The sea doesn't have to be a wall

Photograph taken by Havana poet Marcelo Morales on August 14, 2015. It depicts poet Richard Blanco with an enthusiastic crowd on the occasion of the reopening of the United States Embassy in Havana, Cuba. Courtesy of Marcelo Morales.

Innocence is important
It has meaning
It can give us
Hope against the very winds that we batter against it.

— Jack Spicer, from Admonitions (1958)[1

At the function dedicated to reopening the US Embassy in Havana, Richard Blanco read from a poem that declared: “No one is other, to the other, to the sea, whether / on hemmed island or vast continent, remember.”[2

His poem, “Matters of the Sea,” projects optimism about unity and renewal — or is it didacticism? — diplomacy? All of the above? The seascape serves as a common space: 

No matter what anthem we sing, we’ve all walked
barefoot and bare-souled among the soar and dive of seagull cries.
We’ve offered our sorrows, hopes
up to the sea, our lips anointed by the same spray
of salt-laden wind.[3]

In the print copy of this poem, now published in a bilingual chapbook, its subtitle (“A Poem Commemorating a New Era in US-Cuba Relations”) is immediately followed by data corresponding to the function: August 14, 2015 / United States Embassy / Havana, Cuba.

The multidirectional symbolism of Blanco’s presence at the embassy that day could be a subject of an entire analysis in its own right, beginning with the reflection on otherness that I’ve foregrounded here. Blanco’s poem is written in a vocabulary addressing all of humanity, yet can be applied to Cuba-specific issues. His translator, Ruth Behar (a researcher and writer who is well known for her studies of Jewish Cuba, among other topics), recalls that when writing the poem Blanco took up a remark she had recently made about the island: Behar proposed that the historical “diversity of peoples and cultures on the island is so deeply rooted that no one is ‘the other’ to anyone in Cuba.”[4

Seen through the sea

When read at the embassy for an audience theoretically dominated by Havana residents, the poem could project special meaning for Cuban families divided between the island and diaspora. At one time the otherness produced by their spatial divisions signified political opposition and was addressed through a vocabulary of revolution versus exile. Later, with global realignments associated with 1989 and the segue into the twenty-first century, Cuban diaspora continued to diversify and to take on more economic pulsations. In both models, the sea can be more associated with division than unity.

Blanco: “We all belong to the sea between us.”[5]

Cuban outsiderdom across generations has cut more than one direction across the waters. Blanco’s birth to Cuban parents in Madrid gives him one biographical origin “outside” the island. The fact that he was raised in Miami connects him to a second exteriorized Cubanness, pegged to one side of the mental bridge linking and opposing Miami to Havana. 

In a preface to the poem Blanco offers more rhetorical revision that enhances his public stance: “The sea doesn’t have to be a wall.”[6] His reconfigurations of the water, their repetitions, their very functionalism all seem appropriate to the context of the event. I cannot imagine the intense pressure on Blanco’s shoulders that day, and at intervals ever since, or the immensity of listeners’ need for him to embody grace.

In his reading at the embassy, where he officially represented the United States, Blanco simultaneously gave voice to and washed across multiple forms of otherness. On the US side Blanco previously held the public responsibility of reading “One Today” at Barack Obama’s January 2013 swearing-in ceremony, so for some viewers, his public symbolism is permanently heightened by the many layers of meaning attached to the US inaugural event. Back in 2013, Blanco was not only described as the first immigrant to serve as inaugural poet but the first Latino, the first openly gay person, and the youngest writer to serve in this capacity. 

These descriptors reappear here and there throughout the companion texts to “Matters of the Sea / Cosas del mar.” The biographical note included in the chapbook portrays a poetic identity shifting between various points of opposition: “The Cuban Blanco or the American Richard, the homebody or the world traveler, the scared boy or the openly gay man, the engineer or the inaugural poet.”[7]

Seen from the ground

In the audience outside the US embassy that day in 2015 was thirty-eight-year-old poet Marcelo Morales.  Like many island-based Cubans, Morales was deeply curious about the effect of recent pronouncements by the Cuban and US governments about change to come. He took his camera and photographed Richard Blanco amongst the islanders who assembled at the event. Morales, who like most island writers had little acquaintance with Blanco’s earlier work, was pleasantly surprised by how much he liked Blanco’s reading and took in the spirit of optimism and unity that carried the day.

Attuned to his environment, Morales had already been incorporating a patient interrogation of change and its emotional ripple effects into his own work, which moves in search of epiphany and along the borderlines between self and society. When he heard Blanco speak, Morales had recently completed The World as Presence / El mundo como ser. Like that book, which was published in the fall of 2016, his current, unpublished work in progress continues to read less as a completed argument about change than as an ongoing meditation. 

