The Language that Saves Us

In San Fernando de Apure, a fairly large city in the rural state of Apure in the middle of Venezuela, around 100 people showed up to a uniquely powerful poetry reading sponsored by CENAL (Centro Nacional del Libro—National Center of the Book), a project of the Revolutionary Bolivarian Venezuelan government.

Local poets read, including a cowboy-hat wearing, white dressed 11-year-old girl with dimples (she did a wonderful performance, or “declamación,” of a patriotic poem with guitar accompaniment). Another poet was an 80-year-old man who read his own fantastically-executed work. In addition, two invited poets of the Third World Poetry Festival of Venezuela also took part: Puerto Rico’s Carman Valle and myself, your humble servant.

This was part of a national tour of 28 poets who came from diverse countries in Africa, Europe, Asia, the Middle East, Oceana, the Caribbean, North America, and South America to participate in the festival. Twenty two of Venezuela’s 24 states were included in this “invasion” of poets. I also read in the “llanero” (open plains area of mostly agricultural farming and ranching) state of Guárico. In the state capital of San Juan de Los Morros, Libyan poet Idris Tayeb, who had once been imprisoned for 10 years because of his writings, joined with me. A fantastic Venezuelan poet, Antonio Trujillo, also took part. In addition, we heard from local poets, which is a great thing to do so that the community is vested and connected to the international poetry community.

Although we were late in starting due to technical difficulties (all non-Spanish poems had been translated and were being projected on a screen at the same time a poet read in his or her native language), red-T-shirted youth from the local Cultural Mission stood on each side of us and applauded as Idris, Antonio, and I walked up to the open-air lecture stage. Some people were there since 4:30 PM, although we didn’t start until 7:30 PM (it was supposed to start at 6 PM). The majority in the audience stayed all the way until about 10:30 PM when the whole program finished. Their fortitude and love of language was astounding. I couldn’t believe any people would have the patience to stay this long for poetry (we can learn much about this in the United States).

My festival guide, Robinson Velasco, 26, continued to be a most helpful and trusting companion to have on these trips. We took several buses, first three hours, then four hours, and then a particularly brutal 8-hour ride from San Fernando de Apure to Caracas (with a half-working air conditioner, no restrooms, and tons of babies). We stayed in small cockroach-infested hotel rooms (without hot water in one case) in mosquito-laden territory. But we also met wonderful people, local residents, who showed us around their town, fed us the most wonderful foods (including local versions of “arepas” and “chanapas”), and never failed to have a smile and a kind word.

Back in Caracas (and to our Hilton hotel suites, free meals, and pool), other presentations followed, including an amazing closing event at the Teatro Teresa Carreño featuring North Americans poets from the US and Mexico (including Jack Hirschman, Allison Hedge Cooke, Sam Hamill, Jorge Cocom Pech, Maria Baranda, and, again, yours truly).

We also all took part in media interviews, mostly in the hotel’s lobby, but sometimes outside in the streets of Caracas with food and artisan vendors in the background. We appeared in the pages of newspapers, on the radio, and on national and local TV broadcasts.

Again, in the closing event, some 2,000 people showed up (all the readings were free). Books were sold, including classics books from around the world and Venezuela, and contemporary works of poets in the country and other parts of the world. The revolutionary work of the new Bolivariano government (led by Hugo Chavez Frias) includes the expansion of books, literacy, ideas, and creativity.

I saw many wonderful construction projects, including roads, health care facilities, computer centers, schools, and housing, much of it fueled by oil (Venezuela is one of the world’s largest oil producers). The country’s oil reserves had been used for years by a small elite class of rich people; now it’s being used to feed, clothe, house, and change the culture of the poor in the country. However, for me, one of the most impressive labors of any revolutionary society is that of drawing on the creativity, gifts, talents, passions, energies, and ideas of the people themselves to rebuild, renew, and reinvigorate the whole country.

Poetry then is a revolutionary tool, an armament of positive and healing change, as a language that will help pull the people up from the despairing and debilitating consequences of capitalist-driven poverty, fear, hunger, and ignorance. As one Venezuelan poet said, poetry is not just of those who write it. It belongs to the people. It belongs to the revolution. It belongs to the future.

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