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The little house of muses.

It used to be said of Bogota that when two gentlemen met in the street, they would, instead of greetings, exchange verses. Since that time, the Colombian capital has grown from a provincial-minded town into a metropolis of six million, beset, like any other, by pollution, crime and urban sprawl. But the bogotanos are still passionate about poetry. One proof of it is the success of its Casa de Poesia Silva--a unique center for recitals, lectures, conferences and workshops exclusively dedicated to that art.

Throughout the year, thousands of bogotanos receive, through the mail, a weekly invitation to a recital bearing a photo and a verse of the honored poet. Far from being elite (admission is free), the public represents a cross-section of the city's population, with the great majority being under thirty. Hundreds turn up every week for small and large events. When the modest recital hall cannot cope, the poetry lovers spill out into the corridors or stand on chairs to hear the verses.

The Casa Silva's sole function, says director Maria Mercedes Carranza, is to promote the study of poetry, whatever its origins, and to create a space where the Colombian public can enjoy the muse. While delivered in Spanish and largely devoted to contemporary Latin America poetry, the recitals and lectures cover many languages and periods. The center also has an extensive library and a collection of 1,000 tape recordings of verses, many in the poet's own voice, including those of Apollinaire and Dylan Thomas. During my visit to the tape library, a group of youngsters with headphones were utterly engrossed listening to the children's rhymes which also form part of this collection.

The Casa Silva was the last home of Colombia's great poet, Jose Asuncion Silva, a precursor of modernism who committed suicide at the age of 31, in what is now the center's office. His refined and sensitive spirit despaired of the narrow, philistine ambient of late nineteenth-century Bogota, especially after his two years in Paris, where he had absorbed the latest currents of French symbolism and incorporated them into Latin American literature. The bankruptcy of the family store he was forced to run, and the early death of his sister, may have played their part in his demise as well.

The Silva residence, built in 1720 and remodelled a century later, is one of the best examples of the traditional Bogota architecture of La Candelaria, the city's historic Spanish-Colonial district. Built around an open courtyard, the house is a jumble of ornate period rooms with high ceilings, glass doors, chandeliers and decorative stone columns and plasterwork. It evokes a time when, in a city of adobe houses and muddy streets trod by mules and barefoot Indians, a small band of cultivated bohemians gathered by candlelight to read their verses over a glass of wine.

The center's founder and director, Maria Mercedes Carranza, is a poet herself and the daughter of the distinguished Colombian poet, the late Eduardo Carranza. A friendly, unpretentious, round-faced woman, she administers the poetry house with an admirable calm and efficiency. When I ask her whether poetry is relevant nowadays, Maria Mercedes measures her words but her eyes light up as she leaps to its defence: "There has always been a great interest in poetry in Colombia; it's a national trait. Some say that it's a way of evading the violent reality of our country, but I think it's just the opposite. In a situation where the most fundamental human rights are being violated every day, people need something with which to remind themselves that the right to love, to life, to beauty still exists and so they cling ever more fiercely to poetry."

The Casa Silva was founded in 1986, thanks in part to Maria Mercedes, who was then a journalist and filled a last-minute "hole" in her paper with a plea to buy and restore the building, which had become a decrepit lodging house. The modest article generated an immediate response and with support from then Colombian president, Belisario Betancur, La Corporacion de la Candelaria purchased Silva's home. Though it receives funding from the city, the center is run by a private foundation which is also financed by Colombian companies. Venezuela's Perez Bonalde Poetry House, Mexico's Lopez Velarde center and the Jorge Carrera Andrade center in Ecuador have been inspired by the Bogota original.

One of the Casa Silva's most successful activities is a national poetry competition organized under the title of "Poetry has the word." Colombians are invited to vote by letter for the best verse on a given subject and the winner is announced during a public ceremony which is held in different cities and features recitals by invited poets. "Possibly the most successful was the one in Medellin," she says. "It was held at the height of the narco-violence and the theme was love. Nine thousand people turned up. In a way poetry is as popular as football--all you have to do is to give it a bit of publicity and the public will come flocking in."

