Grevel Lindop

Poet, biographer, critic, essayist and writer on just about everything

Poetry – Song of the Cosmos and of Nicaragua!

Splendid Granada, the Festival's setting

Splendid Granada, the Festival’s setting

I’m just home from what must be the world’s most magnificent and delightful poetry festival. It’s the International Poetry Festival of Granada, held each year in Nicaragua’s most historic and beautiful city, and this time I was lucky enough to be invited. I knew it would be exciting but I truly had no conception of what it would really be like.

Nicaraguans have a genuine and universal love of poetry, and the week was packed with events ranging from the open mics which ran for hours every day with audiences consistently around 50 or 60 people listening intently to local poets, to the enormous evening readings where poets from more than 60 countries read their work (with Spanish translations) to audiences that filled the city’s main plaza and must have numbered thousands.
And as if the readings weren’t enough, on Tuesday 19th (as every year) there was the city’s Poetry Carnival – a vast colourful procession of bands, dancers, poets and everyone else, led by an elaborate horesdrawn funeral carriage, carrying the coffin of Arrogance and Insensitivity! And, of course, the parade stopped at every street corner through the city for short readings by countless poets.

Highlights of the Festival were splendid readings by Nicaraguan poet Ernesto Cardenal: a priest, Liberation Theologian, love poet, champion of indigenous cultures and hero of the campaign to overthrow the Somoza dictatorship, he was a charming and modest figure in loose blue trousers and white smock, his bushy white hair escaping from under a black beret. He read his famous ‘Oracion para Marilyn Monroe’ (‘Prayer for Marilyn Monroe’), and his touching and profound poem about the song of the cicadas which emerge from their 17-year sojourn underground only to sing and die: ‘En Pascua resuscitan las cigarras’ (‘At Easter the cicadas come back to life’) and other poems which are nationally known in Nicaragua but a marvellous new discovery for me.

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With Ernesto Cardenal at the book fair

There were also overwhelming performances (see video below) by Raul Zurita, who has written a kind of modern Divine Comedy on the recent traumatic history of Chile; and a characteristically delightful, intense and picturesque reading by Gioconda Belli, again a heroine of the Sandinista revolution – whose devotion to the arts and education as well as to democracy is the foundation of this amazing event – a festival to which richer countries would never dream of giving such resources but which this small country gladly offers to the world.


Just listent to Raul Zurita’s poetry as music if you don’t know Spanish, and share his extraordinary lament for the sufferings of his country under Pinochet’s dictatorship, in which he was arrested, tortured and exiled.

The Friday night reading, when with a succession of other poets I suddenly found myself up in the lights on the platform, reading into the beautifully-tuned sound system and gazing over a sea of faces stretching into the warm distance of the beautiful colonial Plaza, felt like flying. There was a magic in the moonlight, the vast, warm, appreciative audience, the sense of speaking – almost singing – the poems, English and Spanish, into this beautiful living space. Maybe that’s what it’s like to play a rock festival.

I was delighted to meet Gerry Cambridge, Scottish poet and editor of The Dark Horse magazine, for the first time, and also the fine New Zealand poet and publisher Roger Hickin. The three of us spent a good deal of time together, and also with the Taiwanese poet Yang Ze and the Icelandic poet Gerdur Kristny… I could go on, because it was the most wonderful opportunity to make friends and hear the most diverse poetries from all over the world. And as a bonus my old friend Ken McCarthy (www.kenmccarthy.com) came over from Guatemala for a couple of days to hang out, browse the bookshops, hear the music, marvel at the Carnival and enjoy the poems.

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Roger Hickin, New Zealand poet and publisher

Other poets whose work I loved included Gemino Abad (Phillippines), Margaret Randall and Jerome Rothenberg (both USA), Peter Boyle (Australia)… I could go on. And then there was the food. And the wonderful Phillips Montalban reggae band one night. And the great Mexican salsa orchestra another night. And the trip through the islands on Lake Cocibolco. And the tropical heat, and the scarlet and purple bougainvillea flowers, and the misty volcano in the background, and the Toña beer, and the Flor de la Caña rum. And the magnificent kindness, hospitality and efficiency of our hosts.

Granada Cathedral

Granada Cathedral

Shuffling off the plane at Manchester Airport this morning at 8.30 it was England that seemed, for a moment, like a dream. It’s not often one gets the chance to experience so intensely. Thank you Nicaragua, thank you Granada. In the slogan of the Festival, ‘Poetry is the Song of the Cosmos’; and it really did feel true.

I must also say a big Thank You to the Arts Council of Great Britain, which generously paid my fare and expenses to attend the Festival. I’m very grateful for this support.
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In Granada they are already starting to plan for next year’s Festival. If you have any taste for poetry, February would be a good time to visit Granada and see for yourself. The Festival – like poetry and like Nicaragua itself – is a dream which has somehow become reality.

Salsa Travels in Paperback!

At last I’m in paperback. My book Travels on the Dance Floor has just appeared in the new format – and at half the price! – from publishers Andre Deutsch.

I’m pleased that they’ve kept the same funky, deeply colourful, slightly gritty look for the cover design (a bit pale in this jpeg – the one at right is more accurate!) – I wanted it to reflect the look of the beautiful, battered buildings of Cuba and other Latin American cities, where nothing is pristine, but the used-and-abused look only adds to the charm of the cityscape.

But they have added a corner-flash saying that Travels was listed as Authors’ Club Dolman Best Travel Book 2009 – something I’m very proud of, even though the actual prize was won by a more scholarly tome. It was a very short short list, believe me.

What has delighted me even more than the listing has been the wonderful response I’ve had from readers – and by no means only from people who dance. People still come up to me in the street, at parties, at literary events, or they email me, to tell me how much they enjoyed it. Typical comments have been ‘I tried to read slowly because I couldn’t bear it to finish.’ ‘It was written so beautifully that I could see everything in my head like a movie in full colour.’

Hector - Panama City bus artist

Am I boasting? Of course. But I’m also full of gratitude that I’ve been able to give readers so much enjoyment. A matter of sharing the delight I myself took in the adventure.

Travels sometimes gets referred to as my ‘salsa book’, but the truth is that I used dance as a way into Latin American and Caribbean culture generally: a way to get close to people, to learn from them, to explore the sides of these countries that the tourists don’t get to see.

I travelled through Cuba, Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and ended up in Miami, Fla. I took lessons in the local dance styles in each country, and I explored the clubs and dance halls. I met magicians and pagan priests, policement and prostitutes, poets and musicians. I met a guy who made a living painting pictures on the sides of buses, an haute couture designer, and several lunatics. All of them were fascinating. And I met them pretty much on equal terms. I got robbed, I got arrested, I got lost, and I had the most wonderful time – better than I could ever have imagined.

Aïda: her Colombian smile brightened stressed-out Caracas!

Aïda: her Colombian smile brightened stressed-out Caracas!

I fell in love with these countries, their music, their culture and their people. And since I wrote the book with total honesty – and absolutely no regard for political correctness – I have to say that I fell in love above all with Latin American women, surely some of the most beautiful in the entire world. You will meet many of them in the book, and I hope you’ll be as enchanted by them as I was.

Whether or not you dance salsa, tango or anything else, enjoy!