Verse and Versatility

Central America’s poets confront the era of globalization

woman posing with illustrated people on her body
Illustration by Katie Yamasaki

Granada, founded in 1524, is a small city of elegant colonial buildings that sits beneath the tapered green cone of the Mombacho Volcano on the shore of Lake Nicaragua. The city’s cultural highlight is the annual Granada Poetry Festival, which attracts poets from all over Latin America, not to mention Californians, Taiwanese, Greenland Inuit, and Romanians. The poets read before huge crowds against the floodlit backdrops of Granada’s colonial facades. As a veteran of poetry readings attended by jaded but polite middle-class Canadians, I was riveted during my visit to last year’s festival by the sight of working-class single mothers, nuns and priests, middle-aged men in T-shirts and baseball caps, and avid schoolchildren hanging on every poetic line.

No country in Latin America loves its poets like Nicaragua. Rubén Darío (1867–1916), the innovator who brought Spanish-language verse into the twentieth century, lived much of his life abroad, then returned to die in this poor Central American republic where he was born. Darío’s early work is populated by nymphs, water sprites, and resuscitated Renaissance poetic forms, but he ended his career warning his compatriots against United States imperialism in poems such as “To Roosevelt,” in which he wrote (of the US), “You believe . . . /that where you place the bullet /you place the future.” Darío’s work is omnipresent in Nicaragua, his verses quoted everywhere.

The fusion of art and national self assertion forms part of Darío’s legacy. It is not that Nicaraguan poets write “political poetry” in the anemic sense the term conveys in English. In Nicaragua, where a feeble state has been trampled repeatedly by foreign invaders and monomaniacal strongmen, poetry is the nation, the sole consistent thread that lends substance and chronological perspective to the experience of being Nicaraguan. South America, Mexico, and Cuba have middle classes whose lives lend themselves to being mythologized in novels; in Nicaragua, where only a tiny middle class separates the oligarchy from the peasantry, forms of poetry that are only one step removed from oral storytelling have persisted as the most compelling record of the blending of public and private consciousness.

Today, in Nicaragua and across Central America, where George W. Bush-worshipping governments are distinguishing themselves from the left-wing regimes that predominate in South America, poetry has strengthened its defining role. In their fear that any assertion of national identity might offend the US administration, many of Central America’s rulers suppress their countries’ histories and cultures. This leaves a field wide open to the poets. However, the left-wing culture that boosted poetry’s fortunes in the 1980s and continues to influence Nicaraguan verse is not equally strong across nations, and, as globalization advances, the relationship between poetry and the state in Central America is becoming more varied and unpredictable.

In Nicaragua, the decision to establish the poetry festival in Granada, rather than in Rubén Darío’s hometown of León, was a source of controversy. The most common explanation I’ve heard is that the government was afraid that in León, where left-wing murals emblazon the walls and folksingers strum revolutionary anthems in bars, the festival would morph into a publicity circus for Nicaragua’s revolutionary past. Yet locating the festival in a politically conservative city has not eliminated this dynamic, because literary culture and revolutionary nationalist culture have been so closely linked.

At the 2006 festival, a plaque that is to be unveiled before the second night of readings expresses one of the week’s two central themes: “Aquí está Granada” (“Here is Granada” ). In 1855, William Walker, a California filibuster who had earlier tried to take over the Mexican state of Sonora, led an invasion of Nicaragua. Walker, who enjoyed tacit support from elements of the US government, had himself elected president, declared English the official language, and reinstated slavery. Driven out after a two-year occupation, Walker is most notorious in Nicaragua for having tried to incinerate the country’s colonial jewel. As he set fire to Granada, Walker’s cronies left behind a sign reading, “Here was Granada.”

The sesquicentennial of Walker’s burning of the city dovetails with the centenary of the birth of Nicaraguan modernist poet José Coronel Urtecho, who died in 1994 and to whom the 2006 festival is dedicated. For most of his life, Coronel was a spokesman for the dictatorship of the Somoza family, which ruled Nicaragua for forty-five years. In the 1970s, Coronel reversed his stance and became a supporter of the left-wing Sandinista guerrillas, who overthrew the Somozas in 1979 and ruled until their defeat at the polls in 1990.

Granada is also the traditional home of the Chamorro family, mainstays of Nicaragua’s conservative oligarchy. The Chamorros were denied their natural role of running the country for much of the twentieth century, first by the US Marines, who placed the upstart (but English-speaking) Anastasio Somoza García and his Liberal Party in power in 1933 after a six-year military occupation, then by the Sandinistas, who succeeded where the Conservative Party had failed by putting an end to the Somozas’ rule. But the Chamorros have prospered in recent years. The first post-Sandinista president, Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, was a Chamorro widow; various Chamorro relatives served as cabinet ministers in the first three post-1990 governments; and the members of the board of directors of the right-wing newspaper La Prensa are all Chamorros.