While Morales leaves space for hope and faith in his work, there is also space for their loss. In notable contrast to the governmental environment for Blanco’s reading, Morales includes lines indicating overt suspicion of all politicians. It’s doubtful that selections from The World as Presence would ever be read for anyone’s state function. Morales is more interested in how history unfolds on the ground, with the ants in the cracks in your kitchen floor; he writes a history witnessed by the audience members outside the scope of power, not what is seen from the vantage point of the podium.[8]

History looms in spectacles of image and power clashing with the quieter lines traced by everyday life:  the dual announcements by Raúl Castro and Barack Obama in December 2014, the opening of the embassy, the visit to Cuba by Obama in 2016 … the bizarre fact of a Chanel fashion show in Havana (viewed by locals at a slight distance due to heavy security), the first US Carnival cruise ship traveling from Florida to dock in Havana in more than fifty years. A favorite new topic for Morales: the transformation of design aesthetics shaping the experience of walking through Havana streets.

He is increasingly taking photographs to pair with his work in progress. The photograph of Richard Blanco at the embassy is one of many he collected in his explorations of the past year. Morales also photographed Barack Obama’s black car, known as “The Beast,” moving through Havana. He pores over the pixels, arguing that the head silhouetted in one window must be that of the president himself. 

Throughout this period from 2014 to nearly the end of 2016, in the media and in the arts, the dual US-Cuba developments and discourses of change have produced total symbolic overload, comparable to the overload around Blanco but on a larger scale. The death of Fidel Castro on November 25 generated a nuclear explosion of symbol, commandeering front-page news around the world despite the fact that he had stepped down from national leadership in 2008. His death provoked many remarks about the end of an era. Yet the key item at the center of US-Cuban relations, the economic embargo of Cuba, had not changed. 

Embargo embargo embargo / Emigration

This news usually comes as a surprise to US citizens who ask me questions about working with islanders: most assume that our government immediately dropped its economic embargo of Cuba back in December 2014.

The Cubans whom it impacts don’t have the luxury of confusion. The embargo has been tinkered with, tossed around among horse traders. An edit here, an edit there. It is now possible to pay visiting Cuban artists and writers something for their work, for example, instead of being limited to covering their basic travel expenses. Jet Blue ran the first commercial airline flight to Cuba in more than fifty years on August 30, 2016 (travelers from the US who fit into categories of exception from the embargo’s travel ban previously had to go on tiny government-approved charters).

These edits are reversible details that may or may not become irreversible if they get far enough, quickly enough. Changes can depend for part of their effect on decisions made locally in Cuba, whose own government wants some measure of control over its future. In the US, meanwhile, Congress would have to take action to end the embargo. The biggest news as 2016 comes to its close, though, is the election of Donald Trump. While Trump himself has not previously been a supporter of the embargo, his campaign appealed to conservative Cubans in Florida by stating it would overturn the changes enacted by the Obama presidency. After the election results appeared this November, Miami’s Spanish-language newspaper El Nuevo Herald immediately ran a story about the potential reversal of course on Cuba, soon followed by a November 9 article pointing to a resurgence of doubt and distrust toward the United States amongst Cubans on the island.

Yosbel Ibarra, a lawyer who advises businesses on financial and contractual arrangements with Cuba, told an audience at the Americas Society in late July that perhaps the most influential change to have actually occurred by summer 2016 is the removal of Cuba from the US list of state sponsors of terrorism. Whether or not US businesses will be able to move forward on new projects with the island, Ibarra explained, Cuba’s revised status made it easier for firms from other nations to seek US-linked financing of their own Cuba projects.

Most of the island poets with whom I spoke in the interval from December 2014 to July 2016 told me they had experienced “change” as uncertainty, and it appears that uncertainty translated into severe anxiety for the population at large. Emigration surged after the dual government announcements about renewed relations to come: see this December 2015 report from the Pew Hispanic Center for statistics about a rise in emigration from the island to the US during the first year after the dual announcements about a change in US-Cuba relations. It does not give the whole diasporic trajectory for the island during that time, since Cubans had also been emigrating to other parts of the world. 

As 2016 chugs forward with still no end to the embargo, thanks to opposition from select figures in the US Congress, some islanders have told me they’re losing faith that the embargo will end. In mid-July, announcements went out about rationing of energy in Havana, a return to a practice from the island’s harsh “Special Period” of economic collapse in the 1990s. The immediate question they provoked is how severe the rationing might become this time — for example, how much electrical service might be routinely cut to Cuban homes.

Meanwhile word was getting out about maneuvers by US politicians such as Marco Rubio to eliminate the Cuban Adjustment Act, which would make it harder for Cuban emigrés to obtain US green cards. As these different factors merge, the result is accelerated exodus, a historically significant new wave of emigration that continues to diversify the faces of Cuban American life.[9]

Asking the question

In June 2016, Jacket2 editor Michael Hennessey asked me to write a short piece on any “cultural changes that have come about in the poetry scene now that US-Cuba relations have changed.” 

First, a clarification for readers unfamiliar with contemporary Cuban culture: from the perspective of contemporary criticism, the “scene” has long been on the move. Cuban studies criticism increasingly acknowledges not only island-based contributors but diasporic and transnational phenomena. For more from Blanco and Behar on their experiences since the embassy event, see their joint blog, “Bridges to Cuba.” (The June 21, 2016 guest entry by the well-known political scientist María de los Angeles Torres is particularly interesting; she has long been involved in exploring possibilities for connecting diasporic Cubans back to those still living on the island. Writer and translator Achy Obejas contributed a piece in August about the concept of “return” that is English dominant, interjected with relatively minimal yet carefully selected moments in Spanish.) 

