Between Assimilation and Difference

How are you feeling? Looking back, what was it like to publish a novel, with the critic’s prize and then later the national award?

I felt like Vargas Llosa, who hesitated for fourteen minutes regarding the Nobel Prize. It was such a great delight and I couldn’t believe it. I called my wife twice to see if it was a joke. When the book was published I knew it was a little audacious, that its aesthetic suggestion was somewhat risky, or different, and that there were going to be different interpretations of it. There would be people who were going to like it a lot and others that perhaps expected something else of me—something more conventional. But later I realized that readers liked it a lot in all languages. For me this was like a happy ending, because it was not an easy year.


I’ve heard you recite written poetry after Bilbao-NewYork-Bilbao (BNYB). Could you tell me something about your current projects?

                  The truth is that I’m collecting all the poetry I’ve written in the last ten years, because it will soon be ten years since I published Bitartean heldu eskutik (2001; Meanwhile Take My Hand, 2007). Besides, I’m writing new poems. They are very different poems to those in Meanwhile Take My Hand; they are harder, although I do use a lot of humor as well. The voice resembles mine a lot, my own personal voice. It’s a step forward in my poetics. They are poems closely linked to the social, to what I have been experiencing in recent years: to the good and the bad. Meanwhile, I’m writing a short essay, which is a genre I like very much. And, what’s more, I’m thinking about several novels. It’s just that a novel demands so much. One can have thousands of stories in mind but the process of choosing one, in order to truly say something different, is very difficult. I’m at that stage of how to say something, how not to fall into the trap of repetition, and how to take a step forward.


Why autofiction?

Because there was no other way. There was no other way to express what I wanted to say in the way I wanted to say it. Any novel asks questions. One is immersed in a tradition—in my case that of the Basque Country—but also, one might say, in the Western tradition. I asked myself: How can I tell the story of my “family,” or the world I’ve known since I was a child, without falling into the trap of costumbrismo, of fantastic realism, or even of realism? Because that’s all been done: Ignacio Aldekoa did it, Bernardo Atxaga did it, and even Txomin Agirre as well. But I wanted to do a novel about today, which incorporated the new aesthetic challenges that writers now face. Why autofiction? Because I wanted to create a fiction closely linked to the real; I wanted to recover the credibility that I think many novels have lost—what is termed pure fiction. There are many kinds of novels in pure fiction that I’m not at all interested in because I don’t believe it. And it’s not just me; it’s the same for Joyce Carol Oates and a lot of writers who have wanted to return to the real. For that reason, I wanted to tell stories that really interested people and to recover credibility by introducing real people in the book—even though I later created fiction.  In this situation, who better than me to be the narrator?

Whatever the case I should clarify that the Kirmen Uribe who appears in the novel is an image of the author, because for me it is very interesting to see how the notion of the author has changed in recent years. For example, there is the case of J. M. Coetzee: he wrote Boyhood (1997) and Youth (2002), which theoretically were autobiographies written in the third person. Now he’s written Summertime (2009), which incorporates transposition and his own image is portrayed from different points of view. For me, this changing notion of authorship and experiencing the introduction of the author himself or herself in the text is very interesting. For example, W. G. Sebald said he no longer believed in those authors who remained outside the text. Instead, authors should introduce themselves in the text but in a different way, by means of a caricaturist image. What’s more, this allows them to establish a much closer relationship with readers.

That’s what Manuel Alberca says in El pacto ambiguo. De la autobiografía a la autoficcón that autofiction allows one to approach the reader more honestly because the self-narrator begins from the idea that what is in the text is fiction and not “truth,” which is the aim of autobiography. Yet in “Esto no es una novela” (This is not a novel, published in Cuadernos Hispanoamericanos) you cite Sebald in order to also take up a position against the dominance traditional omniscient narrators in fiction exert over readers. Could you explain this position a little as regards fiction?

I’m at about the halfway point, because autofiction is very liberating. It’s as liberating as the free indirect style in Madame Bovary. What I mean is that one can use real things, introduce them into the book, and convert them into fiction. And this has a lot to do with the spirit of the novel, because novels emerge from an aim. The narrator says at the beginning of the novel that fiction is in trouble.  The novelist says: let’s make trouble for the conventional fiction; I’m not going to tell stories with clear plots used in conventional fiction; I’m going to try and tell things in a different way.

