“Poetry is a tool for loving”

Joan Margarit

Joan Margarit is travelling through old age with a complete published oeuvre that grows as he writes new poems and books such as Per tenir casa cal guanyar la guerra [To Have a House, You Must Win the War], a kind of memoir that covers his early years, those from which his poetry has sprung, before he began writing, and explains how architecture and his personal life ended up forming part of his life as a poet. From Sant Just Desvern, where he went to live in 1975, our conversation also shifted to music and to Barcelona today and in the past, in a thread drawn in an attempt to reflect the heart beating inside the houses and inside the poems.

For Joan Margarit (Sanaüja, 1938), poetry springs from life, and to illustrate where his poems come from, he has written Per tenir casa cal guanyar la guerra [To Have a House, You Must Win the War] (Proa, 2018), in which he reminisces about the houses in which he has lived and remembers the years that shaped him as a poet. Born in Sanaüja during the Spanish Civil War, he spent his earliest years in Barcelona, Rubí, Figueres, Santa Coloma de Gramenet, Girona, Barcelona (again) and Santa Cruz de Tenerife, until he returned to Barcelona to study architecture. He spent his entire professional career as an architect and professor of Structural Calculation. Although his name is linked to works of architecture such as the National Museum of Science and Technology of Catalonia, the remodelling of the Lluís Companys Olympic Stadium and the Sagrada Família, his poetry has been appreciated both publicly and privately, in the minds of his thousands of readers. His oeuvre is collected in Tots els poemes (1975-2015) [All the Poems (1975-2015)], which includes all his books except the latest, Un hivern fascinant [A Fascinating Winter].

Your poems spring from the places where you lived before you wrote poetry…

That is what I have been searching for, even since childhood. Why do I write some poems and not others? Or rather, why am I who I am and not someone else? That is a universal question, which everyone can ask. And why is the city of Barcelona the way it is and not some other way? That is also a serious question that must be posed and one that the Catalans as a people don’t ask often enough. Barcelona is the capital of Catalonia, not of Macedonia, and it is how it is because that is what the Catalans are like. The concept of being Catalan two centuries ago was very restrictive, but now it is much broader. Now a Catalan is someone who has been living for some time in Catalonia. For how long? This is another matter.

In fact, you were born in Sanaüja, in Segarra county, with family from there, from the Ebro and from Castellbisbal, and you have even been referred to as a poet from Lleida!

Yes, fortunately these things no longer mean very much. Now your life’s path is what is important.

But the language you use is especially Barcelonan.

Yes, because even though I moved around a lot in my early years, I planted my roots here. At a certain point I even spoke Spanish with a Canarian accent, but I lost it just as quickly. I only lived in the Canary Islands for two years, and for the next five years I went there when I could, because you got there by boat so it took at least six days, and sometimes 13, if you went with a merchant.

Your first contact with Barcelona was when you were little, in a city that has nothing to do with what it is today…

After the Spanish Civil War was over, I lived in Sant Gervasi, in a narrow street called Passatge de Sant Felip, I still remember, when I was three, four, five years old. I have few memories of that, but they are set in stone. They have nothing to do with the gardens and houses that Mercè Rodoreda speaks of so powerfully: she talks about well-to-do people that were not around where I lived.

Una paret amb quadres a casa del poeta Joan Margarit © Camilla de Maffei

In fact, you moved around a lot during your upbringing.

During the first 10 years of my life, I was not rooted anywhere, so I was shaped by being “always on the move,” which basically means being lonely. If you change where you live, you almost don’t go to school, and I had only completed two years of school by the time I was 10. The other consequence is that you have no friends. And if your mother is barely there, you have to fully rely on yourself with regard to learning things. It’s not that you miss love, and it’s not that you are miserable, at all, because kids are miserable when they are beaten or not fed. If you don’t have a friend who has a bicycle and shows you that you don’t have one...

Afterwards, you didn’t return to Barcelona until the time of Turó Park, when you were 10 to 16...

Turó Park was also about 15 years old. It was still beautiful and lush, and had not become the place for dogs that it is now. Once democracy arrived, Turó Park turned into a place for dogs. For me, that’s a metaphor.

You are very surprised that Barcelona has neglected its neighbourhoods.