As a result of this multiplicity, the potential scope of the inquiry is enormous.  For this article I limited the focus. I sent questions to an array of writers still resident in Cuba, most but not all living in Havana, the specific “scene” where I have contacts due to the nature of my projects to date, and I’ve translated their responses. I also sent questions to a set of other translators and critics here in the United States: people who bridge poetic scenes and therefore run into US-Cuba cultural issues consistently. 

The reactions to my inquiry about the lives of poets varied. There’s no unified narrative. Questions about changes in Cuba-US relations, and whatever changes in Cuba are resulting from them, elicit reactions ranging the full gamut from optimism (be it spontaneous, innocent, or strategic) all the way to cynicism. Several people were a bit uncomfortable, one admitting that she finds the issues “crude.”

Some writers, while understanding that there are practical aspects to this question about what had changed for them in the past year and a half, refused to address the ins and outs of everyday life, preferring to speak more directly of poetry itself. Others were more willing to comment on everyday issues, and some linked these spheres of experience. The diverse textures of these responses, and the implied strategies chosen by writers in their responses, are themselves of interest. 

Reina María Rodríguez sent me an email apologizing for her lack of a contribution, which I believe to be, itself, the most honest of contributions. She had been staying in Miami with a family member and was preparing to return home to her modest Central Havana neighborhood. This meant she was going on errand after errand in search of “more and more” items needed across the waters. The transnational circuits made viable by diasporic family life were working overtime. Rodríguez added, “I’m wiped out.  Now they’re starting the blackouts again there! They say it’s a second Special Period — but did we ever really get out of the first one?”[10]

Another respondent described sending any response whatsoever to me as the poet hoeing away at the ground in a desperate bid to find a place in North American cultural terrain — a metaphor that was probably inevitable in the moment, with its intense public awareness of surging emigration. The poet, José Ramón Sánchez, is hardly alone in viewing rhetoric about “opportunity” with sardonic humor. I’m reminded of the landscape in a poem by Omar Pérez, actually entitled “Opportunity” (“La oportunidad”). It goes back a few years but retains its relevance, as excerpted here:

each opportunity brings with it a chore: repeat after me
& the threat that it won’t come again
“you don’t see opportunities like this every day”
though in reality the days r one big military parade of opportunities
I’m a desert for opportunities
&, for you, an oasis
                                    (my translation, from “The Race”)[11]

cada oportunidad trae consigo su tarea: repeat after me
y la amenaza d no volver
“oportunidades como esta no se ven todos los días”
aunque en realidad todos los días son un desfile militar d oportunidades
oy un desierto para las oportunidades 
y para tí, un oasis
                                                (de “La carrera”)

Rito Ramón Aroche took a different approach. He opened the longest of his responses with the statement, “What it is for me may be what it’s like for everyone.”[12]  

Aroche, who works for the Cuban Book Institute and therefore relies on the average sort of salary available to workers in cultural fields, went on to explain that his “salary continues to be negligible” and adds, “I’m not among the people who have dealings in all the possibilities that have opened up. I live from my salary and sometimes from my royalties, which are not extensive, not by a long shot. Of course you see a change in people, the possibility of fixing up their homes for example. But I see a struggle against all kinds of racism, as well as discrimination around gender and race, against lesbians and gays. Everything is changing but it must continue, because that process takes material shape in people’s minds. The most influential of all: the notion that you’re important if you have money and own a lot of things.”

Earlier in 2016 Aroche had already sent me remarks from a conversation with fellow poet Julio Mitjans, emphasizing two troubling verbs: ningunear and invisibilizar: to render someone no one, to render someone invisible. I remembered speaking with Mitjans in Havana back in February. We talked about the existence of official state initiatives to improve the lives of LGBTQ people in Cuba, but also about Mitjans’s sense that discrimination has by no means been erased in these realms or others. 

“Change,” seen through this lens, could well mean a resurgent culture of rendering islanders invisible. This process occurs not only along economic lines, aggravated by privatization and other repurposings of formerly shared space, already visible in this excerpt from a 2008 work by Reina María Rodríguez, but along additional sociohistorical divides.  

Running the opposite direction is a gradual swell of interest in a broader range of island poets: a new visibility. Take Aroche’s own writing. He has a long list of poetry collections with an experimental lean, well known on the island but less so abroad. I’m doing new translations of his poems now in response to solicitations. For example, he has a poem featured in Americas Quarterly’s July issue, others in the June release of Dispatches, and two more coming up in the second issue of Seedings (Duration Press). Steve Miller’s Parallel Editions team is creating a collaboration that blends a bilingual version of Aroche’s Scaffoldings (Andamios) with images by the artist Alejandro Sáinz. Aroche saw one of his poetry collections, Límites de Alcanía, reprinted by the Dutch publisher Bokeh in January 2016. He had a new book in production this year, Libro de imaginar, coming out with the publishing house Ácana in Camagüey.

Aroche’s case is a reminder that for all of the real problems that undeniably existed during this time span, there continued to be significant energy in terms of events and new publications on the island and in diaspora. Some venues continued established practice and others attempted to grapple directly with US-Cuba relations or the notion of change in Cuban communities at home and abroad.