Seeing the enlarged photos of bygone Colombian poets which cover the walls of the center, along with facsimiles of their manuscripts, I mention one that shows Pablo Neruda with Maria Mercedes' father and the Cuban poet Nicholas Guillen playfully grouped around a yacht in Neruda's Isla Negra. I beg for an anecdote about the famous poets she grew up with. Maria Mercedes smiles, pauses and then goes on: "My father was a great friend of Neruda, who was my brother's godfather. They saw a lot of each other in Chile when my father worked in the Colombian Embassy there. In 1946, my father traveled, with our family, to take up his post in Chile and I made the journey in a little basket. When they got off the plane, Neruda was there and seeing the basket he got excited because he thought it was full of Colombian fruit. I am afraid he was disappointed that it was only a baby."

One of Maria Mercedes' fondest memories is the tribute to Neruda which was held at her center on the occasion of the fifteenth anniversary of his death. The poet's recording of his classic, "The Heights of Macchu Pichu," held the public spellbound for hours. I am reminded of the moving recitals I have attended, such as the homage to the young Colombian poet, Sibius, which turned into a spontaneous reaffirmation of the value of poets in our brutal world. A few months before his murder by a death squad in 1989, Sibius had borrowed a coffin from the local undertaker to stage a mock funeral in the prairie town where he was running a theatre group--a protest against the indifference to the violence there. When he was buried, the very same coffin became his own.

I then recall the dramatized version, staged in the courtyard, of the last night of Dario Lemus, a member of the Nadaista movement, who died in an ecstasy of poetry and music; of the memorial to Julio Daniel Chaparro, another poet mindlessly slain recently; and to the Spanish versions of American poetry read by Luis Zalamea, the Colombian novelist. Zalamea also read an English translation of Silva's greatest poem, El Nocturno, supposedly inspired by the death of his sister (with whom, some guess, he shared a carnal love) and probably written in the Casa Silva. As the mournful verses reached a climax, I for one, felt the ghost of the poet very near. Maria Mercedes, however, is sceptical: "The spirit of Silva is a presence here, but if you mean by that something extra-sensory, no, I've never felt it."

Another recital that stands out in Maria Mercedes' memory is the reading done two years ago by the Mexican poet, Jose Emilio Pacheco. "A lot of people came. He's a very warm person and was pleased and excited with the reception he got. When it was over, he said that nothing like that had ever happened to him in Mexico." Other outstanding poets who have performed at the center include Gabriel Zaid from Mexico, Antonio Cisneros from Peru, and Fernando Charry Lara, Jorge Rojas, and Fernando Arbelaez from Colombia.

As I take my leave of Maria Mercedes, we go through the traditional rite. I exchange my poetry translations for the thick, glossy anthology she edits, which is entitled, "Poetry . . . that shadow." The drawing of Silva on the back cover of the anthology shows a refined young Victorian gentleman with a penetrating but somehow vulnerable gaze. I look, once again, at the idols who dominate the scene--the bearded Leon de Greiff smoking a cigarette through a foot-long holder; Barba Jocob, the arch-eccentric of Colombian literature; Carranza pere with Neruda, jolly fellow-spirits; and most tellingly, Gonzalo Arango, chief Nadaista, who, I ruefully reflect, was my own contemporary. Their faces, while inspiring, weigh on my conscience: life is short, and though there is much to write about, few of us are going to become immortal through our verses. Inside the anthology, however, are some comforting words by Maria Mercedes: "To throw words onto the wind may be the absolute exercise of liberty, because there are no conditionings, nor requirements, nor frontiers that stop those words from landing in the ears and hearts of those who want to rejoice, or shatter or find or disturb themselves, with those words and what they reveal."

Jimmy Weiskopf, like many Bogota residents, is a part-time poet. He is also a regular contributor to Americas.
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Title Annotation:Casa de Poesia Silva in Bogota, Colombia
Author:Weiskopf, Jimmy
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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