(Poetry: the current situation; a brief report)
By Carlos M-Castro
Ernesto Cardenal is the greatest of Nicaragua’s living poets. Born in 1925, and still active (in 2018, he published a long poem as a book), none of his fellow countrymen and women can match his creative longevity, and indeed there are those who would consider him, to the disappointment of his colleague Fernando Silva (1927-2016), the most Nicaraguan of Nicaraguans and even the most lively of the living. Above all, Cardenal is the Nicaraguan who has most influenced the language shared by 500 million people. Perhaps, after him, although we wish to avoid Olympic-style rankings, we could name Gioconda Belli (1948).
“Influence on the language.” That’s a huge hyperbole. But we see that fact quickly in the river that sweeps our days: the market and its domestic oracle, Google. The world’s most prestigious publishing houses of poetry in Spanish is Visor, which distributes its books on both sides of the Atlantic. In its catalogue, we find five living Nicaraguan poets: Cardenal and Belli, with six books each, and Francisco de Asís Fernández (1945), Daisy Zamora (1950) and Carlos Fonseca Grigsby (1988), with one each; although if we check out the websites of the most iconic Mexican bookstores—one of the countries that most imports books from Spain, where Visor is located—we only find Cardenal and Belli in all of them (El Sótano, Gandhi, Péndulo, Porrúa), while Zamora with La violenta espuma, 2017 is only found in Gandhi and Péndulo; Fernández, with titles published elsewhere (Mexico, La Otra: Luna mojada, 2015, and Spain, Alfar: La traición de los sueños, 2015, in PDF) is only found in El Sótano; Fonseca Grigsby’s only published work Una oscuridad brillando en la claridad que la claridad no logra comprender, 2008 can’t be found, not even in the National Library.
And if we type in “Nicaraguan poet” into the search engine, the algorithm will most likely feature as its top result a panel with photographs and names (collectible trading card-style), that includes Cardenal and Belli first, followed by physically deceased poets such as Rubén Darío (1867-1916) or Claribel Alegría (1924-2018), Pablo Antonio Cuadra (1912-2002) or Carlos Martínez Rivas (1924-1998). Moreover, we surely cannot refrain from noting a face today associated more with politics than poetry—the current Nicaraguan vice-president, Rosario Murillo (1951). Absolutely no book of hers can be found, unless perhaps in a secondhand bookstore, since she stopped publishing poetry in 1990, when it is said that she ordered the entire print run of Como los ángeles to be destroyed —even if during the successful 2005-2006 presidential campaign, she posted almost all of her poetry, even unedited verses, on a campaign website.
Perhaps we would be tempted by the idea of establishing some relationship among the half a dozen living poets previously named. More than aesthetically, but also for that reason—with the possible exception of Fonseca Grigsby—they are clearly connected (Fonseca Grigsby is again not included)—for having struggled against Nicaraguan (political) power and for later having taken part in the very system they struggled against (or shared it in a collegiate manner) , some more than others. This symbiosis Literature/Power, Politics/Aesthetics, would be like the “c” in Einstein’s well-known formula that sums up the obsolescence of absolute points of reference during the era in which—and still today—we survive, and how evidence mounts that the mass can transform itself into energy. The constant, thus, in the system that more or less, begging pardon for simplicity or oversimplification, represents our—still today—protagonists. A system that before its collective assault, functioned from the literary point of view more or less the same, but with a somewhat significant nuance: for the hegemonic poets that were their predecessors, among whom it is easy to place the previously mentioned Cuadra, as well as José Coronel Urtecho (1906-1994), who for a long time was sonsidered the dean of poets in Nicaragua, it was not necessary to take power if one could practice what is called soft power, and its invariant was then something more like Literature/Nation (or perhaps Nation/Literature). They learned to co-exist with politics (or to work within the political system) in a way that was—let us say— surreptitious, appearing completely uninteresting in the thing.
And precisely “the thing,” the public thing: the republic or its possibity—in addition to provable blood relations—is what, because of trying to influence or lead the fate of the country, has tightly linked Nicaraguan poets to each other for almost a century. “The Century of Poetry in Nicaragua,” as proposed by another member of the poetic ilk, Julio Valle-Castillo (1952), who thus entitles his three-volume anthology-encyclopedia, totaling some 2,000 pages. Nicaraguan poetry, whose definition was proposed by Coronel Urtecho and Cuadra —who invented, let’s say, the construct— is slightly amplified in regards to its origins, reclaiming the modernists as part of its history and placing them squarely as the foundation of this “phenomenon, both individual and collective, exceptional in the common language of Spain and America,” and this statement eases the burden borne by Darío: the foundation of the national literature (understood as Nicaraguan poetry), and with it, one of the most deeply rooted modern or modernizing myths, courtesy of the 20th century and its poets, the founding of the nation—“Nicaragua: land of poets.”
Because history, and indeed literature, as Remedios Sánches García of the University of Granada notes, “is always written by the winners.” And she adds, “There are also winners and losers in poetry.” Her work is an “open model” of the “latest poetry in Spanish,” published by Visor in 2015, elaborated under the worrisome democratizing idea of the old authority in which two hundred researchers from a hundred universities in the West literally voted to elect “the most relevant poets in the Spanish language since the 1970s.” She includes a sampling of forty national authors from fourteen countries, of which only one is Nicaraguan: Francisco Ruiz Udiel (1977-2010).
