You know how it goes. You go along to a poetry reading at The Tetley in Leeds, because it’s free, and to see what’s happening. You’re impressed by Leeds Beckett student Aukje Huijts’ wry control. Anat Ben-David, who was once in the band Chicks on Speed, performs like it. Nasser Hussain has written an entire book using only three-letter airport codes, and invites us to chuck paper planes at him while he reads from it.
And Professor Felipe Cussen, from the University of Santiago, Chile, builds an immense edifice of language, beginning by announcing that he doesn’t like it when poets explain their poems, and pursuing what feel like endless explanations interrogating that opening line, chanted variations that contradict and reverse and are really funny. Then he asks the audience to excuse him before he reads his last poem, and leaves the room for a moment.
When he returns he is wearing a full Leeds United 2018/19 home kit, down to the socks, because he wants to make sure the audience realise how lucky they are to be sharing a city with the great Marcelo Bielsa, once manager of Chile’s national team. Clearly they don’t, because as Cussen’s praise for Bielsa continues, their laughter grows, as it might if their only experience of football managers is half-watched clips of Neil Warnock before they turn over to Sky Arts or whatever. He can’t possibly mean all this about a football manager, can he? They’re more at home with the poem that Cussen, his eulogy to Bielsa done, eventually reads, dismantling the mundane language most footballers use in interviews to express, well, nothing. That done, he sits down, still in full kit.
I wanted to let Felipe know that at least one person in the room wasn’t laughing when he stood in a Leeds United kit and proclaimed to a room of poets that one of Chile’s most important political, literary and mystical figures is the current manager of Leeds United, so I went over for a word. “I was totally sincere,” he told me. The first thing he did after arriving in Leeds that day was head to Elland Road, hoping for a glimpse of the man himself, aiming to buy a t-shirt, somehow ending up with the full kit. He told me how, when Chile were knocked out of qualifying for the last World Cup, the atmosphere at his wife’s book launch the next night was miserable, until Felipe played a piece of music he and some friends had made, using recorded quotes from Bielsa’s press conferences. It cheered everybody up and got the party started.
“I love Marcelo Bielsa, I could talk about him for hours,” he said, but we only got a few minutes before Felipe was whisked away by poets, on urgent poet business.
“I have two ways of talking of Marcelo Bielsa,” he said. “First, as a leader of a national team, as a political figure, as a great manager of our national football team. I admire very much what he did, the way he could connect not only the players but all the community of Chile, and really heighten the spirit of our country. It was really, really important what he did. That’s the first part.
“The second part that I really admire, but I don’t think he’s conscious of, of course, is his language. For me, he’s a person that thinks very much in language, and that’s how he has so much trouble with journalists, when they distort what he says. He’s really paranoid with language. He explains things like ten times to really try to make his point. And in doing so, that’s the thing, maybe he’s trying to become more clear, but it gets more confusing, it gets more poetic, more ambiguous, and that’s when I think his writing — or not writing, but his way of talking and thinking — is maybe similar to Samuel Beckett, or to mystics like St John of the Cross.
“Mystics and poets are people that are always dealing with language, they are always thinking about what they say and how they say it. Of course, Marcelo Bielsa isn’t wanting to be a poet, it’s not his interest, but his way of thinking about language for me is very similar to those guys. So I always try to listen to what he says from that point of view also, besides what he’s saying specifically of the team, of the match.
“I have written a couple of pieces about him in journals in Chile. I once wrote ’50 Reasons Why I Love Marcelo Bielsa’. Another one is called, ‘Bielsa: Ecstasy and Silence.’ I tried to compare him with a mystic. There is this quote, I will try to translate it.
“He is talking about what happens after you win a match. He says: ‘There is a sensation of effervescence, a sensation of the adrenalin at the top, that generates excitement and happiness. But those are only five minutes, and after that there is an enormous and huge emptiness, and an indescribable loneliness.’
“For me, that’s the exact description of what happens in mystical ecstasy. Like an explosion of love, of being with god, then — and the mystics always say this — there is a terrible loneliness. Of course, they are talking about different things, but his capacity to think, and this is really beautiful, to think about the failure after the triumph, is completely different from all the other managers, all the other players, that say, ‘Oh, we won, we’re the best and it’s very simple.’ That capacity of thinking in language for me is really admirable.
“Another thing that I really like, and that’s why I think he’s like Samuel Beckett, is his obsession with failure. If you read what Marcelo Bielsa says about failure, it’s like hearing Samuel Beckett when he says, ‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’ It’s the same. What you learn from failure is really important in Marcelo Bielsa’s discourse.”
That’s important in football in general, because it is a sport about failure; only one team can win a Championship, and even when they win it, they have to go and try to win it again — they usually don’t, and that’s when the manager gets sacked, the players get sold. Success in football never lasts, but failure is permanent; just think about the European Cup final in 1975, and who attaches more importance to that game, the ‘winners’ or the failures?
Bielsa’s influence on Chile as a football team and as a nation is easy to read about, so I asked about his influence on Felipe’s work as a poet.
“In an indirect way. About eight years ago I decided which were the three people I admire most in the world. One of them is Javiera Mena, a Chilean pop singer, who sings really beautiful songs; the other one is a Chilean comedian, Felipe Avello; and the other is Marcelo Bielsa. And I like very much that the people that most inspire me are not writers. I mean, I love lots of writers, but I really like to think of people in other places, thinking about language, doing fantastic artistic stuff, even if they’re not thinking it.
“So that’s my obsession with Bielsa. For me it’s like hearing some contemporary mystic. He’s not exactly a mystic, he would be embarrassed if he heard this from me, but I like to think that. For me he’s a model — not an ethical model, although he’s really a wonderful ethical model — but as a guy that is thinking all the time about what he says, and how he says that or another thing. In that way he’s really important for my poetry.”
And now he’s in Leeds, although we don’t know for how long. Bielsa resigned from coaching Chile in February 2011, and yet here is Felipe in a Leeds kit, shivering in tribute on a chilly night in October 2018. What is life like after Bielsa?
“Oof,” says Felipe. “In Chile you can talk with people, and we are called ‘The Widows of Bielsa.’ In fact another manager that came later was trying to make fun of this, and he said something like, ‘Bielsa left more widows than World War Two.’ It’s like… constantly grieving.”
And that’s the thought I’m left with as Felipe, still in full kit, is ushered away to do poetic things in the night; and that’s what we’ve got to look forward to. At least the way Felipe talks about Bielsa suggests it will be a kind of grief mixed with continuing inspiration; we’ll have his words, and the videos of his games, and we can watch where he goes next, maybe even travel there to buy the shirt, shorts and socks. Perhaps when Bielsa coaches your team, that’s the success right there; he says himself he doesn’t win many titles. After winning a title the next season’s failure comes anyway, and after Bielsa comes grieving, and that’s just football. And poetry. ◉