This year marks one hundred years since the birth of Octavio Paz, renowned Mexican poet, essayist, diplomat, and Nobel Laureate. On October 6th, as part of a weeklong centennial celebration, the Americas Society, the Mexican Cultural Institute of New York, Poets House, and Instituto Cervantes New York hosted a film screening and discussion with acclaimed writer and translator Eliot Weinberger, and award-winning Mexican poets María Baranda and Coral Bracho.
The event took place at the Americas Society on the Upper East Side, in an elegant, chandeliered room full of Paz devotees. It began with a screening of clips from Robert Gardner’s film Glimpses of Octavio Paz. Gardner liked to make informal movies about his friends. Over a number of years, he filmed Paz walking around Mexico City, talking about places that were important to him. In one clip, Paz reads his iconic poem “Nocturno de San Ildefonso” in Spanish while sitting at a table in his apartment on the Reforma in Mexico City. The next clip shows Paz walking through Mexico City, visiting locations he references in the poem. With his encyclopedic knowledge of Mexico, he speaks about the extensive, complex history of the city (such as its Aztec and Jesuit influences).
Paz points out the house built by his grandfather, who was a journalist and a notable liberal, and then a colonial church across the street. He explains that he was born in the middle of these two—in the midst of a religious and political fight that persists till this day. In another location, he describes a moment of what he calls “counter-revelation” that he had in that very spot at the age of seven or eight: a moment of doubt about God’s existence and a subsequent fear that God would kill him right there in the square. Then he takes Gardner to the Church of Santa Maria Tonantzintla, where he whispers that he goes to churches not to worship but to look at the art.
During the discussion that followed the film, Eliot Weinberger spoke about Paz’s great interest in the visual arts and how much they informed his poetry. Paz was connected to the concrete poets in Brazil and experimented with those forms himself. In India in the sixties, he discovered yantra (mystical diagrams for meditation, such as mandalas). They influenced his work, particularly his poem “Blanco,” which is itself a kind of mandala. In fact, Bracho said that there are several “Blanco” phone apps (see here). Weinberger also mentioned how much Paz loved movies and TV—especially Star Trek. (He identified with Data the android.)
Weinberger said he likes Gardner’s film because it captures the experience of talking with Octavio Paz, who seemed to know everything about Mexico. María Baranda agreed, explaining that it was hard to speak about Paz without it being personal, because whenever he met someone he would inevitably know their relatives and family history, making Mexico feel like a small town. Both Baranda and Coral Bracho had this experience when they met Paz for the first time. An audience member asked Weinberger how being an American affected his relationship with Paz. Weinberger responded that because he was far away from the hothouse gossip of Mexico, Paz felt free to talk about what was really going on in his country.
Weinberger, Baranda and Bracho spoke about how Paz was an internationalist in perspective, and also very rooted in Mexico, a combination that was rare in Latin America. Bracho said few people in Mexico were as open as Paz about the different ways there are to write. Similarly, Baranda said his magazine Vuelta was extremely influential because it opened the eyes of young Mexican writers like herself. Paz changed the Mexican literary scene by publishing writing that there was no other way to access. For instance, he translated poetry into Spanish from Portuguese, French, Chinese, and other languages, ranging from Fernando Pessoa to William Carlos Williams to the Japanese haiku master Basho.
It was easy to work with Paz on his translations, Weinberger said, because he had an intimate understanding of the translation process. Translation was also a way for Paz to look at his own poetry from a different angle. Sometimes he would read one of Weinberger’s translations, see things he didn’t like in the original, and then make adjustments to the original.
One of the last lines in Part One of “Nocturno de San Ildefonso” is: “Estas frases perforan el tiempo”—“These phrases puncture time.” This rings true of Octavio Paz’s words even today, sixteen years after his passing. During the audience Q & A, Weinberger mentioned that there are still thousands of pages of Paz’s prose that have yet to be translated into English. Hopefully those will be translated soon, too, and we will be privileged to read more of his writing in English.