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Cabo Verdean President Jorge Carlos Fonseca: Poetry Is the Only Instrument of Radical Change

By Shook
Translated By Shook

One of the surprising pleasures of the early pandemic was the development of my friendship with the Cabo Verdean writer Jorge Carlos Fonseca. In addition to being one of Lusophone Africa’s most boundary-pushing poets and novelists, Fonseca today serves as his nation’s president, a role he has held since 2011, having been reelected to a second term in 2017 with over 74% of the vote. Introduced by São Toméan poet Conceição Lima, we began our conversation discussing his 1998 book Porcos em delírio (Pigs in Delirium), a groundbreaking and long out-of-print collection characterized by its playful experimentation with genre, structure, authorship, and presentation. This fall, my translation of the book will be published by Insert Blanc Press. Besides answering the many questions I’ve sent during the process of translating the book, President Fonseca routinely forwards me his latest writing, often in the form of brief literary dispatches that are dense with allusion and demonstrate his delight in his playing with language. Over the course of May and June, I conducted this more formal interview with President Fonseca, discussing contemporary Cabo Verdean poetry, his influences, and the relationship between literature and politics.


David Shook (DS): I am always impressed that you are so prolific, given the enormous responsibilities you have as president of Cabo Verde. How—and when—do you manage to write so much?

Jorge Carlos Fonseca (JCF): It’s quite curious that, when it comes to literature, I have published more since becoming president of the republic than I did before. This may mean that the time we measure so precisely is not the same as writing time. Sometimes I wonder if I sleep to write (what is for sure is that I don't write to sleep!). I write in any situation: during a lunch; listening, as a function of my duties, to dull speeches; while I’m waiting during trips, most of all on long flights. I write a lot during my constant [spells of] insomnia, which is why for years I kept a small tape recorder on my bedside table, and more recently a notebook and some pens. Perhaps the tension generated by the tasks of the presidency strengthens the tension of writing, of the imagination, of the creative drive. I write on the computer, but I also write on pieces of paper, on napkins . . . I must have dozens upon dozens of notebooks full of scribbles. I write any way I can, including on my cell phone (in the tiny square designated for "notes"). I even write when I don't have paper, pen, or computer. With the mind, with the memory.

I see, for example, that I wrote this early one morning (May 14, 2020): “. . . Through this time, unmeasured even by the codé1 of Zeus and Tyche, its Creator, I dream of an agile, expert trumpeter with long hair and full curls, a slender, mulatto body, whose name, of course, I do not know, but who is certainly not the fruit of Prudentia's magic potion, much less descended from castrated Uranus . . ."


DS: How do you see your own work in the panorama of Cabo Verdean poetry, both historically and in the present day?

JCF: Ever since my poems were first published in Jogos Florais (Floral Games), Cabo Verde’s first post-independence poetry anthology (the result of a 1976 contest in which, perhaps surprisingly, I came in second place behind the already established Osvaldo Osório), I have read and heard that my poetry was “surrealist,” even to the point of José Luís Hopffer Almada describing me as the “inventor of Cabo Verdean surrealism.”

“Surrealism is not something you can abandon when you feel like it.”

The poet João Vário, at the launch of my book Pigs in Delirium, stated that I was a poet “who, somewhat outside the canons of our poetics today, practices late surrealism to produce poetry of a strong satirical nature.” He went as far as to say that I had a deep love for the surrealists, concluding that I was "ostensibly a surrealist.” A few years earlier, in a short appreciation of my first book of poetry, O silêncio acusado de alta traição e de incitamento ao mau hálito geral (Silence Accused of High Treason and Incitement to Public Bad Breath), another poet, Arménio Vieira, in a more measured—and perhaps more accurate—manner, called me “an indispensable author in the panorama of modern Cabo Verdean poetry, and an original voice, for numerous reasons, but above all for his pronounced surrealist accent . . .” At the end of his brief note, he added that a bibliographic bridge had been established between the generation of the sixties and the novíssimos [the nineties].

