Viva Cuba! Viva la revolucion! Viva, Viva, Viva!
In May 2015 I finally made it to Cuba – fulfilling a lifetime ambition to experience first hand what life is like in Castro’s communist republic.
I’ve been fascinated by the place ever since I found out at Che Guevara, the poster boy of Castro’s socialist revolution, was born in the same town as my mum in Argentina.
Echoes of Che reverberated through my childhood. My mother drinking mate with my godmother, listening to Mercedes Sosa in the kitchen, talking about their memories of Villa Maria. Absolutely nothing to do with Che, or with Cuba really. But something in my brain had fused this all together and heading to Havana felt like a sort of homecoming.
As a teenager, I had read Pedro Juan Guttierez’s Dirty Havana trilogy, was grimly fascinated by the conflicting senses of rot and vitality which seeped out of every seamy page. Guttierez describes life in Havana during the ‘special period’ of the 1990s, when Soviet economic support dried up as the USSR collapsed, in a series of sometimes sublime, sometimes smutty, existential, grotesque vignettes.
On this trip, half a holiday, half a pilgrimage, I wanted to seek out writers and poets and talk to them about what their experience of writing in Cuba is at this moment in time, with the US trade embargo about to be lifted and the Castro brothers surely coming to the end of their reign, unless Fidel’s brilliant doctors have found the secret of eternal life, of course. Anything’s possible
With David Turner at Lunar Poetry Podcasts – an amazing initiative which is capturing poetry’s resurgent moment with conversations between poets about their work and their influences – I came up with a plan. I’d find a few poetry nights in Havana, swing by and speak to some of the artists. It would be easy. Of course it would.
But most Cubans don’t have access to the internet, don’t post pictures of themselves let alone information about readings, shows, online on social media. So Charlie and I worked on tips given by the hosts of the guesthouses we stayed at, traipsing back and forth across Vedado, Havana Vieja, Nuevo Vedado attempting to find a poetry night.
Heavy flooding that week (which almost washed us out into the gulf of Mexico before we’d even set foot in the city) meant a large number of the city’s venues had shut down for repairs, but eventually we chanced upon El Teatro Bertolt Brecht, where we’d been assured by an enthusiastic taxi driver, we were sure to find some poets.
We found a bar selling cheap beer and a couple of friendly women at the door who were very confused by poetry related requests. Despondent, we headed up to the balcony to watch punters for the night’s salsa show queue up at the door. No poets, at least none who declared themselves as such. But just as we were started heading back into the night, a man stopped us and asked if we were the people who had been demanding poets. “You won’t find any here, we just do salsa,” he said, but scrawled down an address. “You need to go to the union, it’s just around the corner. There you will find poets.”
Of course. The union, why hadn’t I thought of that? So the next day I walked through leafy Vedado to the grand old colonial villa which houses UNEAC, Cuba’s Writers Union. After a slightly abortive conversation with the man standing on the steps, I found my way up to the writers room. I explained to the receptionist that I was making a radio programme about poets in Havana and whether she could put me in touch with anyone. “Un momento'” she said and shouted into the backroom to her colleague. “Si, hay un poeta aca,”she said after a moment, and waved me through.
A guy in a baseball cap with headphones around his neck looked up from his computer as I walked through the door. I explained my mission in nervous Spanish. He smiled and shrugged and said ‘I’m a poet, come with me.”
By a stroke of what seemed like divine luck, the man I’d stumbled across was none other than the incredible Rito Ramon Aroche, one of Cuba’s most highly regarded poets and literary critics. Rito walked me down the road to a shop south of the university- “I will give you a copy of my book, they sell it here” he said, and walked me around the bookshop pointing out collections by some of his contemporaries and then, buying me a copy of his latest book, Una Vida Magenta.
We took a cab into Havana Vieja and talked about his life as an artist and his work. Rito is one of the of the leading voices of Cuba’s Generacion de los Ochenta and writes terse, humorous, erotic poems built out of fragments of sentences.
I interviewed Rito over rich, steaming cups of Cuban coffee and he introduced me to poets as they walked past the window. “Che! Soleida! Veni!” I made arrangements to meet another poet at her house the next day, and another the next.
Look beyond the internet, some of our greatest writers exist beyond the web. I’d love to go and write and perform with these brilliant poets in Havana, in London, anywhere. One day… one day. I hope you enjoy listening to them. I did. Oh, and the interviews are in Spanish – so please forgive my appalling use of grammar!