Mexico 2014: Hay Xalapa & the Cervantino festival in Guanajuato
An extraordinary trip to Mexico in October 2014, thanks to the British Council, saw me read at Hay Xalapa in the state of Veracruz, before travelling to Guanajuato and the famous Cervantino festival to speak on Shakespeare in the 21st century, before the second phase of Enemigos: the Enemies project took place in Mexico City. Six readings, three cities, three festivals and an unforgettable experience in Mexico. Here is my reading from Hay Xalapa, and below, my blogs on the experience.
Mexico : diario de la poesía #1 - Hay Xalapa begins : October 3rd 2014
I know I have to start writing about the first day in Mexico after the first day, or it will all pass me by. Such is the pace, it feels I've been here many days, not one. And at the end of the first event I did, a man asked me about this blog, said he read it, it was inspiring, or something like that, and so I now I realise people read it, so I have to keep doing it.
I flew to Mexico City from London watching shite action films I'd been saving, 4 and a half of them. I met Nell Leyshon, also here with the British Council for both Hay Xalapa and Cervantino, and we immediately hit it off. An extraordinary woman from the first, funny as hell, kind, humble, passionate and genuinely interesting. Boded well. We were plopped in the airport Ramada in Mexico city, and talked later into the night over Chalapas, despite being knacked.
The next morning we were bussed down from Mexico city to Xalapa, with other translators and authors including the brilliant Tom Bunstead, covering the beautiful, open plains and mountains of the country. We immediately felt the full force of organisational fury from Hay. It is so amazingly organised, with an ocean of volunteers and organisers, who absolutely ensure you are where you need to be and when. I've never experienced such size in a festival. I had time to use the swanky hotel gym and go to the biggest supermarket I've ever visited, which had an in house bakery and a pork scratchings aisle, before I had to depart for my first event.
Nell and I were not allowed to make our own way, so a poor Spanish speaking student Itzel had to ferry and walk us through the town. We tried to gently escape, the narrow, colourful colonial architecture of Xalapa, its frequent arts centres, live public music and friendly laid back vibe taking us off the rush route to prep me for the event.
This was the launch of the Enemies anthology, after a few years work, and the book really delivered. Just a beautiful book, so proud of it really. I was on a panel with Rocio Ceron, a force of nature, and Pura Lopez Colome, just an incredible generous and vital person and writer. I spoke in English and the others in Spanish, so I had a nodge in my ear that connected to a live translator. It led to some funny moments that only I could hear as the translator flapped to keep up. Our discussion was really rich, I tried to be funny, failing just enough that I ended up feeling really humbled by the concentrated questions from a large and attentive audience, and some overly kind words at the signing of the anthology afterwards. Pura and Rocio did amazing jobs, and the Hay people really delivered a large audience, many of whom were students and were taking notes, which made me laugh. And the last question was about this blog.
Nell and I nipped back to the hotel to try and grab free swankfood before heading back out for an opening thing, like a wine thing, which will never be my type of evening. I saw Rocio, a few nice people, had a chat, scarpered quick with the Mexican dead pan lead singer of the ropey band started covering George Harrison, and we killed the night talking about journalist murders in this state of Veracruz with other friends and eating Mole chicken.
Mexico : diario de la poesía #2 - Hay Xalapa : October 5th 2014
The intensity of a day filled with conversation accelerates time while maintaining recollection, or awareness of time passing, as the very opposite. So it feels like I’ve been in Xalapa a week, and yet the day passes so rapidly I have write it down to remember it.
The day began with media stuff, not exactly a commonplace feature of my life as an experimental poet barely known in England let alone elsewhere. Five interviews, everyone was conducted people who had deeply researched and engaged with my work, which I found absurd and exhilarating, and everyone then railed off then into wide discussions about the place of the human being behind literature, language and my lack of it, ethics, humour and other lofty things. Always Mexico, its openness, hospitality, the warmth of its people defined these conversations. A lot was said about generations in Mexico, shifting understanding in a young and powerful and troubled country, or so it would seem. They ended up very personal, close engagements, and lasted hours all in.
