An Experience of a Lifetime
XVII International Poetry Festival of Medellin -July 14-22, 2007
July 13-23 -Medellin, Colombia
The 17th International Poetry Festival of Medellin was a blast!
The Poetry Festival, the most famous and the biggest in the world was founded by Fernando Rendon, a great poet himself. Now assisted by his son, Luis and a host of other great personalities and volunteers, the festival was an educational experience.
I had never in my entire life seen anything like what I saw in Medellin (pronounced Medejin). I went into Colombia with no expectations, no negative Impressions despite the side comments from some about the dangers of visiting a country at war. We arrived in the beautiful mountain city riding on a bus from the airport near Medellin. The bus load of us poets from around the world, riding down steep cliffs into the city that resembles a huge bowl at night. The beauty of the lights and the mountains, the high rise buildings and brick houses, hiding something more painful- the forty year old war.
Then I met the people. The Colombian people were warm and affectionate, caring and polite. I fell in love with everyone I met, even the people on the streets. Then I met the poets from every region of the world. I was among more than 72 poets featured in this massive festival. For the first time, I met someone from Nepal, from Iceland, from Greenland, and they were all wonderful poets and people. I met fellow Africans, fellow African women poets, Fatoumata, Koumalo, and male African poets. There were European poets, Middle Eastern poets, Asian poets, American poets, South American poets, Central American poets, and Colombian poets. There were poets everywhere you turned. At the Gran hotel, we bumped into one another, laughed, hugged, kissed, embraced like the Colombians do and taught us to do. We laughed, and a few of us cried together. Writers can be crazy, but having them live together, eat together, drink together, yell, scream, huddle for ten days was interesting. I met all kinds of personalities as with their poetry, and there was no moment of boredom those many days.
This gathering of poets was different because we lived as if we were on a camp, simply eating and reading, with some of us doing interviews. The rest of the time was left for socializing. Writing and reading was impossible with so much fun. When we got lonely for our families, my girlfriends and I sat around and looked at family photos and laughed. We even laughed other poets sitting across the room were drinking to much or were acting like bumps. I’m sure they laughed at us too, maybe our hairdo or or sleepy eyes at breakfast or maybe our African garbs which, of course, we wore to readings. Who can say?
The best part was the readings. On the first morning, we had our breakfast, many sleepy and suffering from jet leg. Those who had come in from China or from the Middle East seemed to be drowsy that first morning, but I was wide awake. Didn’t attend the opening party the night before because I was too exhausted the night , so I went up to my room early.
Then the reading at the opening ceremony opened my eyes in a new way. We were on stage even though I am terrible at being on stage. I chew gum all the time and am often up and down trying to avoid being up on stage. So some of my photos have me turned away or chewing gum- funny. The crowd was unbelievable. Reading my poems along with about eighteen other poets that opening day brought tears to my eyes. I had never before seen close to seven thousand people sit for long hours to hear poetry read in different languages, so this was stunning.
Beside the reading of poetry across the city, I had the opportunity to interview with close to a dozen journalists and TV programmers from Colombia and around the world. So what I thought was a vacation turned out to be work, but work that was more fun than work.
Then the long week began, but it was rather short and filled with fun. I had the best reader of all, if you ask me, but all of the readers were great. My reader, Zulima, an actress would read my poems in Spanish after I’d read my English version. Along with the readers who assisted us during the week were the many volunteers, the young men and women who were always filled with smiles and cheers, often giving us the greatest comments, the drivers who shuttled us around, and other women friends from Medellin who took my girlfriends and me shopping. They were patient in the hot sun. There was sweet Marabay who cooked for us at her house, a star musician in Colombia. There was Ricardo who translated other poems I wanted to read. He also translated my new poem written to Medellin while I was there. He was perfect and kind.
I read every day of the ten days, except on Friday. I had a day off and went to hear others read. Every day there were between fifteen to eighteen reading venues at alternate hours, sometimes, these readings occurred simultaneously with each reading located at some point in the city. Each reading featured an average of four poets from various countries. There were readings taking place in other cities even while those of us who did not get a chance to fly out of town remained to read across the vast city.
Each reading venue could draw crowds of between three hundred to a thousand enthusiastic men, women, children, old people, some of them VIPs. People sat still in rain, sunshine or darkness, for long hours, listening to us read. After the readings, we were stormed by the crowd for autographs, children in between the adults, stretching out a piece of paper, a festival journal or anything in reach for us t sign. Some of us knew our names by the end of the week. Fans followed us from venue to venue, begging for autographs.
It was the most amazing thing I had ever seen in my life as a poet. I had come to learn that poetry does not draw crowds, does not interest people, but in Colombia, I discovered that poetry can indeed be an instrument of change, of healing, of power, of unity, of celebration, of bringing the world of violence down to its knees.
The closing ceremony drew out not just the crowd, but the skies. The rain poured down, but people sat with their plastic coats and umbrellas, some sat in the bare rain, waiting for each of the long line of poets to read in the various languages of the world, translated into Spanish. It was amazing, moving, teary, and inspiring to see people sit forever in the rain and lightening, outside, waiting just for poetry to be read.
Many of us discussed how we had become changed by this beautiful country and people. I always knew that poetry is a tool of power, that writing can heal, but in Colombia, I saw how real what I have always believed is.
Wait to get more from me about this great experience. Visit these sites if you can read Spanish or some poor translation of English some of the stories journalist recorded of my and some of my fellow poets’ experience in Medellin.
See you soon with more…