Diego Valverde Villena (San Isidro, Lima, Peru, 1967) has a degree in Hispanic, English and German Studies from the University of Valladolid. From 2002 to 2004 he worked at the Ministry of Culture for the Spanish Government. He was also director of the Valladolid Book Fair from 2006 to 2009. Since 2010, he is visiting professor at the Universidad Mayor de San Andrés in La Paz. His poetry includes the collections El difícil ejercicio del olvido (1997), No olvides mi rostro (2001), Infierno del enamorado (2002), and El espejo que lleva mi nombre escrito (2006). In 2007 Iconos appeared, a work for soprano and piano, with music by Juan Manuel Ruiz, published in 2008. His latest collection, Un segundo de vacilación, was published in 2011.
Carmen Sanjulián: —Who is Diego Valverde Villena?
Diego Valverde Villena: —Well, since you ask that way, I’ll give you a deep, sincere answer. I’m Fermin’s and Chati’s son. That’s how I used to call my parents when I was 2, in Lima. Chati was an affectionate way of calling my mother, while my father’s name was Fermín. I didn’t call them mum and dad, I called them Fermín and Chati, as everybody else did, my parents’ friends.
Deep down, honestly, that’s who I am. Precisely Fermín’s and Chati’s son and everything I am, I have been and may be in the future comes from them, from everything I received from them. That’s who I was in the beginning. The rest is just an expansion of what my parents gave me.
Carmen Sanjulián: —Why don’t you explain a little bit the idea of “Orfeo criollo”, which you mentioned in an interview, a biography.
Diego Valverde Villena: —Yes, and I know you have this text here in your magnificent collection. By the way, thank you very much for the documentation work you carry out here and at the Instituto Cervantes in general.
Well I gave it the title “I am a Creole Orpheus” because I really like the figure of Orpheus. It’s an interesting allegory for the artist, not only the poet but also the person who is always looking for something that is a step out of reach and about to vanish. And apart from art and the work of art, he’s also looking for the person he loves, the woman he loves. The legend usually ends sadly, but fortunately there are some versions, particularly an opera, with a happy ending. I’m hoping that my particular version of Orpheus will have a happy ending. And I’m Creole because that’s where I come from. I’m the son of a Spaniard and an American (my mum is Bolivian, from Potosi), and I was born in America, in Lima. I have always felt I am a Spaniard from America which is a beautiful way of being Spanish and being American. I have these two sides.
Carmen Sanjulián: —Is losing one’s curiosity a form of dying?
Diego Valverde Villena: —I wouldn’t say it in such a dramatic way, but definitely curiosity is essential for me. Curiosity as a vice is something rather ugly but as a virtue it’s wonderful. It’s something that keeps you alive.
Curiosity makes you somehow ageless. It gives you the urge to look for new things and enjoy life. I think it’s very important to enjoy life. There are so many things out there to enjoy that we don’t see and they’re right in front of us. For example in this library, wherever you look you find wonderful works, and just a line can change your life, can open your eyes to so much. I think curiosity is important.
Carmen Sanjulián: —A passion.
Diego Valverde Villena: —That’s like asking me about my favourite poem, or poet, or song, or music… I have many passions, plenty of personal passions and things that fascinate me. I don’t even know if literature is my main passion. It’s what I do for a living. I’ve always enjoyed other areas in which I wasn’t involved myself, maybe that’s why I find them even more magical, like music, or films. Just to mention an example, I’ve never cried with a text, well, except for letters, but never with a literary text. However, I’ve cried with movies and music. Sometimes when I listen to music I have to stop doing what I am doing.
Carmen Sanjulián: —Is there any place where you regularly go?
Diego Valverde Villena: —A physical place you mean? Well, not really… But I definitely like big cities. I was born in Lima, which at that time had a population of 3 million people. Now it’s about 10 million. I live in Madrid, with 4 million, almost 5, which is very nice too. In general, I feel quite happy in big cities: Berlin, Paris, or Rome. It doesn’t really matter. Basically it’s like the old Spanish romance says: “Allá se me ponga el sol do tengo el amor” [The sun can set wherever my love is].
Carmen Sanjulián: —Is forgetting difficult for you?
Diego Valverde Villena: —“Forgetting”. I see you’re referring to one of my titles. Forgetting is impossible for me. I realise that the titles of 2 of my books contain this word, maybe because it’s something I don’t have. Fortunately I have a good memory and memory is one’s personal background. If you lose your memory you become nobody. In my case, though, as Borges says in his poem “Everness”: “Only one thing does not exist: oblivion”. For me, in general, memories are a constant reminder of who you are.
Carmen Sanjulián: —A dream.
Diego Valverde Villena: —To do what I’m supposed to do, to be worthy of what I have inherited from my ancestors, of what I’ve received so as to somehow make good use of it. To try and be worthy of that.
Carmen Sanjulián: —Diego, while you are here, it would be a shame not to ask you to read some of your poems. You’re going to read two poems. How did you come up with them?
Diego Valverde Villena: —Yes, I’m going to read two poems that go hand in hand, they came to me at the same time. I have a special fondness for these poems because they made me feel fully satisfied with my work as a writer for the first time.
I was studying in Chicago when I wrote these two poems where my main themes converge. Recurrent themes are: travel, books, art, women, love and destiny. All these themes are here and come up again throughout my work.
Carmen Sanjulián: —Let’s start with “Metro de Chicago” [Chicago Underground].
Diego Valverde Villena:
A lo largo del viaje
la mujer de tu vida se te escapa repetidas veces,
siempre en el lado opuesto de la vía,
en el otro andén,
en la otra cola,
saliendo del museo o del restaurante cuando tú entras:
un segundo de vacilación es suficiente.
Along the route
the woman of your life keeps slipping away,
always on the other side of the track,
on the other platform,
in the other queue,
leaving the museum or restaurant as you go in:
all it takes is a moment’s hesitation.]
Carmen Sanjulián: —And to finish this interview let’s read “Like a book”
Diego Valverde Villena: —Here, as in all libraries, there are signs asking people not to return books to the shelves but to leave them on the tables, as that’s the librarians’ job. Librarians are the life and soul of the Instituto Cervantes, together with the teachers. At that time I was in Chicago in a library which had seven million books. You can imagine, when a book is not put back properly it’s lost forever. Based on this idea of the poor lost book and how it would be found and recovered, I wrote this poem.
abandonado entre filas extrañas,
rehén de congéneres fortuitos que entienden otro idioma,
víctima del azar de un bibliotecario burlón
o una mano inexperta,
solo y soslayado,
hasta que alguien me encuentre.
abandoned among strange rows,
hostage to random companions who speak a different language,
victim of the whim of a teasing librarian
or an inexpert hand,
alone and left aside,
until someone finds me.]
(Translated by Anamaría Crowe Serrano)