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Discover new ways to stretch your imagination, be introduced to new artists, their exhibits, and books to read about them. Expect to excite your mind. Comments are very welcome! -- Rosemary Carstens

Friday, February 10, 2012

HAVANA 2012: Poetry from the Violet Island – Reina María Rodríguez

Reina Maria Rodriguez in her Havana rooftop garden. Photo by Andres Walliser
There are rare, shimmering moments in life when we connect with beauty in a way that moves us profoundly. It might happen when we first see a long-admired painting in person or hear the power of Beethoven’s 9th symphony performed with a full orchestra. I’ve experienced it during those dark nights when a few lines in a book suddenly reveal deep personal meaning. For each individual the event that might illuminate a life is unique, but the feeling is universal. Such a moment happened for me recently during a visit to the Havana apartment of acclaimed Cuban poet Reina María Rodríguez. From her rooftop garden, with the setting sun casting its golden glow over the slowly crumbling buildings behind her, she gathered together selections from her sensitive, exquisite poetry and released them like angels into the sky. I was moved beyond words when she concluded her reading by saying, “In this moment, I feel my poetry has some importance.”

As I traveled with a small group of professional researchers, visiting Reina’s welcoming Havana home to hear her discuss her work and then read for us was one of the unforgettable highlights of my first trip to the island. For many of us in the United States, Cuba only exists as a collage of images from pre-embargo days: Hemingway, Sinatra, Ava Gardner, fifties automobiles with big grills and flaring fins, primo cigars and highball glasses filled with molasses-colored rum consumed by wealthy people in fancy dress—and everywhere the syncopation of Afro-Caribbean music. As with stories of the legendary isle of Atlantis, if you haven’t been there it’s hard to separate reality from nostalgia.

From my perspective, while the iconic players have changed and the magical, pastel-hued city of Havana has aged less than gracefully, the vibrant culture of Cuba and its people’s warm welcome to visitors have not. The afternoon spent with Reina María Rodríguez is but one shining example.

Born in Havana in 1952, only 8 years before Fidel Castro’s revolution blew the country apart, Reina María grew up and developed her poetry amidst radical changes in the country’s social, political, and economic life. Her work, making use of an experimental style initially, is richly metaphorical and expresses not only her own erotic and personal life experiences but continues to question and comment on contemporary Cuban culture as a whole. Winner of the Casa de las Americas poetry prize, the UNEAC Prize, and the Julian del Casal prize, Rodriguez is recognized today as one of the most outstanding of Cuban writers.

One of Rodríguez’s most recent books, published by Green Integer (2004)  in the United States, is Violet Island and Other Poems, a collection in both Spanish and English, with translations by Kristin Dykstra and Nancy Gates Madsen. As expressed in this slim volume, “Rodríguez offers the freedoms of a revised vision, a revolutionary gaze that depends not on freezing the hands of time, but on embracing its motion. In her poetic testimonies, it is not any single moment of triumph that gives meaning to revolution, but the everyday, intimate, and ambivalent experiences that citizens share—even if they know heroes and history only from a distance.”

Reina María is a revolutionary within Cuba’s political evolution. Beyond the intellectual challenges of her work, for two decades her seven-story walk-up, informally known as la azotea de Reina, an intellectual salon, has provided a space for readings and discussions where writers and artists can depart from party lines and weave more textured self-expression. The stairwell leading to her front door is dark, the walls dilapidated and crumbling, the handrail leaning to one side. Perhaps it serves metaphorically to represent some of the poet’s journey. In contrast, as you enter her home you are surrounded by bright colors, rooms filled with light from the sky beyond her rooftop garden, collections of books and art, music, and the certainty that here ideas are rigorously embraced.

May we all be embraced and surrounded by such beautiful moments—
Rosemary Carstens
Editor, FEAST

Further resources:

To experience the full beauty and power of Reina María’s poetry, read “Memory of Water,” translated from the Spanish by Joel Brouwer and Jessica Stephenson, and published in the June 2011 issue of Poetry magazine. Be sure to check out the tab “About this poem” also: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poem/242092

For audio and video recordings of readings by the poet on various dates from 2000-2011, see: http://writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/x/Rodriguez.php

Recording of a reading by Reina María Rodríguez in Spanish and by Arizona public radio correspondent James Reel in English on Havana rooftop: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c-kVwS4MtoU

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