n 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 eighteenth-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, following the fascist regime of Antonio Salazar 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 co-authors, was briefly imprisoned 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 co-authors 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 the spring of 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 the 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 twenty-one 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. At seventy-six, she remains fiery, opinionated, and unapologetic.
—Pamela Cohn for Guernica
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 women 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 the Salazar regime. 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.
I think that poetry saves whoever writes it and saves whoever reads it.
Guernica: When you finished your recent novel As Luzes de Leonor after fourteen years, how did you feel?
Maria Teresa Horta: It was 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.
Now that I’ve finished, I feel a void. What saved me was poetry, because I always wrote poetry. I think that poetry saves whoever writes it and saves whoever 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. 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 fourteen years, it was hard to let go of.
Guernica: Why do you publish a poem on Facebook every night?
Maria Teresa Horta: I 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 twentieth century, and into the twenty-first 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.
One cannot be a poet if one does not fight for freedom, if one is not truly a man or a woman of freedom.
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.
Guernica: Do you think that poetry is something done more for yourself or for others, more of a political act or a personal one?
Maria Teresa Horta: I think it’s the two things. I think that if poetry is not a personal act, it’s a pamphlet. And I don’t make pamphlets, or poems that they ask me to. For instance: “Write a poem because it is the 25th of April.” No. It either comes out or it doesn’t. I am not a pamphleteer poet, I never was. Beyond this there has to be an interior work that I don’t even notice, for things to be said, unlike the way they would in a newspaper article.
We can say things in many ways. Even my erotic poetry is not poetry that uses vernacular words. It is a very erotic poetry, but I never use anything, for example, that is not in the dictionary. I don’t like to be ugly, I seek out what is beautiful, and if my great search is for freedom and beauty, I can’t be vulgar, ordinary.
Guernica: What do you think of the erotic poems of Carlos Drummond de Andrade of Brazil?
Maria Teresa Horta: There are some that I like, but there are others that shock me quite a bit.
Guernica: Do you think this poetry is more about its shock value?
Maria Teresa Horta: I think that this poetry is a very masculine poetry, but I think mine is very feminine, and I think that in my poetry, I am able to describe the sexual act in a way that is not really so traditional or orthodox. When you finish [reading it] you haven’t come upon one curse word. I don’t offend anyone, I don’t use anyone, I don’t exploit anyone. Men use women sexually. They use them, mistreat them, even from the point of view of vocabulary, the use of words. It baffles me. The stories of beatings, of men that were beaten and raped and then beat and rape others. I always saw the mistreatment of women, even with words, even in literature, even in poetry, and I don’t like to see treatment like that. I also don’t treat men like that. My erotic poetry is heterosexual. I therefore create poetry for men. For men I’m in love with, whom I go to bed with. These men don’t deserve that I treat them poorly, that I use unpleasant words. Drummond sometimes does this; I feel hurt, I feel assaulted. As a woman I don’t like that. I don’t think that to be erotic you have to do that.
Guernica: Why do you think you’ve only won two literary prizes in over fifty-three years of writing?
Maria Teresa Horta: Because I’m a feminist. Because I write as a woman, because I say this, because I fight for that, because they shut me up for years, and I write, I wrote, and published. They said, “She is a feminist! She is crazy, she’s nuts, a feminist.” For years it was like that. Now it is a little bit different.
I’ve been the target of that criticism since my book Minha Senhora de Mim [banned when published in 1967]. But I wanted to write what I felt, and from then on my literary life changed. I began to be silenced. But that is not important. Prizes aren’t essential. What is essential is poetry itself, it’s what is said, it is clarity, it’s loyalty, those are the essential values, the literary values.
Guernica: You’ve published work with many different editors rather than just one. Why?
Maria Teresa Horta: I publish with the small presses because for a long time poetry was a bit marginalized, therefore the people who were interested were editors who did not have a lot of capital behind them. They were small [press] editors who were interested in the literary quality and did not care if it was erotic or not, if it was feminist or not. I have a whole book of poetry about menstruation, for example, and it is an extremely rare thing not only in Portugal but in the whole world. A Brazilian professor went to England last year, she was at Oxford and elsewhere, and what caused the biggest sensation was when she talked about the Bleeding Rose [Rosa Sangrenta, 1987], which is a book about menstruation. In Portugal they think it’s mad.
Guernica: Why don’t you have an international agent?
Maria Teresa Horta: There was this Spanish agent who looked for me but he disappeared and I did not even get [a chance] to talk to him. And there are no agents in Portugal, and foreign literary agents don’t come here. No foreign literary agent is very interested in coming to Portugal. Perhaps [because] it’s a very small country, and poetry does not sell, and that is what we are best at.
Guernica: Why do you think so little of your work is available in English?
