A Militant Poet Beyond Militancy

Adrian Grima interviews Brazilian writer Jelson Oliveira

Cover photo: Por onde andou Mariazinha carregou memórias sobre a Guerra do Contestado (1912-1916) (Foto: Léo Cardoso, BD)

To speak is to act’, writes Sartre. ‘With every word I utter, I involve myself a little more in the world, and by the same token I emerge from it a little more, since I go beyond it towards the future.’ Sartre’s ‘engaged’ writer ‘knows that words are action’, that ‘to reveal is to change’. In many respects, the young Brazilian land reform activist and poet Jelson Oliveira is Sartre’s ‘engaged’ writer. But he is also more. Adrian Grima interviewed him recently.

To his colleague Wilton Borges, ‘the poetry of Jelson Oliveira transmits to us the lament of ‘people of the land’ through one vital element of art: rhythm, respiration, blowing wings of freedom in the land of all. ‘In the universe where everything is conscious, the night, blood and the fence denounce the power that turns the land into a deformed geography, butchering the poor. But Jelson’s poetry rises higher. The lament meets hope. The passionate eyes of the women and the men ‘of the land’ meet the echo of their infinite cry full of dreams.’

Referring to Terra de Livres (Land of Free People), Jelson Oliveira’s first solo collection of poetry published in 1997 on the occasion of the opening of the photographic exhibition by the world-renowned Brazilian, Sebastião Salgado, Borges writes: ‘Jelson gives us images, colour, rhythm, smell… The verb revealing prohibited news about the land of free people.’

Jelson Oliveira and Wilton Borges, both philosophy graduates from the Federal University of Paraná, work for the Comissão Pastoral da Terra, or CPT (Land Pastoral Commission), an ecumenical organization in Brazil that supports small farmers, agricultural workers, and the so-called ‘landless’, those farmers who have been dispossessed of their land.

Wilton Borges and Jelson Oliveira (right) in Malta

In Brazil, a world in itself with an area more than twice the size of Western Europe, there are four million landless families; 80% of the land is owned by 13% of the farmers, or big landowners; small farmers own less than 20% of the land, but they cultivate 85% of the food produced in Brazil. The big farmers grow cash crops, like coffee, cotton and sugar cane, for export. It is a profoundly unjust situation. Although small farmers and peasants have won full citizenship and have organized themselves in movements and organizations that struggle for land reform and basic human rights, the land is still in the hands of a powerful few with the complicity of the State.

No Answers

What makes a 27-year-old young man who relives this struggle for life everyday write poetry? 

‘I need to write. Not just to give to others. I meet a lot of violence against workers, against people, against life, and this provokes strong feelings within me. Sometimes I feel very small and helpless in front of this violence and I am happy when people say: ‘What you have written expresses what I feel’.

Mara Rosa-Go
They invented your rule of silence.
They built fences. For the land and words.
They prohibited the gun powder of hope
To practise the rifle of fury.

They denied your favourite prayer
Forbidden in the throat of the poem:
A mystery for ever, a scream
Going through the pastures of this silent language. 

(Translated by Constantine Mamo OP)

‘But first of all I write because that is my own reaction: Aristotle said that poetry is a form of catharsis. I don’t fully agree with him. If poetry is catharsis, purification, then it always has a moral burden to carry, and I think that poetry doesn’t always have a moral burden, a moral function, a moral responsibility.’

Jelson, himself a winner of a number of prizes in prestigious national poetry competitions in Brazil, refers to a famous Brazilian poet, Manoel de Barros, who has written a book of poems ‘about nothing’, with no ‘function’, ‘only to celebrate life’. His English, a language he started to learn two months before we met to discuss poetry, is essential, but he struggles to fit his thoughts into this foreign language tenaciously, dictionary in hand.’

Only poetry and art in general can do this,’ he says. ‘Only poetry and art in general can celebrate life without having to give answers, to explain life. In art the artist can do whatever she or he wants to do, without being conditioned, relatively speaking, by religion, politics or morality.”

I also write because when I write I am myself and I can offer my readers the chance to be themselves. For me art is an attitude towards life; it is a matter of where and how you position yourself in front of life. So the artistic work, as Nietzsche says, is only an ‘unloading’ of the feeling of life that we carry. Art gives us the possibility to taste freedom, to allow life to sprout, and the artist is a means to do this.’ Jelson mentions Nietzsche often: he got his degree in philosophy with a dissertation called, ‘Art against Decadence in Friedrich Nietzsche’.’

In poetry,’ he writes in his second (and favourite) book of poetry, Tributo ao Povo do Sol (1999), ‘there are no answers. In poetry there is life. Where there is life, there are no answers.’ The book, which has a preface by well-known Spanish poet and bishop Pedro Casaldaliga, was well-received by the general public. It provoked reactions from its readers. Many people liked it and identified themselves with the poems. Jelson received many letters from readers telling him they liked or disliked certain poems, and even asking him to change certain lines.

