Alomar's Last Poet.
It is hard for me to write about Juan Carlos Flores because of our friendship. From the day I met him, when I was eighteen, to the day he died, we developed a unique connection. This connection came mostly out of our mutual love for poetry and art, but there was more to it. At times, he would talk about being like a second father to me. At times, I would try to explain to my partner why I enjoyed my friendship with Juan Carlos so much. We would talk for hours, jumping from one topic to another, reflecting on the history of contemporary visual arts, discussing music preferences, or elaborating on why we liked some literary works over others. We lived as if art was the most relevant part of our lives.
We can never tell why we love the people we love, but in retrospect I can see we had a mutual recognition. We were both already in the wrong place, at the wrong time, for the wrong reasons. We met a block away from the Hermanos Ameijeiras Hospital. He was coming back from a literary workshop that was taking place in the psychiatric unit, where he had been admitted due to a temporary crisis. I was with my partner at the time, who was sixteen years older than me and the head of a literary workshop I was attending. We met on a side street. My partner and Juan Carlos knew each other. They were fellow writers and friends. I was introduced as a young poet. Juan Carlos told us where he was coming from. We looked into each other s eyes and we talked about poetry for a little bit. Then we split. I remember his gaze to this day; and what is even more peculiar, when I go back to that moment I can look again into the depths of his sad green eyes.
After that, we started to develop a friendship. I grew up, published my first literary texts, changed partners, graduated, got involved in literary projects. We began to collaborate. I studied his poetry, wrote the introductions to some of his works, and in poetry readings introduced him and even got to join him. I used to frequent his place in Alamar, where he lived with his wife. We would talk on the phone for hours. Eventually, I got him out of Alamar and took him to places like the National Art Museum--which became one of our favorite places--the Vedado art galleries, and the Chocolate Museum in Old Havana.
More than each other's backs, what we wanted to have were each other's minds. This wish almost became literal by the time I accompanied Juan Carlos to the psychiatrist. It was an act of trust. He wanted to share that experience with me and I was willing to be there for him. We would refer to this visit in future conversations. When he visited the US, going outside the island for the first time, I went to his house to encourage him and to wish him good luck. When I moved to the US to pursue a PhD at Princeton University, we had a hard time saying goodbye. After that, there were significant changes, both in my life and in his life. I gave birth to my daughter; he got divorced. I became attached to a domestic, economic, and professional reality in a foreign country. He became the saddest and loneliest poet left in Alamar. He was also very ill, more than ever before. The crises were more common and severe. The day he hanged himself in his Alamar apartment, however, he was lucid.
As a poet, Juan Carlos valued interpersonal relationships informed by emotional bonds. However, by the time he killed himself he was all alone. He got divorced in 2012, painfully and unexpectedly. Flores had also lost his friends as one by one they left the country. Only a few remained on the island, but they were too busy to keep up with the hours-long conversations or the wanderings around the neighborhood. Alamar was a wrecked place where ruins grow, and the ghostly remembrances multiplied.
The last time we walked around was August 2016, just a month before his death. He asked me to take some pictures, which surprised me, as he had always been an old-fashioned poet not used to the camera --or any digital device for that matter. But this time he wanted to be photographed. He posed for pictures that showed his favorite spots in Alamar (see pp. 95-98). Because Alamar was his neighborhood and the inspiration for most of his work, I felt that he was offering me some sort of visual narrative. He was performing a double act of memory for my iPhone camera: the re-creation of his Alamar walks, and the establishment of a new remembrance that survives his relationship to the place.
Pictures from that day show Juan Carlos in Alamar's ruined amphitheater (see pp. 95, 98). He wanted to do a public reading there, a place erected as an interruption of the residential urbanscape where the houses can be seen surrounding the area. Yet the amphitheater was more of a disturbance for the national cultural sphere than it was a disruption of the urban architecture. The place had a brief life as an open-air auditorium for the model socialist citizen. But in short order it became home to some of the most alternative social movements that emerged from the nations economic and ideological crises.
