“Sometimes I think the best work is handwritten”

Enric Casasses

Poetry permeates Enric Casasses’ entire oeuvre. Having passed the age of seventy and with a succession of books and prizes, the poet talks about his published work and the work that has stayed in the drawer, tidied away waiting for the right time, and reviews his career, from his family background in L’Escala to his life in Barcelona, including sojourns in Nottingham and Berlin. With the city acting as the stage and character, the conversation follows the path charted by a writer who has always devoted himself to poetry, with brief incursions into theatre and articles, with a characteristic style that dominates the language of print and stage, the more popular or more intellectual references passed through the filter of an uncritical and libertarian vision of the world.

With poetry somewhere between traditional, cultured and avant-garde roots, added to his mastery of the stage and his punk troubadour’s demeanour, Enric Casasses Figueres (Barcelona, 1951) revolutionised the world of poetry in the early 1990s with his first book in a commercial edition, La cosa aquella [That Thing] (Empúries, 1991), which was followed by a repertoire of important books, such as the sonnets in No hi érem [We Were Not There] (Empúries, 1993), UH (Container, 1997, republished by Pagès Editors, 2007), El nus la flor [The Knot/Core the Flower] (Edicions Poncianes, 2018) and his latest, Soliloquis de nyigui-nyogui [Shoddy Soliloquies] (Edicions 62, 2021). But, besides books, perhaps what his work most features is a multitude of recitals that in the late nineties, together with other poets such as Dolors Miquel, Eduard Escoffet and Josep Pedrals, changed the poetry scene by taking to the stage. Not forgetting his albums, from El pa de navegar [Making a Living from Sailing] with Manel Pugès to those he recorded with his friend Pascal Comelade, who once included him playing the triangle in the Bel Canto Orquestra.

You are well known as a poet and reciter, but the first book you published, which was little known, was not poetry, but a kind of children’s story, L’amor de les tres mil taronges [The Love of Three Thousand Oranges], in 1978.

Yes, it is a sin of my youth. My sister Maria was at the Conservatori Arts del Llibre [Book Arts Conservatory] and she had to do a final assignment, including the binding and prints. She made a very artisanal edition and, a few years later, it was republished. It was based on an improvisation discussed with a friend who was ill, but there’s one part I like and some others I don’t like that much… It’s a piece of work from before I started to produce the work.

And when did you realise that what you wanted to do was poetry?

In the last two years of Franco’s regime I lived as an exile in Nottingham, England, and that’s where I invented that first story. When I came back, in the 1970s, after Franco’s death, when I was already in my twenties and it was the time of the punk movement, I discovered Riquer’s major troubadour anthology in three volumes and I gobbled it up whole. I decided that writing in verse held no mystery if punks and troubadours were doing it; I took the plunge and that’s how I started. I consider all of the above to be exercises.

Your father, Enric Casassas i Simó, an eminent chemist, was president of the Institut d’Estudis Catalans [Institute for Catalan Studies]; your mother, Pepita Figueras Cros, from L’Escala, now a centenarian, is also a chemist. Before you began to write, they must have been quite influential…

They were into poetry from the very outset, reading and reciting it, and with the books we had at home… My father, when he saw that I was writing, was thrilled and ended up joining in. He had always written a bit, and when he retired he continued and ended up publishing. One day, when I had published a book called Calç [Shod], which won the Carles Riba prize, he said to me: “Today I dreamt that you wrote a book called Descalç [Barefoot]”. And that’s the title I gave to my next book

Did you start doing recitals with Jordi Pope?

That was later on. I started on my own, writing for myself. Sometimes I read it to one of my sisters and sometimes to a colleague, and little else. I wasn’t a writer, I was someone who wrote, and after a few years I did start with recitals, and it all took off from there.

Those countercultural recitals bore no resemblance to what they are now.

I dreamed of being a revolutionary; it was a war, outrage, and a bit of the youth movement too. And the late 1990s was a time of change.

The first book of poems you published, La bragueta encallada [The Jammed Zip], was also published in underground editions, wasn’t it?

Yes, it was totally underground, with drawings by me. They were poems in prose, which is something I’ve always done. A proposal came up to republish it in Mallorca, but it didn’t materialise and I don’t know what I’m going to do about it. The drawings are the highlight.

You published in Empúries, under Xavier Folch, because Julià Guillamon and David Castillo urged him to do so…

After the recitals, they went knocking on the door of Mr. Folch, at Empúries. And it went well, he published one after another of the books I gave him. That’s how I started, in a half-chronological, half-disorganised and piecemeal way, and that’s why there’s still a lot of unpublished work. The poems in the book Començament dels començaments i ocasió de les ocasions [Beginning of Beginnings and Occasion of Occasions] are already a selection, and there is another volume pending, which I don’t know whether or not to continue tweaking, entitled Ànsia vella [Old Longing]. They are all poems from the early years, and after that, from the 1980s and 90s, when I published the No hi érem sonnets, there is much more work that some day I’ll have to sort out.

