informative, Poetry, translation

Rum, Poetry and Cigars: A week in Cuba

by Jonathan Harrington

The moment we touched down I saw the sign—and it was a good one—Jose Martí International Airport. It was the first time I had ever arrived at an airport named for a poet and I was arriving in Havana, Cuba from my home in Yucatán, México as a guest of the 16th International Poetry Festival. The Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba had invited me to present my book, Aquí/Here, a bilingual collection of poems. I was traveling with the Yucatecan poet,  my friend and translator, Fernando de la Cruz, who was also invited to present two of his books: Redentora la voz (Redeeming Voice, 2010) and his book for children, Aliteletras, 2012) an untranslatable word invented by de la Cruz meaning roughly Alliterating Letters).

For the next seven days we swam in an ocean of poetry with over 300 poets from Argentina, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Korea, Costa Rica, the United States, Ecuador, El Salvador, Spain, Italy, Kenya, Mexico, Mozambique, Angola, Puerto Rico, Peru, Uruguay, Venezuela, and Cuba.

While most of the poets stayed in Havana, Fernando de la Cruz and I were invited by Juan Ramón de la Portilla to go to Pinar del Río (a city two hours west of Havana) where Juan Ramón is the provincial president of the Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba.  Our hosts from the writers’ union graciously chauffeured us around the beautiful tobacco-growing region of Pinar del Río in a 1970´s Russian-made LADA automobile that had seen better days but was well-maintained.



We read our poetry in cultural centers, rum factories, cigar factories, schools, and sometimes informally on the streets and cafes to anyone who would listen—and many people did want to listen.

The Trinidad cigar factory was one of the highlights of the trip for me.   I was familiar with the Cuban custom of literature readings in cigar factories.  I had once toured a Cuban cigar factory in Tampa, Florida where photos on the walls showed workers rolling cigars while a lecturer stood at the front of the factory on an elevated podium reading aloud from Cervantes, Unamuno, Quevedo and other classic authors of Spanish literature.  I could never have imagined I would one day have the honor of reading my own poetry in a cigar factory in Cuba.

In Pinar del Río, we read our poetry while the workers sat at their desks rolling and cutting cigars beneath posters of Fidel and Che smoking the classic Cuban puros.  After each poem the workers applauded by banging their cutting tools on their desks, hardly looking up from their concentrated rolling.  Most of the workers were women and I was reminded of the opera, Carmen, where the beautiful Carmen works in a cigar factory in Sevilla.  There were many Carmens at the Trinidad cigar factory.



Our host, the foreman of the factory, also read an original poem to the workers.  I smiled, thinking how unlikely that the foreman of an auto plant in Detroit would share his most intimate thoughts and feelings with his subordinates.

Following, are a few of my translations of some of the poets I met in Cuba.


Winston Morales Chavarro (Columbia)

From Antologia
translated by Jonathan Harrington


As if situated in a vague and remote space
death comes
to take us by the arm.

One can think that she is our shadow or our dream,
or perhaps a big sister
who left home a long time ago,
but surprises everyone like the arrival of an unexpected wave
or the crying of a prodigal child.

In the drunkenness of night
with its song of a crow,
with its golden halos shooting fire,
wakes us in a dream or in lethargy.
It lances us toward the absolute calm of darkness.

Then we understand
that it has always been near
that its presence is like the murmuring of a river
bordering the edge of our delta.
But at the hour of the abyss
the hour of the deadly concert
—when the Fanzah* bird sings its requiem in the backyard
or ancient bells ring,
death is not as unusual
as it is thought to be
like the impenetrable shade
that suddenly bursts into flame
and the terrifying night
in a labyrinth of perfume
where anemones begin to blossom
in the distant yard on the other side.

*see tales of Calila and Dimna (1251)


Edmundo Retana (Costa Rica)

From Passenger of the Rain
translated by Jonathan Harrington   

Where are your questions?

What wind
has carried you away?

Tell me
from your distant mouth.



Fernando de la Cruz (Mexico)

translated by Jonathan Harrington

Noam Chomsky retires from MIT
and decides to spend some time in Mérida.
He buys a modest mansion in Santa Ana
with its little swimming pool and air conditioning.
He moves his book collection to shelves installed on all the walls
and fills a cabinet with all the books he has written.

He reads in the mornings, and spends each night
in La Casa de Todos with his friend, Lorenzo;
the afternoons in Amaro with Olga and Father Lugo,
always with the notes of his latest reflections
for his conferences, articles and books.

