“Wonderful thing about poems is that they don’t need to exist” – Interview with Ben Clark

Ben Clark, at “Collective reading”, photo Jelena Hodak

Ben Clark is a poet from Ibiza, Spain. He studied English Philology at the University of Salamanca, where he is currently teaching poetry in Virtual Master’s Degree in Creative Writing. He has published several poetry collections in Spanish: Los hijos de los hijos de la ira  (2006), Cabotaje (2008), Basura (2011), La Fiera (2014), Los últimos perros de Shackleton (2016), La policía celeste (2018), Armisticio (2008-2018) (2019) and ¿Y por qué no lo hacemos en el suelo? (2020). He holds residences for young authors and translates English-speaking authors into Spanish. Apart from other prizes, in 2006 his book Los hijos de los hijos de la ira was selected as one of the three most important poetry collections released in Spain (‘El País’. 28-12-2006). He currently lives in Mérida, Spain. The interview was held on September 20, 2022, as part of the Literary Machine Festival. Conversation was lead by Alisa Pajtić.


Rizom: First thing that catches the attention in your biography is that you are Spanish writer with British roots. Can you tell us something more about your background and if and how has it affected your literary work? Where do you put yourself when defining your place as a contemporary author?

Ben Clark: In principle, I consider myself a Spanish writer, but the truth is, of course, there are certain aspects of my life that are not Spanish at all. In a way, of course, this affects my writing and the way I write. My perception of what I am is Spanish, because I was born in Spain and I have never lived outside of Spain. I don’t really consider myself to be half and half, even though both of my parents are British. But then again, the language I have used at home and the TV and culture I received, especially when I was younger were all either recordings directly from British TV that my parents or my grandmother would bring physically from England. All my schooling fortunately was in Spanish. Maybe the thing about it is to be able to see the world in a kind of dual way. But in essence I consider myself a Spanish writer, definitely, and I feel the Spanish tradition like my own. When I think about poetry and the type of poetry that I write, the certain meter and follows the certain principle that fits into the Spanish tradition. Hopefully I am considered a Spanish writer in Spain. It’s always difficult with the name (Laugh).


R: Your first published literary work was written in Catalan, but you said that now you write only in Spanish. How was your path of switching the language that you write in?

BC: For me it was natural to write in the language I was living and working in. When I was writing in Catalan, it was because all my school was in Catalan. I was also in several theatre groups that were all in Catalan. My cultural friends at the moment were older than me and from kind of nationalistic Catalan scene. Then when I moved to Salamanca, I simply started to write in Spanish because of my surroundings. Over time, my Catalan has become more rusty, especially when writing it. I think it’s a great language to write poetry as well. It’s concise, short, it allows a bit more word playing than Spanish. Ultimately, now I am a writer in Spanish.


Cornelia Hülmbauer, Ben Clark, and Stevan Bradić, in “Dissensus”, photo Jelena Hodak

R: When you were reciting your poetry, you have always asked an assistant to first read the translation and then you would read the original, can you tell us why do you prefer to do it that way?

BC: I think that when reading poetry especially, a lots of times poets reads the original and then there’s translation. But if it’s the other way around, people can sort of hear the poem first and then when they hear the other language, even if they don’t understand it, they can more or less remember what the person is talking about. I think it’s really helpful to be able to listen and enjoy the language without having to wonder about words because you already know them, in my opinion it’s the best possible way to do it.


R: You prefer other people to translate your poetry even to English, can you tell us why?

BC: This is because the other translator will make the decisions that I wouldn’t have made. There is a kind of temptation to rewrite the poem when you translate it yourself. You might want to adapt it to another language, maybe change it and I think that poems represent a moment in time and they really should not be reworked. I think that you can correct a poem, you can make it better if you find something that’s wrong or sounds strange, but in the sense a poem should represent a moment in time. So, a poem of mine which is ten or fifteen years old is a poem that was written in that way at that moment. If I translate it, I sort of update it and it’s kind of like not being true to the essence of a poem. It could be interesting, there have been many poets who have worked this way, their translations are not exactly the same, going back to Catalan there was a famous poet Joan Margarit who translated his own work from Catalan to Spanish, but the poems in Spanish are different. That’s why I think it’s better if someone else makes decision and translates it in the way they see fits and they find it the most acceptable.


