What follows is the first full translation into English of the only extant interview with César Vallejo, one of the centripetal authors of avant-garde modernism. No reference exists to any other that may have been given by him. Indeed, the 1931 text, lost for nearly four decades, is the single record we have of the great poet’s “conversation,” which suggestively registers here, by turns, as laconic, cleverly ironic, diffident, and direct. Discovered in Madrid in the late 1960s, the document, along with its accompanying article of introduction, has by this point been reproduced and commented upon in various critical studies. But given its open availability for some twenty-five years, it’s somewhat astounding that such a significant artifact has not yet been fully rendered into English.1

My annotations following the text provide some context and historical information. The article accompanying the interview, by the reporter/interviewer César González-Ruano, precedes the exchange; I have tried to capture the delightful “drama” of his quasi-Modernista prose—starkly offset, as the reader will see, by Vallejo’s dignified restraint in the interview proper. Also offered here is a copy of the original Heraldo de Madrid newspaper in which the item appeared (on the last page). The “image” of Vallejo is a retouched photograph, not a very good likeness, judging from other photos of him in this period.

I’d like to thank the following people for their generous responses to drafts of the document’s translation: 

The leading Vallejo researcher and translator Valentino Gianuzzi, who also provided crucial historical information, and who with Michael Smith has conducted one of the great, extended labors in Vallejo scholarship and translation anywhere; the essayist and translator Eliot Weinberger; Kristin Dykstra, co-Editor of Mandorla; Michael Hansen, co-Editor of the Chicago Review; the Latin American literature scholar Juliet Lynd; the poets John Bradley, George Kalamaras, Anna Deeny, Micah Robbins, and Tim Atkins; and the incomparable Andrés Ajens, of Chile, one of the vitales in contemporary poetry and criticism of the Americas, South and North. Finally, I extend my gratitude to Eric Linsker and Jeff Nagy, commando curators of the sui generis Claudius App.

Here, then, is Vallejo at the café.

Kent Johnson
Freeport, IL
April 15, 2012
(Aniversario de la muerte del gran poeta)


Interview with César Vallejo, by César González-Ruano, published in the Heraldo de Madrid newspaper, January 27th, 1931, in the column “The Americans of Paris,” with article headed, “The Poet César Vallejo in Madrid: Trilce, the Book that Needed an Invented Word for Title.”2

One of these days I’ll write a book entitled Conductor of the Platforms, to acknowledge the visit of all large, small, and medium-dimensioned men who make their way by rail to “L’Espagne.” Presently, two poets: Vicente Huidobro,3 who was reviewed in our Heraldo, and, following him, César Vallejo, Peruvian by race, passed through Paris.4

I was keenly curious to meet this César Vallejo. CIAP5 has just released a new edition of his poem-collection Trilce, already renowned among the new Decamerons. 

And herewith the kilometric miracle happens, because a poet’s travel is always cloaked in the miraculous; consonant with art, swings in temperature within the cities do trumpet it. Astonishing!

The unclassifiable Vallejo has arrived. I recall the words of America’s new liberator, Carlos Mariátegui,6 who was explaining to us how Ultraísmo, Creacionismo, and Superrealismo,7 and all the “isms” are elements foreseen by Vallejo in the panoramas of his dreams; elements, in their conflation, that place him beyond any catalogue of schools. That’s how I see it, too. Amazing the autochthonous vision, the far-flung seas, the lost lexicons within this man who is above the politics of literary parties and makes his work in the same unmediated sense that florae exude their aromas. In Trilce, César Vallejo fixes precision as poetic fundament. His verse, when I came to know it, gave me the impression of an anguish and yearning I’d deem essential to any true poet. His heart-wrenching struggle to reveal the Real—his Real—is stunning, exemplary.

Yet, another and yet another thing: the elegance of his mien. Even upon first reading his poems, I knew he wasn’t the Peruvian mountain-rube as some had pegged him, oblivious of his splendid urbanity, thinking their condescension some kind of Adamic-Poet praise, as if he came snared by exotic auroras, suckled on suns of the Sierra. No, no, NO! I’d already seen in him the nautilus of experience, the culture of pain, the poetic phosphorescence alchemized into the marmalade of a man who is denizen of the world’s grand hotels, who knows the moon has not a whit to do with the Moon of Montparnasse. A man, in sum, who can peel the orange of his verses without pushing his fingers into it.8 

And so it is—brought here by the magnificent Pablo Abril de Vivero,9 the superb writer and founder of Bolívar,10 to whose American labors in Spain much more is owed than has been paid—that César Vallejo appears, facing me. What’s he like, César Vallejo?