So, I have borne the "cross" [laughs] of surrealism since the publication of my first poems; it seems, at times, that this description crops up as the easiest and most comfortable, though I believe both Vário and Vieira are quite right in their assessments. I grew up, poetically most of all, reading the surrealists and their “kin”: Breton, Prévert, Aragon, Éluard, Cesariny, but also Char and Baudelaire. From a historical perspective, I consider myself in between the poets of the sixties (namely Arménio Vieira, Mário Fonseca, Corsino Fortes, and others) and those of the novíssimos (including Mário Lúcio, Filinto Elísio, Valentinous Velhinho, etc.). From a more concrete, substantial point of view, I think that my poetry breaks aesthetically—due to the material it deals with and, above all, its form and the tools it employs—with what came before it, especially with the “claridoso movement” [a nineteenth-century literary movement associated with the Cabo Verdean literary magazine Claridade]. I suppose I am a surrealist, then?


DS: I’ve written before that I think that label is a bit reductive, and certainly incomplete, especially considering the wide range of influences so evident in your work.

JCF: I do not believe, in the first place, in “late surrealism.” Surrealism is, above all, a way of writing driven by a way of being or desiring to be. As António Maria Lisboa put it, “The Surreal belongs to the Poet of every age, to all great poets,” and I fully, very deeply subscribe to this idea. In any case, I do not think it can be said, for example, that my book O albergue espanhol (The Spanish Hostel) is a surrealist or surreal work. Full stop. Obviously, the techniques and ingredients (metaphor, shocking vocabulary, unpredictable associations, unusual effects, the potentiation of the prose poem, the cadence of words that never pause for candor or appeasement) and the typical aims of surrealism are present in it. Especially the key idea that art, in all its evolution in modern terms, is called to recognize that its quality resides only in the imagination, regardless of the external object that gave rise to it (as can be seen in the “Political Position of Surrealism,” 1935). There’s also automatic writing, which is present in many parts of The Spanish Hostel, as well as in Pigs in Delirium, Silence Accused of High Treason and Incitement to Public Bad Breath, and my later works. Always present, with greater or lesser intensity, with greater or lesser exuberance. The truth is that surrealism is not something you can abandon when you feel like it. Ever since, at the age of seventeen or eighteen, I read “Beloved imagination, what I most like in you is your unsparing quality,” I have not been able to stray far from the vice of writing in a certain manner.

“I have engaged in politics throughout my life, always with the flag of liberty unfurled deep inside me.”

I took a liking to the aforementioned techniques—metaphor, irony, sarcasm, hybridity, textual fragmentation, the unusual, and the rejection of the commonplace and of stereotyped discourse—from my initial approach to them, a kind of love at first reading. With time, through the practice of writing and reading (in a varied way, despite everything), I tried to ascertain and harmonize their use, adapt them to . . . it may seem too pretentious, but, yes, a style of writing. I don't think I write like Breton or Crevel, nor like Vila-Matas, and much less like Strindberg, Vieira, or Pessoa.    

But in a kind of diary that Ive been writing, I jotted this on June 25, 2017: I return to Breton and slowly spell out what, decades ago, was a kind of motto for me: ‘Beloved imagination, what I most like in you is your unsparing quality.’ And I laughed, alone, at ‘The Marquise Went Out at Five O’Clock’ . . . In truth, I never again failed to remember it, whenever I decided to write whatever it was I was writing . . .”

I wonder: are there really many great poets who have been entirely immune to surrealism? Who?


DS: Who do you converse with in your work, among both Cabo Verdeans and world poets? I know that you are in conversation with a great many musicians (especially of free jazz) and directors as well. Who belongs to your personal literary pantheon? 

JCF: Speaking only of literature, and not of musicians or filmmakers, the answer is complicated. But I will start from a foundation that gives me some comfort. Some time ago, a Cabo Verdean literary critic, in a big interview, asked me for a shortlist of five works and five authors. My answer, equally difficult at the time, was as follows:

1. The Book of Disquiet by Bernardo Soares

2. Les Chants de Maldoror by Comte de Lautréamont

3. The Surrealism Manifestos by André Breton

4. The Odyssey by Homer

5. The Stranger by Albert Camus

But these days, I have been spending a lot of time with Baudelaire and Rimbaud. I have no doubt that they, alongside the aforementioned, would make up part of my “pantheon.” So, there are Breton, Pessoa, Camus, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Lautréamont, Homer—I’ll add Herbero Helder, Vila-Matas (a recent acquisition”), Whitman, Saint-John Perse, Goethe, Éluard, Char, and the Cabo Verdeans Arménio Vieira and João Vário.