R: Reading your poetry it seems that you write about many topics, some of them being lost love, longing, time, past, tradition, youth etc. what would you say are your most obsessive topics?

BC: I think that everybody goes back to more or less the same topics, the “great themes” like the passing of time, love, all these things that I think are present in everybody’s poetry to some degree. In my case, I’ve had different periods with different obsessions. The idea of children that you don’t have, of not being a parent. Not so much as a regret, more like an idea of what does it mean to be at the end of the line in a way. I’m interested in time in general. Then I’m interested in the process of writing itself, I enjoy writing poems that refer to the poem, the reflect on the actual creation of a poem,  maybe speak to the reader and make him or her conscious of the fact that they’re reading a poem. It depends really. Also I’m interested in poetry as a way of making a dialogue with the current events. I think that it’s interesting to try and find a relation between poetry and ecology, poetry and war etc. Maybe not so much in a pamphlet way, but in a sort of way to try and make us understand what we are all living through. Ecology is something which is in a back of many poems of mine. Not so much as a message, more like a reflection on nature and  the way that everything kind of disappears.


R: How does the writing process of your poetry collections work?

BC: I think there are two ways. Perhaps, the most common way is collecting the poems and trying to find a common thread between these poems, to find a narrative and a way to work around or through those poems. But then, there has been some different times, for example my book Basura (Rubbish), which is all about rubbish, where I have literally sat down and tried to work on one topic. The idea of Basura is thinking about waste, about rubbish. That is very interesting, because you become a bit of investigator, working with data, Internet, it’s fascinating. But you can’t always work like that, because the most wonderful thing about poem, is when it surprises you and you don’t really know where it came from. I have ideas that are going around and they still haven’t found their place in a poem, sometimes it takes years to find their places. But when you do, it’s very satisfying. In general sense, I’d say that the book kind of reveals itself, the book suddenly becomes something where the poems have the relation between each other. Therefore you have to discard some poems sometimes, save them for another book, that’s the most complicated thing (Laugh).


R: You said that poetry is something very personal for you, but that you want to reach as many people as possible. How do you feel when exposing something personal to your audience?

BC: I think that to be able to connect with people, you have to be aware that what you’re writing is destined to be read by somebody. If you have the feeling that what you’re writing is just going to be for you, then it’s going to be something else. Maybe it’s the realm of the diary, but even many people write a diary thinking about the future reader. Very few diary writes are truly thinking that they’re just for them, and I think the most interesting ones are like that. Going back to poetry, I always say that we need to leave a space for the reader inside the poem, the poet only does the eighty percent of the work, there’s twenty percent where the reader comes with his or her experience and “completes” the poem. I think that all poems can reach the perfect reader at the perfect time. I always say to people who say that they don’t like poetry: “Somewhere, there’s a poem for you and one day you will live an experience, it might be good, bad, might be happy or sad, but there is a poem somewhere that will make you understand more fully that experience”. In that sense I believe that poetry is for everybody and that we all need poetry to some degree, we all need a poetic presence in our life at some point.

Ben Clark and Branislav Živanović, in “Collective reading”, photo Jelena Hodak

R: You wrote an essay addressing people who do not like poetry, where you said that poetry is not everything in one’s life, although it talks about everything in it. Can you tell us something more about it?

BC: It’s because poetry is understood as a written expression of certain ideas, but there’s a poetic presence in all art forms and in our daily life as well. When we do something kind for someone else, it’s a poetic gesture because we’re doing something extra, something that maybe doesn’t need to be done. Wonderful thing about poems is that they don’t need to exist. They exist because we have managed to create a society where we can create an excess of things, like art. But even in the prehistoric times, if your daughter was sick, all you had was poetry. There would be a chant, song kind of praying. Ultimately this is the proof that we need something out there which is mysterious, almost like a religion.


R: Can you tell us what are the most present topics in the contemporary Spanish poetry in general?

