Rituals and Treasures of the Pacific Coast

Begoña Ugalde, poet and founder of Ediciones Liquen


Interview with Begoña Ugalde, poet and founder of Ediciones Liquen.
A poet and narrator, Ugalde has made nature a constant theme in her writing. In the last few months, she published a book together with her publishing house about a performance by Cecilia Vicuña, launched a book of stories called Es lo que hay (It is what it is) and has joined the ecofeminist project La voz del agua (The voice of water) by the artist collective La voz del pueblo (The voice of the people).

Fundación Mar Adentro: In your poetry and writing in general, nature is very prominent. Was there a specific moment when you began writing about nature or has it always been an important theme for you?

Begona Ugalde: I’ve always been attracted to being in close proximity to nature, because although I grew up in a city, as a child I was often taken with my siblings to the beach, the mountains, the countryside. This made me appreciate being immersed in landscapes and spaces that move according to different types of logic. To see how the seasons would change, the fact that they were so dynamic, that they responded to cycles of death and regeneration made a mark on my life. I have childhood memories of wonder and excitement while looking at plants, rocks, stars, animals, etc. As I got older I understood that I was also a cyclical being and that no matter how alienated I was, I was also a part of nature. So I’ve become increasingly aware of how our treatment of our surroundings affects us and how urgent it is to take care of the so-called “environment”. This care can take place with words, taking note of natural beauty and warning of how our way of life is systematically ruining this beauty. In my writing I attempt to construct voices that know that they are part of the problem; that is, not from a distance that points to others as those responsible, but rather demonstrating this strong contradiction of loving nature while at the same time living at its expense, coming to terms not just with the creative impulses, but also with the destructive and auto destructive ones. I am interested in working with this ambivalence, raising this concern, more than in providing answers. And of course, celebrating the beauty of all that is non-human, which I increasingly find to be more moving and absolute than that which is human.

How has this pandemic affected your creative processes? Do you think they’ve changed in light of everything that has happened at the global level?

Yes, of course they have. On various levels, which would be a bit long to describe. But in summary, I think that, like all of us, it made us stop and ask ourselves in depth about the meaning of our work. Beyond the way that the pandemic has taken shape in each territory and how it has been managed politically, I think that it has been a humbling experience in the sense of putting things into a different order; it has reminded us that we are mortal, that being isolated is very difficult, that we need each other on many levels as a species and that what once sounded cool, isn’t so much anymore.

On a personal level, the pandemic has made me question the meaning of life and of raising my children in a city that, by not having “cultural spaces”, quickly lost all of its appeal to me. It also made me appreciate the act of pausing, of not always running around. As a survival mechanism, I began writing a confinement journal and I read a lot, seeing as we’re not able to go out at night. I think what is happening is very challenging for artists, as the overall picture becomes increasingly precarious. At the same time, the need to have access to books, movies and art in general becomes more evident. I now want to write as much as possible and, to do this, I have to accept that I have to focus on it and lead a cheaper life, even though it might mean giving up being in such a fun city as Barcelona, where it seems that “everything is happening”. That’s where this decision of moving to a coastal city arises.

In your collection of poems La fiesta vacía” (“The empty party”), Barcelona is very present with its fragile natural environment. Now that you live in Concón, do you feel that the coast of the Pacific Ocean inserts itself into your writing?

“La fiesta vacía” is a collection of poems that resulted from an exercise proposed by the photographer Gema Polanco, based on a series of black and white analog photographs, very beautiful ones, that she took while living in London. They are photos that show people having a good time, at parties, in empty urban spaces, and also some more intimate photos in closed spaces. Observing these photos, I began writing about what I felt as someone who was living in a new place, one so different to the one I grew up in, but where I could also recognize things from my own culture.

So these poems are about how decadent and at the same time attractive the capitalist system is, specifically the city, as a place full of fun and stimuli but that, in the end, leaves this sensation of emptiness, of a hangover. I was amazed when I arrived to Barcelona (pre-pandemic) and saw how people would go to the streets to celebrate all the time; I felt that the streets belonged to the people. I loved it, but I could also feel the contrast with the Latin American reality, where people are so used to working so much and where sharing public space is a transgression, because you are made to feel that everything is private. In that sense, it seems very symptomatic to me that until recently it was illegal to enjoy a weekend on the beach, which is an open, free and healthy space, in every sense; and at the same time it was legal to go shopping in a mall. Because the logic is that to enjoy something you have to pay, or that’s what they want us to believe.

