A Conversation with Francisco Bitar

Francisco Bitar was born in 1981 in Santa Fe, the city where he currently lives. He’s published the poetry books Negativos [Negatives] (2007), El olimpo [The Olympus] (2009 and 2010), Ropa vieja: la muerte de una estrella [Old Clothes: The Death of a Star] (2011) and The Volturno Poems (2015). These works, along with some unpublished pieces, will appear in a collected volume in 2017. Bitar has also published the novel Tambor de arranque [Starting Drum] (2012), which won a literary prize from the city of Rosario and came out in Spain in 2015 with a good response from the critics. His collection of stories Luces de Navidad [Christmas Lights] (2014) will be reprinted this year by the publisher Nudista.

Other books by Bitar include Acá había un río [Here There Was a River] (2015), the book Bitar says “takes a new approach to texts as a result of my previous books, the approach I still use today”, and Historia oral de la cerveza [Oral History of Beer] (2015) which was published with the help of the Fondo Nacional de las Artes. Bitar has translated, among others, Jack Spicer (Quince proposiciones falsas contra Dios, 2009) and helped edit a volume of poems by Juan Manuel Inchauspe, called Trabajo nocturno [Night work] (2010). He is included in the anthology 30.30. Poesía argentina del siglo XXI (2013). He studied literature and coordinates a writing workshop at the bookstore Del Otro Lado Libros.

I’ve translated Bitar’s poems for Ventana Latina, where I’m editor, as well as for a 2014 issue of the UK publication Modern Poetry in Translation. As Bitar was in Santa Fe at and I was in California at the time of the interview, we carried out our conversation over email. Originally in Spanish, it has been translated.

In the last few years it seems that you’ve started to write more prose and longer texts like novels. Was this something deliberate or a natural progression?

In my case, it was as much a decision as a natural outcome. To start with, there’s a clear narrative component in my poems, which are incidents, small experiences in which something transcendental is revealed or decided. What’s certain is that I love to write and need to do so for at least a few hours every day. And poetry no longer gave me that pleasure. With time, and the passage of years, the poem as a format no longer allows me to spend my mornings writing.

In the introduction to the text I wrote for Modern Poetry in Translation, I wrote that in your poetry there is “a certain seriousness — a spare melancholy”. But I also think there’s an element of humor in your work, something like a sense of well-being in your surroundings, which appears especially in your prose. (Your poetry is more lyrical.)

Absolutely. I’d call it a certain ease. Humor, I think, is one of the most difficult effects to achieve and because of that, because I don’t believe myself capable of achieving it, I’ve never attempted it deliberately. In my narrative, there are moments when the characters go astray, when there’s a contrast between them and their situation. How have this man or this woman come to find themselves in such a tight spot? It makes you laugh. It seems to me that a poem, in its intensity and force, impedes laughter, which as a reaction to the text isn’t central but lateral.

I’m not sure there’s a real division between poetry and prose, but for the sake of this question let’s pretend that those genres exist. Do poetry and prose reflect different moods for you, or are they part of the same totality, “literature”?

I came up with an outline that’s somewhat schematic, but productive for me. If there’s a significant moment, it’s a poem. If there’s a conflict, it’s a story. If there are a series of conflicts that result in the transformation of the protagonist, it’s a novel. In every type of writing there must be music.

Do you try to represent different real moments from life, or do you think of literature as an artificial construction separate from the personal?

I think there’s a real base, and that the text must present itself to the reader as if the facts narrated were possible. That’s what we call truthfulness. But I also think that literature, the art of literature with its closed and self-sufficient works, is nothing like life, which is disordered, chaotic and difficult to keep at bay. That’s the first lesson in my narrative workshops: literature comes from life but isn’t life.

A big question, but here goes. What’s the relationship for you between literature and life?

I’m not really sure. Sometimes I look back and think I understand the relationship between the book I wrote at a certain moment and what was happening then in my life. Somehow each book occupied a certain place and represented a possibility for thinking about my own life, even becoming a form of keeping my mental equilibrium. But I never understand exactly what I’m writing at the moment. I think a writer is never capable of knowing that. If he or she did, it would be the equivalent of knowing the meaning of a story, which can ruin everything.

How would you describe the style of your writing, in one phrase?

Before, it was the minimalism of the epiphany. Now, it’s the minimalism of the argument.

What is the influence of the place where you live, Santa Fe, on your work? (Does it have an influence?) Do you think coming from somewhere that isn’t the capital of the country affects your work and its distribution?

Yes, of course. In practical terms, it’s decisive. I think that being far from the cultural pole of my country has two consequences. One is an advantage, in that it gives you distance from what people are thinking about and producing in Buenos Aires. It gives you the possibility of establishing differences. Being there, in the middle of all the debates, can make you dizzy. I think the great writers are marginal in that sense. They took a step to the side and grew in the interior of their own work. That concentration, or field of concentration as Fabián Casas calls it, is the only way for a body of work to evolve. The other consequence of being here isn’t so fortunate: I’m far from friends, from the journalism that pays for my work, from the big publishers, from the grants, etc.

What are the influences you consider important, beyond readings and workshops? What gives you ideas? (i.e. For me it’s playing the piano, looking at paintings, listening to albums, a good conversation while walking around the city…)

Lately I’ve been doing something I’ve never done before: reading film summaries. Sometimes I don’t even watch the films. There’s no need to; I prefer not to be let down. In some cases, if not all, it’s impossible for the film to be as interesting as the summary. I think that there’s an art form in the genre, in its argumentative synthesis. That efficacy can be used for writing. One person invites another to look for a treasure. A man receives a message that the body of his first wife was discovered in ice, identical to how it looked 45 years before. As a reader, you can’t stop until the end. It’s extraordinary.

In what tradition do you see yourself? Who are the writers from the past and present you feel close to (because they have a similar aesthetic, or because you like to read them)?

I think that some current writers are interested in writing from realism but distancing themselves from it, a kind of estrangement of realism. That interests me and I think that’s what Federico Falco and Pablo Natale are doing. Also Luciano Lamberti, but in a different way. The predecessor of this, I have to admit is, is [the classic Argentine writer Juan José] Saer, whom I used to read but not so much anymore. The truth is, when writing I dream of a style somewhere between that of Paul Auster and [J.M.] Coetzee, writers who have points in common between them. But when I’m looking for something to read, there’s no beating the pleasure of poetry. I always go back to the same writers: Julián Bejarano, Mariano Blatt, Alfredo Jaramillo.


Below is an excerpt from Bitar’s novel Acá había un río [Here There Was a River].

Changing the angle of his search, he’s gone from the movie theater to the city, and from the city to the past.

But this time he isn’t lucky either: with his father’s death, the country house has been abandoned, and there’s no trace of what in another time meant affection and well-being, in a word, love: now, beyond what’s left of the entrance, the growing reeds don’t even let one see a path to the door.

He manages to make his way somehow, though: there’s the place where they lit a fire, there’s the pot (now rusted and covered in cobwebs) where they heated food, there’s the table where they drank wine, there’s the floor where they made love.

How could all that be in ruins?

Well, not in ruins, exactly, or in any case, not completely. He has a family, he tells himself. Things didn’t go the way he thought they would, but now he has a life, even if it’s not his own.