The Havana book fair, or Feria del Libro, took place in February 2016 and drew many international speakers as well as a slate of locals. As in the case of many literary conferences in the United States, the real action may not center so much on formally scheduled events as on activities happening informally around the city, such as meetings with writers, translators, and editors from abroad. 

This is, at least, true for poets. Not all of the local readers were even notified about their appearances on the program, leading to frustration. Two who saw their event descriptions after the fact would have had only three or four minutes to speak on complex subjects. They pointed out that the book fair can hardly serve as a serious affair for them under such circumstances.

This is not to dismiss the fact that various presentations of poetry editions did take place. Nor is it to discount the massive turnout. Each day I went to the Feria, there were considerable crowds. Most simply were not flocking there for the latest in contemporary poetry. Organizers draw a lot of families and children with colorful tents, activities and publications for children, and food stands. Other events are incorporated into local educational programming for adults, such as panels featuring publishing industry representatives from a variety of nations. Local media coverage this year favored books put out from other sectors, such as the military, usually with some degree of party-oriented political argumentation.  

Visitors comprise part of the flurry at the Feria del Libro and its extension into the city. I include mention of several here because I was on a panel with some of the translators bringing modern and contemporary Cuban poetry into English right now.

Margaret Randall has a large anthology of Cuban poetry, Only the Road / Solo el camino, from Duke University Press that appeared in late 2016. This is far from her only activity for the year. At the February 2016 book fair she read from a newly released collection of her own English-language poetry, and she presented a different book on Cuba from Duke about which you can see more here, in addition to seeing a summary of Randall’s own striking role in US-Cuban history. 

In in response to my July 2016 inquiry, Randall reflected:

I do think that the reestablishment of relations between the US and Cuba in December of 2014 has made a difference with regard to interest in Cuban poetry on the part of US publishers and readers. I actually began working on, and sold, my anthology to Duke University Press before that, but I have placed four books by individual authors since. The truth is, there is quite a revived interest in all things Cuban, but often not the most important things … One hears so many people saying things like: “I want to get there before it changes” and such. Travel advertisements feature the most superficial aspects of life on the island. So I feel the interest in poetry is exciting. It is a way of making available a more in-depth take on the country.[13]

Víctor Rodríguez Núñez, another speaker on our panel, is a writer of more than one location who nicely demonstrates the way that “Cuba” and “Cuban America (US)” can intertwine within the transnational experiences of a single person. Originally from Cuba, where he began his literary career both as a Spanish-language poet and an anthologist, Rodríguez is now a professor at Kenyon College in Ohio. Yet he returns regularly to Havana, where he has family and maintains literary contacts. Rodríguez participates in international poetry communities more generally and recently won the Loewe Foundation Prize for Despegue, a collection of short, evocative poems published in Madrid by Visor Libros.

Victor Rodríguez Núñez and Margaret Randall at the 2016 Feria del Libro
Víctor Rodríguez Núñez and Margaret Randall at the 2016 Feria del Libro, by Kristin Dykstra.

Also on our panel was his Kenyon colleague, translator Kate Hedeen, who brings an extensive knowledge of Latin American poetry traditions to her projects. Hedeen recently edited and translated the anthology Nothing Out of This World: Cuban Poetry 1952–2000, published by Smokestack Books and recognized with an English PEN award. In August Coimpress brought out a complete collection by Rodríguez, in Hedeen’s translation, entitled tasks.

In a 2015 interview with me, Hedeen had already remarked on a contrast she witnessed between sensations of “change” in the US and in Cuba. Her perspective was informed not only by her profession but by family interactions and extended visits to the island, since she happens to be married to Victor Rodríguez. While she observed that US residents tended to perceive the pace of change regarding Cuba as rapid — fueled, I would guess, by the still widely believed but erroneous idea that the US economic embargo had ended — Cubans on the island experienced its motions as slow, and Hedeen already saw a push/pull dynamic driving a strong current of uncertainty.

In summer 2016 I asked Hedeen what had changed over the past year, particularly in zones of poetic activity. She saw an ongoing contradiction. In terms of how Cuban poetry travels abroad, contradiction begins with a general lack of awareness, even amongst Spanish-language readers, about the range and depth of Cuban poetry. She explained:

In 2015, the Spanish poetry publisher Visor brought out an anthology called El canon abierto. The selection was academic in nature, a kind of survey of almost two hundred professors from one hundred universities regarding who were the best poets born after 1970 in the Spanish-speaking world. Not one of those forty poets was from Cuba. Those of us who translate contemporary Cuban poetry know this simply cannot be the case; poetry has and — this should be emphasized — continues to flourish on the island. This kind of disconnect, of isolation, of separation is just one example of what characterizes the Cuban “situation” currently and for the past twenty-five years. A constant struggle to break through ignorance, barriers, stereotypes, both here and there.[14]

On the other hand, Hedeen observed, another whole wing of literary reality coexisted with this scenario that was more in keeping with Randall’s hopes. There was a tremendous flurry of activity in the first half of 2016 alone — increased attention from journals, publishing houses, and prize competitions outside the island, and many new books coming out of Cuba, including work timed to appear for the book fair. She named some of the same Havana events and poetry publications that I’m remarking here in more detail.

