Poets Against War continues the tradition of socially engaged poetry by creating venues for poetry as a voice against war, tyranny and oppression.

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Poetry Matters

Report from Medellín Poetry Festival 2005

Governments rise, governments fall. The family is eternal. —Confucius

Poetry is all that pulls our feet / towards the impossible. —Pedro Arturo Estrada

Poetry transcends the nation-state. Poetry transcends government. It brings the traditional concept of power to its knees. I have always believed poetry to be an eternal conversation in which the ancient poets remain contemporary, a conversation inviting us into other languages and cultures even as poetry transcends language and culture, returning us again and again to primal rhythms and sounds. As Ezra Pound says, “Poetry is news that stays news.” Nowhere have I seen this more concretely displayed than at the Medellín International Poetry Festival.

The Friday evening opening ceremonies took place in a wonderful Greek style amphitheater on a steep hillside. It was packed with a noisy, excited crowd, as was the surrounding hillside. When opening comments began to get lengthy, people began calling, “Start the poetry!” Poets from nine or ten countries read in various languages (with translations), and from the joyous cheering and shouting of the audience, one might have guessed it to be a soccer match rather than a three-hour poetry reading. I was told there were nearly 8,000 people greeting 70 poets from around the world for this eight-day festival. Sitting on that stage, watching those bright faces and listening to poetry in languages I did not understand, I suddenly felt a deep sense of kinship—with the audience and with the poets. It was something I first experienced in small way in Greece , twenty years ago, and again in Italy … a deep abiding affection as we enter the State of Poetry —as we transcend The State. It's almost miraculous the way some poets connect despite linguistic and cultural barriers—as if seeing heart-to-heart.

The Saturday evening reading was held on a gorgeous, broad tree-lined avenue in downtown Medellín, the crowd almost disappearing as the avenue curved gently down and away. There were people on balconies, carts selling snack food, groups with wine bottles and breads–this remarkable display of affection for poetry. Ernesto Cardinal closed the evening with a rousing, engaging performance, still as passionate as ever, despite becoming elderly.

Over the following week, there were dozens upon dozens of readings and conversations covering the afternoons and evenings. Poets visited prisons, traveled to Cartagena , Bogotá and small towns, as well as in various quarters of Medellín. The amount of organization involved in transportation and site preparation alone was utterly mind-boggling. On any given day there would be a couple of late-morning conversations with a half dozen poets for each, then four more events between 4 and 6 p.m., followed by another five at 7 p.m. And a pair of groups traveling out of town. There were airport runs and airplanes delayed. Having directed a relatively small writers' conference for several years myself, I know a little about handling a dozen writers and 150 participants for ten days, but watching the extraordinary staff of this festival was another world. They worked themselves to exhaustion day after day, and by all appearances, loved every minute of it. The poetry festival is unrivaled in Medellín's major annual events.

Fifteen years ago, Medellín was a city under siege. Drug cartels and gangs and paramilitary groups brought chaos. Today, Colombia is still a country at war, but Medellín is much like any fast-growing city of 3 million or more: mostly safe, but with dangerous neighborhoods, especially at night. There are too many zonked-out dope-smoking kids downtown who have too little hope and too little reality to see hope when they encounter it. The traffic congestion and noise can be awful, and being in a deep valley in the Central Andes , the pollution lingers. But it is a bustling beautiful city full of very friendly people who have grown over fifteen years to love poetry like no other city in the world. I must have signed a thousand anthologies, and I was a relative unknown to the people. These, surely, are the “hugging-est” people on earth, possessed of extraordinary warmth and enthusiasm—from hotel employees to those at readings. As violence has been reduced, their optimism has flowered. And yet there is so much work to be done.

The U.S. has a century of ignominious history in the Americas . Twice a recipient of the Medal of Honor, Marine Corps General Smedley Butler wrote of his experiences from 1909-1914, saying he was “a gangster for the banks and corporations,” making that world safe for our oil companies and the United Fruit Company. We've toppled governments and propped up dictators and armed death squads for a hundred years. Much of the warfare is conducted with U.S. arms, and often by people trained by U.S. military. Colombia is torn by factions. Poetry has helped the country make a step toward a state of greater civility, and its occasion is greeted with authentic joy.

In November, all of the Presidents in the Americas will meet in Argentina , a country for whom bloodshed is no stranger. The President of the United States will ask all the others to grant the U.S. “deferential status,” allowing U.S. military forces to enter and act in their countries. In return he will promise… more arms.

Now the U.S. wants to turn indigenous peoples' sacred lands into tourist camps. The U.S. wants to plunder Colombia 's very rich natural resources. Colombia is a poor nation only because of its long struggle with violent factions. It has within itself, within its diverse peoples and rich land, the ability to prosper. Those who prosper from Colombian violence are not the Colombian people. The Drug Wars are a direct by-product of the U.S. “War on Drugs,” another war that squanders billions of dollars and cannot be won by violence. With more arms and increased intervention comes more death squads, the loss of more civil rights, the potential for more people to disappear into Guantánamo, and the assault on personal dignity that is always a part of capitulation to indecent orders of power.

Poets Against War organizations in South America (and in Lebanon and elsewhere) are forming to join us. We will set up a “Poets Against War Worldwide” section on our web site soon. Inside, each country will be represented by an essay contributed by a leading poet along with a small sampling from that nation's anthology (bi-lingual where possible) and a link.

We hope by November to greet the presidents (plural) of the Americas (plural) with a worldwide day of poetry and thoughtfulness. We hope that over the coming year, every nation, every group of exiled poets, will connect with us. To hear from the poets is to find news that stays news, news that can be trusted. Our conviction is that through nonviolence, we all prosper, both physically and spiritually, and that poetry can be a path to enlightenment, or at least to the humanity we share. Our tradition has a long noble history of speaking on behalf of those who are silenced, of listening to those who have no power. As poets, we understand that wars are begun with words, and, ultimately, can end only by parties agreeing to stand beside a few well-chosen words. On November 5, 2005 , we can offer a few well-chosen words from around the world, the poetry that we believe is essential to creating a less violent world.

Esteban Moore, Jorge Rivelli Alejandra Mendé, Julio Azzimonti, Jorge Chaparro, and Javier Aduríz have drafted a statement for that occasion, a call to poetry as part of the solution, a petition for less, not more, armament. Please go to <poetsagainstwar.net> and add your signature.

Sam Hamill


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