An interview with Camilo Roldán, curator of June Poetry

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Photo courtesy of Camilo Roldán.

Camilo Roldan is a Colombian-American bilingual poet and translator born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and currently living in Bogotá, Colombia. He is the author of poetry collections To abandon (2019) and El último soneto y nos vamos (2021). His translations include María Paz Guerrero’s book god is a female dog too (Dios also es una perra) (2020). Roldán is Zócalo’s curator for the month of June, as part of the 2022 Poetry Curator series. We had the opportunity to chat with him about time travel, salsa dancing and what he would say if he met Colombian artist Beatriz González.

Q:

How has the pandemic affected the way you think or write poetry?

A:

I didn’t write much during the first year and a half of the pandemic. I couldn’t concentrate. I like to tackle other subjects and other texts, and so, without being able to leave my house and go to art exhibitions, poetry readings, films, my work was not – how to say – nurtured . There was nothing that fueled my practice. It was very difficult for me to continue writing. I think a lot of people have had a very similar experience.


Q:

How do you decide if you will write a poem in Spanish or in English?

A:

I don’t necessarily decide, but there are maybe two things at play. It’s a matter of context: where am I and what am I doing all the time with language; do i speak english or do i speak spanish. And then the other thing is the whole job. Am I working on something that happens in Spanish or am I working on something that happens in English? And so, I have to follow that and finish what it is in the appropriate language for the project.


Q:

What poem or poet do you find yourself returning to?

A:

A poet I came back to recently is the Colombian poet named Jaime Jaramillo Escobar. I think his best book is Los Poemas de la Ofensa which was published in the 1960s. It’s these kinds of prosaic poems that have what we might consider in the United States elements of magical realism – they’re somehow fantastical and ironic. Jaime is such a strange and seductive character in Colombian poetry and his work has been so important to so many young poets. Every time I come back to read poems from this book, they make me laugh and smile. I translated his work a long time ago, which was an interesting experience for me. It was one of the first translations I did.


Q:

What’s the funniest part of translating?

A:

I don’t know if it’s really fun. I also do it for work. I always think fun is something easy and joyful, and I don’t know if the translation is ever that. But I think it’s a learning process and I guess that’s what I really enjoy doing. As a professional translator, I learned a lot about different topics concerning politics, history, science, ecology. I learned a lot about the history of Colombian art. I think one of the best things about being a translator for me is just the ability to tackle so many different topics and learn a little bit about everything.


Q:

If you could time travel to any year in the past or future, where would you go?

A:

I would go to ancient Rome, and I would like to meet the poet Catullus. Much of his poetry is really sour, which is not uncommon for ancient Roman poetry in general. Once I had a dream where I met him and he started talking to me in Latin and I was like, “Oh, I really liked your poetry.” He answered in Latin and I said, “Yeah, I don’t understand Latin. I haven’t read it in Latin. And I understood from his gestures and his answer was like: “What do you mean, you don’t read Latin? How do people no longer read Latin? You don’t understand my work if you haven’t read it in Latin. And so, I think if I could travel back in time, I would go back there, learn Latin and meet Catullus.


Q:

What is similar or different between living in Colombia and living in the United States?

A:

People are great everywhere, but I think there are differences in how people interact. I think Colombian culture is more body oriented. People dance more, people share food in different ways, people share personal space in different ways. They have intimate relationships and friendships in different ways. I think it’s all really hard to pinpoint and say exactly what’s different.


Q:

What music do you like to dance to?

A:

I’m not a very good dancer, but I like to dance, especially after I’ve had a few drinks. Colombians dance a lot. It is an integral part of the cultural history of Colombia. There’s cumbia, there’s merengue, there’s salsa. I think it’s just a lot of fun to be able to go to little salsa clubs in downtown Bogota and dance, with a few different partners and get a sense of how people express themselves with their bodies. It’s dance, it’s an art form, but it’s also erotic, sexual and intimate; it has those nuances.


Q:

How do you pass the time when you’re stuck in traffic?

A:

I live in an area where everything is very close to me, so I walk a lot. When I was younger I used to listen to music with my headphones when I walked around but I don’t really like doing that anymore. When I walk, I like to hear the sounds around me. I like to hear people talking, cars passing by, birds, the wind, music coming out of someone’s apartment. The experience of the environment is so much richer and so much more rewarding when you have all of these sounds – this music, these details of the world flowing in and out and connecting you to the lives of others in the living world around you. we.


Q:

You are walking down the street and come across someone you admire. Who is it?

A:

Last year I did some translations of the work of a Colombian artist named Beatriz González. She is an incredibly important and successful Colombian painter. She is one of the best-known Colombian painters in the world. Her attitude to her work and the way she talks about her work and how she talks to students and her relationship to art history in Colombia is just fluid and intelligent, yet unpretentious and critical. If I ran into her on the street, I would be like, “Oh my God, what am I even saying to this person?” I probably wouldn’t say anything. I just saw her, recognized her, and thought, “Oh wow, there’s this artist,” and moved on with my life.



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