When Barcelona swallowed Sarrià and Gràcia, there were still quiet places. The problem comes when new neighbourhoods are created at full speed and poorly. It is one thing to engulf a small village. It is quite another for immigrants to come and build a neighbourhood on the fly. This happened first with immigrants from Murcia and from inner Catalonia, and later from Andalusia. It led to the neighbourhoods of Besòs, Montjuïc, Can Tunis, Somorrostro. Franco’s government saw the need to make neighbourhoods for immigrants, but it did so poorly.

Later on, you worked there...

One of the things that I am most happy about as an architect is the large number of neighbourhood buildings I saved. Buildings that had no foundation, where perhaps instead of going to the sewer, the toilets emptied into a dead chamber, with odours and risks due to the accumulation of gases. They had to be given new foundations, with little money, because after Franco came to power there was not much of that around. You went to see those people, who logically considered you an instrument of power, of the new power, and they looked at you with distrust. You made them a foundation, but what did it bring them? It didn't matter to them at all. If you had to strengthen a pillar, for example, you would trouble them for one or two months, with concrete and iron in the kitchen. When you finished, you painted the pillar, but you had ruined half the kitchen, and there was no money to paint kitchens. Later, there was even money to send them to a hotel while you worked.

Some poems must also have come from there...

I will always remember the first time we were commissioned to do some remodelling in Besòs, where I wrote one of the poems I like the best, “Recordar el Besòs” [Remembering Besòs]. I enter one of those buildings, with no foundation, and see that there is no furniture. All the rooms are full of mattresses, and on the mattresses there are kids and dogs all mixed together. There are no doors anywhere. I make it to the kitchen and it’s filthy, the sink covered with verdigris, and there’s a boy between 16 and 18 years old at a table, with a ragman's pick-up, with dirty records, listening to Bach. The poem wrote itself. I also remember once when we went to explain the first reparations in the Besòs neighbourhood in the 1980s. There was the director of the Municipal Housing Institute, Mercè Sala; the councillor; my partner, Carles Buxadé, and me. The building was huge. Around 300 people. And I remember the first thing I said: “We’re going to strengthen the building...” And I hear a woman’s voice: “You can go strengthen your mother!” I’ll never forget it. Those people couldn’t believe that the government would do anything for them. It’s not like today, when we think that everything should come to us. For me, that was an act of love, because from an architect’s point of view, we like to make nice buildings, and that had no charm at all. The buildings were already standing; we just had to save them, and we had to do so in the dark, where you can’t see. I did a lot of them, because it was an act of love.

But you have a complex relationship with Barcelona. A poem entitled “Barcelona” ends with the words: “you desperate city, whoring yourself out”.

I have a two-sided relationship with Barcelona. The fact that I love it is proved by my poem “Retorn de vacances” [Returning from Holidays”], in which the speaker returns from Mallorca by boat and arrives in Montjuïc. I have two daughters buried in the Montjuïc Cemetery. A city whose main mountain is where I buried two daughters... it cannot be a city that does not love me, even if I have to go live elsewhere. Not too far away [since 1975, he has lived in Sant Just Desvern]. Now it’s an issue of mayors who don’t want to give up power, because the logical thing would be for the entire metropolitan area to form a single municipality... Like all relationships, it is one of love and hate.

While studying, you quit your profession to try to be a man of letters full time. Until you went back…

Poetry, like everything else, like prose, mechanics and physics, requires life. What kind of life? Not just any will do. All lives can interfere to some degree. If you want to spend your life travelling the world, working in an office is not going to go well for you. If I have to write poetry, I have to look where there is no interference. So I sought out the part of architecture that would help me better in poetry. Taking this to the extreme, if I had been a decorator, it would not have inspired my poetry… Poetry is not life, which is something the romantics get wrong. You have to be careful with artists, because they might be great artists when they are very young, but that does not mean that you need to let them sweep you away. You also don’t need to ask Keats at 23 years of age if poetry and life are the same.

So you went back to architecture.

