This interview first appeared in the April 26, 1974 issue of Commonweal
Not too long ago the poet-priest Ernesto Cardenal made a rare excursion from his island retreat on the Great Lake of Nicaragua to appear at New York's Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine on behalf of the earthquake victims of Managua.
A frail man in his 50's with long grey hair combed back over his head, a grey beard and black-rimmed glasses framing his passionately compassionate eyes, Cardenal read his work in an oracular voice matched by nothing else but those riddling, dark eyes. A woman told me she thought he looked like a modern-day Christ and that is certainly how many Nicaraguans regard Cardenal –especially those who live on the Isla de Solentiname in the community he founded there to serve the poor. Later, when I met him in a walk-up fiat in the middle West Side near the river, he greeted me in baggy black trousers, a loose-fitting, wrinkled white shirt cut like a peasant blouse and a black beret slouched to the right side of his head, and I said to myself, yes, a kind of Castro-Christ.
Cardenal didn't see many people while he was in New York, living here in almost the same isolation he commands in his native country. But he did speak with a publisher about his work, and another book of his prose, In Cuba, will appear within the year and most likely, another volume of his poems as well. In the meantime, a handsome volume of his poems entitled Homage to the American Indians was issued by Johns Hopkins this past December and that, along with various of his poems in anthologies and his two books published by Herder and Herder, To Live is To Love and Psalms, will serve to introduce this former student of philosophy at Columbia University, this one-time novice under Thomas Merton at Gethsemane, this political activist who has spent time in jail for his efforts.
And when that introduction has at last been accomplished, we will finally have come out of our isolation to recognize this remarkable writer who is one of the best known poets of his generation, both in his native South America and in Europe.
Q. Exactly why are you in New York now?
A. They invited me for a gathering being held in the Cathedral: some showings of art to benefit the injured in Managua; and since some monks and contemplatives of different religions were taking part, it seemed to me that it was a sufficiently important event to come here, in spite of the fact that 1 seldom leave my island. I don't like to leave my retreat there.
Q. What did you contribute to the gathering?
A. I read fragments of the last poem I've written about Managua—about the city in general, but the poem ends with the earthquake. It's about thirty pages long and students are preparing an edition that they're going to distribute among the people, and in Argentina some people are issuing it in book form.
Q. Your best known poem here is probably "Prayer for Marilyn Monroe." How did you come to write it?
A. I was in the seminary, studying to be a priest in Colombia when one of the teachers gave us the news of Marilyn Monroe's death. I also read a story in Time magazine about her and that inspired the poem. At the same time, it was the date in the liturgy when we have the gospel about the expulsion of the money-lenders from the temple and that too gave me inspiration to write the poem.
Q. Do you think most readers in the United States are missing the full scope of your work by knowing just that one poem?
A. Well, yes. My poetry is less known here than in other countries, and it is better known in Germany, for example, and in Europe in general. But now Johns Hopkins Press is bringing out a book of mine called Homage to the American Indians, which is a collection of poems on the theme of the indigenous cultures of America—North America, South America and Central America. It's about the wisdom, the mysticism and the spirituality of the indigenous tribes. That is one of the themes I've cultivated in my poetry: the theme of the indigenous.
Q. How did you come to write poetry in the first place?
A. Well, I began to write poetry when I was about four years old. In other words, I've always been writing poetry.
Q. Who are the poets you most read and admire?
A. The principal influence on me, and one could say this of almost all the Nicaraguan literature of today, is the North American influence, from Whitman to the contemporary writers, the very newest. Ezra Pound has had a special influence on me. The technique of Pound has been the greatest lesson for me. The Cantos, yes, The Cantos, not the earlier poems. Almost all South American poetry has been influenced by Europe and especially by France, but Nicaragua has been influenced by North American poetry and now the influence of Nicaragua has extended to other countries, most notably to Cuba. Current revolutionary poetry from Cuba has been greatly influenced by Nicaraguan and North American poetry.
Q. But unlike The Cantos, your poems are easy to read. They're straightforward and simple in their diction.
A. I have tried not to be difficult as Pound is, I have tried to use technique but in a way that can be understood by the people. Pound was not interested in being understood by them, so yes, there is that difference between his poetry and mine.
Q. But you haven't tried to write in a specifically revolutionary diction, have you?
A. Well, Pound wrote much economic, social and political poetry—principally economic—and I also have written quite a bit of economic poetry and some of those indigenous poems also have these themes. I have a poem about the Inca culture which is principally an economic poem about the socialism of the Incas. The poem is called "The Economy of Tahuantinsuyo." Tahuantinsuyo is the Quecha name of the Inca Emperor. I also have other poems about the Mayas and they too touch greatly on the economic, political and social themes.