First published in slightly different form in Guernica Magazine, April 15, 2014 (http://www.guernicamag.com/interviews/the-third-maria/). Reprinted with permission of the authors.
In the fall of 2012, Maria Teresa Horta was to receive one of Portugal’s top literary prizes, the Premio D. Dinis award from the Casa de Mateus Foundation, for her most recent novel, As Luzes de Leonor [The Lights of Leonor] (2011). The novel is based on the life of one of Horta’s ancestors, a late 18th-century Portuguese noblewoman, writer, and activist. Horta, however, refused to accept the award from the hands of Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho, whose politics she abhorred. Newspapers throughout the country reported on her protest, but hardly anyone could have been surprised.
In 1971, during the fascist dictatorship in Portugal, Horta, along with fellow writers Maria Isabel Barreno and Maria Velho da Costa, wrote a collaborative work entitled Novas Cartas Portuguesas [New Portuguese Letters] intended as a direct challenge to censors, who had recently banned one of Horta’s books of poetry. It is a post-modern collage of fiction, personal letters, poetry, and erotica. The book was also quickly banned when it appeared in 1972, but not before most copies had sold out. The authors smuggled a copy to French feminists in Paris, who quickly arranged for the book’s translation. Horta, along with her two coauthors, was interrogated and allegedly tortured by the PIDE [Polícia Internacional e de Defesa do Estado], the regime’s notorious secret police, who wanted to know which of the book’s coauthors were responsible for the most explicit passages. The women refused to tell, and stood trial for obscenity and “abusing the freedom of the press.” The trial of the Three Marias, as they became known, made worldwide headlines and inspired protests outside Portuguese embassies in Europe, the United States, and Brazil.
The trial dragged on until spring 1974, and the sympathetic trial judge withheld his decision as it became clear that the regime was about to fall. After the nearly bloodless April 25, 1974, coup known as the Carnation Revolution (because red carnations were put in the ends of soldiers’ gun barrels), the judge freed the women and dismissed their case.
Horta went on to help lead the nascent Portuguese feminist movement, including a short-lived organization called the MLM (the Movimento de Libertação das Mulheres, or Women’s Liberation Movement). She was at the forefront of a doomed feminist protest in Lisbon’s largest park in January 1975, during which a dozen or so women intent on burning symbols of oppression were met by a violent mob of an estimated 2,000 men, many screaming insults. One newspaper termed a display “chauvinistic hysteria.” While women’s groups went on to achieve significant improvements in rights in Portugal, most stopped calling themselves “feminist” after this event.
Horta has published 21 works of poetry, from Espelho Inicial (1960) to A Dama e o Unicórnio (2013), none of which have been translated into English. She has also released six poetry anthologies and written seven works of fiction and biography. She was one of the few women working in journalism in Lisbon during the 1960s, and wrote for Diário de Lisboa, República, O Século, A Capital, and Jornal de Letras e Artes. Horta now also makes a practice of posting a poem on Facebook every night for her many fans.
The three of us met in Horta’s Lisbon apartment on a hot July morning last summer. From her velvet couch, she gripped our tape recorder like a microphone at a rally, and spoke to us in emphatic Portuguese. Her favorite word appeared to be liberdade, or liberty. At 76, she remains fiery, opinionated, and unapologetic.
-Oona Patrick and Dean Ellis for Guernica
(Translated by Dean Ellis with Jose Fernandes.)
Guernica: What is the best word to describe you?
Maria Teresa Horta: Insubordination.
Guernica: Why this word?
Maria Teresa Horta: Because, on the one hand, I was born insubordinate and, on the other, because I’ve always been a symbol of change in Portugal, particularly when it comes to women’s issues. Until April 25, 1974, women didn’t even have a voice in Portugal. None. Women had absolutely no rights, not even the right to have a say about how to raise their own children. I always rebelled against that, both in my poetry and in my daily life. And it’s been tough. It takes a long time to change people’s attitudes. The laws changed after April 25th, but the attitude of the Portuguese remained the same. Much of it was the influence of the Catholic Church. The principles of the Catholic Church are such that woman are secondary. Obviously, when women discovered they had a voice, no one was able to shut them up, and this is what has saved us in this country. Anyway, it’s still very difficult. My poetry is still quite insubordinate, in the sense that I write about the body.
Guernica: Why the body?
Maria Teresa Horta: Because women haven’t done this in Portugal. It’s also something very unusual in poetry. And that led to my books being banned in Portugal during fascism. Even now it is a rare thing, it is something quite singular. I am a person who won’t shut up, I am a person who rebels against things that should be rebelled against.
A short while ago, when I won a literary prize that Pedro Passos Coelho, the prime minister, was going to present to me, I would not receive it from his hands. I refused to do so. That was a scandal. All of this makes me a character, a personality, very very controversial.