Yes, I worked hard and I enjoyed it. My partner and I brought the first big computers to Barcelona, in around 1966, to the School of Architecture, paid for by the Architects’ Association of Catalonia, because the government had no money... They were machines that calculated what a mobile phone can do today. And they were as big as grand pianos. I saw that same computer, the IBM 1620, in a museum at Boston University, and I was overcome. Here I never saw it again. I’m sure they threw it away. We Catalans are a people very much in love with ourselves, with a certain aesthetic sense of ourselves, or of the world. It is what Unamuno referred to when he wrote: “Iberians of the Mediterranean, you’re losing your aesthetic,” and what has made it so that the only remaining Modernista café is Cafè de l’Òpera, and that’s because the owner is interesting. What has become of L’Oro del Rin, El Vienés and El Glaciar? Where have they all gone? In all the other cultural cities of Europe, Paris and Venice, they too got the best out of them, and especially money. Here the great Modernista cafés have all gone to pot, with Catalans who say: “I’m so smart.” But they’re not smart in any way.

The floods of Rubí in 1962 were decisive for you.

The irresponsibility of letting people build on riverbeds. The river did not have to go looking for the dead outside, but found them at home. This made me think about the relationship between architecture and security. If you go to poetry, it is candy. It is the relationship of the safety of life itself.

But it also makes it uncomfortable, bringing reality to the fore.

It deals with the issue. I did the same for houses what I did for poetry. My work as an architect was to ensure the buildings’ safety: dealing with the wind, protecting against earthquakes, everything that can damage a building. Poetry comes to be security in life: dealing with suffering, with emotional risk… What poetry gave to me that I didn’t expect is that you can go to the most unlikely place, let’s say Madrid, and suddenly a man stops you and says that he doesn’t want to bother you, but he thanks you because at some point your poems saved his life. Nothing can compare to that. That is why I write. That saying, “love one another”, how do you do that? I know how to love my wife, my children and I stop counting. Life has brought me to here to stay and I ignore the rest. But poetry is a tool for loving. Those poets who say: “I write for myself.” What nonsense! There is nothing more boring than reading to yourself. You have to read to yourself when you work, because you have no choice, but once the poem is finished, that’s it. I read Rilke for salvation...

Diversos retrats de Joan Margarit mentre parla © Camilla de Maffei

There is also the spectacle of reciting a poem.

Rilke showed me that and at first I didn’t believe it, but later I saw that he was right: poetry is the spoken word. Poems have to be heard. I recommend that poetry be read out loud.

In both poetry and music, there is a contrast between the staging, which is shared with the audience, and privately listening to an album or reading…

The audience can even be counterproductive. If you’ve listened to music in a small committee, if you’ve been to a small concert with five or six other people... when you have experienced something like that, you don’t change it. The great auditorium, with its very expensive entrance and sublime performers, can hurt you. Music is not just Grigori Sokolov, though I love him very much. Why can’t there be some small imperfection in normality?

The solemnity of the score is a relatively recent thing...

Yes, but now the solemnity of classical music has come to jazz, and the proof is that at some point it would have been absurd to listen to jazz in the Palau de la Música. I remember going to Sala Europa in Lleida, when it existed, to see some jazzmen who later played in the Palau. I would go to Lleida to listen to them and come back to Barcelona, ​​because it was more authentic.

People classify music by genres, but not poetry.

Poetry requires much more limited resources. Music is making a sound and paying attention. That works for songs like “Mi caravana” and for Mahler. Instead, poetry is a person seeking something inside him or herself. And I must first be aware that there are many things that don’t even interest me, and I have to find one that I can share with everyone else, everywhere. This is not even a linguistic issue, but intuition. Then I have to pick it up and start working on it with words, which is the tool I have. And then maybe I encounter that man who thanks me. But if I mess it up, I won’t encounter him. Then again, it’s not like I’ll go to prison...

You can’t be sure, that you won’t go to prison…

You’re right. Let’s run with it. That would give me a lot of freedom to search, but when sending it there is only the word, and it can’t be just any word. The combinations are endless, and in music you can put them all together. In poetry, an avant-garde type will tell you that you can also put all of them together. But that’s a lie.

You don’t care for abstraction...

Try to find consolation for the death of your daughter in an abstract painting! No, because it is not the terrain of your suffering. It is in another terrain, one of your imagination, one of many things, but it has nothing to do with it.

But the abstract can have great aesthetic power!

Aesthetic power, but what is that worth? It can be a symbol, but I’m looking for consolation, and I know what it is: I know that it hurt me before and now it doesn’t hurt me, or it hurts me less. I have enough stories. And for all the rest you have to go using other things that are very worthy, but that lie elsewhere. I have nothing against it, but if on the day my daughter died you had given me a Tàpies painting... However, a Cézanne painting would have worked. And I know that there are people who value this stuff very much, and I have nothing against it. Consolation in solitude and human indigence in the world is a very concrete subject, and it is touched on by all the arts.