Álvaro Chamorro Mora has been elected mayor of Granada twice, the first time as a Conservative and the second, in 2004, as a nominal convert to the Sandinista Front, supported by right-leaning elements among local Sandinistas. Approaching the podium in front of La Merced Church, Chamorro avoids looking at the plaque, over which someone has draped a white sheet inscribed in English with the words, “Here was Granada.” Chamorro praises the Granada Poetry Festival as an opportunity for Nicaraguans to participate in the world. Poetry, he proclaims, recognizes no national boundaries; it is the incarnation of free trade. His speech is a direct attack on the idea that poetry can have local, or national, relevance. Chamorro claims his cousin, Coronel Urtecho, for the cause of painless globalized entertainment. He skirts the burning of Granada. The unveiling of the plaque takes place later, after a speech by the festival organizer.

The first poet to read is Ernesto Cardenal. In the 1970s and 1980s, Cardenal, an ordained priest and one of Latin America’s major poets, was one of the most public faces of left-wing Catholicism. During the disastrous 1983 papal visit to Nicaragua, the sight of Cardenal — Nicaragua’s then-minister of culture — standing amid the welcoming delegation provoked Pope John Paul II to wag his finger in Cardenal’s face, shouting, “You must regularize your situation!” In 1985, John Paul barred Cardenal from administering the sacraments, a punishment that Cardenal later wrote was no punishment at all, because his religious vocation was always a contemplative one. As minister of culture, Cardenal presided over a renaissance in Nicaraguan folk art, establishing workshops where aged masters of moribund indigenous crafts taught their skills to the young, as well as fostering a school of naive painting. These products of a left-wing quest for national identity now stock the markets that fuel Nicaragua’s tourist industry.

Like Chamorro, the poet, now in his eighties, is a cousin of Coronel’s. White-bearded and wearing a Che Guevara beret atop his shoulder-length white hair, Cardenal is dressed in blue jeans and a cotona, the traditional Nicaraguan peasant shirt that he brought back into fashion. He delivers a stern corrective to Chamorro’s association of Coronel with a poetry devoid of national significance. The poem that Cardenal reads, “Epistle to José Coronel Urtecho,” is written in the concrete, declarative style that he was accused of imposing on younger poets in the Sandinistas’ poetry workshops. It rehearses the two cousins’ political disagreements, culminating in Coronel’s conversion to the Sandinista cause. In spite of his age, Cardenal’s voice remains powerful. When he belts out lines like, “The land belongs to all, not to the rich!,” voices in the crowd respond with “¡Viva! ” It feels as though we are back in the 1970s.

As Cardenal reads, Chamorro sits with his head turned away from the podium, staring at the ancient flagstones of the church patio. When the poet finishes, a nearby group of men in baseball caps start chanting that the brutal dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle was “the best president Nicaragua ever had!” As the crowd shouts them down, Chamorro runs for a waiting car. The readings continue for another hour. The final reading, by Gioconda Belli, reasserts the Sandinista value of poetry as the expression of national history: a semi-mystical allegiance similar to that of belonging to a religious community or an underground political movement. A tall, striking woman in her late fifties, Belli (whose mother was a close friend of the Chamorros) incarnated the sexual liberation of Nicaraguan women in the 1970s by writing erotic poems that put into print words, longings, and acts that no upper-class woman in Catholic, patriarchal Nicaragua had voiced before. One of the poems that Belli reads encapsulates Nicaraguan history through a series of evocations of night-time landings at the airport in Managua in different eras. The men who want the Somoza dictatorship back start shouting again, but the crowd silences them.

The 1979–1990 Sandinista government is remembered, among other things, for its literacy campaign, its poetry workshops, and for the large number of writers who occupied administrative posts. The opportunistic, windily populist rebranding of the old revolutionary party that returned former president Daniel Ortega to power in the November 2006 elections has destabilized this intertwining of left-wing culture and literary allegiances. The culture of globalization is a culture of aliteracy: a consumerist amnesia dependent on the suppression of the historical memory inscribed in poetry. One of the changes I discovered on returning to Managua for the first time in twenty years was that the capital’s new core is an enormous shopping centre called Metrocentro. A replica of a North American shopping mall, with equivalent prices, Metrocentro is adored by well-off Nicaraguans. Yet as I wandered past the stores, many of them familiar, I realized one outlet was missing: there was no bookstore. In Central America, bookstores and shopping malls exist in opposition to each other; to include a bookstore in Metrocentro would be to negate the mall’s identity as the purveyor of globalized postmodernity. While the mall strives to be timeless, reading instills an awareness of language and history, and in the Central American context these values remain subversive.

