XII International Festival of Poetry in Granada, Nicaragua 14-20 February 2016

Thursday, 3 March 2016 at 20:23

Cliff was invited to read at the XII International Festival of Poetry in Granada, Nicaragua 14-20 February 2016.  This year the festival, which is the largest event of its

type in the world, invited 114 poets from 67 countries. Cliff was one of only two from the UK, the other being Gerrie Fellows from Scotland. Cliff performed his poems in English, with his own Spanish translations, at several events, including the carnival, at a school, and at the final event in the main square. Excellent and generous hospitality from Nicaraguan hosts. Huge and enthusiastic audiences. Great fun and lots of poetry…. but also music, food and dance in a beautiful city on a spectacular lake under the shadow of volcanos.  This year was the centenary of Ruben Darío’s “passing into immortality.” If you look at most bilingual anthologies  of Spanish verse, there’s a curious hiatus. The Penguin  Book, for example, after hitting the heights in 16th/17th century with Góngora and Quevedo, ends its Golden Age with the fabulously quirky (and in some ways Emily Dickinson-like) Mexican nun Sor Juana de la Cruz (1651-1695) and doesn’t really get going again until the mid-19th century, with a couple more Mexicans (Salvador Díaz Mirón; Manuel Jose Othón) and the great Nicaraguan “modernista” Ruben Darío (1867-1916).

Rubén Darío
The festival celebrates the centenary of Darío’s “passing into immortality” and the poet’s ghost is everywhere. The Sandino monument at the top of Tiscapa volcano may dominate the city and be the obvious Managua landmark, but Darío’s image is both more ubiquitous and varied than Sandino’s black cut-out silhouette (hastily erected by the Sandinistas as they prepared to leave power): there’s RD the ambassador in his ambassadorial suit of lights, with ornate ambassadorial sword and plumed ambassadorial hat; there’s RD the hirsute symboliste with his upswept waxed moustaches which, antennae-like, seem to be trying to get into heaven before him.
In Léon, we visit Darío’s house. When we arrive in Granada, traditional adversary of Léon, our very fine hotel is called the Darío. There is a letter for me, inside the envelope there’s a very nice stiff invitation, illustrated by a picture of RD at his most ambassadorial, inviting me to a gala dinner celebrating “El primer Centenario del paso a la Inmortalidad de nuestra Gran Poeta Rubén Darío”.
At the open mike events, Nicaraguans line up to share their poems. On the first day the first half-a-dozen poets all eulogise the great poet. There is much riffing on his passing into immortality.
I give a reading at a high school. On stage half-a-dozen girls, perhaps one from each year, dressed in white, recite Darío’s poems and are quizzed on the details of his life. They are all word and fact perfect. Other students act out scenes from his narrative verse.
I get into conversation with a Nicaraguan. I want to speak Spanish, he English. I mention something about thinking about doing a version of Darío’s “El Canto Errante”. By this I mean the poem that begins the book of the same name. He turns out to have translated RD and begins to recite his own version of “El Canto Errante”, in full. I wonder if he will stop at the end of the poem or, as I begin to fear, the end of the book. One of the many events is about to start. I make my excuses and head in that direction.

Monday, 7 March 2016 at 07:44

Bienvenidos Poetas del Mundo:
Welcomed and fast-tracked through the formalities of the airport. First thought: this is a great land for poets. Last thought similar: as I’m checking in to fly home, an official says he enjoyed my performance in Granada. He probably says that to all the poets. (I notice, a couple of others leaving on this flight.)
Managua, after a couple of hours’ sleep, reminds me of the outskirts of Mexico City: lots of talleres, workshops, cut by big busy roads, but we seem to keep missing the centre. Much walking in the heat looking for a shady bar and cold beer. Find way back to hotel, and the bar is fine and is inevitably El Café de los Poetas. All the good stuff here seems to claim some poetic connection.
In Granada, the carnival dances down to the lake under huge signs proclaiming: Bienvenidos Poetas del Mundo. School children collect the autographs of poets reading at the carnival. (Apart from signing a book or two, I’ve never been asked for an autograph before.) Music, noise, dancing. Poetry is partying! Getting down and shaking its backside to the metre.
We arrive. The poets are seated on the stage as colourfully folkloric groups dance past. Nicaraguan ladies laureate us with crowns of paper flowers and honour us with baskets of biscuits and sweets. This is an unexpectedly touching event. It’s been hot, hot, hot. Cold cans of beers are handed out: Toña, the Nicaraguan brewery, is one of the sponsors. Oddly one of the big donors is the European Union. I see their stars on the programme and elsewhere. Nicaragua has got this together. Granada is aiming to be a world culture heritage site, as a city of poetry. On this showing, they deserve it.

