Eas National Poetry Month Draws to a Close
By Ken McCullough
Appeared in Winona Post
This is National Poetry Month, and I thought it appropriate to put in a plug for poetry, but to also compare our tradition to the tradition of another country, Colombia, where I attended a major poetry festival last July. When I was a kid, back in the mid-20th century, we still had to memorize poetry in school. Famous actors made albums of recorded poetry and uncles often recited old classics when they’d had a jar or two; it was part of our lives. In the 40’s and 50’s, poetry was taken over by the academy until the Beat Poets once again made it public, but these things go in cycles—now, in recent years, much of the poetry being published is back under the aegis of the academy, only accessible if you are wearing your decoder ring.
Most poetry readings are sparsely attended and are not life-and-death affairs. There are pockets of zeal and enthusiasm, of course. Poetry Slams, for example, continue to be popular as do other forms of Spoken Word events, and Poetry Out Loud! competitions proliferate on the high school level. This is the climate that I’m used to. But consider this: when I attended the 20th International Poetry Festival in Medellin, Colombia in July, 2010, our opening ceremony was attended by 4,000 people, who sat in an amphitheatre in the rain for a reading that lasted three hours. During the week I was there, I gave six readings (in combination with other poets from a variety of countries ranging from Tibet to Togo to New Zealand) and at each reading, whether in a huge auditorium, ornate library, town hall, or barrio community center, we read to a packed house and generally got applause after each poem. The festival had published a handsome anthology with selections of our poetry in our native language accompanied by translations into Spanish. Each of us had our own translator as well as our own reader. One gentleman, a rather introverted person and a quiet reader himself, had a professional actor as his Spanish reader—this gave rise to the work being interpreted in a much livelier way than usual. My reader was an accomplished poet, translator and also an attorney.
After readings, crowds of young people would flock around us and ask to have their pictures taken with us, and older people would have us sign the anthology or copies of our books they’d purchased. One fairly well-known and flashy popular singer attended three of my readings, asked to be photographed with me, and gave me some of her c.d.’s. When we poets returned to our hotel in the evenings, there would be groups of high school and university students waiting for autographs. One afternoon, as I was walking through Simon Bolivar Square, which is frequented by winos, one supine gentleman propped himself up on his elbow and seeing that I was wearing a shoulder bag with the logo of the festival, said to me, in a gruff voice “Poeta?” “Si!” I said with enthusiasm. He said “Bravo!” and raised his fist in salute. The poets were all housed in the same hotel and we ate or meals together, so the camaraderie was profound and the networking amazing. Incidentally, one of the poets participating in the festival was Yevgeny Yevtusheno, the most famous living Russian poet, who, in his heyday read to soccer stadiums of 50,000 people. Why do people show up in droves for poetry readings? Wole Soyinka, the first African to win the Nobel Prize in Literature (and who participated in the Medellin festival in 2005), said that people attend poetry readings because they “always experience an internal transformation of themselves.”
Doubtless you are wondering what it was like to come back to reality when I returned home. When I am introduced as our Poet Laureate, people most often are polite, now and then enthusiastic, though high school kids do not stop me on the street for my autograph. My own Scots-Irish forebears contributed the long rifle and mournful ballads (which morphed into country music) to our culture, and poetry, aside from song lyrics, became, for us, a somewhat frivolous activity. Unless you are a hybrid, like Robert Burns, the Scot, or Robert Zimmerman, from up Hibbing way. Yes, consider the difference in cultures. An old friend, well-travelled in South America, told me that he had once witnessed a spirited argument between two laborers digging a ditch in Santiago, Chile. The argument was settled when one of the laborers quoted a line of poetry from Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda. I worked as a union laborer for a number of years and find it hard to believe that I would ever win an argument in such a manner. But then you might say, Neruda was a communist, and sold out to the regime in power. I would say, in return, consider what Jorge Luis Borges once said, that you should never judge a writer on the basis of his politics. Neruda is a writer loved the world over, despite his politics.