“These Nicaraguan poets,” the young Guatemalan poet Julio Serrano said to me at the festival, “they won’t even let you make jokes about the left!” In Nicaragua, the Sandinista revolution institutionalized the literary vision of the nation, just as the first three post-1990 governments, through projects such as Metrocentro, institutionalized the idea of Nicaragua as a coincidental space within an undifferentiated planetary market. The two clashing visions both command the authority of having governed the country. In other Central American countries, these tensions play themselves out in different ways.

In El Salvador, where the guerrillas not only failed to take power but murdered Roque Dalton, the country’s quintessential revolutionary poet, the left and literary culture remain as inextricably linked as they are in Nicaragua, but they have seen their influence retreat. Poor, forgotten Honduras next door never attempted a revolution because during the 1980s the country was used as a staging ground for American military operations. Honduran women poets continue to fight battles that Gioconda Belli fought in Nicaragua in the 1970s. When I asked Lety Elvir, Honduras’s best-known younger woman poet, about her expression of female desire, she became almost defensive, as though anticipating a machista attack. Honduran poetry struggles partly because the left-wing culture on which it depends never became strong enough to institutionalize its legitimacy as it did in Nicaragua and, to a lesser extent, in El Salvador.

Guatemala, which contains almost one-third of Central America’s population, doesn’t have as active a political left as Nicaragua does; the country’s indigenous movement forms the most dynamic opposition force to the free trading right. About 60 percent of Guatemala’s population classifies itself as indigenous, or Maya, distinguishing it from El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua, which traditionally have seen themselves as mestizo societies. The 1996 Guatemala Peace Accords, which ended a thirty-six-year civil war that left more than 200,000 dead, the majority of them Maya civilians, included an indigenous rights chapter. Despite international pressure, post-1996 governments have failed to implement this section. Julio Serrano, like some other Guatemalans I know, fears that his country is disintegrating into fiefdoms defined by region and race. When I challenge him on his political beliefs, he claims to belong to neither the left nor the right. “I’m beyond all that,” he says.

Many younger Central American poets, particularly women and those from minority backgrounds, are trying to move beyond ideology. They struggle to disentangle poetry from nation-building without handing over the muse to an authoritarian globalization. In Guatemala, one way of doing this, although not a common choice, is by writing in Mayan languages. Humberto Ak’abal is a Mayan traditionalist who lives in a remote highland community and publishes his poems in bilingual editions with Quiché Maya and Spanish versions on facing pages. Epigrammatic in their brevity and vaguely Buddhist in their serene assessment of natural rhythms, Ak’abal’s poems work on a variety of levels to evoke a distinctively Mayan cosmos. As with many other Central American poets, his work is a form of political expression, whether he is writing about civil war massacres or about working the land.

Throughout Central America, the splits between nationalistic left-wing movements and right-wing globalization supporters obscures a racial complexity that is only beginning to be acknowledged. Dominated by the blending of Spanish and indigenous cultures on the Pacific coast, Central American nations have ignored or suppressed the isolated Afro-Caribbean communities of the sparsely populated Atlantic coast. Twenty-one-year-old Wingston González’s The Wizards of the Dusk (and blues again) is one of the first collections of poetry to be published by a Guatemalan of Afro-Caribbean descent. Drenched in pop culture (the first poem is about Marilyn Monroe; others allude to the 1970s rock group kiss), the book is hardly a refutation of globalization. But neither is González’s globalization, steeped as it is in an acute environmental consciousness and a respect for local cultures, that of the Chamorros. On the Atlantic coast, English and Spanish coexist with indigenous and Caribbean-influenced languages, and González’s book includes a poem entitled “Lagiiribudubá Yurumein woun” (literally “St. Vincent will return to us” ), written in the African-descended Garifuna language spoken in some parts of the region.

During readings at the Granada Poetry Festival, children wander in front of the colonial mansions, begging for coins from the festival audience. It’s a reminder that while poetry can frame society’s problems, it doesn’t offer immediate solutions. As miserable as Central American society has become in recent years, with its ever-widening chasm between rich and poor, there may be space on a purely aesthetic plane for a middle ground between a state that disdains national history and a poetry that assumes national self-definition as its natural prerogative. The second-to-last night of the festival closes with a reading by Carlos Rigby, a Bob Marleyish-looking poet from Nicaragua’s Atlantic coast. Rigby’s performance stands apart from the rest. He free-associates, teases English echoes out of Spanish words, falls silent, walks off the stage then returns, makes bilingual puns, and speaks of his parents’ understanding of love. He seems to be dismantling not only the dominance of the Spanish-descended oligarchy, but the authority of the poet as cultural arbiter. The crowd, Sandinistas and Chamorristas alike, applauds him with an enthusiasm that borders on rapture.

Stephen Henighan
Stephen Henighan’s sixth novel, The World of After, will be published in 2021.