Poetry, Politics and Translation.
In Latin America politics comes with the territory. The Chileans Pablo Neruda and Gabriela Mistral, the Mexican Octavio Paz, and the Guatemalan Miguel Angel Asturias were all diplomats. Most have been on the left, at least to start with, and often suffered for their trouble: Neruda was an advisor to Allende – and there is some doubt as to the cause of his death when Pinochet came to power; Paz resigned after the massacre of student demonstrators in Tlatelolco, Mexico City, just before the 1968 Olympics, though he later opposed the Sandinistas and supported Mexican government’s attempts to put down various left-wing uprisings by force.
In Nicaragua, Ernesto Cardenal managed to combine poetry with politics and the priesthood. He was appointed Minister for Culture by the Sandinista government in 1979, a position he retained until 1987. He was famously scolded by Pope John Paul II in 1983, and defrocked a year later for his socialist “liberation theology” stance. Cardenal was welcomed back into the fold by Pope Francis (another Latin American) in 2014.
Gioconda Belli joined the Sandinistas aged 20, and was involved in clandestine operations. She was forced to exile in Mexico in 1975, returning in 1979 just before the Sandinista victory. She held various posts under the FSLN, including international press officer.
At the Darío hotel, I see Ernesto Cardenal . He’s in his 90s now and frail, but I recognise the beret and beard and feel I should introduce myself. I see Gioconda and her husband Charles Castaldi at the Darío and around town. Castaldi has an interesting history as journalist, film producer and more. She is, as I overhear Castaldi say, “a force of nature”. She reads at the carnival, a long impassioned piece. I manage to exchange a few words with her at a restaurant after the carnival, but only to get her to state the obvious. The restaurant’s worth eating at. On the last night I’m reading in the last group with her and a few others. I’m not entirely sure of my Spanish translations. It’s been a long while since I spoke Spanish day to day, and, if I was writing these poems in Spanish, I’d had written something entirely different. The other non-Hispanoparlantes have had their verses translated for them. I wonder, if it was hubris to do this. And now I’m going to read them, in English, and then in Spanish, to a packed square. I think this is also on TV. The audience seem to warm to my introduction to the effect that these are bad translations but my own. Reading them out, I’m aware that I’m pumping it up, trilling my “r”s and it’s probably way too dramatic. I stumble over an odd word. For some reason, I’ve started to speak French. Why did I do that? I recover and it’s all OK, I relax and then come across the phrase “Big Bang”. My old Spanish-English dictionary hadn’t had an equivalent. I think I’d done a quick Google translate, meaning to check it later, and got “Big Bang”. I’d forgotten to check later.
So read my translation of “Megiddo Junction” (from Pilgrim Tongues). The English goes:

        It all began round here, you think: Big Bang,
        the One True... and then that other thing...

The Spanish has it:

        Todo comenzó por aquí, piensas: Big Bang,
        el único y verdadero... y luego lo otro...

Well, I’m worried that this doesn’t make much sense in Spanish, and maybe not in English anyway, but what are these people going to make of “Big Bang”? I turn to the table of poets and ask the only Nicaraguan at the table: ¿”Big Bang? ¿Es una frase? ¿Se dice eso en Español? Gioconda Belli says “Sí” and smiles, and I know everything is going right. Later that night, at the end-of-festival party she gives me a signed copy of her book Fuego Soy, Apartado y Espada Puesta Lejos . I think about how to translate this: I am Fire, Isolated (Exiled? Separated? Alienated?) and My Sword Long from My Hand (A long way Off? Long put down? Forgotten ?). Big Bang. I resolve to get back into the language I stopped speaking daily, now thirty-odd years ago.

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