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"Glocal" Cultures: Medellín's Poetry Festival.

Paper Delivered at Bowdoin College, Brunswick, Maine, April 5, 2001

“When the mode of the music changes, the walls of the city shake”
Allen Ginsberg

During the last week of June, 2000, the music of poetry shook the walls of Medellín, a three million people city, the second largest in Colombia. Ninety-three poets from five continents were daring enough to venture into a city where an average of ten people die violently every day. Even more daringly, these poets read their work to assorted herds in the morning, afternoon and evening, at locations as varied as street parks, labor union offices, public libraries, university and high school classrooms, hotels, elegant theaters, hospitals, taverns, museums, shopping centers, even the dreadful and overcrowded state prisons. There was no music, no big screens, no impressive display of technology, no police force, just a modest table, a microphone, and a group of poets with their translators, reading to a numerous crowd of all ages and social extractions. Every day, the two major newspapers and the local television channel included coverage on some of the programs, interviews with the poets, and comments from the audience. "A refreshing rain of magic," one of those comments stated; "Medellín at its best," said another.

This was the tenth consecutive year in which the International Poetry Festival of Medellín had been celebrated. It began as a one-day event in 1991, with only 13 Colombian poets, as a form of cultural activism for peace. Its organizers described it as an effort to strengthen "the dream of spiritual transformation demanded by our present circumstances." And those circumstances were indeed challenging. Besides the escalation of crime that has become characteristic of many urban centers, during the 1980s Medellín had witnessed the war between two major drug cartels. There were regular bomb explosions and massive shootings, curfew was in effect for weeks, thousands of people had been killed and injured in a few years. A general atmosphere of pessimism, rancor and fear, combined with economic depression and a sense of failure, had taken over a city that, in the past, had been referred to as "Colombian shiny silver cup." The Festival was born as a response to this distress. Its organizers were, and are, just a small group of middle-class poets who run a poetry journal, heroically called Prometeo / Prometheus (the Greek mythological Titan who stole fire from heavens and gave it to humans). Prometeo decided to give continuity to a series of successful poetry readings held before. Financing came from a non-profit foundation.

The event was so successful that it was less difficult to obtain funding for the following years, during which the Festival kept growing, attracting more and more poets, and becoming loved by the people as a tradition unique to Medellín. By the third edition of the Festival, the city council had produced an ordinance guaranteeing help in financing the event, which is free of charge and open to the public. Despite this support from the city administration, the organizers have always been very careful not to be manipulated by any political factions or state policies. The Festival has never been used as part of the official propaganda "in favor" of the city, such as the tourist or business oriented videos or posters that are produced regularly to attract visitors and investors. Even from the Ministry of Culture, which now provides for considerable funding, Prometeo keeps prudent distance and autonomy, seeking financial support from international sources as well.

And the Festival has certainly become a reason for pride and celebration for many Medellinenses who devotedly attend and treasure the event. Being from a city which is relatively isolated by its steep geography and that, in addition, has been ostracized by an international reputation of violence, Medellinenses are delighted to be visited by poets from all over the world, and to offer a different, more friendly perception of the city. Guest poets from Asia, Africa, Europe, North America, and other parts of Latin America and Colombia, are in turn delighted to be treated as celebrities and to give autographs to hundreds of fans. Their books now get sold, too, since for the last four years a poetry book fair runs parallel to the Festival, at the hotel where the poets stay. The excitement, surprise and even perplexity that most guest poets experience, can be summarized in the following remarks written by American poet and literary critic Margaret Randall after her participation in the Festival in 1993. The quote is extensive, but it also serves us to pose some of the questions that guide my presentation tonight:

The most startling aspect of the Festival, at least for those of us who had come from outside Colombia, was Medellín's extraordinary addiction to poetry; our audiences consistently averaged 2,000 engrossed and cheering fans. I don't use these adjectives lightly. Listeners sat in rapt silence for programs lasting over two hours, even in extreme heat and humidity and with many sitting on the floor or standing in doorways or outside halls. In the larger venues, the crowds showed their emotion by breaking into spontaneous applause, or by shouting for the inclusion of a poet who might not have been scheduled to read at that particular event. Once, during a musical interval between poetry sets, the public booed the musicians off the stage and demanded that the poets resume. [...] Every poet present was conscious of Medellín's reputation. We had accepted Prometeo's invitation intrigued by the magic realism residing at every level of Colombian society, the beauty of its landscape, and the embracing warmth of a war-torn people. What most of us were not prepared for was this city's overwhelming devotion to poetry. Or the link its people repeatedly make between their painful history and the healing powers of our art. Again and again I found myself asking those in our audiences or on the street how they explain this connection so present in their collective discourse. What local traditions conspire to bring thousands of listeners out to recital after recital?

The Festival, then, becomes a living, bewildering text to be read and interpreted by every participant. The multitude of listeners is hardly a passive crowd. Not only do they interact with the poets through applause and demands, but they are also asked to pause and think, to feel and create in turn. In fact, the event also sponsors poetry workshops conducted by the guest poets. Carlos Gaviria, a 36 year-old teacher who commented on the Festival, manifests this active participation of the audience in the following terms: "The festival offers all of us the power to interact with the diversity of other people's thinking." Adriana López, a 26 year-old computer technician, expresses: "It makes me forget that countries have borders." And in a more intimate tone, 54 year-old economist Fabián Vargas defines the Festival as "a deep, long breathing."

As you ponder on these "readings" of the Festival, and before I start sketching my own, I would like you to get a quick look of the opening event which, like the closing, occurs as a single recital for the day . These two ceremonies are held at an open-air theater on the Nutibara hill, from where the audience can see the whole city in the background of the stage, as a sea of lights spread around the valley and surrounding mountains. The opening and closing ceremonies, in their ritual simplicity and magnitude, are probably the events that best illustrate how the Festival "shakes the walls of the city," as Allen Ginsberg would put it.
[See video segments]

Desde su fundación en 1991, el Festival Internacional de Poesía en Medellín, más que por una organización, ha sido protegido por la presencia amorosa del pueblo de Medellín.Frente a la naturaleza de la creación poética, plena de silencio, la multitud de seres que aman, y acompañan sin abandonar su propia intimidad, contradice el torpe malentendido de que la poesía se da sólo en soledad y aislamiento. Y este silencio de miles que escuchan, esta suma de voluntades cuya revolución estriba en su amorosa indagación de la palabra que devuelve la memoria, la conciencia y el camino perdido, son también el poema. Damos a todos una fraterna bienvenida a la novena edición del Festival de Poesía en Medellín. Since its foundation in 1991, the Poetry Festival in Medellín, rather than by an organization, has been protected by the loving presence of Medellín's people.While the nature of poetic creation is full of silence, the multitude of beings who love and share without abandoning their own intimacy, contradicts the awkward misconception of poetry taking place only in solitude and isolation.And this silence of a thousand listeners, this sum of wills whose revolution consists of a loving search for the word that brings back memory, consciousness and lost paths, this is the poem, too.We offer you all a fraternal welcome to the ninth edition of the Poetry Festival in Medellín.
Gabriel Jaime Franco, Prometheus Editorial Committee, June 1999

The welcoming remarks made by Gabriel Jaime Franco, a member of the Prometeo group, construct an interesting perception of the event. Notice that the Festival is presented as something threatened, something that needs to be protected by the loving presence of Medellín's people. In the context of a city and a State that have failed to protect their citizens from abuse, exploitation and mutual destruction, and in the midst of an armed conflict marked by random acts of hate, Colombians and Medellinenses need to remind ourselves that we, as a collectivity, are indeed capable of loving behavior, of protecting what we deem valuable. The Festival, therefore, stands for and promotes a sense of commonality that is incessantly threatened in Colombia. It is perceived as "a deep, long breathing" within asphyxiating social circumstances. And this sense of urgency is one of the elements responsible for the devotion that the audience brings to the recitals and that Margaret Randall, as most of the guest poets, finds bewildering.