When Juan Carlos was a child, he used to go to this open theater to watch Soviet war movies in the evenings. Those were times when Alamar was the model of the Cuban socialist city, but the amphitheater was one of the few meeting points for Cuban and Soviet children who were segregated in their own areas of Alamar. As the Soviet Union collapsed, the amphitheater started hosting a rock festival in the early 1990s. Then, in 1997, the theater became the spot for the emergent hip-hop movement's annual celebration. In 2001, when the official institution Asociacion Hermanos Saiz took over the hip-hop festival, the next thing was OMNI-Zona Franca, a countercultural collective cofounded in 1999 by Juan Carlos himself. However, this project had to occur in a more discreet location: Alamar's Casa de Cultura. Alamar was still the place where powerful community-engaged cultural initiatives were taking place, but the countercultural imaginary was in decline.
By 2016, the amphitheater and even Alamar were just what everyone can recognize in my photos: mere ruins. The vestiges of old political dreams had been replaced by life's imperatives. The state no longer invested in the cultural capital of the arts. Or at least they weren't a priority anymore. The government was so out of resources that anything that looked like a threat was quickly removed from the public sphere. This became particularly clear in 2009 when official personnel of cultural institutions, accompanied by the police, evicted OMNI-Zona Franca from Alamar's Casa de Cultura. Paradoxically, it was under the influence of the Cuban Revolution, as an economic and cultural transformation, that these participative artistic projects arose. Nevertheless, in the twenty-first century the Cuban Revolution is changing its direction: "The development of the national economy, along with the struggle for peace, unity and our ideological resolve, constitute the principal missions of the Party," Raul Castro announced to the nation in 2016. In this context, there is little to no space for cultural revolutions.
Writer Antonio Jose Ponte believes that Juan Carlos found a voice only when he started to use Alamar as the motivation for his poetry. Ponte said this to me in personal communication, as part of a series of interviews that I conducted with seven Cuban poets of different generations, gender identities, and geographical locations. Differences aside, all of them agreed that Juan Carlos was a unique poet who reached maturity in his book Distintos modos de cavar un tunel (Different ways to dig a tunnel) (2002), the first volume of a projected trilogy devoted to Alamar. But it wasn't solely the choice of Alamar as the background that made this book different. It was a whole new set of aesthetic decisions: the quotidian topics; the ordinary, often forgotten people as subjects; a strategy of using clean, trivial language; and a perspective that paid attention mostly to everyday life practices. In sum, since the early 2000s Juan Carlos delivered a distinct poetics inspired by everything that is usually left outside the poem. We have poets who write about common things in the national canon, but they do not do so in an ordinary way. Cuban poets generally make an effort to distance themselves from ordinary people. But as Juan Carlos used to say--a nod to Yves Bonnefoy and a shared reference with Ponte--"Imperfection is the summit." During those days when Ponte went to see Juan Carlos at the Quinta de los Molinos, a bucolic historical site where Juan Carlos used to work as a night guard, they had long conversations about poetry while wandering around beneath the moonlight. By then, Juan Carlos was already an award-winning poet with his book Los pajaros escritos (The written birds) (1994), but he used to talk about what he would like to accomplish. He wasn't trying to describe or create beauty, but to write poems about the unpleasant things in life. As Ponte said, Juan Carlos managed to accomplish this in his twenty-first-century work: "He was able to create his best poetry based on impoverishment, based on mere routine, replacing the sublime blows of which we had spoken so many times in the prior century at Quinta de los Molinos."