In BNYB style is much more important than the plot itself. Why? Because that’s literature. Plot is film or a television series. For me, here in the twenty-first century literature is style. We have gradually come to differentiate ourselves from other disciplines and ask ourselves the question: What is literature? Well, coming back to autofiction, for me it was very important that readers didn’t know for sure whether what I was saying was true or a lie. My aim was to go back to the original story, which is just as important as our own life and just as necessary for the individual. A couple, a family, or a community creates its own stories and it doesn’t matter whether it’s reality or fiction. The important thing is that this fact helps them understand life. Ultimately, we’re all interested in putting our own lives in order and putting our lives in order means using this original story.

Autofiction because the topic calls for it or because of your guise as a poet, in which the lyrical “I” voice is omnipresent?

But in my work there is a distancing. I’ve always tried to distance myself in poetry. Even in Bar Puerto (2001) the distancing is very clear: the narrator is a young documentary director who, on returning to his home town, finds out that his grandmother’s house is going to be pulled down. And he begins to film. Clearly I use material from my own life, my grandmother, my father, the testimonies are real. Yet they are narrated by a fictitious person; I adopted that distancing for BNYB. I did the same as Siri Hustvedt in The Sorrows of an American (2008), in which she uses her father’s diaries to make fiction, even though the diaries are real. I therefore protect myself, and I even chose to do this in Bar Puerto.

The major leap forward in BNYB in regard to my previous work is that my name appears and it is me who tells the story, although I am narrating fiction. For me it was essential to use autofiction in that novel; in which I wanted to convey how a writer in small literature lives in the twenty-first century. That’s what I wanted to convey, all the changes taking place now: technological, personal, family, or those being experienced by new families; changes in male roles like the emerging concept of new paternity. I wanted to portray those changes and for that reason it was very important to use autofiction. We’ll see if I use the same technique for other novels, if it is good for the narration, yes; if not, no.

As regards the original story, in BYNB and in Bar Puerto it looks as if you’re moving from pétite histoire—what your grandparents spoke about, what you heard at home—toward HISTORY in capital letters. In other words, that in your narrations history is shaped by the voice of witnesses to the events. 

At the time I was writing BNYB I was very interested in fractal theory, in how one could write by means of variants or variations on the same subject. I was also interested in Paul Klee’s painting style. Paul Klee didn’t see the whole picture but instead began in a corner and gradually built up the whole painting, little by little, as if were a cloud that was changing shape. It was then I got very interested in, and I’m still interested today, in pétite histoire; because the Basque Country is a place where grand history or history in capital letters, or interpretations of this, have created victims. History in our country has been very cruel to people. For that reason I’m much more drawn to small histories; they seem more real to me: first, in order to understand reality from different angles, and second, in order to be able to eventually heal those wounds.

In the narrative sense, there is also a series of small histories in BNYB, because I was drawn to the idea of proposing stories in a radical way, in a total stripped down way. They are like—more than one reader has told me—many novels inside one novel: they are protonovels. Stories might emerge that can be developed further; but there they appear in their initial form.

Now that we’re speaking about pétite histoire, from Bar Puerto to BNYB, in your work you underline the themes of everyday life and community. And in a similar way to the experience of historical testimonies, elements of popular culture enjoy a significant presence in BNYB.

Orality is a theme of my work. I published a book titled, so folkloric, Portu Koplak (Port Verse, 2006), in which I collected port songs, slightly marginal songs. I’ve always been interested in personal, let’s say popular, stories. And yet popular doesn’t mean traditional. I believe they are different.

Community is very important in BNYB; because there is an ethical stand in favor of this community in the novel and I think it comes out very clearly. The first sentence in the novel indicates this commitment: “Fish and trees are alike.” People might ask: How are they alike? Not at all. But later I explain that it is the case, that both have internal growth rings. What I’m trying to do in the novel is create connections between different things. That was very important for me: on the one hand, the image of a republican in a very nationalist and traditionalist town like Ondarroa; but also narrating how a bomb falls on his house and suddenly the birds he keeps start singing. That combination of different things. That wanting to understand why our parents, our grandparents, acted as they did and wanting to assimilate the fact that human beings are flawed, contradictory. That ethical stand of wanting to unite the diverse society that appears in BNYB.

