Carlos Soto-Román is a poet and translator. Author of 11 (Municipal Poetry Prize, Santiago 2018) he has published in the United States Philadelphia’s Notebooks (Otoliths, 2011), Chile Project: [Re-Classified] (Gauss PDF, 2013), The Exit Strategy (Belladonna, 2014), Alternative Set of Procedures (Corollary Press, 2014), Bluff (Commune Editions, 2018), Common Sense (Make Now Books, 2019) and in the UK, Nature of Objects (Pamenar Press, 2019). He resided in Philadelphia, PA between 2009 and 2014. During those years, he was a member of the New Philadelphia Poets Collective, studied at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University, obtained an artist’s residency at the MacDowell Colony, and was the curator of the cooperative anthology of U.S. poetry Elective Affinities. He actively collaborates in various visual and musical poetry projects, including the bands "Radio Magallanes" and "Sonora Guantánamo". His work can be found in Apiary, PEN American Center Blog, Capitalism Nature Socialism, Summer Stock, A Bad Penny Review, Crux Desperationis, The American Poetry Review, Mandorla, MAKE Magazine, Jacket2, Pennsound, Tiny Mag, The Brooklyn Rail, Aufgabe, and Asymptote among others. He currently lives and works in Santiago, Chile.
1 - How did your first book or chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
I published my first book early; I was 22 or 23 years old, so it changed me deeply because up to that point never occurred to me the possibility of being a “published author”. However, I took it calmly. My next book came almost 10 years later, maybe because I put on that one more time and dedication. I guess I like to follow the ideas of Georges Perec in that sense; I always try to write something different to the work I did before, and try to be constantly changing, exploring different fields or topics, and even daring to write every book against the previous one.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I came to poetry through music. When I was a teenager, some friends had a heavy metal band and they asked me to write lyrics for them. I took it very seriously so I began writing pretty weird songs about ghosts, premature burials and creepy things like that. Then obviously, I found myself reading Poe, Lovecraft, and all that stuff. From there to poetry, it was just a spell. I came to translation in a similar way. Since I knew some English then, the same friends constantly asked me to translate the lyrics of their favorite songs and bands. Maybe that is how I acquired the taste of moving words from one language to another.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
It has always been a slow process. I tend to work by projects, so every time one seduces me enough I begin an extensive research process. Internet has become a crucial tool in that stage. I navigate obsessively looking for all kind of things related to the topic I’m writing about, searching not only information or context but also language, forms, styles, anything that can be used to shape a new poem. Besides, I am always taking notes about things that hit me in different ways or writing down thoughts that come to me spontaneously. Just then, I begin to create but in order to jump to the next piece, I usually have to repeat the whole process again. Right now, I’m recovering from a long literary drought, the books I published recently were written time ago so I guess I’m re-discovering my writing-self again with new strategies.
4 - Where does a poem or translation usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
It’s been a while since I wrote my last single poem. Although every now and then an “orphan text” sprouts. However, as I feel more comfortable working on specific projects or since I often think in a whole book from the very beginning, I usually do a lot of research, documenting myself about all sort of things related to the subject I’m dealing with, and only then I begin to write. The poems that don’t pass the editing part, just die there in the process. I rarely use them for another project. With translations is different. My usual approach to translation is to work on a full book but I also translate single poems or a just a few from certain author, sometimes as a sample for a website or journal, or maybe just as an exercise or for my own amusement.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I enjoy doing readings a lot but I don’t get to read in public very often. I usually try to prepare something special for every reading I do, as opposed to just read the same poems over and over again. I like to take in consideration the place, the context, the kind of audience and the other readers, in order to come up with something new. I did this for most of the readings I gave when I was living in the States. Some of those were actual performances since sometimes I incorporated other elements such as audio clips, projection of images, and even a deck of Spanish cards. A few chapbooks came out that way: “Bluff” edited by Commune Editions was originally a set I prepared for Jacob Bennet’s “In the Deck” summer reading series, and “Alternative Set of Procedures” published by Sueyeun Juliette Lee’s Corollary Press was my reading for Mark Johnson’s “The Hiding Place Reading” series. So yes, readings are definitely a special part of my creative process.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
I have been working with issues related to the search of different modes of representation of historical tragedies in two of my last books, so one of the questions I have had to deal with is about the proper ways to talk about the horror, and the unspeakable. If it is possible to be truly objective and relentless while at the same time being respectful and mindful of the different stories and voices that get involved in the process. I don´t think I have a specific answer for that, so far I have solved it recurring to my own intuition, but I keep questioning myself about that kind of ethics that I believe should be considered when working with sensitive materials.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
To be faithful and committed to reality. To be socially conscious and responsible. To be mindful of the gift and the power we possess as writers, and be prepared to use it wisely. Although, I’m not sure all writers must hear this call. I really don’t know. At least, I’m moved and inspired by the ones who do.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Depends on the editor. I’ve had different experiences. I’ve worked with editors that barely look at the text and others that are very picky, rigorous, and want to somehow put their seal on the work. Some editors don’t take the role very seriously and others do the exact opposite. I like when an editor trusts in me but I also enjoy when an honest and productive working dynamic can take place in order to correct or enhance a manuscript or even to push it to another level. I have learned a lot working with editors but also sharing and discussing my work with peers.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
One that came in the form of a poem written by the Chilean writer and friend Jaime Pinos, which I translated into English for Capitalism, Nature, Socialism Journal: “To work / to work / to keep your mouth shut and work / The will is the weapon / over poetry as vanity / over poetry as depredation / the will to fight will prevail… / Poetry as understanding / Poetry as a requirement / Poetry as generosity / Poetry as courage / Poetry as honesty / With oneself and with others / In your own life and in the lives of others / That will to fight / day by day / word by word / sooner or later will prevail”
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to translation)? What do you see as the appeal?
