Festival Internacional de Poesía de Medellín

Poesia y cafe en Pereira

By Alfred A. Yuson

Monday, July 23 2007


Medellin, Colombia — Reading one’s poetry for five straight days can get to be a drag; that is, when confined to the same four poems, because only those have been translated into the language of the audience.

That’s been my experience so far here in Colombia, in attendance at the XVII Festival Internacional Poesia de Medellin, a poetry fest like no other I’ve attended. Stretching for all of nine days and nights, from July 14 to 22, this year’s edition drew 76 poets from 53 countries, reading in 23 different languages.

Each day, from to 9 p.m., the poets fan out to various venues all over the city, as many as 15 on simultaneous hours throughout the day, in changing combinations of four to five poets per event. Remarkably, the audience numbers and enthusiasm remain high.

The 2006 winner of the Alternative Nobel Prize for fostering peace and brotherhood through poetry, the Medellin Poetry Fest has been the brainchild of Señor Fernando Rendon, himself a distinguished poet. As its director, he certainly has it down to a science, relying on international entities and corporations for support, while ably assisted by an army of young volunteers as guides, facilitators, guides, interpreters, and readers in Spanish.

Upon arrival, each guest receives copies of the festival anthology, Prometeo: Revista de Poesia, all of 396 pages that contain three to four sample poems by each participating poet, in Spanish translation but with one poem in the poet’s native language if other than Spanish. We also get a detailed program, a festival shirt and bag in the official festival color that is cobalt blue, and the participation fee of 500,000 Colombian pesos, sometimes inexplicably billed as dollars.

So for a few hours each guest poet feels exactly like half of a Colombian millionaire. Translated into the almighty dollar of the northern continent, that would be about $250. It can go a long way — beyond purchase of souvenirs, bottled water, and Colombian beer — much of it likely saved till the airport currency exchange counter. All meals and transportation are provided, as well as lodging at the Gran Hotel, the festival’s home site that is decidedly more quaint for its vintage features than grand.

The rooms with a double bed, TV and balcony are also equipped with an electric fan, but at night we don’t even have to turn it on, as the weather’s been mostly cool and breezy.

For meals we invariably assemble at the large dining hall on the second floor, where we’re served from a buffet table: soup, salad, rice in many ways, and three viands, almost always a chicken dish and beef, occasionally some fish fillets. Dessert and juices (the guyabano is particularly appetizing) vary with each meal. And of course Colombian coffee is available, albeit the kind offered at the hotel hasn’t been as meritorious as elsewhere. No creamer; it isn’t the custom. One has to ask for a little leche, and warn the waiters not to pour it with abandon.

One chooses any table, with company or an empty one. Mostly I’ve dined by my lonesome, with my iBook as partner, and I choose a table close to a wall where there are electric sockets, for the hotel’s free WiFi extends only from the ground floor lobby to the resto.

Given the number of participating poets from all over the world, not everyone can be entertained by a handler or interpreter all the time. I welcome the opportunity to be left alone, and often, after a meal and the Internet, repair back to my room on the fifth floor, where I can occasionally piggyback on weak WiFi emanating from some building nearby. Or when it’s a sunny morning, I go up to the top floor marked “P” on the elevator buttons, actually the 13th, where short stairs lead to a sundeck with a modest lapping pool and a grand view of the city.

I have yet to walk around by myself in Medellin. The organizers prefer to have us escorted around the city, as foreign poets can fall prey to the wackos and vagabonds, even petty criminals, roaming the streets. When a venue is close enough to the hotel, we walk to it as a group. Otherwise we ride cars, vans, taxis, accompanied by interpreters and handlers. When it’s a public, open-air venue, uniformed policemen patrol the area.

At the inaugural ceremony on Saturday, July 14, held at Teatro al aire libre Carlos Vieco, a large amphitheatre set in a wooded hillside park, some 6,000 spectators filled the tiers and fringing knolls. Quite a sight it was. They applauded lustily all afternoon, even the hour-long set of speeches that included that of the Mayor of Medellin, and which preceded the sample readings from 18 selected poets.

I didn’t stay on for the program’s duration, as my 60-hour trip, broken by a day in Manhattan and a night in New Jersey, with stopovers at Incheon, JFK and Miami, had begun to take its toll on the good old circadian rhythm. Thankfully, my Spanish reader Lola Frucho, a graduate student of literature, agreed to escort me back to the hotel by cab — this after I was given permission to leave by Luis Eduardo Rendon, Fernando’s son who serves as a chief organizer.

