Interview with Mark Eisner
Interviewed by Shawnacy Kiker Perez, July 2019
CHARGE MAGAZINE: Mark, I'm so thrilled to be able to talk to you about your book, which was recently a Finalist for the PEN/Bograd Weld Prize for Biography. Can you tell us a little bit about how this book came to be? You have been so active in the poetry community, particularly championing Latin American poets and poetry, but what made you interested in Neruda himself as a subject for this project, rather than simply his poetry?
MARK EISNER: Thanks so much Shawnacy, I'm honored and thrilled to discuss it with you and excited for all Charge Magazine is doing. It's a very exciting endeavor.
There are a couple of ways I can answer your question, and they both turn on each other. The basic premise is that I realized even if I were to just talk about his poetry, I would have to provide the context of his life in its full dimension, because especially in Neruda's case, they are so intertwined. And in Neruda's case, because his life his so extraordinary and complex, that full dimension becomes quite vast. And I wanted to talk about it all. I wanted to talk about his life not only because of his poetry, but because his life alone is so fascinating, revelatory, and relevant, in all its splendor and disturbances.
CM: It must have been quite a task to unpack such a life. To quote a recent Kirkus interview, "Mark Eisner has been chasing Pablo Neruda for decades. “It is a camino, a trail, a path,” Eisner says. “One thing has led to another and eventually to this book.” Can you speak a bit about this decades-long path? How long have you been “chasing Pablo Neruda?”
ME: It really has been a camino. Neruda's centennial was 2004, which was also an amazing year for me, with City Lights publishing The Essential Neruda: Selected Poems, a collaborative bilingual edition of his poetry. I had come up with the idea for this book about five years earlier, during my first stint in Chile where I really became saturated with Neruda and his poetry. That project, though, was really all about the art of translation, the need for it. I was fortunate to have been able to assemble a team of some absolute greats to become involved. And either in 2002 or 2003, I had also somehow come to produce a documentary film on Neruda, which Isabel Allende, for whom the poet has meant so much, agreed to narrate. We premiered it the night of his 100th birthday. That morning I was interviewed on NPR's Morning Edition, which I think was the key to a literary agent approaching me about writing a biography on Neruda. The idea had been rumbling around in the back of my mind, but it seemed a daunting task. So much had already been written, and I wasn't sure I wanted to enter into another big Neruda project, but it was very hard not to entertain the interest.
After a good deal of contemplation, though, I did believe that there was, if you don’t mind me quoting straight from my explanation in the book’s intro, “a valid need for another approach, one that aims to bring Neruda’s gripping story to life in a new way. This volume is neither unbiased nor hagiographic; rather, it aims to offer a compelling narrative version of Neruda’s life and work, undergirded by exhaustive research, designed to bring this towering literary figure to a broader audience. My goal is to present the nuances of this complex, seemingly larger-than-life figure, to show all his vastness, to show both the redeeming and the cruel sides of his personal life, to show both the inspirational and the deeply troublesome sides of his political life. In addition, I felt it was vital to unite, in a single volume, the three inseparable strands of Neruda’s legacy: his personal history, the entire canon of his poetry, and his social activism and politics both on and off the page. Each of these components depends on the other two. Each is shaped by the other two. No single thread can be understood fully without understanding the others. This book aims to deeply explore each of these three aspects of his life, while also highlighting the phenomenon behind their interrelationship. Without examining each of them extensively, the true expanse of Neruda’s story can’t be told.”
Because Neruda was so closely involved with so many of the larger movements and events of the twentieth century, I wanted this to be a book that doesn’t skirt these issues, but that deeply explores historical moments such as the South American student, labor, and anarchist movements of the early 1900’s; as well as similar events across the globe including the Spanish Civil War, Castro, Guevara and the Cuban Revolution, and Nixon’s involvements in Chile and Vietnam. I got really energized about both the reasoning and the challenge, and a major publisher validated the idea and gave me a contract.
CM: You didn’t end up with that publisher, though?
ME: No, through a long struggle of learning how to write this book, and balancing the rest of my life, I just couldn't get the book to flow as I had wanted to, and that contract got dropped. Fortunately, about five years later, I managed to get it all to work, with the help of a lot of kindred hands, and it was eventually published by Ecco.
CM: A long journey indeed, but perhaps by virtue of the protracted nature of the project, you were able to meet and spend time with many individuals connected to Neruda. You spent years in Chile, living in the country he loved, visiting the places that defined his life. Can you talk a bit about these experiences, and how they informed the writing of this book?