But the avant-garde is a very broad concept.

In poetry it has a very clear meaning. There is a type of reader who wants you to set up a kind of container in which you put as little as possible, because he wants to put in what he has. That does not interest me. The reader is the centre of the poetic avant-garde. This is because there is a reader who says: “Leave the poem empty. Leave the structure of the poem alone, and I will fill it in.” I want to receive the poem from the beginning to the end. I already know that a good poem has infinite readings, and I don’t have to worry about it. It's like a Van Gogh, a Rembrandt, a good novel. You can read it at age 20, 30, 40, and it's always the same novel but it doesn’t tell you the same thing.

In any case, poetry, culture, is also a tool for life.

Yes, and in old age becomes very noticeable. The extension of our lifespan has produced a curious phenomenon, which is that many people have improvised and discovered that they have 30 years of life left, from their 60s to their 90s, without working or anything, and they had not prepared for it. But you have to prepare. Now society is full of “old idiots”, which is an expression of mine, but I don’t mean they are stupid. It is dramatic for many people. And to prepare for it, there is only culture.

Retrat de Joan Margarit © Camilla de Maffei

You have been saying that you write books about old age for years, and now there have been quite a few. Every new book seems like it will be the last, but it doesn’t stop…

They made it hard for me from the beginning. I started writing when I was 18, but I published my first book of my complete works when I was 40!

And what did you do in between?

I didn’t stop, no, I messed it up. Because I was unaware of something in that there was no bibliography, and you have to write in your mother tongue. Probably not prose, but definitely poetry. All great poets write in their mother tongue. Nobody tells you this. It doesn’t happen anywhere else, just with the Catalans. People who have their own language but not their own state, and with the level of culture that this language has... I know of no other case of it.

But you also published books in Spanish, you’ve had readers and editors who appreciated you...

Yes, but they were wrong. The day that Miquel Martí i Pol showed me... I had been writing for 20 years. And when I started in Catalan, I had another terrible period, which came from having realised that. A long time passed until I got the hang of it. Such is life.

And for some time you have written your poems in Catalan and translated them into Spanish as you wrote them.

When something looks like your mother tongue without being it, but almost, then Franco comes and from age four on they won’t let you speak Catalan. Niño, habla en cristiano. [Son, speak plainly.] The Spanish language is the only good thing that Franco brought, and I would never go back, no matter how much of a separatist I may be. Later, I saw that I had to make the first thrust in Catalan, but then I could write the poem in both languages.

Is there communication between people who work on poetry in Catalan and in Spanish?

No, they are two different worlds. Many years ago, we should have warned that we were going down the wrong path. Those from here and those from there. I lived through a golden age with the beginning of democracy, when we held meetings and congresses, in Sitges, in Àvila... Later, at the University of Lleida, Pere Rovira held some events every year where many of us met and became friends: Carlos Marzal, Vicente Gallego, Antonio Jiménez Millán, Luis García Montero... We met and later we went to Granada, Almería... I have recited my poetry more in the secondary schools of Andalusia than in Barcelona. I have never read in the schools of Sant Just. No one ever asked me.

And you don’t have much of a relationship with the new groups of poets?

I don’t have the time to keep up with them. I have my own life, the life of a poet, and one that won’t last much longer. If I’m already tired of watching the news on television... I need time to sleep, to rest, to look at the patio, to remember... All these things are much more important that giving a recital at the Palau de la Música.

Besides, since you’re retired, they wouldn’t be able to pay you, either. Right?

This is the country we live in. As an architect, which I still am, you can commission me to build a skyscraper 50 or 100 storeys high and make me a millionaire, and the Treasury won’t be able to touch my pension as a professor at the School of Architecture. However, they’ll catch me giving recitals, and for earning more than a minimal interprofessional salary, they’ll take my pension away. It’s punishment. What a country! We live in a society that views culture as a luxury.

Publicacions recomanades

  • Per tenir casa cal guanyar la guerra [To Have a House, You Must Win the War]Proa, 2018
  • Tots els poemes (1975-2015) [All the poems (1975-2015)]La Butxaca, 2018 (last edition)

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