Do you believe in the writer’s commitment to society? When it comes to giving a voice to those who do not have one (immigrants, and so on). Even in your novel there are examples of artists like Picasso or Arteta who are very committed.

Yes, that’s true. But there’s always been a contrast between the individual and society. I also wanted to reflect that in the novel. It’s true that Aurelio Arteta and Pablo Picasso were very connected and committed to society. But they also felt a certain tension. Any writer who writes in a small language—as Pascale Casanova used to say—suffers the same tension. I think everyone loves their own language, everyone loves their own country. But at the same time that language doesn’t allow them to take any steps forward; it’s very odd. It was also my intention to express that tension, that love-hate relationship that one has with his or her tradition. It’s true that Arteta was very committed, but at one point he fled to Mexico with his family. Milan Kundera used to say that small linguistic communities behave like families and demand a lot of loyalty. Yet the writer is by definition an individual who is always trying to leave that community. Kafka, Joyce, and Beckett, who all created stunning works, wrote about this tension. It’s what Ricardo Piglia said, that in these communities assimilating the Western tradition is always much more open. It’s carried out in another way and that’s how beautiful and exotic, and strange, flowers emerge. But they are very difficult cases because the community itself ties you down firmly.

David Lyon, among other theorists, has argued that postmodernity is a mostly metropolitan phenomenon. Do you think an idea like postmodernity is possible in a town like Ondarroa? Could you outline how a town like Ondarroa assimilates the idea of postmodernity?

Bar Puerto is about this; it’s an assimilation of postmodern theories in a town like Ondarroa and, at the same time, very urban. It speaks about stories that happen in many places: drugs, AIDS, victims of history in capital letters, of women’s roles and immigration. A very urban work, set in a town of ten thousand inhabitants, but still very urban. And very different to all the costumbrista stuff that had been done up to then. Because what I wanted to do in Bar Puerto was locate all the tension that was being experienced at that time—the end of the twentieth century—in a microcosm. BNYB goes further, there are many topoi and what’s more, movement is very important: like a board of checkers where the pieces are constantly moving.

As regards assimilating the postmodern idea, yes it is possible. In all these communities there are two tensions. One is assimilation and the other is differentiation. Communities assimilate what is being done elsewhere. And two, they want to differentiate themselves from what is being done elsewhere. It’s important that the force of differentiation doesn’t outweigh that of assimilation. When that instinct to differentiate supersedes that of assimilating, works are poorer in literary terms and it affects literary debate. There are many theories, many concepts, which have not been assimilated in the Basque Country. Why? Because there is a centrifugal force that seeks to differentiate it from other traditions.  And this to me is very negative. Sometimes assimilation even forms part of the process of differentiation but in another way: elements that have already come and gone are assimilated. Consequently, literature itself becomes very conservative.

On the other hand, taking account of those possibilities Piglia mentions, small literatures do have that opportunity to create quality work that contributes to universal literature. But if we close ourselves off inside ourselves that is impossible.

You speak about assimilation and differentiation. However, Basque literature is taking on a more international look—as in the case of young novelists who write what has been termed “Erasmus literature”—with more global cultural and spatial references. This happens in BNYB. There are themes that go beyond the Basque conflict – although the conflict is also there.

                  In my case, what I try to do is tell universal stories but without hiding my own tradition. Because BNYB is a very Basque novel. I don’t avoid the conflict, or tradition. Very traditionalist Basque authors like Txomin Agirre appear throughout the novel. Because one must not forget that I speak to the world from my own tradition. Nor can one turn one’s back on one’s own background to become global, because one loses content, one loses perspective. At the end of the day, I don’t know if Americans are really interested in the story of a Basque who lives in Norway without this story being particular in some way. Particularity is interesting if it is done in an open way. Orham Pamuk does it in Istanbul: Memories and the City (2005) and when I read him and that entire list of Turkish authors I find that I feel like reading them. What’s important is the attitude one takes, open or closed. It’s like the teacher who knows how to explain himself or herself in front of those who don’t.

As regards this international look—such a feature of BNYB—how much does it have to do with processes of a global nature like multiculturalism, immigration, or the formation of the European Union? To what point does the connection Bilbao/Ondarroa and New York represent a new way of thinking differently? Because in BNYB there is a portrait of what the sociologist Manuel Castells terms a network of cities that represents the new centers of power in the global era.