The next day, Sunday, I read with an Asian poets’ group on a makeshift stage set at one end of a tree-lined avenue. Some 500 people gathered and sat on the street and curbsides. Again they were vigorous with applause and cheers, as translations were read of poems in English, Filipino, Chinese, Nepali, Lebanese and Arabic.

The poor body cycle took another hit on Monday as I had to be up at 4 a.m. for the 35-minute flight to Pereira, a smaller city. Egyptian poet Ahmad Al-Shahawy (whom I first met in the Rotterdam poetry fest in 2004),Paraguayan Gregorio Gomez (who specializes in the Guarani language) and I were to have two days of readings there. The sojourn, as much as the setting and people, proved lovely.

Pereira is ensconced in hill and valley terrain in the middle of coffee country, with spring weather all year round that ensures a lush environment and splendid flora. Vast stands of guadua, a local bamboo that rises so tall and lends a Chinese feel to the landscape with its bowing and shimmering upper leaves, dominated the view from our rooms at the quiet and secluded country inn named Confamiliar Pereira Ecohotel.

An Olympic-sized pool, tennis courts, archery range, football field and rolling lawns surrounded our casita. Birds trilled at all hours, while big vultures perched on the angled roof of the separate building that was the dining hall.

Rendering poetry in Pereira became a marvelous experience, thanks to the friendly, dynamic staff of young people led by Señora Ruth Garcia, who heads Imaginarte, a corporation that supports cultural activities in the city. Maybe because they tried harder, or because we were a small group they could focus and lavish attention on, our handlers made it a merry affair for two days. And we fell in love with all of them: our brilliant young interpreter Diego Suarez Vivas and the motley crew of tattooed, dreadlocked, and nose-ringed handlers that were Paula, Natalia, Carolina, José, Ricardo, Juan et al.

They took us to press conferences, a radio station interview, the cultural center and city library, a tertulia with local and regional poets at a municipal library, a walk along the downtown area for T-shirts and handicrafts at what seemed a tiangge, and the Victoria mall where Diego urged us to pick up bags of the best Colombian coffee from a Juan Valdez store.

Our second day’s reading was at a public square where some 700 spectators sat on monobloc chairs and concrete steps, listened avidly and cheered through the night. Local poets, including very young ones conducting performance readings, and the reggae band Caramba served as our front act. Many in the audience danced during the musical break.

Caramba’s lead vocalist José traded unfiltered Pele Rojo cigarettes for my Camels. Popularly known as “Peche,” the local cigarette also served as good casing for ganja, I was told. And where is that, I asked. We took a walk to a dark streetcorner with Natalia for a sampling. It went well with the swigs of Aguardiente Antioqueno, something like anise-flavored gin, and Ron Medellin — two of the sponsors — that were served straight from flat plastic bottles by Carolina. Oh, colors, and how Paula could dance.

We had to wake at 4 a.m. again on Wednesday to catch the red-eye flight back to Medellin. But the Tuesday nightcap was at a lively bar with live music from a Peruvian group, and a mix of drinks at our long table: Margarita-like cocktails and the Colombian beer Poker added to our staple of rum and gin. And again another chitchat with the young ones on a streetcorner.

Past midnight, Ahmed, Gregorio and I cried out in unison: “No more pick-up at 4:30 a.m., por favor! We’re staying on, we love it here, we don’t want to go back to Medejin!” (That’s how it’s pronounced, the double L’s turning into J, as in Como se jama?) But nameless now in the frenzy of a lovefest, indeed we almost didn’t make it to our flight at 6 a.m. Except that mala tiempo of night-long rains in Medellin delayed the light craft by a good two hours. At least it gave Ahmed and Gregorio more buena tiempo to pursue their competitive suit of the ever-smiling Paula Flores.

Hah! They don’t know it, but she’s coming to Medellin for the weekend. My Español albeit poquito no mas saw to that. So’s Natalia, with my pair of pre-ordered Gaita flutes, male and female as they should be played, meter-long reeds with the blowing end made of resin. José had arranged the transaction with the Peruvian musician who handcrafted the instruments.

What motifs did I want inscribed as traditional design on the flutes? Mariposas. Heliconias. Oh, and that song you sang and dedicated to my daughter after appreciating my poem “Mirava’s Cheek.” Hija del sol, was it? Yes, in laidback Pereira that’s also what they call the subject of chitchats on dark streetcorners.

Copyright 2007. Philstar Global Corp. All rights reserved. This article cannot be published or redistributed without the permission of the publisher.

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