To find the poetry of the "mere routine," Juan Carlos worked with space as its primary source. Like Vallejo, one of his favorite poets, he was very fond of architecture. His book The Counterpunch (and Other Horizontal Poems) / El contragolpe (y otros poemas horizontales) was organized by galleries--five "PeaNut galleries" to be precise. The volume also has an "Opening" and a last act, "On the borderline," all defined by spatial measures. In the "Opening," the poem "Manuscripts" is an account of how hard it can be to speak out when you are coming from or speaking about unpleasant realities. The "Opening" is at the same time a declaration on the complexity of writing the obnoxious and an operation that wants to place the reader in this challenging situation. When you start reading, there is a "metallic fence" and we seem to be on one side of it, trying to "decipher" what is on the other side. Then we read that those who "risked the leap" came back in silence, "as if they had contracted some illness that impeded their speech" (C, 3). Yet, in the end, we seem to be positioned "behind the metallic fence or curtain," and the "difficult task" is not "deciphering" anymore but "writing." In other words, we become witnesses. Moreover, we contract the poet's illness and we may share with him the responsibility to write about what he is seeing. The image of a peanut gallery is accurate: he wanted to write for and from the farthest gallery in the theater, where only the most disadvantaged would sit. The phrase "peanut gallery" also refers to a collective voice, often despised by the members of the cultural elite, that judges an artwork by focusing on trivial matters. Certainly, Juan Carlos wanted to change our perspective as readers and, in the meantime, he didn't want us to get too comfortable. For some young Cuban poets, this conflicted relationship with the reader is the major influence they received from Juan Carlos's work. Michael H. Miranda, for instance, confessed: "He made me disarticulate the very nature of the poetic text, the idea of the poem, and of course also the language, to assume a different position compared to what a certain kind of reader would expect."
And here is where Alamar was an incredible discovery. As Ponte said: "Juan Carlos Flores's legacy is in having intersected a space--Alamar, and what an adverse space this was--with his poetry." Both in Distintos modos de cavar un tunel and The Counterpunch, Juan Carlos focused on Alamar, "responding," as Ponte declared, "with prefabricated poetics and poetic reiteration to the prefabrication and reiteration of the buildings of Alamar, where he lived." Cuban-American poet Yosie Crespo remarked: "Nobody will be able to revisit Alamar without thinking of Juan Carlos Flores." In Crespo's case, she is not merely talking about "going back" to Alamar as a symbolic cultural space. The young emigre poet habitually "goes back" to familiar places in person as she travels to and from Cuba once or twice a year. Crespo is used to seeing how places change over time, and how historical memories are modified by the rewriting of history. The Alamar neighborhood described by Juan Carlos is not just buildings in ruins that can be romanticized as beauty left by destruction. In the view of the young critic and poet Javier L. Mora, "Juan Carlos Flores's worldview was anchored in urban space," and what interests him "is the citizen's experience, at the moment when this experience becomes a mental and physical process." This process, "mixed with its political and social meanings," is the thing "narrated" in Flores's work.
Juan Carlos wanted us to sit in the peanut gallery because it is the best place to read about homeless people, sex workers, and a person with Down syndrome, among other characters from his poems. He wanted us to be in a cheek-by-jowl situation with people we usually see from a distance. What Juan Carlos loved the most about Alamar's amphitheater was that the structure of the place annihilated class distinctions among the audience. He was convinced that the horizontal, open structure you can see in the photos could serve his poetry better than any tidy cultural institution.
III. Broken World
When Juan Carlos spoke about "the poetical resurrection of Alamar," he was not only evoking the Christian idea of overcoming physical death by reuniting the spirit with the body in an immortal state. A religious person, Juan Carlos oscillated, like most Cubans, between the Catholic faith and Afro-Cuban religious beliefs. In the popular Cuban imaginary, San Lazaro, resurrected by Christ, became connected to the orisha Babalu Aye, ruler of diseases and healing. As an ill man himself, Juan Carlos, like his characters, was in need of healing and ultimately some kind of resurrection. OMNI-Zona Franca focused on poetry as a communitarian practice. The artistic collective used to carry a procession from Alamar's Casa de Cultura to El Rincon, the place where thousands of Cubans arrive on foot every December 17 to honor the patron of the poor and the sick. It was no coincidence that Barack Obama announced the restoration of diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba precisely on December 17, 2014, as many have noted. Obama was invoking the healing of a whole country.
