Poetry Is Our Only Real Country

Posted on Mon, Dec 6 2010 1:56 am by Anya Achtenberg

Es la poesía la única patria real del hombre.

(Poetry is the only real country of human beings.) ~Derbys Dominguez, poet, arts instructor, in Matanzas, Cuba

I first traveled to Cuba from Boston when I was a barely published poet, at a time when those who worked against the US blockade of Cuba faced threats and sometimes murderous retaliation. I made a second trip a year later. After our translator Lilia Berta learned that I loved poetry and was trying to write it, she began to call me “Poeta.”

For that trip, “Poeta” became my name in Cuba. And for the first time, I experienced my deep desire to express my vision of the world with the power and music of language as something respected, nurtured, and recognized by society. This valuing of the arts, this belief that all can create, enjoy, and understand art, is something the Cuban Revolution is known for. This is a place that values ability, effort, and desire to create over résumés, a place that cultivates love and understanding of the arts. This is a place I would return to.

I knew there were a number of ways to go to Cuba: direct challenge of the blockade with Pastors for Peace (I went in July 2009) and the Venceremos Brigade; educators’ tours and academic conferences; groups of environmentalists and communities of faith. In 2008, I began working with the Minnesota Cuba Committee. A committee member, who perhaps doubted my ability to pull it off, suggested I organize a writers’ trip to Cuba.

Perfect! I wanted to go deeply into the literary work of Cuba and connect to writers at all levels. I wanted to know why it was that Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier, who coined the phrase lo real maravilloso—the central concept of magical realism—and had been living in exile from the Batista regime, returned to the Cuba of Che and Fidel in 1959. I knew that in the United States most writers don’t know of Carpentier’s central importance—nor are they familiar with his extraordinary novels and other works.

A winding path reconnected me to a pediatric psychiatrist in Havana who also programs for conferences and tours, and she became my programmer. She in turn connected me to Marazul Tours, and they facilitated program development and contact with Cuban counterparts for a profound level of exchange among writers and other creatives. Writers’ journeys to Cuba were born.

But there would be hurdles to jump over to get a group of writers to Cuba.

About 15 years ago, I got on a ferry in Algeciras in southern Spain, and after three hours of passing by the Rock of Gibraltar and watching the coast of North Africa, I disembarked in Tangiers, Morocco. I had my passport. No one stopped me going in or out. Porous, at least for a traveler who is neither immigrant nor exile. This crossing makes sense to me. But the US keeps Cuba on the list of “terrorist” states. Cuba has not been guilty of any terrorist act against the United States. The US, however, has supported some lethal acts of terrorism against Cuba. Truth on its head.

To navigate US regulations to get to Cuba in a way sanctioned by the US government, one must indeed stand on one’s head. Academics are permitted, if engaging in research of a “noncommercial, academic nature,” with a “substantial likelihood of public dissemination,” according to the US Department of State. While academics have a fairly easy time getting into Cuba under US sanctions, creative writers and other artists face strict regulations. A full-time research plan must be developed and in place for each visiting writer to satisfy licensing regulations.

Added to those bureaucratic hurdles are high air fares to Havana for US citizens—due directly to the travel ban and blockade. Citizens of no other country face this. Also, phone and Internet communication are very costly and slow. The United States blocks access, through the embargo laws, to the microfiber optic cables surrounding the island. This makes our work organizing the trip much more difficult.

How does the language of art break down language barriers?

The arts are key in breaking down our language and cultural barriers, and helping us leap the chasm dug and deepened by an archaic foreign policy. The literary arts are most bound by language barriers. Translations of our intense discussions—and songs, poems, stories, and film—made it clear how much we connect. And we are hungry to do so, beyond “policy,” in the land of poetry and the arts, perhaps our most “real country.”

We moved in an atmosphere of shared passion for the arts, throughout our planned meetings with writers and others, and in our wanderings. When we browsed a table covered with handmade books like none I had ever seen; or sat in animated discussions, ate, and even danced with Cuban writers and scholars, we revitalized the deep connections between people kept apart for so long.

What kind of impact have the trips had on writers?

In spite of our group being a bunch of writers and artists, there were, after all, tough guys among us: people not automatically predisposed to think that if it’s Cuba, good things must be happening. But there are qualitative differences in how Cuban society sees each individual, and how art is regarded, that made the trip a revelation and shed light on what many of us have yearned for: how to arrive at the valuing of artistic quality that does not devalue the individual; how to do the hard work of developing as artists without competition that is crushing and exclusionary. When we finished our visit to a high school that trains future instructors in the arts, people in my group were weeping. Some of those were tough cookies.

How do social activism and art collide in Cuba?

Here is an example of the deep ways in which social activism and art collide: a quite successful actor, 25 years ago, walked through empty fields in Matanzas Province and said, here, this is where I want to build a school for the arts. He is still that school’s director and his students graduate with a level of training in the arts that is exquisite. Throughout Cuba, it has been guaranteed that schools that embrace the arts are present in the countryside as they are in Havana and other large cities.

