The poets completed the first leg of their marathon Friday afternoon at the Library of Congress — saying 37 poems in two hours — without breaking a sweat. They replenished themselves with Salamancan almonds that José María Prieto had brought from Spain. But they hardly needed a break. The drive to create and share the creation is indefatigable, beyond their control.
“It’s the necessity to express something,” said Eugenia Muñoz from Colombia.
“It’s the most important thing you do,” said Rei Berroa from the Dominican Republic.
The marathon continues Saturday, from 2 p.m. to 8 p.m. at Casa de la Luna, 4020 Georgia Ave. NW. Admission is free. Members of the public will be able to give poems in Spanish.
This quirky — and now frequently copied — tradition is in its 22nd year. The international Maratón de la Poesía (Poetry Marathon) — “La Pluma y la Palabra,” or “The Pen and the Word” — was created by Teatro de la Luna, one of Washington’s two Spanish-language theaters. (The other is GALA Hispanic Theatre.) Teatro’s founding couple, Nucky Walder and Mario Marcel, wanted a second channel besides the stage to celebrate the literature of Spain and Latin America. They asked their friend Berroa — a poet who is a professor of Spanish and Latin American literature at George Mason University — to organize it.
This year Berroa invited eight poets, each born in a different country (though some work in the U.S.): Besides Muñoz and Prieto, there is Indran Amirthanayagam (Sri Lanka); Basilio Belliard (Dominican Republic); Ana Cecilia Blum (Ecuador); Margarito Cuéllar (Mexico, unable to attend at the last minute); Enrique Solinas (Argentina); and Zingonia Zingone (Italian, raised in Costa Rica).
Wait, Sri Lanka?
Yes. Amirthanayagam, now an American diplomat, publishes poetry in English and Spanish.
The readings and discussions are conducted exclusively in Spanish. While the theater presents its plays with English translations, Berroa said an experiment years ago in doing the marathon in both languages proved unwieldy. It’s a chance for the latest literature in Spanish — some works are so new the poets are reading drafts — to shine on its own terms. Each year, the Banco Popular de la República Dominicana underwrites the publishing of an anthology of selections of the poets’ work.
“Poets from around the Spanish-speaking world have the opportunity for their voice to be heard right here in the center of financial and political and diplomatic power of the world,” Berroa said. “And the people in this area — diplomats, family of diplomats, students of Spanish — have the chance to listen to great voices that are producing perhaps the best poetry that is written in the Spanish language at this moment.”
Berroa likes to dedicate each marathon to a writer whose centennial it is. This year was tough, because 1914 produced Octavio Paz, Julio Cortázar, Marguerite Duras, Dylan Thomas, William Burroughs and others. Berroa picked the lesser-known Julia de Burgos from Puerto Rico (1914-1953), whom he considers one of the important writers of the 20th century — “a woman who is a river of poetry, justice and truth,” he wrote in the marathon anthology.
Georgette Dorn, chief of the library’s Hispanic Division, opened this year’s event in the Mary Pickford Theater. The marathon is structured for the poets to take turns saying poems, like folk-singers trading songs. Then there is time for audience discussion, followed by more rounds of poems. Only about two dozen people were in the audience at the Library of Congress. The poets and the poetry fans lamented that poetry lacks mass support in any country.
“It’s a secret treasure,” one woman told the poets. “Without commercial value, it’s more valuable to me.”
An audience member from Ecuador said he’s always amazed how a good poet finds words that seem to be talking about the reader himself.
“How is he doing my life!?” the man exclaimed, thinking of pieces by Pablo Neruda. “How many of us live analogous lives!”
And with that, the marathon continued.