Another point of origins for crossing the waters lies with the O! Miami Poetry Festival. An invitation went out to a set of island poets that is still unusual, but no longer unthinkable: a reading uniting four Cuban poets from the island with four from Miami. The title of the mid-April event explicitly referred to bridging the long-divided cultures of Cuba in the context of change, where Cuba and Cuban America can intersect in new ways. It was organized by the writer J.V. Portela (editor of Jai-Alai) and moderated by two prominent figures in Cuban poetry: José Kozer, who is from Cuba but has long lived in the United States, and Reina María Rodríguez, who is still associated with her famous rooftop home in Havana but has a daughter living in Miami’s diaspora. Soleida Ríos, Marcelo Morales, Oscar Cruz, and José Ramón Sánchez represented the island side of the bridge. Representing the “exterior” dimension of Cuban poetry were Legna Rodríguez Iglesias, Yosie Crespo, Carlos Pintado, and Joaquín Badajoz. Photography and video of the event were featured at the urban art and culture magazine Dominicana en Miami.

Morales afterwards told me that his perception of the Bridge event bifurcated: it seemed absolutely normal as group readings go, yet absolutely different at the same time.[15] Such combinations of ordinary and estranged experience fueled his new work in progress.

Leading up to her O! Miami trip, Soleida Ríos was already having a busy year.

Poets Soleida Ríos and Nanne Timmer (visiting from Holland) met for the first time outside an event at the book fair.
Poets Soleida Ríos and Nanne Timmer (visiting from Holland) met for the first time outside an event at the book fair. Photo by Kristin Dykstra.

A book that Ríos inspired, El retrato ovalado (Oval Portrait), debuted at the Feria del Libro. This collection of texts generated collaboratively by women was formally edited by another contributor, Jamila Medina Ríos, but is attributed to “Soleida Ríos + 34.” It seems designed to push against the actions of ningunear and invisibilizar through the production of a different, temporary sort of anonymity within a crowd.

Ríos considers El retrato ovalado a utopian gesture. She describes the book’s structure as “choral,” a performance that she prompted, preferring this vocabulary to that of a traditional “anthology” with an editor. She called for emotional and conceptual nakedness in writings with no set genre. The list of contributors includes some diasporic writers as well as others based in Cuba — Blanco’s friend and translator, Behar, is one of the US-based writers with a segment here — and the women are of varied generations. Some contributors come with established publication patterns as poets, but others do not.

Some pieces look like conventional prose or poetry; others adopt alternative forms, such as lists or chronologies or artistic reflections across fields. Sandra Ramy, who wrote the final piece in the book, is a contemporary dancer who often collaborates on improvisational, interdisciplinary, and experimental events with writers and musicians. Her text opens with light falling on a staged scene, where the speaker will be playing the role of a hen, and closes with queries about the value of theatrical expression for actors and audiences.

Sandra Ramy performing at a café, accompanied by poet Omar Pérez on drums. Photo courtesy of Omar Pérez.
Sandra Ramy performing at a café, accompanied by poet Omar Pérez on drums. Photo courtesy of Omar Pérez.

Each text has a title but names of authors are withheld in the body of the book, so if you read this anthology in conventional fashion from beginning to end, encountering its progression of distinct genres and styles, you will not know who wrote which piece unless you happen to be familiar enough with someone’s style to pick it out. As a result, attention devolves to the maneuvers of each text and the dialogues and gaps generated between them; an índice or table of contents at the back allows for deferred identification of authors.[16]

Ríos told me that she had been interested in generating energy, stimulating projects. She too admitted that the current frenzy around “change” created anxiety and said, “I’d like to not be afraid, and in a way I’m very afraid (and I try to hide it from myself, saying: in order for something to change, really change, there must be crisis, but I don’t know how long crisis must last). For some time I’ve told myself the most important thing is to exist, and what that really means is attaining sovereignty over oneself.”[17]

She continued to think about the matter and sent me follow-up notes, beginning with the statement that for Cuba and the US to sit at a table together and debate is civilized and conveniente “in every sense” (the word translates not only as “convenient” but also “advisable,” “proper,” “best”). The important thing “is to restore our connections, spiritual force, the thing that articulates the individual self and the nation. That engenders my fear (a certain fragility manifests, the one I see in the newspaper) but also stimulates my actions.” She remarked that the only actions she could take lie in the terrain of poetry with what remains of utopia, describing those remains as beloved and golden. In addition to El retrato ovalado and her latest poetry, another current poetic “action” was a public game Ríos invented for children to do with their families: mapping ceiba trees around Havana.

Ríos concluded with a reflection on her personal experience of the present: “I don’t think any greater crisis can come than the one I already lived. I lived an itinerant life, with no other option, for an entire decade (1975–1986). Due to my nature and the brutality of that sort of life, I suffered a considerable weight of intolerance, which is becoming something of the past.” 

