With only 3.4 million people, Uruguay is the smallest Spanish-speaking country in South America, but it has always been well-populated with poets. The Uruguayan poet Leo Masliah makes this clear in his song “Biromes y Servilletas” (“Ballpoint Pens and Napkins”), which pokes fun at Montevideo, the capital where half the country’s population lives, as the place where “there are poets poets poets” that “claim neither glories nor laurels, laurels, laurels” and only “write, write, write” on every piece of paper they can find. Masliah does not exaggerate. The poetry scene in Uruguay is hyperactive. On most nights in Montevideo, there are poetry readings at multiple venues ranging from the national library to neighborhood bars. Although culture is centralized in the capital, the smaller towns of Colonia del Sacramento, Minas, Tacuarembó, and Maldonado also have poetry events, now usually organized via Facebook and other social media. Poetry readings often feature a mix of the most senior, established poets, such as Circe Maia, Jorge Arbeleche, Luis Bravo, Tatiana Oroño, Sylvia Guerra, and Roberto Appratto, with younger poets, many still university students. But there are generational differences.
The inescapable theme of the previous generation of poets is the civil-military dictatorship from 1973 to 1985 that sent many Uruguayan leftists to prison or worse and some poets into exile. Uruguayans read poetry with this in mind. They look for a poem’s date to decide if a word like “silence” carries a double-weighted meaning. With Circe Maia, the first Uruguayan poet I translated, this is certainly a consideration. In 1972 police raided her home to arrest her husband and did not take Circe only because she was caring for their four-day-old daughter. He was imprisoned for two years for being associated with the Tupamaros National Liberation Movement. Her “Por detrás de mi voz,” with its refrain of “Listen, listen, another voice sings,” can be read as a poem about the continued presence of ancestors. But set to music by Daniel Viglietti in 1978 as “Otra voz canta,” it became a political anthem throughout Latin America, a call to hear the missing voices of those “disappeared” by military regimes in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay.
The new generation of Uruguayan poets has been raised in an era of democracy and boom-and-bust capitalism. The current president of Uruguay is José Mujica, the former Tupamaro guerrilla who leads the coalition of left-wing parties that has held the government for the last twelve years and that has made abortion, same-sex marriage, and marijuana legal while banning tobacco smoking in public places. This moderate progressivism is the reality for younger poets, and they are restless with the older generation’s politics pitting communist guerrillas against fascist generals. In their song “No somos latinos,” the popular band El Cuarteto de Nos makes fun of Open Veins of Latin America, the leftist history by Eduardo Galeano, Uruguay’s most famous living writer: “I read Open Veins and discovered it was slop. By page four I was asleep.” The dictatorship and its legacy are still part of the political conversation in Uruguay, but the younger poets, though nearly all voted for Mujica, have concerns that are more personal and less political.
I noticed this distinction when I begin collecting work for América Invertida: A Bilingual Anthology of Younger Uruguayan Poets. The poems presented here are by four of the poets included in the anthology: Andrea Durlacher (translated by Anna Rosenwong), Victoria Estol (translated by Seth Michelson), Paula Simonetti (translated by Catherine Jagoe), and Fabián Severo (translated by Dan Bellm). Their work shows the range of responses to living in Uruguay now.
For example, both Durlacher and Estol’s poems spring from the impatience younger poets feel with living in Uruguay. Durlacher’s “Linguistics in the Time of Uruguayan Invasion” is about the desire to travel or study abroad, about feeling Uruguay’s small size pinching like a tight shoe. In it, all the linguistics students are applying for scholarships to Spain, uncertain what the future holds for them with their eagerly pursued advanced degrees. She writes, “Months later the linguists will fear hunger and penury./ They’ll have to look for work.” Estol in her poem “[the nail fell]” returns to the age-old theme of the artist’s isolation from a society that does not value creativity, especially in women. She writes of stuffing a hole in her wall with poems, “a stranger among my own . . ./ i follow the rabbit like Alice.”
On the other hand, both Paula Simonetti and Fabián Severo write about poverty and marginalization, social problems that also concerned the earlier generation of poets, but their poems are without an obvious political perspective. Simonetti, who works with addicts, the homeless, and the mentally ill, writes poems that are intimate portraits of lives of poverty and abuse. Her poem “I’m not going to talk” dances with the said and unsaid, “I’m not going to talk about the fist and the mark/ of that shape in which your hand crushes the look/ on your son’s face like a fly in summer” to reach the truth of the abuse. Fabián Severo, who has taken the highly unusual decision to write in Portuñol, the dialect of the Uruguayan-Brazilian frontier, writes poems that address the isolation of border towns like Artigas where he grew up and the lack of respect for their culture. In “Night Up North,” Severo stakes his claim for the frontier as literary territory, writing, “Before/ I wanted to be from Uruguay./ Now/ I want to be from here.”
I took the title for the anthology, América invertida, from the title of the 1943 drawing of the continent upside down by Uruguayan artist Joaquín Torres García. Founding his art school, Taller del sur, in Montevideo, he said, “Now turn the map upside down, and then we have a true idea of our position, and not as the rest of the world wishes.” Today, defining their art—their poetry—and their place in the world is as just important to young Uruguayan poets such as Durlacher, Estol, Simonetti and Severo.
© 2014 Jesse Lee Kercheval