The Whole Island: Six Decades of Cuban Poetry
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As in the case of many literary conferences in the United States, the real action may not center so much on formally scheduled events as on activities happening informally around the city, such as meetings with writers, translators, and editors from abroad. This is, at least, true for poets. Not all of the local readers were even notified about their appearances on the program, leading to frustration.
Two who saw their event descriptions after the fact would have had only three or four minutes to speak on complex subjects. They pointed out that the book fair can hardly serve as a serious affair for them under such circumstances. This is not to dismiss the fact that various presentations of poetry editions did take place. Nor is it to discount the massive turnout. Each day I went to the Feria, there were considerable crowds.
Most simply were not flocking there for the latest in contemporary poetry.
Organizers draw a lot of families and children with colorful tents, activities and publications for children, and food stands. Other events are incorporated into local educational programming for adults, such as panels featuring publishing industry representatives from a variety of nations. Local media coverage this year favored books put out from other sectors, such as the military, usually with some degree of party-oriented political argumentation. Visitors comprise part of the flurry at the Feria del Libro and its extension into the city.
I include mention of several here because I was on a panel with some of the translators bringing modern and contemporary Cuban poetry into English right now. This is far from her only activity for the year. I do think that the reestablishment of relations between the US and Cuba in December of has made a difference with regard to interest in Cuban poetry on the part of US publishers and readers.
I actually began working on, and sold, my anthology to Duke University Press before that, but I have placed four books by individual authors since. Travel advertisements feature the most superficial aspects of life on the island. So I feel the interest in poetry is exciting.
It is a way of making available a more in-depth take on the country. Yet he returns regularly to Havana, where he has family and maintains literary contacts. Also on our panel was his Kenyon colleague, translator Kate Hedeen, who brings an extensive knowledge of Latin American poetry traditions to her projects. In summer I asked Hedeen what had changed over the past year, particularly in zones of poetic activity.
She saw an ongoing contradiction. In terms of how Cuban poetry travels abroad, contradiction begins with a general lack of awareness, even amongst Spanish-language readers, about the range and depth of Cuban poetry. She explained:. In , the Spanish poetry publisher Visor brought out an anthology called El canon abierto.
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The selection was academic in nature, a kind of survey of almost two hundred professors from one hundred universities regarding who were the best poets born after in the Spanish-speaking world. Not one of those forty poets was from Cuba. Those of us who translate contemporary Cuban poetry know this simply cannot be the case; poetry has and — this should be emphasized — continues to flourish on the island. A constant struggle to break through ignorance, barriers, stereotypes, both here and there. There was a tremendous flurry of activity in the first half of alone — increased attention from journals, publishing houses, and prize competitions outside the island, and many new books coming out of Cuba, including work timed to appear for the book fair.
Another point of origins for crossing the waters lies with the O! Miami Poetry Festival. An invitation went out to a set of island poets that is still unusual, but no longer unthinkable: a reading uniting four Cuban poets from the island with four from Miami. The title of the mid-April event explicitly referred to bridging the long-divided cultures of Cuba in the context of change, where Cuba and Cuban America can intersect in new ways.
It was organized by the writer J. Photography and video of the event were featured at the urban art and culture magazine Dominicana en Miami. Morales afterwards told me that his perception of the Bridge event bifurcated: it seemed absolutely normal as group readings go, yet absolutely different at the same time. Photo by Kristin Dykstra. She called for emotional and conceptual nakedness in writings with no set genre. Some contributors come with established publication patterns as poets, but others do not.
Some pieces look like conventional prose or poetry; others adopt alternative forms, such as lists or chronologies or artistic reflections across fields.
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Sandra Ramy, who wrote the final piece in the book, is a contemporary dancer who often collaborates on improvisational, interdisciplinary, and experimental events with writers and musicians. Her text opens with light falling on a staged scene, where the speaker will be playing the role of a hen, and closes with queries about the value of theatrical expression for actors and audiences. That engenders my fear a certain fragility manifests, the one I see in the newspaper but also stimulates my actions.
I lived an itinerant life, with no other option, for an entire decade — Due to my nature and the brutality of that sort of life, I suffered a considerable weight of intolerance, which is becoming something of the past. The two remaining participants in the O! Back issues of the print magazine are posted online at InCubadora. The coeditors bring a more youthful generational perspective to literature than many of the island poets known abroad to date. Diplomacy and innocence are not viable attitudes for them to inhabit at present.
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They also write in locations other than Havana. It is seen as far from the cultural energies and access offered by Havana and often credited with a different style of Cuban culture. Both were looking to see if new possibilities manifest on the horizons of change. There he posted a short piece about aspects of his Miami visit, which was his first experience of the United States.
Food was for sale, and advertised everywhere, mostly out of his reach. He retains a sense of humor in his delivery but the point is made. Division runs all throughout the dynamics of imprisonment too. Expansion of system of reference. Use of references as symbols. Ample deployment of characters. Blend of politics with private individuality. Ever more shameless exhibition of politics and private individuality.
Conversion of documents into poems, and of poems into reports. Cynicism, mockery, irony, sarcasm, caricature, even turned against myself. Creation of a militarized poetics: via theme Gitmo naval base , and via the cutting, strong, and even authoritarian rhythms and tones of the poems.
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Quest for a maximally entertaining poetry. His approach does not strike me as unexpected or odd, since it reads as a part of the swashbuckling tradition of the literary anthology. The editor as enfant terrible has a tradition outside Cuba, and various island anthologists have courted controversy with sharply defined positions in recent decades. Within Havana, the Cuban Team anthology is proving controversial.
Caveat: It is entirely possible that people struck a diplomatic tone with me regarding the contents because they knew I had translated pieces in this anthology for other projects already. I speculate that these polemics around editorial language should direct attention toward broader concerns that may remain pressing and relevant for years, far beyond any one publication or person. For some time writers have referred to a rising tide of exclusions, economic and otherwise, surging through island society.
Where frustration and anxiety are understandably on the rise, editorial gatekeeping will sound and feel exponentially more loaded. Other explanations can fold into this scenario. Other reactions may be informed more by an ongoing distaste for sharp critical polemics in Cuban poetic circles, to which another poet will point at the end of this article.
Hypermedia has been looking into the possibility of a bilingual edition, and if the effort succeeds, English-language readers will have a chance to reflect on the introduction and selection for themselves — perhaps comparing these poems to selections they find in the latest bilingual editions from Randall and Hedeen, the earlier anthology edited by Mark Weiss for the University of California Press, or offerings elsewhere in English such as bilingual editions from Cubana Books and the University of Alabama Press. In keeping with his editorial style, Cruz is not afraid of introducing brusque statement into his poetry either.
It can be deliberately brash, staccato, contrarian. He responded to my query by examining how questions of change or political context can be addressed through reflections on specifically poetic language, a choice that sheds further light on his determination to adopt a clear stance. Then I decided to seek out an oblique route: irony, parody, laughter — see La Maestranza.
I incorporated large amounts of cynicism and humor into the texts, through a language as minimally rhetorical or tidied as possible, aware that this would pick a fight with the reigning tradition in Cuba. A tradition that is verbose and saturated with symbol. Through the pages of La Noria we carried out politics with the body. We rewrote the sexual history of heroes from the obscene class. We demonstrated that Cuba was a poetically stilted and static country until we introduced civility, corrosion, sex, indecency, and showed that the reigning lyric status quo was ineffective.