Notes on a Return to the Ever-Dying Lands
Arturo Desimone’s series on Latin American Poetry
Under the Buenos Aires Night : interview with Argentinian independent publisher, returned exile and political activist Miguel Martínez Naón about poetry, memory, and revolution.
Miguel Martínez Naón is an Argentinian editor who forms part of the independent publisher Lamás Médula, as well as an actor, a journalist for the Paco Urondo News Agency (named after the poet and journalist Paco Urondo who became one of the disappeared during the military junta of 1976). A political rabble-rousing activist militant since his infancy, Naón has long been involved in many battles on social fronts within Argentina. Shockingly, he holds U.S. citizenship: Naón was born in 1976 to Argentinian exiles in the city of Palo Alto, California, in the ‘’free state’’ declared upon the campus of Stanford University, a cradle of counterculture of the times. But he was quickly taken from California to Mexico by his parents, and in 1984 came to his true homeland Argentina, when such a return was made possible by the re-establishment of democracy.
Miguel fights for the place of poetry, for social justice, memory and recognition of the Argentinian past. Next to literary activities, he is a member of organizations such as H.I.J.O.S, ‘’Sons and Daughters for Identity and Justice Against Oblivion and Silence’’ an organization founded to reunite the stolen children who were abducted by state terror from their biological parents, who were imprisoned, deemed ‘’unfit’’ by the punishing authorities, exiled or murdered for their leftist politics. Naón is active in social organizations promoting literacy among the urban poor of Buenos Aires. He is the managing editor of a poetry series called ‘’Totem of Night’’ and wrote the poetry collection ‘’Service Station’’ (Estación de Servicio) published in 2012. His forthcoming collection of poems, “Tango Capsule’’ (Capsula de Tango) is out soon!
A very personal note on our encounter: I first met Miguel at the 2016 international poetry festival in Buenos Aires. We spoke of our parents. I told him I was researching the sinister circumstances of my late Argentinian father’s exile during the junta. Later that night, Miguel posted a picture of us together on Facebook: immediately we obtained a response from elder friends of his, including one veteran Montonero of the armed guerilla struggle who had known Desimones who had fought in the underground resistance to the regime, before being captured and made to vanish (unlike my father, an unarmed musician) We hoped one of these would turn out to be a relative. Sadly, it turned out that the brave freedom fighter Enrique Desimone of La Plata and my father were not blood-relatives.
Arturo Desimone: Because of your parents’ exile from Argentina, you were born on the campus of Stanford University, a cradle of North American counterculture in the 70s, and yet you are Argentinian, and even an Argentine nationalist of the Left according to some definitions. How did these extraordinary circumstances come about? Have you retained any memories of icons of North American counterculture? (Angela Davis, for example, among many others had a presence in Stanford) You seem very far removed from the academic animal for someone born in Stanford…
Miguel Martínez Naón: Well first of all allow me to clarify, that rather than a “nationalist of the Left” I identify as a Peronist. The term ‘’Argentine nationalist of the Left’’ could generate hefty confusion….I am Peronist, and that means, in this historical era I therefore am committed to Kirchnerismo. I am a Kirchnerist, what amounts to supporting and taking part in a greater mass-movement that does not only embrace the flagship of Peronism, but also embraces the causes of socialism and communism, and different popular movements of progressivism, with a profoundly Latin-Americanist vision. This ideological period, logically, emerged with the ascent of Nestor Kirchner to the presidency on the 25th of May from 2003 (during the time Argentina was stricken by the worst period of financial crisis in recent memory) It continued with Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner’s leadership. We have seen 12 years of very important battles won on the social front for Argentinians.
