Interview with the poet Fernando Rendón
Interview with the poet Fernando Rendón
director of the International Poetry Festival of Medellín
By José Ángel Leyva
Lets begin this conversation with the international recognition received on December 8, 2006, in Stockholm, Sweden, by a festival that has broken all political moulds; I am referring to the Alternative Nobel Peace Prize 2006. The long permanence of the festival in one of the Colombian and Latin American cities more affected by violence has something of a fiction and of a struggle, and yet it continues sending its messages of peace to Colombia and the whole world. What effect do you think will this prize have on the will of dialogue, on a political pact, on intelligent and sensitive searches of solutions for a situation that divides the country not only between the guerrillas, but among the many components that prolong the shedding of blood of the population?
The recognition of the Alternative Nobel Peace Prize 2006 of the International Poetry Festival of Medellín will not have for the moment any effect on the will to dialogue of the confronting armies in Colombia. With very few exceptions the media in our country did not inform at all about the Alternative Nobel Peace Prize given to our organization in the Swedish parliament on December 8. This says a lot about the deliberate refusal of most Colombian media not to recognize the International Poetry Festival of Medellín, which in itself is a mass media, simply because it cannot be manipulated or bribed.
I said it has something of a fiction, because it is not the political rhetoric but the poetic word that embodies this longing for peace. I retake an idea that comes to my mind from time to time after reading Soldados de Salamina by Javier Cercas, a novel about the Spanish Civil War. Cercas affirms that he was mistaken in supposing that wars are fed only by heroes, by soldiers, because he had discovered that in the origin of this fratricidal war were the poets with their panegyrics and speeches, and their poems inciting to take one side or the other. Colombia being at war for many years, do you think that poets represent this possibility and not, as Cercas writes in his novel, one of the causes of the confrontation?
Wars are not fed by heroes or soldiers nor are they caused by their will to be heroes or soldiers. Only an ignoramus can say that poets are at the origin of wars. Soldiers and poets are victims of wars, they do not cause them. In the origin of wars of invasion are the economic and political interests of the dominant classes of the invading country. In the origin of wars of subjection of one class by another are the economic and political interests of the dominant class of a country. And there is one more variant: those who push peoples into wars of liberation are the same dominant and oppressive classes of a country. In all of these kinds of wars soldiers and sometimes poets take part. René Char, for example, as a guerrilla commander, took part in the struggle of the French Resistance against the fascists. The struggle of the International Poetry Festival of Medellín is for all Colombians to take the side of poetry, of a dignified life, and of peace with social justice, so that the killing that has devastated Colombia for decades ceases.
You yourself are a poet and I know youre also a man of very clear political ideas. There have been many episodes in which ideology overwhelms poetry, to a point in which emotion and reality are absent. What is your view of these situations in a literary plane.
The literary plane is a fiction if it is not associated with life itself. Poetry can never be ideologized. And censorship does not come only from the state. Some poems may contain ideological elements but you cannot bring poets to an inquisitorial trial on account of it. Some have chosen to keep silence facing the killing and to prevent others from talking. I think that some critics have a quite restrictive vision of what poets must and can think, write and do, poets being nourished by freedom of conscience and freedom of speech. But I agree that we poets must be attentive so that our poems not become pamphlets and to prevent the limitation of the mission of a poet to that of an ideological pamphleteer.
Fernando, tell me how the Festival of Poetry was created, how was the idea conceived and what was the real possibility of establishing, in the midst of such a bloody situation, a cultural event that involves I dont know if at the beginning thousands upon thousands of inhabitants of Medellín and other Colombian cities?
If Mexico City lived in a situation of war and bombs and car bombs exploded on its streets, would you flee? Would you hide every day? If massacres and political genocide were a daily happening in your country, what way would you take? Well, it was in those circumstances that we founded the International Poetry Festival of Medellín, to oppose beauty to terror, to bring poetry face to face with violent deaths. In the right moment we interpreted the love of poetry and the will to live of thousands of persons. Then we decided to continue and expand year after year this plan that breaks with all political moulds and poetical ways of thinking.
Why such a massive and popular festival? This question is not harmless or naive. I make it because I have heard some poets that have been in the International Poetry Festival of Medellín question, although moved by the public, its literary effect. That is to say, they dont think these public readings promote the reading of poetry or the knowledge of poets, or the appearance of new writers. From your point of view as an organizer and poet, and cultural promoter, what is you assessment of these aspects, beyond the political effect of the festival?