Social activism and art are intricately, intimately integrated, at a profound level. José Martí, 19th-century writer, philosopher, poet, and revolutionary, said, “Ser culto es el único modo de ser libre”  (To be cultured is the only way to be free). Cuba, a previously colonized island, had no film industry of its own, but was often used as an “exotic” backdrop for films made by directors from other countries. One of the early acts of the Cuban government in 1959 was to establish the Cuban Film Institute (El Instituto Cubano de Arte e Industria Cinematográficos, ICAIC). Cubans, many of whom had never seen a film, now had access via cinemobiles—mobile film trucks that traveled the countryside. Discussion groups were created: How does one look at film? How does one critique film? Radical, socially conscious filmmaking with a piercing and critical vision of Cuban society has been supported from the start. “Only through criticism does a society improve. Films show . . . our dirty laundry,” I was told in discussions at ICAIC.

Cuba established a system of pre-university schools for arts instructors (Fidel’s idea). Students graduate with a degree in humanities and have taken exams in their specialties. They teach in elementary through high schools or work in one of the many casas de cultura or with senior citizens. Yeny Marisol Carmenate Falcón, director of the School of Instructors of the Arts, René Fraga Moreno, reminded me of some of the most passionate and intelligent teacher-writers I have known. “The mission is to create a human being, with artistic values, to be better, to appreciate art, to teach how they became artists!” In the past ten years, 33,000 of these instructors have graduated, about 1 for every 333 people. “This is my most important work of art: to help the community,” Falcón said.

What is in the works?

At Ediciones Vigía, a book arts facility that “promotes writing and publishing” and makes amazing handmade books, I had a long conversation with poet Israel Dominguez. Dominguez is a great admirer of US poets, he said. When I asked, “Like who?” he gave me a great list topped by Allen Ginsberg and his contemporaries. It hit me powerfully that for many Cuban poets, their familiarity with ours ended somewhere around 1959 (and yet they still know more about our literature than we know of theirs). So, of course, I wanted to find ways to get books and writers to them, and to expose their literature to more writers and readers here.

Here is the idea that I know must become a reality: we need to publish combined anthologies of Cuban and US poetry and short stories. One of the reasons I am thrilled to be going back to Cuba is to help move this project along. Potentially, these books will be read the world over, but certainly in Cuba, where books are very inexpensive, and, as I was told, “Kids here have a big habit of reading.”

Another project brewing is to plan trips for US writers and educators to participate in courses focusing on the writing and times of Alejo Carpentier and Cuban culture, and on Cuban literature now and since 1959, hopefully as a joint project with the Alejo Carpentier Foundation.

My writer’s being was thrilled to be in a world where music is visible, the dance jumps through traffic, history continually reveals itself, and the texts are as rich as any in the world.

As Luís Octavio Hernández, president of the Cuban Association of Artisans and Artists in Matanzas, said, grinning, “Imagine what these crazy people could do without limitations, without the blockade.”

And imagine what we crazy writers can do with Cuban writers—even before the blockade is lifted.

Anya Achtenberg, award-winning fiction writer and poet, has authored a novella, The Stories of Devil-Girl (Modern History Press); two books of poetry, including The Stone of Language (West End Press); and a novel, Prairie Angel, excerpted in Harvard Review. For her novel in progress, History Artist, she is a recipient of a Minnesota State Arts Board grant. She teaches creative writing nationally, including her multigenre Writing for Social Change: Re-Dream a Just World Workshops; Claiming Our Stories workshops in fiction and memoir; and online both with Writers.com/Writers on the Net and through her website. As a writing consultant and editor, she has worked individually with many fiction writers, memoirists, and poets. She writes about the art of writing at anyaachtenberg.com.

Forthcoming writers and artists trips to Cuba

Can you imagine dancing with fiction writers Mirta Yáñez and Nancy Alonso? Can you imagine open-ended discussions with screenwriter Ambrosio Fornet or novelist and revolutionary Marta Rojas? Would you like to visit the Museum of the Route of the Slave in Matanzas? Casa de las Americas, the Union of Writers and Artists, and the Cuban Film Institute in Havana? Can you see yourself at a performance at La Colmenita, the internationally renowned children’s theater, admiring the work of sculptor-mosaicist José Fuster in the streets of Jaimanitas, and moving to the beat of Afro-Cuban music with gracious and talented rumberos and salseros? Or researching for a novel, a series of poems, an academic article? Then a writers’ trip to Cuba is for you!

February 12–20, 2011, for writers, artists, filmmakers, educators, etc.; to Havana and Matanzas, in part coinciding with the International Book Fair.
April 2011 (exact dates during the first two weeks of April, to be determined), for writers, artists, filmmakers, educators, etc.; to Holguín, Santiago de Cuba, Havana, in part coinciding with the Festival of Poor Cinema in Gibara, April 4–10, the international Sundance of Cuba!

Contact information for Writers and Artists Delegations to Cuba: anyaachtenberg.com www.minnesotacubacommittee.org or aachtenberg@gmail.com