My parents were exiled in 1975, they were persecuted by the A.A.A (the Argentinian Anti-Communist Alliance, an intelligence agency and assassination-bureaucracy established by Isabela Martínez Peron in the 1970s in collusion with the military which later overthrew Isabela and established its own dictatorship.) Both my parents were activists in left-wing Peronism. They were artists, not soldiers: my late father was a theater director , my mother Noemi an actress and textile artist. Unlike some of their comrades, they were not in the armed wings of Peronism like the ERP (People’s Revolutionary Army). I returned to the United States in 2001 and in 2004, and there could learn more about that culture (or, more accurately, indeed ‘’Counter-culture’’) but I was never able to perceive this 60s subversive counter-culture as anything more than a series of frozen artifacts and large pieces in a museum, like a movement that remained in the past. If we are in fact seeing a resurgence of that (1970s North American) counterculture, quite often its manifestations are anachronistic and, I would go so far as to even call them decadent. I believe the political clime in the USA to be an even more hostile context than it was.
AD: I know you as a passionate appreciator of the exiled Argentinian poet and revolutionary Juan Gelman, and I’ve even listened to your reciting poems of his from memory, on certain occasions in the late night of Buenos Aires. What place does Gelman, the poet and militant, occupy in your life as a literary editor and as a militant ideologue and activist?
Naón: Beyond any doubt, Juan Gelman remains one of the greatest exponents of Argentinian and Latin American poetry. I began learning about his work and enjoying him when I was a child. My parents would recite his poems and quote him and from hearing it so often I began to learn it by heart. There are also songs with his lyrics, played by the Cedrón Quartet (a tango orchestra from Buenos Ares.) I would steal his verses and adapt them for theater, acting them out on the stage. I also would carry his books in my back-pack when I went to political actions, when I began participating in the movement H.I.J.O.S during the turn of the 1990s.
Gelman’s poetry also transformed into food, because I would earn my living by reciting his poems on the urban buses as a child, then I would pass around a hat for donations.
I carry Gelman in my blood. Some of his books I like more than others. His collection The Poems of Sidney West is one of my favourites. One way or another he has always influenced me and my experience of life, and not only as a poet — also as an activist. I have always recommended young friends to read the Juan Gelman book titled “Counter-Defeat: Montoneros and the Lost Revolution (‘Contraderrota: Montoneros y la
revolución perdida) wherein he converses with Roberto Mero about his experience as a guerrilla fighter inside the leadership of the Montoneros guerrilla organization. An excellent read.
AD: When Gelman died in 2014, the government led by President Cristina Kirchner declared four days of national mourning (all were free from work etc.) Where were you during those days? Does the existence of such a ‘holiday’ set aside for mourning prove that Argentina has changed its way of treating both poets and those who resisted dictatorship?
Naón: That very night I was at the house of a girlfriend who is also my comrade in the movement, and when we heard the news it was a very sad occasion for us…then she asked me to recite poems of his from memory, and I remember her filming it, the next day we showed this to our good friends. That night we drank a lot of wine and toasted to him. The day after, despite how it weighed upon us, I was moved to find his face on the front page of every newspaper. I believe that also determined for me that there had been a real change of the era, a shift in attitudes.
In the 1990s we had been forgotten, and Gelman would have lingered in oblivion and died forgotten and unrecognized. We owe much to the massive paradigm-shifts that occurred during the government of Cristina Kirchner. Her government accompanied and dignified the great artists of our country, not only poets. The Ministry of Culture (nonexistent in Argentina prior to 2003-Ed.) distinguished great artists like folk-singer Leonardo Favio, novelist Maria Elena Walsh, pop-singer Spinetta, the poet Alberto Szpunberg also received an accolade. Within the Ministry of Culture they installed a library that was entirely dedicated to poetry, and which is named after Juan Gelman and includes 80 major authors of our literature. These editions were distributed in all public schools. All this is entirely contrary to what the current anti-government of president Macri (elected in November 2015) is enacting at present: Macri is destroying all that legacy, making those books disappear. No one knows where they are now.
AD: You have marched in demonstrations alongside the May Plaza Mothers, who today are being persecuted by the government. Before then you participated in H.I.J.O.S. (Sons and Daughters for Identity and Justice, Against Forgetfulness and Against Silence) You are also a friend of the children of poets and writers who were assassinated or made to vanish under the military junta. Can you tell of one or two great moments you witnessed while inside these movements?