The hotel has an in house gym, all shiny and empty and mine, so I punished myself a wee bit before having a lunch with post gym lobster face clean sweats and meeting the remarkably humble, intelligent people who seem to populate every room I eat in, every bus I ride in. I was then ferried in Xalapa to watch a wonderful event that saw Nell Leyshon in conversation with Pura Lopez Colome. Another packed event, the beautiful contrast between Pura’s academic erudition and Nell’s unpretentious engagement with instinct, narrative and story led practise, and way of communicating generally, really accentuated the power of both women. Nell’s work seems to be defined in the same way mine is, that it is occurs as an extension of a very specific and decisive life choice, a very distinct identity that Nell inhabits with great credit to her, most especially as a hugely successful writer, because it is defined by brevity of spirit, humour, passionate engagement with fundamental narrative ideas and a clear, untrammelled sense of clarity. Lovely to discover this, and more about her heritage in Somerset, near my own home in Devon, over the hour.
We had a small break in a bar and then returned to the Casa del Lago, right by the lake, in a rainstorm for my second and final event. A poetry pantheon, 9 poets sat on thrones in front of a massive audience, at least 200, maybe up to 400 crammed into two levels and a balcony area, while each of us shared a short burst of work. I was the only one who read in English, but the audience were incredible, so attentive, so generous, and some of the other poets were remarkable. Forrest Gander, whose work and translations I’ve followed for years, was brilliant, and Joumana Haddad, was a revelation, an activist, a poet, a polyglot, she read in Spanish, despite being from Beirut, and killed the audience with her delivery and wit. It was an amazing mix of ages and styles, but really that’s what I always seek, so was delighted.
For my own part I read my poem Atacama, about Chile under Pinochet, and Que Bonitos Ochos Tienes, which is about Cartels in Mexico. I tried, as I often do, to be gentle and jokey in the intro, before my work, which is always depressing. It seemed to strike a chord with people, and the kindness of the people who came to watch, who came to speak to me, take pictures, sign books and stuff like that, made me feel very humbled, embarrassed and even a bit vulnerable, such was the openness and generosity. I was having picture requests with children and stuff. Quite mad, but enjoyable and resonant in its moderation. Another beautiful day, an unforgettable day, as all seem to be for me in Mexico
Mexico : diario de la poesía #3 - Hay Xalapa : October 6th 2014
A day of remarkable discoveries, feeling more like a witness to worlds in worlds, now my participation in the festival itself is done. Still somewhat in space from the size and intensity of my reading the night before, still processing it, I joined some new friends to watch a wonderful panel on indigenous cultures in Canada and in Mexico. I had spoken in depth to the Canadian delegation through the week, the extraordinary work of Cheryl Suzack and Ingrid Bejerman, their activism and scholarship was worn very lightly, and hearing Juan Hernandez Ramirez of the Nahuatl too, was fascinating. This was a real meeting point between their concerns, and I spoke to them at length afterward, note taking throughout.
Nell Leyshon and I then fulfilled our promise to our vehement hosts and were dropped off for one of the few times without a chaperone to visit the anthropological museum. It was breathtaking, and having worked in a museum for seven years that is a statement, for I have developed a deep suspicion about museum's and their function, my first book was about that really, and yet this place was more a park, an architectural project and a state of experience than a traditional museum. The ancient cultures of Mexico were not portrayed singularly, their entire culture, and its truly unfathomable artistic skill was expressed. I was left with an intense sense of their humour, and play, their families, their subtlety, and the embracing of mortality. It was too much after only minutes, I needed more time to try to understand the objects. Nell and I ate in the cafeteria there too, a simple one room cafe, where a lady cooked us homemade food in a tiny kitchen.