BC: It’s complicated because, fortunately, there are many different trends. I think that after the Spanish civil war there was a lot of religious poetry and a lot of social poetry. The poetry was interested in finding a social revolution, fighting the regime, but then since democracy was established in Spain, there are a lot of different topics. I would say that now poets that are in their early twenties are sort of looking for their roots, they’re talking about their grandparents, about their identity, so I think that there is definitely a new trend starting now, which is also very concerned about a way they relate to each other through things like apps, Tinder etc. There are lots of different waves.


R: You said that you love Latin American culture and literature, has it impacted your work, can you tell us some particular motifs of narrative characteristics that you would want to emphasize, as well as specific authors?

BC: What it has done is constantly reminding me that the poetry can be much more free and much more “wild” than what we do in Europe. At least what I’d see in Spain and France or Great Britain. South American poetry is sometimes like a wild river. Sometimes the poems are long, they’re full of imagery, everything is happening and it’s just an accumulation of stuff. The way they make repetitions are almost like making chants. I think that they have lots of positive things and maybe some negative also, but one of the positive is definitely that people write with much more freedom, freedom from themselves. In Spain, lots of times, especially in my generation we write looking for formal restrictions in the line itself, that maybe allows eleven or seven syllables. I like that, it makes me think while I’m writing and that process leads me to new stuff. But most Latin American poetry is broken away from that completely, like Walt Whitman’s. With long lines, not worrying about the structure which I think is great, but also that it has problems with not setting the clear limits to what poetry is formally. In a way where does prose begin and where poetry. Of course you can’t generalize, but the cool thing about Latin Americans is that they don’t care (Laugh). An author who I would especially recommend is Chilean poet Raúl Zurita.


R: You have also mentioned that Latin American literature and culture is becoming more and more present in Spain, how is it generally perceived in Spain nowadays? Are the Latin American citizens and artists still being discriminated?

BC: I think they are discriminated to a certain degree. Much less than before, fortunately and maybe less and less throughout the time. I think that they discriminate themselves as well, especially in Latin America they consider that what we do in Spain is for some reason superior and that is not true. They do much more with less, they have magazines, they have fanzines, they have publications. In Spain if we don’t have the full structure to distribute something, we don’t do it, they just go with it. There are a lot of Latin Americans living and writing in Spain, there have been for many years now. Lots of them are super successful and widely read by the Spanish. But I think that there is a discrimination in a sense that, at the end of the day, Spanish writers tend to protect themselves, read themselves a little bit more. But I think it’s breaking away. Fortunately now there are more and more books being published in Spain directly from the Latin American young authors. But we still have the long way to go. The dialogue is definitely not going both ways with same strength. They read us more than we read them. I think that we have a very Euro-centered vision of the world, but that the purely Internet generation, the people who were brought up with Internet as the reality, something that was always there, feel and sense that Latin America is a lot closer. For one I think the interesting thing is that I personally watch more movie content from Latin America. It’s not just literature it’s also the fact of becoming closer to the music, to the series, I think that we are sharing more and more artists now, like the phenomenon in Spain of Rosalia, who is big in South America and in the North America as well. And that is happening the other way around as well, very slowly. The difference between now and 25 years ago is enormous, hopefully in 25 the difference will be even bigger. But it’s been many centuries of no contact.


R: You are teaching creative writing at the University of Salamanca, but you also are holding a quite intriguing online course (on domestica.com) on digital literature and poetry for social media. Can you tell us something more about that? How has, in your opinion the modern communication changed the poetry itself, but also the position of poets in the society?

