Magazine article Americas (English Edition)

The Little House of Muses

Magazine article Americas (English Edition)

The Little House of Muses

Article excerpt

It used to be said of Bogota that when two gentlemen met in the street, they would, instead of greetings, exchange verses. Since that time, the Colombian capital has grown from a provincial-minded town into a metropolis of six million, beset, like any other, by pollution, crime and urban sprawl. But the bogotanos are still passionate about poetry. One proof of it is the success of its Casa de Poesia Silva--a unique center for recitals, lectures, conferences and workshops exclusively dedicated to that art.

Throughout the year, thousands of bogotanos receive, through the mail, a weekly invitation to a recital bearing a photo and a verse of the honored poet. Far from being elite (admission is free), the public represents a cross-section of the city's population, with the great majority being under thirty. Hundreds turn up every week for small and large events. When the modest recital hall cannot cope, the poetry lovers spill out into the corridors or stand on chairs to hear the verses.

The Casa Silva's sole function, says director Maria Mercedes Carranza, is to promote the study of poetry, whatever its origins, and to create a space where the Colombian public can enjoy the muse. While delivered in Spanish and largely devoted to contemporary Latin America poetry, the recitals and lectures cover many languages and periods. The center also has an extensive library and a collection of 1,000 tape recordings of verses, many in the poet's own voice, including those of Apollinaire and Dylan Thomas. During my visit to the tape library, a group of youngsters with headphones were utterly engrossed listening to the children's rhymes which also form part of this collection.

The Casa Silva was the last home of Colombia's great poet, Jose Asuncion Silva, a precursor of modernism who committed suicide at the age of 31, in what is now the center's office. His refined and sensitive spirit despaired of the narrow, philistine ambient of late nineteenth-century Bogota, especially after his two years in Paris, where he had absorbed the latest currents of French symbolism and incorporated them into Latin American literature. The bankruptcy of the family store he was forced to run, and the early death of his sister, may have played their part in his demise as well.

The Silva residence, built in 1720 and remodelled a century later, is one of the best examples of the traditional Bogota architecture of La Candelaria, the city's historic Spanish-Colonial district. Built around an open courtyard, the house is a jumble of ornate period rooms with high ceilings, glass doors, chandeliers and decorative stone columns and plasterwork. It evokes a time when, in a city of adobe houses and muddy streets trod by mules and barefoot Indians, a small band of cultivated bohemians gathered by candlelight to read their verses over a glass of wine.

The center's founder and director, Maria Mercedes Carranza, is a poet herself and the daughter of the distinguished Colombian poet, the late Eduardo Carranza. A friendly, unpretentious, round-faced woman, she administers the poetry house with an admirable calm and efficiency. When I ask her whether poetry is relevant nowadays, Maria Mercedes measures her words but her eyes light up as she leaps to its defence: "There has always been a great interest in poetry in Colombia; it's a national trait. Some say that it's a way of evading the violent reality of our country, but I think it's just the opposite. In a situation where the most fundamental human rights are being violated every day, people need something with which to remind themselves that the right to love, to life, to beauty still exists and so they cling ever more fiercely to poetry."

The Casa Silva was founded in 1986, thanks in part to Maria Mercedes, who was then a journalist and filled a last-minute "hole" in her paper with a plea to buy and restore the building, which had become a decrepit lodging house. The modest article generated an immediate response and with support from then Colombian president, Belisario Betancur, La Corporacion de la Candelaria purchased Silva's home. …

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