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.
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.
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.
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.
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.