The two remaining participants in the O! Miami “bridge” event this year, Sánchez and Cruz, are younger writers who have been coediting the well-regarded little magazine La Noria for some time while building their own poetic trajectories. Back issues of the print magazine are posted online at InCubadora.

The coeditors bring a more youthful generational perspective to literature than many of the island poets known abroad to date. Diplomacy and innocence are not viable attitudes for them to inhabit at present. 

They also write in locations other than Havana. Sánchez and Cruz live in Guantánamo and Santiago respectively — that is, towns located in “Oriente,” shorthand for the more rural eastern side of Cuba. It is seen as far from the cultural energies and access offered by Havana and often credited with a different style of Cuban culture.[18]

Both were looking to see if new possibilities manifest on the horizons of change. While Internet service had expanded on the island, especially through new Wi-Fi access points, it couldn’t yet be called good. Still, Sánchez had a new blog housed by the publisher Hypermedia. There he posted a short piece about aspects of his Miami visit, which was his first experience of the United States. 

His utopian desire for “great quantities of food” in the US is the stuff of dreams, the most innocent of expectations. Sánchez portrays a loss of innocence: there would be no free food after he arrived at his hotel. Food was for sale, and advertised everywhere, mostly out of his reach. He retains a sense of humor in his delivery but the point is made. In a context that remains unthinkably expensive for those islanders who have no diasporic relatives nearby or any other way to access US dollars, the stark contrast between our economies can cause a first-time visitor’s initiation into capitalism to crash down with the dark humor of hazing. 

Cruz joined Sánchez for some walks through the streets of Miami, and after reading that blog post I recalled a photo Cruz sent me in April 2016.[19]

"Hambre en la Calle Ocho" (Hunger on Eighth). Photograph of José Ramón Sánchez in Miami.
“Hambre en la Calle Ocho” (Hunger on Eighth). Photograph of José Ramón Sánchez in Miami, courtesy of Oscar Cruz.

Sánchez went on from O! Miami to a May conference at Brown University with the straightforward title: “Cuban Transitions: What’s Left Out?” Sánchez spoke about the subject of Guantánamo, a focal point for his latest poetry. Once again, there is a stark geographical and political divide at issue, most obviously due to the historic lines drawn in Cuban sand around the US Naval Base at Guantánamo. Division runs all throughout the dynamics of imprisonment too. 

Sánchez responded to my query with a list of his recent poetic concerns:

Expansion of system of reference.
Use of references as symbols.
Ample deployment of characters.
Blend of politics with private individuality.
Ever more shameless exhibition of politics and private individuality.
Conversion of documents into poems, and of poems into reports.
Cynicism, mockery, irony, sarcasm, caricature, even turned against myself.
Creation of a militarized poetics:
via theme (Gitmo naval base), and via the cutting, strong, and even authoritarian rhythms and tones of the poems.
Quest for a maximally entertaining poetry.[20]

Sánchez has begun to attract critical attention (as well as preliminary interest in translations) with new projects exploring the fractured symbols of his region. Esther Whitfield, a specialist currently at work on a full-length study of cultural depictions of Guantánamo, knows his new poetry well and sent me this overview in the wake of the Brown conference:

José Ramón Sánchez’s Gitmo project breaks new ground, not only in naming the US Naval Base — rarely present in Cuban literature due to its political sensitivity and distance from the cultural metropolis of Havana — but in imagining the experience of those who have lived and worked there in the past, and are detained there now. Sánchez draws from a haphazard archive of childhood memories, official documents, and detainee writing to create a “second-hand poetry” of “the words of others, images others saw for me.” His attempt to occupy another’s place, when that other is detained at the base, charts Guantánamo as a continuous space, defined by community rather than hostility.[21

In 2015 Hypermedia published some of these poems, along with others by Sánchez, in The Cuban Team:  Los once poetas cubanos, an anthology edited by Cruz. The book opens with an introduction in which Cruz does not mince words, offering a performance of the anthologist’s selective search for quality, coupled with his stated lack of interest in large swaths of Cuba’s contemporary poetic scene. His approach does not strike me as unexpected or odd, since it reads as a part of the swashbuckling tradition of the literary anthology. The editor as enfant terrible has a tradition outside Cuba, and various island anthologists have courted controversy with sharply defined positions in recent decades. 

Within Havana, the Cuban Team anthology is proving controversial. It seems that the flap turns less on Cruz’s selection of poets, generally recognized to be strong, and more on the tone of his introduction. (Caveat: It is entirely possible that people struck a diplomatic tone with me regarding the contents because they knew I had translated pieces in this anthology for other projects already.)

I speculate that these polemics around editorial language should direct attention toward broader concerns that may remain pressing and relevant for years, far beyond any one publication or person. For some time writers have referred to a rising tide of exclusions, economic and otherwise, surging through island society. Where frustration and anxiety are understandably on the rise, editorial gatekeeping will sound and feel exponentially more loaded. 

Other explanations can fold into this scenario. The conscious plays on authoritarian expression that Sánchez describes, for example, may be heard by others without their intended irony, as a continuation of the same old authoritarian delivery from the next generation. Other reactions may be informed more by an ongoing distaste for sharp critical polemics in Cuban poetic circles, to which another poet will point at the end of this article. 

