Eyal Chipkiewicz

Eyal Chipkiewicz

Venezuelan-born designer, artist and cultural promoter, Eyal Chipkiewicz, talks with Puentes Review about A Voz Limpia and Casa Cultura, two projects that elevate and promote Latinx voices in Melbourne and beyond.

When did you start A Voz Limpia?

Before A Voz Limpia there was Casa Cultura. About seven years ago, in 2014, I started an organisation called Casa Cultura, which was a lot more Latin American defined than nowadays. Today, the premise behind Casa Cultura is the power of the arts as a tool for social change, without so many geocultural attachments. 

But initially there was a very strong Latin American representation and motivation behind it. One of the things that was really obvious when we started looking for arts and creative practises among Latin Americans was that there were about 15 musicians for one representative of every other artform.

So, we deliberately ran a series of events where we wanted not to feature music, because there was so much of it. We wanted to feature other things, and one of those things was literature. We ran a poetry and short story reading; this was maybe in 2016 or at the end of 2015 for the Johnston Street Festival, which now goes by the name of Hispanic Latin American Festival. During that festival weekend, we had this reading upstairs in a bar in Fitzroy and Luis Escudero, who is a writer who has been featured in a number of A Voz Limpia publications, and Pilar Aguilera, who co-ordinated A Voz Limpia ever since, were involved in that first reading.

At the end of the event, we had a drink and looked at each other and went ‘I don’t know what happened there, but I think we should not forget about it.’ As a consequence of that first reading, we started talking and figuring out what we wanted to do. I think it was February the following year that we organised the first of A Voz Limpia in a little café in Brunswick called Neruda’s. In that first reading there were a lot more people than we expected, maybe 40 or 50. We walked out of that reading feeling that something was vibrating, that we had struck a harmony of some sort. Since then every month we’ve had a reading.

A Voz Limpia changed its format to online during the lockdowns…

Look, I firmly and committedly believe in the power of writing down your thoughts, which I think is the building block of A Voz Limpia. During 2019 and 2020, something just popped into my head and it was a ‘Don’t stop doing it. Just stay, stay with yourself and your exercise and keep coming to share it with the group because we are here and we are listening and we are interested’. It would’ve been, I suppose, such a hypocrisy to pursue this type of self-expression and this platform for togetherness that A Voz Limpia has been since it started and not commit to it throughout the pandemic.

And you’ve been publishing an A Voz Limpia anthology every year since 2016. Tell us about the anthologies.

Throughout its history, A Voz Limpia has been the most natural, almost kind of self-directed project where there’ve never been intersections where projects live or die. It’s always been sort of a one clear path, and publishing the book was no different. 

Pilar, who asked for a leave of absence halfway through last year, coordinated the publication with me from 2016 until mid-2020. Pilar works in the publishing industry and I have experience as a graphic designer; I don’t do as much of it now, but I have been a graphic designer for a very long time and worked on heaps of books. So, halfway through 2016, when we saw that there was momentum, at some point over a beer we said to one another, ‘Shall we publish a book?’ It was so obvious, and we said yes, and within two months we had gathered the material and were putting a book together and printing it. It was easy because Pilar had that pipeline ready and assembling it together was easy because we both had the necessary skill sets. The cover has always been by someone who is involved in the readings. That time around was Vanessa Valbuena, who is no longer in Australia.

A Voz Limpia
Click here to buy the book

Every one of these six covers is by someone who reads regularly, but also does illustration or photography or visual arts

Are these anthologies the first books published in Spanish and by Latinx in Australia?

I don’t think so. There are a couple of writers who are maybe in their eighties now who self-published their books before A Voz Limpia. But, as an anthology, absolutely. I don’t think anyone in Melbourne has published anthologies mostly in Spanish before. This is probably the first serialised or committed anthology of poetry—in this sort of very loose, practically non-existent criteria that we have for who’s invited to read and who’s invited to be in the book.

But Latin America isn’t quite a crucial definition here. We do say in the description ‘en Español mostly and in Australia mostly’. The premise that there was nowhere to read poetry in Spanish was quite important for us. People came out and they were so happy because they wrote in Spanish and could share poetry in their language. It’s not easy to switch languages when you are a writer. It takes a lot of immersion in a new language and a lot of deliberate reprogramming of your own thinking to suddenly start writing in another language. I think it’s pretty hard to switch languages; it’s doable, of course, lots of people jump across from one language to another, but it’s not easy. In A Voz Limpia we are not particularly focused on high-profile or super intricate writing. The spectrum of who is included in the books goes from the person who scribbles a complaint on a napkin to the person that has spent the last 10 years rewriting the one perfect sentence. 