Naón: There were many great moments that I experienced as a member of H.I.J.O.S. To make a synthesis of the experience, I would say that altogether there were two fundamentally important things always present: first was our place to meet each other, to speak of what was happening to us. Not only were there children of the disappeared, there also children of murdered, of imprisoned subversives and, obviously, children of exiles. That is why I was there. We were able to see the others’ eyes, to hug each other and to keep each other company. This was crucial in that time.
The 1990s was a brutal time, we really suffered from repression, from marginalization. We were persecuted and stigmatized. That was internally acknowledged. In our efforts towards the outside world, we were able to make visible the scope of impunity (the 1990s were the era of ‘’Amnesty’’ declared under the Carlos Menem presidency towards the culprits of State terror during the junta regime).
We did this by way of the escrache, an action that consisted of going to the house of a former state-terrorist (all of them had been granted unconditional liberty) There we would gather the neighbors to come out, we would block the street, while we publicly denounced under the slogan ‘’If there is no justice, there is still escrache’’ Escrache is a word from Lunfardo (the immigrant dialect of Buenos Aires) that means precisely this: to denounce, to repudiate.
Obviously it was not easy to do. We almost always ended up in the police station, there were always wounded comrades.
AD: Gelman wrote Dibaxu, a collection of poems in the Sephardi language (also known as ‘’Judeo-Spanish’’ or Ladino, the language of the Mediterranean-origin Jews) According to our friend Alberto Spzunberg (who is among the poets you have published and most promoted) his close friend Juan Gelman could only have intended the writing of Dibaxu in Sephardi language as some sort of show of virtuosity, while Gelman refused to look towards his own, true roots and identity as an Ashkenazy Jew descended from Russian Jewish immigrants to Argentina. You, Miguel Naon certainly are descended from Sephardic Jewish people.
AD: What is the significance of Dibaxu for you as both a descendant of Spain’s exiled Jews and an Argentinian born in exile, to exiles? Does the collection offer some form of recognition or even empowerment to your roots? Is there a possible theme of identity politics in Dibaxu
that you can potentially connect with in a different manner from how you connect to other works of Gelman that you know by heart?
Naón: With regard to the first point, Alberto’s comment on the matter, I believe we better ask him, and I would be very interested in knowing why he thinks that. That collection I also first discovered in the shelves of my parents. My mother’s surname is Naón, of Sephardi origin. And indeed, the book fascinates us, and moves us, but our Jewish roots remain very far from us indeed.
Neither my mother nor I have practiced the religion, nor have we ever taken part in that collectivity, so in a certain way I am very inauthentic as a Jewish person, or to be very frank, I am just ignorant.
(*For more sephardi, here is a link to my translations of Denise León, a contemporary Argentine poet from Tucuman who writes in Spanish and in the Sephardi language of her grandmother, in the Adirondack Review http://www.theadirondackreview.com/deniseleon.html)
AD: In a 1963 interview given by Ernesto Guevara in Algiers, the Argentinian-Cuban guerrilla-leader summed up his view as to the motor of socialism: “Economic socialism without a communist morality does not interest me. We fight misery, but at the same time we fight against alienation. One of the crucial objectives of Marxism is to make the principle of interest, the factor individual self-interest disappear altogether, to eradicate that and the profit-incentive as psychological motor in the human being. Marx was as preoccupied with the economic facts as with their repercussion in consciousness. If communism is not concerned with conscience and consciousness, then it becomes a method for the distribution of of goods, but it will never be a revolutionary morale’’ (from the interview with Jean Daniel, L’Éxpres, 1963). What, then, would be the relation between that expression of Guevara and poetry, between political (often violent) polarization and the power of poetry to oppose or deactivate the language of regimes such as the neo-liberal regime or other forms of abusive authority (such as Stalinism)? If there is a power in the art of great politically-engaged militant poets (Szpunberg, Gelman, Vallejo, Violeta Parra, Elvira Hernandez to name a few) as well as the art of politically un-involved but nonetheless great poets (including even poets who harbor right-wing reactionary opinion), does their art function all the same as a force to counter that very alienation towards which Guevara aimed his rifle? Or, should we draw a firm distinction between Alienation as defined by the romantics and Alienation as defined by Marxists?