Because, until the recent Soliloquis de nyigui-nyogui, you hadn’t published any anthology or collection of works?

No, and Soliloquis is like an anthology, a collection, let’s say, of long poems. But I’ve now submitted another book to Edicions 62, called Marramaus, with a compilation of all the notebooks from the last twenty years. Small notes I have on literature in general or on other subjects.

You have always changed publishers.

And I still do. Previous ones included Edicions Poncianes, before that Edicions de 1984 and Tria Llibres. At Males Herbes I published El monòleg del perdó [The Monologue of Forgiveness]… And the other theatre book, Do’m [Give Me], also in Accent Editorial, by Ponsatí-Murlà… and De la nota del preu del sopar del mosso [From the Lad’s Dinner Bill] was republished by Edicions Terrícola.

In your poetry there is often a kind of synthesis of apparent opposites. From poetry with popular roots to erudite poetry, oral and written poetry, the most classical and the most avant-garde music…

When I wrote the play Do’m, which was commissioned by Albert Mestres, I didn’t have a clear ending. I listened to an unusual song by King Crimson that ended with a bass solo that seemed to unravel, then strange avant-garde piano stuff to explore how they managed to find ways in the world of art to come up with endings that weren’t the typical ones. So I created an ending that ends and doesn’t end, thinking I was making something up. Then I saw that there are popular classics, such as El virgo de Vicenteta [The Vicenteta Virgin], among others, that already used that trick.

When it first made an appearance, reading and listening to contemporary poems with, let’s say, medieval metres seemed ground-breaking. What’s more, the first edition of that book was handwritten and illustrated.

Sometimes I think the best work is handwritten, where all the nuances are. In more subtle ways, Gabriel Ferrater already did that. If you look at the first editions, book by book, or Les dones i els dies [Women and Days], the same poem is always on the left and on the right. He had it all worked out, and he instructed the publishers what it was supposed to look like. But he had problems with the censors, they would remove one and then he would have to change the pagination and he was snowed under.

In your book UH you do the same thing…

More or less, each page is a page, yes.

When it was republished by Pagès Editors after the first edition, it remained the same, although the book is larger in size.

I made it so complicated for them that, in the end, they took the document and reproduced the PDF as it was. It’s my computer font.

Portrait of Enric Casasses © Albert Armengol

However, the second time, the pages were numbered, do you sometimes have to compromise?

In this case I was already doing alright. Els nus la flor has no page numbers either. If a scholar wishes to quote it… they have to write: “Enric Casasses. El nus la flor, a page around the beginning, but not that much”… That is what it was like and it looks good, just as it is with no numbers.

Speaking of scholars, recently Biel Mesquida said that no doctoral thesis had yet been dedicated to him. Does the academic world study you?

A bit, yes, there are things by Marta Font and some of those miscellaneous volumes by different authors published by Margalida Pons in Mallorca. No thesis, as far as I know, but some work, yes. There is also a whole study by a professor from Warsaw, a Catalan, on Dona’m corda [Get Me Started], who quotes Aristotle, Plato… And a couple of years ago there was a symposium in Tàrrega, with a good talk by Jordi Cornudella, something by Albert Mestres on the theatre… Cornudella has a broader vision, because sometimes the scholar focuses on a tiny little aspect.

There aren’t many poets who, like you, have devoted themselves almost exclusively to poetry… How have you done it, because you haven’t been involved in institutions, nor have you made friends with any authorities?

Between recitals, lectures, proofreading, translations, my own publications, poems set to music… I’ve been getting by, but I’m on a tight schedule and I try to spend very little. And I’ve also done other things, like theatre and essays…

Still along the lines of poetry, even the essays often come close to prose poems.

Yes, I play around, and, in fact, the essays I’ve written are in verse.

You can’t get away from it. In an interview you talked about clipped prose, and recognised poets’ involuntary habit of hitting enter to move to the next line.

The line is very much a marker.

And there is a risk. When there is no clear metre…

…there is a breath. There is a rhythm that drives you onwards and forwards.

In many poems, the setting is Barcelona, like another character. And L’Escala too, from where you mainly extract the language, and there are the Berlin poems…

The outside world, be it L’Escala or Barcelona, is character and stage at the same time. We are spectators and actors simultaneously. Barcelona is very much present in my poems. Then there are moments from other things, like “Som a l’era” [We Are in the Threshing Floor] from Bes nagana [colloquial Russian for “without a gun”] (also collected in Soliloquis), which is a long poem, about all the mountains behind Moià. Oló, a farmhouse called El Paré… It is all about the mountains.