In his preface, Casaldaliga describes Jelson’s poetry as ‘concise, evocative, well-worked’ and ‘militant’, but never ‘panflatário‘ (pamphletary), never cheap or propagandistic. ‘He knows how to wake up the poetry latent in ‘small themes’, in fleeting moments, in little things. And he is ‘warmly’ human, even passionate.’ As Sartre points out in his book, Literature and Existentialism (1949), ‘one is not a writer for having chosen to say certain things, but for having chosen to say them in a certain way.’

A literature which is engagé

Do you believe in socially and politically committed literature? 

‘Yes I believe in it if it shows life. I don’t believe in poetry that kills life. Some ‘engaged’ literature kills life, style and beauty for the cause. It reproduces facts, the obvious, that which everyone knows. I think that socially and politically committed literature must not forget the sense of art. People want beauty; the poor want beauty as well.

Should all literature be engagé?

All literature is, in one way or another, engagé. All literature should ‘engage’ life; it should translate the feeling of life. And when life is dead, when people are killed, when there is violence, literature should translate these feelings, these situations. Writers like Neruda, Garcia Marquez and Brecht understood these situations and translated them into literature, so their literature is engagé; it engages life.

But some writers write about the life of the poor, the oppressed and others do not. Don’t you distingusih between them?

We have two literatures: one that does not close its eyes in the face of injustice, of violence – this literature is committed to life without forgetting beauty, which is an important thing. But we have another literature which has pushed this aside, writers who say that they don’t like literature which is engagé: when they say this it means that they are committed towards those who oppress the people. They say: ‘My literature is good because it is not engagé‘, but they don’t realise that their literature is committed to the oppressors.’

Socially and politically committed literature is different from pamphletary literature – people say that engaged literature is not good because it is not beauty, it is not art. I look for a poetry that is primarily beauty, art; the commitment or engagement is a consequence. Mine is the world of the poor, not the table of the rich landowners, so my beauty is this situation, I ‘engage’ myself in this situation.

So poetry is inextricably tied to your everyday experience, to what you live? 

Of course. My writing is always about the life of my people, about my life – I am not ‘outside’ that. My grandfather and mother came from Germany in the early 1900s to cultivate the land. My father is now landless; my brother is landless too: it is the history of my people to look for land. My father went from the south to the north of Brazil to find land to work. Now my brother, his wife and their two-year-old daughter live in a black tent in the south of Brazil again waiting to find land to cultivate. This is my history; this is my poetry; this is the history I know. And the land is not only a place, it is a mother, a spirituality, a mystic place.’

Is it possible to write good poetry that does not deal with the problems of injustice in the world? 

It depends on what you mean by ‘good’. If ‘good’ refers to poetic style, to the use of words, of language, then I think that it is possible to write ‘good’ poetry. But poetry is not only ‘form’, body, but also spirit, soul. And I ask you: What is the soul of your poem? Whether the poetry is good or not depends on the answer to this question.’

Revealing the World

According to Sartre, writers have chosen to reveal humanity to humans so that the latter may assume full responsibility before the object which has been thus laid bare. They should engage themselves completely in their works, and not as an ‘abject passivity’ by putting forward their, vices, their misfortunes and their weaknesses, but as a resolute will and as a choice, ‘as this total enterprise of living that each one of us is’.

Jelson’s poetry does just that: it engages ‘life’ and at the same time, it transcends engagement to celebrate life through artistic beauty.

Published in The Sunday Times (Malta) on 20 March, 2000

Sara doesn’t cry any more in Baghdad.
Yesterday’s war child
proclaimed orphan in today’s war.
Sara doesn’t cry anymore.
At eleven she doesn’t have any more energy for this.
Hungry and cancerous,
Sara hopes, in silence, creased by pain
(and by last night’s depleted uranium which lasts forever).
During the infernal War Ramadan, Sara and her people fast.
And in the streets of Baghdad, in some corner censured by the tanks,
They fulfill the calendar of life, while in the basement,
The boiling water of Amiria’s bombs hurts the earth’s heart
Sara doesn't cry anymore because she fears the world.
And in her lean and withered body, she irradiates the death
Of five million undernourished Iraqi children.
Sara's eyes, dry and abbreviated, driven to a corner of the ward,
Remain open through the night,
While we don't know the fate of the enemy children
Reflected in the bloodstained wall of time,
Like a small sign of calamity.
In Sara’s eyes, dry for tears
And dry for the beauty of the sharia, her last drinking fountain,
Nearly without scent, closer to God
In Sara’s eyes, therefore, so distant from our looks,
Still prospers the purity of the purest diamond,
adjusted to the clouds that pass over the houses in Baghdad
- in the sky that also hopes and fears the insular rudeness of missiles.
And where strangely there grows the hope of a sunset with birds
And the green shape of a plantation, behind large stones,
In Sara’s hands, marked by war and devastation,
The whole country, bloodless, still weaves the scarf of peace.
While Sara hopes, in the high rotation of the winds,
Between the long corridors without angels
And the blazing blades of Iraqi stones
In a hoarse voice, from the nest of lightning,
For a short news item, a sweet word,
That may bring whiteness again
To the wall alignment and bring once more
The runaway birds back to their nests...

Translated by Michael Gatt
(Thanks to Lilia Azevedo)

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