Of poetry and pilgrimage | Daily News


Of poetry and pilgrimage

Here in Madrid, just like all over the world, that which is spiritual and that which is queer have a long and complicated relationship. One aspect that they share is the urge to gather, to take a hidden thing—a feeling, a belief, an aspect of the self—and make it into something visible, to express it without fear. It’s about the need to gather with other souls, share and affirm those feelings, discuss what it all means, and try to restructure the world in a way that makes it feel somehow more right, more like a home. More than anything else, it’s also about love.

Earlier this summer, on the first night of the Unamuno Author Series Festival, the international bookstore Desperate Literature was so packed that many of us spilled out onto the sidewalk and street beyond, listening intently as poems mixed with the sounds of the occasional car engine and multilingual chatting of passers-by. Probably about half of the crowd were multiple hours jet-lagged, with their hours mixed up in that strange sensation of being at sea. This seemed to heighten the strange way that time often passes during poetry readings, with the regular rhythm of seconds and minutes replaced by strings of sounds and pauses, the shifting of papers, the breath of the person next to you.

In many ways, poetry readings can feel like a kind of ritual practice, a capital-c Communion. Layla Benitez-James opens her introduction to the festival’s bilingual anthology—a collection of poems from past and present participants—with an acknowledgment of this special feeling: “If, as Simone Weil tells us, absolutely unmixed attention is prayer, it would be difficult to call the gatherings in trilingual bookshop Desperate Literature, nestled in the heart of Madrid, a mere poetry series.” The strong sense of spirituality that permeated this festival was no coincidence; the series’ founder, the American poet Spencer Reece, is also an Anglican priest serving at Madrid’s Catedral del Redentor. “I go all over the place…” he said to the audience that Thursday, gathering his thoughts at the ceremony awarding the García Lorca Prize for an Emerging Latinx Poet at the historic Residencia de Estudiantes, slightly frazzled and bubbling with enthusiasm, “…that’s the Holy Spirit.”

The key narrative for the series’ organizers was the Civil War-era friendship between two Spanish historical figures: Miguel de Unamuno, a poet and writer, and Rev. Atilano Coco, a priest who, like Spencer, was serving in the Anglican church. They supported each other in a time when it was dangerous to be outspoken intellectuals, especially non-Catholic ones. Rachel Schmidt, from the University of Calgary, explored the context behind this historic friendship in her talk, “Can We in History Still Live?” This question, “¿Cómo podemos vivir dentro de la historia?” in the original Spanish, comes from a poem of Unamuno’s. It’s a question that poets often pose indirectly: How do we, as individuals, participate in the grand narrative of history? This poetry festival, where queerness and spirituality were allowed to freely and lovingly mingle, was a serendipitous gathering for the asking of such questions.

It might sound sentimental, but sometimes sentiment is where you have to start.

The Unamuno Author Series began as a single reading organized among friends in the small courtyard of the cathedral. The story that follows was repeated several times over the course of the festival; for me, it began to acquire the golden glow of a creation myth. It starts with March 27, 2012, the day of Adrienne Rich’s death. Spencer always includes this detail when he tells it, a touchstone of history mixed with grief. His friend, the Cuban-American poet Richard Blanco, was upset by this news and more generally despairing over the perceived unpopularity of poetry at the time, so Spencer invited him to read at the cathedral to cheer him up. It was an intimate affair of about a dozen souls. The following year, Blanco would go on to read at the 2013 Obama inauguration in front of millions; meanwhile, that one-off reading in Madrid flourished into what would be called the Unamuno Author Series.

Blanco’s legacy as the first openly gay poet and first Latinx poet to read at a U.S. presidential inauguration is a fitting heritage for the Unamuno Author Series Festival, which places a special emphasis on lifting up the voices of poets from these overlapping communities. It also made history as the first anglophone literary festival of this scale in Spain, with more than 80 poets, scholars, translators, and artists participating in the programming. While the festival was “anglophone” in the context of the Madrid literary scene, it was in fact gloriously bilingual. Dialogues among poets, translators, and language-learners-in-progress were a major part of the programming and extra-curricular conversations. For some poets, Jorge Vessel’s Spanish translation for the anthology was the first time their work had ever been translated for publication.

But why Unamuno?

Miguel de Unamuno is especially known for a verbal confrontation with one of Franco’s generals, Millán-Astray, in which he burst out with the defiant line, “You will conquer, but you will not convince” (“Venceréis, pero no convenceréis”). That day—October 12, 1936—at a ceremony celebrating the anniversary of the “discovery” of America, Unamuno carried with him a letter from Coco’s wife, who was begging for his help in the effort to have her husband released from imprisonment by the Fascists. It was on the back of this envelope that Unamuno scribbled the notes for his response to Millán-Astray (“vencer y convencer”). It might sound sentimental, but sometimes sentiment is where you have to start.

- Lit Hub

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