On the streets of Granada, Nicaragua, life pours out its riches.
For the space of one glorious week, 14-20 February 2016, I found myself with a bevy of poets at the centre of a cultural event unique I believe in this world: the Nicaraguan International Poetry Festival, the twelfth year this amazing celebration of poets and poetry has been running. For someone who comes from a country where poetry is a ghetto event at the public level, where even in the literary and arts festivals which are run by and for the elite of the country’s literati and their followers, poets for the most part play a support role in a minor key, this was like landing in heaven.
Francisco Leal of Chile waits to read outside the Church of La Merced on the first night.
For me to feel, for once, that poetry mattered – that it could be public event energising a whole city, a community and a people – left me thinking that when it comes to being Third World in the Arts, in the democracy of letters, we in the West qualify on all points of the compass. Of course, there was an elite group running and sponsoring the event while on the fringes, real poverty was apparent in what the street vendors were hawking under our noses as we ate our breakfasts on the verandah of the Alhambra Hotel, facing out onto the Plaza de la Independencia.
Even so, the street parade on the second day – where a funeral was held to “bury negativity” – saw every inch of the route that stopped on all of the inner city’s street corners for poetry read from the back of a truck, packed with crowds of locals cheering and laughing as the black horse-drawn hearse made its way along, pursued by the Devil, the Grim Reaper and his minions snatching at bystanders while school children hunted down every poeta they could find, for autographs.
One of my helpers, the immaculately attired Eddy wants a photo with this poeta.
There are a number of reasons why this state of affairs exists in Nicaragua and in many other Central and South American countries: some I’m aware of and many I’m not. Certainly the bloody colonial histories of Spanish conquest, the troubled succession of multiple dictators and despots, the arrival of nineteenth and twentieth century American capitalism and its brutal support of these tyrants all helped to propel poetry into the public arena from the age of Ruben Dario and his modernismo, throwing off classical Spanish models, through the revolts of Sandino and later, his descendants the sandinistas who overthrew and repulsed the Somoza dictator dynasty through the 1970s and ’80s, even as the exiled tyrant with American support tried to turn the clock back in a vicious civil war that mired the Reagan presidency in the Iran-Contra scandal. Poets were the voice of the people and the resistance: they spoke from out of them and to them, in a manner of which we have virtually no knowledge in the West today.
A boy runs past a table of poets reading in La Plaza de la Independencia, Granada.
Even when the local poets read, you could see and feel a difference: there was a passion and a power in the delivery of the Latino and Spanish-speaking writers that lit up their performance in a manner that would, I believe make many Western audiences uncomfortable. We have grown used to confessing and confiding, distrusting declarations and wincing at the presence of what seems rhetorical. I had had translations done on my three poems and sat back to listen to the reading; would they be seized upon and declared, or whispered ear-to-ear as I had grown used to speaking them?
I was granted a young woman, Kenya, a soft-spoken 20-something of tiny stature who looked like she was 13 years old, yet read with a quiet confidence and maturity that really suited what I’d given Marcel my translator to decode. Given less than 24 hours notice, he managed to produce versions of three poems in English, sight-unseen beforehand in the midst of a flurry of other calls upon his time. These young people were amazing: nothing seemed to be too much trouble as they waited upon us with respect and politeness. I salute their memory now, and always will.
Kenya reading the Spanish translation of As Big As A Father.
Marcel, my translator, reading one of his own.
Part of me knows I may never return to this amazing country; part of me is aware I only saw and experienced a fraction of its realities and its challenges. To have been welcomed here as a poet among poets, to have met and shared ideas with other writers from Italy to Australia, to have listened to Spanish I could not understand but to have felt its liquid gold pour down on my head like the anointing oil on Aaron’s beard, to have seen the living legend, a 91-year-old Ernesto Cardenal and heard him read, seeing him mobbed and kissed and revered, is to have known the word made flesh in such a way that I can’t quite ever be the same again: viva Nicaragua! Viva la poesia!
Reading As Big As A Father in La Plaza de la Independencia.