Of Poetry and Pilgrimage: Queer Writers Staying Hopeful in Madrid
At the Unamuno Author Series Festival, Poets Reckon
with Looming Fascism
Here in Madrid, just like all over the world, that which is spiritual and that which is queer have a long and complicated relationship. One aspect that they share is the urge to gather, to take a hidden thing—a feeling, a belief, an aspect of the self—and make it into something visible, to express it without fear. It’s about the need to gather with other souls, share and affirm those feelings, discuss what it all means, and try to restructure the world in a way that makes it feel somehow more right, more like a home. More than anything else, it’s also about love.
Earlier this summer, on the first night of the Unamuno Author Series Festival, the international bookstore Desperate Literature was so packed that many of us spilled out onto the sidewalk and street beyond, listening intently as poems mixed with the sounds of the occasional car engine and multilingual chatting of passers-by. Probably about half of the crowd were multiple hours jet-lagged, with their hours mixed up in that strange sensation of being at sea. This seemed to heighten the strange way that time often passes during poetry readings, with the regular rhythm of seconds and minutes replaced by strings of sounds and pauses, the shifting of papers, the breath of the person next to you.
In many ways, poetry readings can feel like a kind of ritual practice, a capital-c Communion. Layla Benitez-James opens her introduction to the festival’s bilingual anthology—a collection of poems from past and present participants—with an acknowledgment of this special feeling: “If, as Simone Weil tells us, absolutely unmixed attention is prayer, it would be difficult to call the gatherings in trilingual bookshop Desperate Literature, nestled in the heart of Madrid, a mere poetry series.” The strong sense of spirituality that permeated this festival was no coincidence; the series’ founder, the American poet Spencer Reece, is also an Anglican priest serving at Madrid’s Catedral del Redentor. “I go all over the place…” he said to the audience that Thursday, gathering his thoughts at the ceremony awarding the García Lorca Prize for an Emerging Latinx Poet at the historic Residencia de Estudiantes, slightly frazzled and bubbling with enthusiasm, “…that’s the Holy Spirit.”
The key narrative for the series’ organizers was the Civil War-era friendship between two Spanish historical figures: Miguel de Unamuno, a poet and writer, and Rev. Atilano Coco, a priest who, like Spencer, was serving in the Anglican church. They supported each other in a time when it was dangerous to be outspoken intellectuals, especially non-Catholic ones. Rachel Schmidt, from the University of Calgary, explored the context behind this historic friendship in her talk, “Can We in History Still Live?” This question, “¿Cómo podemos vivir dentro de la historia?” in the original Spanish, comes from a poem of Unamuno’s. It’s a question that poets often pose indirectly: How do we, as individuals, participate in the grand narrative of history? This poetry festival, where queerness and spirituality were allowed to freely and lovingly mingle, was a serendipitous gathering for the asking of such questions.It might sound sentimental, but sometimes sentiment is where you have to start.
The Unamuno Author Series began as a single reading organized among friends in the small courtyard of the cathedral. The story that follows was repeated several times over the course of the festival; for me, it began to acquire the golden glow of a creation myth. It starts with March 27, 2012, the day of Adrienne Rich’s death. Spencer always includes this detail when he tells it, a touchstone of history mixed with grief. His friend, the Cuban-American poet Richard Blanco, was upset by this news and more generally despairing over the perceived unpopularity of poetry at the time, so Spencer invited him to read at the cathedral to cheer him up. It was an intimate affair of about a dozen souls. The following year, Blanco would go on to read at the 2013 Obama inauguration in front of millions; meanwhile, that one-off reading in Madrid flourished into what would be called the Unamuno Author Series.
Blanco’s legacy as the first openly gay poet and first Latinx poet to read at a U.S. presidential inauguration is a fitting heritage for the Unamuno Author Series Festival, which places a special emphasis on lifting up the voices of poets from these overlapping communities. It also made history as the first anglophone literary festival of this scale in Spain, with more than 80 poets, scholars, translators, and artists participating in the programming. While the festival was “anglophone” in the context of the Madrid literary scene, it was in fact gloriously bilingual. Dialogues among poets, translators, and language-learners-in-progress were a major part of the programming and extra-curricular conversations. For some poets, Jorge Vessel’s Spanish translation for the anthology was the first time their work had ever been translated for publication.
But why Unamuno?
Miguel de Unamuno is especially known for a verbal confrontation with one of Franco’s generals, Millán-Astray, in which he burst out with the defiant line, “You will conquer, but you will not convince” (“Venceréis, pero no convenceréis”). That day—October 12, 1936—at a ceremony celebrating the anniversary of the “discovery” of America, Unamuno carried with him a letter from Coco’s wife, who was begging for his help in the effort to have her husband released from imprisonment by the Fascists. It was on the back of this envelope that Unamuno scribbled the notes for his response to Millán-Astray (“vencer y convencer”). It might sound sentimental, but sometimes sentiment is where you have to start.
In the spirit of pilgrimage, the weekend before the festival began, a group of participants traveled to Salamanca to visit Unamuno’s home and see these handwritten materials in the flesh. There was also an element of pilgrimage intrinsic to the festival itself: the lectures and panels took place at the Residencia de Estudiantes, a cultural hub of Madrid that is known as the heart of the generations of ‘98 and ‘27, constellations of writers and artists that have become historically associated those years (1898 and 1927). Associated with the former generation, Unamuno was known to stay at the Residencia when in Madrid; members of the younger generation, including Lorca and Dalí, also lived and created at the Residencia.
