Luis García Montero (Granada, 1958) is Professor of Spanish Literature. Among his poetry collections we can highlight Y ahora ya eres dueño del Puente de Brooklyn (1980), Tristia (a collaboration with Álvaro Salvador, 1982), El jardín extranjero (1983), Diario cómplice (1987), Las flores del frío (1991), Habitaciones separadas (1994), Completamente viernes (1998), La intimidad de la serpiente (2003), Vista cansada (2008) and Un invierno propio (2011). The poems he wrote in his youth were collected in Además (1994). His poems have been extensively anthologised, and he has received numerous awards. He is also the author of essays, fiction and newspaper articles.
Luis García Montero: —It’s my first time. I was really looking forward to it, because apart from being an important European capital, it’s also a very literary city.
Carmen Sanjulián: —Granada is also a literary city. And if there’s anyone that knows Granada well, it’s you. What would you recommend? What should we not miss when we go to Granada?
Luis García Montero: —Granada is a city with a lot of life, it’s a small city with a population of 350,000, it has a university with 70,000 students. I would recommend, of course, the must-see tourist sites. We never get tired of speaking about the Alhambra, it’s simply a wonder. The Royal Chapel, where the Catholic Monarchs are buried, is the other Granada, not the Islamic one, the Christian Granada, with a very important collection of paintings. But what I would advise is to take in the city’s atmosphere, especially at night. There are lots of cultural events, lots of bookshops and lots of bars. And at night, culture and life merge into one in the bars, because the students go out, have a few drinks, have some amazing and very cheap tapas in the bars and then, at every table, there’s a discussion about culture, about art, about literature, about politics, about everything. It’s something I associate strongly with my education and my youth.
Granada was García Lorca’s city, of course. When I started out writing, to me, Lorca was that poet who had been executed in the Civil War and when he was killed the modern city of the 1920s and ’30s was wiped out. For me, growing up, getting an education, studying at university meant trying to discover that city that had disappeared with García Lorca’s death. And there was a lot of that city in the bars and in the conversations, waiting to be served at the bar, and at the tables where people lived and drank, discussing politics and literature at the same time.
Carmen Sanjulián: —Who do you remember fondly?
Luis García Montero: —Lots of people. I had a good relationship with my parents and a family life which was something of a paradox, because my personal and political beliefs were very different from my family’s traditional ideas, but, even so, we always got on in a very caring and kind way.
And from the point of view of literature, I’ve been lucky in that some maestros have come down from their pedestals, where they were in my mind, like mythical figures, and through their generosity they’ve become friends of mine. The first was Rafael Alberti, a friend of Lorca’s, a poet in exile, and a republican poet. And I had a very close friendship with him while I was doing my doctoral thesis. And after that, other writers who have been important to me have been Francisco Ayala, Ángel González, and Jaime Gil de Biedma. I remember each of them particularly fondly.
Carmen Sanjulián: —Cincuentena is a book for which you have selected 50 poems, to coincide with your birthday. Was that difficult? How did you choose them?
Luis García Montero: —It was very difficult. I like to think about literature as a reader. As a reader I still try to please the adolescent in me, who was blown away by the book in his hands and who devoted himself to writing because he had huge admiration for what he had read by García Lorca, Neruda, Machado, Cernuda, by so many poets. But, as a writer it’s very hard, because when I read my own work I don’t look at it through the same admiring eyes which enable me to enjoy literature. My eyes see things to be corrected, I’ve made a mistake with this, or I could have written that in a different way…
If you manage to hold on to a critical conscience, it’s just as important to hold on to the sense of wonder you had as a teenager. Reading your own work isn’t an enjoyable experience, because you end up discovering more mistakes, or different possibilities, than parts you like. And in this anthology, Cincuentena, I chose the 50 poems not which I like the most, but which worry me the least, they leave me feeling calmer when I read them, my corrector’s eyes scold me less than with others. And that’s what I did when I reached my 50th birthday, I put together a collection of 50 poems.
