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Poetry that frees the soul

It's said that to be a poet you have to descend to hell once. The first time I entered the prison, I was not surprised by the noise of the padlocks, the closing doors, or the bars, or anything of all the things I had imagined. Maybe because the prison is in a quite open space. You can see the sky. Seagulls fly through the sky and you think you are next to the sea. That you are really close to the beach. But in fact, the gulls go to the dump near the prison looking for food. I continued walking in and I suddenly saw inmates moving across the corridors. It was as if I stepped back and thought that I could have perfectly been one of them. If I had another story, another context, another luck. Because nobody, nobody, can choose where to be born. In 2009 I was invited to join a project the San Martín National University has in the Unit 48, to coordinate a writing workshop. The prison service ceded some land at the end of the prison. Right there they constructed the building of the University Center. The first time I met with the prisoners, I asked them why they were asking for a writing workshop and they told me they wanted to put on paper all that they couldn't say and do. There I decided that I wanted poetry to enter the prison. Then I told them why we don't work with poetry, if they knew what poetry was. Nobody had a clue about what poetry really was. Besides, they explained to me that the workshop was not only for graduated inmates, but also for all the common inmates. And then I said that to start this workshop, I needed some tool that we all have. And that tool was language. So, we had language, we had the workshop. We could have poetry. But what I didn't consider was the inequality also in prison. Many of them that didn't even have a complete primary education. Many couldn't use cursive, but hardly print. They didn't write fluently either. So, we started looking for short poems. Short, but powerful indeed. And started to read, and read, one author and another author and by reading those short poems, they all began to realize that what the poetic language did was to break a certain logic and it created another system. Breaking the logic of language is also breaking the logic of the system they are used to respond to. So a new system appeared, new rules that made them understand really fast, really fast, that with the poetic language they would absolutely say what they wanted. It's said that to be a poet you have to descend to hell once. And they have plenty of hell. Plenty of hell. One of them once said: "In prison you never sleep. You can never sleep in jail. You can never close your eyelids." And so, like I’m doing now, I gave them a moment of silence. And then, I said, “This is what poetry is, guys. The prison universe is here, in your hands. Everything you say about how you never sleep, exudes fear, all of the unwritten. All that is poetry." So we started appropriating that hell. And we plunged ourselves into the seventh circle. In that seventh circle of hell, our own and so beloved circle, they learned that walls could be invisible, windows could yell and that we could hide inside the shadows. The first year the workshop had finished, we organized a little closing party as they are done. When a job is done with so much love, you want to celebrate and have a party. We called family, friends, the university authorities. The only thing they had to do was reading a poem, receiving their diploma, applause and that was our simple party. The only thing I want to leave you with is the moment those men, at times huge when they stand by me, or very young boys, but with an enormous pride, they held their paper and trembled like kids and sweated and read their poems with their voices completely broken. That moment made me think a lot that surely most of them were applauded for the first time for something they had done. In prison there are things that can't be done. In prison you can't dream, in prison you can't cry. There are words that are virtually forbidden, like the word time, the word future, the word wish. But we dared to dream and to dream a lot because we decided that they were going to write a book. Not only did they write a book but they also bound it. That was by the end of 2010. We doubled the bet and wrote another book. And bound another book. That was a short time ago, by the end of last year. What I see week after week is how they are turning into different people, how they are being transformed. How words empower them with a dignity they hadn't heard of, they couldn't even imagine. They had no idea such dignity could come from them. At the workshop, in that beloved hell we have, we all give. We open our hands and hearts and give what we have, what we can. All of us. All of us equally. Thus you feel that at least in a small way you are repairing that huge social fracture which makes it so that for many of them prison is their only destination. I remember a verse of a tremendous poet, a great poet, of the Unit 48 of our workshop, Nicolás Dorado: "I have to get an infinite thread to sew up this huge wound." Poetry does that. It sews up the wounds of exclusion. It opens doors. Poetry works as a mirror. It creates a mirror, which is the poem. They recognize themselves, they look at themselves in the poem and write from who they are and they are from what they write. In order to write, they need to appropriate the moment of writing which is a moment of extraordinary freedom. They have to get into their heads, search for that bit of freedom that can never be taken away when they write and that is also useful to realize that freedom is possible even inside the jail, and that the only bars we have in our wonderful space is the word bars, and that all of us in our inferno burn with happiness when we light the wick of the word. (Applause) I told you a lot about prison, a lot about my experience every week and how I enjoy it and transform myself with them. But you don't know how much I'd like it if you could feel, live, experience, even for a few seconds, what I enjoy every week and what makes me who I am. (Applause) Martín Bustamante: The heart chews tears of time Blind by that light Hides the speed of existence Where the images row It fights, it hangs on. The heart cracks under the sad gazes Rides through storms that spread fire Lifts chests lowered by shame, Knows that it's not just reading and going on, It also wishes to see the infinite blue. The heart sits down to think about things, Fights for avoiding commonplaces, Tries to love without hurting, Breathes the sun giving courage to itself, Surrenders, travels to the reason. The heart fights among swamps, Goes along the edge of the underworld, Falls weakly and doesn't yield to the easy way While irregular steps of intoxication Wake, Wake the stillness. I'm Martín Bustamante, I am a prisoner in Unit 48 of San Martín, today is my day of temporary release. Poetry and literature changed my life. Thank you very much! Cristina Domenech: Thank you! (Applause)

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