a history by Fer de la Cruz
Café Poesía, a multilingual open mic for reading poetry in Mérida, just came to an end after five years. It was an important space in a Mérida whose artists grow more and more skeptic with anything that has to do with overpoliticized official cultural institutions and prefer to join—or create—independent alaternatives.
Lasting longer than a great many official projects, Café Poesía turns its last page for two reasons: 1) It already influenced upon the way public readings are done locally, by importing the concept of “micrófono abierto,” unknow to Mérida five years ago. Now it´s used in events organized by the Secretary of Education and by other independent groups, which is a great thing. And 2) I am tired.
I attended my first Open Mic at the Civic Media Center in Gainesville, Florida, in 1998, where I became a regular. They called it Poetry Jam and it was moderated by Jimmy Schmidt. It goes on to this date. Right on! Ten years later, as I returned to the States, I also became a regular at Donkey Café´s open mic poetry event called Designated Space, in Athens, Ohio, run by CJ Smith, who was also editor of JK Publishing. As I graduated from Ohio University, CJ suggested that we publish a chapbook with my recent poems (my first ones written in English) and that I open a branch of Designated Space in Mérida. Shortly after, both ideas were materialized. My book was called Seven Songs of Silent, Singing Fireflies (JK Publishing, 2008).
Back in Mérida, I found the perfect place for the project: A brand new restaurant-café called Café Chocolate that was also an antique shop and an art gallery, located in Centro, at an old house where once lived a great, local poet named Ernesto Albertos Tenorio. My friend Uziel Góngora created the logo, out of a nahuatl glyph that represented poetry, and came up with the name Café Poesía. The owner of Café Chocolate even came up with a cocktail based on the ingredients of White Russian (a personal favorite of mine). With time, Café Chocolate, the restaurant, was sold twice but Café Poesía readings kept rocking every Saturday since 7 p.m., in its lovely backyard, even when the chefs no longer made their own pastas or baked their own bread from scratch, when the Café Poesía cocktail vanished from the menu, and when I was no longer granted a complementary drink.
“There´s poetry for everyone,” I said over and over. Now, as I remember a great, local stage actress, Alejandra Argoytia, reading Segismundo´s second soliloquy in Calderón de la Barca´s La vida es sueño; Israel Lara reading Primo Levi in Italian; Ciprián Cabrera Jasso travelling to Mérida from Tabasco only to present his last collection of poems in Café Poesía before passing away; Agustín Monsreal reading a highly emotional poem about la lluvia, contained in his “Diccionario al Desnudo. No ilustrado;” Jonathan Harrington reading his English translations of Mayan poets; Lope Ávila reading my Spanish translation of Jonathan Harrington´s A Rain of Bicycles, so excited about how much he likes it; Yazmín Gaspar dramatizing Rosario Castellanos´ feminist poems; Balam Ricardo reading his poems about life in Mexico´s Southern borderlands; Cesar Love reading his poem Trespasser´s Shoes and myself thinking that I had to translate it into Spanish, which I did;
myself reading my Spanish versions of amazing poems by Don Cellini, Jeff Wright, and Crystal Tittey; and then someone doing spoken word, and someone else doing performance art and sound poetry… I just know that the readings themselves have proved me right on that, most certainly, hay poesía para todos.
We also had Raúl Renán, Daniel Torres, Óscar Wong, Óscar Palacios, Brígido Redondo, Alice Jennings, and most local poets, some narrators, and some stage actors as feature readers in Café Poesía. Since people didn´t have to read works of their own, there were, on the other hand, many people facing poetry for the first time in their lives, or who had an exciting first-time experience reading in front of an audience. Some of the readers´ favorite canonical poets were Jaime Sabines, Pablo Neruda, Rubén Darío, Lorca, Sor Juana… Love poems weren´t among the reader´s favorites but there was at least one married couple who first met in Café Poesía.
Another pet phrase: “Café Poesía—as life itself—is what you make of it.” And I also meant that. I was ready to give it all up in August of 2012 but a number of readers decided to step forward and to volunteer with me as moderators. As talented, young writers who happened to be my students at the School of Creative Writing of the State Center of Fine Arts, and who also happened be literature students at Univesridad Autónoma de Yucatán, they incorporated other literary genres into Café Poesía: one came up with Café Narrativa, then Café Dramaturgia, and even Café Ensayo, to read literary essays. Unappealing though it may sound, they made it work—of course, one could always take the mic and read poetry on those Saturdays. Finally, maestro Lope Ávila had Café Poesía para niños on the last Saturday of every month, with children as feature poets. This whole initiative was wonderful and gave a new dimension to Café Poesía which became even more of a community event.
During its first couple of years, Café Poesía gained regional popularity. I was invited to write articles about it for different publications, such as UNAM´s Periódico de Poesía; I was interviewed by a few different radio stations and TV channels; Café Poesías facebook group reached over 850 members and people keep on joining it… It was just something different in town, a concept that was new here; and now it´s up to others to start new independent projects and, hopefully, to engage the audiences as active participants as was proved possible in Café Poesía without begging for public funds.
Yes, sometimes the designated moderator failed to show up. Sometimes the feature poet arrived late to her/his own reading. Sometimes I had to ask the manager to ask the chefs to turn down their radio, and there would be the occasional stage huggers. Indeed, sometimes the reader had to stop in mid poetry to wait for the red light outside to turn green, so that some loud car could ride away. It´s also true that I would stubbornly start at 7 (or at ten after) with only two people and that most readers would come after 8. The social construction that we call Mexico is also what one makes of it and many chose to make it like that. In part that´s why I´m tired. Yet, I sure will miss it.
Poetry will endure for, as another of Café Poesía´s pet phrases went, “where two or three gather in her name, there poetry is with them”. By the way, Café Poesía is where I met one of its most constant and punctual readers who shared many great poems and songs over the years: Cher Bibler, creator of In Other Words: Merida!
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Fer de la Cruz is a Yucatecan poet born in 1971. He has received two national, two regional, and one state-wide poetry awards in Mexico and is a member of the founding faculty at the School of Creative Writing of the State Center of Fine Arts, in Mérida. He is also coordinator of the Historic Mérida branch of Centro de Idiomas del Sureste, where he was a teacher for 20 years. He holds an MA in Spanish from Ohio University and a BA in Philosophy. As an independent editor, writer, translator, and cultural promoter, he has participated in cultural festivals, conferences, and book fairs in Mexico, Cuba, France, and the United States. His poems appeared in the books “Redentora la voz” (Ayuntamiento de Mérida, 2010) and “Aliteletras. De la A a la que quieras” (Dante, 2011), as well as in the chapbooks “La cuenta regresiva. Radiografía urbana mesozoica” (El Drenaje, 2012) and “Seven Songs of Silent, Singing Fireflies” (JKPublishing, 2008): firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Artist Nannette Guinto Amorado