Freestyle Rap

— Cecilia Pavón


“Freestyle Rap” was originally published in Spanish in the chapbook Un pequeño recuento sobre mis faltas (Ediciones Overol, 2015).

Today is a perfect, beautiful fall day. I’m watching the philodendron leaves
in my garden. Philodendrons have always made me feel like I live in a sort of
jungle, even though I’m really in an urban neighborhood populated by cars
and smog. I hear the sound of my washing machine; the last ray of afternoon
light falls on my unmade bed at an angle, giving the sheets a golden hue and
making me ask: Is this powdered gold? Is this powdered gold? Is light really
just powdered stars? Sometimes, when silence grows thick, I say: Now. Now
is the time to write a novel! But soon another sensation overtakes me, and I
feel like it’s too late. It’s 2047. I was born in 1973. I’m seventy-three years old.
I started teaching writing workshops in 2004, when I was thirty-one. That
is to say, I’ve now spent forty-three years doing this. It’s impossible for me to
tab up how many bodies have come through my living room (the majority
of them, women), the same eternal living room with ceramic terracotta-colored
floors that, ahead of each of those Friday workshops, I lovingly cleaned
with lavender—or ocean breeze–scented floor cleaner, so I could welcome my
guests in a home abounding with cleanliness. I felt it was important for the
house to be impeccable whenever guests came to sit in my living room and
read me poems and stories or chapters of the novels they were writing. It was
a key part of the ritual, because from my perspective, more so than being a
class, the workshop was a ceremony. If the house wasn’t in perfect order, the
exchange didn’t work. The poems they read didn’t sound good; their plots fell
short, boring all in attendance … Now that I think about it, all these superstitions
built on the belief that my actions could influence aspiring poets and
novelists must have been but an illusion arising from my own fear of writing a
novel—a hallucination. Instead of writing a novel myself, I cleaned my house,
so that others could write one instead. And with this curious bow, I bound
together my house with words. Or, when the workshops would wrap up, and
the sun would fall, I’d get on the bus with my students to go to readings in
basements where just the girls read, making countless different poses as they
did so. Girls with ribbons in their hair and acid-washed jeans who, just like
me, avoided confronting with their text or writing. I’ve never talked about
this in my workshop. In reality, I’ve never talked about it with anybody. But
it’s a topic that constantly occupies my mind: the difference between posing
and writing.
Now that the years have passed, I’m realizing that writing—what is called
“writing”—is something that I’ve never written. Instead, what I’ve done is a
perfect, beautiful pose (“strike a pose,” as Madonna would say). Writing never
came to me in the form of an essence or a spark. I’ve never felt the electricity
of the letters spilling from my veins onto the paper, lighting it ablaze. It’s sad
because it’s too late. I’ve never published a novel, save for this brief survey of
my shortcomings, which is nothing more than a humble attempt at an excuse
or an entryway to another dimension.
My whole life I believed that a book could be a springboard to another
dimension. That if I managed to create a world covered with blankets of words,
I could be somebody else and my mind would work like a robot or a small
bird. Or that upon seeing myself in the mirror, I would feel like a fleshy, velvety
flower. But instead of writing a novel, I started teaching a writing workshop.
(This was also a means of getting by, obviously.)
The workshops had two very distinct parts to them. In the first half,
the students had to discuss readings I had assigned them, such as Alejandra
Pizarnik, Thomas Pynchon, or Héctor Viel Temperley. In the second half, they
had to bring a poem written according to some set of instructions or a rule
I had made up. One time I told them, “When you get home, open the door
and close your eyes. Walk blindly, and when you run into something, write
a poem dedicated to the object you ran into. So if you run into the edge of a
cupboard and you start bleeding, let the blood stain the paper you write on.
Don’t go to the hospital; don’t wash off the cut. Write a poem.” Another time
I told them, “Grab a hundred-peso bill from your pocket and go to the first
bookstore you find and buy any old book. Then go home and take it out of
the bag, but don’t read it. Tonight, when you go to sleep, put it underneath
your pillow and caress it. The next day, contemplate it as you eat breakfast,
and then re-write it on yellow sheets of paper with a blue pen.” Sometimes,
I asked them to write a poem while riding a bike and memorize it. To never
write it on paper, but spend the whole week memorizing it until the day they’d
reach my living room and recite it out loud. Or to write their poem while
watching a movie at the theater. Or while buying something at the grocery
store. The key was to memorize it. To write it in their head. For their poem
to be a song that was never written down.
As I already said, teaching the writing workshop was a way to earn a living.
It gave me income teaching the works of the deceased, who could never
file a legal claim against me for using their creations. (I’m referring to the
poets we invoked at each session, because why deny it: a writing workshop
is also a séance.) Dead. Or alive, but in a far-away country where they would
never find out about it. Though I should note that over all these decades, I’ve
also assigned contemporary Argentine authors, my fellow travelers. And some
of them have even visited my workshop. Once, in 2013, Ezequiel Alemián, a
writer I’ve known since I was twenty-five, mistreated me in front of my students,
so I stopped speaking to him. I’m not sure why I’m telling you this, in
truth. It doesn’t make much sense. Whatever, so much time has passed, what
does it matter who I fought or made up with. With or without those arguments,
I still never wrote my novel.
And this brief draft is just to testify to the fact that I am seventy-three
years old and the decades have passed without me ever having sat down and
said: Now! Now is the time to write.
And where now are the poems written by the workshop students from, say,
winter 2014? Did they end up in some anthology, published online? Whatever
happened to Luisina Gentile? Who was finishing her degree in sociology but
hated the rational paradigm of the human sciences and wanted a change of
scene and to meet girls, because she liked women, and as she said, Buenos
Aires didn’t have the best lesbian scene (a gay scene, sure, but not so much for
women). She must be fifty-something now. Did she end up in France? Berlin?
New York? Like she dreamed of? She also said she wanted to get a scholarship
to some university. Or go somewhere without any money and try her
luck. To do freestyle rap—her favorite genre of music. (Did she end up having
kids? Has she written any books?). One cold Friday in mid-May, I gave
my students an assignment to write something quoting Catullus. The next
week, Luisina came in with this short poem:

(punk rock)
As I go, I make this up,
Just like you, Catullus,
You fosho did the same
You always suck it up, and it shows
But me, not so much,
Anyway, who cares
I tell ’emall to fuck off
And they can say it right back
But meeting women ain’t easy
For real
Not at all
Today, after visiting my shrink in Recoleta
I’ll hit up Cecilia’s workshop in Balvanera
Maybe later I’ll go out
For this, I must confess
That after you, Catullus (54 BCE)
Came Jesus
You won’t believe how many ethics
those motherfuckers swiped using that story
That’s also part of why
It’s so hard to meet chicks, Catullus…

When she finished reading it, the other students clapped. I smiled and said
I was touched she included my name in it. It’s true—there are millions of
Cecilias in literature … psh, hundreds. But the phrase “Cecilia’s workshop in
Balvanera” must only exist in that poem. It was like a lullaby or a powerful
drug, something intoxicating that filled me with vanity and pride.
I don’t care if it makes me a narcissist, but that simple phrase—in a poem,
lost on a sheet of paper printed in 2014, of which perhaps just five or six copies
were made—I think that right now, at this exact moment, that simple
phrase is Literature (with a capital “L”), the Literature that comes to my mind
as I gaze at my beautiful garden.
And although I never wrote a novel, my name was in a line of poetry
written by a beautiful girl who always said she wanted to rap freestyle. And
is there anything really more poetic than freestyle rap?

Translated from the Spanish by Jacob Steinberg