ME: Definitely, though it was actually for the documentary that I worked on before the idea of the biography ever came about that I was able to meet and interview, as you said, many individuals connected to him, some of his closest surviving friends, intricately involved in his life, and often in one way or another intricately involved in Chile's history (not a surprising combination). This came about mainly due to one of the many amazing people I was fortunate to meet at just the right time who had the contacts and the generous will to help. The interviews for the film produced brilliant, unique gems for this biography, this text nourished by conversations, both on camera or off, with a diverse array of characters. Unfortunately, some of the subjects have passed since I first talked to them. Neruda was born in 1904, so many of those who knew him for most of his life, are no longer with us. One of these people was Sergio Insunza, minister of justice under Salvador Allende. Insunza was in his twenties when he first met Neruda, when the Chilean Communist Party brought the poet-senator to hide out in his apartment after then-president Gabriel González Videla had ordered Neruda’s arrest for speaking out against his antidemocratic, oppressive measures on the Senate floor. Another interviewee, Juvenal Flores, was ninety-two when I spoke to him. He worked on a ranch in southern Chile and helped guide the fugitive Neruda on horseback across a snowcapped peak in the Andes, safely into exile.
In terms of being in his places, I'm learning this again living in Mexico City right now, working on a project about some of the artists and activists here in the 1920s. Much like standing above the waves on the rocks of Neruda's fabled Isla Negra home for hours and hours; to be able to sit all alone amidst Diego Rivera's murals in the Chapingo Chapel and see the figure of my hero, Tina Modotti, right there; imagining her visiting him in that place, and then later her standing just there capturing the photograph of the mural... it’s incomparable. The need to embody the characters, to embody the places they inhabit, being on the ground- even if it's 80 years later- where they lived, where they created their art, evinces a visceral experience that no photo or book can ever give, because it's simply such a different emotional experience when you take it in yourself in totality. I believe a biography has to be imbued, driven by those emotions, positive or negative. These experiences provided breathing insight that could not be found on the printed pages of the books I found at the Stanford Library, the Biblioteca Nacional de Chile, the Library of Congress, Neruda’s own archives, or in so many key sources I’ve been grateful for in between.
CM: While Neruda is best known for his love poems, and these are certainly an important part of his oeuvre, he was equally passionate about the political situation in his country, and the plight of those he refers to as "brother" in his "Canto General" or (loosely) "Song of the Many." His writing seems to both want to bear witness to the experience of these invisible many, and to act as a plea, seeking, or perhaps conjuring through the work of the poem, to be the voice of the unwitnessed dead, desiring to embody the unnoticed suffering of the marginalized and oppressed worker. Alongside these poetic effusions, Neruda held a number of political and diplomatic positions including consul to Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Argentina, as well as Barcelona and Madrid during the Spanish Civil War, where his poem, "Spain in the Heart" is printed at the front lines of the war, and during which he orchestrates the migration of a number of Spanish refugees to Chile. Additionally he was elected a senator in the Chilean Communist Party, and his funeral in 1973 became, as you say, "the first act of resistance against the dictatorship [of Augusto Pinochet]." Can you talk a bit about Neruda's relationship to the people, the "general" to whom his canto and so much of his life was dedicated?
ME: It was during my early time living in Chile, conversations in my travels even before the film began, but then also with the camera, filming not just scholars and friends but interviewing people on the street -- construction workers, people in the market -- that was the time I really got to know the personal stories about Neruda but also the perception of him, seeing how he was so much in the culture, and in many different ways.
There was an afternoon I spent at one of Santiago’s main produce markets. When I asked an effusive woman in front of a vegetable stand about Neruda’s love poetry, she spontaneously burst out, “I like it when you’re quiet. It’s as if you were absent”—the iconic first lines of Neruda’s "Poem XV" in Twenty Love Poems. And then, with the biggest smile and half-laughing, she said, “That’s as far as I get, but it’s a beautiful book!” She told me that although she had read the poem as a young girl, in school, it gained a heightened significance for her six years before, when, at thirty-two, she had fallen in love with a Bolivian doctor. He eventually left Chile, giving her a copy of Twenty Love Poems as a departing gift. I turned to Mario Fernández Núñez and asked him what he thought of Neruda. The whole time we had been talking, he had been preparing bundles of cilantro for his market stand. His hands did not pause in their work when he answered, “Well, he’s our national poet. He won the Nobel Prize.” “And what does that mean to you?” I asked. “Well, first, it’s pride, an honor. And secondly, for us, Pablo Neruda, beyond all the poetry, was a very good person. Remember that he was practically the ambassador—he brought the Spanish over here when Spain was in a dictatorship.” There were also those at the market who complained they couldn't even think about poetry because they didn't have enough money to buy books.
