In the Spanish poetic scene of the 90s, Roger Wolfe (Westreham, Kent, 1962) was a singular figure. His hard expression, bathed in a certain curse, initially pigeonholed him in the so-called “dirty realism”, although over time he proved capable of shaping a more far-reaching work. Poet, essayist, storyteller, this English-born author has remained true to himself to this day. After publishing his complete lyrics until 1993 in the volume All this poetry (Renaissance), Wolfe, around a glass of coffee on a Sevillian terrace, recalls how this tour was.
‘Chilean Poet’ and other readings to enjoy August without the pressure of novelty
You arrive in Alicante when you are five years old. Did he have the feeling of changing the world, or were England and Spain not so different?
I do not remember well. We came with the family, it was 1967 … My house was a microcosm, of course. My parents did not have much relationship with local people, when they arrived they did not know anyone. It was a bit of a whimsical decision to settle here. I went to a Spanish school, eleven years in the Jesuits, at the Inmaculada school, where I think Gabriel Miró was.
Jesuits print character, right?
Yes, at that time they were all liberals, they were in Liberation Theology. They were priests, yes, but the atmosphere was one of complete freedom.
And at home, what culture was consumed?
My parents were not serious readers of literature, but they were great readers of novels, memoirs, biographies … My father was a great fan of the so-called High Fidelity, and he had a great team that was bought little by little. He brought a cassette tape player from the United States, he made himself with Goodmans loudspeakers, I don’t know if that brand will continue to exist … And he had a Swiss Lenco turntable, which is still used by DJs. And when I put the equipment on, the house would shake, it was like a disco. I don’t know if you know Isaac Hayes, the black musician from the 70s, who made the soundtrack to a movie about a black detective called Shaft. “Shaft, who is the man …“.
And at 18 he returned to study in England. Was the choice of literature clear to you, or was it something rather casual?
Well, from the age of 16 or 17 I became very interested in literature, I began to write, and that guided my studies. I also worked in the hospitality industry, as a kitchen clerk and as a second in the kitchen, and I even thought about studying to be a cook …
Do you remember who your role models were when you started out?
I’ve been very eclectic and very messy in my readings, like everyone else I suppose. At the age of 15 I already started with hard drugs: Kafka, Sartre. Then Rimbaud, the French Symbolists, Eliot, The wasteland… And in Spanish, Rubén Darío, Antonio Machado… I still hadn’t discovered Manuel Machado, who I liked a lot later. And then, of contemporary poetry, the first collection of poems that struck me was by Blas de Otero, Fiercely human angel and Roll of conscience.
Then, when his name began to sound, he was labeled the “Spanish Bukowski.” Was it flattered or annoyed?
It was my fault, because I started talking a lot about Bukowski when here as a poet he was not yet known. And then in the late 90’s, they started translating his poetry. The irony is that I read Bukowski late, I came to him at 18 and 20, and I really liked it. They put the label on you and you no longer take it off.
What role did alcohol play in your poetry?
There is all that mythology that has to do with literature, the exploration of other realities, with Dylan Thomas, another poet whom I read a lot, and who influenced me, more than formally, from the point of view of his legend, because he died actually drunk. And then all that mythology of alcohol, drugs, the night, cursing … And the 80s in Spain were a tremendous party.
Did you live them intensely, those years?
I came of age in 1980. My formative decade was the 70s, I did not live the scene in Madrid. I would have liked it, but if I had, I wouldn’t be here now. Spain is a special case, there were some circumstances, the passage from a dictatorship to a democracy, the country joined modernity all at once, and there was a longing for revelry and freedom … And there was no acrimony. There were many political conflicts, but there was less polarization. The move, curiously, was not literary, but cinematographic and above all musical.
Did he have a will to stand on the literary scene as cursed?
