Date: 05/15/2004 Interviewed by Jorge J. E. Gracia Filmed by Jorge J. E. Gracia Transcribed by Paul Symington Edited by Jorge J. E. Gracia
The interview took place in Jorge Gracia's office at the University at Buffalo
[Gracia]: "Jorge, we are here to talk about your intellectual life as an artist and the background to it. Now you began, if I recall correctly, as a lawyer in Cuba or studying to be a lawyer and from then you came to the US and then you studied linguistics. And you also write poetry. So when did you pick up art?"
[Guitart]: "I started painting in Cuba."
[Gracia]: "Let's begin, then, with your intellectual career in Cuba, and how poetry, painting, and linguistics, became part of it."
[Guitart]: "In Cuba, when one finished high school and intended to study law, one went directly to law school. So, I went to law school but not because I wanted to study law or be a lawyer but because I didn't like anything in particular ."
[Gracia]: "Was your father a lawyer?"
[Guitart]: "No, my father was a professor of physics and he wanted me to be either an engineer, r an architect or some kind of scientist. My mother was a biology teacher. I love science, but I thought medicine was too hard and I wasn't good at spatial things so forget about architecture and engineering. I went to law school because it was "letters" and "
[Gracia]: "Let me interrupt you here for a moment because this is an interesting point, namely in Cuba if one came from let's say an upper middle class family normally one would not consider a career in something like art or literature or philosophy. You had to go into the professions."
[Guitart]: "There was the career of Philosophy and Letters', but that was mostly seen as a women's, as a girl's career. Boys went into law, medicine, engineering, and architecture mostly. Only Communists, gays, and women studied philosophy and letters. That's awful to say but ..
[Gracia]: "But that was the reality."
[Guitart]: "Yes, so I went to law school for two years and I am, as you know, a member of a lost generation. We were the people who started university in 1955 and then we went for one year and then came 1956, and Fidel landed in Cuba, and the University was closed for three years. And when it was open again three years later I hadn't gone to Vilanova, the Catholic University because I thought it was treason to study when people were dying I started in second year of law school. Then I left Cuba in 1962. But I had started painting in 1958."
[Gracia]: "How did that come about?"
[Guitart]: "I'm not sure. I was always interested in painting and I remember being very impressed when I was like 14 or 15 by some Paul Klee paintings I saw in a magazine. Wow, what is this?' It looked childish but it wasn't. He has had an impact on my aesthetic greater than perhaps any other painter. I also love Modigliani, the faces and the bodies. Those are my two favorite artists of the twentieth century: Klee and Modigliani. I like a whole bunch of them but those two I love. When I came to the States, since I had two years of law school in Cuba it was Roman Law and the Napoleonic code, the Spanish code there was nothing to be transferred to liberal arts. I didn't get any credit for what I had done in Cuba. By that time I had acquired an interest in psychology and Know Thyself.' I started a B.A. when I was 26. That was in Washington D. C. where I was. I had lived briefly in New Orleans when I came from Cuba but I had a girlfriend in Cuba who went to live in D.C. when she came from Cuba. So I went after her. We broke up in less than a year and I stayed in D.C.. I finished a B.A. in psychology in 1967 at the age of 29, and then I went to Georgetown. I had taken a couple of courses in linguistics when I was a psych major and I loved it. I said this is what I want to do.' And I heard that Georgetown had Spanish linguistics. After all, I already know Spanish and I know linguistics so I m going to do this. So I went to Georgetown and got a PhD in linguistics and Spanish with a minor in Latin American literature. Then I came to Buffalo, which was my first job."
[Gracia]: "And you stayed here."
[Guitart]: "And 33 years later, here I am."
[Gracia]: "But in all this time that you have been in Buffalo you have worked as a linguist, but you have also become a poet and then the art has also had some life here. How and when did this happen, sporadically, continuously?"
[Guitart]: "I started painting in Cuba and I did maybe a hundred tempera paintings in Cuba most of which I left there."
[Gracia]: "These were abstract primarily?"
[Guitart]: "They were all abstracts. I continued to paint when I was in Washington. Mostly oils, all abstracts, and then I discovered poetry."
[Gracia]: "In Washington?"