Choosing to live near the Pacific coast is related to this. To subvert the consumerist lifestyle imposed by neoliberalism and to enjoy the ocean that is there for everyone. Living in Barcelona, I realized that being by the ocean is really good for me… bathing in its waters. This is a different sea, it’s the open ocean, with another type of strength, temperature, smell. In the short time that I’ve lived here I’ve realized that, for example, observing the large number of birds and dogs that roam around, without noticing humans, causes a fascination in me that is showing up in what I write (almost) every day in my journal. Feeling the ocean, seeing how it changes each day, its rhythm, its shape… it’s always daunting, an important dose of beauty. I’d love to be able to capture that ocean breath and take it into my writing. And above all, I aspire to lower my anxiety levels so that I can have a less frantic creative process, a more oxygenated one. It moves me how, despite having a refinery nearby, nature here is so exuberant. Watching the ocean is hypnotic to me and I feel as if I’m in a moment of devotion. Before, when I visited the coast, it was always very pleasant, like a fleeting romance. But now that it’s a daily presence I feel like I’m on another level of adoration. It makes me want to defend this territory, confirming its beauty, which is always threatened by extractivism and our way of life. Specifically, I would like to finish a book of stories where the ocean is always present. And, well, to continue learning through contemplation, not losing sight of this entity that is more ancient than everything else, the origin, its open horizon. I hope this strength also seeps into my writing.

You recently published Sudor de futuro (Future Sweat) with your publishing house, Liquen, a book based on the performance of Cecilia Vicuña. How did this collaboration take place and what was the result?

Making that book was a gift, an act of trust and an honor, because I’ve been following Cecilia’s work since I saw her perform many years ago. Sudor de futuro is precisely the transcription of one of them, performed in Viña del Mar in 2006, in a tribute to Violeta Parra. In addition, the text that was beautifully transcribed in the form of verses by Rodrigo Olavarría converses with the portraits that photographer Javier Pérez Castelblanco took of Violeta Parra in her tent in La Reina, shortly before her suicide. These are beautiful photos, close and full of expressiveness, where you can see faces and sides of Violeta that are not very well known. The book was printed in an anarchist printing house called Can Batlló, hand-sewn and presented in the last edition of Otro modo de ser, a poetry festival known for its ecofeminist spirit, which I believe is the spirit of the book. It’s an invitation to revalue the legacy of Violeta Parra, who was a visionary, transgressive, powerful artist, and very connected to the earth. Her songs come from there and Cecilia, who is also a creator who sings from nature, reasserts her work in Sudor de futuro and declares the need we have as a species to reconnect to a conscience of origin, which celebrates mistakes, and which from the canon is understood as mere noise.

You have participated in “La voz del agua” (The voice of water) for some time now, which is a project led by the feminist artist collective “La voz del pueblo”. What does this project consider and if you could describe your role within it.

I came upon this project thanks to Josefina Astorga, a photographer with whom I resonate. I had been following the collective’s work, which I think is very interesting, as they experiment with different media and formats. So, when they launched an open-call for their “Brujería sonora” (Sound witchcraft) workshop, I quickly sent my application following my interest in poetically exploring sound, working on the sonority of my verses, my voice when reciting them, to amplify their communicative power. I think that art and poetry can function as witchcraft because of their power to imagine and conjure another reality. Now we are currently in the editing phase for all of the material that was produced in the workshop –which is a lot–, to transform it into sound capsules.

We are going to create rituals that work to protect the waters that today are so polluted, looted and threatened. A conflict that is not talked about enough and that is crucial, because without water we are nothing. I think it has a lot to do with the global crises we are living, as well as the militarization of territories that have risen to protect themselves from extractivism, and the way of thinking that prefers water over life. I believe the result of this process will be powerful because there are people participating in the workshop from many different places, raising awareness of the particular problems of each place. Things that many times we don’t hear about unless it’s by word of mouth because of the media siege. These days I’ve been preparing my final ritual which consists of picking up garbage on the beach with my son Darío and recording that trajectory through the La Boca beach –a very long and beautiful beach. It’s something we’ve been doing and which has given us many treasures, both material and immaterial.

Besides “La voz del agua”, what projects are you currently working on?

I’m trying to finish various texts that I’ve been close to finishing for a while, but that I haven’t been able to finalize because of all the trips and the move. I’m also making –always as a hobby but with a lot of passion– my collages, which I’m taking to a box format to make survival kits to those who need them, now that so many people who are dear to me feel like they are living in a type of limbo, without much hope or enthusiasm. This is a sensation that I tend to visit often too, but which I’m able to emerge from precisely thanks to these moments where I can turn to creation.

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Begoña Ugalde Pascual (Santiago de Chile, 1984)

Studied Hispanic Literature at the Universidad de Chile and a Master in Literary Creation at UPF, thanks to a grant by the Chilean Ministry of Culture, Arts and Heritage (Mincap). She has published a series of poetry books, among them: El cielo de los animales (2010, Calle Passy), La virgen de las antenas (2011, Cuneta), Lunares (2016, Pez Espiral), Poemas sobre mi normalidad (2018, Ril ediciones), and La fiesta vacía (2020, Tege Libros). In addition, she is the author of numerous theatrical works, among which are Fuegos artificiales, Temporada baja, Yo nunca nunca, Lengua materna, Cadena de frío and Toma (published by the Mincap). Her work has been complemented by teaching and the organization of literary gatherings. Her last publication is the book of stories “Es lo que hay”, edited by Alfaguara.

Collage cover was made by María José Garcés @grietavisualcollage