DS: I see a clear political dimension to your work—and here I want to be careful to say that I don’t mean to set up a false binary between the political and apolitical, as I count myself among those who don’t believe the latter truly exists. You have been a freedom fighter, a world expert on criminal and procedural law, and a politician who has held a variety of high-level positions, not to mention your current office. Could you talk about how these experiences have influenced your work?

JCF: In a fragment that I published just over a year ago, included in a small book titled Em tempo de Natal e da Morna, a mosca viajou gratuitamente na executiva (During the Christmas Season with Its Morna, the Fly Rode Business Class for Free), I played with primavera, the Portuguese word for “spring,” by breaking it into prima Vera, prima meaning “cousin” and Vera being the real-life name of one of mine, an early childhood crush: “My true prima Vera is Prague, without a doubt. Not Nabokov's. Then the others. But I was vaccinated forever.” It is clear that I was referring to the so-called Prague Spring, Czechoslovakia, 1969, and the invasion of the Soviet tanks. I was a young man then, a law student in Coimbra, Portugal, a revolutionary already clandestinely involved in a movement fighting for the independence of Cabo Verde and Guinea-Bissau, obliged to read texts, books, and manifestos related to the independence struggles happening in Africa. In particular, I read the pamphlets of the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cabo Verde, but also the works of Lenin, Marx and Engels, and Che Guevara, alongside Trotsky, Rosa Luxemburg, Gramsci, and Guy Débord and the Situationist International. A young man recently arrived in Portugal from Cabo Verde, I was almost a virgin when it came to politics, except for a handful of conversations I had with or heard between Mário Fonseca (my older brother, a rebel poet), Arménio Vieira, and another few, some ten or so years older than I was.

But I also began frequenting, in Coimbra, circles of Portuguese young people linked to theater, literature, and cinema, to the most radical currents, aesthetically speaking: surrealism, free jazz, Grotowski's theater. Young people linked to the movements of the Portuguese Left who maintained some connections with us, groups of young people from African countries.

“Politics is often a starting point for me; I would call it a pretext for literary, poetic work.”

Soon these ideas, theses, revolutionary commitments, and orthodox ideologies with libertarian deviations” began to coexist in me. The ferment of freedom, autonomy, and intellectual rebellion already existed and grew within me. The invasion of Czechoslovakia, before the May ’68 uprising, helped to sharpen my critical impression of intellectual schemes, of practices and ideologies that were authoritarian and not very inventive or imaginative. That’s why I speak in that fragment about Prague and of having been vaccinated forever (in the middle, of course, there is Vera, a cousin, a child's crush, a boy in Mindelo, and other veras. I play, poetically, with all these elements . . .). Until I became president of the republic of Cabo Verde in 2011, I was on a journey, perhaps a winding one. I served independent Cabo Verde in 1975 under a one-party regime, which was naturally authoritarian, but this quickly came into conflict with my fervor for freedom. Political ruptures followed, sometimes with painful consequences: detention, persecution, exile. I was involved in the struggle for democracy and freedom, which triumphed in the 1990s, and was a Minister for a short time, a researcher and university professor, the founder of an institution of higher education and of magazines, and a newspaper reporter, at last, until I was elected, as an Independent, as head of state of my country in 2011.

So I have engaged in politics throughout my life, always with the flag of liberty unfurled deep inside me, and the flags of poetry and literature too (alongside my passions for criminal law and football). Perhaps, as Arménio Vieira pointed out many years ago in his note on my book Silence Accused of High Treason and Incitement to Public Bad Breath, politics has relegated poetry to a secondary place. But he adds, “We are, however, convinced that with regard to the strictly private poetic exercise, Jorge Carlos Fonseca never treated poetry as a subordinate activity . . . ”


DS: How has all this experience seeped into your work, in your view?

JCF: How might this political path have influenced my status as a poet or the poetry I make? I could also ask myself if and how literary activity influences the fulfillment of political action, especially the function of the president.

I cannot deny that the topic of politics is often a starting point for me; I would call it a pretext for literary, poetic work. Concretely, as president, I have suggested to my poet-self, as possible objects for my aesthetic inspiration, cases, people, places, episodes, curiosities, and the minutiae of meetings and trajectories. But I believe it’s very rare for my texts, especially those written after my early publications in the seventies, to reveal themselves hostage to aims or messages of a political or political-cultural nature.