A whole Fascist dictatorship later, the space is once again a thriving cultural center. It was also the setting for several other portions of the festival, including the presentation of the García Lorca Prize for an Emerging Latinx Poet—co-presented by Laura García-Lorca, the niece of Federico—to the winner, Steven Sanchez.The title of the poem, “Todo será el corazón” (“The Heart Will Be Everything”), could be equally at home as a slogan in a pride parade and in an interpretation of the Gospels.
How is a poem like a pilgrimage? Every word has a tract of history behind it, a heritage of repetition, all the ways in which it’s been used before. Even newly invented words participate in the push and pull of ever-continuous change and, by necessity, certain returns to familiarity. In pilgrimage, a place that isn’t home assumes home-like sacredness; in this way, a poem is like a pilgrimage because it blends otherness into oneness and community. This spirit, combined with the humble and easily underestimated theme of “friendship,” grew over the course of the week into a renewed sense of what a literary community can mean and do.
As the festival continued, it was hard to ignore the now-familiar brand of political anxiety that quietly ran through the current of readings and talks, that feeling of utter smallness when facing the interconnected behemoths of racism, homophobia, patriarchy, and the list goes on. So how do these poets stay hopeful? How do they keep writing and celebrating all their beautiful forms of otherness?
The poet and playwright Federico García Lorca was, naturally, another major figure of the festival’s narrative. While 34 years Unamuno’s junior, Lorca was still a contemporary of Unamuno and Coco. In 1936, the year of the Spanish Fascist uprising, Lorca and Coco were both assassinated in August and December, respectively; Unamuno himself died soon after Coco while under house arrest. Throughout the festival, the repetition of their stories also felt like a kind of prayer, their stories retold and names invoked with love.
Leslie Harkema of Yale University gave a talk in which she spoke about Unamuno’s legacy among the writers of Lorca’s generation. Among other details, we learned that Lorca penned one of his poems inside the pages of his personal copy of Unamuno’s essays. The title of the poem, “Todo será el corazón” (“The Heart Will Be Everything”), could be equally at home as a slogan in a pride parade and in an interpretation of the Gospels. For Lorca—a queer icon of Spain’s literary legacy who lived and died at a time of cultural crossroads—it was another chance to put a piece of himself into the world, a chance to take the intellectual and spiritual tools of the previous generation, add his own marks, and then pass them forward.
In Unamuno’s 1895 essay “La tradición eterna” (“The Eternal Tradition”), he outlines his model of intrahistoria, the idea that the “silent lives” of marginalized people—especially the laborers of rural Spain, in this context—form the true foundation of history’s movements, the inner-history. To illustrate what he means by intrahistoria, Unamuno evokes imagery of the deep ocean currents, invisible and uncontained, comparing the straightforward cause-and-effect of recorded history in textbooks and monuments to the surface of the ocean. The real driving force of historical change is thus inextricably linked to the everyday life and labor that cycles through generations. Like pilgrimage itself, this “eternal tradition” finds its core in the actions of unknown individuals, and those actions gain significance through repetition and generational transmission.
One of the festival’s featured poets, Jericho Brown, also explores layers of meaning within the word “tradition” in his most recent collection, The Tradition. The “tradition” here is the repetitive reinforcement of marginalization, especially in the form of police brutality against black men in the United States; however, at the same time, Jericho participates in a tradition of resistance in the form of telling stories, and in an oral tradition of repeating the names of those unjustly murdered by the people holding illegitimate power. The deep waves of the “eternal tradition” continue to flow into the next generation. Partly thanks to the efforts of poets, activists, and everyday people using the cameras on their cell phones, these waves are gradually becoming more visible, although visibility does not equate to solving the problems.
Sheila Maldonado, another of the festival’s featured poets, writes in her poem “winter zuihitsu”: “there is survival of a genocide in the blood memory. does that make us as afloat / as we are today? […] what if you lost your gods? or are just finding them?” The poets of the Unamuno Author Series Festival seem to be interrogating “blood memory” and finding their gods, but the feeling of belonging to a “eternal” struggle can be exhausting. Spain, like the United States, has seen a recent re-emergence of hyper-nationalism and the extreme right. Meanwhile, there also lingers the undeniable context of violent imperialism that continues to shape the linguistic and cultural connections between Spain and the Spanish-speaking communities of the Americas. In this way, the many interconnected narratives of the festival stretch out into a grand macro-historical context that extends hundreds of years before Unamuno’s time.
When accepting the García Lorca Prize, Steven Sanchez expressed the hope that while in Spain he could work on learning the Spanish language of his Mexican heritage. He had never learned it as a child largely due to the combination of xenophobic and racist pressures on his family to assimilate in the United States. Maybe a poem is also like a pilgrimage in the way that it begins with the urge to go somewhere, or to learn something. Both are more like gestures than they are like monuments; both engage with that ever-flowing narrative of intermingling repetition and change. Perhaps most importantly, they are both ways in which the realm of sentiment can reach out into the realm of actions and change. It’s about outward and tangible expressions of the love that structures our communities, holding onto the hope that we can honor our histories without repeating them.