Naón: So many questions at once (laughs). Yes, poetry is always the counter-force to such alienation, regardless of who writes it or what party they belong to. I can cite this verse from Gelman who says
“with this poem you will not take the power’’ he says
‘’with these verses you will not make the Revolution’’ he says
‘’not even with thousands of verses will you make the Revolution’’ he says
he sits at the table and writes
That is only a fragment of that great poem “Confidences.”
However, even though we will never be able to seize the political powers using poetry, poetry is a mighty warrior (Miguel says ‘’guerrera’’ female of ‘’warrior’’ in Spanish) against that form of alienation Che was talking about — El Che, who we could see as a poet in the guise of warrior. Alberto Szpunberg has pointed out accurately that for poetry to be of political significance, it is not of any major importance for the poetry itself to have a social urgency or societal ‘’relevance’’ in its themes or content, so much as for the poet to have a certain relationship with his people — the latter is far more important.
I am already so very tired of assemblies of poets who believe that by reading their poems they are doing a revolutionary act. That, too, is pure alienation, pure ego that fulfills the function of cooling their consciences. What would be worthwhile, however, would be for the poet to be present in all the social political manifestations, at strikes and demonstrations next to the workers, the excluded and marginalized, in militancy. If you go to a place where people are dying from hunger, shitting hunger then of course they don’t want a poem by Gelman or whoever, they want to get the bread, they need jobs. I’ve been saying this a long time and without any undervaluation or underestimation of poetry. And if the poet does not give a fuck about that reality, then OK, its fine then to stay home and calmly write his complete oeuvre. But the crux of the matter is to not be an impostor, don’t you think so?
AD: In your role as an editor at the independent publishing house Lamás Médula, would you publish a writer who is not an activist and not politically involved, who is committed neither to the Left nor to any progressive cause? Would you publish an author whose aesthetic may be interesting or radical, even if that author had political positions similar to those of (for example) a Jorge Luis Borges?
Naón: Of course I would. As a publisher, Lamás Médula has no determined political editorial line, we are just a wonderful team of friends and comrades who value literature in itself. I only direct one specific collection, the publisher is much bigger in terms of its branches.
Personally, I believe that literature in general and poetry in particular (obviously speaking here only of the good literature, good poetry) is in itself revolutionary. Any true work of art is. Whoever the author may be, the art-work stands alone.
If we can manage to get the books into the hands of young people and kids who start to get interested in poetry, then we already are realizing a little revolutionary act, that will always be in polar opposition to the interests of fascism and of the right.
AD: Both the anti-peronist, anti-communist military junta, as well as Peronism in its right-wing strains, seem to have contained strongly anti-semitic elements. The Argentinian leftist-Peronist author Rodolfo Walsh, in his book of investigative journalism ‘’The Satanowsky Case’’ took risks in angering peronists. Peron allowed for the Nazis to enjoy a safe refuge in Argentina, extending the open-borders policy to them, as well as allowing Jewish immigration (Argentina enjoys the third largest Jewish community in the world) Here in Argentina, the Jewish immigrant population inhabits the immigrant nexus together with the Lebanese, Syrian and German immigrant communities. Does all this not result in internal conflict for you, the descendant of Jewish immigrants and at the same time a militant Peronist — does all this not lead to a dilemma? Are these identities even to be reconciled?