No, it was not deliberate. Although all literary mythology was involved, it also had to do with rock music, which many people lived with at the time. I am a rehabilitated alcoholic. I had very serious problems, because if not, I would not be here. There came a time when it was not viable. I also got into everything, except heroin …
He did not call me, apart from the fact that in the early 80s people injected themselves and that did not go away for me. My thing was excitement, speed, amphetamines, which I really liked. That also has to do with literature: Sartre wrote with some highs … Critique of dialectical reason it’s written in handfuls of amphetamines. And the students took centremines, they took the exams with that.
When you got off alcohol, did your writing change?
I think not, because there was no premeditated curse. I have continued to tell my life and how I see the world. When you stop drinking you think you can no longer live, that you will lack support.
When he landed in Spanish literature, there was a moment of polarization between Experience and Difference. In the middle of that fight, you …?
I always stayed out of it. Perhaps that is why it is less known than it could be. I have been free, I have not done much literary life either. I have some good friends, but few. One of them was Félix Grande, an excellent poet and a very good person, also Luis Alberto de Cuenca… But I have never been interested in literary politics, all those maneuvers… I am interested in writing. What happens is that, if you don’t do those things, you stay in the shade.
Have you ever regretted it?
And politics itself, has it interested you?
I have always been quite anti-political. Literature and art are not a good product for politics. Art in the service of politics is usually bad and ages quite badly. The other day I was reading some statements from Adam Zagajewski, the Polish, in which he said that he reserved poetry to make literature. For him, art is the expression of humanity, which goes beyond politics. And that we have talked about Blas de Otero, with whom I do not share his mature political ideas, since he was a communist with a license, and he is still one of my favorite poets. But one of the things that sometimes spoils Blas de Otero’s poems is that, when you read them, you think that the author feels obliged to drive a political wedge, because if he doesn’t, it seems that he isn’t committed enough. And it spoils them.
The left now doesn’t produce many poets like Blas de Otero, nor the right storytellers like Céline, who he likes so much. Is everything degraded?
It always seems that the past was better, but in literature you have to let time pass before you realize what it is worth. But if you look at it, each era gives few really good authors.
Do you follow the poetry of Twitter?
No, no, I don’t follow the networks. I have a blog, but on Tumblr. About ten years ago I was on Twitter, but I don’t like it. It has become a chicken coop. I’m not there. But I imagine that these new poets… I have heard that this new phenomenon has occurred. They can be good platforms for the dissemination of poetry, potentially reaching millions of readers. I don’t know if you’ve heard of a Middle English kid, Selam Wearing. He started on social networks and put out a book on Aguilar. I made a prologue to it and it interested me, although I think it has strayed a bit from the networks, but it was quite successful.
And did you have contact with that generation of storytellers, Mañas, Loriga …?
Mañas, although he is younger than me, was a good friend of mine. During a time I collaborated in La Esfera, the supplement of El Mundo, and I defended it a lot. We have lost contact a bit, it is very far away.
You have now written the second part of the Kronen …
Oh yeah? Do you see how I am separated? I did not know, I did not know it. I have to read it. They treated Mañas very badly, very badly. I came to his defense when serious critics called him everything, and he is a very cultured uncle, very sensitive and a very good writer. And the Kronen is a great novel. I also like Ciudad Rayada, perhaps the most.
The market was looking for new faces, and at the same time the critics looked down on you, right?
Yes, controversy always sells. They have also criticized me a lot. They criticized Mañas more because he was very successful, he was a Nadal finalist and unseated the winner, who was Rosa Regás. And then the movie… When you have a hit like that, I don’t know if it’s good, you stay forever like “the one with Kronen.” It is very difficult to survive that and to pay attention to what you do next.
Regarding all this, I remember a poem of his in which he talks with his editor, Abelardo Linares, about the fact that he quotes in a verse Carmen Maura and he doubts whether future readers will know who that lady is. And Abelardo replied: “We are all perishable.” Are you really worried about that, that pop references will wither away fast?
In the end everything is going to end, even the Solar System. The important thing is that it serves you while you are here, that it gives meaning to your life, that it satisfies you, that you do it well, that it helps others, that it be enjoyable, interesting … And then you don’t know, because as Abelardo Linares said, when we are dead, we will not know.