Festival Internacional de Poesía de Medellín

The Power of Poetry



By  Edessa Ramos

I find in you the ecstasy of sanctuary from the daily friction and unending sorrows of my life..

On a plane en route from Medellin to Miami, and then from Miami to Zurich, I wrote this verse for a friend. A friend whom I had just met, another solitary soul like me, another poet and freedom advocate. I find in every new friendship such as this one the chance to renew my commitment to life and everything it offers. Especially in this day and age when a relationship tends to be as permanent as an email waiting to be deleted. And so I wrote a poem, if only to preserve the ecstasy of a new beginning. Besides, an experience as intense as the one I just had in Medellin could not but produce the unfolding of a poem. I will tell you more about Medellin as you read on. The writing of a poem is the release of some sentiment long unattended to, a sentiment that thus reveals itself with amazing vengeance through the power of the written and spoken word. But the power of poetry goes beyond the ability to rescue us from the dredges of our daily existence. Poetry also has the power to deliver humanity from the quagmire of greed, selfishness and destruction. For what is the role of poetry, and all art for that matter, other than to elevate the human being from the level of the beast? As human beings, we are capable of pondering over the meaning of life. We are capable of the thoughts and visions that could free us from the shackles of earthly existence and the menace of individual desires. A work of art, a piece of writing, a melody, a dance – all these represent the thought, the idea, struggling to create a world better than the one we know.

There is a belief shared by many poets, and always at the risk of being labeled as irrational idealists. We believe that accompanying man’s destructive nature is an immense capacity and overwhelming desire to love, to create, to fulfill. So what is the role of poetry? The German writer Johannes Golznig wrote: “And the poets? They clean the dirt off the windows of the world...”

An equilibrium must be maintained if we are to preserve and develop the art of life. To find and maintain that equilibrium.To call for sanity in times of war and bloodshed. To call for peace in times of unrest. To call for justice when people are blinded by the cruelty they inflict upon each other. This is the power of poetry.

I have just returned from the 13th International Poetry Festival of Medellin for Peace in Colombia on June 14 - 21 of this year. A whole week of poetry, in a country where the poet is as revered and loved as no other. One must understand that I have been living for several years in Switzerland, where poetry and art tend to be regarded as the flighty preoccupation of the privileged few. Therefore, imagine my delight and amazement in finding myself among people who spoke with the nectar of poetry on their lips, even in their everyday life, and where one only needed to start a verse when everyone in the room would suddenly join in and recite in unison. It reminded me of the generation of my grandparents back in the Philippines, a time long gone, when people still spoke with lyricism, when the “salawikain” or immortal quotations were inserted into normal conversations. A time when storytelling was always accompanied by rhyme, by a challenge of the imagination, by poetry. A generation of lyricism long replaced, woefully, by the conquests of MTV, hollywood and cult comics. A lyricism of old that I found once again in Colombia. And in Colombia, I tasted a sweetness of life that finds expression through every smile, through every greeting delivered with a tight embrace.

And to think that this country is submerged in the throes of violent conflict, of social problems perpetuated by unjust social structures, of total war. And it is because of this war, and the urgent need to call all warring parties to the negotiating table, that poets were called in from all over the world in hopes of reopening the peace dialogues. The poetry festival was held in conjunction with the First Summit of World Poetry for Peace in Colombia. The end product was a declaration which would be sent to all areas of the armed conflict, calling for an end to the violence, a serious solution to the social ills plaguing the country, and a stop to all foreign interventions in Colombia.

The festival was founded in 1991 amidst a climate of violence and death in the hope of rebuilding the social fabric marked by disintegration. Since then, it has enjoyed the participation of hundreds of poets reading in over 40 languages. The audiences in the past 12 years have reached nearly a million people.

The festival is organized by Prometeo Magazine. Fernando Rendon, the festival leader, informed me one night at the dinner table that I happen to be the first Filipina invited to this festival. What an honor, I said, and one that I do not take lightly. For if, even only through my words, I am able to give my humble contribution, then I can pray that my people would consider me worthy of carrying the banner of the Filipinos’ own aspirations for liberation. Indeed, this was a time wherein the personal motives and pleasures of writing poetry fade away. Given the magnitude of an event like Medellin, given its importance to the future of generations, the poet’s individual significance pales in comparison to the message of peace.

Thousands of people from all walks of life came to the festival. All events were accessible to the public and free of charge.This was truly a demonstration of how poetry is not, should not be, the privilege of the elite.

Colombia is a country where the younger generation is the main victim of the civil war. While performing in several venues throughout the week – in theaters, schools, streets and open parks, communities of internal refugees, poor harbor towns – I saw the faces of young people dominating the crowds. They were exuberant, affectionate and full of passion. They were uplifted by the solidarity of poets from around the world. This festival was truly for them, uniting them by the thousands under the banner of life, of love, of the pains of struggle and resistance, but also of triumph and liberation. In Medellin, many people turned up from far areas of the country to attend the festival. Amidst the prevailing climate of emptiness, terror and uncertainty in Colombia, I saw how poetry can raise the collective consciousness of a people and make them clamor for transformation.

By means of poetic language, by reviving the oral poetic tradition, and through the intersection of the poetic traditions of the world, the festival became witness to the possibilities for uniting the human spirit against all forms of death and violence. The festival became the cultivator of a culture of resistance which would benefit not only Colombia but the entire world.

In the words of Prometeo: “Poetry creates a nourishing pasture in the soul where adventures are born, where dreams are sustained, and where we tend the light of hope in the night of history.”

Word is action. All paths of poetry arrive at the Truth. Poets are endowed with the desire to see. To recreate the world in poetry is to want to see it. If poetry is such, then we are all poets, for every human being is endowed with the capacity to see the world that is yet to be built.

Editor’s note: Edessa Ramos has lived in 10 different addresses during the past decade, across oceans and continents, and through countless difficulties which forged her intensity as a writer. She lived in Chicago for some years, then returned to Manila in 1994 to work for the Philippine Centennial Commission, the Asian Women Human Rights Council, and PETA. Some Chicagoans still remember her from the days of the Philippine Forum, the Alliance for Philippine Concerns, the Friends of Gabriela, various solidarity movements, and most of all, as one of the founders of Pintig Cultural Group. Since moving to Switzerland in 1996, she has published two books and performed in the literary festivals of South Africa and Central America. Though having been away for a number of years, Chicago will always be a place she longingly calls home. Email her at: EdessaRamos@solnet.ch or you may want to visit her Home Page.

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