One way to understand why often culture thrives in times of adversity is that artists are forced to acknowledge that complacency might bring about their demise and hence have no alternative but to take matters into their own hands. When there is a system in place to secure artistic opportunities, it’s easier to succumb to the temptations of navel-gazing. In the Mexico of the ‘90s, for instance, despite the turbulence of the post-Salina years; the appalling rise of crime and kidnappings, partially due to generalized corruption, the ever-wider gap between the have and have-nots, and to the drug trade; and the emergence of indigenous movements and the uprising of the neo-Zapatista army, it was hard to find poetry that addressed any of these issues either directly or indirectly. One would have thought the time was ripe for a new type of socially-committed work, yet what might have hindered this possibility was that writers of all stripes then had the possibility of requesting grants and publishing funds from the National Fund for Art & Culture (FONCA), and that a vast majority, at some point or another, received some kind of support. Nowadays Mexico might be one of the few countries where there are more writers than readers. It might sound like an exaggeration, but it is not unlikely to be under 35 and have 3 or 4 published books to one’s credit. Although the first democratic elections in over 75 years took place six years ago, since Vicente Fox was elected, things have slowly gone downhill in terms of governmental support for the arts. A lot of the people that were appointed to major positions at cultural institutions lacked experience and had little credibility amongst intellectuals and artists. President Fox’s most memorable faux pas was getting the first name wrong and mispronouncing the last name of the über-Latin American writer of all times: “José Luis Borgues,” he said, putting on airs. Luckily the long-standing tradition of not having to worry about whether writing and publishing poetry is financially viable continues. What has changed is the way people fund their projects. A noteworthy group of mostly women poets, led by Carla Faesler and Rocío Cerón, have greatly contributed to redefine poetic practice among a younger generation of poets in Mexico. Under the collective Motín Poeta (which, by the way, sounds better in Spanish than Poets Mutiny, its English translation) they have consistently aimed at pushing the boundaries of what poetic activity might constitute, acknowledging that being forced to operate under an alternative, even informal, economy can prove incredibly invigorating. They have embraced a new economy and have devised strategies to thrive in it. If distribution of books of contemporary poetry is not optimal, why not organize parties/ art exhibitions / book fairs/ electronic music extravaganzas every so often in order to give exposure to new titles? (A year ago I attended one of these all-day parties on the rooftop of a museum in Mexico City: many books I had been looking for in bookstores to no avail were there.)The scene is ultimately small, so it’s not impossible to congregate a vast number of the city’s musicians, artists, poets, and filmmakers at once. If Motín Poeta had a founding manifesto (perhaps they do, but I’m not aware of it), I imagine some of its exhortations would be of the following ilk:

* Away with the victim’s rhetoric and the constant whining about the fact that people don’t read poetry!

* Away with the solipsism that characterizes so much poetic production today!

* Away with poetry’s inferiority complex! If poetry isn’t dance music, if poetry isn’t cutting-edge contemporary art, force poets to join the party and engage in cross-pollination experiments!

So far, Motín Poeta has put out the CD Urbe Probeta pairing electronic musicians with poets in order to explore the mammoth city’s soundscape, and is working on another CD in which poets and New Music composers collaborate on pieces based on the different stages of life. Although there’s great energy behind the first CD, some of the pieces it features feel a little too much like superimpositions of musical tracks and recordings of poets reading in a conventional way. The second project seems much tighter in the sense that music and voice are integrated to the point that they become indistinguishable. Another project they are currently working on is the commissioning of collaborations between visual artists and poets for an art exhibition and book to be released next year.

Perhaps the most relevant project so far in terms of its range is Rocío Cerón’s press El Billar de Lucrecia. Its mandate is to publish fifteen books (one per billiard ball) to be distributed in, among other countries, Mexico, Perú, Chile, and Argentina. Each one will be by a different Latin American poet born in the ‘60s or ‘70s, and is funded by corporations and private donors. Unfortunately this had been sort of unprecedented south of the Rio Grande, where poetry and even fiction books by contemporary authors that could be easily bought in, for instance, Buenos Aires, are rarely seen at Mexican bookstores, and if they are available, it’s at prohibitive prices. So far three titles have been released: Hatuchay by Argentine Washington Cucurto, Multicancha by Chilean Germán Carrasco, and Los amores del mal by Cuban Damaris Calderón.

Washington Cucurto, whose outrageous pseudonym seems straight out of a García Márquez novel, is quite a dynamic figure in his own right. If you have doubts on a socially and politically-minded rhetoric and its translation into a practice that might actually have impact on society, he’s the guy to keep your eye on. Over three years ago he and a group of poets founded the press Eloísa Cartonera in Buenos Aires. Their motto: to fight against social exclusion. And their premise couldn’t be more exquisitely simple: during the direst of Argentina’s recent economic depressions, entire families were forced into alternate forms of labor in exchange for below-minimum wages. A trade that became popular was gathering cardboard and selling it for 30 cents per kilo to recyclers; those who engaged in this are known as cartoneros. The members of Eloísa Cartonera came up with the idea of having the covers of the Xeroxed chapbooks and books they produce be made of cardboard bought from cartoneros at a decent $1.50 per kilo instead. At the workshop where they assemble the books they also employ some of the cartoneros in the cutting of the cardboard and the hand-painting of the covers. (No two are the same!) So far they’ve published hundreds of books, many by emerging authors and many too by major Argentine writers such as the novelists César Aira and Ricardo Piglia and the poets Arturo Carrera and the amazing Néstor Perlongher, who once wrote that “in the market of linguistic exchanges, where meanings are accounted for in terms of fixed and legitimized signifiers, [poetry] alters everything, causes a brawl: as if a gypsy fair barged into the gray chaos of the stockmarket.”

To finish up, a poem by Washintgon Cucurto which appears in Hatuchay and elaborates on the notion of poetry as an informal economy. (My translation.)

All Colors, All Models, All Sizes

These three things we’ve got to yell at them always
since one never knows what goes through the passer-by’s mind
the one passing by, you never know if he listens to you or not,
I’m sure nobody is listening to anything,
this is a country of deaf ears,
but whoever listens buys.
“Whoever listens believes,” these words
are the bible for those of us who street-peddle,
they transmit confidence, trust,
make people feel you’ve got what they need.
The word, we peddlers have the last word,
we never ought to stop talking, repeating, hawking,
among the millions of passers-by there’s always one who listens,
this is the nature of street-vending, one works with 0.01 percent of a million
which is a lot.
That 0.01 is our daily bread.
That 0.01 on the street of Desperate Trudging rocks.
We’ve got our freedom, we look at the sun;
we see the best asses pass by every morning.
All colors, all models, all sizes,
that’s our abysmal crutch, to hawk all day
until our eardrums bleed, we sell the Obelisk, the moon,
the ocean on a cart.
The ice-cream man will always tell you he sells.
The coffee-vendor will tell you he sells everything he’s got.
Those of us on the street always break the stock anyway…
One’s got to sell, get rid of merchandise however one can.
Who goes out to the street will tell you that people buy,
and on top of it all, that it’s the nice people who buy.
The truth is that merchandise is forced onto anyone, at whatever the cost.
If we want or not to believe them is beside the point, we’re 0.01 of their chance
to remain on the street anyway.

Originally Published: May 31st, 2006

Poet, translator, and scholar Mónica de la Torre was born and raised in Mexico City. She earned a BA from the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México and, with the support of a Fulbright scholarship, relocated to New York in 1993 to pursue an MFA and a PhD in Spanish literature...