What is decisive, though, is the writing itself, the sounds, the musicality of the words, their density. (Literary) writing seen as humanity on the march, the populace of the future.

The fundamental thing was invariably that the undertaking was about literature, about poetry, and not about politics. For me, being a poet means removing any direct practical purpose from the act of writing, be it political, social, ethical, or otherwise.


DS: In Pigs in Delirium, we again encounter the poet António Maria Lisboa, whom you quote as saying, “Meta-science will adjudicate that, politically speaking, democracy will only be possible when all men are poets” (translation mine). You also quote a passage from Ginsberg’s 1958 poem “Death to Van Gogh’s Ear!”:

I doubt if anyone will really fall anymore except governments
fortunately all governments will fall
the only ones which won’t fall are the good ones
and the good ones don’t yet exist  
but they have to begin existing
they exist in my poems…

I suspect that this is something of an uncommon sentiment among the presidents of the world, and to me it suggests a belief in a literary utopianism unachievable by other means. Do you really agree with Lisboa about what is required to attain true democracy?

JCF: I assume that no other president would write Pigs in Delirium, with the quotations by António Maria Lisboa and Ginsberg that you refer to. The Spanish Hostel, though, could be achieved by another citizen-writer who fulfilled the presidential function.

The belief in a literary utopia unattainable by other means does exist in the poet Jorge Carlos Fonseca, who fulfills the presidential function. If only because in his poetry there are good governments, the only ones that do not fall.

Hence the belief that politically speaking, democracy will only be possible when all men are poets. The dilemma lies in whether we will ever be able to achieve such a goal or if, in the end, democracy ends up constituting—forgive me the professional defect of a man of crime” (of the study of crime, to be clear!)—an “impossible attempt.” To put it a less pessimistic way, a patient development, always unfinished. On the way, then, toward what Ginsberg proclaimed, poetically.

It is the same as the deep belief that literature, especially poetry, is the only form, the only instrument of irreversible, radical change in the world. Able to make the world more human.

“Poetry will lead to what may well be the salvation of the world.”

From this perspective, I am much more optimistic than a Canetti or a Kafka. More than Césaire—“suggérer jusquaux forces intimes qui commandent le destin”—who has proven to be enormously so, because poetry will lead to what may well be the salvation of the world.

So the poet, on his side, offers the president the constant syllabification of liberty, the rustle of audacity, fresh air to spice up his speeches, the tapestry of peculiar and unprecedented materials.

At times it is as if he tries to seduce the president in his speeches, in the construction of his agenda, and sometimes he succeeds: Baudelaire, Senghor, or Breton in solemn speeches in Parliament on holidays celebrating independence or freedom or democracy; lines and texts by Bernardo Soares, Daniel Filipe, Camus, or Canetti—and also mine, from time to time—in messages to the nation to mark various commemorative occasions. I remember a Portuguese newspaper, in its coverage of an event in Cabo Verde, running a headline like Cabo Verde—A President Who Quotes Baudelaire.”

Finally, the poet is always uncomfortable (almost indignant) when faced with any boring right-wing intervention project laden with basic banalities and stereotypes.

But on the whole our cohabitation has been smooth and mutually beneficial; the upsets, when they exist, are overcome without any irreversible war between spouses, let’s say.

After all, we will always subscribe to Hölderlin, when he says, I quote by heart, that what remains the poets provide.

Being a poet also—who knows—may work as an antidote to any temptation toward the nativist tendencies of Trebitschism.


DS: Let’s hope so! Thank you for your time, Your Excellency.


1. A Cabo Verdean Creole term meaning “youngest [most recent] child." 


Jorge Carlos Fonseca is a politician, jurist, academic, and writer born in Mindelo, Cabo Verde, in 1950. A former freedom fighter, he is today the second-term president of Cabo Verde. He has written over twenty books, primarily focused on issues of jurisprudence. His literary output includes the collections Silence Accused of High Treason and Incitement to Public Bad Breath (1995), Pigs in Delirium (1998), and a book of selected poems, The Seductive Ink of My Nights (2019), as well as a novel, The Spanish Hostel (2017). 


Related Reading:

The Center of the World: Writing from Cabo Verde

"Lisbon - 1971" by Arménio Vieira, translated by Eric M. B. Becker and David Shook

"A Form of African Identity" by Germano Almeida, translated by Stephen Henighan

Published Jul 22, 2021   Copyright 2021 Shook

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