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NMSU poet makes Cuban connection

NMSU poet makes Cuban connection The U.S. government may not have normal diplomatic relations with Cuba, but that hasn't stopped poet Kathleene West, a New Mexico State University English professor, from establishing literary ties with that country.



New Mexico State University poet Kathleene West shows some of the books she has brought back from her travels to Cuba. West is researching the work of Cuban poets and will travel to Havana in December to read at the Teatro Nacional.

West, poetry editor of Puerto del Sol, NMSU's national literary magazine, has visited Cuba three times, most recently in July under the auspices of the Cuban Scholars Program. She is collecting poems by contemporary Cuban writers and plans to publish a selection of them in Puerto del Sol, tentatively in the fall 2001 issue.

The poems will appear in the original Spanish and in English translation. West will enlist the help of NMSU associate professor of Spanish Jesus Barquet, who grew up in Cuba.

West has met about 20 Cuban poets, some of whom are well known writers and others "up and coming" writers. The poets gave her about 100 books, and she brought back as many as she could carry, leaving some behind with a friend. She will return to Cuba Dec. 23 to Jan. 19, 2000, to do more research and to give a reading at the Teatro Nacional, a landmark institution in old Havana.

A new book of poetry by West, "Las Turistas de la Revolucion" ("Tourists of the Revolution"), is scheduled for publication in Cuba this coming July. In the spring, another new book, "The Summer of Sub-comandante," is set for publication in the United States.

A Nebraska native, West is the author of several books of poetry, including "The Farmer's Daughter," "Water Witching" and the chapbook "Death of a Regional Poet, Canto One." She has traveled to and written about Vietnam and spent two years in Iceland on a Fulbright fellowship. But West says she has connected with Cuba in a way that she has not connected with other countries.

"Cuba has an exquisite culture," she said. "There's so little understanding in the United States of Cuba. The country and people are interesting in themselves and because of the complicated non-relationship with the United States."

During her 1998 visit, West stayed with a Cuban family, "a humbling experience for a bourgeois capitalist." Cubans need to be "extremely inventive to survive and survive well" in a country that requires permits to travel outside of one's home city and rations food but has a thriving black market, West said.

Her search for Cuban poetry coincides with a growing demand by Americans for Cuban art and music, West noted. "Arts exchanges are one of the first ways for countries to open up to each other," she said.

On her initial trips to Cuba, in 1989 and 1997, West said she focused more on the country's politics than its poets. She went to Cuba in 1997 because the remains of Latin American revolutionary leader Ernesto (Che) Guevara -- one of Fidel Castro's top lieutenants in the 1950s -- were reburied there after being unearthed in Bolivia. "I wanted to make a pilgrimage," West said.

When she first visited Cuba about the only Cuban poet she was familiar with was Jose Marti, who in 1895 led the struggle that ended Spanish rule of the country. Then last year the Cuban Scholars Program, which requires applicants to have a project, motivated West to begin her research of the country's contemporary poets.

The project has proved to be much larger than she anticipated. That's because virtually everyone in Cuba is a poet, West said with a smile, and because she wanted to meet poets face to face to get insight into their work rather than simply collect "handfuls of poems."

She has met many impressive Cuban poets, she said, such as living legends Carilda Olivar Labras, an outspoken writer in her 70s, and Jesus Orta Ruiz, a Nabori Indian fondly known as "El Indio Nabori."

Cubans cautioned West that were some poets she would not be able to meet or even inquire about. "Not all poets are equally approved by the government," West said. "I didn't talk to the poets about that."

Despite Cuba's economic crisis, the government does support the arts, West said. The work of poets is supported through two organizations, Casa de Americas and Union de Escritores y Artistas Cubanos (UNEAC). Both are well established, and UNEAC has a presence in almost every city in Cuba.