On my way to Glasgow Airport one dark, dreich Monday morning in May, the taxi driver asked me what it was like being a poet, and how we can possibly make a living out of putting words together. I explained that our lives are indeed often financially precarious, but every so often we might get invited to a literary event in the Caribbean, and it is these kinds of experiences that remind us that our endeavours do not go entirely unnoticed. Shetland poet Christie Williamson and myself were on this occasion two lucky poets to be invited to travel from Scotland to Aruba, myself thanks to support from Scottish Books International.
Taking place from 9th May to 18th May, The First International Poetry Encounter in Aruba was organised by Arubian-Argentinian poet Arturo Desimone and Maria Silva Hart from Basha Foundation. According to Desimone, the event’s Creative Director, the Poetry Encounter in Aruba is a unique blend of a collective artist residency and a mini literary festival hybrid, combining the reflection and contemplation with public events, and reaching out in an interdisciplinary way to other art forms. Desimone calls it a “complex, exciting thing”, as well as an “adventure”, and it certainly had an exhilarating feel to me.
With the participation of poets from across Latin America and the Caribbean, as well as Scotland, the festival was a true smorgasbord of poetries and styles, with translation practice as the common denominator between us all. Participants included Christie Williamson (Scotland), Jamila Medina Ríos (Cuba), John Martínez Gonzales (Peru), Jesús Montoya (Venezuela), Wilson Alves-Bezerra (Brazil), Ralph Winedt (Curacao), América Merino (Chile), Marta Jazmín García (Puerto Rico), and Juana Adcock (Mexico/Scotland), as well as Arturo Desimone himself (Aruba/Argentina).
One of the most interesting conversations that took place was around minority languages, with Aruba being an interesting case of linguistic diversity. Their national language is Papiamento, a creole language with traces of Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch and even some of the Amerindian languages that were originally spoken on the island. But most Arubans speak at least 4 languages, with Papiamento being their mother tongue spoken at home, Dutch being the language of school instruction from primary school through to university, English being the language used for working in tourism, and Spanish historically being an important influence due to the proximity with Venezuela and the dominance of Mexican and Latin American TV. In such a context, what does it mean for writers to write in Papiamento? And how is that similar to our experiences in Scotland? Christie Williamson’s reading of Tom Leonard’s “Right inuff/ ma language is disgraceful” was relevant, and this came to show in the engagement with the local communities, who were keen to share their own writing and experiences around language. We also had readings in Portuñol (the blend of Portuguese and Spanish) and Spanglish, which created a heated (and in my view very healthy) debate among local critics regarding to what extent a minority language should or should not be preserved and protected from the influence of culturally dominant languages such as English. We were lucky to appear on the front page of a national newspaper as well as to be interviewed in a morning show, where, according to Desimone, my reading of a Spanglish poem may have very well been the first time a poem was read on Aruban television since the 1970s.
The residency element of the Encounter was particularly salient and very fruitful. Where in most literary festivals I have attended there is little emphasis in fostering connections between the authors, the Aruba programme saw 11 of us poets sharing a household split between two houses in the capital Oranjestad, and doing everything together—from sharing meals, making each other cups of coffee, taking part in translation workshops and bookbinding workshops as well as Papiamento language lessons and organising expeditions to interesting sites, to morning yoga on the beach and late night sessions where we shared some of the poetry and music that were most meaningful and influential to our work and outlook on the world.
Writing can often be a very solitary activity, so when writers come together it is common for a feeling to arise of being reunited with the ‘tribe’, and being understood as we share experiences with others on a similar journey. But whereas in conventional poetry festivals it is not uncommon for poets to forge friendships, connections and a feeling of mutual admiration, by the end of our stay in Aruba, we all left with tears in our eyes and a brimming heart at having found a new close-knit family, certain in the knowledge that we will be able to rely on each other in one way or another for the rest of our lives.
A number of projects and collaborations were the inevitable result of conversations and time spent together, with the most immediate project being an anthology that will include poems in 6 languages from all of the poets that took part in the events, whether local or international. Three of us poets have also signed up for Papiamento lessons in order to be able to accurately translate local poets into Spanish, English, Portuguese and Shetlandic. The participating poets will also be translating each other into their own languages, potentially attending other literary festivals, publishing their work with new editorial ventures, and creating interdisciplinary collaborations.
With the support from organisations such as the MANA National Archaelogical Museum of Aruba, the Community Museum San Nicolaas, the Dutch Foundation for Literature, the Prins Bernhard Cultuurfonds Caribisch Gebied, UNOCA (Union of Arubian Cultural Organisations) and the Aruba Tourism Authority, Desimone is hoping to expand the International Poetry Encounter in Aruba to invite more publishers present in future events, to create more dialogue with other literatures of the Caribbean, to further involve the local communities, to increase the international visibility of the region, and to continue fostering cultural and interdisciplinary collaborations.
With such a wide-ranging scope, the International Poetry Encounter in Aruba is sure to have lasting ripples, and I am certain the Scottish connection will continue to grow.