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Interview Inspired by life itself

Poet EDUARDO EMBRY talks to Michal Boncza about the influences on his work — exile in Britain after the murderous Pinochet coup, the satire in his new anthology Dead Flies and the current rebellion in his native Chile

BEING forced to leave your country of origin inevitably induces all manner of trauma, and Eduardo Embry believes that exile, ever since ancient times, is the most serious thing a human being can face.

In his case, having received threats and in danger of arrest, torture and death, exile was “a life or death situation,” he remembers. “It was the fate of hundreds of comrades, who were executed.”

When he arrived in London in 1974, Embry began the process of recovering from the multiple traumas — particularly torture — a process in which he was guided by psychologist and comrade Alejandro Reyes.

Torture, Embry says, is aimed at erasing the prisoner's personality and integrity. “I began to experience paranoia, a terrible fear of being alone in a strange country. For years, I was afraid of being home alone, thinking that at any moment someone would force their way in.”

He was able to quickly immerse himself intensively in reading, studying and teaching — opportunities Britain offered which helped overcome those traumas.

Poetry was fundamental in helping him survive the trauma of exile. “In this, I was not alone,” he says. “I received tremendous help from comrades, friends and family that allowed me to become what I am today — a poet and a former university academic.”

Gradually, Embry began a new life from scratch and early on had work published in Index on Censorship. He wrote a dedication to Blair Peach, the teacher killed during a demonstration in Southall against the virulent racism of the 1970s, who became an iconic figure of the anti-racist movement.

Irony runs through Embry's anthology, deployed as a weapon to make his point. In It Wasn’t My House, he highlights the ridiculous claim of the ruling class in Chile that the country is “the England of South America.”

Referencing the planes made in Britain that bombed the presidential palace of La Moneda in Santiago in 1973, the narrator sarcastically asks the Queen at the conclusion:“Which country is it that they call the England of South America?”

The myths of the Chilean ruling class — one being that there were no black people in the country because of the harsh winter weather — were starkly exposed as soon as he got to England. “When I arrived at Waterloo station for the first time, I was amazed at the number of black people driving trains, buses and taxis in London,” he recalls.

Embry is scathing about Chile’s president actively aiding the “puppet show” organised by the US against the democratic government of Venezuela and even more so about his hollow boast that Chile is an oasis of democracy in Latin America.

That's a ridiculous illusion at a time when the vast majority of Chileans are rebelling against the constitutional legacy of Pinochet that promoted corruption and misgovernment, the cause of the population's acute hardship.

For Embry, memory is key to his work. That horrific stage in the history of Chile from the 1970s on — the massacres, disappearances and mutilations — has had a strong influence on his creative output.

His poetry, rich in allegory, is informed by the memory of the books he’s read and the myths of history, as well as a record of what actually happened.

“I even go to mediaeval literature, both Spanish and English,” he says, “in particular, the Libro del Buen Amor (Book of Good Love), which contains an excellent satirical lesson about religious life of the time.” So too is Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and “contemporising some of its themes, with no less sarcasm and satire in relation to divine and earthly powers,” he says.

“Allegory allows the facts of the past to show their relevance to the present — using irony and fantasy to teach, without being didactic, about torture, persecution and the physical elimination of those who oppose dictatorship.”

English culture has had a strong influence on his work , in particular the use of satire to represent reality, along with limericks as an example of succinct popular poetry and Lewis Carroll’s “nonsense” verse.

But he's particularly enthused by the the 1930s poetry of Steven Spender and WH Auden, along with those who supported the international brigades to defend democracy against the fascist dictatorship in the Spanish civil war.

Robert Graves, Philip Larkin and a later generation of writers like Brian Patten and the other Liverpool poets have all had an impact, while WB Yeats's Easter 1916 has also left its mark on Embry where, despite the defeat of the revolutionaries— as in Chile in 1973 — “a terrible beauty is born.”

He shares Salvadorean poet Roque Dalton’s assertion that “poetry, like bread, is for everyone,” because “he was an ideological poet who turned elements of didactics and historical materialism into poems that in his work are more effective than a speech by politicians.”

“In my case, the ideal would be to convert the concept of sovereignty and solidarity into pure and crystalline water that we can all drink one day.”

In Chile and Venezuela, his poems have recently been published and had a positive response. He's given readings at the Society of Writers of Chile, the organisation he represents in Britain, which last year organised a tribute event in his recognition.

And the warm relationship with his “alma mater” — the University of Playa Ancha in Valparaiso ‑ means a lot.

Yet the current rebellion in Chile is a real concern. “The military may take over the government once again and produce another tragedy at gunpoint,” he stresses. “Despite international monitoring, people have been shot dead and an alarming number of have lost their eyes.”

He believes that the current political and social situation in Chile is very delicate and nobody knows where the crisis is going to end.

No doubt that will spur him on poetically but, mischievously, he declares some offbeat sources of inspiration in present-day Britain. Among them is “the comic poet Boris Johnson, who before appearing in public on screen ruffles up his hair to look even more comical.

“And, with all due respect, a queen who always appears with her little handbag but never opens it, not even to give out some miraculous medallion, as some devout priests might do.”

Dead Flies, £8.99, is published by Smokestack Books, smokestack-books.co.uk

 

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