Hypermedia has been looking into the possibility of a bilingual edition, and if the effort succeeds, English-language readers will have a chance to reflect on the introduction and selection for themselves — perhaps comparing these poems to selections they find in the latest bilingual editions from Randall and Hedeen, the earlier anthology edited by Mark Weiss for the University of California Press, or offerings elsewhere in English such as bilingual editions from Cubana Books and the University of Alabama Press.

In keeping with his editorial style, Cruz is not afraid of introducing brusque statement into his poetry either. It can be deliberately brash, staccato, contrarian. He responded to my query by examining how questions of change or political context can be addressed through reflections on specifically poetic language, a choice that sheds further light on his determination to adopt a clear stance.

I’ve always been inclined to intervene in political and historical matters through the poem. From my first book forward (Los malos inquilinos) I’ve felt this need, but the rhetoric of political discourse is such a turnoff that it can kill off anyone’s desires. Then I decided to seek out an oblique route: irony, parody, laughter — see La Maestranza. I incorporated large amounts of cynicism and humor into the texts, through a language as minimally rhetorical or tidied as possible, aware that this would pick a fight with the reigning tradition in Cuba. A tradition that is verbose and saturated with symbol. I think this kind of approach manifested most in tandem with my work on very strong authors like José Ramón Sánchez and Legna Rodríguez, the latter through her own singular perspective.

Through the pages of La Noria we carried out politics with the body. We rewrote the sexual history of heroes from the obscene class. We demonstrated that Cuba was a poetically stilted and static country until we introduced civility, corrosion, sex, indecency, and showed that the reigning lyric status quo was ineffective. We also incorporated a musicality into the texts that is often lost in our poetry. Not that of Guillén but of Eastern Cuba’s barrioteros. Low-class music from the urban margins. Conga. Pornopop singsong. Danceable insolence. There you find some beats that today are heard with greater force in the educated community. This generated and will continue to generate rejection, and it looks a lot like what Cubans want: liberty. Expressive sovereignty. The right to oppose.[22]

The barriotero term to which Cruz refers is conventionally used to denigrate certain Cubans as uneducated and inarticulate — other to the world of the “letrados,” the “lettered” islanders whom I’ve translated as “the educated community” above. Class components are also sedimented into the wordplay. Cruz mentioned that that his “clase obscena,” or obscene class, is a rewriting of “la clase obrera” (“the working class”).

"Un guajiro en Miami Dade" (A guajiro in Miami Dade). Photo of Oscar Cruz.
“Un guajiro en Miami Dade” (A guajiro in Miami Dade). Photograph of Oscar Cruz courtesy of Fernando Sánchez.

The closer: Ismael González Castañer

Extended responses arrived from Ismael González Castañer. I had suggested to Ismael that it could be helpful to have a little context on the life of a poet as well as his thoughts on how that life might be changing now, but that each poet should decide what kind of reply seemed most relevant. Ismael took me up on the whole idea and sent an introductory sketch about the writer’s life, as well as a statement in direct response to the main topic entitled “No ha cambiado nada,” or “Nothing Has Changed at All.” 

González was born in Havana in 1961 and brings a distinct urban tone to his writing. He’s the author of three collections of poetry, most recently Disfuerzo in 2012. He has won Cuban awards not only in the poetry category but also for the genres of testimonial and essay. A set of his poems appears in English translation, by Todd Ramón Ochoa, in Weiss’s The Whole Island: Six Decades of Cuban Poetry.

Together his statements speak back to many dimensions of the remarks from everyone else. They counterbalance the optimism that seems necessary at certain times and places — the idealism accompanying Blanco’s appearance at the embassy, most obviously, and the working optimism which is likely to be needed at regular intervals if the embargo is ever to be dropped by the US Congress — with incisive wording.

I’m the literary adviser at a cultural center. My role is to run workshops for children, youth, and adults interested in reading and in creative writing, stories and poems mostly. I also attend to the book section: I coordinate with bookstores to offer talks, book presentations, and sales for the community.

Our intellectual life (and our salary) is rounded out with service as jurors in competitions at all levels, evaluating or editing books, publishing articles and reviews from time to time in Cuban and international magazines, reading our work at cultural institutions and activities by invitation, conferencing, and giving classes about History and Political Culture. The best part is traveling outside Cuba.

Today, as a fifty-five-year-old, I read and write during mornings and afternoons between daily activities of foraging for food and money. I work on a computer but have never been able to inspire poetry on a machine: ever since I was young I’ve had a callus on the middle finger of my right hand from writing with a pencil. I do read directly from a screen now.

My writing combines discourses that are versicular and prosaic; it negotiates fixed expressions, commonplaces, hackneyed themes; it creates or recreates words — considering words in English or other languages; recycling ones in existence; it dissolves metaphor; it intertexts; experiments with rhythm; mixes popular culture with “high” culture. Today, as before, my objectives have been, one: to write in ways both unconventional and odd to stimulate a nondiscriminatory reading of alternative texts that throw — as well — light on reality or truth or god; and two: to compel interaction from the reader. I always want my texts to function at once as supports for the word and transports or outlines toward other mediums; want other expression, like performance writing, to need them as an intermediary.

