114 poets from around the world attended the 2nd International Poetry Festival 4th- 7th July in Lima Peru.
LIMA JOURNAL 2013
In Lima I have some friends, at least an old friend from New York, a Sri Lankan poet/diplomat who has waited for me with impatience—we hadn’t seen one another for 20 years! I survived flight transfers at different airports; and with a certain pomp, after some 19 hours of travelling from Madrid arrived in Lima at 5 am. The airport (a real American one!) contained long lines waiting for passport and immigration control. Suddenly I had a taste of the deserted, abandoned regions of North America—even here the people were imitating the worst modes of behavior and administration rules. I was standing now in one of these immigration queues again; and out of boredom, I wrote the following sonnet about the destiny of a human being, or “gua” as the Indios would call it:
Letter from a GUA
I am just a Gua
While I am moving and breathing
from Trujillo to Lima, I see a python,
I see a flower, I see the pain of the last
Inca emperor dying of lice and scorbutic in Lima
I will never sit down
I will never sit down
Because the meaning of ‘Gua’ is the-one-who-never-sits –down
When I sit down I die
I am here, after all, to understand
How we can preserve the forest
And the Gua who belongs to the forest..
The immigrations officer has given me exactly what I asked for—permission to stay for ten days, stamped in my passport. He did not exaggerate with his generosity, but I did not ask him for more, as I figured this would give me enough time to read and to write a couple of poems, as I am Gua, a human being constantly on the move…
My Peruvian friends and fellow-poets waited for me at Lima airport. It was their winter season, a cold July morning in Lima, so the organiser of the festival tried to accommodate the three of us quickly. The taxi driver waved in a Columbian lady poet, her elderly Swedish husband, and myself. The organiser’s overwhelming concern for our well-being was lingering in the air — I am not able to describe their concern for our “gua”, which largely went beyond the normal concern of any ordinary poetry festival organiser. I became aware of an uncanny and imminent danger wafting about, a sentiment suggested to me by certain friends, and which some of them even spelled out in detail before my departure from Paris, as they had lived or travelled extensively in Latin America.
Human life has very little value here, and it is even less valued than “in some parts of Africa”, they would tell me and then say: “Take good care of yourself, Nina, don’t ever leave the hotel alone, do not even go to buy cigarettes in Lima unless you are accompanied.” But who am I to figure out this huge country on my own? I am aware of all the prejudice against Latin America which has been dominant in Europe for centuries.
As I am a reasonable Gua, once I checked into the Gran Hotel Bolivar, a grand colonial luxury building where Hemingway and Malraux used to live, I tried to see for myself if the sentiment of danger still reigned in me. The feeling was still there, so I had decided to relax and remain in the hotel room — our group readings and appearances were to start tomorrow and I should look presentable, say like Djokovic before his tennis match at Wimbledon.
Radayan had called and invited me to breakfast, but only the following day from the hotel lobby. I started asking him questions about the possibility of moving freely through the city on my own; and oh yes, if it would be possible for me to get to the archeological museum which was located in another part of town. My old friend couldn’t advise me, but the hotel receptionist had organized a taxi ride for me to the Larco museum—in “a decent cab which will not kidnap you and sell your precious organs to four different parts of the world.” The ride lasted more than an hour, and navigated from the Grand Bolivar Hotel in downtown Lima through the weirdest shanty towns imaginable, but of a kind that I had previously seen during my various travels. I haven’t travelled extensively through the so-called “countries of the third world”, yet I understood them intuitively, as I was born in one. But the confusion and the disintegration of “social living” here was passing largely beyond the impression of poverty and desperation which I felt in Cairo during my last trip to Egypt in 2011. The taxi driver insisted that he wait for me in front of the museum because “one never knows”, as suggested to him by the festival’s principal organiser, Marino Mercoval, who thus far remained sort of invisible and hidden from us, the participants. He rang me on the phone as soon as we reached the hotel that morning, declaring that he was “naturalmente” too busy to fuss over each and every arrival of 200 international poets who had been invited. “We shall all see each other tomorrow”, he said in that soft, tender and dreamy Latin-American voice which rolled the vowels very long and reminded me so well of those groovy cocaine New York parties in the 1980s…
The next day I had breakfast with Radayan, whom I’d not seen for 25 years. At present he was the US ambassador to Peru. Meaning that had I continued seeing him in New York during the crazy 1980s, perhaps I would by now be an ambassador’s wife in Lima?