[Guitart]: "In Washington. I discovered poetry in a course in American literature. I always liked poetry but I liked the classics. But in this course, Introduction of American Literature,' I read a poem by Wallace Stevens called The Emperor of Ice Cream.' And I said to myself, This is what I want to do. This is fun and it's strange and this is what I want to do. So I started writing poetry in English and then I thought, Wait a minute, why don't I write poetry in Spanish?' And so I began to write poetry in Spanish as well"
[Gracia]: "But of course you had to eat, so you also "
[Guitart]: "I worked for an insurance company, called the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company. "
[Gracia]: "I can't see you as a salesman."
[Guitart]: "No, I wasn't a salesman, I was a clerk in the office."
[Gracia]: "But even that is hard to picture."
[Guitart]: "It all had to do with numbers, but on the side I wrote poetry. The funny thing was that Wallace Stevens was an insurance man . He was an insurance executive. He had a double life. He was a lawyer for an insurance companythe same company I worked for! but in an earlier era."
[Gracia]: "Oh my Lord!"
[Guitart]: "My case was different I was a lowly clerk. When I graduated I worked as a translator for a while and then I went to Georgetown I was a teaching fellow and TA and all that and I continued writing poetry in both languages. I have a body of poetry."
[Gracia]: "In both English and Spanish."
[Guitart]: "Yes, and I have a couple of books, but they are in English, little books."
[Gracia]: "And when you came to Buffalo, the poetry writing continued on the side."
[Guitart]: "Because Buffalo is a very important poetry center in the United States. There's a lot of poetry here and there's a lot of the poetry that I want, that I like, experimental, avant garde. So, I loved it, still do."
[Gracia]: "But what about the art part?"
[Guitart]: "I continued painting and then I started drawing, pen and ink. And in 1979-80, I had an explosion where I did, I don't know, one hundred drawings, some of which I showed you already. And I continued but it was like the painting became secondary."
[Gracia]: "To the poetry."
[Guitart]: "And also to my academic life because I was and writing many things in linguistics, and publishing books and articles.
[Gracia]: "So it has never overtaken your full energy as it were, become central, or the primary focus of your creativity."
[Guitart]: "Exactly, it was mostly the poetry that was the focus. And then recently in the last maybe four of five years I started painting again, painting with color."
[Gracia]: "Are you continuing that?"
[Guitart]: "Yes, I am."
[Gracia]: "So, in a sense you are a kind of an aficionado but one whose interest goes back a long time and actually you have a body of work. Have you recorded this body of work or have you lost track of some of it? Do you have images?"
[Guitart]: "I have very few things some photographs. When we had the Cuban-American show at the Burchfield last year, a photographer friend took pictures of all the watercolors, and I have that record. And I'm going to have a website that is going to show all of these watercolors."
[Gracia]: "That's wonderful."
[Guitart]: "I'm going to be more careful in the future."
[Gracia]: "You have been doing it as a kind of hobby. You've been busy with other things, but actually you do have a body of work that is interesting. So let me ask you how all this fits into your life. What is it that you are trying to do? Is there something conscious about what you are trying to do when you are painting, when you are drawing and so on? Do you have some aim?"
[Guitart]: "I paint because I have no choice. I have to do it. Somehow I must have a gene for it. I always want to create something on the page although I'm not a very good draftsman. I'm sorry that I cannot draw very well."
[Gracia]: "But you haven't gone to school to do it either."
[Guitart]: "No, never. Actually I took a couple of workshops in watercolor. One in 1979 and another in 2004, in the summer, just to do something. I learned a lot about techniques, but still it's a gene. I have some kind of a gene there. Biology is destiny."
[Gracia]: "Yes, but you have had these moments in which you have been very productive, spurts or whatever, and then in between "
[Guitart]: "A drought."
[Gracia]: "Yes, nothing happens. So is there something that usually promotes this, creates this activity?"
[Guitart]: "Maybe it is the competition with all the things that I'm doing, because I'm always doing something with my head. It's either linguistics or poetry or art. I think that if I had to choose, I would say that poetry is my main interest right now. And maybe art is second and linguistics third.
[Gracia]: "You're becoming older and therefore you're moving toward "
[Guitart]: "I'm the absent-minded professor."
[Gracia]: "What did you forget today?"
[Guitart]: "Well no, it's more like being someplace else. Sarah, my wife, says Where are you right now?' She knows that I'm thinking about some linguistic things, my theory of semantic roles, which I want to really expand on."
