Manifesto for a Latino-British Poetry
1) Our poetry will be radical, it will experiment with traditional English syntax and rhythm; sometimes it will sound odd and strange. It will allow for multiple interpretations, meanings.
2) Our poetry will embrace bilingualism. It will include Spanish and English words, idiomatic phrases, new Spanglish words, it will follow the legacy and tradition of Latino/Chicano writers in the US. It will knock down linguistic barriers- barreras, traditional norms. It will search for a new poetic voice within the UK. Una nueva poesía latino-británica.
3) Our poetry will allow for a multiplicity of ethnic and identity backgrounds in an ever expanding
Latino-British poetic experience: Andean/Quechua, Spanish/Caribbean, Amerindian, Southern Cone, Mestizo, etc.
4) Our poetry will not seek your permission. It will open new ways and possibilities for writing about our Latino-British experiences and backgrounds: será libre, potente y plural.
Argentinian British poet, Leo Boix
In 2017 I attended an event at the London Book Fair launching a publication celebrating diversity.
This was not unusual: I have been promoting inclusivity in British literature – mainly poetry – for over 20 years. Through some hard work, and a lot of luck, I have found myself involved in some groundbreaking projects, most notably The Complete Works Poetry, that played a key role in increasing the level of diversity in poetry books published by major presses from less than 1% in
2008 to its current level of 20%. Most days involved events similar to the one I was now attending, either as a member of the audience or as a presenter. At the end of the presentation I found myself oddly dissatisfied. In an otherwise excellent and necessary round up of BAME British writers there was one significant absence: not one British Latin American writer had been mentioned. An entire continent had seemingly gone missing and I was the only person who had noticed. Forcing a polite smile, I quickly exited the bustle and excitement of the Book Fair. Every stand in that vast domed space spoke of one thing to me; an absence of the culture I consider as home. It was at that moment that I vowed to do something to change this, to help British Latinx writers to do what they should have done long ago: to write themselves into existence.
I was incredibly lucky to have met the extraordinary Argentine British poet Leo Boix a year earlier. An international journalist and a fullybilingual poet, Leo felt as strongly about the absence of the Latin voice as I did. As he had grown up in Argentina and was an very gifted poet in his own right, Leo was able to do something that I could not: become the ambassador for British Latinx writing.
Together we set up a programme, Invisible Presence, to find and nurture writers of this background. The initial outreach period was challenging; in spite of the fact that the Latin American community is the 8th largest in the UK, there were very few literature networks. The theatre-makers community was far ahead of other literature forms – the CASA Latin American theatre festival has been doing great things since 2007, but the fiction writers and the poets were distinctly underground. In the end we used the techniques of grassroots community development; we hung out in Latin bars, shops and community centres from Elephant and Castle through to Brixton hoping word of mouth would be strong enough to bring the writers to us.
It was. Six months later we hosted a bilingual sold out reading at the Roundhouse in London. All of the writers attending wrote manifestos that were read out at the event to great applause. This was when Leo’s manifesto came to life. The next step was to publish the first major anthology of British Latinx writers. I approached the groundbreaking independent publisher flipped eye, founded by the writer Nii Ayikwei Parkes. I knew that Nii had a passion for Latin American literature, as well as being the first to publish a range of prominent poets including Inua Ellams and Warsan Shire. To my joy he accepted and the anthology, Nuevo Sol, started to take shape.
On November 19th, 2019 Nuevo Sol: British Latinx writers was launched at the Southbank. Booker
Prize winner Bernardine Evaristo has described the anthology as filled with ‘exciting new voices,
unique bilingual and experimental flourishes, it totally reinvigorates British and global literature.’
Nuevo Sol includes ten exceptional writers; seven of them are poets.
This is not surprising. In Latin America the role of poetry and poets is very different to that in the UK with poetry playing a much more important part in society. It is common to find taxi drivers who can recite poems by Pablo Neruda or Octavio Paz by heart. Poetry events take place in football stadiums to audiences of tens of thousands, with poets receiving the kind of applause we in Britain save for the football players. This is due, to a large extent, to the close connection between poetry and politics – more specifically resistance and poetry.
Poets are seen as the leaders/healers in the community; they speak for the people, allowing the collective voice and consciousness to be expressed through art. There are many reasons for this. The first is that the colonial legacy and troubled history of the region means that censorship is a frequent unwanted guest. Poetry – and music – have long provided a coded and symbolic way of expressing truths that would otherwise be far too dangerous to express. The second may well be a legacy of the beliefs of the original inhabitants of the region, the Quechua speakers who believed that the world was brought into being though the recital of poetry. Although the reasons may not be completely clear, the result is a society in which poetry is an important and respected voice, without the elitism or marginalisation found in the UK.
The poetry of the region has several distinctive traits: it is experimental in nature, often complex/layered and the use of magic realism and other coding systems are frequent. In contrast to the subtle irony that is often found in British poetry, Latin American poetry is fiercely passionate and sensual and almost always has strong political undertones. It is not surprisingthen that most of these features are to be found in the work of British Latinx poets. In spite of the incredibly wide range of cultures, countries and background of the poets in Nuevo Sol, including Afro Latinx, indigenous and the Amazon, they all share many of these features in their work, offering an exciting new voice in British poetry. It is a voice that is linked to both Latin America and to the Latinx voice of the more established scene in the United States, but it is one that is refreshingly different.
It has to be said, however, that British Latinx poetry is still in its early stages. Unlike our peers in the United States, our Latinx voice has yet to fully define itself. In the United States it is telling that arguments over whether the Latin American community and its poets wish to be called Latinx or Hispanic still rage, with further arguments from those who wish to follow more specific area definitions such as Chicano (of Mexican heritage). In Britain we have opted for British Latinx, choosing a non-gendered term to reflect our thinking on gender equality. The ‘X’ perhaps also evokes some of the spirit of resistance seen in Malcolm X, this time denoting the political and passionate nature of the poetry. This is poetry that challenges the status quo. Existing somewhere between Spanish, English, Portuguese and Spanglish (now being studied as a language in its own right at Queen Mary University), the British Latinx poetry uses the tension of bilingual existence as a creative source. It is poetry that denies the long held view that British poetry must be only in English and speaks to the increasingly multilingual nature of British life (in London several hundred languages are spoken). It is poetry that brings with it a very different attitude to the role of art in society, a more active political role. It is poetry that invites the reader to read with their bodies and their hearts, rather than just their minds.
The British Latinx voice can be considered as the youngest child of the trilogy – British Latinx, United States Latinx and Latin America. There is still a huge amount of work to do but we are too young to have encountered any major divisions that have beset our counterparts in the US. This means we can reach out across the globe, inviting connections to create a wider network that is global and powerful. We are not only writing ourselves into existence, but offering new spaces for the rest of Latin American writers across the world. Just as Latin American music is taking over the industry, the literature is also taking a front row seat and we get to play a part in this. This issue of Magma was born out of the desire to show the heterogeneous nature of Latin American poetry in its many forms and the way it can influence and shape the literature of other cultures and continents.
Dr Nathalie Teitler HonFRSL was born in Argentina and came with her family to the UK to escape political turmoil. She went on to do a PhD in Latin American poetry, fuelled by a passion for Latin culture. Nathalie has worked promoting diversity, innovation and quality in British arts for 30 years. She is the director of The Complete Works Poetry and the co-editor of Nuevo Sol, the first major anthology of British Latinx writers (flipped eye publishing). She is also the director of Dancing Words, making dance poetry films, and is writing a novel set in the tango world of Buenos Aires in the 1900s.