                  What I try to show is how an author from a tradition like that of the Basque Country in the early twenty-first century lives. For me, places, not just cities, including Rockall—which is a rock—and St. Kilda, an island, are also very important. Yes I did want to create a network of Atlantic places. Not just great cities, but places and sites. That’s where my political commitment is as regards this global process. I’m speaking about cities that are centers of power, but BNYB is just that, what its name indicates. There is a tension between big cities and small traditions. It’s not Bilbao-New York, it’s not an escape, it’s not a writer who goes off. He goes off and comes back. The tension is clear in the title, between the two cities and between the Basque and American traditions; as well as the tension between cities and places, the whole network of Atlantic sites, given that what unites them is the Atlantic.

With regard to the phenomenon of immigration in the novel, right from the start, from the name of my grandparents’ boat—“Dos Amigos” (Two Friends)—I asked myself: Who was the other friend? The question is about the “other,” about otherness, and it circulates throughout the novel. The image of the immigrant is very important, especially forming part of an ancient tradition, of such an ancient language, of a community that has become very closed. It’s in that context that the image of the immigrant is very important: the image of what is different, of the woman who is excluded in Ondarroa for having had a child with an Italian in the civil war, of the black woman – who is not treated very politely in an elevator in Bastida’s son’s diary, and even of how at the end of the novel a girl with Senegalese parents speaks with another Caucasian girl in Basque.

Throughout this interview you’ve mentioned the return of the first person for the importance of new technologies, the new challenges of current literature, and the crisis of conventional fiction. Do you mean that postmodernism has been exhausted? Do you think the material conditions exist, perhaps not for breaking with but rather continuing with postmodernism?

Yes, I think so. Something is emerging that has been termed altermodernity. I think society, writers, and art are moving ahead and different things are emerging. It’s true that in favoring pétite histoire, one recognizes the demise of the gran récit mentioned by Jean-François Lyotard. In that sense, Lyotard said that relativizing was emancipating for the individual. Although I don’t want to fall into radical relativism. Because I also think there is a late postmodernism , and here I’m closer to the thought of Frederic Jameson, given that it has been over forty years since postmodernism started. And I try to establish other versions of reality, attempting to return to a new modernity. I am believing once again in the human being.

As regards experimentation, in my case, despite being very important I don’t see it as an end. For example, there are different discourses in the novel: advertisements, Wikipedia texts, Facebook messages. But everything has its raison d’être, each element appears for a reason, and never outside the content of the work: they appear because he, the author or narrator, is in a plane and reads the advertisement. They are not displayed gratuitously.

In La luz nueva Vicente Luis Mora mentions a characteristic of fiction he terms “Pangaea”:  the confusion between the literary process (writing) and the literary product (the novel). Beyond whether BNYB is a pangeaic  (mutant) novel or not, BNYB is mostly an investigation. This is process. Does choosing autofiction as a technique for narrating have anything to do with this?

                  For me what was important was the process of writing the novel; not that conventional product. I have even been asked, most ingenuously, if I’m ever going to write that novel; meaning that whoever asked me this does not understand anything. It was the process that was important: it’s the flight, movement, change, and how the idea of authorship fits into the novel. That allowed me to tell real stories about people who are included in the novel.

So how can one organize all this if there is no conventional plot? Here there are two elements. First, the association of ideas. The author is constructing memory and when one constructs memory the association of ideas jumps out, memory jumps out without any apparent logic. This was the first foundation on which to organize the story. Yet the association of ideas itself can end up being very boring, or too intellectual. This is what I find with Sebald’s books, which I love, but I realized that just with this association one loses something as regards narration.

How can one recover narration for a novel? By means of the second concept: networked structure. I use this structure with leaps of time and space and it is organized around three generations that progress in a chronological sense, like a clock moving along – to use Vila-Matas’s notion; establishing at the same time analogies, intertwining stories that gradually make up this network. Those stories appear and disappear; birds, immigrants crossing the Atlantic, abused women… There are a lot of intertwining stories that come to make up the novel, that give it that body so that it doesn’t fall apart. Without that body, without that network, the novel would fall apart; it would be of no interest to the reader. The reader would feel lost in a kind of unconnected series of stories. That’s why BNYB has a link. Each story appears, then it is repeated; it has an image, it has a reflection, a story never appears gratuitously.