[Gracia]: "Do you see any connection between the poetry, the art and the linguistics?"
[Guitart]: "I'm a very linear person; Im language and drawing. I'm bad for spatial things. I cannot turn things around in my head. That's bad, so that's why my paintings are all very flat. There's no perspective because I don't know how to do it."
[Gracia]: "Nor are you really interested because you could have learned it's very easy to go to school and learn how to do it or get a book, but you haven't been interested in doing that."
[Guitart]: "No, sure. So I think language is the thing for me."
[Gracia]: "Many artists say that this painting they do is in partly related to an emotional requirement. It's an outlet. It doesn't seem to me that that's your case. For you it's more like a game?"
[Guitart]: "Yes. And I'm a very skeptical person. I don't have a spiritual dimension."
[Gracia]: "I'm sure you do."
[Guitart]: "It's wall to wall matter. I am the anti-mystical original. I don't have a quest because there's nothing there. So ."
[Gracia]: "There's nothing to go to."
[Guitart]: "There is no Grail."
[Gracia]: "The Holy Grail is an invention that someone created."
[Guitart]: "Exactly, yeah."
[Gracia]: "But how does this connect to your humorous side, because we were talking a while back, before the interview, about the fact that your poetry is always "
[Guitart]: ". . . very parodic"
[Gracia]: "It always has that little turn and by looking at your art, I see that too. It makes you sort of smile, not laugh, but kind of smile because you got the pun or something interesting like that."
[Guitart]: "I've always loved parody. Parody is my favorite literary genre. I don't write parody all the time, but I parody a lot of poets, other poets, willfully."
[Gracia]: "Their style and "
[Guitart]: "Even stealing things and changing them. If I were to start again I would try to be a humorist, maybe a cartoonist."
[Gracia]: "This is a very strong current in Cuban culture and Cuban art."
[Guitart]: "El relajo, el choteo."
[Gracia]: "It's an essential."
[Guitart]: "I am very Cuban in that dimension. I love to tell jokes, dirty jokes preferably. That's my Cuban part."
[Gracia]: "How does this show up in the art? There is also a very strong erotic element in Cuban culture. Does that show in your art or in your poetry?"
[Guitart]: "A friend once told me that a typical poem of mine always contains the word breasts. It may or may not be true. . ."
[Gracia]: "So there is that element. And in the art, does it show as well, or less?"
[Guitart]: "It shows, The Anatomy of Mythical Figures'"
[Gracia]: "Yeah, you have the Anatomy of Mythical Figures."
[Guitart]: "But there's also an element of distortion of the anatomy."
[Gracia]: "Now let me turn to the whole thing about how you feel. You're clearly a Cuban-American, you came in 1962. You are an American in so many ways and then you are Cuban in so many ways -- we were just talking about some ways here. How have you integrated all this, how do you feel?"
[Guitart]: "I love this country there always is a chance to reinvent yourself or to create anything you want to be; but the past, the burden of the past, you cannot undo that. I want to retain elements of my Cubanness that I think are very positive. Because we Cubans are happy people. We are gregarious, we love music, we love jokes. We love el relajo. And then there's this element of order. Because I'm also even though I'm very disorganized I am very organized at the same time. My library is a chaos but I can find any book I want. Books are not alphabetically arranged but I can find them. I have a good memory."
[Gracia]: "Jorge, that sounds very familiar because if you look at all my books here, they are not alphabetical, but I can find them. The same thing with me."
[Guitart]: "You know where they are. Right, so that is, it's the Cuban. You know the order and the disorder ."
[Gracia]: "Interesting how they mix."
[Guitart]: "In Cuba."
[Gracia]: "Is this something that reveals itself in some way in your art or your poetry? This kind of order and disorder. I take it it's a kind of order within disorder so that there are leads that you can follow and find when you want."
[Guitart]: "Sure, but first of all I am accepting the order of the page. You're going to write a poem and there's a convention, it's a column, narrow, more or less. You don't fill up the page, because that is what people expect the poem to be. But I also want to subvert. I'm always trying to subvert the language within the poem. My poems are usually strange and they are not in search of any sublime thing. They're just games."
[Gracia]: "Linguistic ones."
[Guitart]: "Language games."
[Gracia]: "Or conceptual, also conceptual?"
[Guitart]: "Both, because I'm also making fun of ideas. I'm making fun of the history of ideas sometimes. And of philosophy sometimes."
