Tedi López Mills' poetry translated by Wendy Burk in this issue.

________ Photo of Tedi López Mills by Alberto Tovalín


Contributor Notes

Tedi López Mills

Tedi López Mills

Interviewed by Rebecca Seiferle

Tedi López Mills
was born in Mexico City in 1959. She studied philosophy at the Mexican National University and literature at the Sorbonne. She has published ten poetry books: Cinco estaciones, Un lugar ajeno, Segunda persona (Efraín Huerta National Poetry Award), Glosas, Horas, Luz por aire y agua, Un jardín, cinco noches (y otros poemas), Contracorriente (Premio de Literatura José Fuentes Mares), Parafrasear and Muerte en la rúa Augusta (Premio Xavier Villaurrutia). In 1994 she won a poetry scholarship granted by the Fondo Nacional de la Cultura y las Artes; in 1995 the Mexico/US Fund for Culture gave her a fellowship for the selection and translation of the poetry of the American writer, Gustaf Sobin, and in 1998 she was granted the first Octavio Paz Poetry Scholarship. She has translated the work of numerous American, English and French poets and, very recently, Anne Carsons’ Autobiography of Red.  A selection of her poems, While Light is Built, translated by Wendy Burk, was published by Kore Press. Since 2009 she belongs to the Sistema Nacional de Creadores.


Rebecca Seiferle: I’m very struck by the metaphysics of your work. For instance in “Postscript from a Friend in Hell” your lines “our lot as human beings is inconstancy, / perpetual change” could be written on the board in a philosophy class as a prompt for further thought, as for instance one might take a quote from Heraclitus. Does this strong metaphysical inclination present particular challenges to your work; is it simply interwoven within you and your poetic process, or does it present a kind of other question that you engage with at the same time engaging with the poem as poem?

Tedi López Mills: Before the two lines you quote, there is one that says: “cannibalism of a dogma”, which gives to what comes next a sense of irony; I hope this is perceived when reading the poem. It wouldn’t be easy to define this metaphysical streak or inclination. At times it belongs more to the language than to the intentions of the poem. In many cases ­as in the one you quoted­ it is ironical, a way of making fun of one’s most cherished generalizations. Poetry and metaphysics lead a perpetual fight; it’s part of a tradition, a strange battle for the real truth.

Rebecca Seiferle: I’m wondering where you would place your work, within the context of Mexican literature and culture, within the context of world literature?

Tedi López Mills: That’s definitely not an easy question. I don’t know where I would place myself in Méxican literature, let alone in that of the world. Like it or not, one belongs to a context, writes with or against others. In that sense, I’m deeply immersed in Mexican poetry and in the echoes of its influence: I grew up in Octavio Paz’s time, when he was the undisputed authority in the politics of poetry. So I guess I must have picked on those remains.

Rebecca Seiferle: What is your writing process like?

Tedi López Mills: Whatever happens, I have to listen to choral music, with earphones. That is my only chance of getting away. The poem itself may begin before, while I’m drinking coffee and reading or while I’m making breakfast. It can begin with the memory of something seen or heard; also, of something that hurts, that reminds me of a distant or not so distant pain; of something glimpsed at in the newspaper or listened to on the radio. Each poem seems to have its own origin, its own genealogical tree. But the balance, the equilibrium, is extremely fragile for me. I never know if I will be able to carry it through. And I’m always surprised and grateful when I do.

Rebecca Seiferle: How do you view American poetry and your work’s preoccupations as distinct from American poetry? For instance, to me, your work seems much less ’personal’ than most American poetry, the speaker is a kind of representative and questioning voice?

Tedi López Mills: I’m always in touch with American poetry; in fact, I would say that American poetry is very present in the Mexican canon: there are countless translations, from Emily Dickinson to Robert Hass to Louise Glück, etcetera. And there is a difference. I don’t know if it pertains to the more “personal” streak in American poetry or rather to concretion, to direct experience. Our tradition, which comes to us in part by way of France, is more abstract: fixed metaphor, understanding through analogies. Does this make any sense? It’s a subject I’ve always wanted to write about, but haven’t really had the time or the chance to do it.

Rebecca Seiferle: Yes, that does make sense, and I hope at some point you do have the chance to write about this subject. The earliest poems in this chapbook date from Horas in 2000 to Parafrasear (2008). How do you perceive the evolution of your work’s concerns within this body of work; what currents remain constant?

