MANAGUA – Few countries celebrate poets as their national heroes. While most Latin American countries raise statues to mustachioed generals, or sword-waving liberators, Nicaraguans pay proud homage to a bookish, hard-drinking man of the quill.
Rubén Darío, a turn-of-the-century writer, poet, diplomat and infamous boozer, is the country’s most durable national icon – one that the Sandinistas, the Liberals and the Conservatives can all agree on.
Darío is one of those luminous writers who managed to define not only his own nation’s literature, but also that of the entire Spanish-speaking world. He left Nicaragua with a literary tradition that has transcended politics, war and natural disaster over the last century.
The dizzying height of his international reputation has cast an unshakable shadow, encouraging and humbling young Nicaraguan writers since his death 90 years ago.
What his legacy means today, though, is up for debate.
“Rubén Darío has been adored, he has been loved, but now he is taken as an article of faith,” said Helena Ramos, a poet and journalist based in Managua. “He has become an idea, and one little read at that.”
At a time when the nation faces so many challenges, Ramos said, it is difficult for Nicaragua to maintain a vibrant connection to its own literary tradition.
“People are forced to decide what they’re going to do – are they going to buy a book, or are they going to buy rice?” she said. “It’s not a difficult decision to make.”
Ramos points out that children’s books sell for $10, usually far more expensive than those for adults, making it hard to inculcate a literary tradition in young people.
“With a television, you buy it once, and then it works forever,” she said.
Without a national lending-library system to counter television’s ubiquitous influence, it’s not surprising that illiteracy rates here have slid to among the worst in Latin America in recent years. A United Nations report released earlier this year found that 30% of adults cannot read – a challenge the Sandinista government is hoping to improve with a nationwide literacy campaign.
Yet despite the respect the government pays to Darío’s legacy, Ramos says that it spends little money supporting literature where it counts most. The University of Central America (UCA) – one of the last bastions of the country’s literary elite – recently eliminated its humanities programs, making the situation still more challenging.
“A lot of writers used to work in the universities,” Ramos said. “Now, it’s much more difficult to find a job there. In Chile, in Mexico, there are fellowships and artists funds. Here, there is no support. You can’t make a living publishing.”
But all is not so bleak.
Gioconda Belli, an award-winning Nicaraguan poet and author whose works are widely available in English, noted that poetry and literature here has come to rely on an elaborate private finance network.
She pointed to the Granada International Poetry Festival, an annual event since 2004, as an example of a grassroots success.
“What is remarkable about this festival is that it is an independent initiative organized and directed by independent poets and financed by donations from private companies,” she said in an e-mail message, adding that the government’s support for the event is “small, if any.”
“I think that in spite of the lack of any governmental support for literature, in Nicaragua there’s always enthusiasm for poetry,” she said.
Budding Young Pens
Youthful examples of that enthusiasm abound.
Juan Sobalvarro, a journalist and author, helped start a small literary journal and publishing house, 400 Elefantes, in 1996.
The company has since published 15 titles, though the journal has not been published for several years.
“I believe that the conditions for a writer are always difficult,” Sobalvarro said. “Now, there is not a stimulating environment, but nevertheless, [literature] persist through the will of the writers.”
Sobalvarro said he is excited by the number of young writers who have recently emerged, though he, like Ramos, is disappointed about the closure of UCA’s humanities programs.
“UCA had a very strong profile in literature,” he said. “After it closed, it lost that position. Still, we are not lost entirely. There are groups of young writers who are always looking for alternatives.”
This past September, Voces Nocturnas (Nocturnal Voices), a group of a dozen writers, most of whom are still in university, published the first edition of a self-titled journal – a 40-page booklet of poems and essays in a plain-brown cover.
“We funded it with our own money,” said Delena Arias, 20, a poet and the group’s design editor. “Most of us are students and we’re still just starting out. The university can’t provide financing, so we raised it ourselves.” Despite their youth, the group has an ambitious agenda.
“We are open to every form of literary art,” said Carlos Martínez, 20. “We want to create something that is our own; we don’t refuse any genre.”
At a recent poetry reading in a Managua art gallery, Arias and Martínez read their own works aloud; passionate sincere poems addressing the day-to-day challenges facing Nicaragua (see side box).
Ramos is encouraged by the appearance of such groups of young writers, but skeptical that it means that Nicaragua’s largely moribund publishing scene is reawakening.
“Every seven years or so a new generation will appear,” she said. “Sure, some of them stick with it, but many will eventually leave literature – it’s so difficult to get published.”
In any case, many of the young writers have back-up plans.
Both Arias and Martínez are studying computer engineering.
“I’m not really sure why,” Arias admits, referring to her elected field of study. “I may be in the wrong major.”
Bureaucracy in the DGI (Tax Office)
By Delena Arias
Time, slow, suffocates me
and condemns me to wait in long lines
time that should be for leisure, lost
in the bureaucracy of such an inefficient system.
servile resources of the bourgeois state
squandered on the bureaucracy of inept government
of corrupt leaders.
I continue waiting
that the electric energy returns
that the clerks pay attention
that the line advances
I continue in a useless and permanent wait.
I shout and I hear only echoes
I complain before no one
I refuse the luxury of the state
toward the misery of the people.
I refuse the clerks that ignore
the thin hands that extend
I continue waiting
the line does not advance
poverty does not exist
the line and poverty are myths.