You speak about a network. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari spoke of rhizome as a structure that was governed by the independence of its units and that had no center. However, when it comes to putting this idea into practice, when networks are constructed there are centers. There is Google on the internet and normal users are on the periphery. In a similar way, in your novel one sees that when you establish a network with the structure you don’t abandon a center made up of the three generations of your family.

                  Precisely. I call them knots of content, not of plot. They are almost biological knots that hold the novel itself together. Poetry has helped me a lot with this. The role poetry will take on in the twenty-first century novel will be very interesting. Especially if writers want to tell stories with plots, without these being overly important. Because the plot of BNYB is the same as that of the Odyssey, but this plot is not as important when it comes to organizing the novel. The most important thing is the units: discourses and stories that intertwine within the novel. The reason I give such importance to poetry—in order to write these new kinds of novels—is because poetry plays with analogies; it plays with metaphors and with repetitions. I have learned so much from this; I have learned how to organize silences so that the reader fills in the gaps. Moreover, I want to mention Vila-Matas, who, in his latest book, Perder teorías (2010), remarks that high poetry will be very important in the new novel. This is not a question of poetic prose. It’s about writing novels with an order influenced by poetry. In the same way a poet takes in reality.

In BNYB one can see the influence of new technologies in the direct reproduction of digital content. Yet there is also an indirect representation in the writing and in the structuring of the writing with narrative units.

                  Yes, also in the way of narrating. Nowadays people narrate in a very direct way on Twitter and Facebook and I wanted to grasp that spirit. Although it’s not the same as writing on the internet. Because this is literature; it’s not the internet. For me, it’s important to establish that difference. One thing is how young people write on the net. And another thing is writing novels like this, and I don’t think it’s about that. The internet influenced me, but what I wrote was a novel. Because I’m not so interested in the electronic novel, but rather the novel: the novel genre that raises issues of change occurring in society. It happened with cinema, it happened with journalism, and now it’s happening with new technologies.

Of course, despite the fact you are influenced by it, the material conditions of the novel are not the same as those offered by the internet.

                  That’s it, I represent that change. Yet I also respect the novel tradition and for me experimentation must make sense. And what I find attractive is what remains of experimentation in the tradition. It’s not breaking with everything; I’m interested in assimilating all these innovations in our lives and introducing them into the novel tradition. I’m between two paths; nor am I part of the conventional novel. I’m a big reader of traditional novels; for example, I love John Cheever. When I wrote BNYB I didn’t want to write a conventional novel, but a novel, yes.

Yet the opposite, denying the influence of new technologies, is very naïve. One cannot deny these changes. Another thing is all those radical suggestions to just base everything on them. I believe that in the novel, just as in life, everything g must make sense and this rule should be respected. If one establishes some rules for a novel, these rules should be followed, even if they differ from those of an earlier novel. Henri Matisse told Picasso that his “Mademoiselle d’Avignon” did not respect the rules of art. Picasso told him it did, but they were other rules. In sum, it is important that the new rules also be respected, that they make sense, and that then the reader understands how to accept your book as a novel and not as something ethereal.

Whether as a result of personal use or intentional imitation your novel attempts, to a certain extent, to imitate the intertextual possibilities offered readers by the internet. Yet one can also arrive at this intertextuality from the oral tradition, the storyteller who ties together story after story.

                  The thing is that both worlds live side-by-side in ours. In my own life, orality, the conventional literary tradition, and this whole new legacy coexist. Why should I put one of these traditions to one side? I read McCarthy, Phillip Roth, classical Basque literature and, what’s more, new things also influence me – not just postmodern things. There is a negotiation between the two parts, as there should be between assimilation and differentiation in regard to postmodernity.

I’m interested in Lorca’s surrealism. In The Poet in New York Lorca assimilates surrealism, but his surrealism is very personal and recognizable on the part of the reader: it is logical. André Breton is not the same as García Lorca. And I’m interested in the latter because he bears in mind his own tradition, the oral tradition. His personality also present and his poetic vision makes an appearance. It’s not anything cold, but rather one understands his metaphors, one can recognize what he is saying. It’s not the same with Breton, because it is automatic writing. For that reason, I like to use experimentalism in a personal way and not break up the relationship with the reader so that he or she might recognize what I’m saying. Although I base my work on the very latest theories, I always bear in mind that I’m in the Western tradition. Experimentation must make sense.