Guernica: When you finished your recent novel As Luzes de Leonor after 14 years, how did you feel?
Maria Teresa Horta: A dream fulfilled. The Marquesa de Alorna was the great-great grandmother of my maternal grandfather. She was my ancestor, not a distant relation from several generations ago, but a direct ancestor. She was a very important woman in her century. She brought romanticism to Portugal, she spoke of Goethe. She was a political woman. There were no political women during that time. She was a woman who caused Napoleon to give orders to the king to exile her from Portugal. This is a very rare thing. I’ve known of the Marquesa de Alorna all my life, she’s a family legend. Therefore, for me, the most important thing was to know who she was and bring her into the present day, given that she was also a very insubordinate woman for her time and this influenced me a great deal.
After finishing, I felt a void. What saved me was poetry, because I always wrote poetry. I think that poetry saves whoever writes it and saves whoever who reads it. And there’s also the whole feminist aspect, which is to go find a woman who was a feminist in her time, who didn’t know that that word would exist someday in the future and be applied to her in that sense. I think that one of the tasks of feminist women—mainly women of culture—in our time is to seek out those women who were only forgotten because they were women. If they had been men, if the Marquesa de Alorna had been a man, she would never have become practically unknown by our time. But feminists have sought out these women and they have discovered some extremely important figures, haven’t they? When I looked back at Marquesa de Alorna, I identified with so much of who she was, and because I’d immersed myself in that search for 14 years, it was hard to let go of.
Guernica: Why do you publish a poem on Facebook every night?
Maria Teresa Horta: We have a habit of saying that Portugal is a country of poets. I also have a habit of saying that it is a country of poets and of people who don’t like poets, and, above all, who don’t like poetry. They even find poets funny because they say that they are characters, exotic figures. Portuguese people do like characters, but they don’t like poetry. When I put a poem up, the following day it is full of comments: “How marvelous! How wonderful!” Sometimes I am dead tired when I go to Facebook to put one up, but I put it up because I think that there are women-and women are mainly my readers-who don’t go to bed unless I put up a poem, and there are others who get up and the first thing they do is read the poem. I think the obligation of a poet is not to be in an ivory tower; it is not to be isolated but to be among people.
As a journalist, I never isolated myself. I was a journalist at a daily newspaper and every day I went out on the street. Every day I had contact with people. I interviewed the most important writers of the 20th century, and into the 21st century, from Simone de Beauvoir, Marguerite Duras, and Marguerite Yourcenar to Christa Wolf. I am not just a woman “playing the part,” as we say in Portugal, the role of the intellectual, so self-important, who only talks to her peers, the writers. I’m a person who stops in the street so that people can talk to me.
I’m a feminist, an active feminist. I went into the streets, took part in feminist demonstrations in Portugal, occupied a house on April 25th with other women so that we would have a headquarters for the only feminist movement that existed in Portugal, which was the MLM. Before April 25th I would go to demonstrations and distribute pamphlets, and I was caught by the police and was arrested. I am not a woman who sits at home, I am not the little female writer who sits at home. No, I’m in the middle of the street with the women, with men and women. My greatest asset is freedom.
I am a woman of freedom. Therefore, to put poetry up on Facebook at this moment in time is, shall we say, a political act. Because at the same time that I bring pleasure to men and women who seek out my poems every day, I have an obligation to them, and that obligation is to bring them my life’s work, which is vast.
Guernica: Would you say much of your career has been about public or political intervention?
Maria Teresa Horta: I think that all my books are political, I think that I have a political body of work. I am essentially a political woman, but above all I am a poet. I am a poetess. The word exists in Portugal, and I use it all the time. An interventionist poet, a poet who fights for freedom. Because you can only be a poet in freedom. I’m not saying you can’t be a poet without freedom, because there were always poets in Portugal; it is a country that has a lot of poetry. It had many poets during fascism, only our books were immediately seized, immediately censored, taken out of circulation, and the poets that I know, the Portuguese poets, were all fighters for freedom. In Spain, Lorca was killed in the civil war, executed because he was a man of the left and was fighting for freedom. Therefore I think that one cannot be a poet if one does not fight for freedom, if one is not truly a man or a woman of freedom.
Beyond that, the use one makes of poetry depends upon one’s own sensibility and soul. Mine is a very bright, luminescent, clear poetry, a combative poetry, a harmonious poetry. It is not a very hermetic poetry, a closed poetry that people don’t understand, that only a poet would understand, or a [regular] reader of my poetry. That I am not. I am not, I don’t want to be, I never was, I never will be. I’m having difficulty answering your question because if I say to most people that my work is political, it gives them the idea that I write about politics. No. The revolt is there within [the poem]. To be awakened. It is inside the poem.