El Canon Abierto (The Open Canon), beyond its polemic nature, brings to light some of the mechanisms that make a poet last (or not). Poetry, after all, is a social act or nothing. Murillo, for example, perhaps is experiencing a high point because no publicity is bad publicity; but, although selections of her work appear in almost all of the reference anthologies of Nicaraguan poetry, she is the only one of the referenced poets that Daniel Rodríguez Moya leaves out in La poesía del siglo XX en Nicaragua (Twentieth-Century Nicaraguan Poetry), which Visor published in 2010 in its collection La Estafeta del Viento América, where, two years later, Ángel Esteban and Ana Gallego Cuiñas created an anthology, entitled Juego de manos, “Mid-20th-Century Hispano-American poetry,” which includes three Nicaraguans: Cardenal, Belli and Martínez Rivas.
The 20th anniversary of Martínez Rivas’ death passed without notice in June 2018 surely because of the hypercritical situation in Nicaragua (with Murillo precisely as co-protagonist, and Belli as a supporting actress used to playing the principal role and Cardenal making cameo appearances from time to time). Martínez Rivas is a consolidated canonic poet in the Nicaraguan tradition, although his poetry is not widely circulated. It remains to be seen if others, more recently deceased, like Vidaluz Meneses (1944-2016) or Edwin Yllescas Salinas (1941-2016), Carlos Rigby (1945-2017) or Ana Ilce Gómez (1944-2017) will maintain their reputations as years go by.
If we look at the textbooks on language and literature edited by the Nicaragua Education Ministry for the public schools, we will note the frequent references to Darío, Cuadra or Coronel Urtecho, together with others like Azarías H. Pallais (1884-1954), Joaquín Pasos (1914-1947) or Salomón de la Selva (1893-1959), and it is only in a book for students in their last year in which we read the poem from La insurrección solitaria, Martínez Rivas’ iconic book, published in 1953, together with a poem by Cardenal and another by Belli. Aside from these two, and a much younger poet, Andira Watson (1977), whose name is mistakenly spelled “Indira” in an eighth-grade textbook, where a short poem of hers is published, no other living poet appears in these pages of public instruction. We ought to point out, however, in making this assertion that Gómez was still alive when his poem “Ángel de expulsión” was included alongside that of Belli, “Y Dios me hizo mujer” in the section on “feminine voices.”
Because of the absence of a publishing industry, a consolidated system of literary contests, and even academic reception or almost any type of other criticism of the few poetry books published annually in Nicaragua (in 2016, the last year for which statistics are available, there were 153 new titles, on every subject, with a registered ISBN), alternative ways of constructing a poetic canon have arisen‑which must be constantly updated with the incorporation of new authors in the literary field. At the beginning of the century, there were still literary supplements every Saturday in the country’s two largest newspapers: La Prensa Literaria, founded by Cuadra and then edited by Marta Leonor González (1973) until its demise, and El Nuevo Amanecer Cultural, edited first by Luis Rocha Urtecho (1942) and later by Erick Aguirre Aragón (1961) until its demise, both numerary members (with Fernández and Valle-Castillo) of the Nicaraguan Academy of the Language, headed by Cuadra.
Today the spaces for circulation of poetry, as well as poetry books (which have the obvious disadvantage that fewer and fewer local publishing houses publish poetry and most of them charge authors a fee to get published), is limited to a couple of magazines with little circulation (perhaps the only one with a decent-sized circulation is El hilo azul, founded in 2010 and directed by Sergio Ramírez , with Ruiz Udiel as its first editor) or online publications (the most notable are 400 Elefantes, run by González and Juan Sobalvarro (1966) since 1997 after three years as a print magazine; Carátula, which Ramírez has directed since 2004 and Ruiz Udiel has also edited Álastor, run by Berman Bans  and founded in Managua in 2016 with Víctor Ruiz  and Yader Velásquez , or Ágrafos, established in Washington, D.C. by Roberto Carlos Pérez  and Mario Ramos  in 2017). Then there are blogs and social media. Although their reach and validation are difficult to determine, they represent interesting possibilities of reaching a wide audience directly.
Since 2005, the annual International Poetry Festival of Granada, directed by Fernández, organizes public readings by poets from different nations writing in different languages. The festival provides a significant space for the traffic of ideas and for networking (in 2016, for example, the festival, in honor of Ernesto Mejía Sánchez [1923-1985], led to the almost chance meeting between Juana de los Ángeles Mejía, the poet’s daughter, and Marco Antonio Campos, editor of the Mexican edition of Recolección a mediodía by Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México). However, because of the political crisis in Nicaragua, the festival did not take place in 2019, and it remains to be seen if will be resumed if (when????) the country resolves its political problems.
Here there is a poetic tradition and a way of understanding poetry—its purpose, its limits and its language—exemplified by patriarchs such as Cardenal—and which has been maintained more or less intact since the hegemonic days of Cuadra and Coronel Urtecho. One can sense, however, a possible exhaustion of this model in the lack of bringing the canon up to date, traditionally executed, in part with anthologies edited by Nicaraguan poets as they form part of the literary landscape. The most recent was that of Héctor Avellán (1973), who in 2012 compiled Nicaragua: el más alto canto, beginning with Darío and ending with Fonseca Grigsby—, or in the distance with which the majority of those who are forty or under have maintained, at least until now, from direct political action, social activism or the state bureaucracy. But it is in the texts that one needs to look for disruptions. Some poems of these neo-secular authors, who could be the great-grandchildren or the great-great grandchildren of the living Nicaraguan poets, can be read in this recent sampling by he, who making the final point, will tell you, attentive reader, over and out.