Because of what you said when citing Vila-Matas and because of the presence of poetry, it is clear that methodology, when it comes to structuring the novel, has had a major lyrical influence (analogy, metaphor, and comparison). But also technology. Hyperlinks. And furthermore, there is memory. All three.

                  With regard to structure, how can one sort out the author’s memory, what that author is using, without falling back on a conventional plot? That was a very difficult challenge for me. Well, poetry appears in the form of poems and even in prose at the beginning of the work. But also when it came to sorting out how to narrate scenes and arranging the silences.

Hyperlinks are very interesting. Even the length of a narrative unit is almost the length of a computer screen. The stories are as short as that in my case. And there are stories that unfold in many directions. Not just in one direction, which is what happened before, when stories were related to each other in a chronological direction.

What about style? Perhaps because of your work as a translator and poet, one can see in your poetry and also in your prose the major influence of Raymond Carver? Or is it a case of the demands of the formats associated with the new technologies?

When mentioning authors, and BNYB being a work of prose, Italo Calvino and his Six Memos for the Next Millennium were more of an influence. In which he said how to narrate by emphasizing lightness and quickness. I think that here Calvino got it absolutely right. But clearly the way of reading is changing, young people do not read in the same way, they read at another speed. Right now a twenty-year-old would find it difficult to read War and Peace. Reading goes at a different speed and from this emerges the need to print that lightness and that quickness of which Calvino spoke in writing.

In connection with geography, there is a strong presence of the spaces of late capitalism—what Marc Augé (1992) termed non-places—in your novel: walkways or airport terminals. Meanwhile, there are a large number of places of memory or identity in BNYB: the bridge and the port of Ondarroa. To my understanding, the narrator makes his intention clear to represent the difference between places, which are even represented in different ways.

I was interested in that contrast between non-places and truly important places, like for example the chapel of the Virgen de la Antigua or the port of Ondarroa. It is very significant because it represents the “difference” factor in a geographical setting within the process of internationalization.

The contrast between the flight and memory is also increasingly important, given that elements from the world of marketing gradually appear, not represented in a gratuitous way, but rather to serve as a contrast in relation to the places. The appearance of the Skagen watch brand, for example, was very significant. Later in the book there is mention of the history of Danish painters. Moreover, Denmark is Unai’s place of birth. This is an example of how from an object, from a brand, one can create or reconstruct one’s own life by associating it with places.

Nevertheless, I don’t take sides with the places that are important in my life. Instead, I like to be “between.” Non-places are also important. But more still is the contrast between spaces: New York and Bilbao. I’m not interested in calling for a return to the past. Even though mention is made of a way of life that is being lost, even though I think it’s nice to tell stories about words that are being lost, it was never my aim to create a nostalgic vision. And I think this is very important in BNYB. It is not an ethnic book, it is not nostalgic, and it does not call for a return to the past. It stakes a claim for the present and the changes being experienced in our society. And it emphasizes the complex individual, who can like traditional songs and Calvin Klein.

By contrast, with regard to the description of places, it is true that there is a difference between the cold language concerning the non-places, and a much more reflexive and more emotive one for the places of identity. 

Paulo Kortazar. From the book by Jon Kortazar Contemporary Basque Literature: Kirmen Uribe's Proposal. Iberoamericana/Veuvert. 2013.


The sea is always a reason for writing

By Charlie Mcbride

AMONG THE many illustrious guests who will converge on Galway for Cúirt this month is Basque poet and novelist Kirmen Uribe whose books have been attracting international attention and accolades.

Uribe was born in 1970 in Ondarroa, a small fishing town about one hour from Bilbao, where his own father was a trawlerman. His first poetry collection Bitartean Heldu Eskutik appeared in 2001 and its first edition sold out within a month. It was subsequently translated into Spanish, French, and Russian and, in 2007, poet Elizabeth Macklin’s English translation (Meanwhile Take My Hand) was published in the USA, the first time a book translated directly from Basque had been issued by a commercial press in America.

The collection was described as a ‘peaceful revolution in the world of Basque literature’. “I think the critics wanted to talk all about the reception the book received, it was one of the most read in Basque, and the renewal of the language,” Uribe observes, talking about the book. “Also, its topics were urban and I used different voices for the poems.

“The book came after a multimedia spectacle that we made, Bar Puerto, combining poetry, music, video, and oral history, that told the story of the neighbourhood whre my grandmother lived which was demolished to build a road. I think that helped a lot in the success of the book.

