DOLOREM IPSUM – Interview with poet Isabel del Rio

in Authors & Books/Interview/Spotlight

Dolorem ipsum, Isabel del Rio’s latest book is a homage to the victims and casualties of the 2020 pandemic.

Isabel, on reading it’s clear to me that this new book was produced speedily as a response to the COVID-19 situation. But it doesn’t feel like it was put together in haste. How was it possible to achieve that?

I had been working on ideas for a new poetry collection since the beginning of the year.  It was to be a collection of poems on the suffering of women and resistance.  Hence, the quotes and several of the poems, as well as the photograph for the cover.  But the catalyst to make the book an all-embracing work in the face of the pandemic was my rushed visit to Madrid on 21 February.  I had to travel there briefly to attend my stepmother’s 90th birthday.  I was the only one wearing a mask on the plane, but once in Madrid, there was lots of hugging and kissing, as it was a family reunion.  Now in retrospect I am so glad I went, because I will probably not see any of my relatives for quite some time.

Once I was back in London, I realised the enormity of what was happening – the pandemic had not yet been taken seriously enough either in Spain or the in UK.  Life was still more or less normal, but you could sense that something very serious was about to, we could say, detonate –there was a peculiar tension, people seemed uneasy, we felt anxious and were rushing everywhere at all times.

As to the start and end of the manuscript, it is difficult to pinpoint when a writer starts a book, as there is no clear process.  I cannot give you dates as such, because ideas will stalk me for weeks or months (and sometimes years) until I do something about it – and as to finishing a book, there are no dates either, in fact books are never really finished– it is only when you say to yourself ENOUGH! that a book is sort of done. 

Can you tell me something about this process. Can you comment on the sense of urgency as a writer. And share what your overarching and personal trigger was to create this collection? Was part of your motivation always to publish immediately, not just to write but to disseminate, to converse during the period of the accelerating impact of the pandemic itself?

Yes, I was in the process of writing this new book, as mentioned, and what I was producing was very dark, even agonising.  Perhaps I was anticipating in some strange way what would eventually happen.  Poetry not only tells but sometimes it also foretells.  I had decided on the title of the book, Dolorem Ipsum, which are two of the first few words of a text by Cicero (from his book ‘The ends of good and evil’) used as a dummy text in book layout and design (although the original states Dolorem Ipsum, typographers call it Lorem Ipsum).  I was very much immersed in the book, and when the pandemic was declared, so too my book expanded and became even more, if I may say so, heartrending.  As the pandemic got so much worse, my book took further shape, and then it was not only about pain but also, and more tragically, about loss.

How has the pandemic affected you personally as a writer and as a publisher?

I am a natural catastrophist, so I am taking the crisis quite badly and I am continuously imagining much worse scenarios than what we are actually experiencing.

As a mostly reclusive writer, I don’t generally enjoy company (unless of course it is with my dearest and closest).  I have a mild case of social anxiety, so being away from others is not a problem.

As a writer of dystopia, the pandemic has triggered lots of ideas about possible outcomes.  I am now working on a short story about how far the crisis will go, and I will continue with the memoir that I have been working on for several years.

As a publisher, I have just published this particular book, Dolorem Ipsum, and I am planning to publish soon Love in the Isle of Dogs, by you, an absolutely brilliant graphic novel.  Sadly, all events and launches that I had organised as a publisher for this year have had to be cancelled, as well as several publishing projects.  But we must not despair, as we have online means at our disposal, and I am planning online performance poetry events via Zoom or other platforms, and other happenings.

You have chosen significant and multiple quotes on the nature of pain by substantial writers, many women. Can you comment on one or more of these choices and shed some light on what these quotations mean to you personally? Are they made more powerful by knowing the history and work of these women?

