influenced by all kinds of writers, from their own to Walt Whitman (American) and
Charles Baudelaire (French). Enter the 1959 revolution and things changed
dramatically for all writers on the island. The government monitored literary expression
with an iron fist, but did this also have a positive effect, in terms of literary output or
otherwise?  

MW: At the risk of offending people, I think I need to say something to begin with about
that iron fist. I’m no fidelista, but it’s not that simple—nothing Cuban ever is. It’s pretty
clear that the post-Revolutionary regime takes literature very seriously, which is a
decidedly mixed blessing for writers, and it certainly monitors everything Cubans
publish on or off the island. But the degree of latitude the regime allows, and the
repercussions for overstepping the bounds, have varied in often unpredictable ways,
from the relative freedom of the very early years, to utter brutality in the 70s, to the much
more relaxed environment of the present, when Cuban writers are free to publish with
impunity (for the moment at least) pretty much what they wish off-island and even within
Cuba the restrictions are milder than they have been.

To give a concrete example of the change, the novelist Reynaldo Arenas suffered
enormously for having one of his books smuggled out of the country and published
abroad. Antonio José Ponte publishes what he wishes outside Cuba and enters and
leaves at will (he lives in Spain but retains his Cuban citizenship and passport). He
was expelled from UNEAC, but otherwise he’s been left to his own devices, and he’s
been vocal in his opposition to the regime.

Another sign of change has been the “rehabilitation” since 1995 of writers who had
been written out of history. Before that writers who had left the island were unpublished
on the island. This meant that not only writers who had left as
                                                                       children, but some of the true greats,
                                                                       like Gastón Baquero, were unknown to
                                                                       most Cubans who grew up after the
                                                                       Revolution. Which is not to say that
                                                                       every writer has become available.
www.ambiente.us    MARCH | MARZO 2010

Interview with Mark Weiss, editor of The Whole Island|
Sixty Years of Cuban Poetry
(Univ. of California, 2009)
by Charlie Vázquez

I had the fortune of meeting Mark Weiss through a mutual friend in San Diego in 2004,
when I was living and working in Baja Norte, Mexico. I remember him discussing
translation projects involving Cuban poets and was impressed by his dedication to this
most mysterious brand of poetry, as it is no mystery to anyone paying attention that a lot
of Cuban art and literature does not leave the island. Fast forward. When I learned that
he was hosting a reading for The Whole Island (which includes over fifty Cuban poets
past and present), I did everything I could to go.   

The Whole Island: Sixty Years of Cuban Poetry is the first volume of its kind (in terms of
the amount of poetry and reference information it contains, 602 pages), and it’s been
published as a bilingual reader, with Spanish and English pages facing each other for
easy cross-referencing. Mark Weiss took a few minutes out of his busy schedule as a
poet, translator, and publisher to answer some questions regarding Cuba’s centuries-
old literary history, its tense political relations with the US, and how this has shaped a
highly-disciplined and colorful poetic legacy.


CV: You mention Cuba’s rich, 400-year-old
literary tradition in the book’s comprehensive
introduction and that Cuban poets were/are
.
.
It will probably be a while before Arenas’ fiction is published in Cuba.

It’s precisely the regime’s unpredictability, given its punitive actions in the past that acts as
the most powerful means of control. It’s in the nature of artists to test boundaries. For
Cuban artists where the boundaries are today is no clear indication of where they will be
tomorrow, and people are very careful. And no one ever forgets where the power lies.

I think it would be fair to say that the Revolution has been better for writing than for writers.
Among the first things that the regime did was a massive literacy campaign, and the stress
on education has continued, with the result that Cuba has one of the highest literacy rates
anywhere (higher than that of the US) and a superb free public education system, from
grade school through graduate and professional study, despite restrictions on information.
So there’s a large potential readership.

Another early effort was the establishment of a modern publishing industry. We tend to
forget that before the Revolution if a book of poems was published in Cuba it was by a
local printer at the writer’s expense. Despite chronic paper shortages, a plethora of
presses now turn out hundreds of books a year, and there are major literary periodicals
and cultural institutions.

The regime also established UNEAC, the union of artists and writers. Membership entitled
a poet to a monthly stipend—in effect, a salary for being a poet. Until the fall of the Soviet
Union that salary was close to a living wage. It goes without saying that all of these have
also been instruments of control. But they do help explain the immense flowering of poetry
on the island.


CV | As with any of the high arts, Cuba’s poetic legacy is dotted with colorful, queer
characters—who were often very “out”, despite the harsh repercussions this position often
invited. Many chose and still choose to keep their sexual orientations private. Did Cuba’s
oppression of queer persons help forge a “coded” homoerotic style in Cuban poetry, which
served as a channel through which poets could discuss
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sexual feelings and politics through ambiguous literary devices such as double-entendre
and allegory?

MW |  Another complex question, and difficult to answer without outing people who have
preferred to remain closeted, which is basically everyone.

