The power of poetry and Colombian Fernando Réndon’s pen
Poetry Africa 2011, Durban
Colombian poet Fernando Réndon, in Durban this week for the 15th Poetry Africa festival, has helped transform Medellín, Colombia’s second largest city — known as a world capital of drug trafficking, terror and violence — into a world capital of poetry.
© Wanda Hennig, 2011
When Fernando Réndon and a few of his friends organized the first International Poetry Festival of Medellín in 1991, the city was known as the epicenter of the cocaine trade and the world capital of drug trafficking. The so-called ‘Medellín cartel’, a multi-billion dollar organized drug dealing network operating from Colombia’s second largest city, was in a head-to-head war with government forces. Bombs and car bombs were a way of life. Citizens were caught in a stranglehold of terror.
Réndon and his buddies wanted people, devastated by the mayhem, to know that more violence was not the solution. There were other avenues for change. The festival was envisioned as an opportunity to show that poetry could be used as a tool for promoting peace and justice. “We wanted to show that poetry could be an effective form of cultural resistance,” says Réndon.
Photo caption: Poetry Africa headliners from left, Colombian poet Fernando Réndon pictured with legendary South African poet Oswald Mtshali, U.K. poet, singer and percussionist Khadijatou and Niyi Osundare from Nigeria who lives and teaches in the United States. Picture by Wanda Hennig
He didn’t imagine back in 1991 that the festival would become the biggest event of its kind in the world. These days the week-long happening, held for the 21st time in July this year, regularly attracts more than 160,000 people. And no, that is not a misprint.
To date around 1 000 poets from 157 countries and five continents have participated. In 2006, Réndon and the festival received a Right Livelihood Award, widely known as the ‘Alternative Nobel Prize’. The award — this year 150,000 Euros (more than R1.5 million) — is presented annually at a ceremony in the Swedish Parliament in Stockholm “for outstanding vision and work on behalf of the planet and its people”.
“The interest in the festival has been profound”
“The interest in the festival has been profound,” Réndon, 60, speaking through a Spanish translator with assistance from his wife, Gloria Chvatal, said in Durban this week. It is his first time in South Africa. He is one of 20 poets headlining the 15th Poetry Africa festival organized by the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Centre for Creative Arts. The festival runs at venues and schools throughout eThekwini all this week with the grand finale at the BAT Centre’s Sipho Gumede Hall on Saturday night.
Medellín has effectively transformed from the world capital of drug trafficking, terror and violence to the world capital of poetry. “The festival and the poetry have changed the atmosphere in the city,” says Réndon. “People feel that it gives them some sense of calm.”
It is a monumental turnaround when you look at the facts. “I come from a country bled by a war of 40 years that has left half a million people dead, devastated towns, and ravaged the countryside,” says Réndon. “Our country does not know peace. In the last decade of the 20th century, in the city of Medellín alone, there were 45,000 violent deaths — more victims than in all Western Europe during the same period.”
He adds: “Pain sensitizes us. Poetry enables us to cope with the crisis and to identify with out city despite the hostilities of war.”
Would this equate with the saying “the pen is mightier than the sword”?
“The sword is only for killing,” says Réndon. “The pen, on the other hand, is for creation. As poets, you could say the pen is our sword. It is what we use to create new life.
“I feel no present or future is possible without poetry. Poetry is the life of all, mysterious and open, inviting us to plunge into ourselves and into others, for we are the other.”
So how does a poetry festival attract 160,000 people? What is it that’s speaking to the people? Pulling them?
“People are hungry for truth”
“People are hungry for truth. And poetry allows them to express their anger,” says Réndon, who in 2010 received the international Poets Against War prize.
“What poetry offers is superior to what any government or history can offer. In Colombia we have a history of working, working, working, like slaves. Eventually people have nothing but poverty. Poetry can express the struggle.”
Poetry, he adds, is a symbolic international language. “The medium offers an abbreviated a way to express thinking and feeling. Poetry can tap into human emotion and the natural yearning among people for peace, beauty, truth and justice. It has the power to give options and transform hopelessness into a desire to live.”
Réndon points out that unlike Colombia, South Africa is living the process of democracy. Colombia had many popular leaders, most of whom have been killed, “but no one like your Mandela. Colombia needs some great men of the stature of Mandela.”
Réndon sees the devastation of the environment as political and a violation of human rights. With Durban set to host COP17 — the United Nations Conference of the Parties climate change convention — next month, Réndon said “I’d prefer to read the ancient Chinese poets and legends of Africa and than to listen to politicians who talk about the environment.
“The principal people responsible for of the devastation of the earth are the politicians and capitalists. I think Earth has no salvation in the hands of politicians. They say ‘here we are’ and ‘there’s the earth’. But that’s not true. Each one of us is the earth. The deep wounds of the earth are our wounds. If the air is contaminated, so are our lungs. The poisoned rivers are in our blood. If we kill the life, we are killing ourselves. We have to take back the earth.
“We all need to become poets”
“We all need to become poets. Then we will speak with the earth again. Then we will see the earth, and life, and triumph over environmental exploitation.”
Réndon is adamant that governments needs to support poets, teaching poetry in the schools and poetry publications so they everyone has access to poetry.
He believes that one day we will see millions of people writing poetry. “Poetry is proof,” he says says, “that the human spirit has been through evolution”. He sees Poetry Africa as a lighthouse and a way of building a bridge between Africa and the world.
Note: Fernando Réndon presents his poetry at the Elizabeth Sneddon on Thursday October 20 on a program that also features legendary South African poet Oswald Mtshali. For programme details visit the Centre for Creative Arts website.
© Wanda Hennig, 2011