It was much better for me to attend this festival where all the faces from my past, my present, and future got mixed up in a merry-go-round, a strange miasma of days rolling through this thick fog: here is something that I am meant to do. I had to learn the art of the invisible from the Incas, and I had to observe the manner in which they showed respect for the production of gold. They were also there to show us all the bloodthirsty aspects of their civilization. The sacrificial cups and other objects in their archeological museum make clear the ways in which their conquerors treated the victims—with horror, disgust, and yet certain nobility.
I went to the Larco Museum with the Armenian princess who was so grateful to me that I had given her aspirins for her cold. I found my act of friendship to be completely human and normal and insignificant, but as she was living in New York she found my gift to be outstandingly generous! I told her that on account of the Ottoman genocide of the Armenians and the Slavs, and out of solidarity, I would help her even more than that. I feel sorry for all the people who suffered under Ottoman rule for so many centuries. But the Middle Ages were bloody all over the world, and it seems that the Turks remained within the boundaries of those medieval measures longer than their European brothers. Now we are all brothers and Turkey should be allowed to join the European Union. Their grand viziers were the first prime ministers to be elected from the non-native population. Whereas in so-called Western European countries it was not allowed for a foreigner to ascend to the post of prime minister simply because they were bright and had better qualifications than citizens who were born there.
I have no desire to take pictures of this landscape: Machu Pichu, Cuzco, the Pacific ocean marinas…once I wanted to visit this part of the world with a French cameraman friend, but he was against the trip. He said: “Look, things in Europe are so messed-up that we’d better remain here—people in Europe suffer the most! Why should we try to teach the Latin Americans the ways of resistance or the defense? Since so much blood was spilled all over Europe, the people here are the most sensitive, the most reasonable, and also the most unreasonable, so this is where we have to act.”
He was right.
The following day we had to leave our luxurious hotel quite abruptly. The festival organiser had evacuated us to a new and fairly modest hotel in a distant part of town.
It all happened unexpectedly, under rather dramatic circumstances and between two official poetry readings, so to speak. The one reading was held in the National Library in Lima and the other, well…
I was the last to read in a lineup of twenty international poets. And when my turn came, I was asked (told, actually) in a most macho manner to ‘make it snappy,’ since the organiser had drastically cut my presentation time, allowing me a mere two minutes!
I was angry and tired, the tears were streaming down my face. There was a Peruvian poet, Luchio, who tried to dry my eyes. He offered to take me for a walk and show me the Bohemian quarter of Lima called Barranco, which is equivalent to Skadarlija in Belgrade, Montmartre in Paris, Soho in London, Greenwich Village in New York… He took me all around Barranco, and then to a brewery house where we stopped for a drink. He tried to plant a kiss on my old lips (well, just then they felt old), while at the same time eyeing me, trying to second-guess what my reaction would be.
I began laughing. His purely benevolent action had a cheering effect on me. A couple of hours earlier I’d given some pocket money to a young waiter in a hotel who promised to find me the “best coca-leaves in Lima”; but then, pretending that he had never seen me before, pocketed the money and largely ignored me. A real rip-off.
I mentioned the event to two women, both participants in the festival, a Nicaraguan poet named Elvira and an Armenian poetess who came on as terribly self-important and aggrandizing, constantly repeating to me the words: “You must never try to handle things that way” and “You should never perform or act like that.” Then we all got trashed on the local drink, pisco, an agave liquor, which has the ability to knock you down after the first two drops.
Ah, but these two ladies did not know how to perform their bad poetry the following day. Ha!
So now, on the night of the grand inauguration of the festival in a large stadium accommodating 5000 people, it was my turn to whisper: “You should never perform or act that way!”
Anyway, it was a lovely evening full of wildly interesting readings. I even dared ask the macho organiser to slot my performance earlier in the program, as I didn’t at all feel like being the last poet in the parade.