Firstly, these are writers whom I greatly admire, Brontë, Plath, Woolf, both as artists and as women.  Secondly, pain is something that women have always been familiar with –physical pain as a result of being female (ailments with our reproductive organs, monthly cycles, childbirth and so on), but also because we have been mistreated in many ways (sometimes more blatantly, sometimes more surreptitiously) both by the preferred gender and by the way society has been set up in their favour.  These three authors were women who suffered as a result of their female identity (Plath deceived by husband Hughes; Woolf suffering from terrible depression that ultimately led to suicide; Brontë dying as a result of morning sickness when pregnant).  Men have been running the show since the beginning of time, and throughout History we were given few options and even fewer chances (thus my poems A woman’s pleasure or Love as performance).  There were times, though, when individual women were highly regarded, and they contributed enormously to Art, Science, Politics.  In the case of Art, many had to turn to a religious vocation to prove their worth, and to mention just two exceptional artists who became nuns (the alternative was marriage and children), we must praise and be proud of the achievements of Hildegard von Bingen, and her remarkable music, or the exquisite poetry of Juana Inés de la Cruz.  Mercifully, at present the situation has changed dramatically in our favour, but we must remember that not in every country are women so fortunate.  In the case of the magnificent Artemisa Gentislechi (the exhibition about her in the National Gallery is now sadly closed), she managed to do it all but at great expense (which is how we women are doing it now, at great expense).

There is a tailing off to many of the poems. A sense of ending because ending happens, rather than it being organised by the poet. Is there a deliberate leaning towards fragmentation, an opening up of the poet’s mind to the greater power of pain, a sense of the poet as unable to control the writer’s own universe? The ultimate failure of poetry to be victorious over the rest of things?

I am a great lover of aphorisms, and many of the poems in Dolorem Ipsum are aphoristic in style.  An aphorism is far removed from a more logical stance, like a syllogism, where you arrive at a conclusion after a brief analysis.  Aphorisms are personal observations from which we can perhaps extrapolate a universal truth.  As to conclusions, there is no conclusion in what I write and this is a personal stance – there is no conclusion to existence anyway, unless we talk about non-existence being a conclusion. 

As the progenie of our time, and now of this pandemic, we sense things as fragmented and as having no sense, as if we had lost our sense of direction.  We do not trust our leaders, especially after their disastrous performance with the pandemic, and we definitely feel bitter about where the world is going, what horrid things are being done to animals and our planet, and how injustice prevails at so many levels.  We feel a kind of disintegration, as if everything is coming apart and we are in freefall.  Therefore, I can only write along those lines.

Tell me something about the art you have chosen for the book, its symbolism and how it interacts with the work. Angels, shells, a sense of books of former times. Does this imply that the work is already in the past. This is poetry talking to us from an age gone by?

I took all the photographs in the book, some of them several years ago.  I am a very amateur photographer, but was exposed to photography from an early age, and several people close to me have been photographers, so it is a medium I greatly admire.  I like photographing objects that are in the process of decomposition or are about to end, with nostalgia built into the image.  Discarded shells on a beach, derelict sites, dilapidated underpasses, statues of sorrow and death…  I tend to dwell too much on death perhaps, I was exposed to it at an early age.

Regarding the cover of the book, it is a photograph I took in Strasbourg Cathedral a few years ago.  It is Synagoga, a female figure personifying Judaism.  For me it is a tragic depiction of a woman’s pain, a blindfold hiding her identity but also preventing her from seeing what the cause of her pain might be. 

The book is ordered carefully into specific sections and titled with very definite headings. Can you explain this organisation scheme and what it should add to the poems. Were the works written in order, with a framework in mind, or organised later?

Writing in a structured way is one approach.  I resort to various ways, sometimes more organised, and other times more improvised and even chaotic.  Some sections in the book, like the Tryptics, were clearly well-thought-out and planned; or the section Flatliners.  Others, like the brief stories aspiring to be poems (Not so much poems as stories), were reflections on various themes and are more narrative in style.  I also wanted the headings to be as casual as possible, as if I was having a conversation with someone.  My style in many of the poems in the book is mostly conversational anyway.  Daily life and everyday language can also be exhilarating in poetry.  It all depends on the treatment of the words and the mood of the poem.

Register has an important function in your work. It is used to unsettle, debunk, undermine, provide counter-argument, counter-personality. You do this expertly in English. Is it tempting to be more multi-lingual and would you like it if you could express yourself to a wider readership with more linguistic dexterity, matching your knowledge, experience and skills in language?

Having been a linguist for so long, I tend to analyse each word I write ad nauseam.  The analysis, however, can become obsessive and sometimes enervating.