You also wrote a book about L’Escala’s gargoyles.

Yes, based on some photos taken by an architect, the City Council commissioned me to write the text. There are four or five photos selected for each gargoyle, and a poem which is what the gargoyle says in that position.

Let’s see if you are going to be a country writer now, which is so in vogue!

The spiritual base is the mountains between L’Escala and L’Estartit, in El Montgrí, like Víctor [Català], and in reality I’m here, in Barcelona.

In La cosa aquella you go to El Montgrí.

Yes, and another part also takes place in El Carmel, Barcelona, seen from above.

And Do’m is based on Tibidabo.

It’s centred in Barcelona. Do’m is tibi dabo, Latin for “I’ll give you”.

Do you think that if you had been from another city you would have written more or less the same thing?

No idea. Every city is an experiment.

But growing up in a place defines you. The underground vibe that Barcelona must have had from the 1970s to the 80s is really unique.

Yes, but around 1974-75 I was in Nottingham, with the anarchists and with a history that was very typical of the time. And so on and so forth. They’re different places, but not that different. And then Berlin, in the 1990s… Each city has different forms of madness. Spontaneous grassroots art was happening in parallel all over the place.

If there were no cultural subsidies, from Catalonia or Barcelona, do you think we could live in a minority culture like ours?

Yes, we could manage somehow or other. But the question should be “if our culture were not subjugated to a different state…”.

Portrait of Enric Casasses © Albert Armengol

Has this been institutionalised?

It’s just that here the institutions hold so much sway, and the spontaneous or individual content is sort of hidden behind the big publicity stunts. In Berlin you don’t learn about the institutional stuff unless you seek it out; there’s a great deal of it, and it’s all on an equal footing.

Here, when lots of recitals began to take place…

…the institutions weren’t here, although they did hold Poetry Week once a year.

And then it grew. When the UH tour took place in 1997, it was in bars.

Bit by bit a little festival was held here and there.

It’s also good for the institutions to endorse poets.

Yes, but after that the ordinary folk come out and follow the tried-and-tested approach that works.

The successful approach for many years was Enric Casasses’ method.

Yes, but it worked for me.

Have you sometimes come up against any pressure from imitators?

No, no pressure. At some point I’ve thought: “Why are they copying this? But, on the other hand, the real strong connection has been positive since the time of Pope, Comelade, Blanca Llum Vidal, Núria Martínez-Vernis, Martí Sales, who is also closely related, Víctor Bonet… They are not from my school; they are colleagues.

In the end, each of them has gone their own way. Pedrals, Escoffet…

And the youthful, ground-breaking work of Dolors Miquel.

The spearheads of poetry from the turn of the century up to now, Casasses and Miquel, in the end you are two people from the world of literature, but without the stuffiness that could have been there, and with a very marked oral nature.

It’s a big change, yes.

Does reciting a poem and seeing what happens in front of the listener also teach you?

There is a form of influence, so to speak, which is to have been, myself and others, at the forefront of this movement. And now, seeing people who have nothing to do with it directly, but who are there, like Guim Valls, Raquel Santanera, Camacho… each in their own way, pursuing this approach.

Guim Valls has edited Jordi Pope’s poetry, under the Documents Documenta poetry label…

There was also Víctor Nubla, on the other hand…

On a different circuit, musician and writer…

Yes, like Comelade, with alternative music, but then he increasingly got into the world of writing, and he also wrote in Catalan.

And in his titles, Comelade has always played around with language.

From the very start he plays with the languages that sound familiar… “Your Labios as Tulips” is the name of one song… He plays this game, also in French… Or another one, why is it called “Promenade des schizophrènes”? Because it’s a double step. And Pascal has graphic and written works too…

The Enciclopèdia logicofobista [Logic-phobic Encyclopaedia]…

de la música catalana [of Catalan music], exactly, is very good.

Comelade is so local that he is universal. You have also travelled to recite in Catalan all over the world.

Bob Dylan is also ultra-American and has reached the entire world.

After having lived in Nottingham, Berlin, Tenerife, Montpellier… and having travelled around half the world, at least in Europe, you have been living in Barcelona for years. Compared to other places, how do you find living there?

Going abroad really helped open up my vision of the world, but now I get the feeling that my work is in Barcelona. It is still the capital, or one of the great capitals, of culture and of the Catalan world. We are one of the most unique and richest voices in Europe.

What prompted you to live abroad?

