Poetry lords, and ladies, of Medellin
Philippine Star, July 30, 2007
By Alfred A. Yuson
Sure, clever cognoscenti joked, upon finding out I was headed for Medellin: Attending a global drug lords' convention? Networking with a cartel? Going straight to which toilet upon return, for non-flush "evac"-uation of plastic packets?
Okay, had your fun, pundits? To deny such and say sheepishly that the NCCA-sponsored travel grant to tierra Latino was for the sole (well, main) purpose of honoring an invite to read my poems before the Colombian public, in the company of 75 other poets from 53 countries, in 23 different languages, would be begging the obvious send-off: Metaphors be with you.
I liked what Senor Mxyzptlk SMS'd from DumasGoethe: Vaya con Dios, indio bravo! Needed that farewell boost, before embarking on 24 total hours of flight time, broken into four take-offs. Inclusive of airport layovers, it would take 2.5 days from Manila to Medellin.
In the layover for a day and night in New York and New Jersey, for some reason my CP couldn't reciprocate, neither with SMS nor voice call. Thus, Dr. Sawi's el ultimo text remained unacknowledged. Messsage Sending Failed. Over and over again. Even during the Miami airport stopover. Oh well.
Finally in Medellin on the night of Friday the 13th, no surprise that the Smart SIM card turned totally useless. Oh well. Rendered incommunicado as default. At least upon checking in at Gran Hotel, thank small mercies that the ground floor lobby and segundo-piso dining hall offered WiFi. No such luck in the fifth-floor room or balcony, although some nights I found I could leach from a nearby building's WiFi. Weak connection. Slow Internet. But better than nothing.
Nothing else to do, that is, but read and recite verse to Medellin's wildly appreciative poetry lovers, in various venues throughout the city. Gran Hotel was the official host and administrative venue for the XVII Festival Internacional de Poesia de Medellin, from July 14 to 22. After a two-night sojourn in Pereira 35 minutes away by air where the audiences were just as impressive and robust with cheers it was back to Medellin (Mede-jin, the locals say) for four straight days of readings, in small groups except for the closing event.
By then I could recite the erstwhile carefully memorized opening spiel with a level of fluency. "Buenas tardes (o noches). Muchas gracias a todos ustedes por esta oportunidad. Estoy muy feliz de estar aqui en Medellin. Yo soy Filipino, hablo EspaÒol un poquito no mas. Perdon, mis hermanas y hermanos. Pero viva Manila, viva Medellin! Viva Filipinas! Viva Colombia!" (Umaatikabong palakpakan!)
At the Instituto de Bellas Artes, the auditorium named Sala Beethoven was packed to its 800-seat capacity. For that reading I was grouped together with Oscar Gonzalez of Colombia, Antonio Armenteros of Cuba, and Liv Lundberg of Norway. Ms. Lundberg and I were assigned our usual interpreters in Spanish, who read after every poem.
My standard fare, since these were the four poems that had been translated into Spanish, were: "Andy Warhol Speaks to His Two Filipino Maids"; "Mirava's Cheek"; "Vertigo de la dicha (for Alyosha and Alaric)"; and the last a poem originally in Tagalog or Filipino, as my interpreter Lola explained it, and which I had myself been asked to render into English for translation into Spanish.
Here are the first lines of "Kabalbalan": "Sa kabilugan ng buwan;/ kalibugan.// Sa tag-init at tag-araw,/ balaraw.// Baliw lamang o buwang/ ang di titingala at kikilala/ sa pagpunyagi ng panahon/ sa langit man o lupa.//..." ("Nonsense": "In moon's fullness,/ libidinous.// In summer heat,/ dagger dangerous.// Only the lunatic or madman/ would not look up and recognize/ seasonal celebration/ in sky or earth.//...")
En Español: "Disparates": "En la plenitud de la luna,/ libidinoso.// En el calor del verano,/ peligroso como una daga.// Solo el lunatico o el loco/ no mirarian hacia arriba para reconocer/ la celebracion estacional/ en el cielo o en la tierra.//..."
The next day's reading was at the public school library in Barrio Sta. Cruz, with a third of the audience of 150 made up of schoolchildren, everyone actually sitting up straight and rapt with a sense of wonder. The older kids had obviously been told to even jot down notes. It gave occasion for an addendum to the preliminary spiel.
"En Manila, el ciudad capital de mi pais, hay un distrito que se llama Sta. Cruz. Y yo naci en Calle Misericordia del distrito Sta. Cruz." Ahhs, smiles all around, a warm burst of applause.
Right after the reading (together with Giovanni Gomez of Colombia, Miriam Van Hee of Belgium, and Jessie Kleemann of Greenland's Inuit Kalaallit Nation), the teachers who had purchased the festival anthology of participants' poems swamped our table for autographs. The children were not to be outdone, thrusting lined sheets under our noses for much the same, with each offering his/her name (Edison, Carolina, Viviana said with B's , Jose Luis, Jefferson...) for the simple dedication that started with "Para..."
