International poetry editor, Clara Burghelea in conversation with emerging poet Rafael Mendes who is both a poet and translator whose work has appeared on The Poetry Programme, The Irish Times, FLARE and on “Writing Home: The New Irish Poets” (Dedalus Press, 2019). He also has poems published in Brazil and Portugal. He’s a member of NIC writers group at The Irish Writers Centre.
Clara Burghelea: Let’s start at the beginning. Tell me how you came to be a published poet?
Rafael Mendes: Reading came first. I remember reading a book as young as 10 years old. Back in the day, a collection called Vaga-Lume (Firefly) was being reprinted after its popularity in the ’70s with young adults. They were really cheap and my grandmothers and parents used to buy one almost every week. Then came writing, it started with exchanging letters with a friend, soon we started a blog. I have never stopped writing since.
Clara Burghelea: You are part of the editorial committee of the bilingual magazine Diaspora and write for the blog avessodapalavra.wordpress.com. Does editorial work complement your own writing? Or is it a barrier?
Rafael Mendes: It adds a lot. The internet is a blessing and a curse, so regularly we get trapped in our bubbles. Working with editorial opens the opportunity to know many writers that could have been lost inside the ocean of possibilities that we have.
Clara Burghelea:How did you transition from being an avid reader to having your collection “an essay on beauty and chaos”, launched in Brazil and Europe?
Rafael Mendes: My therapist invited me for an artistic night at her house. There I met my editor Wladimir Vaz. We kept in touch. In 2017 he invited me to participate in an anthology of Portuguese speaking poets living in Dublin – including a Polish poet who writes poetry in Portuguese. In 2018 he invited me to publish my first collection. Although I have been writing for some time, I normally say that I became a writer, taking my work and the craft seriously, when I held my book for the first time. It was a kind of awakening.
Clara Burghelea: You cite Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska, the Argentinian Jorge Luis Borges, the Brazilians Lygia Fagundes Telles and Drummond, but the most important person in your literary life was Dona Joana, your grandmother, why is that?
Rafael Mendes: My grandmother was a dressmaker for most of her life. I don’t have memories of her not being well dressed, wearing jewelry and perfume in public. She loved her profession. That was art. From raw fabric to sophisticated clothes. Unfortunately, I only realized it too late. She always told me great stories from her childhood in Brazil’s countryside. But I also need to thank my other grandmother Maria, a confectioner, and my grandad Eraldo, a carpenter. I grew up seeing three artists.
Clara Burghelea: You are a translator as well as a poet. How do the two differ and do they complement each other in any way?
Rafael Mendes: I read somewhere that translating teaches you how to write. There is good knowledge in it. I believe that there are more similarities than differences between translating and writing. I didn’t expect to enjoy the work itself, searching for the correct word, tone, sound. And those issues are also found when you are writing a poem. When you translate, more than when you read, you can better understand the ins and outs of the poem, how to solve grammar, lexicon and creativity problems.
Clara Burghelea:What do you do when words are just not landing on the page, how do you inspire yourself?
Rafael Mendes: Inspiration doesn’t fall from trees like apples so, whenever there’s a shortage of words, I read or polish pieces that are more developed until something rings the bell. At some point, the solution will present itself and when it does you experience joy. Besides, I have this exercise that consists of writing responses for poems that I like, so, for example, I wrote a poem after Cavafy’s ‘Waiting for the barbarians’ and another after Borges’ short story ‘The Aleph’.
Clara Burghelea: Tell me about your writing routine.
Rafael Mendes: I try to write every day, either something from scratch or working in something that needs more effort. A lot of my ideas come in bed, so I note them down or even write an entire piece without waking up my partner, on the next day I start drafting and drafting. I learnt that a writer must write, no matter how bad the writing is, you need to keep writing, reviewing, trying different angles and images.
Clara Burghelea: You are bilingual. Do you ever feel caught between languages?
Rafael Mendes: Being bilingual gives you the advantage of seeing how different languages deal with structures and sentences, sounds and meanings. Sometimes I feel like I’m not properly fluent in any language. Often, I need a word in Portuguese but I only remember it in English, or the opposite. I start writing a poem in Portuguese, get stuck, translate it to English and manage to finish. Interesting to point out that the final result on both idioms can be divergent in form and meaning.
Clara Burghelea: What has surprised you most about where your writing and your creativity has taken you?
Rafael Mendes: I’m a merciless critic of my work, always have been. But I’m proud of having my work published in two languages and many different countries. I came from a place that only recently had its streets paved and I was among the selected poets in an anthology called ‘Writing Home: The New Irish Poets’. I never thought it would be possible.
Clara Burghelea: Do you have a drawer full of abandoned projects? Or are you a finisher?
Rafael Mendes: I tend to finish whatever I start. Currently, I’m finishing a new poetry collection that I hope to come out in 2021, writing what someday will be a short stories collection, translating all my work to English because I want to have a full collection in the language, and looking for publishers for two North American poets that I’ve been translating.
PS: I’m right-handed but this interview has been answered with my left hand, as my right hand is out of work for a while. I have been thinking a lot about this question: how much does the body weigh in our writing?