“This book has changed my life. I wrote it when my father died and the book itself has become somewhat of a father, because it taught me a trade, the way forward.”

Proud Basque

Uribe has done many collaborative projects with artists in other media. One such was the CD-book Zaharregia, Txikiegia again which examined the question of whether Euskera, the Basque language, might be ‘too old, too small’ for these modern times. What are his thoughts on that subject?

“Euskera is a small language, there are less than one million speakers and it is one of the oldest in Europe, it is pre-IndoEuropean,” he replies. “But it is my tongue and I love it. I live through Basque. It has a literary tradition of 500 years and although it suffered a lot under the Franco dictatorship now I have to say that we are living a sweet moment with good writers, not just one or two, but several, a kind of boom, which I think will increase further with the arrival of peace.”

His family’s seafaring background was a key factor in Uribe’s formation as a writer as he readily admits.

“I’m definitely a writer because I was born in the place where I was born,” he says. “My father was a fisherman and I used to be at home with my mother and my aunts. I loved being among the women in the kitchen. There I learned to listen to stories, stories of the sea, war, love…Those women taught me storytelling. And the sea is always a reason for writing. In the novel I speak about a lost way of life, the fishermen. I could say that the book is a tribute to them.”

The novel Uribe mentions is his prize-winning Bilbao-New York-Bilbao which was published in 2008. It is a multi-faceted work revolving around a writer’s plane journey during which he contemplates his supposed novel-in-progress, which is about three generations of a family, his own, whose life is bound up with the sea.

“What I like most about the novel is its structure,” Uribe declares. “It’s like a net, and the knots of the net are the stories of the three generations, and it includes all the thoughts of the writer who flies to New York from Bilbao. His name like mine is Kirmen Uribe, but he is obviously another person. I wanted go a bit away from the conventional fiction and make a different book. It was funny to write it, and it works!”

The novel has not yet appeared in English but is in the process of being translated by Elizabeth Macklin.

“To me Elizabeth is an angel,” he enthuses. “There are people you meet in life and help you, help you without asking anything in return. I have met many, many angels. And Elizabeth is one of them. In the path of a writer these angels are essential. Lorca would have been nothing without his translator into English, at that time Juan Ramon Jimenez and Antonio Machado were much more famous writers but Lorca’s trip to New York changed everything.”

Finally, what is Uribe working on at the moment?

“Right now I’m in San Francisco, at The Headlands Centre for The Arts, writing my second novel,” he replies. “It’s about a girl in the Spanish Civil War leaving Bilbao in 1937, like thousands of children who had to flee alone, without parents, and she is adopted by a Belgian writer. It is an exciting history.

“Hopefully Bilbao-New York-Bilbao will soon appear in English, which would be a great joy. I am also working on new poems. Anyway, I am not a good friend of the hurry, I like to go slowly, like the boats leaving the harbour.”



The strength of a good poem is incomparable

Kirmen Uribe is a Basque poet who has become a world poet. A pioneer and a sensation in Spain, a true representative of the new and modern from one of Europe’s most distinct cultures and languages, Kirmen is already one of the most celebrated literary figures in the history of Basque literature. His is the first Basque language collection to be published and translated in full by an American publisher, and he is the winner of numerous awards, reading his work at festivals around the world. His work is unsurprisingly unique – graceful in its vitriol, singular but not solipsistic. He is the standard bearer of a nation as it moves into new realms of poetic expression, for the 67th edition of Maintenant we are proud to bring you Kirmen Uribe.

3:AM: How does the Basque language lend itself uniquely to poetry?

Kirmen Uribe: Basque poetry has a long tradition. The first book printed in Basque was a poetry book, Bernat Etxepare’s Linguae Vasconum Primitiae, published in 1545 in France. However, the Basque oral poetry tradition is even older. There have been excellent poets after Etxepare, mostly in the XIX Century and in the twenties and thirties of the last century. But I don´t think that the Basque language is just good for poetry. We have good novelists too. The Basque language is similar to others, the important thing is that as a communication tool – it is alive and kicking.

3:AM: What is the state of the Basque language in your opinion? Is it thriving? Is it being represented as it should in poetry?