Tedi López Mills: I think the concerns have changed, although there must be habits one acquires since the beginning and that are difficult to shake off. I see more movement, more disbelief, more tearing apart in my latest work; a certain rebellion against poetry’s sublime endeavors.

Rebecca Seiferle: Yes, I can hear that “disbelief, more tearing apart” in the gaps, ellisions; every breach seems haunted by voices which carry on a Socratic questioning about being. I notice that in the later poems in the chapbook, the metaphysical currents are broken as it were by voices, that seem both internal and external. These voices often speak to one another, obliquely, as if connected by memory and consciousness, and as if replying to a question that is located but hidden in the consciousness of another. As if replying to that question, while not always replying to the obvious content?

Tedi López Mills: Yes: a kind of mise en scène. One is always hearing voices, inside and outside. The questions interest me more than the answers. Memory points to forgetting; consciousness to unconsciousness, so each part, each voice has two sides, like records used to have: the literal one and the ironic one. It’s a way of disordering content, of putting it in danger. And also of creating dialogue inside the poem.

Rebecca Seiferle: Your work is often preoccupied with cosmological arguments for and with and against God, or perhaps more precisely preoccupied with the ontology of being where "the sea is my own," where there is a search for the reality of things in a flux of time. Do you begin with the question, the metaphysical, or the concrete realities and intersections that provoke it?

Tedi López Mills: I begin here, in a strange and concrete reality: a room, a desk and then whatever comes to mind. I’m not sure about God, about how present that presence is in my work. I think poetry, at least certain traditions, has used the word God almost as a joker; so in a way I’m questioning that false cosmology.

Rebecca Seiferle: Yes, that questioning is much a part of your work, and the question is often used as a structural device for the development of the poem. I’m reminded of skepticism, of how doubt becomes the method of exploration. These are the human questions, the questions of human existence: are they what drives the poem into existence for you?
Is everyone here? The shes and hes, the curs and Fates?
The creatures and the castes?
The believers, the grievers, the good and bad?
Are the flies here?
Are the rodents,
the plastic gaiters,
and the slick, rosy puddles?
Do we have the dumb-show silhouettes,
the one-armed man’s introspective fingers,
the shoes lost one step at a time?
Do we have the world, humanity, you and I?
What’s missing? Mercy? Shall we share it? Divide it?
                                   XVI. [General Hospital]

Tedi López Mills: Questions work differently in each poem. Sometimes they state an answer just by asking. It’s difficult to know exactly what drives the poem into existence: noise, another poem, a face, a bird, the shadow of a tree. A lot and very little.

Rebecca Seiferle: A number of these poems seem to question “the wise man,” or by implication, “God.” Is the voice in the following quote both 'the wise man' that you question elsewhere, and God, traditionally anyway, the ultimate 'wise man"? I feel we are meant to hear how any authority is questioned?
Today he’s going to tell us about the monsters that sun makes
that love makes
that lasting makes
that sorrow makes
that memory makes
that idleness makes

Tedi López Mills: It’s not God, it’s a politician; we have many in Mexico. Even poet-politicians. The ’monsters that sun makes” is a quote from Wallace Stevens. I do think one must beware of wise men or wise women. And I also think poetry, or rather poetics, has an authoritarian streak. But may be this comes from my own paranoia.

Rebecca Seiferle: . I particularly like the way your work takes on an ever greater capacity for chaos, the flux of voices in the current of time, and the way a poem can take on that chaos as this one does and yet find a harmony of “someone small against the open air...” Is that perhaps what poetry does, how it can answer this profoundest of questionings?
If you could see what I saw...
quick glance at a gull pecking saltpeter
entrails... Is it possible? That first
day words trumped realities...
I have to go.
The things I’ve seen when I imagine seeing them,
nothing compares... Stay... I’ll be quiet... False
preexistent places, names, lie within...
the chair drops anchor, come this way, touch the air...
if you were I, for love, your face would be
the gentlest diagonal, soft face
of someone without refuge... losing gravity...
someone small against the open air...

Tedi López Mills: I think of poetry in terms of individuality: what each poem does. And I would say poetry not only might create answers, but will especially provoke questions, like an exercise in doubt, an anxiety transformed into method.