I pay special attention to the musicality and the plasticity of words, and I very much like poems to sound like speech and to look like art.  The shape of the shorter poems is most important, I strive to make the words on the page look eye-catching in order to create an impact before they are read.

Regarding the use various languages when writing, some years ago I wrote ‘Zero Negative – Cero negativo’, a book of bilingual short stories as an indictment against bloodshed in its many forms – the stories in one language were versions rather translations in the other language.  And at present I have another bilingual book pending publication with a Spanish publisher, where poems include verses in both languages –I used either English or Spanish depending on which of the two expressed better the idea, or was more musical in tone, or looked better on the page. 

This is also a romantic book, drawing on archetypes such as Tristan and Isolde. Doomed love, holding hands before the end. The tension between the lovers and their closeness. Can you expand on this theme and how it plays out for you in the poetry?

I am definitely interested in the idea of love, it is one of humanity’s greatest ideas. However, when I write about love it is always about doomed love, or unrequited love, or non-consummated love (not only in the physical sense).  My poem Butades of Sicyon reflects this truly platonic love expressed by tracing someone’s shadow on a wall.

I don’t think I’ve ever written a love poem to anyone I was in a relationship with – except for the poems and short stories I wrote to the man who did not wish to pursue a relationship with me.  But that is another story, for another day. 

There are many great one-liners here, taken out of context: ‘I try to unearth my future’ is one I admire. I feel like this too, staring at the screen, trying to predict what will be out of what I see. I love the idea that by now there are probably more than four elements to brace! I feel these generic images and philosophy come out of the personal. Your snapshot of your own conversation, one it seems that you fall back on regularly in a groundhog day style conversation repeatedly thrust upon you, has a message for all people who think about Britain today with some kind of ownership, ‘you will have to reinvent this divided land.’

The section Flatliners includes solely one-line poems.  Some are about doom and dejection but there is political commentary there, and some are hopefully uplifting in these terrible times.  

Also, some of the shorter poems are very visual, like polyhedrons, with each verse a side, and totally self-sufficient, as representations of a much larger reality.

The section Belonging is a most personal one. Some of these poems are dedicated to those of us who are still wandering in this land as if left out for being foreign, especially as a result of Brexit.  This is an opinion expressed by many of the immigrants I know, as if we are not liked anymore, even though we have contributed so much to this country, which we love and respect so tremendously.

I read  so many of these poems as addressed to your romantic partner at the end of a long marriage. What is it that bothers you? You ask. This could be me, the reader. But rather I imagine a man to whom it is addressed. Is it easier to write these questions in a poem for those who will share your philosophical thoughts than to address to your partner? Is it never meant for conversation? Is this a conversation from the other side of the page, from the grave? An attempt to tie up loose knots that can never be tied?

Such conversations are more a conversation with myself, as I cannot put these points to the person to whom they are meant for.  Or perhaps they are questions without an answer.  What comes to mind is the very short poem by Stephen Crane, although he did get a reply to his question, albeit totally dismissive:  ‘A man said to the universe: / “Sir, I exist!” / “However,” replied the universe, / “The fact has not created in me / A sense of obligation.’

Dolorem Ipsum is also a very personal book.  I used to write in a much more detached way, literally trying not to get personally involved.  Writing more private or even intimate poetry began with my previous book ‘Madrid, Madrid, Madrid’, where I reminisced both about my years spent in Spain and also about the more recent history of the city, which went through a civil war and a lengthy and terrible dictatorship.  In poetry you have to eventually bring yourself and your many experiences into the picture.  That is where poetry gets most its strength, from none other than yourself. “

Friends of Alice –

Photos by Isabel del Rio of interiors of her house.

In this interview Isabel del Rio was talking to Jude Cowan Montague

Buy the book from Amazon

Jude Cowan Montague is an artist and broadcaster. She produces 'The News Agents' for Resonance FM, a weekly show experimenting with international story and the arts. She worked at Reuters Television News for many years as an archivist and this has informed her poetry and some of her art. She's an award winning printmaker and a composer. Her graphic memoir 'Love on the Isle of Dogs' is available from Central Books.