Sometimes Things Unravel: The Joys and Challenges of Spoken Word in Cuba

Here in Havana, dozens of poets, from countries as close as Mexico and as far away as Belgium, board a rusted yellow bus—a gua gua—to travel to the town of Artemisa for a performance. The poets have descended on Havana for the 4th annual Zonas Poeticas International Poetry Festival, organized by Caminos de Palabras, the sole organization on the island dedicated to supporting and promoting spoken word.

Rooftop in Old Havana
Rooftop in Old Havana

As we find our seats on the bus, Elier Alvarez, Caminos de Palabra’s director, jokes that the gua gua is equipped with air conditioning—meaning that today, most of its windows are open! The gua gua is rolling with laughter and vivacious conversation. English, Portuguese, Spanish, and Dutch can be heard over the bus’s creaking bones. Outside, the lush hillside seems to be greeting us: tall green palms wave in the wind. After an hour on the road, we arrive in Artemisa. We are late, but in Cuba time is a relative thing, operating according to its own logic; foreigners either adapt or are chronically frustrated.

Yellow gua gua—waiting to board in Vedado heading to Artemisa
Yellow gua gua—waiting to board in Vedado heading to Artemisa

In Artemisa, the dirt is red and the sun is scorching. The space where we are slated to perform is in extreme disrepair, undergoing construction, and lacks electricity. The local promoter of the event is not answering his phone. So we wait. Young B-boys from the neighborhood practice windmills on the polished concrete floor as the heat intensifies, and the group’s patience wears thin. After three hours of uncertainty, we learn that our show has been cancelled. Elier is fuming and embarrassed. He gathers the group to deliver a heartfelt apology for the way the situation has unfolded.

Breakdancers practice windmills in Artemisa
Breakdancers practice windmills in Artemisa

Those of us who have gone through the growing pains of building poetry and spoken word communities around the world know it is difficult. We know that sometimes things unravel. The festival’s main agenda is to discuss how poets in Cuba can grow as artists and continue to spread spoken word across the island, within the confines of what we are told is a tightly controlled society. Our Cuban friends explain that they are tired of rules, regulations, and content control blocking the development of their art. They discuss the difficulties of hosting regular public poetry events without the supervision of an official State agency. In Cuba, internet is still widely inaccessible, highly expensive, and heavily monitored. Without internet access, Cubans are marginalized from a world of information sharing, which also prohibits Cuban artists from sharing their work with a larger global audience.

Cuban poets discuss spoken word's place in Cuba's rich poetic tradition at the University of Havana during Zonas Poeticas
Cuban poets discuss spoken word’s place in Cuba’s rich poetic tradition at the University of Havana during Zonas Poeticas

Despite these obstacles, poetry in Havana continues to be a tool for resistance, community building, and identity expression. We foreign poets are told that spoken word in Cuba is an underground art form that challenges the status quo, much like Cuban hip hop. Elier wants Zonas Poeticas to serve as a megaphone from which Cuban poetry can be amplified to the world, but first, he wants Cubans themselves to hear it. As he finishes his apology, poets from Brazil, Mexico, Belgium, and the United States huddle around him, hug him, and remind him that spoken word cannot be confined to stages, or books, or microphones.

Poets participate in a breakout session at the University of Havana for the Zonas Poeticas Spoken Word Festival
Poets participate in a breakout session at the University of Havana for the Zonas Poeticas Spoken Word Festival

Poetry has an inherent ability to bring people together. Since 2012, well before the conciliatory handshake between Barack Obama and Raul Castro was broadcast, a small delegation of U.S.-born Latino poets and writers, Spoken Word Poetas en La Habana (SWPH), has been traveling to Cuba to work with Caminos de Palabras. Acutely aware of the travel privilege afforded by U.S. passports, the delegation was formed by my friend and mentor, Paul S. Flores, and has included some of the most accomplished young poets in the U.S., such as Aja Monet, Mayda del Valle, and Pamela Arriera. Since the Zonas Poeticas festival was launched in 2012, the spoken word scene in Havana has grown exponentially, and the exchange between Cuban and foreign poets has been mutually beneficial. Caminos de Palabras has produced a DVD of live performances, hosted events year-round, and developed a network of poets that connect regularly.

Poets, Rumberos, and kids hanging out at the famous Callejon de Hamel in Centro Habana
Poets, Rumberos, and kids hanging out at the famous Callejon de Hamel in Centro Habana

Due to the recent loosening of travel restrictions, SWPH is now able to fly to Cuba directly from the United States. Regardless of governments and changing politics, there will always be people. Our friends in Cuba are people. Their stories deserve to be heard from their own mouths and in their own words. Fundraising efforts have allowed SWPH to provide our Cuban contemporaries with cameras and data storage devices that aid them in continuing their work. SWPH is partnering with Caminos de Palabras to produce the first documentary ever made about spoken word in Cuba. A poetry exchange program is also in the works, which will allow more U.S. poets to visit Cuba and, eventually, will allow SWPH to host Cuban poets for artistic residencies in the U.S.

Sunset in Centro Habana
Sunset in Centro Habana

In the red-dirt streets of Artemisa, the huddle of poets suddenly transforms into a river of bodies. We begin flowing, inviting the community to follow us to the town square. When we arrive, a drum summons us into a circle of sacred space. Residents of the town gradually begin to join us. Poems are read, people are smiling, and it is evident that spoken word has arrived in Cuba.

Poets participate in a public performance in Artemisa's town square
Poets participate in a public performance in Artemisa’s town square

Bobby LeFebre is an award-winning spoken word artist, actor/playwright, and social worker. He is a two-time Grand Slam Champion, a National Poetry Slam Finalist, an Individual World Poetry Slam Finalist, and a two-time TEDx speaker. LeFebre has performed poetry at hundreds of cultural events and colleges and universities across the United States and abroad. He is the author of a collection of poems titled Codex in Flower and Song, and is founder of Cafe Cultura, a non-profit that uses poetry as a tool for youth development. In 2008, he received the Cesar Chavez Peace and Justice Award.

11.23.15 by Bobby LeFebre