San Miguel Poetry Week: A Poet's Dream Come True
reprinted fromThe Miami Herald

by Diana Anhalt

When I first told my daughter I planned to attend a poetry workshop in San Miguel de Allende, she replied, "A poetry workshop? I'd rather have root canal!" I understood. A week spent reading, writing, critiquing and listening to poetry does not add up to paradise in everyone's lexicon. But if you, like me, derive almost as much pleasure from describing a pineapple as from eating one, the San Miguel Poetry Week is one event you won't want to miss, either as a participant or as a spectator. (Nightly readings are open to the public free of charge.)

Each January, poets--newcomers and pros alike-- descend on San Miguel in Guanajuato, a town renowned for its cobblestone streets, lush vegetation and colonial ambiance. (A more poetic place would be hard to find.)

They are drawn by an event unique to Mexico, a weeklong celebration of the craft of English language poetry. For the past nine years, under the able guidance of its founders, Barbara Sibley and Jennifer Clement, sisters and poets raised in Mexico City, the San Miguel Poetry Week has offered the opportunity to meet, study and consult with like minded individuals, among them some of the most distinguished poets writing in English today.


 

These include: Yusef Komunyakaa, Robert Hass, Alfred Corn, Cornelius Eady, X.J. Kennedy, W.D. Snodgrass, W.S. Merwin, Forrest Gander, Patricia Geodicke, C.D. Wright, and Naomi Shihab Nye. (Marjorie Agosín, Mark Doty, Alistair Reid and Carolyn Wright have been invited for 2005.) All are widely published and anthologized and include a former poet laureate, the recipient of the Premio Gabriela Mistral, and several Pulitzer Prize winners, along with the beneficiaries of prestigious fellowships and awards.

Unlike poetry programs where guest poets are accorded celebrity status and kept at a distance, poets and workshop participants are lodged in the same hotel, the centrally located Posada de las Monjas. Though a little down at the heels, it is clean and comfortable, radiates a funky charm all its own, and makes casual socializing over breakfast or a snack almost inevitable. Where else could you share a plate of huevos a la mexicana and discuss literary venues or Mexican handicrafts with the person whose poetry has been your source of inspiration?

I first participated a little over a year ago and was immediately struck by the group's diversity. Aside from the faculty, which consists of four major poets and the two organizers, my fellow participants included a Newfoundland fisherman, a Canadian farmer, a photographer, several academics, a blues guitarist, an author of children's books, and a social anthropologist. They ranged in age from youngsters in their twenties to retirees in their eighties, and hailed from all over the United States and Canada. (Included as well were a few expatriates, like myself.) Some, but not all, had published extensively and were recipients of grants and prizes. (Applicants, regardless of experience, are chosen on the basis of their work, and preference is given to those who have attended previously. Close to 75% choose to return.)

Each year, in spite of their differences, participants are drawn together into a cohesive unit, which results, in part, from skillful leadership as well as from our shared interest in the craft of poetry, a love for the English language, and a desire to share our work and learn from each other.

On the first day, we congregate at the Instituto de Bellas Artes, an impressive colonial style building placed around a courtyard garden, and our meeting place for the length of our stay. We are then assigned to one of four groups. Throughout the week, each group meets daily with a different poet, and its members are given the opportunity to "workshop" their poems. Afternoons allow ample time to sightsee, write, and socialize, and participants often meet informally to read each other's work. Evenings are set aside for readings by faculty and a few invited guests--including a number of Mexican poets like Luis Miguel Aguilar and Victor Manuel Mendiola. These events, held in the Instituto de Bellas Artes' ample auditorium, have become popular with San Miguel's English speaking residents.

This year I was unable to participate for the entire session but decided, a few weeks in advance, to drive up for the last poetry reading when faculty, guests, and participants each present one poem. But when I called the hotel for reservations I was told they were entirely booked.

"I'm sorry," the receptionist told me, "but that's when the poets are coming."

"But I am a poet," I cried.

"Oh, in that case there's no problem. We'll find you a room."

Nowadays, being a poet may not open many doors, but it's nice to know that in San Miguel it can still make a difference.