, and hearing her describe her research on snake venom and blood coagulation, I had a completely different understanding of the inspiration behind Meira’s poetry, his attention to, and fascination with, scientific details. When I first read Coisas que o primeiro cachorro na rua pode dizer/Things the First Dog on the Street Can Tell YouI was not only drawn to its sophisticated humor and philosophical insights, but to all the details about modern life in Brazil, and particularly in Rio. While Rio itself is never the subject of Meira's work, his poems are filled with the city’s particularities: coconut water, Bangu prison, cajamangas, the Berinjela bookstore, his twin sons.

Another young poet I’ve been working with long-distance is Flávio de Araújo. In his 2008 debut collection, Zangareio, Araújo captures the daily and seasonal rhythms of his ancestral home, Praia do Sono. In addition to masterful storytelling, buoyant imagery, and caustic humor, Zangareio is intriguing for its use of the fishing-centric caiçara dialect. The book is divided into five sections whose names designate tackle or gear (Zangareio, Puçá), artisanal traps (Caiçara, Cerco), and the hold of the ship (Porão) where the catch is stored on ice. Zangareio itself is the name of a multi-hook squid jig. I’m looking forward to visiting Praia do Sono in the coming months, to seeing all the different nets, boats, and tackle used in their natural environment, and to meeting some of the fishermen whose stories are so beautifully woven into Araújo’s poems.

This biweekly series will be dedicated to the fine line between work and play in art. Check back for ongoing coverage of literary events; interviews with poets, writers, graphic novelists, translators, and editors; reflections on the process of gathering and shaping material for an anthology; and dispatches from my life here in the cidade maravilhosa as the world turns its long-overdue gaze toward the Southern Hemisphere.

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