Poetry for peace in Colombia

The International Poetry Festival of Medellin, Colombia, was inaugurated in 1991 to be a breath of relief for a city and country terrorized by drug cartels and steeped in violence. The festival, initiated by Fernando Rendon of the literary magazine Prometeo with 13 Colombian poets, has since grown to be the biggest of its kind in the world and has heard, cheered and rejoiced in the sentiments of 700 poets from 115 nations. «Such a festival is an act of rebellion and defiance against anyone anywhere who attempts to quash the human spirit,» says the website. In its 15th year, held from June 24 to July 2, Greek poet and author Kostis Gimosoulis was invited to attend and waxed enthusiastic about the experience: «That kind of participation doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world. Great crowds would gather – 4,000 to 5,000 people, most aged 20 to 40 years old. And the crowds didn’t just gather, they participated. When some state functionary would take the stage to speak, they’d get him off – always politely, but somehow they moved him off.» This year 80 poets from 52 nations took part, including 1986 Nobel Prize winner Wole Soyinka of Nigeria, poets from the smallest African states, representatives from Iraq, Palestine, Japan, Europe, the US and the small Indian nations of both North and South America – a truly global contingent. The poets read in their own languages and a reader would then read a translation in Spanish. «I was meant to give five readings in the 10 days, but in the end I read 10 times because they sent me to different parts, communes they’re called,» Gimosoulis said. «The heart of Medellin is in the center of the valley, but as you ascend the mountain there are shacks with poor communities. They sent you to other places too, by plane, where the crowds were just as warm.» So the readings didn’t take place just in Medellin? They brought it to everyone… for some, it was the first time they ventured out in public, and they came to hear poetry! Why couldn’t they come out? Because there are guns. There are three categories of soldiers, the state military, the paramilitary and the rebels. The paramilitaries play a strange role, because they assist the national military but at the same time they are in cahoots with the rebels; you have to be careful of all sides. Every family has a victim of the bloodshed. So the role of the festival is also political, not just literary. It is an attempt to open up Colombian society. Colombia is like paradise in the midst of hell. It is a fantastic country with fantastic people, extremely warm and friendly, but at the same time all around them are victims. Is the festival an attempt to heal them of the violence? Initially, when you see them following the poetry, you have the sense that they are meditating, they sit as if praying. And [it is] political because these are public events, with poetry as the means. It had an incredibly positive energy, probably because the organizers believe in it so strongly. It creates a brotherhood of people, with poetry as its agent. It is paradoxical how these people have a war among them, civil war, and yet are like that. Their motto is: «For a peace more active than war.» That’s the axiom of the festival. It’s not some line of poetry, it is political. In that sense, it was a joy to be there, not just for the festival, but for the country and not just for the country but for the festival. It was the first time this year that Indians came down from Santa Marta – one of the highest mountains – who don’t read, but recite their poems, hold a ritual. They sing a song that is like a breathing prayer and then they begin their poem – not for show, the crowd takes part, it isn’t some bullshit theatrical dead thing where people hide their smiles. It is something that engulfs the people. Something else that made a great impression on me was that they greatly admire the Greeks. I was the only Greek. They believe something about us that I believe we aren’t anymore, believe in our poets, our tradition of poetry. They love Greek theater, love Homer, two of their major heroes are Achilles and Hector. The horse I rode they called Anarchy. You come across a lot of that. The name of [the literary journal] Prometeo, means Prometheus, and when I told them, they went wild. The man who brought fire down from the gods. You are left with a very sweet feeling, a joyous feeling. But on the other hand, there’s a great melancholy, because you won’t find anything like that in your own country. There are a few living poets who are the «alibi» – the alibi for the absence of that spirit. Kiki Dimoula is an alibi. That doesn’t mean that people read Kiki Dimoula, but they’ll buy her book to place on their bookshelves. Of course, the poets are to blame for that, as they withdraw more and more into themselves. It isn’t enough to be a poet in books but also in your life. One must be consistent with what one does, in some way, in your own way. How did they react to your poems? The apotheosis was at the end of the festival, I don’t think they applauded anyone as loudly. I read a poem (of mine, translated) in Spanish. They felt, apart from the fact that they understood what I was reading, that I was one of them. It is very difficult to get those kind of audiences anymore. There, it is in the soul of the people. The analogy is like some rock star in Europe. That’s what poets are there. The last to die was Manolis Anagnostakis – a star poet. And in life, so were Ritsos, Elytis, and Seferis. We lived the times of star poets, in which no one was able to contain themselves. They’d appear and there’d be cheering, a wave of adoration from the crowd. And the public fell in love with a verse. That doesn’t happen anymore. I think that’s the greatest gift that the festival leaves with you… is that it teaches you to love poetry. It doesn’t matter if someone’s a bad poet, a mediocre poet, a good poet. There you forget all that because there are so many languages, so many people reading in their own languages, and even not understanding, you feel the energy. There’s an energy that is only positive, and it doesn’t matter if this one is better than the other. The thing that matters is that they’re a poet. That sea of poetry does you good. Kostis Gimosoulis is the author of five poetry collections, seven novels and a book of poems, prose and paintings, all published by Kedros Publishers. This interview was translated from the Greek. The Int’l Poetry Festival of Medellin can be contacted at

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