The last day I met Juan Carlos, in August 2016, he took me to his favorite park in Alamar. This is a park that has a ceiba tree, the sacred plant dedicated to Afro-Cuban rituals, on one side and on the other an old and broken monument that the state placed there during the Soviet era (see pp. 96-97). Juan Carlos asked me to take a photo of him standing by the monument, in a position that highlights graffiti reading "the warrior is not the one who wins the battle, but the one who doesn't give up." Juan Carlos was sending out a message with this picture, but it was not intended for anyone in particular. He had a broken life, in a fractured country, within a collapsed world. In a personal note after Juan Carlos died, Victor Fowler, another Cuban poet of Flores's generation, wrote to me:
Juan Carlos's situation hurts, but it has hurt for years. This blow, however hard it has been, only closes a cycle of horrors that I can't even begin to imagine. Keep in mind that among my worst memories will always be that night when somebody knocked on the door and said to Juan Carlos he had to leave urgently because his brother had stabbed his father.
You can read the tragedy through Juan Carlos's poetry. As the autobiographical "The chameleon" ("El lagarto") states in The Counterpunch: "There's a chameleon that has green skin every morning, when the atrocity starts up again, and at noon it changes color and in the afternoon it changes color and around sunset it changes color, also cyclically, still" (C, 141). The cyclical changes of the skin and the account of each morning as the time "when the atrocity starts up again" matches Fowler's comment. For Crespo, tragedy and poetry are inseparable in Juan Carlos's work: "One never recovers from reading Juan Carlos Flores, the tragic poet.... Juan Carlos was a master, both of poetry and of tragedy." Another young Cuban poet from the west side of the island, Jose Ramon Sanchez, said Juan Carlos was "one of the most destabilizing poets of his crowd, the kind of poet we want on our side in the war." Legna Rodriguez Iglesias, one of Cuba's most renowned young poets, has declared on several occasions that Juan Carlos is her favorite Cuban poet. Regarding his influence on her work, she told me about her "preference for that obsessive and brutal speech. My affinity with that is inevitable."
Maybe because of his painful personal experiences, Juan Carlos developed a personal ethic that guided him through every life situation. He admired what he used to call "good people," and he spoke out every time he saw something that he considered "wrong." In the poem "El atizador" (The poker), he imagines Rolando Escardo--a Cuban poet who died two years before Juan Carlos was born--in contemporary Cuba, a context that Juan Carlos perceived as corrupt:
If Escardo lived, he would be a rodent, in the undergrowth, hungry and pursued by the trackers, I can't imagine him as a Guayabera Lord, weaving the entourage for a tropical clergy, happy and a whore, in countries like this the best you can do is rent a portable stain remover. (D , 58)
Juan Carlos's harsh presence was dreaded both in cultural institutions and private spaces. He was not welcome in the official circuits, just as he wasn't welcome in the opposition headquarters. His speech was never a sing-along tune. Mora puts it this way: "Juan Carlos lived his last years outside the circuits of socialization, that is, disregarding the Cuban literary system--or any system for that matter--and its surroundings: awards, authors, representations, institutions, low and high cameras, parliament, governments ..." Even on the phone, you could imagine a satirical smile on his face: "Through rushed telephone conversations, the poet and person I knew was always able to respond with an ironic smile on his lips (something that you could feel through the earpiece)," Crespo told me. Concerning Juan Carlos's social life, another young poet from Western Cuba, Oscar Cruz, declared:
It was his choice to disconnect from the oxygen balloons of the literary Institution, so he was absolutely marginalized. He paid the price for isolation and the price for his characteristic laughter at the successive rulers of the ICL [Instituto Cubano del Libro] during the period in which he had no choice but to coexist with them. After that, only the project of Torre de Letras and the OMNI-Zona Franca group consistently offered him the opportunity to put his poetic beliefs on stage.
Rodriguez Iglesias is right when she says Juan Carlos ended up creating a myth. With Rodriguez Iglesias, many of us can state: "I had the chance to see that the myth was real."
