Camilo Roldán is a bilingual Colombian American poet and translator born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and currently living in Bogotá, Colombia. He is the author of the poetry collections Dropout (2019) and El último soneto y nos vamos (2021). His translations include María Paz Guerrero’s book God is a Bitch Too (Dios también es una perra) (2020). Roldán is Zócalo’s curator for the month of June, part of the 2022 Poetry Curator Series. We had a chance to chat with him about time traveling, dancing salsa, and what he would say if he met Colombian artist Beatriz González.
How has the pandemic affected how you think about or write poetry?
I did not get a lot of writing done during the first year and a half of the pandemic. I just couldn't focus. I like to engage with other subjects and texts, and so, without being able to leave my home and go to art exhibitions, poetry readings, movies, my work wasn't getting—what’s the word—fed. There wasn't anything feeding my practice. It was very difficult for me to continue writing. I think a lot of people had a very similar experience.
How do you decide if you’re going to write a poem in Spanish or English?
I don't necessarily decide, but maybe there's two things at play. It’s about context: where am I and what am I doing with language all the time; am I speaking English or am I speaking Spanish. And then the other thing is the total body of work. Am I working through a thing that's happening in Spanish or am I working through a thing that's happening in English? And so, I need to follow through on that and finish what it is in the language that's appropriate for the project.
What poem or which poet do you find yourself returning to?
One poet that I’ve come back to recently is the Colombian poet named Jaime Jaramillo Escobar. I think his best book is Los Poemas de la Ofensa which was published in the 1960s. They are these kinds of prosaic poems that have what we might think of in the States as magical realist elements—they are sort of fantastical and ironic. Jaime is just such a strange and beguiling character in Colombian poetry and his work has been so important for so many younger poets. Every time I go back and read poems from this book, they make me laugh and smile. I translated his work a long time ago, which was an interesting experience for me. It was one of the first translations I did.
What is the most fun part about translating?
I don't know if it's exactly like fun. I also do it for work. I always think of fun as being something that's just sort of like easy and gleeful, and I don't know if translating is ever that. But I think it's a process where I learn a lot and I guess that's the thing I really like about doing it. As a professional translator I learned a lot about different subjects about politics, history, science, ecology. I’ve learned a lot about Colombian art history. I think that one of the best things about being a translator for me is just this ability to take on so many different subjects and learn a little bit about everything.
If you could time travel to any year from the past or future, where would you go?
I would go to ancient Rome, and I would want to meet the poet Catullus. A lot of his poetry is really acidic, which is not uncommon for ancient Roman poetry in general. I once had a dream where I met him and he started speaking to me in Latin and I was like “Oh, I really liked your poetry.” He responded in Latin and I said, “Yeah, I don't understand Latin. I didn't read it in Latin.” And I understood from his gestures and his response was like, “What do you mean you don't read Latin? How do people not read Latin anymore? You don't understand my work if you haven't read it in Latin.” And so, I think if I could time travel, I’d go back and learn Latin and meet Catullus.
What’s similar or different about living in Colombia versus living in the United States?
People are great everywhere, but I think there are differences in how people interact. I think Colombian culture is more bodily oriented. People dance more, people share food in different ways, people share personal space in different ways. They have intimate relationships and friendships in different ways. I think all of that is really hard to pin down and say exactly what is different.
What music do you like to dance to?
I'm not a very good dancer, but I do like to dance, especially after I've had a couple of drinks. People in Colombia dance a lot. It’s an integral part of Colombia’s cultural history. There’s cumbia, there's merengue, there's salsa. I think it's just a lot of fun to be able to go to small salsa clubs in downtown Bogota and dance, with a few different partners and sort of get a feel for the way that people express themselves with their body. It's dance, it's an art form, but it's also erotic and sexual and intimate; it has those nuances.
How do you pass time when you’re stuck in traffic?
I live in an area where everything is very close to me, so I walk a lot. When I was younger, I used to listen to music on my headphones when I walked around but I don't really like to do that anymore. When I walk places, I like to hear the sounds around me. I like to hear people talking, the cars passing by, the birds, the wind, the music coming out of somebody's apartment. The experience of the environment is just so much richer and so much more gratifying when you have all of these sounds—this music, these details of the world that come in and out and connect you to the lives of others in the living world that surrounds us.
You’re walking down the street and bump into someone you admire. Who is it?
Last year I did a couple translations of the work of a Colombian artist named Beatriz González. She's an incredibly important and successful Colombian painter. She's one of the most well-known Colombian painters in the world. Her attitude about her work and how she talks about her work and how she talks to students and her relationship to the history of art in Colombia is just fluid and smart, but unpretentious and critical. If I ran into her on the street, I’d feel like, “Oh God, what do I even say to this person?” I probably wouldn't say anything. I just see her, recognize her, and think, “Oh wow, there’s that artist,” and move along with my life.