Since the nineteenth century, Mexico City’s traditional literary meeting spots have been cafes, cantinas and bars, where there are discussions and debates, as well as drunkenness. In order to show how poetry happens in the center of my country, I’m going to explain how one writes, eats and drinks in these places. If Mexico City has the virtue of cultural diversity, the same is reflected in its poets.
I begin my route in the Centro Historico, on Calle San Jerónimo. In April, one of the largest festivals of contemporary poetry takes place here—Poesía por Primavera. For two days, dozens of young poets climb an improvised stage made of wooden pallets and fill the atmosphere of the square with their verses. Independent publishers sell affordable copies of Mexican literature by writers from not only the capital, but the entire country. The festival is organized by one of the Mexico City poetry community’s nerve centers: Hostería La Bota, a restaurant/cultural sanctuary owned by the writer Antonio Calera-Grobet.
I order a rum and pasta Bolognese, one of the specialties. Outside La Bota, a poet comes on the stage wearing a horse mask, but I do not quite understand what he says. I don’t know why (memory is strange), but as I listen to the poets, I remember my teacher, the Albanian poet Xhevdet Bajraj who since 2000 has lived, written and taught poetry in Mexico City:
i’m almost dead but I’m rich
i have seven packs of unfiltered Delicados
and a collection of bottles
filled with air from Mexico City
the world exists to write poetry or essays
and make love
People pass by. Some stop to watch, others continue on their way. The act of climbing a platform and reading poetry in the street is part of the literary transformation that’s arisen in Mexico City. Poets no longer seek closed spaces where only their acquaintances attend to pat them on the back as an institutionalized greeting. Other festivals have dubious reputations for having been created to loot the treasury and alienate people from literature. Here on the pallets, the poets face applause, rejection and disinterest. How can I pay attention to someone in a horse mask if twenty others with masks have also climbed the stage?
A week before the festival, I decided to talk to a young Mexican poet who lives in the center of the country in order to learn more about the poetics that are created between the intricate streets of the huge city.
The nineteenth-century poet Manuel Gutiérrez Nájera was a parishioner of the Jockey Club, a place that remains open on the central Calle Madero (formerly Plateros) in the Centro Historico. Nowadays, it’s been converted to a family restaurant with a cheesy bar, where a keyboardist plays old-fashioned melodies. In one of Nájera’s most famous poems, he sang of these streets and this place with his characteristic sense of humor:
Nowhere, from La Sorpresa’s entry
to the steps of the Jockey Club,
is there a Spanish, French or Yankee
lass of such dazzle, dash and mischievousness,
as the duchess of Duke Job.
This is where I meet Martha Mega, a writer, actress and singer. We talk about the trends in Mexican poetry today. I’ll try to summarize the main points of our conversation.
First of all, because Mexico City is so large, poets prefer to avoid the solemnity of institutional events. Many readings take place in underground spaces, where there is an intention of sharing, and in some ways, creating identity. There is the feminist Punto Gozadera: a queer, trans, divergent and libertarian bar, located in the Plaza del Buen Tono, next to an early twentieth century church. They host readings, poetry slams, batucadas, workshops and intense feminist perreo dancing. Other underground spaces include Bandini, located on Calle Bucareli (near the Ministry of the Interior, where the Mexican government decides which groups to suppress, and what information to manipulate), as well as La Casa del Poeta, located in the former home of the great early twentieth century poet Ramón Lopez Velarde, a place that is more like a traditional court, but manages to gather writers from all generations and latitudes of the country.
The young poets bring a vital impulse to these places. They seek to meet, develop their poetics, and share their work with one another. Of course, not everything is honey on flakes. As with every guild, power groups have been formed. If you join the right circles, you get invited to the right events. If not, you go unnoticed, which is a shame because it reduces the poetic experience to an experience between acquaintances and friends who are just repeating a certain style.
Martha tells me that a massive event was organized in a vacant lot north of the city where more than forty-five poets read their work. At some point, an older poet’s reading was interrupted by laughter, and when he noticed that not everyone was paying attention to him, he became angry. He scolded the organizers, saying “poetry is not background music.” This anecdote shows the division between two groups of poets in Mexico City. On one hand, there are those who prefer a captive audience at an exclusive venue with long tablecloths. On the other, those who’d rather have a more common venue in the adolescent bohemia. As if you suddenly divided a rockstar’s thirst for applause and their shambolic life.
The waitress brings us coffee and a tres leches cake to share. “It’s about taking the sacredness away from poetry,” says Martha. She tells me how the young poets have rediscovered self-publishing, utilized the format of DIY fanzines, as well as cartonera, in order to reach the public and to transcend literary reception beyond the traditional notion of the book as object.
As Martha and I speak, I realize that the spirit of young poetry coexists with the way violence has developed throughout the country. There is a general lack of trust in institutions, in the transparency of competitions where it sometimes appears that institutions and jurors have colluded. There is hopelessness in the face of a lack of critical social thinking, as well as limited opportunities for young people who are torn between unemployment and gentrification. The city once seemed a kind of refuge from the violence of life in the states, but it too is now stained with blood. Meanwhile, the authorities remind us that nobody really promised us anything, and in that nothing we must live. The young poets of Mexico who grew up with the idea of the MTV rockstar, and who are overwhelmed by a painful reality, try to create from the chaos an identity full of divergent voices.