There's so much I can say here beyond these individual stories about Neruda's role with the people--this poet who was one of the most iconic "people's poet" of the past century-- a role I do try to consistently examine throughout the book, for its legitimacy and meaning. For instance, within one of the greatest poem's of the last century, "Heights of Macchu Picchu," he tells the dead Incan slaves of that sacred place that "I come to speak through your dead mouth," that he will be their spokesman, thus the spokesman for the modern day exploited and disadvantaged peoples. I argue that through his actions both off and on the page he had earned the right to self-assume this poetic role. He ends the poem, "Come to my veins and my mouth. Speak through my words and my blood." He sees with their eyes; they see with his. And this is partly where the original title of the book is derived. The “poet’s calling” conveys a sense of vocation and, at the same time, a sense of activity: the poet is simultaneously called and is calling to others, and through his voice, he gives voice to others’ calls.
But then there's Neruda’s enduring legacy, occurring off the written page, of what he meant and continues to mean for his people. Neruda died just twelve days after Augusto Pinochet's military coup. The dictatorship that ruthlessly ruled the country over the following fifteen years tried to proscribe Neruda from the country in which he was so ingrained.
While much can be said about how Neruda's funeral became the first public act of resistance against the dictatorship in those first weeks, this reminiscence that Pulitzer Prize winning author Ariel Dorfman related to me in 2004, deeply affected me:
“When I went back to Chile after ten years of exile, I went to see Neruda’s house in Isla Negra. I knew it was boarded up, and what I found there on that extraordinary fence—I found it full of graffiti. And I had not till then understood to what point Neruda was a saint for the people of Chile. Of course there were a lot of anti-dictatorial messages, but most of the messages were ‘Pablo, I brought my son here, you’re alive.’ ‘Pablo, thanks for having helped me in such a way.’ . . . It was full of little messages to him, directly . . . And what’s wonderful about that is that the fence had become symbolic of the way we had gotten rid of the dictatorship . . . in the sense of taking over the public space. Okay, they’ve shut down Neruda’s house, we can’t go to this house—you know what, they can’t stop us writing on the walls. And when they whitewash it, tomorrow we’ll write on it again.”
CM: A powerful legacy, to be sure. However, while the unvoiced and downtrodden people en masse may have had in Neruda a champion, he was by no means a selfless saint. His love affairs, passionate and full, as his poems attest, of the deepest feeling and fervor, nonetheless seem to wane and pale and are eventually cast aside in the glow of some grander and more earth-shaking romance. This ability of Neruda's to marginalize and indeed appear to forget entirely those close to him is perhaps best and most harrowingly visible in the case of his first wife, Maruca, and their daughter, Malva, who was born with a birth defect that would take her life at the age of eight. When the girl is only three years old, Neruda abandons her and Maruca, preferring the company of the exciting Delia del Carril, in the sweep of the events transpiring in Spain and across Europe. In chapter 12 of your book, you write, "After her birth, Neruda's mentions of his daughter ebb out of his correspondence. He does not mention her once in his memoirs, as if she never existed." How are we to think of Neruda in light of this? How is it that a poet that can feel and express so deeply, and can care for the needs of a nation, not to mention their dead, can have so little feeling or care for those afflicted and suffering in his own life?
ME: These aspects, whether it be with how he treated his daughter or some of the local women in the Far East when he served there as as consul--while he doesn't mention his daughter in his memoir, he does describe what I and many others classify as a rape of his Tamil servant in Sri Lanka—are indeed troublesome. Your question goes beyond the great, basic question that these issues are causing us to grapple with, be it with Neruda, Picasso, Woody Allen, or so many more: how does one separate the art from the artist?
I've grappled with your specific question, attempting to make sense of a how man who could put so much love into the world could also cause such heartless actions--as you saw in the book, there's a bunch of them-- on a variety of levels. And there's no way I can answer with any specificity, and everyone must evaluate it on their own terms. For instance, some defend his action with his daughter, calling it not an actual abandonment, but just something so many others have done with their children, and that this was for the sake of fighting against fascism and defending the Spanish Republic. My goal was to provide as much context as possible. Others have chastised me when, in trying to respond to a question like this, I've said that as much as I've grappled with trying to understand him, over all these years, in so many forms, we’ll never know everything, because he wasn’t only a figurehead, nor merely an icon; he was also, simply, a human being--and that saying he was just a human being isn't an adequate reply when considering his disturbing misogynistic acts. Like his hero Whitman he contained multitudes, and with it, all those contradictions. Contradictions within his posture as a people-poet, contradictions as a champagne communist. To try to answer your question gets at the deepest levels of the human condition. I could say he was an extraordinary human being with so much feeling and emotion that it was so complex and what was inside him definitely was not as simple as he could distill in his poetry, but that doesn’t seem entirely satisfactory? So again, I felt it was best to simply empower the reader to come up with their own evaluations around his behavior, personal or in some cases political; his Stalinism, for example. I didn't feel it was always my role to be the supreme judge of his behavior, my goal was to present all the evidence and make the most logical arguments.