Well, translation is just another way of reading and writing, so in that sense the transition is not hard at all. Usually, when I’m not writing I am translating, and that is another way of keeping myself active within a creative practice. Sometimes, I like to see both poetry and translation almost as a mathematical problem, as something I have to figure out in order to come up with a solution. Others, I even use the scientific method to confront a writing project. In the case of poetry, the answer usually comes first by the side of the shape, while with translation is mostly a matter of content, in terms of exactitude and fidelity. But this is just an approach. I tend to complicate everything from that point on, which is fine.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I don’t have a writing routine. I’m very disorganized. I usually write whenever and wherever “inspiration” hits me. It can be in the middle of a very busy day at work; suddenly a verse or an image comes to my mind, and I stop what I’m doing in order to take notes and elaborate a bit the idea. Then, I resume working on it later that day or months ahead. However, I’m more methodical when I work in a particular project. Then I keep the research going and read related material as much as I can, both for inspiration and for information. But I’m not constant at all. I’m not one of those writers that need a whole ritual in order to write. It doesn’t work that way for me. I guess I am more chaotic but definitely spontaneous.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I like to spend time in my library going through my books to see the work and words of others. I open them randomly and pick something up or just check those that I haven’t read so far. It is nice to rediscover forgotten volumes or books you once acquired thinking in a particular project that never found its way out, but then become useful in an unsuspected manner. I love to re-enchant myself with books and readings.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Black tea with a couple of lemon verbena leaves and a tinny stick of cinnamon on it. My grandmother used to make tea like that and so my mother. I do it every time I have the ingredients at hand. Also the smell of homemade “sopaipillas” cooking in the kitchen on a rainy day, which is like a tradition in Chile (it’s just a deep-fried pumpkin-based pastry). Those are some of my favorite smells of my childhood.
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
I totally agree with that but there are multiple sources that can get you inspired or can spark a poetic project. As a pharmacist, science is a field that I’m always looking at, seeking to harvest not only language but also forms and ways to address poetically different phenomena. Same with visual arts, music, and cinema. Also press, media, history. I’m always exploring and searching for new sources. I have even worked with legal and/or bureaucratic documents. “Todo es cancha!” as we say in Chile, all fields are valid.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Vicente Huidobro, Nicanor Parra, Juan Luis Martínez and Raúl Zurita are huge influences in my work. They have marked my so-called poetic education. I admire and follow the work of Jordan Scott, Angela Rawlings, Lisa Robertson and M. NourbeSe Philip to mention some Canadian writers. I also feel close to people who transit between literature and visual arts such as Ulises Carrión, Vito Acconci, Sophie Calle and Marcel Broodthaers. The work of Georges Perec has also been a kind of beacon to me. He is one of my favorite authors.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Many things. Take a year off from work, maybe two. Go to Iceland. Spend some time in Antarctica. Drink Absinthe. Try Ayahuasca. Learn French, German, Italian, Russian. Go to the Guča Trumpet Festival. Make my own beer. Work in a vineyard. Live a couple of months in a lighthouse. Write an essay. Experiment more with sound and images. Play abroad with Radio Magallanes (the poetry & music project that I have with some friends), among others.
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
I would love to be a full time writer. To be able to spend my whole time reading, writing and translating (travelling too!). Unfortunately, that is not an option yet. Maybe someday.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I actually do something else, most of the time. I write in order to survive from the other thing.
I am a pharmacist so that is what keeps me busy and prevents me from writing and translating even more, or as much as I would like, at least.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Books: MOTHERBABYHOME by Kimberly Campanello (a stunning book!) and Alphabet by Inger Christensen.
Films: I enjoyed Parasite and The Lighthouse very much. Also The Invitation some time ago, but my all-time favorite is Tod Browning’s Freaks.
20 - What are you currently working on?
2019 was an incredibly productive year for me. I published “Common Sense” with Make Now Books in Los Angeles CA, “Nature of Objects” with the newly wonderful Pamenar Press in London, and “Antuco” in Chile, written in collaboration with the poet Carlos Cardani. Also my translation of Charles Reznikoff’s “Holocaust” finally appeared with Das Kapital editions in Chile as well, so I guess I should be done with poetry, at least for a season. However, I am working on several projects now. Currently, I’m finishing two interesting translations that received funding from the Chilean Department of the Cultures, Arts and Patrimony: “I Have Never Been Able to Sing”, a chapbook by Alexis Almeida and “The Consequences of My Body” by Maged Zaher. I was hoping to publish both during this year but given the actual circumstances, who knows. I’m also working on a new manuscript that for now I’m not really sure where is heading, but we will see. I’m not in a rush.