LAWRENCE - From the declamadores of the early 20th century to today’s slam poets, a new book explores the importance of performing poetry throughout Spanish America.
In “Beyond the Page: Poetry and Performance in Spanish America,” University of Kansas Spanish professor Jill Kuhnheim examines poetry performers from New York City to Argentina.
Kuhnheim explores how poems have circulated by other means than the written text, such as public performances, radio shows and YouTube. While poetry is often associated with high literature, academics haven’t taken the performance of poetry as seriously, Kuhnheim said.
“I want to show people this is a popular realm of poetry, and that who performs it, how they do it and where they do it changes its meaning,” Kuhnheim said.
Latin America has a rich oral tradition, so even those who can’t read can often recite poetry. Kuhnheim points to Cuban cigar rollers who, throughout much of the 20th century, listened to readers in factories for entertainment. These illiterate workers would become familiar with novelists such as Dostoevsky and recognize the works of poets’ poets such as José Martí.
For her research, Kuhnheim read reviews from early 20th century journals and newspapers, letters and poetry anthologies. In particular, Kuhnheim was interested in declaiming poets, who in Spanish are known as declamadores. Performing poems with great passion, declamadores would attract large audiences in major auditoriums. While performers would recite the work of well-known poets, they often picked poems that are not popular today.
“The people performing were alternative cultural agents because they were making their own collections. The poems the public were going to know depended on what they decided,” Kuhnheim said. “Some of their poetry, nobody knows it or very few people pay attention to it. And some of it has passed over into popular culture.”
The book also examines how the performer’s race and gender influenced the interpretation of poetry. For instance, Berta Singerman, a famous Argentinian performer, starred in a film as a woman who recites Afro-Caribbean poetry in a Filipino bar. Another example is Eusebia Cosme, an Afro-Cuban woman with a radio show in New York who traveled throughout the country reciting Spanish poetry.
“People loved her work. They didn’t need to know Spanish to love her,” Kuhnheim said.
Through CDs, YouTube and poetry festivals, Kuhnheim looks at more contemporary work. Among the current performers Kuhnheim writes about is Mexican slam poet Rojo Córdova, who has performed everywhere from metro stations to slam poetry festivals. He also works with the government to teach slam poetry to youths.
Here's an example of his work.
“He shows what you can do with poetry,” Kuhnheim said.
Kuhnheim acknowledges the book is just a sampling of poetry performers in Spanish-speaking America. Her hope is that other scholars will build on her work.
“This is something that people often haven’t taken into account when they study poetry. And if they take it into account, it changes what we think poetry can do and what its role is in the world. It can be a much more popular genre than people imagine,” Kuhnheim said.