Even in his old age, the poet Nicanor Parra, who died recently, at a hundred and three, had a following that any rock band would envy.
Photograph by GDA / El Mercurio / AP
I met Parra in the early 80’s while wandering around Barrio Bellavista known as Santiago’s bohemian quarter, with restaurants, avant-garde galleries, bars and clubs. Many of the city’s intellectuals and artists lived in Bellavista including Pablo Neruda.
We met entirely by happenstance near Neruda’s house La Chascona. I was of course, slightly lost asking directions … we talked a bit then decided to have lunch at a nearby place, Restaurante Zingarella. We shared a carafe or two of vino tinto. I vaguely knew of him from Billy the Poet, an old friend in the states but meeting Parra was really just dumb luck. rōbert
“He’s going to die any minute now,” a college classmate of mine said in 1994, when the Chilean poet Nicanor Parra had just turned eighty and we were eighteen. I asked if the poet was sick or something. “When people are eighty, it’s highly probable that they’ll die at any minute,” he replied. We were on campus in Santiago, doing nothing, pretty high. Someone said that there was an event at Cine Arte Alameda to celebrate Parra, and the usual four or five of us headed over—uninvited, of course, but we managed to sneak in. I remember almost nothing about the event. The place was packed. Any rock band would love to have half the fans that Parra did.
Almost a decade later, in 2003, I went to Nicanor’s house in Las Cruces for the first time. I was pretty much uninvited then, too, but Nicanor knew that his friends were bringing with them a professor and aspiring poet, still in his twenties, who was longing to meet him. When people are almost ninety years old, it’s highly probable that they’ll die at any moment, but Nicanor was still going strong.
Conversations with him were always an adventure. They began with an exchange of pennants, followed by a few loose, exploratory phrases that were really his most recent poems, his thoughts from the week. During lunch, he’d talk about the joys of wine, the unbeatable pork roll from Las Cruces, the interesting color of the tomatoes. The best part was the conversation after the meal, when the script would take off in unexpected directions and he didn’t seem to be trying to teach anything, although one always learned a great deal.
The press and the academy demonstrated a persistent, sometimes insistent, interest in digging around in his life, but the truth is that, except for the usual enumeration of children and romances, we know little about Nicanor Parra. His relationship with interviews was complicated. “Every question is an impertinence, an aggression,” he declared, with paradoxical warmth. Sometimes he refused interviews outright; at other times, he would open up with long preambles that led to nothing. But a skilled observer would always leave Nicanor’s house with enough material for a good article. Interviewing Parra, in fact, became a kind of elective but important rite of passage for cultural journalists in Chile.