Before A Voz Limpia, people who write in Spanish had nowhere to go and share what they wrote. There was this immediate gratitude from people who just were feeling this void, because they would’ve been involved in some form of literary circle back in the Americas and they would’ve been sharing, listening, reading and writing. They were empty. They didn’t have this opportunity, but when it comes to language, we’ve never told anybody, ‘If you come here, you have to read in Spanish.’ In the books there are poems in Italian, in English, of course; and there’s a couple of poems in French and even Creole.

People are always welcome to come and read in a language that isn’t Spanish or English, but certainly there has been a sort of a gravitational pull of people who write in Spanish because they know other Spanish speakers will be there with a keen ear, interested in hearing what they’ve written.

And you’ve also published a few poetry books.

Yes, there are four so far. The first was published after the first anthology at the end of 2016. After the anthology, we spread the rumour that if anyone wanted to publish a book on their own, then we would be more than happy to help them. So that year, we published Cuántico by Luis Escudero (2017) and then La Gracia de las Nieves by Grace de las Nieves (2017). Then we published Abe Dunovits’s Cardboard Poetry is Everything to Me; and in 2021 we did Distancia Cero by Daniel Sacchero. 

These books are very personal exercises. We are helping these writers to have a book with their name and their writing. We don’t claim to be a publishing entity with industry pursuits. We really are the most human side of making books happen—and it is as independent as it can be. There’s no editorial policy: we will assist the writers if they want help; if they want to review what they write, we will give them genuine feedback. But, in general, if you’ve written it and you are happy with it, we’ll help you publish it.

It’s the same in the anthologies. Everybody who reads at the readings of the year is invited to submit two texts, two poems or one short story. We will fix grammar and spelling, and if there’s something we don’t understand, we might go back to the author and say, ‘Is this word what you wanted to write? Or is this the correct order?’ We won’t tell people if they have the right to be published or not. If you write and you are, I suppose, brave enough to do that in front of others, then you deserve to be in the book. 

Have you ever considered formalising the editorial process?

We did it for Foliaje, a bilingual anthology that was co-published with Revarena Ediciones in Mexico. This book had the closest thing to a formalised editorial process in which we invited people to submit their writings, we invited a selection panel to help to select a number of pieces, and we invited some translators to translate into English or Spanish, depending on the source text.

Foliaje was a lot of work and the essential determinant of how much A Voz Limpa wants to tighten its processes is really grounded on the naturalness of the invitation to be part of it, and the fact that we don’t want to make it an onerous process for those involved. This is a hobby project for those involved and, to clarify what I mean by a hobby project: there is no expectation that it’s going to support us financially. There is absolutely zero money exchange. We don’t bother to apply for grants. It’s not one of those projects that then go into the grind of development. We just keep it as simple as possible: there’s a monthly reading that is as much as possible in the same venue for the whole year so we don’t have to look for new locations; it happens on the third Thursday of every month between February and November. And that’s it, it is locked in. Then, once a year, we gather everybody’s writings and turn them into a book that doesn’t cost the group anything to publish. Pilar and I, as editors and designers, weren’t expecting to be paid. The only expense that we had at the end of each year was the printing of the actual books, which we subsidised by selling them.

Every writer that publishes gets a copy of the book and I think that’s beautiful because you have it there and you can show it to everyone, and you can ask everyone to buy one. But there’s no grants, no funding. It’s just self-funded. Everything comes from an act of love, in a way.

I work in cultural development most of the rest of my time and I spend a lot of time seeking funding so that artists can sustain their work. In this particular case the fundamental notion is that writing is almost  an uncontrollable act. It’s useful to us as individuals and having a small community to share it with is in itself valuable and important. I’m happy to stop there and not to muddle things up.

It’s the same with the editorial. If the opportunity came to partner with another publishing house and do a similar process as Foliaje, I would embark on it because there is an enrichment in having a partner and particularly having a partner in a Spanish speaking country. It’s obvious to us that there isn’t a huge market to commercialise this work in Australia, this would not be a great place to commercialise poetry written in Spanish. It’d be pretty hard to build an editorial empire out of poems in Spanish in an English speaking country. So there is an enrichment in reaching out across the Pacific to the Americas and going, ‘ Hey, we are here and let’s give you a little bit of what we do and get some of what you do in exchange.’

You’ve also opened doors for emerging translators. Tell us about it.

Translation is a valuable exercise. It’s a difficult one and you almost need a translator who is willing to see themselves as a writer but doesn’t need their work to be rewarded. There’s an administrative side to translating, which is somebody hiring you and paying you by the word, but there’s a much deeper, much more important side to translating that is really difficult.