Actually, there’s much more openness about being gay among people in their twenties
and younger, and the climate has clearly changed for the better—it’s now possible for the
transgendered to have sex-change operations under the national health service, for
instance. But the rule seems still to be that even those well-known as gay maintain the
fiction of being straight, although being gay has been legal since the late 80s and there’s
far less homophobic violence in Cuba than we’re used to in, say, the US. I know of several
poets who suffered as gays in the past but have been very high in the regime for twenty or
thirty years who make sure at first meeting that a stranger hears about their spouses and
children. And I know of a dissident writer of homosexual fiction who also remains in the
closet. There’s plenty of reason to be cautious, going back well before the Revolution, and
the Castro regime especially for its first eighteen years was pretty terrifying to gays. And I
think no one fully trusts today’s more open climate to continue—autocracies can change
their minds in a split second.

The only openly gay poet I can think of who is active in Cuba now is Antón Arrufat. Among
those of an earlier generation, José Lezama Lima and Virgilio Piñera were openly gay,
Piñera flamboyantly so. It got both of them in a lot of trouble. I’m not aware of any kind of
code for discussing sexuality, but I suppose that could be my naiveté. What’s pretty
common is taking advantage of the ambiguity of Spanish to write about gender without
using gendered pronouns—“su” can be his, hers, its or theirs—or by simply avoiding
gender identification. A good example is Baquero’s poem “The Wind in Trieste Told…,”
written entirely in the first person plural. The lovers are “we” or “us.”
Here’s an interesting case, the first stanza of a poem by Delfín Prats, written in the earliest
years after the Revolution, when things were relatively open.
.
Never return to the scenes of your happiness
to the island you and he crossed together
like Hadrian visiting his domains
with the Bithynian boy
(that sea with its black sand beaches
where his eyes would widen in astonishment
was just the invention of nostalgia)

The second, third and fourth lines indicate that the poem is homoerotic, but only to those
who know their Roman gossip. It reminds me of old books in which the dirty parts were in
Latin. But that presumably wasn’t obscure enough for Prats to feel safe, and he first
published the poem without those lines. They weren’t restored until 2002.

As to politics, particularly political complaints, Cuban poetry is full of it, and it’s variously
coded, sometimes even masquerading as memories of childhood, as in Ramón
Fernández Larrea’s “The Land of Elves.” I use Fernández Larrea’s poem as an example
because he’s been out of Cuba for fifteen years. I’m reluctant to draw examples from those
still on the island. It might be safe to do so, but the poets themselves aren’t so sure.


CV |  What do you suspect is the future for Cuban poets on the island, in light of the
changes slowly developing as Fidel creeps toward his end?

MW | A lot of people seem to think that things will change abruptly with Fidel’s death, but it’
s good to remember that there’s an entire power structure whose fortunes depend on the
status quo. But it’s clear that things are changing, and they probably will continue to do so.
Among the changes we’ve already seen is that membership in UNEAC has become so
unimportant that most poets don’t bother to apply. Another is that poets are very rarely
denied travel visas, allowing some of them to spend part of every year giving readings
elsewhere and bringing their
earnings home. I’d like to think that this represents an opening for more fundamental
change, but it probably means that the regime fears the words of its intellectuals and
artists less than it did and worries more about the impact on tourism of the bad publicity
that attends persecution. I suspect that, as in the former Soviet Union, poets, who once
enjoyed prestige even among those who couldn’t read them, will become less important
as political figures or lightning rods.


CV |  What was the most challenging aspect of compiling this amazing volume?

MW |  Lots of challenges, among them the logistics of securing permissions, which meant
figuring out how to reach the poets and their heirs. Sometimes a string of five or six
contacts finally yielded a viable email address or phone number. An even bigger challenge
was finding the books. Now a fair number of American universities are actively collecting
Cuban books, but when I started the holdings were meager. So I accumulated, through
luck and perseverance, my own library. Some of the books came from the used book
market on the Plaza de Armas in Havana, one through an old friend who for a long time
was the only non-Cuban bookseller working on the island, others came from bookstores in
Spain and Mexico, and a few from Lectorum, New York’s wonderful Spanish bookstore that
closed a few years ago.

The biggest challenge was mastering a field that I came to cold, with all the usual “yankee”
preconceptions. It was an amazing experience.


CV  | Are there any websites or other resources you can recommend for people who want
to know more about Cuban literature?

MW | Dozens, but very little in English. Here are two of the best from off-island.  

Encuento de la Cultura Cubana, a print journal with a great website,
http://www.cubaencuentro.com/.  It closed last year, but the site is still up, and all
.
of the 51 issues of the journal are downloadable. It’s produced in Spain. Check out its
enlaces for more sites.

La Habana Elegante, http://www.habanaelegante.com/, comes out of the US. Some of its
content is in English.

Two from the island,
Cuba Literaria, http://www.cubaliteraria.com/, and La Jiribilla, http:
//www.lajiribilla.cu, are both often surprisingly good, though the editorial content is
predictable.
La Jiribilla has a great list of enlaces.


Thanks, Mark!





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