The World Poetry Festival in Caracas, Venezuela

I'm most honored to be an invited poet to the 3rd World Poetry Festival in Caracas, Venezuela from July 17 to July 23, 2006. I arrived at Caracas Airport on Saturday, July 15 without a hitch. This was in contrast to my visit to Caracas this past January when I took part in the World Social Forum. Then there were problems with a downed bridge, late pickups, hours to get to the capital, confused schedules, and on my way out, spending a restless night in the airport trying to sleep in a plastic lawn chair until the next day when my flight was slated to leave.

This time, I was warmly greeted by members of the poetry festival's staff, including my own personal guide, a knowledgeable and friendly young man named Robinson Velasco. A new road had already been constructed that brought us into the capital of some 8 million people in almost no time. I met other poetry staff and volunteers, was given a nice room in the Hilton in the center of the city, and provided with breakfast, lunch, and dinner at no cost.

The magnitutude of this event dawned on me when I was told that there are less than a handful of world poetry festivals anywhere. Medellin, Colombia has perhaps one of the world´s largest (and, apparently, the largest in the Americas). The Caracas festival has grown in three years with more poets, more audiences, more financial and logistical support. The 28 invited poets came from Asia, Africa, South America, North America, the Caribbean, the Mideast, Europe, and Australia.

They included Hu Lanlan of China, Carman Valle of Puerto Rico, Tendo Taijin of Japan, Ali Al-Shalah of Iraq, Jorge Cocom Pech of Mexico, Nicole Cage-Florentini of Martinique, Tobias Burghardt of Germany, Francois Miguot of France, and Mike Ladd of Australia. Many were also from Venezuela including Miguel Marquez and Laura Antillano.

Four Americans were invited: Sam Hamill (founder of Copper Canyon Press and the amazing Poets Against the War), Allison Hedge Coke (well-known Native American poet), Jack Hirschman (the Poet Laureate of San Francisco and one of the most revolutionary voices in US letters), and yours truly. What a privilege to be linked to all these great poets!

On Monday, July 17, we were welcomed by the Venezuelan Minister of Culture, Francisco Sesto Novas, at a reception at the national library. We were also treated to a tour of the rare books section of the library, the pride of this relatively poor Latin American country that has now seen a great rise in literacy among the people. The government has recently published 500,000 copies of "Les Miserables" by Victor Hugo to go with the millions of other classics that are given free to the public. Their publishing imprint, El Perro y La Rana (The Dog and the Frog) is named after an indigenous symbol, connecting to the strong indigenous, African, and Spanish roots of the people. This is part of the Hugo Chavez government´s effort to expand the revolutionary process into all areas of the country (the way it has brought health care, new housing, schools, and computer centers free and accessible to millions of previously neglected populations).

Later that evening, after intense preparations and rehearsal (something many of us poets were not used to, being simple people of paper, pen, and voice), some 2000 people showed up to our gala inaugural event at the Teresa Carreño Theater. 2,000 people! I'm rarely amazed as a poet if I can get me a couple of hundred in the United States (one time I read to six people, four of whom were my family).

The response was tremendous. People sat through two hours of readings, with translations into Spanish of many of the poems projected onto the back wall of the theater. When it was over, hardly anyone had left (the audience included elderly and school children). The applause was enthusiastic, spontaneous, and gracious.

The next day, I did a reading at the Central University of Caracas with Anwar Al-Ghasanni of Iraq (who because of many years of exile was also fluent in Spanish, English, and who knows what other language) and several Venezuelan poets, including my friend Diego Sequera. Again, the response was heartfelt among the 100 or so people who showed up to listen. Press interviews followed at the university and later at the Hilton Hotel. More readings were also scheduled throughout the day.

Tomorrow, I'm scheduled to go to the state of Guarico, about a five-hour drive from Caracas, to read to largly agricultural communities. Other poets will be visiting other states throughout Venezuela so that most people in the country get access to the amazing words, images, ideas, passions, and presence of some of the world´s leading revolutionary poets. Hasta luego!

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