We walked down from the museum, and thanks to Nell's intrepid nature and excellent Spanish, managed to visit the Panteon Xalapeno, the old cemetary of the city. Each grave was a complex in and of itself, a war of styles and colour, from the brilliantly tasteless to the architecturally avant garde. We were told families commission architects and construction workers to build these tombs and visit them so often they are like extensions of a home space. A privilege to witness, so removed as it was from a British cemetary.
I needed a few hours to write, and to recover, and train, and managed to have a long and rolling conversation with the brilliant Forrest Gander, whose reputation for generosity is well deserved next to the high esteem he is held in as a poet, and in Mexico, as one of the very most important translators. He could not have been more decent and down to earth. I was soon out again after dinner to see Daniel Johnston in concert. I had watched the documentary about his life many years ago, and had listened to his music then, but his performance was so beautiful, so vulnerable and open, I wasn't expecting to be moved so much by it. It was almost wounding, and made me, for the first time physically, miss home and the people I love. His performance was very much like this one I found online. After a brief trip to the hotel we all bundled off to a party thrown by the publisher Sexto Piso, who have a reputation for being very generous and very trendy. It was actually more of a celebration for the local people, the students really, who have volunteered the make the festival so amazing. It was good to see another side of the city again, not one I longed for, the hip nightlife, but fun none the less. I spoke to Forrest, the lovely Bee Rowlatt and Nell, and a lot of the young Mexicans, managing to get them to open up about their lives, and the effect the drug violence has had on their childhood. Their unrelenting warmth and friendliness seems to be in spite of the horror they have often witnessed, all of them had stories of hearing or witnessing terrible violence. Very humbled once again, and feeling very sober (the party had free tequila) I went home trying to quiet my mind.
The time compression and expansion that occurs when so much is going on, so many conversations are being had, effects the ability to realise it is about to end, that it only lasts a very finite number of days. This last day was as wonderful as the rest, but tinged with the sadness of it ending. The experiences have not just been engaged and intense, but also rich, very subtle at times, the connections between people that happen when so many are brought together with varying interests of a similar outlook.
We began by seeing Tom Bunstead chair a talk between Adam Thirlwell and Hari Kunzru, and the open, conversation nature of their discussion fitted very much with the sunday morning feeling of Xalapa, gentle and laid back. We split from there, and I joined those in the discussion and Katie Kitamura, who shares my passion for Mixed Martial Arts, for a long lunch, being able to see more of the city centre and talk with novelists whose work I have followed for awhile. All very humble, funny, affable people.
Returned to the hotel I talked more with the volunteers who really have been the backbone of the festivals daily vibrancy and friendliness. They are a massive cadre of students from Veracruz university, all with amazing humour and kindness, they tolerated my repeated attempts at making them laugh. I then went to what I thought a simple interview but turned out to be the beginning of what I am now sure will be a long friendship. One of the volunteers, Montserrath, and a photographer Citlalxochitl, took me to the oldest park in Xalapa, the botanical park. It was tropical, with enormous trees, and fenced in, in a valley, it seemed like a forgotten world. It was teeming with families and couples on the sunday, and there to have my picture taken I soon discovered Citlal was Nahuatl and the daughter of the wonderful poet Juan Hernandez Ramirez, who I had read alongside. We spent a long afternoon in the park, talking, through Montserrath mostly, Citlal and I not sharing a language, as she posed me from place to place, on bridges, playgrounds, with giant fish and turtles, and murals of animals. We bumped into friends of Citlal, who talked with us and I felt completely removed from my own world and for the first time, the day before I am to leave, completely inside of Xalapa.
After a horrid gym session while carrying a cold, and another beautiful dinner of Mexican food, we attended the absolutely packed Concha Buika concert. The Mexicans went mad for her, and she was like nothing I've seen before. Half black Spanish Nina Simone, half scaling melodrama. Real moments of brilliance, others of excess for my British sensibilities. But it was immense as an experience, overpowering at times. I had to stand because my legs were cramping and bumped into Montserrath and we found Citlal, who was photographing the event, and we all sat on a balcony watching. Montserrath whispered translations to me as Concha Buika joked and spoke through her work. The concert ended and after hugging and saying thank you to a dozen or so volunteers, students and people who recognised me from my reading, I said goodbye to Citlal and Montserrath. They both had gifts for me, even after the amazing hospitality I had experienced. A book, and from Citlal, a handmade Nahuatl necklace. I felt like it was the last of a line of privileges I was profoundly aware I was lucky to be receiving. I said goodbye too to many friends I've made from England, America, Canada, Chile and the rest of the world and went back to my room to listen to Daniel Johnston and feel pleasantly sad.