Hard and shard-like suns have chiseled his visage, leaving it thus: with a racial fineness, like that of a Creole cavalryman of the Viceroyalty of New Spain,11 who with silver spur could make the horse of Juanita gallop wild, sending the Rivoli12 into a kind of panic. Mallets of thought pushed out his brow and sunk his eyes, to which night gave the “kool”13 present in those who inbreathe more deeply than the rest. This man, dark-complected, with nose of a boxer and pomade-slicked hair, whose laugh shoots scars deep into his face, speaks with the same preciseness with which he writes. And may it not overly surprise you, dear reader, when I tell you this truth: that he removes his jacket in the café, and puts it to sleep, on the hook.

Q: César Vallejo, why have you come here?

CV: Well, to drink coffee.14
Q: How did you begin to drink coffee in your life?
CV: I published my first book in Lima. A gathering of poems titled Los heraldos negros.15 It was the year 1918.
Q: What unusual things were taking place in Lima that year?
CV: I don't know... I published my book... Over here the war was ending. I don't know.
Q: What kind of poetry did you make in Los heraldos negros?
CV: Well, you could call it modernist poetry. The poems plug into Spanish modernism, one could say, in a somewhat traditional manner, though with incrustations of required Americanisms. 

Q: Do you recall…?

It’s [Pablo] Abril who brings it to mind [The reference here to Abril, somewhat confusing, suggests that he, present at the interview, prompts Vallejo to recite it. KJ]:

What will she be doing at this very hour, my sweet, Andean Rita
of the wild reed and the dusk berry;
now that Byzantium smothers me, and that blood
dozes, like insipid brandy, inside me.16

César Vallejo, from memory, has recited it poorly, very poorly, indeed; but not so poorly that I can’t feel the subtleties in this stanza, which reveal—and more so if the time of composition is considered—an authentic poet. In it I sense, suddenly…

Q: I suddenly sense, my dear Vallejo, something that’s supremely important in any poet, and without its sign neither poets, nor prose artists, nor locomotives have any meaning—that precise modification: “insipid brandy.”

CV: Precision—says Vallejo—interests me to the point of obsession. If you were to ask me what I most aspire to these days, it would be this: to vaporize each and every incidental word, to release the pure expression, which today, more than ever, must be sought in nouns and verbs… given that we can’t ever dispense with language!17

Q: Can you recite a passage from Trilce that would illustrate what you’ve said?

Vallejo leafs through the copy of his book I’ve brought to the café and picks out the following: 

The created voice rebels and will be
neither net nor love.
Lovers be lovers eternally.
Well then, don’t ring 1, for it will resound to infinity.
And don’t ring 0, for it will so hush,
till it wakens 1 and raises it to its feet.18

Q: Very well. Can you tell me why your book is called Trilce? What does that mean, Trilce?

CV: Ah, so, Trilce doesn’t mean anything. I couldn’t find, in all my zeal, any word worthy of title, and so I made one up: Trilce. Isn’t it a lovely word? I didn’t look back… Trilce.19

Q: When did you arrive in Europe, in Paris, Vallejo?

CV: In 1923, with Trilce published the year before.

Q: Were you familiar with the current French poets?

CV: With not a one. Lima is another clime, altogether. There was some curiosity, yes; but basically I was pretty much in the dark.

Q: How were you able to create such a book, then—a book that, not least in its verbal dexterities, announces a learnedness of such energy and reach?

CV: It was a seamless flow from Los heraldos negros. I was well-versed in the Spanish classics…20; but I believe, honestly, that the poet has an intuitive grasp of the language’s history, which step by step seeks out its just expression.21

Q: Who were the people you knew in Paris?