On the penultimate day, Saturday, July 21, it was the four-person group of Tatiana Oroño of Uruguay, Abdullah Bashrahil of Saudi Arabia, Victor Hernandez Cruz of Puerto Rico, and myself that was ferried to Metro de Medellin's Estacion Estadio. The makeshift stage was set up just outside the elevated public rail station, where steps leading up to the ticker counters formed the seating arrangement for a crowd of some 300 listeners, many of them coming off the station or street, attracted by the Festival streamers and a ground-level table laden with Prometeo Numeros 77-78, the special festival anthology for sale.
As with all other readings, the hour-long activity was entirely documented by a couple of video cameras one even sported by an enterprising young fellow who conducted tracking shots from a skateboard.
And as in all other readings, the poets felt like lords of the day, drawing in the crowds, sensing genuine appreciation behind the more-than-polite applause, and feeling the admiration up close whenever an event ended, the way dozens from the audience would climb up onstage for autographs, or to offer words of thanks.
In Pereira and Medellin, invariably three or four people would come up to me on the street, to which I had descended for a smoke, to shake my hand, pat me on the shoulder, or actually make beso-beso and offer a warm hug for this or that poem they recalled the title and a few lines of.
Indeed, the city, Colombia's third largest after Bogota and Cali and which as common knowledge had it was practically built up by the notorious drug cartel king Escobar believed in the power of poetry.
It was an alternative and antidote to mayhem in the streets, or the paramilitary's excesses. It was the way of peace and brotherhood and enchantment, we were repeatedly told. Colombians loved poetry. It was a way of life, or a way out of the common life, for most lovers of literature, and they were a-plenty among the populace.
The people of Medellin in particular were proud of Senor Fernando Rendon's accomplishment in establishing the international fest as the largest and most prestigious in Latin America. And they were proud of the Premio Nobel Alternativo the festival and the city received in 2006.
On the last day, all participating poets trooped back to Teatro al aire libre Carlos Vieco, the amphitheatre surrounded by rolling hills and a forest park. Here was where it all begun nine days previous, before an audience of 6,000. For this closing program, each of us would read one brief poem. But it still lasted all of six hours. By the fourth hour,
At 8pm, a drizzle started. No one scampered away. Umbrellas and plastic ponchos sprouted all the way up the concrete tiers. The crowd simply huddled together.
Eventually it became full-fledged rain, then a torrent. It was night and it had turned cold. By 9 pm a couple of hundred still stayed huddled fronting the roofed stage, shivering in the downpour but defying the obvious by greeting each poet with applause, and cheering wildly after each poem. Another three hundred had joined us onstage, standing behind the rows of monobloc chairs that gradually crunched up all the way to the stage's edges to accommodate whoever desired a bit of shelter.
I read a fresh translation requested of interpreter Diego Suarez Vivas in Pereira, just so I could render something other than the standard four poems of "World Poetry Circuit (Circuito de Poesia Mundial)," a signature poem that meta-fictively details the goings-on at such festivals in 25 narrative statements. This time I read it myself, in Spanish.
"1. Los poetas llegan y saludan con la mano. 2. Los poetas reciben sus cupones para el desayuno.... 5. Los poetas acuden a una recepcion en el jardin. 6. Los poetas hacen fila para saludar al principe. 7. Los poetas son llevados a un centro vacacional con playa. 8. Los poetas se estancan entre el trafico.... 11. Los poetas se escapan de sus anfitriones. 12. Los poetas son recuperados.... "15. Los poetas se pelean entre ellos mismos. 16. Los poetas pichan entre ellos mismos. 17. Los poetas llegan otra vez tarde para la cena.... 23. Los poetas dejan sus cuentas de hotel. 24. Los poetas se van para otros paises. 25. Los poetas recuerdan y sonrien asimismos."
Of course Line No. 16 drew guffaws, as expected. For in Colombia, the "F" word turns into the "P" word. And by the end of the poem, the audience that had joined us onstage was offering similar lines as extensions.
This went on through the final dinner and party till the wee hours of Monday, July 23, departure day for most of us. For the young festival staffers, the party lasted throughout the night, till dawn when some of us had to be ferried to the airport.
Que lastima that it was only over that late dinner, interspersed with dancing to a salsa band, that I made acquaintance with Joy Harjo, native American poet, the star draw especially in terms of successful book publication and critical recognition. She divided her time now between New Mexico and Honolulu, she said. And she was working on music CD's that incorporated her poetry.
We would find ourselves lining up at the Medellin airport counter, for the first of nine steps she documented (and e-mailed hours later) before anyone could board a plane. As it turned out, we were on the same flight to Miami, thus had to undergo the same extensive luggage checks and body searches, over and over.
It almost seemed they didn't want us to leave Colombia. The security honchos needn't have bothered. We weren't taking any drugs away with us.
Rather had we retained that natural high, from how our poetry had been received by Colombians. Why, in turn had we left our poetry behind.
out there in the streets, I am sure some young boy is reciting a line from "Vertigo de la dicha." And some inebriated buffoon is still adding fresh lines to "Circuito..."
Yes, the circuit and the circus will go on, move on to another city in another beadwork of time. And the litany for love, peace and brotherhood will continue to rouse emotions and memories, thus prevail.