Editor’s Note: a significant portion of the Jan/Feb 2018 issue is dedicated to a special feature on new Cuban poetry; as such, we present the guest editors’ notes for this collection here.
Generation Zero: New Cuban Poetry
Katherine M. Hedeen and Víctor Rodríguez Núñez
In a recent interview, the renowned Polish poet, Adam Zagajewski, declared that in his country, “poetry killed communism.” Our point in bringing this up isn’t to question his position and experience. What interests us more is calling attention to the fact that the situation of Cuban poets is actually quite different from that of those poets who lived through Europe’s “real socialism.” In other words, thinking in terms of dissident intellectual versus official intellectual doesn’t really work in the case of Cuba, where most poets want to escape such a reductive binary and, ultimately, be independent.
It’s not a cliché by any means to declare that few times in its history has Cuban poetry been more varied, innovative, critical, and attractive than it is right now. And an undeniable part of it is the verse written by what has been called Generation Zero (Generación Cero), poets born after 1970 and who began publishing after 2000. This translated selection was compiled having read over sixty books, tens of anthologies, and numerous journals and magazines. While the only way to truly do justice to this poetry would be with a monograph or book-length anthology, our aim here is to simply introduce it to English-speaking readers.
Elsewhere we’ve defended the notion that Cuban poetry was revolutionary before the Revolution. It continued to be in the midst of profound transformations that took place on the island beginning in 1959, despite revolutionary power’s paradoxical mistrust of it. It still is after the Revolution’s decline, which arose in the nineties. It’s revolutionary not because it’s neo-romantic, neo-realist (much less socialist-realist), colloquial, or neo-baroque; but because it renounces solipsism, the differentiation of the other, and it does so in diverse ways, with notable creative freedom.
The work by these young poets reaffirms Cuba’s long, rich tradition of dialogic poetry, which finds its identity through the identification with the other, and is marked by tensions between commitment and autonomy, dialogue and creativity, continuity and rupture. It is poetry with vast experience in the representations of subordinations (nation, class, gender, ethnicity, sexuality) in order to subvert them, that has consciously participated in both social and cultural transformations, that has drawn closer to popular language and culture, and that has decolonized itself in content and in form.
Still, these days no one expects this kind of poetry from a Cuban, not in literary circles in the Spanish-speaking world, on the left or the right, not in North American academic and creative writing circles either. And perhaps that’s why it hasn’t received the attention it deserves. For the former, it’s because it isn’t communicative, and instead welcomes an active reader who participates in the creation of meaning. For the latter, it’s because it’s not exotic, doesn’t explicitly focus on the difficult material and spiritual situation Cuba has lived through ever since the fall of European socialism and the disintegration of the USSR.
Cuban poetry has had to confront, above all in the seventies, neo-Stalinist aesthetic standards, which demanded, among other things, “reaching the people,” being clear and direct. This is precisely one of the paradigms of the so-called “poetry of experience,” which prevails in Spain today, with offshoots in Latin America, especially among the contemporaries of Generation Zero, the self-designated “poets of uncertainty.” By contrast, the young poets selected are very well aware, from historical experience, of the danger of making aesthetic concessions in the name of coherence and transparency, and, as such, they defend poetry’s integrity.
On the other hand, contemporary Cuban poetry isn’t subject to the market like narrative is, and so it’s not forced to speak of opportunistic bureaucrats, prostitutes with college degrees, blackouts and endless lines, the splendor of the black market. Indeed, the crisis experienced on the island is well-represented in these pages, but without making any concessions to exoticism. There’s a critical perspective, a profound uneasiness, but no absolute opposition, no automatic negation. Instead, the negation of the negation is what comes to the fore, the need for a social alternative, but not anticommunism, not a call for the return of capitalism.
The most notable exclusion of these poets appears in the anthology El canon abierto: Última poesía en español [The Open Canon: New Poetry in Spanish] edited by Remedios Sánchez García, selected by Anthony L. Geist, and published by Visor, the most prestigious poetry press in Spain, in 2015. The back cover reads, “nearly two hundred researchers from more than one hundred universities (Harvard, Oxford, Columbia, and Princeton, among them) have chosen the most relevant poets in the Spanish language born after 1970.” Among the forty selected, not one is from Cuba; in fact, in the “Full List of Cited Poets,” which includes 122 authors, just one Cuban is mentioned.
Though they are relatively isolated, whether it be because of extremely limited access to the Internet or the difficulties of traveling off the island, these poets aren’t behind the times at all, on the contrary, they are at the forefront of poetry being written anywhere in the world. Here there’s no trace of superficiality, no fear of emotional complexity or intellectual density, of formal rigor or experimentation. It’s poetry open to reality and the most diverse forms of representation. The authors know that intellectuals participate in society through their cultural production.
In short, the critique these poets make of present day Cuban society and culture not only transcends the Cuban government’s version of the facts but also platitudes about anticommunism, making such a critique more profound. It’s possible because it carries with it an understanding of poetry’s essential function as a counter-ideology. If all ideologies base their discourse on making the artificial seem natural, poetry denaturalizes our perception of the world; it considers everything as if it were for the first time. This it where poetry derives its political force, just as it does its explicit or implicit challenging of power, its ability to change life.
On the Cover
Por el camino correcto (For the Correct Path) by Carlos Rodríguez Cárdenas
Carlos Rodríguez Cárdenas was born in Cuba in 1962 and studied at Havana’s Instituto Superior de Arte. He was a part of the Rene Portocarrero workshops where he painted animated figures in a geometric style that questioned governmental authority with an ironic humor. His paintings put him in a spotlight during the the 1980s. By the 1990s, he moved to Mexico for a while before settling in the greater New York area. He continues to paint in his bold, graphic style with a political message. His works are included in the Whitney Museum; Fort Lauderdale’s Museum of Art; the Peter Ludwig Museum in Cologne, Germany; the Museo Provincial de Santa Clara in Villa Clara; and Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes in Havana.