CV: Few. I didn’t try to track-down writers, needless to say.22 Eventually, I met up with a Chilean, Vicente Huidobro, and with a Spaniard, Juan Larrea.23

(Allow me to remember Juan Larrea, almost unknown. Magnificent new poet. I met him in the National Historical Archives, where he worked as archivist. One day he said goodbye, renounced his career, and announced he was going to Paris to write Pure Poetry. Two or three years. He left Paris, saying he was going to write Pure Poetry, and he settled in a poor Peruvian hamlet, where, to be sure, he had no pressing reason to be. Two years of solitude, of isolation. Never did he try to publish his verse. One of these days he will perish from the effort, and declaring that Pure Poetry is to be written, he’ll arrive at the Limbo of the good poets, where angels, plucked of their feathers, play violins of dream-stuff. The Great Larrea!)24

Q: To conclude, friend Vallejo, what unpublished works do you have?

CV: A play, Mampar.25 A new book of poetry.

Q: Titled?

CV: Well, Instituto Central del Trabajo.26



1.	 In fact, as this was being set at The Claudius App, an abridged, non-annotated translation of the interview by Rebecca Seiferle came to my attention. It was published a number of years ago in issue #6 of Masthead magazine, out of Australia. The Seiferle version, which seems somewhat quickly rendered (there are a number of errors), omits the article of preface by González-Ruano, along with actual passages contained in the interview proper. It can be seen here: http://www.masthead.net.au/issue6/vall.html. Michelle Clayton, among a few other English-language Vallejo scholars, discusses the interview in her recent study, Poetry in Pieces: César Vallejo and Lyric Modernity (California UP, 2011).

2.	 The Heraldo de Madrid was a venerable Spanish daily, published between 1890 and 1939. During the Republican period, it was one of the country’s largest newspapers. González-Ruano (1903-1965) was a journalist, novelist, actor, and poet with affiliations to Ultraísta currents. The interview item, forgotten, was unearthed by the Peruvian critic Willy Pinto Gamboa (1933-1994) in Madrid, in the late 1960s. It is reproduced (a few previous studies had already reprinted it) in volume 2 of Ricardo Silva-Santisteban's great four-volume critical edition of Vallejo’s work: César Vallejo: Poesía completa. Vol. II. (Lima: PUCP, 1997), 227-230.  

3.	 Vicente Huidobro (1893-1948), central figure of the Latin American Vanguardia and author of Altazor (Madrid: CIAP, 1931), widely considered one of the great works of the international avant-garde. González-Ruano had interviewed him for the Heraldo on January 6th of the same year. A nice touch: that Vallejo and Huidobro, eventually renowned as two of the three giants of Latin American poetry of the first-half of the century (Neruda the third), would be featured, in the same venue, only days apart.

4.	 César Vallejo (1892-1938) arrived in Paris in 1923. With exception of three brief trips to the USSR, he remained in Europe for the rest of his life, dying in Paris, as he’d famously foretold in his poem “Black Stone on a White Stone” (though on a rainy Good Friday, barely missing his omen of a “rainy Thursday”). The most extensive period of his residency in Spain took place between late 1930 through early 1932. The interview was conducted less than one month after his arrival in Madrid. 

5.	 CIAP [Compañía Ibero-Americana de Publicaciones (S.A)], the famous Madrid-based publisher of the 1931 2nd edition of Trilce, and of Huidobro’s Altazor, that same year. The first edition was self-published by Vallejo, in 1922 (the annus mirabilis of Modernism: Trilce, Ulysses, The Waste Land, Sonnets to Orpheus, the Duino Elegies), the 200-copy run printed at the press of the City Penitentiary of Lima, which was, as irony would choose, a panopticon.

6. 	 José Carlos Mariátegui (1895-1930), legendary Peruvian author, editor (of the great journal Amauta), and Marxist thinker, the Latin American kin to Antonio Gramsci. He was the leader of the Socialist Party of Peru (the de facto communist organization of the time) and is widely regarded as one of Latin America’s most important intellectual figures of the 20th century’s first decades. His classic Seven Interpretive Essays on Peruvian Reality (Lima, 1928), which includes the first substantial study of Vallejo’s work, remains importantly influential. He and Vallejo were acquaintances when both were members of the Valdelomar literary circle in Lima, and they maintained a friendship in correspondence following Vallejo’s emigration to Europe.

7.	 Creacionismo and Ultraísmo were key avant-garde tendencies in Hispanic literature. Creacionismo was launched by Huidobro, ca. 1912, and Ultraísmo, directly influenced by Huidobro’s thought, had its origin in Spain, in 1918 (Jorge Luis Borges [1899-1986], then living in Spain, was one of its founders). Superrealismo is interchangeable with Surrealismo.