Maria Teresa Horta: It is translated more into French. I have books translated in French because French was the second language in Portugal for a long time. More than Spanish. Portuguese people have a great facility with languages, a great deal of ease. It makes us able to understand Spanish, Italian. English starts to appear. English only started to appear among us in my son’s generation. Yes, exactly after April 25 th it started to appear in high schools.
Guernica: It’s the fortieth anniversary of the trial of the Three Marias. How do you feel about Novas Cartas Portuguesas [The Three Marias: New Portuguese Letters] now?
Maria Teresa Horta: I feel a great connection to the Novas Cartas, I feel an extremely profound connection. The Novas Cartas to me was the most interesting thing of my life. We were three friends, and three writers of the same generation, and after Minha Senhora de Mim there was a huge, horrible void around me. The book was seized. The publisher was threatened with closure if they published my books again, and I could not use my name in the newspaper because they would not let me. It was a terrible period. The PIDE went to my house every morning, at dawn.
There is not one text [in the book] that is not signed by all three of us; therefore any person who would say that that text is very good [is referring to] the three of us. All authors have the desire to say, “That is mine,” but it did not cross any of our minds. And this we maintained all these years. The Novas Cartas are forty years old and in forty years none of us has ever said who wrote what. It is a book that grabs you because it is a book of political struggle. Nothing is extinguishable in my work, to me, [but] least of all the Novas Cartas. That is, it is a thrilling work. It is a very important work.
Guernica: What do you think of Pussy Riot in Russia?
Maria Teresa Horta: What do I think of their actions? The act can be extremely positive if it is an act to call attention [to the fact that] things in their country are really bad for women, otherwise it is purely a media event that only obfuscates women’s struggle. That is why I’d love for someone from that country to tell me more, to give me more information, because all we know is what was on television. I can’t condemn or condone because I don’t understand [it], I don’t understand if that was a way of telling us that there’s something very wrong happening in that country in relation to women there, or if the reality is that it was an act of pure media theatrics, [which would be] wrong, profoundly wrong.
We only wrote a book. We did not remove our bras, we did not come to the streets naked.
It’s just that, we three, what we did was to write a literary work. What projected us abroad, media-wise, was censorship. If that book was written and censorship had not forbidden it and not imposed a process on us and not put us in jail, no one would have known abroad. And we only wrote a book. We did not remove our bras, we did not come to the streets naked. We did none of that. We did what we three writers knew how to do: write a book. There was no freedom. I think [what the members of Pussy Riot did] was something very different. I think that they did something that was an exhibitionist act. If that act of exhibitionism has interest, if it calls attention to the struggle of women in the country and to the situation of women, then it’s useful. If not, it is just an act of exhibitionism. We did not want [our struggle] to go abroad. We only took it abroad for the simple reason that what was happening to us was very dangerous. We would never see the light of day unless it was through the bars of a prison cell. It had to be known, we had to create a certain movement to prevent that, because we were in a fascist country. They are not, and I think that it is completely different.
Guernica: What is the situation of women today in Portugal, broadly speaking?
Maria Teresa Horta: They are a majority in the universities, and this is something that very much deludes people. They continue not to be employed; they continue to be marginalized. And the reality is that the majority of women in Portugal don’t like this women’s fight because they don’t want to be angry with men. It comes down to this—they don’t want to be mad at men. If they’re alone with me or you, they say yes, yes, but later they say no, no, feminism, no, how awful, I’m very feminine, as if the feminists were not feminine.
The situation of women continues to be very bad in Portugal. Terrible. Every day there are beatings. Every year there are normally fifty, sixty, women killed by their husbands, their lovers. Every year. And we are talking about a tiny country, very tiny.
Guernica: And attitudes in this century haven’t improved?
This is the image of the Portuguese woman. It is this. To live without joy.
Maria Teresa Horta: It’s gotten better. It got better after April 25th. Women didn’t even know that they could have rights. They had no rights under the law. Absolutely none. Women could not receive a man’s salary, they could not leave the country without their father’s or husband’s permission. Women had no life as citizens, they had none. There is a popular saying that goes: “Mother, what is it to be married?” And the mothers say: “Daughter, it is to give birth and to cry.” This is the image of the Portuguese woman. It is this. To live without joy. I usually say all people have the right to be happy when they are born. All. It is a right of every citizen, male and female, and I, as a feminist, fight for that in relation to the woman.
People ask me why I am a feminist. Because I am a woman of freedom and equality and it is not possible to have freedom in the world when half of humanity has no rights. Because we are more than half of humanity. There are more women than men. This is not a fight of so-called “minorities.”
People ask me almost every day, “Why? You are successful, you have kids, you have grandchildren, so why?” Feminist women are seen as unsatisfied. But all women in the world, if they are well aware of [inequality], are unsatisfied women. They don’t have the same rights as men, and there is no freedom until there is equality between men and women.