Sue Littleton is a 79-year-old investigative poet from Texas. She first came to Argentina in 1957 and has been living in Buenos Aires off and on ever since, and is currently based in Recoleta.
What originally brought you to Argentina and why did you decide to stay?
I married an Argentine, came here, and had five years of wonderful marriage – but the next eight years, forget it! When I finally got my divorce I always said, I divorced my husband but I never divorced Argentina.
Importantly, I have three Argentine children and eight Argentine grandchildren. My eldest daughter was born a year after I came here. She’s a psychologist who works with children. My son is a penal lawyer who practises defence law, and my youngest daughter lives in Uruguay and is a wonderful musician.
As a Texan who has lived in Argentina for so many years, where do your allegiances lie?
I have a friend who writes a blog and he calls me a Texargentine. In Texas I’m Argentine and in Argentina I am Texan. The result is I’m nowhere but that’s OK, I like being nowhere. I like being a Texargentine. When I go to Texas I enjoy being Argentine and speaking Spanish and when I’m here I do like pounding on the Texan drum.
Texans have a very special attitude that I don’t think anyone else in the United States has; it makes them alternate between being delightful, generous, wonderful and completely unbearable. In that sense, similar to Argentines.
Do you notice any other similarities?
There are many similarities shared between Texas and Argentina: gauchos and the cowboys for one.
I don’t know if you know the history of Texas or not, but it is the only state in the union that was a republic for three months. After the Alamo, Texans got very cross with the Mexicans and they declared war on them and they won, so they got to keep this enormous chunk of land. And there they were – the ham in the sandwich; Mexico to the left and the States to the right.
What keeps you in Buenos Aires?
Well compared to Austin in Texas, it’s a little bit more sophisticated. My part of the city is very literary; I am very lucky. It’s a wonderful pleasure to know people who are poets and to share my poetry with them.
I’ve had this apartment since 1972. This is a neighbourhood where everybody knows me and I give my poetry books to everyone. The people are so nice, the lady on the corner, the optometrist, the people next door. It’s my neighbourhood.
Much more has happened to me and I’ve lived much more in Argentina than I have in Texas. I have lived through history in Argentina that most expats haven’t lived; so my roots are deep here.
Do you ever worry about crime here?
You know, there is a lot of crime in Buenos Aires. My granddaughter - who’s ten years old – was so worried about me. I told her “Don’t worry Martina, you see this cane? I go on the street and I pretend I’m an old lady and I lean on it. But what I do, if someone attacks me, is I hit them on the head with it or I stick it in the wheels of the bicycle.” There is a certain amount of violence, just don’t go out to meet it – don’t incite people to rob you.
You’ve become very active in the world of haikus – where does that interest come from?
Long ago, when I was a child, we got these paper flowers from Japan. When you dropped them in water they would open. That’s what haikus are supposed to do to your imagination and your mind. They make such demands on you to say so much in so few words.
I’ve worked so much with haikus that gradually people just accepted me as the doyenne of the haiku. I gave a conference in 2010 called ‘The influence of the Japanese Haiku on poets of other languages’ and, believe me, they have influence. It was really one of the most fun things I have done in years.
Everybody fights to the death over the 5, 7, 5 syllable structure. Some people say 5,7,5, some people say we don’t need it. I’m a classicist and I say 5,7,5, no punctuation, no title, no capital letters, no rhyme and no metaphors. That’s what the Japanese said when they told us how to do it.
But 5,7,5 in English gives you a far greater space to express yourself than it does in Spanish – poor things, they have to work so hard because they have so many syllables.
You were recently commissioned to write about the Falklands/Malvinas for the 30th anniversary of the war. How did you do your research for that project?
I mean, I have my credentials to write about what happened in those years – perhaps not to write about the emotional aspect of the Malvinas, but, through talking to people I’ve found out so much.
I researched a lot online, but most of all I talked to people. What was really fun was talking to taxi drivers; taxi drivers know everything, it’s just amazing. I really went deep into the history of it all and I think I did a fairly good job of going into the whys and wherefores.
A nation’s memory is important, and you have to remember the bad things with the good. You don’t do any favours to your population by simply pretending it didn’t happen or not thinking about it.
Is there a particular poem that you think people will always associate with you?
I wrote a book about the trees in Argentina called ‘Imagenes’. I wrote it in Spanish in 1972 and it was selected as the book of the month for Latin America. You know, a poet will always write poems that stay with people. You’ll write 500 poems and there’ll be two that people remember, but that’s OK; look at Joyce Kilmer. “I think I’ll never see a poem that is as lovely as a tree,” and that’s it, that’s all you ever hear from Joyce Kilmer.
You have wonderful poets and complete idiots, that’s just the way the cookie crumbles; I haven’t decided yet which section I belong in.
As a poet about to begin her ninth decade, is death an issue that concerns you a great deal?
My attitude is that, when I go on to that great poetry reading in the sky, let my kids sort it out. Of course your children never think you’re going to die, they think you’ll live forever.
I have a great friend who admires my poetry and has a very similar past to me. One day she very delicately asked me if I would like to have a cemetery spot and, well, that was one of the things that had been worrying me. This friend of mine gave me this wonderful plot in the British cemetery which I love and I talk about it in my book of haikus. It says:
you visit my grave
stay a while remember joy
I did what we do in Ozona, the little town where I’m from in Texas. I guess 50 or 60 years ago this gentleman died and his widow decided she wanted to have his signature on his tombstone. And now, in that little cemetery, every other tombstone you see has a signature on it. It’s beautiful and I’d never heard of anyone doing it anywhere else. It’s something unique to Ozona and now it’s going to be in the British cemetery in Buenos Aires.
And I’ll be there, in some way, sharing your presence. And if you just remember talking to me, being with me, reading my poetry, that’s fine, the memory should please you. But I’m not there yet; I still have a lot of things to do.