IV. The End of Poetry
Javier Mora told me he cannot get one particular poem out of his head. It is "El hueco" ("The hole") from Distintos modos de cavar un tunel. In Mora's words: "It stages an instant, an attempt to explain the existence of this individual suffocated in his sterile effort, building from the circularity of the text. This individual knows that he has no possibility for economic advancement or any kind of progress in society."
In 2008, Fidel Castro, the head of the Cuban government for forty-nine years, transferred power to his brother Raul. Cuba entered a new historical phase. With Cuba on its way to "normalization," citizens have nowadays a certain degree of economic freedom, including legal permits to run small businesses. In the meantime, the state is withdrawing from responsibility for the public sector and citizens' basic needs, such as healthcare and education. If there once was a moment where you could really manage to be an artist or a writer and survive from a part-time job or the occasional money from a published book, such a time has passed. Juan Carlos said to me during one of our wanderings around Alamar in 2010: "I see how everything is changing, and I don't like where this is going."
After his divorce in 2012, Juan Carlos was both physically and economically depressed. He had to move to the semidestroyed house where his brother had hanged himself. Besides the emotionally charged environment, the house had poor living conditions. As a result, Juan Carlos spent his last years trying to build a home out of this place. On November 5, 2015, he wrote two emails to me, the first one "of a practical nature," and the second related to his poetic plans. In the first email one can read the scarcity in his everyday life and his concerns about his personal health:
I live with austerity. For instance, I don't drink alcohol, and I don't go outside of Alamar. But I'm not complaining. I make breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I can drink coffee several times a day, plus buying my cigarettes.... Everything is pretty good since the basis of my project is, first of all, to restore my health. And I have come a long way in that direction.
The second email addressed a new book project he wanted to begin the next year. It's clear that it was difficult for him to write poetry in his living conditions:
Now I want to start writing Poems for a possible book. The battle to achieve it will be tough. It has always been tough for me, the battle for each book.... Wish me luck, since I will need it, all of the luck in this Poetic adventure.
One month later, he wrote again: "As Escobar would say, I say: I am calm, I am the scribe, the ox that has not had anything." The reference to Cuban poet Angel Escobar, "his great absent friend," worried me at the time. Escobar had killed himself by jumping out of the window of his apartment. Just before Christmas, that same year, he wrote again:
It's just that the price of everything goes up here, and I have to make constant adjustments. My current life is simple. What I want to do in the last week of the year is to work on the restoration of my house. 0 parties 0 alcohol. Only to work in my house and to be able to feed myself the best I can, and be calm.
Almost a year later, after our recent encounter at Alamar, he sent me another email on August 3, 2016. This time poetry was out of the question: "The important thing for me is that you focus on your life and achieve your goals. My destiny is different. I only survive."
He wrote to me once more, four days before he took his life. He wasn't feeling like writing anymore: "Disculpa la brevedad de este correo, pues hace mal tiempo y tengo que salir" ("Sorry for the brevity of this email; since the weather is so bad, I have to leave"). In Spanish, we use the word tiempo (time) both for the weather and to frame a time period. There's no doubt that it was a bad time for Juan Carlos, and a critical time for poetry in Cuba. But as Maurice Blanchot would say, Juan Carlos Flores gained his "right to death" and made it evident to every person who saw his body hanging from the Alamar balcony on September 14. Ponte acknowledged this by saying: "He left yet another legacy: suicide." As we lost Alamar's last poet, he found his "breaking point" from the "Machi-nation": "point of no return or potential recycling process," the final manuscript "that would definitively wipe out memory, maybe" (C, 101).
Author's Note: Translations of poems from The Counterpunch (and Other Horizontal Poems /El contragolpe (y otros poemas horizontales) are by Kristin Dykstra (Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 2016). Translations of other poems, personal communications, excerpts, interviews, and emails are all mine.
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|Title Annotation:||OUT OF ALAMAR: THE POETRY OF JUAN CARLOS FLORES|
|Author:||Monica, Lizabel; Dykstra, Kristin|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2018|
|Previous Article:||The Soliloquy of Juan Carlos Flores/El soliloquio de Juan Carlos Flores.|