But he is a natural-born teacher
and he soon longs to give classes once again.
He goes to (that other) MIT (Instituto Tecnologico de Mérida),
UTM and UADY to begin.
At UADY they offer him 60 pesos an hour like someone without a degree.
Of course, without pay for the summer.
UTM almost has him arrested for stepping on the grass.
At TEC they offer him a few hours teaching English.
Chomsky leaves laughing in a sweat.

And later, at the private universities, just to help pass the time
Patria, Mayab.   Marista notes that he’s Jewish and…Don’t call us, we’ll call you.
He goes to UMSA and they offer him 30 pesos an hour
to teach a class in Advanced Scholasticism
and one in public speaking.

So he gives classes in his home, on Sundays, completely gratis
to activists, artists, and adjunct professors
who may or may not be in the union.

Today he began a workshop on nonviolence
and autographed my copy, three times reread, of


Alberto Peraza Ceballos (Cuba)

Eternal Shock

From Máscaras Interiores
translated by Jonathan Harrington

Every day is an eternal shock
from the time I lost my eyes and skin;
I am left with a bitter smile
that I loan to my friends
when I cross streets
yet I feel I’m the one in debt.
A thirst persists in my chest;
an unknown emptiness.
It is strange to look at the sun
pouring its wickedness on my face
and the sky always complaining of my defects.


Aurora Martinez (Cuba)

The Moon on the Guitar

From A Contapiel

With a little bit of moon on the guitar
and the wind at my side
I make the hours ring.
October brings nostalgia
and all is well with reality:
this pine grove
and this river
that remembers so much
of this life.

Following is one of my own poems that seemed to strike a chord in Cuba.

Jonathan Harrington (Mexico)


From Aqui/Here   

All night sprockets have fallen from the sky.
The clouds have unzipped
dropping spokes all over the world.
Chains, inner tubes, handlebars and kickstands,
oh when will this godforsaken rain of bicycles cease?
Twisted frames
are lying all over backyards and baseball diamonds.
Bicycles hang
in the trees
like weird fruits.
They clutter the sidewalks,
fall into swimming pools;
they smash and clatter on the roof of my house
crushing the azaleas
in the flower boxes out front.
Oh I’m sick of it—
days and days and days on end
bicycles, bicycles, bicycles.


At the end of the week we headed back to Havana in a Packard Clipper (The Clipper was produced by Packard Motor Car Company between 1941 and 1947) that had been outfitted with a new engine.   The taxi driver rounded up customers for Havana and we headed out of Pinar del Río.  The highway between Pinar and Havana is spotlessly clean, well maintained, with neatly clipped hedges of hibiscus in the middle and pines and royal palms on the shoulders.  I was grateful for the fine maintenance of the highway because the driver took off at a speed that left me (and others in the cab) shaking with fear.   The pines and palms raced past as we sped toward the airport.  I might add that just outside the airport we were pulled over by the police and (thank god) given a ticket.  Cuba is not a lawless country.

A week of poetry, music, theater, and friendship ended with a send-off (if in spirit only) from the most famous of all Cuban poets—Jose Martí—at Jose Martí International Airport where we said farewell to Cuba for the short flight home to Yucatán, México.



Jonathan Harrington lives in an 18th century hacienda that he restored himself in rural Yucatan, Mexico where he writes and translates poetry.  He is a weekly featured reader at Café Poesía in Mérida.  He is a reader for the University of Arkansas Press’ Miller Williams Poetry Prize.  He was an invited guest to read his poetry at the International Poetry Festival in Havana, Cuba in 2012.  A graduate of the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, his poems have appeared in Poetry East, The Texas Review, Main Street Rag, Green River Review, Kentucky Poetry Review, South Florida Poetry Review, English Journal, Epitaph, Slant, Black Bear Review, and many other publications.  He has published three chapbooks:Handcuffed to the Jukebox, Aquí/Here and Yesterday, A Long Time Ago.   His translations from the Spanish and Mayan have appeared in World Literature Today, Visions International, The Dirty Goat, and elsewhere. In addition to poetry, he has edited an anthology of short stories: New Visions: Fiction by Florida Writers, authored a collection of essays, Tropical Son: Essays on the Nature of Florida, and has published five novels: The Death of Cousin Rose, The Second Sorrowful Mystery, A Great Day for Dying, Saint Valentine’s Diamond and Death on the Southwest Chief.