YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

New Latin American poets try to free verse

In an honored but rigid society, young voices find 'outside' places.

October 15, 2005|Reed Johnson | Times Staff Writer

MEXICO CITY — Shrieking and brandishing a 6-inch knife like a woman in need of a good exorcist, Elizabeth Neira is every guy's worst castration nightmare. She's also a rising young Chilean poet who wields words like sharp, lethal objects.

Outside a cavernous cultural center in this city's dicey Jamaica neighborhood, a furious downpour is turning the streets into roiling open sewers, and the sky echoes with angry thunderclaps. Inside, Neira is acting out one of her poems, a jilted woman's harangue that makes rhythmic sport of the Spanish words "pene" (penis) and "apenas" (nearly), as well as the colloquial expression "vale la pena," meaning "worth the pain."

Her audience, consisting mostly of other Latin American poets younger than 35, plus a few of the curious from the community, clucks and grins at Neira's intentionally over-the-top performance. Not to mention the "souvenir" tarot cards paired with pornographic photos that she tossed into the audience a few minutes ago.

Pablo Neruda this ain't.

But judging by a week's worth of public readings, round-table discussions and artistic "interventions," along with generous dollops of shop talk, gossip and cigarette smoke, the latest poetry from Latin America isn't lacking for energy, craft or ambition. What it frankly could use is more events like "Estoy Afuera," or "I Am Outside," a weeklong poetic happening that wraps up here today.

Ever since the Spanish conquest of the New World, poetry has held an exalted status in the Spanish-speaking Americas. Top word maestros are feted like film stars. Some hold high public office. Others are made into cultural emissaries and rewarded with coveted European ambassadorships and the like.

But for younger poets struggling to make their voices heard above the blather of telenovelas and futbol matches, Latin America's exalted poetry inner circle can feel like an exclusive cul-de-sac. Old-school publishing houses are few in number. So are government grants. The mainstream media tend to ignore poets who aren't already big names. The big names themselves rarely lend a hand to talent surfacing from below, younger poets say. Most poetry criticism tends to be stuffy, academic and hostile to newfangled experiments.

That, in theory, is where "I Am Outside" comes in.

"We aren't exactly looking to make a group to clash with these social cultures, but rather we're looking to generate spaces where things can flow in an alternative manner," says Jorge Solis, director of the online poetry and cultural magazine Mexico Volitivo and one of the three co-organizers of this week's events. "The thing we most lack in Mexico is an opening for new dynamics, new voices, new propositions. We believed it was better to make a space than to whine because the rest won't open a space."

For many young Latin American poets, that new space is cyberspace. Among the 40 poets invited to take part in "I Am Outside" -- half from Mexico and half from other countries, all of them born after 1970 -- were a large number of bloggers. Many poets maintain personal Web pages. Five-year-old Mexico Volitivo ( is but one of a growing number of online Spanish-language poetry journals that allow writers scribbling away in Lima or Santiago to expose their work to a broader audience and keep up with what their colleagues in Guadalajara or Buenos Aires are doing.

Virna Teixeira, a 34-year-old Brazilian poet who also works as a neurologist in Sao Paulo, says that her weblog ( and events like "I Am Outside" allow her to communicate with poets and poetry lovers across the hemisphere and beyond. "Brazil is a little isolated from the other Latin American countries because we speak Portuguese," says Teixeira, whose terse, free-form poems recall those of the late Robert Creeley, whose work she has translated.

Just as new forms of communication technology separate this generation of Latin poets from their elders, so do the younger poets' sources of inspiration. Karen Plata, 19, lists Morrissey, the brooding vocalist of the British '80s pop-rock band the Smiths, as one of her key creative mentors. Plata, a graphic design student, says she likes the aesthetic tension between the singer's sulky introspection and his bandmates' aggressively jangly guitars.

Guatemalan poet Allan Mills, 26, who contributes work to the Central American literary monthly Magna Terra, draws on such varied sources as T.S. Eliot, the Nicaraguan master Ruben Dario, the Beats, the French Symbolists and the Popol Vuh, a sacred Mayan text. "I think that young people are between tradition and the rupture" of the 1960s and '70s, Mills says. "I believe there is a possibility to negotiate a middle way. In the gap, you can take possession of the best of tradition and of taking risks."

Los Angeles Times Articles