8.	 Clearly, some of González-Ruano’s language slips into the very “Adamic-Poet praise” he is criticizing! As well, the “gender cast” of the text should be noted: to some extent, for sure, it is product of the fact that very few women poets of the Hispanic world had achieved any recognition ca. 1931. Which is not to shrug off González-Ruano’s exclusively male focus: for even at the time of the interview, various Latin American women writers had traveled through Paris and Madrid, including Huidobro’s compatriot Gabriela Mistral, who would soon be Latin America’s first winner of the Nobel Prize. 

9.	 Pablo Abril de Vivero (1894-1987), poet, editor, and Peruvian diplomat, lived in Spain during Vallejo’s residence there. He was Vallejo’s closest friend, and the two carried on a rich correspondence, none of it yet translated into English. The most complete gathering of this material is in 114 cartas de César Vallejo a Pablo Abril de Vivero (Lima: Editorial Juan Mejía Baca, 1975).

10. Journal founded by Abril and edited by him in Madrid between 1930 and 31. Vallejo collaborated with him on the venture. For what is surely the most extensive study of Vallejo’s period in Spain, see Carlos Fernández López and Valentino Gianuzzi. César Vallejo en Madrid en 1931: Itinerario documental (Madrid: Del Centro Editores, 2012) [forthcoming].

11. Name of Spain’s Central-North colonial territories in America from the 16th through the early 19th centuries, during which time the indigenous populations suffered genocide and terrible exploitation. The area of contemporary Peru was at the heart of one of the imperial viceroyalties.

12. The meaning of “Juanita” is unclear, though it likely references, according to Valentino Gianuzzi, a character in Nuevas cartas americanas (Madrid, 1890), by the Spanish writer Juan Valera (1824-1905); the Rivoli is a famous Parisian avenue.

13. The word is in the original.

14. A charming, touché reply; González-Ruano is obviously asking why Vallejo has come to Spain. González-Ruano elegantly counters with his following question; Vallejo’s twist to that is even better than the first.

15. The Black Heralds, Vallejo’s first book, self-published in Peru in 1919 (the date’s often given incorrectly as 1918), at the same prison press as Trilce.

16. From Vallejo’s poem “Idilio muerto” (“Dead Idyll”), in Los heraldos negros. Though some poems in Los heraldos negros are certainly closer to a modernist key than this one, it’s interesting to hear Vallejo say (further down) that “it was a seamless flow” between his first and second books: because the late-Romantic tenor of “Idilio muerto,” representative of the formal and conceptual register of most else in the debut collection, in no way clearly heralds, so to speak, the shocking lexical and syntactic detonations that mark so much of the later Trilce. The entire poem, in the translation of Michael Smith and Valentino Gianuzzi, in The Complete Poems of César Vallejo, forthcoming from Shearsman Books, in 2012, reads as follows:

What will she be doing at this very hour, my sweet, Andean Rita
of the wild reed and the dusk berry;
now that Byzantium smothers me, and that blood
dozes, like insipid brandy, inside me.

   Where will her hands be that on those evenings,
in a contrite posture, ironed-out forthcoming whitenesses;
now, in this rain that strips away
my desire to go on living.

   What of her flannel skirt; of her
worries; of her pace;
of her zest of those May sugar-canes of the place.

   She must be at the door staring at the cloud-lined sky,
and then trembling she will say: ‘Jesus! . . . How cold it is!’
And on the roof-tiles a savage bird will cry.

17. Likely the echo is mainly an effect of the modernist Zeitgeist, but there is an intriguing correspondence between Vallejo’s forceful prescription here and core edicts in Ezra Pound’s Imagist/Vorticist poetics. Interestingly enough, in his 1929 article "The New American Poetry" (published in El Comercio, Lima, July 30th), Vallejo dismisses Pound, HD, and Gertrude Stein as “imaginistas recalcitrantes” (“intractable imagists”), expressing preference for Walt Whitman, Hart Crane, Langston Hughes, and Vachel Lindsay. The placement of Stein under the canopy of Imagism is more than problematic, of course; one might guess that if the communist Vallejo had known that Pound and Stein would go on to viscerally sympathize with Fascism, his scorn would have been even stronger!
18. The passage is from poem V in Trilce. The entire poem, as translated by Michael Smith and Valentino Gianuzzi, in their The Complete Poems of César Vallejo, reads:

   Dicotyledon group. Thence
petrels overture, triad leanings,
endings that begin, ohs of woes,
you would think upgraded by heterogeneity.
Grouped two cotyledons!