The sense of commonality is recovered through an ideal setting that combines intimacy and togetherness, the depth of silence and the power of the spoken word, as the second paragraph of Franco's remarks points out. The Festival enacts, literally, a sum of wills to renovate memory and consciousness, to find the lost path of a collective vision. And this transformational vision is precisely the mission assigned to poetry since the advent of Modernity in the West. In their impressively encompassing two-volume anthology of modern poetry entitled Poems for the Millenium, Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris observe that, since the emergence of Enlightenment, "what began to take shape was the idea of poetry as an instrument of change that would take place foremost in the poem itself, as a question of language and structure as well as of a related, all-connecting vision" (I, 2), an enthusiasm for change that is also "often balanced, sometimes overbalanced, by an obsession with the old and the ancient" (I, 3). The poet is understood as seer (visionary of new paths, revolutionary) and as chronicler (custodian of memory) at the same time, a double condition that is expressed in Franco's welcoming remarks by a paradoxical "revolutionary search for the word that brings back memory." As you can see, these welcoming remarks clearly appeal to referents that are widely shared in the modern imagination. In this sense, the Festival serves to recreate the "global" role of poetry in a specific, local society.

For there is a second level at which the Festival would need to be "protected": as an incarnation of poetry itself. Rothenberg and Joris also note the emergence of "a widely held belief that poetry is part of a struggle to save the wild places -in the world and in the mind- and a view of the poem itself as a wild thing and of both poetry and poet as endangered species" (II, 12). The adjective "wild" evokes the genuine, what has not been conquered by culture, the "real thing" that publicity so obsessively tries to associate with massively produced articles such as Coca-Cola and Levi's. The "wild thing" would be, in Franco's welcoming remarks, the "lost paths." A lost path in the age of mass production is the wild "uniqueness", the "personal touch" that every individual poem promises to provide. A lost path in the virtual era is the wild breath-to-breath contact that the recital of poetry restores. A lost path in over-organized first-world ways of living is the wild spontaneity and improvisation that a multitude listening to poetry recuperates. A lost path in over-efficient modes of production is the ability to pause, to slow down and contemplate, a wild ability that listening to poetry brings forth. A lost path in secularized societies is a sense of ritual, of magic, of excitement and play that the wildly spoken, rhythmic word creates. A lost path in consumerism is the wild memory and reverence of the poetic gesture. What is lost, above all, is this possibility to fuse the intimate and the public, the personal and the collective in a single, experiential moment, a fusion wildly performed by "this cheering silence of a thousand listeners." And the cheering silence of a thousand listeners achieves what Mexican poet Octavio Paz describes as "the double condition of aesthetic experience: feast and contemplation. The feast is an art of participation and communion, the contemplation is a silent dialog with the universe and with ourselves" (123-24). This double condition is achieved at a single moment: when poetry is reclaimed as a performative genre.

The Festival is certainly an ingenious way of promoting feast and contemplation at the same time, integrating modern resources such as global transportation and communication in order to locally disseminate a traditional -almost primal- product: the performance of the spoken word. This promotion is fairly democratic, too. Many different ways of understanding poetry are included. At least one indigenous community is invited every year, and they usually perform their rituals of the word as a group, while briefly explaining what it means in their society. Other not-completely-Western poets read their work as well. Ethnic, gender-related, social or demotic forms are as welcome as the most intimate or erudite lyric traditions, sonnet writers, and experimentalists of sound or visual poetry. In a way, each recital is a peaceful debate or confrontation of diversity.

And it is in this ability to unite the most modern, experimentalist styles and the most traditional, the ethnic, the ecological, the non-Western forms, that Medellín's Festival provides for a broadening of cultural terrains. It responds both to a thirst for modernization, for internationalization, and to a thirst for the "wild", for the "other" of modernization. Attendees can take the pulse, so to speak, of what is going on in the field of poetic production around the world. From this perspective, the Festival constitutes a sort of global, live, always-in-progress anthology that encourages and divulges acts of creation across a wide range of human cultures. It is an expression of "glocal" culture. The term "glocal" was proposed by Ronald Robertson in 1995 to designate the asymmetric forms of interaction between a specific location and wider, internationalized processes. In this case, the global processes of poetry are assimilated by local initiatives in Medellín.