KU: The status of Basque language has changed a lot in the last forty years. My grandmother could read and write in Basque before the Spanish Civil war, but for my mother it became impossible to read anything in Basque since she was forty. Fortunately, after the dictator’s death the Basque language has had a great development. My generation is the first one in going to primary school, to secondary and to university with the possibility of doing all their studies in Basque. Besides, nowadays there is a literary system, newspapers and media in Basque.

3:AM: Bitartean heldu eskutik (Meanwhile Take My Hand), was the first time a book translated directly from Basque was published by a commercial press in the US. It seems you have arguably become the most well regarded Basque poet of your generation in the English speaking world. Do you think this is true?

KU: I’m very glad with that book and its reception in the U.S. I’m glad because the process was really “organic”. I mean, it wasn´t a big commercial landing. Firstly, I went to New York and read some poems accompanied by musicians. I was invited by the poet Elizabeth Macklin, who has translated my poetry into English. It happened in 2003. In that journey I got to know that one of my poems ‘May’ would be published in the New Yorker. It was amazing! I couldn’t believe it. Since then, we have published more poems in several newspapers such as Open City, Circumference… And finally the book appeared in 2007. It was a slow and natural process.

3:AM: Your work is appears imagistic, fluid with a distinct voice, that even emerges in translation. How do you write? Do you draft your poems or do they emerge in bursts?

KU: I write very slowly. I can be thinking in a poem for months. You can’t write poetry as a novel. One poem a day. The writing process is completely different. I think poetry is the best gender to express something essential in our life. The strength of a good poem is incomparable. Auden’s ‘In memory W. B. Yeats’ for example. Good poems are cathedrals built with few words, with just the essential words. That’s why you need to work a lot with a poem. Then you can write it in five minutes, or you can be rewriting it for ages.

3:AM: How much does your nationality, your culture, your language bring with it a sense of responsibility, that you are a representative of Basque literature, and heralded as a peaceful revolutionary in that field?

KU: I have a poem, called, ‘Birds in winter’ and in that poem I tell the story of two kids who try to save birds from the snow. But when they bring the birds into the house the birds die with the heat of the heater. I cannot forget my language when I am writing. Dozens of writers before me have saved birds for generations. And thanks to them I can write in Basque. My responsibility is to write good books and then try to translate them into other languages. It is the best way I see to help my country.

3:AM: How does Basque poetry relate to the poetry of Spain? It seems the Spanish & French poetry scenes can be factional, and regional, is this true?

KU: Well, it is difficult to be translated into Spanish. There are so few Basque books translated into this language, and as a consequence of that there is an ignorance about Basque poetry. That’s a shame because there are good poets in Basque.

3:AM: You were imprisoned for refusing draft into military service, what were the circumstances of this refusal on your part?

KU: There was an interesting people movement called Insumisión in the Nineties that consisted in not going to the military service. We were thousands and thousands of conscientious objectors in Spain. It was a pacifist movement and an apolitical popular movement. I went to jail, that’s true, but finally the military service was abolished. It was worth it and the good part of being in jail was that I could read a lot of books in there!

3:AM: You’ve engaged in many collaborations with other artistic mediums? Do you think poetry is underexplored as a collaborative art?

KU: But the times are changing. I can see that here are a lot of new ways to bring poetry to the readers. The internet could be a good place for it. Video-poems are so interesting. And, of course, live readings with music, video, or just with the poet reading his own texts in his voice. Literature is becoming more and more democratic. I mean, the distance between the writer and his readers is closer now.

3:AM: Could you detail your continued work with musicians?

KU: Well, I have take part in some multimedia projects with musicians and artists. One of these performance piece was ‘Bar Puerto’, made up of oral history, poetry, video and music together. It is a chronicle of the twentieth century in a Basque fishing town. From the Civil War through the dark postwar years, the arrival of Galician fishermen in the nineteen-sixties, the disaster AIDS created in the nineteen-eighties, and the nineties immigration from Africa; at the close, today’s fisherman, who heads off to his fishing grounds by jet plane.

3:AM: You have travelled widely through your work, reading across the world really. How has this experience, mixing with other poets, changed your work?

KU: Great! I love to travel and meet writers all over the world. That’s one of the best thing poetry offers me. Although we write in different languages we are not so different between us. I am looking forward to go to the poetry festival of Medellín in Colombia as we speak!

SJ Fowler. 3:AM Magazine, London. September, 2011.