CM: To quote Neruda, "If you ask me what my poetry is, I'd have to say: I don't know. But if you ask my poetry, she'll tell you who I am." As a scholar of the man, is there a line or a particular poem or stanza that most sums up the poet for you? Or perhaps of your experience with him?
ME: On somewhat of a side-answer, I do have to say that because of how true that quote was--how much his poetry did speak to who he was--it allowed my use of his poetry to be a very efficient narrative tool to use in writing the biography. As for picking a poem or lines that sum him up, however, one of my points I try to make in the book is that there were so many different Nerudas. So it’s very difficult to speak of something so specific.
However to again go back to the biography, I set the end of the epilogue at the July 12, 2004 celebration we had for Neruda's centennial, which featured the release of The Essential Neruda and the premier of the documentary:
"As the audience watched those waves crashing over the black rocks of Isla Negra, they heard an actor read part of Neruda’s poem “Lazybones.” Working on the movie, I had heard the poem so many times that it had begun to lose its effect on me. But as I listened to it in that packed theater, the words struck me with renewed emotion. Neruda composed the poem overlooking the waves at Isla Negra, not long after the space race had begun. The “metal objects” he refers to are the new satellites circling above in the night sky. While the possibilities they represent may catch his attention, the poet is still consumed by the beauty right here on earth:
Metal objects will still
journey among the stars,
weary men will still go up
to assault the gentle moon
and install their pharmacies.
In this season of swollen grapes
wine begins its life
between the sea and the mountains.
In Chile the cherries dance,
dusky girls sing
and the water gleams from guitars.
The sun knocks on every door
and works miracles with wheat.
The first wine is pink,
sweet as a tender child,
the second wine is robust
like the voice of a sailor
and the third wine is a topaz,
a poppy and a fiery blaze.
My house has the sea and the earth,
my woman has majestic eyes
the color of wild hazelnuts,
when night falls the sea
adorns itself in white and green
and then the moon in seafoam
dreams like a maritime bride.
I do not want any other planet.
(poem translated by Jessica Powell)
The poem’s melody of innocent thoughts and imagery conveys that Neruda’s work doesn’t always have to be raw with politics or love; that, at the heart of it all, his poetry is about the wonder of being human. This is what keeps people coming back to Neruda, the essential poetic expression of what we are at our core, the elementary within the complex, the ordinary and the infinite, the true and the unknowable.”
CM: The book is such an achievement. Are there any other projects or events you have up your sleeve that we can be on the watch for?
ME: Thank you so much. As I mentioned, I'm currently working on a non-fiction narrative of some sorts set in Mexico in the 1920s, starring the revolutionary photographer Tina Modotti; working to absorb and comprehend and narrate her story which is so layered, rich with intrigue and urgent themes that transcend her place and time, while also bringing out all the vital characters she was connected to. I’m also very excited and grateful to announce that an anthology of Latin American Poetry in Resistance I’ve been collaboratively working on for some time will be published next fall.
It collects fifty-five powerful poems arising out of the marked history of sustained acts of resistance throughout Latin America. It examines the nature of political poetry’s power and effectiveness, presenting works from the beginning of the 20th Century to those being written right now. Through this spectrum, one of the anthology’s key strengths is that its poems address a diverse spectrum of issues, rarely contained in just one collection, with feminist, queer, indigenous, urban and ecological themes alongside the more historically prominent protests against imperialism, dictatorships, and economic inequality, among others.
Each of these forms of resistance is a part of the cannon of political poetry, and this book is an attempt to allow the reader to see them all collectively. We feel these are all “universal” themes, and thus should not always be relegated to their specific, compartmentalized volumes. Yet by encapsulating a single region—one that has been particularly conducive to fostering such verse—the reader can best explore resonances and progressions within its boundaries; to see how themes are built and expanded upon, how the language of resistance develops within the collective consciousness of the continent.
Mark Eisner holds a BA in English and Creative Writing from the University of Michigan and an MA in Latin American Studies from Stanford University, where he later served as a Visiting Scholar. He was involved with the founding of the Red Poppy Art House in San Francisco and helps lead Red Poppy, a literary nonprofit focused on Latin American poetry. He has spent most of the past two decades working on projects related to Pablo Neruda, culminating in Ecco's 2018 publication of his PEN Finalist Neruda: The Biography of a Poet. For more information, visit www.markeisner.net.