Poet of Guantanamo
Graham Henderson reports on the release of a new anthology of poems by Regino E Boti, the poet of Guantanamo
Nowadays the name Guantanamo often conjures up disturbing images of the US naval base at Guantanamo Bay, the so-called ‘war on terror’ and the detainees in their orange jump suits and shackles. But to me it means the real Guantanamo, Cuba’s easternmost city, about 20 kilometres down the road, separated from the US base by fences, watchtowers and minefields. The real Guantanamo is a completely different place, a country town best known for the song ‘Guantanamera’ (the girl from Guantanamo), one of Cuba’s most haunting ballads. It was also the home of one of Cuba’s greatest poets, Regino E Boti (1878-1958).
I was first introduced to Florentina Boti, the daughter of the poet, in February 2001. As soon as the large front door opened on the pretty one storey Nineteenth century house I began to realise that this was no ordinary story. Regino E Boti had lived out his life in this house, rejecting offers to live and work in Havana or abroad, choosing to remain in his beloved city. It was the same house built 148 years ago by the first Boti to arrive in Cuba, an emigrant from Spanish Catalonia. Inside the dark entrance hall I could hear the horse drawn carriages passing by, the clip-clop of the horses’ hooves bouncing off the street.
Florentina was sitting inside, out of the sun. She was 72 years old and in poor health but her eyes still showed the fire in her soul, her face all her warmth and intelligence. An academic, an intellectual and a writer, she spoke to me in excellent English, judiciously selecting the correct words. The house, which is officially protected by the Cuban state, is almost unchanged from the days of the poet. The elderly Florentina had made it her life’s work to catalogue and preserve her father’s poetry and writings, his watercolour paintings and letters.
Regino E Boti was a man of extraordinary talent. He wrote erotic poetry, nature poetry and poems about Cuban identity and played an important part in the development of a distinctive Cuban literary culture, providing the missing link between modernismo and the ‘black poetry’ made fashionable by Nicolas Guillen, the Cuban national poet. Florentina remembered that, when she was a child, he was always writing away at his desk in the study. His was a monumental life, more than sufficient material for a thick biography. I could not understand how an important Cuban poet like Regino E Boti was virtually unknown outside his native Cuba. It came to me there and then that a bilingual edition of Boti’s poems published in the UK could do a lot to restore Boti to his rightful place in the history of Cuban and Caribbean literature.
It was the first of many visits that I paid to Florentina and the family. Usually we sat in the shade of the living room, she with her blanket and cane, me perched in the Cuban rocking chair, as the flies buzzed outside the windows. Sometimes I sat out in the courtyard with her, in the cool of the evening, just like the visitors of her youth. We talked constantly of her father and of our personal enthusiasms, for art and literature, music and dance.
Little did I know that the project was going to take me the next four years. When I got back to the UK I sent photocopies of the poet’s collection “El Mar y la Montana” (the sea and the mountain) to some of the leading academics in the UK and was delighted when they were full of praise for Boti’s poetry. When I next visited Florentina and the family in Guantanamo in 2003 I could tell them the good news - Mango Publishers had agreed to publish a bilingual collected edition of Regino E Boti’s poetry in the UK. In the meantime the poet’s grandson, ‘Piti’, had compiled a new collected edition of Boti’s poems which was to be the basis for this UK edition.
With his friends we drank rum together on the patio and sang songs by the Beatles. Unlike me, the Cubans knew all the words.
The next real challenge was finding someone in the UK able to translate Boti’s work. Enter Professor Stephen Hart of University College London, one of the UK’s leading hispanicists, who by 2004 had gathered together a distinguished ‘Boti working party’ of academics and research students, who were soon hard at work translating 103 poems by Boti. For their part Stephen Hart and ‘Piti’ both contributed wonderful introductions for the book. Throughout this lengthy process the Cuban Embassy in London was constantly helpful and encouraging. What had seemed a distant prospect was suddenly close to being a reality. There were excited exchanges of letters with Guantanamo, reporting on progress and receiving in return comments and amendments from Florentina and Piti. As Christmas 2004 approached the translators had almost finished their work.
In May 2005 the collected edition, entitled ‘Kindred Spirits’, was finally launched in front of a packed house at the Instituto Cervantes in London, in the presence of His Excellency José Fernández de Cossio, the Cuban Ambassador. Tania Dominguez, the Cultural Counsellor and the wife of the Ambassador, did us the honour of officially launching the book.
One of the best things was the evident delight of the Cubans in the audience at hearing the work of one of their greatest poets. It was also amazing how many people had become involved in the Boti project over the previous 4 years, academics, translators, poets, journalists and others.
Afterwards copies of the book, in its beautiful lilac livery with a watercolour by Boti on the cover, were selling like hot cakes.
The event was also touched by sadness. Florentina Boti, the daughter of the poet, and the person who had inspired me to undertake the project four years earlier, had died in January 2005 aged 76, after a short illness. She was an obstinate old lady, embodying all the strength and the passion of her country. The book ‘Kindred Spirits’ is dedicated to her memory.