   Let’s see. May that be without being more.
Let’s see. Let it not transcend outward,
and think to the beat of not being heard,
and be chromed and not seen.
And let it not glissade in the great collapse.

   The created voice rebels and will be
neither net nor love.
Lovers be lovers eternally.
Well then, don’t ring 1, for it will resound to infinity.
And don’t ring 0, for it will so hush,
till it wakens 1 and raises it to its feet.

Ah bicardiac group.

19. Clayton Eshleman, rightly honored for his magnificent, epic translation project with Vallejo’s poetry, has speculated at some length on the semantic sources of the word (see pages 624-626 in his The Complete Poetry: César Vallejo, California, 2007). Though it’s possible Vallejo is being playfully disingenuous, his comment here somewhat throws those deliberations into doubt. Vallejo’s widow and zealous executor, Georgette Philippart Vallejo (1908-1984, who has been aggressively maligned by Eshleman and other scholars), also insisted the title was pure sound. Surprisingly, Eshleman doesn’t even mention the 1931 interview in his Complete. Nor does Stephen Hart, in his extensive Chronology included in the book.

20. Here, Vallejo would be referring in important measure to Luis de Góngora and Francisco de Quevedo, the two great poets of the Spanish Baroque. Indeed, elements of their respective and famously competing styles, “culteranismo” and “conceptismo,” can be seen as remarkably conjoined in Vallejo’s work. Vallejo’s 1915 thesis at the Facultad de Filosofía y Letras de la Universidad de La Libertad, in Trujillo, in fact, El Romanticismo en la literatura castellana, though mainly focused on 19th century poetry, engages with the Spanish Baroque. It was published by Juan Mejia Baca y P.L. Villanueva, in Peru, in 1954.

21. The relative clause carries an interesting ambiguity in the Spanish: It can be equally read as meaning that 1) the poet, as agent, seeks out the “just expression” of language, or 2) that language itself seeks out its own “just expression” through the poet-as-medium. I’ve rendered the meaning in somewhat the latter sense.

22. An interesting “needless to say”: While at first glance this seems connected to Vallejo’s earlier comment about an ignorance of the contemporary French scene, one could also read here an implied nonchalance towards the au courant literary milieu, suggesting a semi-arrogant confidence (now more than validated!) in his independent powers.

23. Juan Larrea (1895-1980), an important figure in Spanish vanguardist poetry. He was close to Vallejo in Paris, where he’d moved after abandoning his work as a librarian for Spain’s National Historical Archives. In 1930 he moved to Latin America, where he wrote major early studies on Vallejo, Vicente Huidobro, and the Surrealist movement.

24. The parenthetical interjection is by González-Ruano. That Larrea went to lose himself in Peru is intriguing. Was it a mirrored, self-erasing move inspired by Vallejo’s exiled figure? Very possibly so.

25. Vallejo is known to have authored at least four plays and various dramatic sketches. None were produced during his life. The text of Mampar is now lost, generally believed to have been destroyed by the poet himself.

26. Central Institute of Labor. No book of such title exists, of course. It’s likely that some of the work Vallejo intended for it ended up in the posthumous Poemas humanos (Paris: Les Editions des Presses Modernes au Palais Royal, 1939), whose textual history is a contested thicket. See here: http://spanport.byu.edu/instituto_vallejiano/articolo.html.http://dl.dropbox.com/u/8346193/Vallejo,%20Heraldo%20de%20Madrid.pdfhttp://www.masthead.net.au/issue6/vall.htmlhttp://www.masthead.net.au/issue6/vall.htmlhttp://spanport.byu.edu/instituto_vallejiano/articolo.htmlhttp://spanport.byu.edu/instituto_vallejiano/articolo.htmlshapeimage_1_link_0shapeimage_1_link_1shapeimage_1_link_2shapeimage_1_link_3shapeimage_1_link_4