Memory of Brazilian poetry

Image: Kartick Chandra Pyne
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By SERGIO COHN*

Opening speech of the Brazilian Poetry Memory project, at the National Library Foundation, on May 27, 2024

As this is the first event of the Memória da Poesia Brasileira project, it is important to make a quick presentation. But, first of all, I would like to thank the president of the National Library Foundation, the poet and academic Marco Lucchesi, and the general coordinator Verônica Lessa, for having so enthusiastically embraced this project, which is of the greatest importance.

The Memória da Poesia Brasileira project, curated by Sergio Cohn, is an institutional proposal to create a collection of public testimonies for posterity, audiovisual records of poets reciting their own texts and donation of manuscripts by important contemporary authors. The testimonies will be monthly and free, held in the Machado de Assis Auditorium of the National Library, and will be broadcast live and will also be available on the National Library's pages.

There is also a proposal to generate derivative products, such as podcast, poetry records and books. The intention is to be an ongoing project, following the National Library's agenda and creating a broad panorama of contemporary Brazilian poetry. The project also allows expanding the Library's collection in other media, such as audio and audiovisual. This shows the attention of the current management of the president of the National Library Foundation, the poet and academic Marco Lucchesi, in discussing what a collection is when new technologies create other supports. Today, much of what is published about poetry is not on paper, and new forms of collection need to be created to protect this content for future memory.

It is important to highlight the institutional content of the project. Public cultural policies for poetry are rare, or even practically non-existent. When they occur, they are especially around book publishing notices. Exactly the area least in need of this important artistic language: currently, with technological advances that allow printing in short runs or on demand, publishers are multiplying and launching a huge number of new titles every year.

In total, we can estimate that several hundred new poetry titles are published annually. But then the term “publish” itself comes into question: wouldn’t it mean bringing it to the public? How many of these published books reach more than one or two dozen readers, within a still private circle of family and friends? Certainly very few. Of course, it's still better than leaving the originals stored in a drawer. However, to effectively publish a book, a series of actions are necessary, including editing, dissemination and circulation, which end up not being carried out. The market itself does not have the capacity to accommodate this immense amount of new titles. To paraphrase Caetano Veloso, “who reads so much poetry?” It ends up being just a long tail that barely constitutes a readership or a consistent exchange between poets.

In fact, it is necessary to debate the Brazilian publishing market, which is facing an immense crisis. Not just financial, but the internal relationship between its various agents. I usually say that the Brazilian publishing market has turned Drummond's circle upside down: the author hates the publisher who hates the bookstore who hates the reader who doesn't even care about it because they don't even know what a book is. Any public policy in the name of literature needs to review this situation.

Another factor is that even these meager incentive policies for poetry are carried out through notices and awards, instruments that, instead of encouraging sharing, the creation of common spaces and collective and open initiatives and dialogue between culture makers, it does the opposite, encouraging competition and exclusion among peers. In addition to being instruments that do not enable the creation of long-term, continuous and consequential cultural policies, remaining in the logic of current events and agendas.

There is also another little-noticed dimension of these instruments, which is the use of a large part of the workforce of culture makers to develop projects that in most cases are not contemplated and carried out, thus remaining in private documents. In other words, a lot of work for nothing. It's sad to see artists and producers working tirelessly to prepare ten or twelve projects for public notices per year, often not even within their own research, but adapting to the scope of the public notice, to be included in just one or two, if that. Certainly, there are more interesting, pleasurable ways of using these professionals' ability to achieve. There is still a need for an in-depth analysis of how these instruments have been harmful to the culture at its base.

But we cannot only blame the State for this lack of public policies for poetry. In 2010, during the last year of President Lula's second term, I was called to a conversation at the Ministry of Culture. There, they invited me to think about a project around Brazilian poetry. The reason: they did not want to end the government without having accomplished anything in this area, as in eight years of management no major project was presented by civil society with poetry as its object. In other words, the poets were not concerned at any time with thinking about broad proposals around the artistic language they work with, nor with dialoging with the State in the name of strengthening this language.

This cannot be normalized. And it's something recent. Until the 1980s, poets had an active participation in culture and society. Just think about names like Mário de Andrade, Vinicius de Moraes, Ferreira Gullar and Waly Salomão to realize how central they were not only to poetry, but also to other artistic languages ​​and even to politics. We have a very clear example here: the wonderful poet Chacal. Without him, much of what was best done in Rio culture over the last 50 years would not have existed. This city would have lost much of the joy and creativity it still has left.

I learned from the designer André Stolarski, who unfortunately passed away very early, that a cultural policy to be effective needs four points: mapping, presentation, reflection and stimulation of creation. Memory is an effective part of all these points. Without creating a memory of contemporary poetry, we cannot create a future policy or even a readership. If the mapping and recording of this production is a work more directly of memory, the presentation is the access and formation of a reading public, reflection allows the qualification not only of this public but of the poetic production itself and the stimulus to creation allows the renewal and updating of the language and its themes.

But, of all these axes, as stated above, only the last one has been minimally addressed by cultural policies in recent decades. And not just in poetry. But in poetry the case is perhaps even more glaring, even due to the lack of resources.

Well, this Brazilian Poetry Memory project is a first step in the quest to reverse this scenario. It is an ongoing project, created in dialogue between public institutions and civil society. But more developments are needed, and I propose that a working group be created, in dialogue with the Ministry of Culture and, if possible, with municipal and state departments of culture, to think about effective actions around poetry. It is an urgent initiative.

Finally, lately there has been an attempt to regain some symbols kidnapped by the extreme right, such as the flag and the football team's shirt. I confess that these symbols, due to their warlike and patriarchal nature, interest me little. But another yes: the word “freedom”. The far right has hijacked this word. It is impressive how “libertarian”, for example, has become exactly a way of attacking public and common institutions and initiatives. We have to win it back, because we know that without a broad and diverse culture, without non-normative education, without equal rights and opportunities, this word “freedom” can become just an empty cry.

We have to reinvent society's relationship with institutions, in a more open and participatory way, so that we can strengthen both parties. This is also an objective of this project. And this requires continued effort, because the fight against fascism and the constitution of citizenship is not restricted to voting, but in a daily action of creation and joy. Oswald de Andrade spoke about the “participating consciousness” of Anthropophagy. This is the dimension that poetry also needs to return to, in the name of what the great art critic Mário Pedrosa called “the joy of creating, the joy of living”.

*Sergio Cohn He is a poet and editor of Azougue. He is currently curator of the magazine Poetry Always of the National Library Foundation.


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