CUBA LIBRO, Volume Two – April 28, 2017

After a reasonably effective night’s sleep, I rally with the intention of accessing the infoweb from the hotel bar, its only en-signaled location. Frustration mounts with each unsuccessful attempt at entering two twelve-digit numbers, but a shame spiral is averted by submitting to the distractions of breakfast. It’s a sad buffet, with minimal fruit choices. At nine o’clock, Tim herds us onto a half dozen Bicitaxis, those rickety pedicabs, and off we bounce to a market in Central Havana. The produce smells divine and looks exquisite in a setting of sub-modest utility. The women in our group all receive gladiolas. Back on the Bicitaxis. I’m bouncing with Linda, who protested at first, but quickly gave in to the pleasures of the ride. Tim stops at a ‘bodega’, a state-authorized purveyor of household staples. These cost next to nothing, providing a cushion for Cubans in a controlled economy where no one really makes any money. The proprietor shoos us away, but, hey, there’s another bodega just down the block that lets us all crowd in and look around.

Our next stop is an establishment that sells live animals for sacrifice in the Santeria religion. We mill outside as a gentleman places tiny yellow chicks in our outstretched hands. This place occupies the ground floor of a five-story shell of what had once been a grand house. Six or seven men seem to be just hanging around inside, though one stands behind a sort of booth selling trinkets important to the various Santeria spirits. Above us, beams and rebar and staircases to nowhere create an Escher-like crosshatching in the blue blue sky softened by clinging vegetation; epiphytes and small trees. On the floor, a nylon mesh bag of the kind that would contain a bushel of oranges or potatoes confines what may either be six or seven individual white chickens or a huge mutant creature made up of a mass of feathers and assorted wattles. I lift my head, shaken a bit, and a young man in a Keith Haring t-shirt beckons me to the back and opens a plywood door. I peek in. Small goats and kids clamber on top of each other, pestered by a brown chicken or two.

The pedicabs drop us at a printmaking atelier near El Catedral. Old steel handpresses of all sizes and shapes, all with great four-spoked ‘wheels’, fill a large fluorescent room redolent with the smell of ink. Unfinished prints and lithograph stones with reversed imagery cover tables. I gravitate to the little showroom up a curved staircase. Reaching to touch a print, a bright, bespectacled woman stops my hand. She’s wearing white cotton gloves and I have dirty, sweaty mitts. With pleasure she begins to turn the prints. These are the result of a recent weeklong collaboration between artists from Cuba, Switzerland, and the US. Each piece has had input from three people. Some are not very interesting, but some vibrate with humor, tension, and/or beauty. All show graphic mastery. But the room is very very warm. I give her my card and step outside to perspire in the open and wait for lunch.

Next-door is a small, acclaimed restaurant, our lunch destination. We are ushered up a tight spiral staircase to a tight, white room with just enough seating for the sixteen of us, and, Bless the Lord, emphatic air conditioning. Mojitos all around! The lubricated cacophony expands and soon enough we’re hollering. The food’s delicious. “Always be eating,” seems to be the watchphrase for this trip. The woman sitting next to me begins an anecdote with “I went to a disappeared women’s college called Kirkland.” Fuck. She was in Kirkland’s last graduating class, so we didn’t overlap, but, oy, did we have shit in common. Her name is/was Nancy Ashkin.

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After lunch, we walk straight up Calle Obispo to Hotel Telegrafo to our first workshop, which means it’s my turn and that of a young woman named Suchita, an undergrad and poet from Emerson College. The group offers me insight and suggestions, though one participant damns me with faint praise, then just damns me. I’m pissed and bewildered, a condition best dealt with by napping.

Fuck me. More internet frustration, followed by a bus ride to dine with problematic writers, including the damning participant and the group ditz. Upon our return to Hotel Telegrafo, Alden and I adjourn to the bar for a nightcap. Earlier that day, Linda and I had discussed the excellent idea of adding a poetry section to the next Cuba Writers outing. The iron is hot, so we strike. Alden cottons to the idea, which means she’s impressed with our imaginations and support of the program. She’ll think about it. Cuba reeks of poetry. There are so many heart-stopping details strewn about this island.

 

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