BC: The course is born from a double phenomenon, one is the fact that a poem on mine went viral on its own. Something in that poem clicked and for about ten years it was just traveling everywhere, people were making tiny modifications. And then of course, there is another phenomenon which is very present in Spain, but I think in other countries too, definitely in the North America that we can call Instagram poetry. I think this is a really interesting thing, it is very criticized by many poets, especially the more traditional ones and I think that it can be criticized in a sense that there are the different expectations of the writer and as well as of the reader. But it is there, it’s a phenomenon. It has thousands of readers, people follow these poets like if they were stars. In Spain we have a very interesting young poet Elvira Sastre, she is like a pop star. She does adverts in TV and she’s a poet. In that sense it’s good because it’s taking the written language to a different level. It’s true that there’s a problem which is molding the way we write to try and fit in to this kind of formula. With my course it is more of a reflection on writing if you want to write on social media. The course gives you some tips, but it doesn’t give you a magical formula to do it. It makes you think about what you want to do with your writing. Because I think the problem when you start writing is when you say “Well, okay, I need to fit the poem in this space, to make it one post or one story”, that’s fine, but then, is that what the poem needs or is it what the social media needs? This is the main problem I think. Also, even the Instagram poetry needs time, time for the reader to be able to “digest” what he or she is reading. I think it’s a super interesting phenomenon and I support it, but at the same time I think we must try and make it into a phenomenon that produces good things, or at least interesting things. But it’s there and it’s happening and it’s wonderful that suddenly poetry has found a place in this incredibly fast visual world. Few years ago it looked like social media was going to be only about the image, which is quite true, but there’s also space for some kind of poetic content, which is something. (Laugh) It’s the bare minimum. In schools and high schools they’re beginning to use these authors to try to catch the student’s attention. That’s good but there must be a reminder that the book is the place where the poem has time to breathe. When you read a poem, maybe the author is from hundreds of years ago, and that poem is communicating directly with you, so you don’t need Instagram, you just need the basic minimum. Communication is happening with the page and you reading it. This is the thing that keeps poetry alive over time, one day Instagram will no longer exist, but poetry will exist. That’s the message.

Cornelia Hülmbauer, Ben Clark, and Stevan Bradić, in “Dissensus”, photo Jelena Hodak

R: Since you are working with students, can you tell us what are their reactions and views on poetry, first as readers and second as potential writers?

BC: I think that students are especially amazed at finding about how poetry can move them. Sometimes they’re surprised by their own feelings, which is fantastic. I think there’s a negative reaction to poetry because they feel it’s going to be difficult or boring, but when you work with poems that are written maybe by a great poet, but you forget about that and just think about what he is saying, he’s talking about something very simple. I think that they are interested in poetry in general, but also in things that affect their life immediately, teenagers are interested in love, because they’re living through all these experiences of falling in and out of love, some of them become interested in the idea of death as well because they begin to feel all these things, so in general it’s appealing for them.


R: You have been and are holding residences for young artists and writers, can you tell us more about them?

BC: It’s interesting to think of poetry being related to the space you’re writing it in also. Even if it’s not directly reflected in the work, there’s something about a place where you can write poems that I think you cannot write anywhere else. The residencies also especially mean devoting a certain amount of time to the poem or to writing poem. I think in a world where we are really busy, if you separate a certain amount of time and say “this time is going to be for poetry”, it’s very interesting and kind of scary thing, you’re diving into the creation again. I think it’s super positive, I support especially young writers to try and find the time, to break away from their fears of studying or future, all the things they’re trying and say “Well, I’m going to devote a certain amount of time just to writing”.


R: Finally, what impressions from this poetry festival are you going to bring home?

BC: Very positive, because if it had not been for this Literary Machine festival and definitely for Novi Sad being the European Capital of Culture this year, maybe it would have taken me a lot longer in my life to visit Serbia and especially Novi Sad. So I’m really happy and grateful to be here. I think that festival has been great, I’m definitely going to investigate young Serbian authors to see if we can maybe do something in Spain. I think that with all these institutional excuses to name a city (I’m sure that Novi Sad has been great before this year of European Capital of Culture and it will be afterwards), is to bring us together. I think that when we have these big events, it allows us to come together, under an umbrella, which is a very positive thing and also has proven to me that there are poetry lovers all over the world.


R: Is there some final recommendation for the young poets or literature students in Spain, Serbia or anywhere in the world?

BC: Apart from the recommendation that you, as always said, need to read a lot. But also sort of you need to write about what you know. I thing that you should investigate about your own life, because in a globalized world that’s the most important thing you have – your own experience. And I think that everybody’s life is amazing and unique in it’s own way. Maybe you think you live a boring life and if you think and write about it, it might not seem super exciting to you but, to somebody else, maybe somebody in Mexico would read it and think “Wow, I never thought about this!”. Here, you live in a place where you have lots of cultural history, you have conflicts, you’re European in a different way than a Frenchman is European. I think that everybody should write about their own stuff, because it’s much more valuable than you think it is. You must dig inside your own experience, go back to your family history or as well look to the future, because it just makes you unique and make everybody as unique.

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