Into a muddy hole disappeared two or three days of my life in Mexico City. Travelling from Xalapa, I felt unsteady, but not concerned. The drive back into the megapolis was a chance to watch the country pass. Once installed into the Fiesta Americana - a massive, 25 floor corporate hotel sat right on the Reforma, the kitsch boulevard that centres Mexico City, once bullied into lifts with portly groups of men with greased back hair and far less gentle manners, once I'd eaten from the rich and seemingly endless buffet, the nausea and stomach ache turned into something else.
I've been very ill travelling before. It's always a lonelying experience. You are a long way away from those you love, as you are sensorially, from comfort. It is a mental game. In the end I had trouble walking, it not just being projectile but with cramps, migraines and so on, and before we were to leave for Guanajuato, they had to have a doctor visit me. I was faced with a difficult decision as to whether to attend or not, but with such ripe disdain for that hotel room, that plush open room that sat on the 17th floor and took in most of Mexico City, that I hated, I went. Much is owed in easing my own will to those around me, the writers Nell Leyshon (who kindly ((!)) took this photo of me as the doctor visited) and Bee Rowlatt, the British Council staff, the organisers of the Cervantino and those back home who relentlessly insisted on getting me better when I wanted to crawl into a corner.
A five hour car journey then, still ill, but corked, listening to Veracruzian music sent me by new friends in Xalapa just gone. Into Guanajuato, an impossibly beautiful place. But I was blind to it, and hid again for another lost day, trying to get past the nausea. Student protests raged outside my room, hundreds, like thousands across Mexico, protesting the horrific torture and murder of a group of protesting students in Iguana. The brilliant Ioan Grillo wrote this article on the awfulness of what happened http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/10/opinion/mexicos-deadly-narco-politics.html?_r=0
I woke up better yet, and being able to know the date, and the place. I walked around Guanajuato, also being to eat more than a bite for the first time in days. The city is unbelievable, every corner a scene in a film, every street a picture. Every colour on the buildings, rising up on hills and littered with parks and markets and small alleys, and tunnels. The city is build on tunnels that bore through the hillside, genuinely subterranean streets that hold bus stops and pedestrian walkways see cars pour through and pop out in brilliant sunshine. I talked with people again, bought things, felt like a person once more.
My nurses and friends and buoys, Nell Leyshon and Bee Rowlatt, and I, then attended our event, at the University, for the grand Cervantino festival. This is the 42nd year and the festival goes on for three weeks. That we were staying just a day seemed incongruous. We were self panelling on Shakespeare, and it turned out marvelous I thought. We all come from different backgrounds, different professions, different modes of thought. And it complimented. I stressed the need to interrogate the value of Shakespeare, pedagogically, to make sure the relationship was personal and not assumed, earned and not because the value of his works were so overbearingly lauded. I also talked about his role in the future, which was the theme, being the same as it was in the past, really, but that there were immense things to be taken from his prolific nature etc etc.. It went well and the students were positive.
More time allowed me to visit Diego Rivera's house and the old market, before we bundled into a van for a brutal 6 hour crawl back south across Mexico into Mexico city once again. I was well and truly well then, for if I hadn't have been, I would've capitulated. Instead Nell and I shared the backseat and confused the Mexican car with conversation.