Naón: Well, as I told you before I do not profess Judaism, I do not feel directly identified with Judaism. Let’s break this down step by step: in the first place, Marcos Satanoswky was murdered in the year 1957, under the dictatorship of Aramburu, which had overthrown Peron in ’55. It was a bloodthirsty dictatorship that outlawed Peronism while it executed an infinity of persons. Rodolfo Walsh was himself a peronist. What you said about Peron with regard to the Nazis is absolutely erroneous, that is an echoe of the misinformation campaign conducted by the Yankees and the British to libel and undermine him and Evita. While undoubtedly true that Nazis managed to get into Argentina, these elements lived in hiding in the South, they did not count on the support of General Peron, unlike the Jewish community in Argentina (the Jewish immigrants received official governmental support, approval.) These were campaigns to defame him, just as occurs today with the media conglomerate of the Clarín newspaper in its campaigns against the recent government of Nestor and Cristina Kirchner. Therefore, I suffer from no such “conflicted identity,” in the first place because I’m an atheist, and second because the Jews who were active and who are active today in Peronism are many in number. In fact, the most recent military dictatorship, that of 1976, orchestrated the disappearance of thousands of Peronist Jews.
AD: You work as a journalist for the Paco Urondo News Agency. This agency bears the name of that great poet and journalist who was assassinated (or disappeared) during the last military dictatorship. In what way does Urondo and his life provide a model for you as journalists?
Naón: we greatly admire Paco, as a journalist, a poet, as a militant, as an intellectual, as a human being, in every sense, and we pay homage to him every day in our own reporting work. We do militant journalism, and every day we are still learning from him, he’s always present, in a way resembling what I’ve told you about Gelman before, he lives with me in my quotidian existence.
AD: Miguel, you’re a United States citizen because of reasons of exile. With Trump as the new president (and, before him under Obama and under Clinton) the situation of refugees’ rights has grown ever more complicated since your parents were able to secure a refuge during Argentina’s tyranny. What would you want to tell US citizens and readers about your reaction to their new president? Did you vote for Trump or for Hillary at the embassy?
Naón: the time that I spent in the United States (here I refer to years as a grown-up, because after my birth we quickly moved to Mexico) from 2004 to 2007 I participated actively in left-wing party called “Socialism and Liberation’’ and was also a member of the coalition ANSWER (Act Now Against War and End Racism) There I could become more familiar with the problems of immigrants. In fact I was also part of the historic strike-demonstration on May 1st of 2006 that was named ‘’One day without immigrants” I have never voted, neither over there nor here. I have no clear message to give them. I am disheartened with the outcome, just as I am with what is happening here with Macri. I can still not believe those same Yankee citizens as I knew them would commit mass suicide by choosing such sinister representatives. The source of what is happening in the USA has to do with the fact that the vote is not a legal obligation for all citizens. That causes, or is related to, a culture of intellectual void and emptiness, there is a disdain for debate and for polemic and for political participation. The majority has a burnt, scorched conscience. Not all of them, but certainly the majority of US citizens. But the role of the media is also surely of immense influence in shaping that culture of anti-intellectualism.
Here in Argentina, we are unfortunately also governed by idiots, by puppets of an international system that is macabre, but we are able to respond with a very resilient social movement. We possess the means to resist.
AD: Would you today contemplate armed struggle against state terrorism?
Naón: Absolutely not. Today’s struggle is through the syndicates, it is territorial, there is a democratic mechanism through which elections are organized, there has not been a coup. Macri was elected by votes. The movement has a leader — that’s Cristina — there are youths mobilizing in the streets. It would be foolish to even think of armed resistance at this stage.
Arturo Desimone, Arubian-Argentinian writer and visual artist, was born in 1984 on the island Aruba which he inhabited until the age of 22, when he emigrated to the Netherlands. He is currently based in Argentina (a country two of his ancestors left during the 1970s) while working on a long fiction project about childhoods, diasporas, islands and religion. Desimone’s articles, poetry and short fiction pieces have previously appeared in CounterPunch, Círculo de Poesía(Spanish) Acentos Review, New Orleans Review, DemocraciaAbierta, BIM Magazine, Knot-Lit. A play he wrote won a prize for young immigrant authors in Amsterdam in 2011, and published in the world-lit journal of University of Istanbul. His translations of poetry have appeared in the Blue Lyra Review andAdirondack Review.