I further dared to recite my poems in Spanish, and without using a translator. Ballsy of me, seeing as how the last time I’d spoken Spanish was 30 years ago! But I felt the necessity of addressing my public in their mother tongue. Indeed, the feeling was at once powerful and overpowering. And the audience spoke the idiom of Cesar Vallejo and that of Pablo Neruda.
I was an intrepid lady poet who had travelled the world fortified only by her mad courage and bravery. I wrote the following whilst listening to a fellow-poet from Brazil:
The End of the Poetry Festival
It is not the quantity that counts
But the quality of poetic voice
114 poets, 30 countries
7 days of poetry in Lima
Poetry for breakfast
Poetry for lunch
Poetry for dinner
For only one time
I’ve heard the word “hunger”
Coming from the mouth of a Brazilian poet
Who was telling us the sick history
Of this century in a distorted world.
I acquired five alpaca sweaters and visited the Museum of Gold the following morning. The museum was a rare gem in which one could see, above all other things, the powerful testimonies of…“motherly love”.
What was a conquistador’s mother to give her son whom, she felt, she was seeing for the very last time? He was off to Reconquista to find spices for Queen Isabel, and perhaps discover new continents. But those Spanish, Portuguese and Italian mothers had a feeling that they were never going to see these brave captains again. So they would give the soldiers the most beautiful objects made of gold and decorated with gems, incredibly valuable objects which were probably torn off their bleeding hearts. A relic to be worn around the neck and carried onto a battlefield, while dying in Peru. (Spanish-Portuguese baroque.)
And how did the Quechua Indians bury their dead ? They mummified mothers with their dead babies—an entire museum floor is filled with dead mothers and tiny Quechua babies. While the other floors are filled with all sorts of arms and armors from different epochs and ages, even those belonging to Nazi officers who sneaked out of Germany and came here after the WWII—these objects were all lined up in the museum, ranging from a rare Oliver Cromwell dagger to Klaus Barbie’s medals.
Another purpose of my trip was to collect texts for our magazine’s “Latin American issue”—the literary review of which I am the Paris editor was waiting for me to bring material from this part of the world. I was to collect poems and books, and conduct interviews with my Latin American colleagues. As I had several interviews lined up for the following day, I went to bed early and woke up to a bright Saturday morning. It was July 6th, almost the end of my journey.
All of a sudden, the task of collecting data and conducting interviews with writers did not seem like such a big deal. What I found more interesting was to observe the functioning of my own brain, which is after all a miraculous machine. Very much like a computer program that switches on and off, my brain was able to adjust itself to a new ‘system’ or program. On about the third day of my stay in Lima, my brain reverted to the “Spanish program”; it remembered words, pieces of forgotten conversations and idiomatic expressions. Something was coming back to me, my entire life in Spanish or the morsels of my previous studies and experiences in Spanish. Only I couldn’t figure out how it was happening and to what extent.
I conducted an interview with Sergio B., a Chilean poet who has had a very interesting life, one that in certain respects resembles my own. After 30 years of wandering all across the world, he returned to Chile, his native country. He was explaining to me the history of Peru and that of Chile, their conflicts and animosities. As we were walking with Henrietta, a Swedish poet, Sergio stopped several children and asked them a question: “Kids, where do you think I’m from?” The kids replied: “From Spain, sir.”
He said: “No, I come from the worst country in the world. Which country is that?”
The kids proclaimed in a single voice: “Chile, Chile!!”
Chile and Peru are old enemies. Sergio says that when he is on the streets of Peru, he has to adopt an Argentinean accent in order to get by, otherwise no one would provide him with any kind of service. I tell him that I have to do the same thing in Dubrovnik, adopt a Croatian accent. Small world.
We walked through the Conquistadors’ Rococo of the streets and buildings in Lima, but the barrio is built next to the worst and poorest shanty town, and the rest of city’s architecture pretty much mirrors this pattern. ‘No,’ I tell myself, ‘nothing bad will happen to me here, but nothing good either. They are used to blue-eyed “gringas”, they’ll all try to rip us off a bit.’