Carmen Sanjulián: —Does the passing of time frighten us?
Luis García Montero: —I think it does. The passing of time is something which is inevitable to the human condition, because it’s not just that time passes for us, but rather, we’re aware of its passing. Other creatures that follow their instincts, aren’t aware of it. And I mention instincts because I think we’re living in a time in which too much emphasis is placed on having an instinctive relationship with time. We surround ourselves with euphemisms, we want to hide the fact that we’re destined to grow older, that we’re destined to die. It’s as if contemporary life encourages euphemisms, to help us forget about old age, illness, and death. And I think an important role of literature is to provide a space for memory, and for the idea that life isn’t all inane joy and superficial exaltation of youth.
Writing is listening to your elders, something which happens less and less these days, writing is having an awareness of the other reality, which isn’t wrapped up in fancy paper, which has to do with pain, with loss, and from that point of view, one of the fundamental themes in literature is the passing of time.
Carmen Sanjulián: —“Aunque tú no lo sepas” is a poem which really made headway.
Luis García Montero: —You know what parent-children relationships are like. As soon as kids get a bit older, they’re desperate to get rid of their parents. That’s just the way it is, we’ve all done it. I published “Aunque tú no lo sepas” in the bookHabitaciones separadas. Enrique Urquijo, the singer, was interested in the poem and he asked Quique González, a singer-songwriter I admire a lot, to do a version of the poem. He did it, and the poem became a song, later it became the title of a film and appeared in a film, later on it also appeared quoted in some other books.
It’s been very lucky, but what I’m most pleased about is that one day, my daughter, who admires Quique González, was looking up his website with some friends of hers, and she saw the story of “Aunque tú no lo sepas” and how Enrique Urquijo had asked Quique to write the song. She came to me with a very serious face and said: “Dad, did that song by Quique González come from one of your poems?” And I said to her, “Well, yes dear, what the website says is true.” And since then she looks at me differently. She has that little bit more respect for me now.
Carmen Sanjulián: —Luis, what makes you happy?
Luis García Montero: —I think in the middle of winter and the recession and in a world full of insecurities and cut-backs, happiness is too formal a word. But I don’t give up on joy, because the ability to enjoy life, to not give in and wallow in pain but search out the good things in life, I think that’s the only watchword we can accept with a little decency.
There are areas of warmth in life. I like friendship, I like literature, and sometimes the two go together because some of my best friends are writers and I admire what they write. But, of course, there are other friends with whom I like to watch a match, go out for a few drinks, have a beer. In an Irish pub in Madrid, O’Connor’s, we have two weekly meet-ups, and something very serious would have to happen for me not to go, because I like being in a good mood, and being happy with my friends. And love, of course, I think literature, friendship and love are my sources of happiness.
Carmen Sanjulián: —Words are part of our daily lives. Do we have favourite words?
Luis García Montero: —Well, yes, we have favourite words and we have to take special care of them because sometimes our favourite words are changed and turned into something strange.
Actually, I could talk to you about words which fascinate me because of how they sound, like “damajuana” (demijohn) which to me is wonderful, I also think “ojalá” (let’s hope so!) is wonderful. But recently, when I’ve been asked that, I always say my favourite word is “despertador” (alarm clock), and I’ll explain why: because the word “amanecer” (dawn) has been manipulated a lot, it’s one of those words that, if you’re not careful, it escapes and ends up in a hymn. They are far too solemn words, by meaning “the world is beginning”, “life will change”, “the future will arrive”. On the other hand, the word “despertador” seems less solemn to me and more humane.
I really enjoy staying up late, but I also like seeing the light of day. Keeping your head above water is hard work. After a long night you have to wake up, get up early and go to work, and that’s keeping your head above water. For me, that idea is closer to the word “despertador” than “amanecer”. You arrive home and set the alarm so that the next day you’ll be able to get up, open your eyes and keep making your way in the world.