I have always improvised, or let myself go with the flow, and, rather than going abroad, I found myself there. Once there, I’ve always tried to immerse myself in the dynamics of the country, that is to say, in Germany I mixed with Germans and I didn’t hang around with Catalan exiles or emigrants. Sometimes I was fleeing: fleeing from Franco’s police, fleeing from the uncontrolled merry-go-round of love affairs… Rather than playing the role of a Catalan in Berlin, I played the role of a Catalan Berliner, and I have also been a Montpelliérian, and in Nottingham I joined the small group of half a dozen anarchists who were there.

If at some point you seemed nomadic, even with a gypsy streak, you are not so much now. Does age also have something to do with it?

I don’t know, I suppose so. But I still have my spiritual nomadism…

When you started publishing, were you surprised that people started to pay attention to you?

Yes, I was expecting a revolution to break out and, when I got good reviews, it came as a surprise to me.

Good reviews and awards, like the Premi d’Honor de les Lletres Catalanes.

And the Critics’ Prize and the Serra d’Or, and the Lletra d’Or… There came a time when I was already on a roll with my work, and I sort of carried on as before, I suppose, I don’t know.

You haven’t been awarded any prizes in Barcelona.

There’s no need, no…

And yet you dedicated a whole book to the city, for example, in Plaça Raspall

I don’t know if anyone has noticed, but there is a famous book about Gràcia, La plaça del Diamant (The Time of the Doves) by Mercè Rodoreda, and mine is Plaça Raspall, a different kind of language.

It reflects the gypsy side…

…and the non-gypsy side.

It brings to the surface things that are there, but that no one can see, which is what poetry does.

There are parts of the book that seem to stray off the beaten track, but basically there is a portrait, a landscape with figures. It’s a description of the place, and the bar, and the people.

If you had to choose one of your books, which would it be?

It’s complicated. Maybe Canaris fosforescents [Phosphorescent Canaries], it’s special. It was a real struggle to have a black cover.

It was number 50 of the poetry collection published by Edicions 62 and Empúries, and it was presented on your 50th birthday, at the Catalan Book Week. It was a book that came from Berlin, just like UH.

It was an invented genre, the poem in prose with a nonsensical twist. And immediately after returning from Berlin, Coltells [Knives] came out, when I moved into the flat where I still live. “A l’entrada de cada casa / per robar bitllets de mil / hi ha un comptador que desfasa / i amb més xapes, un pernil”. (At the entrance to each house / to steal thousand-peseta notes / there is an obsolete metre / and with more tags than a leg of ham). That was the installer putting in the new meter. “That’s ‘insurance’, isn’t it?”, and he said: “It’s got more tags than a leg of ham!”. It was a very contemporary book.

Portrait of Enric Casasses © Albert Armengol

In Llibres del Segle, another publishing house… Wouldn’t you have liked all your work to remain in one publishing house?

I mix up the two published by Edicions de 1984 and a series by Empúries, so it’s good to keep changing. Now I have several projects underway, Marramaus is going to Edicions 62 and I also have another one yet to finish, which has to be illustrated by someone else. It’s going to be called La policia irà de bòlit [The Police Will Be on the Lookout], and it’s stuff from 2018 and 2019.

And are they also unpublished?

Some emerged in some independence movement or other, but not that many.

It’s a book written in the trenches.

Yes, and ultimately “we wholeheartedly hope the pro-centralists achieve independence”.

But you don’t know when or where it will be published. And you already mentioned it when you received the Premi d’Honor de les Lletres Catalanes.

No, I don’t know. I could ask Documenta, maybe. This one I’d like to have in monochrome, not in colour, like El nus la flor, which was also illustrated with drawings.

And Ànsia vella is still to come.

It is still not the time, and then some. I’ll start looking at it one day. First of all, after the lockdown, there was a time to sort things out and arrange the order of Soliloquis. I also have a folder from the 1980s and 90s… I have to take a look at it.

Today many writers seem to use social media – Facebook, Twitter, etc. – more to comment on the game than to write poems. What do you think?

I don’t know if all this is going to last long. The tweet is a new form, which almost seems closer to speech than to writing, but it is written. It’s interesting, it’s a new genre.

There is a fair amount of humour in your poems, and, rather than being angry, you’re protesting against a certain way of the world. Is poetry a filter and does it educate us too?

Atomic chemistry helps us to understand atomic chemistry, and economics helps us to understand economics, and, on the other hand, from poetry “comes knowledge that is not negligible under any circumstances”, as Vinyoli said.

Recommended publications

  • AssagetsEdicions Poncianes, 2020
  • El nus la florEdicions Poncianes, 2018
  • De la nota del preu del sopar del mossoEdicions Terrícola, 2015

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