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We poets in our youth…

10 April 2007

Miami, Buenos Aires, Madrid, Barcelona… all hip in their separate ways, but none of them even close to being the center of the Hispanic world, that Mexico City was (and I think still is) from the 1930s until at least the 1980s.  As the center of a “revolutionary, modernist” society in the 1920s, la Capital was an alternative for the international avante-garde who found Paris too pretentious and Berlin too sinister. 

With Franco taking power in Spain, the center of Hispanic culture moved to Mexico by default.  It was already the largest Spanish-speaking city in the Americas, and there was no future for artists on the Peninsula (One of Federico García Lorca’s murderers allegedly told the poet’s family, “Of course we had to kill him.  He was a poet, and deserved to die.”).  Mexico was relatively free, and broadly tolerant in cultural matters.  It became a magnet for all-Spanish speaking artists, and was immensely enriched in the 1970s by the South American exiles. 

One of those South Americans loose in Mexico City was the Chilean poet and comic novelist, Roberto Bolaños, who died in Barcelona at age 50 in 2003.  Mexican poet and novelist Carmen Boullosa wrote an elegant memoir of the radical poet for The Nation, and — incidentally — a hilarious look at Mexico’s literati during the golden age:

When I stepped into the literary scene in Mexico City, clutching my first sheaf of poems and hoping to write many more, it was clear in a flash that the young poets had drawn their battle lines. It was 1974; the city’s golden years were drawing to a close.

… poets of my generation … aligned themselves with pre-existing enemy camps. One camp admired the demotic poet Efraín Huerta, famous for his “minipoems” packed with humor and nerve. The other looked to an exquisite magazine, Plural, published by the cosmopolitan intellectual and future Nobel laureate Octavio Paz

 

It was the street-smart types versus the aesthetes: Not that either camp corresponded exactly to its label. Paz and Huerta were descended from the same Mexican literary tradition. Both were born in 1914; they were of Juan Rulfo’s generation. As young men, at the end of the 1930s, they had co-edited the magazine Taller (Workshop). But over the years they had drifted apart. Literary and political differences had arisen between them. Paz had denounced Communism and broken with the Cuban Revolution. Efraín had not. Paz’s people said the Efrainites were Stalinists. The Efrainites called the Octavians reactionaries. Neither tag was entirely accurate. Their hostilities and affinities were both more and less complex than the insults implied.

The young Efrainite poets got around the city on foot, or by bus; they were iconoclastic and attended workshops; in bookstores they scrutinized, read and stole the merchandise; they carried satchels, had long hair and wore huarache sandals with soles made from car tires; they published here and there and spent hours in the downtown cafes, especially Café La Habana, and various seedy bars. The young Octavian poets criticized one another’s poems fiercely, in the same cafes as the Efrainites, at neighboring tables; they bought or stole books from the stores, carried satchels, had long hair and almost always wore sandals; they got around the city on foot, or by bus, or in their friends’ cars; and they published in the Octavian magazines and literary supplements.

The literary world was small and close-knit, and we lived from party to party, if you count all the readings, lectures, openings and gatherings in cafes. We saw each other all the time. I’m going to recall five such parties, between 1973 and 1976:

The first was the launch of a book by Efraín Huerta, published by Juan Pascoe. Pascoe’s big house in the Mixcoac neighborhood was full of people. The Efrainites sang, or rather bawled, rancheras and boleros. The Infrarealists stood firm beside “the barrel of pulque we had brought, and a twenty-five-kilo Mennonite cheese we had lugged from the market at La Merced.” …

The second was the launch of a book by Octavio Paz, also published by Pascoe, with a host of Octavians in attendance. Pascoe’s house buzzed with conversation. Instead of pulque, there were toritos to drink: ninety-six-proof alcohol with rice milk or (for the suicidal) peanut milk. With my own eyes I saw a group of Infrarealists (mission: sabotage) throw the contents of a glass over Paz (very smartly dressed, in an elegant blazer), who shook out his tie and continued the conversation with a smile, as if nothing had happened.

Huerta died in 1982, Paz in 1998.  Café la Habana at the corner of Morelos and Bucarelli, isn’t quite the place it once was.  The food and coffee are still great, but it attracts more newsmen — and tourists –than full-time starving poets these days. Like everyone — and everything — else these days, it has its own blog: http://cafelahabana.blogspot.com/

cafe-habana.jpg

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