But nowadays I sing and performatize less and prose more. The main news is that now I’m weighed down under the imagination and fantasy typical of those who write for children and young people, and I prepare my attack.[23]

In his next reflection on the lack of change for poets in Cuba, written in July 2016, González will refer to the most recent poetry competition for La Gaceta de Cuba, for which he served as a juror.

Nothing has changed at all; since the fear of polemics is ongoing, the critic’s fear of creating enemies, of making a mistake, being found out — even though regulatory authority permits the critic (unlike the historian) to allow feelings to interfere in his work.

Nothing has changed at all; since our reader continues to confuse communicative legibility with the reading of art: the reader does not want to become a coauthor, does not accept transmodern conceptions of poetry.

Nothing has changed at all; because many a poet continues without changing style from one poem to another, knowing that each poem asks for its difference. So that the poet takes no risks, following the same “little path” as always, the same “little tune.”

Nothing has changed at all; because there is a proliferation of poets who write without mystery, with a great making or lexicalizing of phrases, a lot of commonplaces, resulting in stale themes and a profusion of platitudes. And that class of poetastro [step-poet] receives prizes from poets whose poetry has shifted to a hermeneutical level. In the name of diversity and visual and experimental poetry, liberty and vitality, freshness and rupture; in the name of the nonsense of Ernst Jandl and -isms from the avant gardes, poet-jurors who are already on another horizon of meaning, do not question themselves (or do so for their protegés) about whether all “stimulation of thought” can be considered poetic; whether all future poetry will have to be “quasimetatextual,” whether poetry “in the direction of the unknown” is free from critique.

Nothing has changed either in the most important and interesting poetry competition (La Gaceta de Cuba): it suffered newly from the mal gusto [bad taste] of la malía (a pejorative term that I use to characterize la mala poesía [bad poetry] and los malos poetas [bad poets]); so out of ninety-eight manuscripts submitted, only eleven were named finalists, and out of these, we recognized three with prizes and two with mentions. The themes are the same as always: identity, family, the country’s harsh reality, and how to abandon-her, abandon-it.

Ismael González Castañer outside a book fair event in 2016
Ismael González Castañer outside a book fair event in 2016. Courtesy of Kristin Dykstra.

1. Jack Spicer, The Collected Books of Jack Spicer, ed. Robin Blaser (Santa Rosa, CA: Black Sparrow Press, 1999), 59.

2. Richard Blanco, “Matters of the Sea / Cosas del mar,” trans. Ruth Behar (Pittsburgh: The University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015), 7.

3. Ibid., 9.

4. Ibid., 19–20.

5. Ibid., 5.

6. Ibid., ix.

7. Ibid., 28.

8. For more on Morales’s collection The World as Presence / El mundo como ser, see the introduction to the bilingual edition (translations and introduction by Kristin Dykstra [Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 2016]).

9. For more on the Act itself.

10. Reina María Rodríguez, email message to the author, July 11, 2016. The blackouts of the 1990s had a direct effect on poetic history in Havana by way of Rodríguez, leading to the development of “La azotea” or “The Rooftop” as an alternative (nonstate) gathering space. Her apartment building was in a zone where the electricity remained on while other areas went dark. She has remarked to me that she didn’t have a lot of light at her rooftop home — sometimes only one working lightbulb — but it was enough to host readings and events with poets and artists.

11. Omar Pérez, La carrera / The Race, trans. Kristin Dykstra, forthcoming in a fine art edition from Red Hydra Press.  An earlier version of this translation appears at The Recluse 11 (June 2015).

12. Rito Ramón Aroche, email messages to the author in March, June, and July 2016.

13. Margaret Randall, email message to the author, July 11, 2016. About the four smaller-press books, Randall wrote that two will come out from Red Mountain Press in Santa Fe, one from Igneo in Miami, and one from The Operating System in Brooklyn.

14. Kate Hedeen, email message to the author, June 17, 2016.

15. Personal conversation with the author, May 4, 2016.

16. The table of contents often appears at the back of Spanish-language books, rather than the front, so that component is not unusual.

17. Soleida Ríos, email messages to the author, July 8 and 16, 2016.

18. Keep in mind that in recent memory Cuba has the lowest Internet connectivity in the hemisphere, so while coeditors Sánchez and Cruz have had some access to technology that allowed them to be in touch with Havana and people abroad (to solicit work by email and to receive invitations), technology has not had as powerful a compressive and connective effect as it does elsewhere, a reminder that it is still possible to over-fetishize aspects of globalization. 

19. “Guajiro” is a term for people from the Cuban countryside, who at times have been used in island art and culture to represent national identity.

20. José Ramón Sánchez, email messages to the author, June 8 and July 6, 2016.

21. Esther Whitfield, email message to the author, June 13, 2016. Whitfield published an article from her manuscript in progress as “Cuban Borderlands: Local Stories of the Guantánamo Naval Base,” in MLN 130, no.2 (March 2015, Hispanic Issue), 276–97.

22. Oscar Cruz, email messages to the author, April 14, June 9 and 11, 2016.

23. Ismael González Castañer, email message to the author, July 4, 2016.