A vida poética: The Poetic Life of Salgado Maranhão12/19/2012
Salgado Maranhão was illiterate until age fifteen. He spent most of his youth laboring on his family’s subsistence farm. Despite the odds, Maranhão has since become one of Brazil’s most celebrated poets.
He and Alexis Levitin, a premier translator of Portuguese poetry, have been touring the country to share Maranhão’s stunning English-language debut, Blood of the Sun. During a recent pause in their fifty-stop tour of the United States, they related the following story, which explains how Maranhão discovered his gift:
Poetry entered my life in an unexpected way. I lived in close proximity to poetry all my childhood because of the repentistas, the travelling singers and reciters of improvisatory poetry that were typical of the northeast of Brazil when I was growing up. In fact, they are similar to modern day rappers in the United States. They often improvise over situations that have just occurred, and yet they turn them into rhymed verse.
The region that I grew up in was very rural, very isolated. I worked the land with the rest of the family, and I stayed there until I was fifteen years old. Poetry, of course, was not what filled my daily life—I had to work in the fields like everyone else to earn a living. I wrested a living from the soil, getting food for the family, and getting crops that could also be sold for a little bit of cash or bartered for other food. This was hard, hard work and quite distant from poetry.
Nonetheless, being in close contact with these repentistas—these modern-day troubadours—had a cumulative effect on me.
I saw the love that my mother had for their popular form of poetry, and I began to develop a similar attachment and affection for it. When I left the interior of Brazil to move to Teresina, the capital of Piauí, I already carried a sense of poetry inside.
From then on, I had access to written poetry, something that I had never seen. I discovered a library in Teresina and spent a great deal of time there. That’s when my relationship with poets of the past began. Upon discovering the poetry of Luís Vaz de Camões, the author of the famous Lusiads; Fernando Pessoa, the greatest twentieth century Portuguese poet; and A. Gonçalves Dias, a major poet of the nineteenth century from my own region, I was never the same again.
Two problems began to arise. Poetry is a way of seeing life or experiencing life or of presenting the experience of life, but it isn’t a way of earning a living. The daily battle for survival, for simply putting bread on the table, is a struggle that cannot be forgotten, it cannot be ignored—and it isn’t poetry. How to fuse or bring together two factors in my life? One: the fact that I came from a very poor family, for whom it was absolutely necessary to provide support. And the other: my inner commitment to poetry.
In a sense, one could say that I began to live a double life. One life in broad daylight, where I went from house to house selling art and trying to make a living, and another in the dark, underground, where I lived my poetic life. One life is in the legitimate realm of earning a living, and the other is in the illegal realm of poetry which, of course, helped sustain me.
It was my irresponsible choice of poetry that has determined the path of my life and led me to where I am today. Really, I followed the intuitive path of my mother who had an enormous love for poetry. This is how my relationship to poetry developed—a relationship that is both of the body and the soul.
Read a sample of Salgado Maranhão’s world-class poetry here.