[Gracia]: "Ah, there you are."
[Gracia]: "But philosophy is supposed to be so lofty, so great."
[Guitart]: "I came out swinging against Heidegger in a recent poem."
[Gracia]: "Oh yeah, well I'm glad that you did, although I shouldn't say this in public."
[Guitart]: "I'm not too sure. I'm going to send you the poem."
[Gracia]: "All right, very good. That sounds particularly good."
[Guitart]: "Because there's mention of Nazism it's a poem in Spanish. I don't like the guy, I'm sorry."
[Gracia]: "He probably has done a lot of damage to philosophy."
[Guitart]: "So, I'm into experimental poetry, right now my goal is to have a clear syntax. You can understand the syntax but the sentences are going to be very strange, that's my goal right now in poetry. So I write with normal syntax but abnormal semantics.
[Gracia]: "This is interesting, do you know this philosopher Carnap?"
[Guitart]: "Sure, Rudolph Carnap."
[Gracia]: "And you know what he called a type mistake?"
[Guitart]: "No, tell me about it."
[Gracia]: "He has the idea that there is an ideal logical language in which the sentences are perfectly fitted so that the syntax and the semantics go hand in hand."
[Guitart]: "Hand in hand."
[Gracia]: "There are certain spaces where you can put certain words which have certain meanings but if you put a word that doesn't have that meaning then you have made what is called a type mistake."
[Guitart]: "But that mistake is made on purpose."
[Gracia]: "That's exactly what I'm thinking, that you are actually trying to do that, to subvert that marriage between syntax and semantics."
[Guitart]: "The logic and anecdotal. So the poem isn't going to be a story. If you want to write a story, write a story."
[Gracia]: "That belongs to something else."
[Guitart]: "Although there are very good narrative poems but "
[Gracia]: ". . . other people will do that, you're doing something else."
[Guitart]: "Yeah, but there is this mainstream poetry in American poetry which I don't like at all, because it's always the same, it's like a middle aged man reflecting on how his life is."
[Gracia]: "What a boring thing."
[Guitart]: "But also, if it's a woman, then normally the woman is contemplating a natural form. It can be a flower, the sky, and then she tries to derive a moral lesson from it."
[Gracia]: "That is the standard?"
[Guitart]: "That is the archetypical American poem I can show you."
[Gracia]: "That's horrible. Too bad."
[Guitart]: "And then there is a poet in America that's very famous named John Ashbery. Have you ever read him?"
[Gracia]: "A long time ago."
[Guitart]: "He's my idol, because he's doing the kind of poetry where he's subverting the "
[Gracia]: ". . . standard program."
[Guitart]: "The funny thing is that he's famous. The New Yorker publishes him once in a while, but then the New Yorker is always publishing this kind of mainstream poetry."
[Gracia]: "This other stuff, yeah. Well that's the way these fields work . But is there a counter part to that in your artistic production, in the things that you do, or not?"
[Guitart]: "No, if I could draw, I would parody in the same way than say, Duchamp could, but I don't have the tools for that."
[Gracia]: "You don't have the skills to do it."
[Guitart]: "Skills, yeah."
[Gracia]: "Clearly in the poetry, the mechanics of it, the linguistic side of it which goes very well with your background as an linguist, seems to me to be overriding, and the conceptual perhaps comes after it, or on top of it, or something like that I don't know whether this is right but in the art, does the same thing happen, that the image or the technique or the lines, the materials, the medium and so forth override a kind of conceptual message?"
[Guitart]: "My art is very intuitive and depends a lot on the unconscious. I am not aware that I am trying to be comic or humorous. But my faces are all tragic. People are looking forlorn, so what's going on? I'm not sure."
[Gracia]: "There is something about Cubans in that they usually laugh at very serious moments, in very sad moments. I find that Cubans can do that. They can actually make fun of very, very serious and sad things."
[Guitart]: "Think of the Cuban wake, the velorio."
[Guitart]: "But that happens in other cultures also, like the Irish. When you went to a wake in Cuba and it happens in Miami too you tell jokes. The dead person is there and you're telling jokes about all sorts of things, including some about the dead person."
[Gracia]: "Now that you mention Miami, you've been basically out of the Miami "
[Guitart]: "I never lived in Miami. I have family there and I love to go there. It's like going to Cuba. You can have a papa rellena. Even though I'm a vegetarian, I make an exception for a good papa rellena. But yeah, Miami is a vibrant, vibrant place. It's amazing."
