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The City of Words

The Medellín International Poetry Festival reaffirms the metamorphosis of a city that opened up to cultural communion as a form of resistance, facilitating a coming together of sensory experiences from the most diverse corners of the globe, a city that invested its need for hope in poetry.

By: Iván Beltrán Castillo
Photos: Lisa Palomino

The 25th year of the already legendary Medellín International Poetry Festival reaffirmed the beautiful and providential metamorphosis of a city with a tumultuous past steeped in sordid violence, a city that opened up to cultural communion as a form of resistance, facilitating a coming together of sensory experiences from the most diverse corners of the globe, a city that invested its need for hope in poetry.

Begun in 1991 by poet Fernando Rendón, with help from Gloria Chvatal and poet and writer Gabriel Jaime Franco —who were already heading a significant editorial project: the magazine Prometheus— the Festival has touched the spirits of all the artists and spectators who have been involved, including renowned names such as Nobel Prize winner Wole Soyinka.

The Festival is a Latin American cultural mainstay and an international tradition, earning it the Alternative Nobel Prize (build-up to the Nobel Peace Prize). Fernando Rendón says that the mass phenomenon that is this competition is supported by most sectors of society, but it has inexplicably had its share of shadowy foes and unwarranted detractors.

After twenty-five years, what impact have the experiences of your Festival had on the city’s collective psyche?

The city needs the Festival. Youth need poetry. Poetry represents the springtime of this worn-out and withered world. This degraded Earth, this dispirited world with human history adrift and all hope blighted needs the freshness of language and the boundless and brimming love in poetry.

Love, fraternity, freedom, and desire seem to be constant themes in poetry. What kind of universal concept arises from the meeting of so many voices in different languages from disparate countries?

Medellín is now a global reference point for poetry. Many cities around the world talk about Medellín’s poetry phenomenon, which has already become a living legend. The audience is unique. Nonetheless, I expect much more from Festival audiences, from our people, from our youth. I want all those thousands of people to read and write poetry, to poeticize their lives and history. Even when we can bring poetry to the ears and tongues of all the inhabitants of a single city like Medellín —the erstwhile world capital of drug trafficking and murder— we will still need to make justice and solidarity with all its inhabitants a reality; only then will the city be fully realized as a world capital of truth and beauty.

Is the Festival robust enough to be out of danger?

In a history of two million years of evolution, a project to recover the genetic and poetic memory of our origins and fully realize the potential of the human spirit is necessarily embryonic, so we must nurture it. We need to allocate considerable resources to achieve its full development and success.

Tell us the story -—now a bit of a myth— of how you and your fellow travelers dreamed up an international poetry festival.

The Festival is really the embodiment of our way of confronting —starting in 1991— war, fascism, bombs, and extreme violence with just poems. The year we began the Festival, Medellín had more murders than all of Western Europe. “Dreams are desire, vision, longing, love… Our people took refuge in poetry while the dream grew stronger. Love triumphed. And there was peace.”

What kind of changes in moral, ethical, ideological, and humanistic perception has the Festival engendered?

Reality reared its head in the force of the dream, it revealed its tragic challenge; our poetic rebellion made us dignified, strong, and unbowed in our purpose, more human and more connected to the grandeur of global poetry.

Name three unforgettable poets who have come to Medellín.

Wole Soyinka, Gonzalo Rojas, and Marin Sorescu.

The Alternative Nobel carries obligations and duties. Is it difficult to bear the weight of such an award?

The weight is insignificant when it is not a matter of vanity, which can weigh heavily on the unwary. The Alternative Nobel represents an enormous honor for us.

What are your plans in the short-term?

My wishes and plans are entirely wrapped up in helping Colombia achieve a thousand years of peace.