And then there’s the famous Latin American charm of the macho seducer. That evening we performed our poetry in the Barranco square, the very same place where my charming colleague Luchio tried his charm on me. This time the place was cold, only 13º Celsius; we read in the freezing air, lots of it, and yet no drinking water for the participants.
The organiser had decided to invite 114 poets. Whatever he expected, holding all that together far exceeded his abilities. After that cold night (when every performing poet received a touchingly sentimental gift from the municipality of Lima, namely a porcelain plate), we were brought back to the hotel and had to warm ourselves up on pisco, the local agave drink which is sweet and easy to swallow, but has dreadful consequences. Pisco goes straight to your brain and numbs it after a few seconds. I had but half a glass in a the hotel bar, and immediately fell down, hurting my head. I was later told that the organiser and several poets had to carry me upstairs to my room. But before drinking the pisco and falling down, I remembered that I’d invited Sergio, the Chilean poet, to my room, so I could give him a copy of my book. I wanted to reciprocate his kindness. He’d not only given me a good interview, but also a couple of his own books. He must have misunderstood my intentions, however. Once in my room, he stripped himself naked and lay down on my bed while I was looking for a copy of my book in the closet. The scene that followed was worthy of an Almodovar movie. I ran across the hall and started knocking frantically on the door of room 313, where my pal Raul Campoy from Madrid was having a quiet sip of coffee.
“Hola Raul, please come help me! There’s a man in my bed! I didn’t invite him into it, but now he’s naked and won’t leave me alone! Please help!”
The elegant Spaniard then invited the impossible Chilean down to the bar, where we were all supposed to have yet another convivial drink. Here the story gets turned out of sequence. Since it was when I had that drink that I fell down, hit my head, and they all took me upstairs. “Well, this sort of thing happens to poets all the time,” someone mumbled in the hotel lobby. And that was all. C’est la vie, eh.
I can by no means say that my stay here was boring. The following day when I woke up, I heard my own voice mumbling in Spanish. The night before, in that frozen winter air, I’d also read my poetry in Spanish—translations made by my friend Sasha, that made everyone laugh, as they were meant to be funny. So bravo for my pronunciation, and three cheers for Sasha.
“Where did you learn Spanish, miss?’ the oldest Argentinean poet, Guillermo Ariel, asked me. To his great surprise he discovered that his old pal and colleague, Juan Octavio Prens, who had taught at the University of Belgrade, also had the pleasure of teaching me both the Spanish language and Latin American literature, and in his distinct Argentinean accent. The world is small. Which does not necessarily make it a better place. But okay, sometimes it is a pleasant planet to travel around. “There’s always a bit of heaven in a disaster area.”
It is Saturday evening and the festival is coming to a close. Instead of staying to hear all the poems that are being recited, I choose to behold the ocean with the Quetchua poet. My only real wish was to see the Pacific, as I’d seriously thought that I would never see that beautiful ocean again. We took a leisurely walk along the Pacific coast, and I had a feeling that my soul was again getting resurrected.
The following morning at the hotel’s reception desk, as we were leaving for the airport, I realized that we were obliged to ‘pay our debts’ to the poor. The small bar in the hotel room had cost a fortune, crackers alone cost me something like 50 dollars,… But it was worth it. Perhaps it was the last time I would be visiting all the states of the Americas. Now I was ready for an entirely different experience.
• Readings at the festival were given by: Lasse Söderberg, Sweden, jury Nobel Prize Committee, Eduardo Lizaldo, Mexico, a member of Mexico Academy of Letters, Affonso Romano de Sant’Anna, Brazil, former director of the National Library of Brazil, Piedad Bonnett, Colombia, Casa de las Americas Prize and Nina Zivancevic, Serbia (thanks to a grant from Centre National du Livre Français).
Also reading were Fadir Delgado (Colombia), Luis Chaves (Costa Rica), Juan Diego Tamayo (Colombia), Jean Downwind (Luxembourg), Raul Heraud (Peru), Alejandro Susti (Peru), Camila Do Valle (Brazil), Aurea Maria Sotomayor (Puerto Rico), Ana Arzoumanian (Argentina) and Lola Koundakjian (New York, born in Lebanon).