“Yes, I see that many things are being done here,” says Atenea Cruz to Noel René Cisneros, writers from the north who have decided to leave their home state to live and write in Mexico City. We are at a Korean grill in the Zona Rosa, a neighborhood where the LGBTTI scene has flourished, as well as the city’s Korean community. We drink soju and eat a beef knee soup with sweet potato noodles, along with several spicy dishes that give our palates a pleasant after taste. Atenea Cruz has written, “The conclusive proof that there is a god is autumn,” and I believe her.
Noel and Atenea tell me that by living in the center of the country they have, by contrast, managed to reaffirm their identity through their writing. In the enormity of this city, struggles for sexual rights make a nest to gestate, and lesbian, trans, queer and bisex poetry have also gained momentum. I have in mind the verses of the poet César Bringas, winner of the LGBTTI National Prize for Poetry:
In the dream of His lambs one is never more alone
than when they are under the sky
every man walks to the grave that others dug for him in a way
anonymous. Lord, what are you
have mercy on us.
After eating, we decide to walk down Calle Florence and go to a cafe located on the corner of Reforma and Insurgentes, two of the main avenues of Mexico City. We order coffee from Chiapas and a chocolate cake that reminds me of the gluttony of childhood. Through the window, we see the sunset. In the distance one of the few trees is glimmering and I remember one of Noel’s verses:
The tree, it is known, is the Axis Mundi,
the Mayans said it was a ceiba,
on the high plain they said that it was an
an oak of the druids, but no, I know
it was a poplar, one day I saw it.
Prepared to view the poetry of Mexico City through a wider lens, I’ve asked the writer and historian Pavel Granados for an appointment to speak. In his apartment in Colonia Roma, he welcomes us with his characteristic warmth and kindness. I say “us” because I’m accompanied by the writer and poet Raúl Aníbal Sánchez. Luckily, there is also Emiliano Mora, a poet who organizes the Verbo poetry festival in Mexico City. This festival combines poetry, live music and workshops to show that poetry goes beyond the traditional formats.
“We live in a time when we are told that you can fulfill your dreams or whatever, but many do not have the talent. Nevertheless, as everyone applauds because the right thing to do is to applaud, there are many poets,” says Emiliano, who declares that, “it is a time of exaltation of the personality.” Meanwhile, Raul goes to buy beer to cool off from the heat that envelops the city in the spring and I remember one his verses that relates to what Emiliano is saying:
What awakens the verse
wakes the poem
What animal tree or rock
what love or moment of love
is contained by the image?
“I have always been suspicious of the ‘generations’, as they don’t mean anything to me,” says Pavel. “For example, I remember when I was doing the book on the Porfiriato, Gabriel Zaid told me on the phone: Look, so-and-so is born the same year, but one published at twenty and the other published at forty. In that case, the so-called ‘generation’ does not mean anything, because then would have to subordinate that concept to something else. However, there is another thing that I have taken into account. This is that there is a unique opportunity in this life that lasts only a little while in which you must look, say something, dazzle. In romanticism and bohemia there has always been the confrontation of the young against the old. That is, to be young, to wear a mane, layers, masks and all that, is something that occurs and that suddenly accompanies the poet. If you just read the pure poems and face the text against the text, it tells you less than if you face the attitudes, or how poetry is to be lived.” He then explains how many poets write as part of the vanguard while they are young and when they “grow up”, life itself changes their attitude toward literature. If it does not, that vital experience that exploded while they were young can consume them and they can be trapped in that time, as curiosities, while other young poets take their place in the eternal struggle.
“Poetry is a vital force. You look at life and you want to get involved and poetry serves that,” Pavel continues. His dissertation reaches an important point: “Current poetry has been infected with the spirit of conceptual art. To do poetry now is to make a piece. There is a border that is erased between literature and conceptual art.” Which brings me back to the talk with Martha Mega: A book of emerging poetry in Mexico City may or may not be contained in the traditional format (the printed book), but certainly it is accompanied by external elements (fanzine, performance, music and even theater). It is a question of opening possibilities to the reader in other formats, playing with and taking away the solemnity to which the poets of other generations were accustomed.
poetry is something that springs from subterranean gifts
something that disagrees with the very nature of things.
Afterward, Pavel and company end up in a Roma taqueria. There is nothing more typical of Mexico City than tacos al pastor, garnachas, and agua de Jamaica to accompany them. Pavel recommends several books and tells us anecdotes impregnated with his honest humor while I scarf down a gringa de bistec, a delicacy of the Aztec gods.
A week later at the Hostería La Bota, I become angry as I recall several historians of Mexican literature who denigrate poetry written by women. I mention this because I believe that among the poetry being written today in Mexico City (and the country, in general), the riskiest, strongest and most interesting works are those written by women.