You might also ask me, facetiously, whether I’d rather live in Medellin, Colombia or Winona, Minnesota USA. If you know anything about the recent history of Medellin you are aware that it was the center of the drug cartels. And under Pablo Escobar there were myriad killings in that city every day. It was the Wild West gone haywire. The International Poetry Festival was started in Medellin 21 years ago now, as an attempt to counter that violence with poetry. And they say now that Medellin is possibly the safest city in South America. Last July there were 101 poets from 28 countries who participated in the festival. And it was clear to me that the citizens of Medellin were hungry for what we brought them. Before one reading at an elementary school in an impoverished barrio I met with some grade school kids beforehand and they asked me if I would sing something for them. I gave them my best imitation of Elvis’s “All Shook Up.” And when they asked for an encore I sang L’il Richard’s “Tutti Frutti,” complete with gyrations and footwork. I don’t usually get such chances in classrooms here. The kids sat through our serious poetry that evening, and they all behaved.
I remember, back in 1974, when I attended a conference in El Paso, I slipped across the border to Juarez with poet Ricardo Sanchez, M.D. Ricardo was a bit of a coyote, in that the M.D. stood for ”macho dog,” but he let the academics call him Dr. Sanchez, never dropping his cover. Anyway, Ricardo was a sizeable gent, with a bit of a razor scar across his face, so I let him lead the way when we entered a cantina. Una panda de malosos, a group of tough guys, gave me very hard looks until Ricardo dragged me forward and introduced me as “Un Poeta.” I was in. So part of this difference is cultural. The stereotype is that Latin people are more passionate, more likely to be inclined toward artistic expression. Part of it is otherwise, though. There’s a class aspect to it also. Back in 1973 I was driving poet Allen Ginsberg around Montana and we had stopped in Butte, a classic mining town fallen on hard times. We were getting a beer in a place called, fittingly, The Terminal Bar, and Allen was talking with some of the men at the corner of the bar, all guys who had worked in the mines, and one of whom had actually known Neal Cassady, protagonist of Jack Kerouac’s novel On The Road, andAllen’s good friend.Allen was talking some notes, as he was wont to do wherever he went. Just then a guy swooped over and said “Who is this guy, and what’s he snoopin’ around about?” Butte had been a hotbed of Wobbly activity earlier in the century, and, in the early 70’s the FBI was doing a lot of snooping around in general all over the country. Residents of Butte were suspicious by nature. Someone said “Sit down and shut up—he’s a poet.” “Well…okay then” was the response. No reason to be suspicious.
But when all is said and done, Winona is where I prefer to be. The people are friendly, we settle our disputes peaceably, and we DO appreciate the arts here. Look around: GRSF, Beethoven Festival, Frozen River, Midwest Music Festival, Theatre du Mississippi. Maybe it will become popular again to memorize poetry—what comes around. And I won’t expect you to ask me for an autograph. As Whitman said “I take off my hat to no man.” That’s the way we do it here. In Dublin, where they take their writers seriously, you’ll find writers quoted on busses, plaques, billboards, etc. In small ways, we are moving in that direction. If you pull in to the rest stop west of Rochester on Interstate 90, heading east, you’ll find a free-standing plaque with James Wright’s poem “A Blessing.” Garrison Keillor paid to have it placed there. In St. Paul, they have poems written by local poets stamped into the sidewalks. We are discussing a similar project with the City of Winona. And we are one of the seven cities in the state that has a Poet Laureate.
To close, I’ll leave you with a short poem from my experience in Medellin. It doesn’t rhyme and it’s in two languages, but maybe you’ll find something in it that appeals to you.
SUNDAY, 11 JULY, 2010
for Gémino Abad
In the cathedral, the priest removes
the archbishops’s mitre. The archbishop
steps forward and looks at all of us.
He begins to speak, full-throated, of bandidos.
Two pews ahead of me, a mother
with the hair of Raphael’s angels,
the eyes and face of this world, grasps
the hands of her sturdy teenage son
who cannot see nor can he hear.
A radiance surrounds them both.
She works his fingers to sign the words
of the singing, the liturgy
and his face leans in, eager:
…por quien todo fue hecho;
que por nosotros, los hombres,
y por nuestra salvación,
bajó del cielo,….
y por obra del Espíritu Santo
se encarnó de María, la Virgen,
y se hizo hombre…
To their left, father cradles little sister.
This, my friends, is the spirit of Medellin.
Arm yourself with this, not bullets.
Embrace, embrace each other, Medellin.
Let the mother take your hands
And spell these words into your soul.
Ma7 7th 2011