It’s a creative exercise. We’re not fixing pipes, we’re writers when we’re translating. You do a great service to writers by building these bridges across languages. It’s a big undertaking but, at the same time, I also think it’s not always necessary. Yes, there are market considerations, and, if you want to sell a thousand books in Australia, you’ll need your work to be in English, potentially. But those are questions for every writer, ‘Should that be your next move? Should your next move be a marketing decision or could your next move be to go deeper into yourself?

Do you think that the way Latin Americans are perceived has changed over the past, say five, six years? Or do you think we’re still just sort of seen as a stereotype?

There are very solid, deep rooted stereotypes that have not moved one bit; I think that even if you move past them there’s still a very predictable perception of the Latino here. 

But, I also believe, things have started to shift: there have been really great examples of cultural development, people really pursuing a sense of identity and that has helped the wider community of Melbourne, which is where most of my experience is, see beyond the stereotypes and get curious. This is probably key: as soon as you trigger this curiosity then it’s very easy to forget your prejudice because you’re starting to discover things that impress you. I do think that has been happening.

And what does it mean to you to be Latinx in Australia?

I come from a family in which every generation has moved as far as they could from the previous generation. So, in a way, the experience of being Latin American wasn’t always as evident until I was here and I started to see that I was perceived in a particular way and had to negotiate with myself whether what people thought I would be like because they knew I was born in Venezuela matched. Therefore that triggered a whole framework of preconceived ideas and curiosity and whatever else I had to negotiate with myself.

I started to look around and compare myself to other Venezuelans and go, ‘Well, we are radically different people.’ There’s a couple of things that I feel were useful, to look at my values and see what would be useful to the world around in this new sort of identity breeding ground. The point was to find an inspiration on some cultural values of Latin America that would be transposable to Australia: spontaneity, reacting and doing the first thing that comes to you, as opposed to suppressing anything spontaneous because planning is king was one of those values. I’m not advocating for doing everything on a whim, but it is about understanding the importance of spontaneity when it comes to real self-awareness: your reaction to the world is a really good mirror of who you are and what you really want. 

There’s an aspect of community connectedness that I also thought was very important. Where I grew up everybody kind of knew everybody in the neighbourhood. That was, you know, the seed of all sorts of gossip, but it was also about looking after each other: you know who’s in need of help and try to help.

I found that that’s something quite lacking in Australian suburbia. Nobody knows anybody, you park your car, you close your door and you hardly ever speak to your neighbours. Those were two notions of Latin Americanness, if there is such a thing, that I’ll commit to. I identify with those values because I know I have them inside me and they might be a good thing to bring to Australia.

What’s the future for Casa Cultura?

Casa Cultura wasn’t big enough to sustain its activities through COVID and Kary, who started it with me, was stuck in Colombia for most of the pandemic. We’re now in the slow process of resuscitating a dormant organisation. I think the premise is good and the intention is great. So, hopefully, we can reawaken it and start putting projects up.

What books are you reading now?

I read very slowly because I fall asleep! I don’t know what’s happened to me, until 10 years ago I devoured books but I’ve been really struggling to read. I’m still kind of committed, I keep going to op shops and buying books and my day will come and at some point I will say ‘Everybody just wait, I’m gonna read for a while’. And then I’ll go through hundreds of books. I’m not reading much, I read Asiel Adan Sanchez’s m//otherland. I’ve read the A Voz Limpia anthology over and over because that’s what putting it out means. I read Daniel Sacchero’s book over and over because that’s what putting it out means. 

Do you have any advice for emerging writers or practitioners? What, what would you tell someone who is just starting their practice?

One thing I would say is never stop listening to your inner voices, the ones that don’t understand the accountants and the ones that are really throbbing inside you. They have something important to say and perhaps you need to balance that out with a part-time job or something different. Just remember there will be other voices always trying to speak louder than your inner voice, but never stop listening to it. 

Look for opportunities like A Voz Limpia, they might be small, but think about what you want out of them; it might change a little bit once you find them but realise that the objective in mind isn’t necessarily what the initiative might give you, but it is still very powerful because a niche can also give you motivation to create.

There are many little things happening all over the underground of Melbourne and there are many things happening across the oceans. And that’s the third thing I would say: don’t forget that wherever you were born or wherever you were before you moved to Australia, you were also a creative there and that you being here doesn’t mean you have to sever all your ties and forget that you were there. You can still send books anywhere in the world and you can have a presence there although it’s gonna be different. You are not going to have the same networking opportunities that you had when you were there, but you might still have a little seat, an audience that you would’ve had before you came here, and you don’t necessarily have to let it die.

To learn more about A Voz Limpia or join their next reading, click here.