Why not a massive and popular festival? Shall we close the doors of poetry on the face of a population that flows toward its source? The question is certainly not harmless or naive, as made by some of our poets who would like to have the private property of the ineffable and drool for poetry to be the privilege of the happy few. It is as if love and poetry were destined for the chosen ones and not for the whole human species. These poets say they are moved by the public of the Festival, but they deny the poetic intelligence of youth and doubt about the effect of poetry on the private life of persons and the collective sensitivity. The people that applaud, do not read? No new poets will come from the People? What proves it? Lucía Estrada is today considered perhaps the greatest hope of Colombian poetry written by women. Since 1991, since she was a child, she has been part of the public in most festivals. And she has also read her poetry as an invited poet. Our public has been nourished and strengthened by this vast poetic fire. This public looks for the authors, talks to them about their poetry; it is the people that talk about poetry on the street that feeds poets. Lets not forget it.
The organization of a Festival of such dimensions as it has now requires many factors, but above all the firm conviction of a cultural manager of going in right direction and being in an adequate context. How could you, with your small organizing team, obtain the financial resources, persuade political and bureaucratic wills, resist the attacks of groups of intellectuals and sometimes the bad faith of many colleagues who want your efforts to fail? How have you experienced and managed these situations common to all cultural ventures? How have you taken advantage of criticisms and how have you confronted political battering?
Prometeo is made up by a group of poets who identify themselves with some principles, purposes and a methodology of work toward the creation and spread of poetry. We have overcome all kind of obstacles, lack of financial resources, pressure, scorn and threats. I also realized that poetry can generate hatred between humans. And that many writing colleagues, as you call them, with their backs to the killing, have wished our efforts to fail, lacking all generosity and greatness. Deep down they think that poetry is just a literary genre. They would like the Festival to disappear. Their uneasiness is just another expression of human nature. Human clay is fragile. But one thing is meanness and another criticism. We have built the Festival based on a daily lucid self-criticism. The Festival is now considered a model in the world, but we have a whole chain of complementary projects: The School of Poetry of Medellín and the poetry workshops, the publishing of the Prometeo review (76 numbers in 25 years), the making of documentaries for TV and of DVDs with the audiovisual history of the Festival, including a digital anthology of world poetry. And we have developed a solidarity action for the foundation and strengthening of new poetry festivals here and there, all over the world.
Which have been the main obstacles you have had to overcome and which has been the not only the stimulus but also the elements that have helped you in the process of creation and expansion of the Festival?
— The main obstacles we have had to overcome are the product of ignorance of the state on the nature of life and poetry. Our state is generous with war and death, and mean and indifferent toward the expectation of life of the population. The army grows while the population wanes by misery, malnutrition, illiteracy, and insalubrity. Poetry is useless for bureaucrats, because this is a pragmatic and utilitarian society. The state cuts funds for culture and increases taxes for everything. We are close to social organizations, because we have understood that it will be very difficult to realize a poetic action on a great scale, in order to inspire in the population the breath of a new life, under the actual conditions of war, and we have seen that the road to peace must be cut. We are convinced that there will be no present or future possible without poetry. Poetry is the life of all, mysterious and open, inviting us to plunge into ourselves and into others, for we are the other.
This years will be the XVII Festival, which in the course of these years has invited 747 poets from 131 countries, what does it mean to have this network of contacts with poets of a very high level? How could you take more advantage of their presence in the country in the interest of the culture and peace of the Colombian people?
We rely on the tacit support of hundreds of poets from all over the world. Many of them have written articles on the International Poetry Festival of Medellín, which have been published in countless media of more that 50 countries. It is in fact a network of advisers, guides and fraternal brothers from all over the world. I am sure they will be basic allies in the near future to strengthen the vast Colombian poetic project and to reach a definitive peace in our country, which will transform Colombia in a country for poetry and for life, materially and culturally fundamental in contemporary history.
Finally, Fernando, two more questions. What follows for the Festival after this great international recognition; what are its aspirations? And you, Fernando, as a poet, who follow the echo of Hölderlin, what sense do you find to go on writing in times of desperation?
The Festival will go on existing with greater energy and will be a lighthouse visible in the whole world. We will go on with the task of bringing poetry to all Colombians and festivals in new countries. We will strengthen the presence of poetry in the media and in contemporary society. We shall fight for the confluence of Colombian poets to strengthen the creative and liberating imagination, and against provocative censorship and self-censorship. We will participate in the formation of a world poetic force. And I will surely write more and better, without desperation, in the frontier of a new life and under a new sky, for the whole sense of existence that brings us together is yet to be discovered and realized.