Voices of dissent: International Festival of Poetry of Resistance

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Arnold Itwaru, one of the poets performing at International Festival of Poetry of Resistance in Toronto. Photo: Chisato Fukuyama

From Aime Cesaire and Pablo Neruda to Mahmoud Darwish and Wislawa Szymborska, poets throughout the world have raised their voices in protest against injustice in all its forms.

And poets, artists, musicians and social activists will gather in various Toronto venues later this month to celebrate the boundless capacity of verse to resist oppression and create links among diverse communities. The International Festival of Poetry of Resistance (From September 16 to 20) will feature readings, roundtable discussions, musical performances and a special "festivalito" for children.

Now in its second year, this five-day festival was founded by artist Maria Elena Mesa and educator/activist Lisa Makarchuk. For the Colombian-born Mesa, the inspiration for this event came largely from the International Poetry Festival held every year in her native Medellín.

"I am always amazed by this event, which brings thousands of people from diverse background together to experience the power of language. I wanted to bring a piece of that experience to Toronto," explains Mesa, who has attended the festival many times as a spectator and is well acquainted with many of its poets.

Mesa met Makarchuk through her involvement with Toronto Chapter of the National Committee to Free the Cuban Five, which seeks the freedom of five Cuban intelligence officers who have been imprisoned in the United States (allegedly for espionage and other illegal activities) since 1998. "After reading about the Five, what transpired at their trial, and their treatment by the authorities, I was convinced of their innocence as well as outraged by the punitive approach and cavalier disregard for the rule of law in their cases," Makarchuk says.

"The U.S. government, which was purportedly fighting terrorism, ended up arresting these five men because they were preventing acts of violence against citizens in Cuba and in the U.S. by paramilitary Cuban-American groups mainly stationed in Florida. The hypocrisy of the U.S. authorities was too much to bear," she says.

Makarchuk, who traveled to Cuba in 1961 after the Bay of Pigs Invasion, has a great deal of sympathy for the Cuban people. "I grew up in Saskatchewan in a two-room shack -- not unlike what the campesinos in Cuba lived in -- and I have never forgotten where I come from," she says.

"In Cuba in the 60s, I saw a government trying to pull people out of poverty, educate them and set up a socialist state. As a believer in the self-determination of people, I could not but become passionately supportive of a country that had the potential of becoming a role model for Latin America and elsewhere."

She adds that while Cuba is not without problems -- such as low productivity, corruption, and shortages -- it is succeeding against the odds. "Life is difficult in Cuba, but it has made great achievements at the same time -- in health, education and in teaching the world about what international solidarity really means, having sent medical and educational personnel to scores of countries," she says.

Mesa and Makarchuk joined forces to organize an artistic celebration in honour of the Cuban Five as well as the broader concerns of freedom for political prisoners, democracy and self-determination of peoples.

"The biggest challenge was to start from scratch," Makarchuk says. "We were amazed at how receptive people were. Two community centres, two churches, international literary groups in Canada, and published poets from across Canada responded. The greatest reward was the festival's success in terms of outreach and in building links between poets and individuals interested in their poetry."

The 2009 Festival was successful, but the organization which runs it continues to face budgetary and organizational challenges. "We are still going through growing pains," says Asoke Chakravarty, a Bengali-Canadian poet and artist (and retired mechanical engineer) who is the current president of the festival's board.

However, he remains committed to helping the festival achieve its mission. "I firmly believe that poets are an integral part of society and have the responsibility to be aware of social, political and economic injustice, and to voice their concern however they can."

This year's festival will continue to honour the Cuban Five along with two other well-known political prisoners: Mumia Abu Jamal and Leonard Peltier. However, the event also focuses on broader concerns such as environmental destruction, war, gender and age-based discrimination, and violence in all its forms. It seeks to provide an opportunity for new poets associated with various Toronto community centres to share their work alongside more experienced writers. Also, the "festivalito" will provide children with the chance to learn about art as a vehicle for peace.

"We want to help the next generation to recognize the need to care for this fragile planet and to avoid entering into a culture of war that treats even children as young combatants," Mesa says.

Among the many Canadian writers set to participate in the festival include University of Toronto professor Arnold Itwaru, educator Monica Rosas and well-known human rights lawyer Charles Roach, who is also the festival's coordinator. Roach, who founded the Caribana festival in Toronto and has been active in progressive causes for many years, is also an accomplished visual artist and poet.

"To me, poetry has to be spoken... just as music has to be played; the written words on a page must come to life by recitation. And this speech must conjure up picturesque imagery striving to engage both the intellect and the emotions in a succinct, poignant way. My own work engages the slogan and street-protest cries, sometimes in a call and response fashion," says Roach, who will host the festival's opening gala on September 16 and read from his work.

Originally from Guyana, interdisciplinary scholar Arnold Itwaru is the founder of University of Toronto's Caribbean Studies Program and co-organizer of an annual conference on racism and national consciousness. He is also an accomplished poet and a sympathizer with the Cuban and Venezuelan movements.

"I think that what is happening in Latin America is the only politics of hope occurring anywhere on earth," he says. "These revolutions are based not on violence, but on education. That is why my interest in them is so keen."

Itwaru has written poetry since his youth and has been inspired by many previous "poets of resistance," including Martin Carter, who was active in Guyana's anti-colonial struggle during the 1950s. "He was quite an influence on my own work, especially in my early years. I have great respect for him and all poets who speak the truth."

Monica Rosas is a young Toronto-based educator and performance poet whose first novel, Salt Water and Cinnamon Skin, will be published by Tightrope Books in 2011. She is also the curator of Cha Cha, an annual poetry event that seeks to establish a safe space for women to address issues related to sexuality. As a poet, she performs under the name "La Loba," a symbol she took from native mythology.

"The persona brings me back to my national roots, denied me by a colonialist history," says Rosas, who is of Peruvian and Colombian heritage. "Wolves are misunderstood creatures, seen as violent when really they are nurturing creatures that only attack when in danger. I feel that a woman with power is also often misunderstood, and I want to reclaim that power."

Rosas considers herself part of the younger generation of resistance writers and views the festival as a chance to learn from her elders. "I feel like I am learning from people who are first generation immigrants to Canada and have been critical in shaping the landscape of the country as we find it today. They have endured many struggles," she says.

"For me, this festival is important because it provides an opportunity to understand and learn from the history they've lived. Being in touch with our history, however difficult, is important for ensuring that we don't make the same mistakes in the future."

The International Festival of Poetry of Resistance will begin on Thursday, September 16 at 5 p.m. at the New Horizons Auditorium, 1140 Bloor Street West (at Dufferin), Toronto. It will continue until Monday, September 20 at various locations. The children's "Festivalito" will take place on Friday, September 17 from 2 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. at the 519 Church Street Community Centre, Toronto. For more detailed information, you can visit the festival's Facebook page

Jeannine M. Pitas is a graduate student at University of Toronto's Centre for Comparative Literature.

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