[Gracia]: "But do you feel the need to go back to Miami or to Cuban you didn't marry a Cuban-American."
[Guitart]: "No I married an American. That wasn't intentional. I fell in love with her. By the way, my wife is my great supporter and I'm nothing without her. Seriously, great editor also."
[Gracia]: "Great editor too?"
[Guitart]: "Yeah, has a good eye for poetry. And I mean she also likes my art."
[Gracia]: "That's wonderful."
[Guitart]: "And she has good taste, so I can trust her."
[Gracia]: "Do you keep everything you paint, let's say the paintings, or do you throw out stuff and so on?"
[Guitart]: "I destroy lots of things if I hate them out!"
[Gracia]: "Now Jorge, do you know something about Cuban-American art?"
[Guitart]: "Not really, I know some, I'm familiar with some people. Baruch Salinas, for example. I've been a long-time fan of Baruch."
[Gracia]: "He's going to be here for the NEH art exhibition reception. You have to come."
[Guitart]: "Oh great, fantastic He's a good friend of one of my cousins. And I admire Alberto Rey who is a local. There's a lot of Cuban art visual art , but I would say that Salinas is probably one of the top people."
[Gracia]: "Yes, he's sort of the dean of the painters. And the interesting thing about him is that he helped set up the exile artist community in Miami."
[Guitart]: "I want to call your attention to a friend, a personal friend of mine, called Ramon Carrolla. I think he's an excellent painter and I take credit for his becoming a painter. Because when I was in Cuba and I was painting, he got into it. And he developed, he does that full-time in Miami. He's about my age. He's about 68 now but he has a big body of work. He's been in galleries."
[Gracia]: "Well, Jorge, we are getting closer to the end of our interview, so perhaps this is a good time to ask you if there is something else that we have missed that is important about your career, about your interests, about your work? Something that you want to say."
[Guitart]: "Well, you know,, I'm awfully glad that I was born in Cuba. Yeah, I love the fact that I'm Cuban. I also love the fact that I'm an American by choice."
[Gracia]: "And you're completely happy with your Cuban side."
[Guitart]: "My wife and I, I have become more American, she has become more Cuban. I'm happy."
[Gracia]: "And how do you see the future? Are you going to paint more?"
[Guitart]: "I want to keep on painting and I want to keep on writing poetry and I want to keep on doing linguistics. I just published a book on phonetics about two years ago. And now I'm working on one on semantic roles so "
[Gracia]: ". . .you keep the three sides up."
[Guitart]: "Yeah, I want to keep them and I will never retire."
[Gracia]: "Oh, my goodness. Well "
[Guitart]: "No, sorry."
[Gracia]: "I didn't mean to suggest I want you to retire. I hope that you're still around in years."
[Guitart]: "I also want to say that Buffalo is a great place. I think Buffalo is a great place for an artist, for a writer, for an academic. UB is a wonderful place to work."
[Gracia]: "It is, it gives you a lot of freedom and "
[Guitart]: "And there are great people here, you for example."
[Gracia]: "Well thank you very much. I'm sure we won't we'll clip that out of the interview."
[Guitart]: "And we have very few Cubans actually in the faculty."
[Gracia]: "There are only two Cubans, aren't there?"
[Guitart]: "There was another one who left. No, wait a minute was there another Cuban? Anyway, people should know that you and I get confused with each other because we have the same initials and the same first name."
[Gracia]: "Constantly! Jorge Gracia becomes Jorge Guitart or "
[Guitart]: "I just saw someone the other day in the elevator and he congratulated me for the NEH seminar that you are directing."
[Gracia]: "And many people think that I write poetry."
[Guitart]: "Maybe we are one person."
[Gracia]: "Yeah, maybe, maybe two sides of one."
[Guitart]: "Two people with one two natures or whatever."
[Gracia]: "It's interesting that we do have things in common. I've had a great deal of interest in the philosophy of language, for example, which is related to linguistics although a different tack than yours. And I've always been interested in art and I've always been interested in literature. I was an English major in college. So, yes, we do have things in common. Well thank you very much, Jorge, and now we're going to look at your art. We're going to put you on the website Cuban Art Outside Cuba.'"