My name is Antígona González and I look for the corpse of my brother among the dead. These words are from one of the most important books of poetry for anyone trying to understand contemporary Mexico and its missing people. It was written by Sara Uribe, who now resides in Mexico City. The book, Antígona González, was translated into English by John Pluecker, and has been adapted to the theater.
Earlier this year, another book was published called O reguero de hormigas by Yolanda Segura. The book explores the violent symbology of the color red, both intimate and personal, as well as social. Its fragmented style translates identity, reconstructs the memory of the body and plays with the reception of the reader, in her sensibility:
When looking for evidence of blood the following questions should be kept in mind:
Is it blood?
Is it human or animal?
Which classification does it belong to?
What is the age of the stain?
What part of the body is it from?
Chemistry is good for everything,
even to erase the stains of history
These poets show us vitality mixed with violence. What tears, what hurts. Another example is the poetry of Xitlalitl Rodríguez Mendoza:
The tooth begins with the milk. And the milk with the cow, with the mother, a mammal that dies. That bites. A hard piece implanted in living flesh. Sometimes it hurts and bleeds. Other times, no. Rip the thread, open the fruit, click, bark. Stone and edge, border that expands, flattens, crushes. Ivory. Thresh, dismember, mutilate. Mobilize enzymes, sound with the tongue, with the lips.
Or that of Karen Villeda:
They come to scare us with half a human body, filled with hates and hymns. They come to frighten us, tempting those who, by going blind, lose the motives of vanity. The sellers come with us: those who are indisputable knowers of pearls. We know how the pearl goes from hand to hand and loses its whiteness. We know how the woman in a coat is divided into a fortunate back and we also know that half a human body can only be sold to a stingy man or, if it’s lucky, it is thrown to the pigs.
Even poets who hide in the corners, too shy for readings or conventional publications (because there is a vein of poetry where not everyone is in love with their reflection and wants to be rockstars) are forming a new way to write intimate poetry, as is the case with Ada Pantoja:
I write letters for the dead
your quiet eyes will judge my actions
and I will be free from guilt
to live again in the midday sun
I mention these poets on the fly, because the poetic map of the women who write today in Mexico City (let alone in the country) and their influence would give me enough material to write a treatise.
To close this article, I would like to emphasize that the greatest virtue of literature in Mexico City is its diversity, its contrasts, its urban and intimate heartbreaking cry. Poets who come from other parts of the republic (and even from other countries) contribute to the nuances of this poetic panorama, and without them we could not create this palette of such incredible colors. There are those who say that poetry is going through a crisis but I think it is the opposite. At this moment something important is happening to the poetry of Mexico City, or as the Spanish editor and poet Luna Miguel said, “Something huge is happening in Mexico: a kind of generational literary whirlwind in which the poet is the new rocker.”
But you have to understand everything in its proper context. Suddenly I remember the poet Sergio Loo, who died in 2014 after a long fight against cancer, and who has become a popular reference in recent years. Sergio Loo, in Mexican poetry, is that brilliant explosion forever fixed in the night sky of sex or disease. Sergio Loo has become, with bouquets of violets at his feet, the eternally young poet who ultimately takes on all the rockstars:
His body was not important in fact
I only like it when I was drunk
I had thin legs thick knees
a badly done tattoo on my ankle and a belly
accomplice of years
and years of beer
He had the body of an aging teenager and in his
an old-fashioned earring
His hands were clumsy like his stuttering tongue and
the first drink was fogging
His beard—and with this I finish—
only grew on tuesdays and saturdays
but not always No
His body was not important
 Xhevdet Bajraj, “Temporada de las flores tristes (Tezcatlipoca Blues)”
 Manuel Gutiérrez Nájera, “La duquesa Job.”
 The batucada is a sub-style of samba and refers to a Brazilian percussion style of African influences.
 In South America, “cartoneras” are an editorial way of making books with recycled paper and cardboard. This began after the crisis of 2003, in Argentina, when the material to make a book became inaccessible by the price.
 Noel René Cisneros, “muerte de un Álamo”.
 Raúl Aníbal Sánchez, “Siete Variedades de Rosa.”
 Raúl Aníbal Sánchez, “siete variedades de rosa
 Sara Uribe, “Antígona González” traducido al inglés por John Pluecker.
 Yolanda Segura, “O reguero de hormigas”
 Xitlali Rodríguez Mendoza, “Dientes”
 Karen Villeda, “El Mármara”
 Ada Pantoja, “Mis faltas no alcanzan”
 Sergio Loo, “Sus brazos labios en mi boca rodando”
Mariana Orantes, Essayist, poet and cat lover. She’s currently living in Mexico City, and is author of “Huerfanos” (2015), “El día del diente de leche” (2016), “La pulga de Satán” (2017), and “La casa vertebrada” (2017).
Iurhi Peña has a degree in Visual Arts from the Faculty of Arts and Design (UNAM). She currently works in three graphic and independent publishing projects: Autoeditoras: we make Femzines, the micro-independent feminist queer publishing company Beibi Creyzi and a personal one. She also, participates in education projects and alternative edition workshops with a gender perspective in different parts of Mexico.