Aleria Jensen: An Alaskan Discovers Nicaragua’s Love of Words

On the edge of Lake Nicaragua, bats wing across a
mango sky.  Dusk
settles over Granada.  Warm
air moves over my skin as I sit among an expectant audience filling rows of
plastic chairs.  Under
the spire of a cathedral, we face a stage in the Parque
. The International Poetry Festival is about to begin.
Most travelers, it seems, come to Nicaragua
to surf, explore volcanoes, visit coffee farms or learn Spanish.  For
the last nine years, visitors have also come for poetry.   We
learned about the festival when planning a family trip to Nicaragua
from Juneau in February and decided
to include it in the itinerary.
Begun by a group of Granada
poets, the International Poetry Festival has welcomed over 1,000 poets from 106
countries over the years, making it the second largest poetry festival in the
world.  The
2013 lineup includes 135 invited poets from 70 countries under the theme La
Poesia es la Cancion del Cosmos
 Poetry is the Song of the Cosmos.
As far as I can tell, the event is a big deal.  When
we mention it to the owner of a farm where we are staying on Ometepe
, he nods and tells us how
much Nicaragua
loves its poets.  Approaching
Granada, a taxi driver tells us
there are over 100 poets in the city at that very moment.  Throughout
the city, banners hang from telephone poles and a sign slung across the city’s
central park readsBienvenidos a poetas del
poets of the world.
It all feels a bit like Alice
in Wonderland, this upside-down world of poets as rock stars, literature as
center stage.  I
marvel at the crowd: schoolgirls, young men lounging on tailgates, fathers with
toddlers on their shoulders, old women sharing a meal across their laps.  Waiting
for poems.
In the U.S.,
we generate crowds like this for sports and politics.  I
can’t say I’ve ever been to a poetry reading like this—thousands strong.  A
Norwegian poet nods his agreement—a large public gathering to celebrate
poetry?  Unheard
of in Scandanavia.
But here it’s a carnival.  Carts sell popcorn, fried plantains,
soft drinks, bags of sliced green mango.  We
munch on mini-tortillas laced with Nica cheese and served in a banana
leaf.  Sour
green sapote fruit
sprinkled with salt and chili pucker our cheeks as we pop them into our
The 2013 festival is dedicated to poet Ernesto Cardinal—a Catholic priest
and theologian, supporter of the Nicaraguan Revolution, former Minister of
Culture, and Nobel Prize nominee.  When he reads, I shiver—he is
political and passionate, commanding yet soft.  Straining
to follow with my basic grasp of Spanish, I catch something along the lines of
“welcome to this magnificent celebration of the sanctity of the word.” Before
he leaves the stage, he pounds the podium:  Que viva la poesia!  Que
viva la poesia!  
audience is on their feet. 
The schedule is full of workshops, talks and roundtables.  Keynote
readings are held in the evenings after the heat of the day has passed.  Mid-week,
there’s a parade of invited poets reading aboard floats in a sea of costumed
Ultimately, I miss a lot of the festival because my Spanish isn’t great
and I’m travelling with an infant and four year old.  But
at night after bedtime, I sneak out and listen to poets from Brazil,
Japan, Russia,
Chile, Norway
and Cuba. They
read in Spanish or in their Native tongue.  As
it turns out, I cannot understand a single poem. 
It’s a strange sensation, taking in language without comprehension.  At
first, I’m craving English translation.  I’m kicking myself for not having mastered
the nuances of Spanish.  I strain to absorb a larger meaning
as words fall through the air like tiny birds:  La
tierra, las rocas, las
montanas. El
aire.  La
luz. Enamorada. 
As time passes, the listening becomes purely sensory.  I
stop trying so hard and give myself up to the physical experience.  The
rhythm of voices in the darkness. The trill of the Spanish “r.”  The
rolling “ñ.”  Language runs over me like
water. Lilting, rising, falling.  Out of the night comes a
torrent, burying us all in the best possible way.
In the end, I leave grateful.  To the audience and the poets.  For
showing up.  For
dedication to craft.  For the exchange of creative spirit
in an unexpected place. For the reminder that writing is ever a global
Aleria Jensen lives and writes in Juneau, Alaska Her
work has been published in numerous literary journals, including Orion
Magazine, the
Potomac Review, Literary
Mama, and  Her
essay Gathering Indigo was included in the
2012 anthology “Wonder and Other Survival Skills: A Selection of Essays
from Orion Magazine”, which is now available as part of the Orion Reader
Series at
For more information on the Granada
Poetry Festival, visit

2 thoughts on “Aleria Jensen: An Alaskan Discovers Nicaragua’s Love of Words”

  1. So lovely. I was transported to Granada and this strange, wonderful land where poets are celebrities. Thanks for "showing up" and for sharing….
    ~Heather H.

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