It’s nearly five thousand miles from the Isle of Bute to Caracas. With ferry, train and plane delays, cancellations and re-routing, I felt every one of them. I was heading there courtesy of Creative Scotland, at the invitation of the Venezuelan Government, specifically poet Freddy Ñañez, Vice-President of Culture. I had been invited several years previously, but the International Poetry Festival was cancelled days before travel, owing to the political crisis in Venezuela at that time.
So it was with an increasing sense of anticipation that I travelled now. I’d met Freddy some years before, at another Poetry Festival in Vietnam, and was taken by his personal kindness and warmth. What I wasn’t prepared for was the warmth of the welcome when I eventually landed at Caracas airport. I was met by a traditional dance group, who performed, then embraced and led us to our home for the next ten days.
Welcoming Dancers at Caracas International Airport. Photo Sàndor Halmosi
We were a truly international crowd, with Venezuelans and poets from 43 countries across six continents and of course, myself from Scotland.
Language was no barrier, many having second, third and fourth languages. Of particular interest to me were the indigenous languages represented within Venezuela and by Nacion Mapuche poet Maribel Curriao and the Maya Kiche poet Rosa Chavez, who brought to the table a welcome sensibility concerning the poetries and languages of indigenous women and their presence and voices at festivals.
There was informal discussion concerning language and poetry, leading to a greater understanding of cultures from which they sprang. Another topic which engaged my attention concerned oral traditions; I had many lively, rewarding conversations with Malian Ismaël Diadié around our respective traditions.
The formalities were highlighted by President Nicolas Maduro, to welcome us and discuss the Festival on television, and Minister of Culture, Ernesto Villegas. Poetry is taken very seriously in Venezuela.
Poets in Government Building with portrait of Simon Bolívar, Liberator of America, father of Venezuelan independence. Photo Sàndor Halmosi
There were recitals, poetry readings, discussion tables, and literary workshops and book launches, not only in Caracas, but in 12 of the country’s 23 states. In Caracas, many of the readings were in the magnificent Teatro Bolívar, often to more than a thousand people. Lasting friendships and contacts were made during the Festival; new projects starting, of translation, collaboration and publication.
Importantly, a new world organisation was conceived in Caracas among these widely differing poets, a forum for sharing poetry: Poets of the Planet.
Leaving was bittersweet, but cannot be without mention of our hosts who made us so welcome, during any free time escorting us everywhere, including to a cable car ride in the Andes, as well as, oddly, a shopping mall. Not to mention the closing party and dance.