11th Annual World Poetry Festival in Venezuela Pays Homage to Amiri Baraka

Venezuelanalysis.com reporter Arlene speaks to lead participants of the World Poetry Festival happening now in Caracas on the life of Amiri Baraka, revolutionary poet and founder of Black Arts movement in the U.S. Artists recall Baraka's visits to Venezuela and explain the impact his writings had on Latin American revolutionaries.

By Arlene Eisen - Venezuelanalysis.com
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Caracas. 16th June 2014 (Venezuelanalysis.com) This year’s World Poetry Festival, organized by the Ministry of Culture in conjunction with the Andres Bello National House of Letters, features some 50 poets from 20 countries, performing from June 13 through the 18th. On Sunday, despite the rainy weather and a world cup match between between Venezuelan favorite, Ecuador, and Switzerland, a capacity crowd attended the outdoor Poetry Festival “Celebrating Amiri Baraka in Poetry and Music.”

Two of Venezuela’s well-known Afrodescendant actors: Rafael Jimenez and Antonieta Colon, represented Amiri and Amina Baraka, while reading from a Spanish translation of the famous couple’s poetry. Cacri Jazz trio, lead by saxophonist Pablo Garcia, supplied the music as visual artist, Javier Gutierrez painted three separate pieces inspired by the poetry and music. One, in stark back and white, outlined silhouettes of several lynched people with the phrase “Strange Fruit” scrawled down the side.

The highlight of the performance was “Somebody Blew Up America”, Amiri’s militant poem written shortly after 9-11-2001, when the Twin Towers in New York City were destroyed by two hijacked planes. At the time, Amiri had been poet laureate of the state of New Jersey. After writing the poem, which traced the history of U.S. terrorism against oppressed people both inside and outside the U.S, New Jersey state legislature eliminated the position of poet laureate rather than allow him to continue in that honored post.

Venezuelan actor Jimenez appeared to be channeling Amiri Baraka as he punctuated each verse with question quien? (who?), while alternating between Spanish and English. The passion of Jimenez mounted as he turned each reiteration into a demand for U.S. accountability for imperialism. The audience, which included a large number of Afrodescendants, gave the performers an enthusiastic standing ovation, as the rain poured down from above.  
The performance script came from Barakario, Poemas de Amiri y Amina Baraka, translated, edited and footnoted by Hanneke “Juana” Wagenaar and just published by Andres Bello National House of Letters.

Wagenaar, a photographer and music producer of European descent, is married to Pablo Garcia, the Afrovenezuelan sax player. She explained to venezuelanalysis.com that when Baraka was a young music critic, he wrote the now-classic, Blues People and the liner notes for many other landmark recordings in U.S. jazz that she and Garcia had studied in Venezuela. When Amiri and Amina visited Venezuela and the two artistic couples met, “the connection was like magic,” she said.

When pressed about why she took up the difficult task of translating Baraka’s poetry, Wagenaar did not hesitate to speak for herself and for Pablo, “It is important for people here in Venezuela to know about the history of Black people in the U.S. There is too much ignorance. We wanted people to understand how the Black Arts Movement in the States was related to Black revolutionary politics. Baraka learned from Malcolm X and he, in turn, inspired the Black Panther Party. He won all sorts of honors, like the Obie Award for his play, The Dutchman. He could have been rich, but instead he stuck to his revolutionary principles. I tried to put as much information as possible into the footnotes to the poems I translated.”

When asked how this relates to Venezuelan culture, Wagenaar insisted, “The racism we have in Venezuela is different from the U.S, but we still have it. Our music and poetry are revolutionary. They challenge the colonial mentality. Besides, we’re all part of America. Not the United States of America. I mean North and South America. We need to know each other much better.”

The Festival Continues

The Poetry Festival will run another three days and feature poets from Cuba and most Latin American countries, as well as Jamaica, Kenya, Turkey, Palestine, Syria, China and almost 30 Venezuelan poets. The recitals range from traditional to hip hop and slam poetry. The agenda includes readings, music, plays, films and also creative writing workshops, talks, forums and a book expo. At the same time, local poetry festivals are featured in five other regions: the West, the Plains, the Andes, Sucre and Bolivar.

The closing event on Wednesday, June 18, 2014, will feature Washington Cucurto from Argentina, Santiago Mutis Duran from Columbia, Arturo Corcuera from Peru, Bachir Ahmed from Western Sahara, Ahmet Telli from Turkey, Roque Zambrano from Venezuela, and Miguel Angel Hernandez, winner of the 4th National Poetry Contest in Zulia state. Also featured are three poets of honor for the festival: Luis Camilo Guevara, Edmundo Aray and Luis Alberto Crespi.