Aside from the practicalities of seeing the cities of Xalapa and Guanajuato, if there is one profound difference to this visit to Mexico, as compared with the weeks spent here in Mexico City last year, it is a sense that the paradox of the country has somehow been more in evidence. A circle of perception about the place has been completed. This is all in my perception of course, by its nature, incredibly limited and narrow in its vision, but last year was an opening up, a realisation that this is a place defined by things I couldn't have realised without experience. The hospitality, the energy, the physical vibrancy of Mexico. This year then is the closing of that bracket. What fuels that energy? I have no idea, but it is still a place where in Iguana, just an hour or so from Mexico City, a student was skinned and left on the street as a message to not be visible. They removed his face, what is the symbolism of that? He was protesting what he saw as unfair new tests for teachers, ones that precluded people who spoke indigenous languages and didn't favour Spanish or English. He and his 50 or so compatriots, student teachers, were not out against the narcos. Protests have erupted across the country, near the anniversary of 68 student repressions. This has come up in every conversation I have had here since it happened. Poets, academics, students, children; they tell me they are scared to travel, to be kidnapped. A nation where people smile at me on the street, shelter me without asking during a rainstorm, laugh off my lack of Spanish, give me gifts, buy me food, take me into their homes, offer to translate me, collaborate, lead me to transport, carry my bag. An obvious contradiction? A paradoxical place to such an extent it is a cliche. I have spent two weeks here, and being so sick right of the heart of that stay, losing my normal physical confidence, this has got into my breath. It has been a different experience, not bad, not at all. It has been magnificient. But not easy either. Not casual and light.
I said farewell to Nell and Bee and the others who made up the official part of my trip, having chosen to stay on an extra series of days and see those I met last year and moved into a new, smaller, more ordinary hotel in Roma, a more youthful neighborhood. No one helping me now, strange to get used to cars picking you up and people shepherding you to events. I had more time to write and rest, still a bit weak. The first day 'alone' I did three readings and must have met a hundred new friends.
First we read in the Condessa, launching the beautifully produced Enemigos anthology, what began my ties with Mexico in the first place really. We had 8 poets from London and 8 from Mexico City butcher each others works with the radical translations at the heart of the collection. To see it in print was very gratifying. I saw Ari Chavez Chacon again, who helped me so much in 2013, a brilliant artist herself and a friend, and Jack Little, the Newcastle born poet who has lived here for 4 years, and who runs the Ofi press.
After a long lunch where I really got to talk with the wonderful Amanda de la Garza and Rodolfo Matas, and Ana Franco Ortuna, we headed to the Casa del Lago, an amazing and much lauded poetry venue right on the lake of the Chapultepec park, in the heart of the city. Apparently this ornate lakehouse had housed everyone from Paz onwards, and we set up as a panel to read from and talk about Enemigos. I met Gaspar Orozco here too, diplomat and poet and punk singer, not something I'd think possible in England. The audience was made up of families, a photography class and well wishers. I found it enjoyable, still full of cold, to be rather light hearted with the discussions, but reading the work of my dear friend Tom Raworth I felt quite sad he wasn't with me in the city he resided in during the 70s. We finished the day in a mescal bar, the Mexican hospitality raging as a thunderstorm wracked the city.
I spent much of the next few days simply exploring the city, walking for many hours at a time, intermittently meeting friends like Jack, Ari and Rocio Ceron, and others, and getting to know Roma and la Condessa. It's been a long time since I've had days almost alone, unbusied. All things require adjustment. I spent the last day, the day I write this on, mostly in the anthropological museum. Famed for its grandiose architecture and epic displays, I spent the better part of 5 hours wandering the halls. But again the shadow came back. It was too intense, I became almost entranced, a bit sick even. I had to read every panel almost, to satisfy myself. I didn't take a single picture. There is a richness to the rendering, the animals, the faces of death, to the dwarfed gurning humans, to the very process and intent of the artwork of the indigenous civilisations of Mexico that is like the sensation I had experienced when being unable to escape the potential of the worst suffering and fear and occlusion that this country can produce. It is something of an intoxicant, and for now, just for now, I am okay with going home to London,
Photograph by Citlali H. Angeles
Cover photograph by Daniel Mordzinski