Not only is the Festival organized using the tools of the communication age (Internet, air transportation), but it even responds to "globalizing" ideals such as the dream of becoming "citizens of the world," or in terms familiar to Bowdoin, "to be at home in all lands and all ages; to make hosts of friends." Paradoxically, however, the set of experiences that the Festival promotes are an exception to the values of the global age. As opposed to virtual communication, what we have here is the imminence of human bodies in touch with one another. While the logic of globalization is profit and consumption, the Festival offers a free product in which consumers become producers, and vice versa. And whereas globalization fuels the power of First-World-based corporations, Medellín's Festival constitutes an empowering response from a Third-World location.

Yet some reasons for the success of the Festival can be found in the new sensibilities created by globalization. Although problematic in political and theoretical respects, there are two visions about the new global sensibilities, one proposed by Marshall McLuhan, the other by Michel Maffesoli, that help explain why a poetry festival can be particularly appealing today. Let me present you with a schematic summary of these ideas. About thirty years ago, McLuhan divided Western history into three periods. The first, tribal-acoustic, would have privileged the gathering around the spoken word, the oral, collective origins of poetry. The second, visual-literate (McLuhan called it "Gutemberg's galaxy"), exalted the individual act of reading and writing poetry. And the third period, beginning now, is the visual-acoustic, represented by media, particularly television. Marking a transitional moment, a recital of poetry would respond to the visual-acoustic sensibility of the listeners, while still building upon the visual-literate habits of the readers.

From a different perspective, but still within the vision of history as a succession of stages, Michel Maffesoli considers that a period ending nowadays, centered around the axis of morality and politics, is giving room to a new organization of life around pleasure and aesthetics. The growth of publicity and of the entertainment industry is an indication of this new period. Again, the Poetry Festival of Medellín would represent a transitional moment in which morality is still a central issue, but the main motivation is the aesthetic experience of the spoken, poetic word. It offers pleasure and depth, generous ideals and the enjoyment of beauty.

And this is how, uncannily, from a location that is mostly peripheral to the power engines of the global age, the Festival gives, for free, the "real thing" to the people of Medellín: an access to the wild, the primal, the original, the tribal-acoustic on one hand, and to the global, the modern, the cosmopolitan, the visual-acoustic, on the other. It performs an effect of reality in a time of virtualization and artificiality. It is empowering, inclusive, democratic and participatory, ethical and aesthetic, global and local. No wonder it attracts multitudes that, somehow, can perceive themselves as an immense, unique minority. No wonder it has to be constructed as something continually threatened that needs to be protected with loving presence. The Festival may not "really" transform society, of course, but at least it marks a change in the mode of music, to go back to Allen Ginsberg's verse. The walls of the city shake and different, perhaps more desirable, ways of living together are glimpsed through the fissures cracked open by this non-violent shaking.


Robertson, Ronald. "Globalisation." Global Modernities. Ed. M. Featherston et al. London: Polity Press, 1995.

Rothenberg, Jerome and Pierre Joris, eds. Poems for the Millennium: The University of California Book of Modern and Postmodern Poetry. 2 vols. Berkeley and Los Angeles: U. of California Press, 1995.

McLuhan, Marshall. The Global Village : Transformations in World Life and Media in the 21st Century. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Maffesoli, Michael. Ordinary Knowledge: An Introduction to Interpretative Sociology. Trans. David Macey. Cambridge, UK : Polity Press ; Cambridge, MA : Blackwell Publishers, 1996.

Paz, Octavio. La otra voz: Poesía y fin de siglo. México: Siglo XXI, 1994.

Randall, Margaret. "Where the Muse Moves in Despair." Crossroads, Jan. 1994.

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