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At Colombia's Poetry Festival for Peace

22 Jan 2023
New Zealand poet Charles Olsen tells of participating in the 2022 Poetry Festival of Cartagena, Colombia

Written by

Charles Olsen
Jan 21, 2023

The Poetry Festival of Cartagena, Colombia, began life back in 1997, developing out of the ‘Siembra’ (‘Sowing’) poetry workshops initiated by its director Martín Salas Ávila together with members of the workshop. In December 2022, its 26th edition, the festival brought together poets from Spain, Bolivia, México, Senegal and myself from Aotearoa New Zealand, alongside poets and musicians from the Caribbean and Cartagena. Previous editions have included Aotearoa New Zealand poets Te Kupu and Ron Riddell.

With the title ‘La Poesía en la Ruta de la Paz’ (‘Poetry on the Path of Peace’) the festival visited different neighbourhoods of Cartagena and towns in the interior, including Macayepo, site of a massacre by paramilitaries in 2000. It included a visit to a women’s prison, participation in a church service and a homage to the singer Yadira La Chamaría de los Manglares.

Martín Salas no longer has his long dreadlocks but his respect for animals means the festival is strictly vegetarian, and at each stop on the journey we were treated to delicious local dishes. This year we were hosted in the school of Yoga Wellness in La Boquilla, a quiet beach a short ride from the centre of Cartagena. Our hosts, Roan and Alejandra treated us to colourful and mouthwatering breakfasts and lunches on their large wooden terrace, with the seashore a short walk away.

Charles Olsen (front centre) with poets and audience in the Nelson Mandela plaza, Cartagena, Colombia

It has the feeling of being an underground festival—with little advance promotion, no renowned theatres this year, no money to bring in big names—but I don't know of other festivals where you will find yourself reading poems with local musicians in a streetside café and noisy joyous Christmas celebrations in the town square as a backdrop, listening to fellow poets and musicians on a night walk around the busy plazas and streets of the walled city of Cartagena, taking a dip in the mountain stream of Macayepo while waiting for a jeep to rescue us after the bus couldn't manage the steep winding inclines out of the Montes de María, reciting poems during a church service where we were admonished by the priest for whispering as we tried to find appropriate poems to read for the occasion. Often I wasn't sure if we were there to share our poems or really to receive inspiration for new creations. As festival director Martín Salas says, it is less about the poems and more about poetry itself.

As festival director Martín Salas says, it is less about the poems and more about poetry itself.

Children in Macayepo listen to the Colombian poet Lilián Pallares

I have written a longer account of the festival on my blog, but one image of the many that have stuck in my mind is the first evening in the Nelson Mandela neighbourhood on the outskirts of Cartagena. As the evening began beneath a huge tree in a circular plaza, Martín introduced the poets and one by one we were welcomed by beautifully dressed dancers who led us into the circle. Between poems we listened to the history of the neighbourhood, to local singers, enjoyed a performance of Afrocolombian dance, and as night fell we all ended up dancing together to the songs and drumming of Yadira La Chamaría de los Manglares and Manuel de la Rosa. It was this involvement with the community and the surprising connections that came from it that made this festival so special for me. 

Poet Lilián Pallares and the singer Yadira La Chamaría de los Manglares 

Amid the crowds in the lively streets and squares of Cartagena or San Jacinto, the sweltering heat and wondering how we were going to return from Macayepo, dancing in Getsemaní with actor and geometric artist Jaime Cortissoz—our impromptu tour guide dressed as Father Christmas, the long journeys in chaotic traffic, there were moments where the musicians would break into song, or people would close their eyes to listen to the words of a poem, and alongside the hurly-burly one found the peace that comes from listening and connecting.

Bolivian poet Daniel Ayoroa reading at night in a plaza of Cartagena

Article in Spanish about the festival in El Universal, International Poetry Festival in Cartagena – Facebook Page