Poetry International Poetry International
the First International Poetry Encounter in Aruba

Not A Poetry Festival:

August 10, 2023

by Juana Adcock

Earlier this year, Scottish-Mexican poet Juana Adcock visited the first edition of the International Poetry Encounter in Aruba. Adcock, who was one of the performing poets at the 2021 Poetry International Festival Rotterdam, was so inspired by the festival and its atmosphere, that she wrote a blog post to introduce this special new poetry event to our readers. Below, you'll read an impression of the festival and an interview with its founder, Aruban-Argentinian poet Arturo Desimone. 


In May this year I was lucky enough to escape cold and drizzly Scotland in order to travel to the Dutch Caribbean to the First International Poetry Encounter in Aruba, where I joined a consort of Latin American, Caribbean (and Scottish!) poets working in a range of languages. Rather than a full-blown festival, the programme combined public-facing events with a writing retreat setup that meant all of the poets developed very close friendships over the course of their stay. Where in most literary festivals I have attended there is little emphasis in fostering connections between the authors, the programme saw 11 of us poets sharing a household split between two houses in the capital Oranjestad, and doing everything together—from sharing meals, making each other cups of coffee, taking part in translation workshops and bookbinding workshops as well as Papiamento language lessons and organising expeditions to interesting sites, to morning yoga on the beach and late night sessions where we shared some of the poetry and music that were most meaningful and influential to our work and outlook on the world. A number of projects and collaborations were the inevitable result.

I was also fascinated by the island itself and all it has to offer, and the fact that as a rule of thumb, most of the locals speak at least four languages and switch between them with ease. One of the most interesting conversations that took place during the events was around minority languages, with Aruba being a beautiful example of linguistic diversity. Their national language is Papiamento, a creole language with traces of Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch and even some of the Amerindian languages that were originally spoken on the island. Papiamento is spoken at home, Dutch is the language of school instruction from primary school through to university, English is the language used for working in tourism, and Spanish historically has been an important influence due to the proximity with Venezuela and the dominance of Mexican and Latin American TV. In such a context, what does it mean for writers to write in Papiamento? This question echoed several times throughout the programme, with the aspects of (in)visibility, limited publishing spaces, and a lack of language standardisation, as well as a lack of formal instruction in the language, being some of the obstacles to poets opting to write in their mother tongue, yet there are still many who chose to do so. Spoken word poets such as Ralph Winedt choose to write in Papiamento because it offers a more immediate connection with the audience, whereas poets like Nydia Écury find in Papiamento a more accurate expression of their identity and inner world.The public events were well attended and the audiences were very engaged, often wanting to share their experiences and their own work. We even reached the papers and TV, where there was a heated and healthy debate among poets and critics, regarding to what extent a minority language should or should not be preserved and protected from the influence of culturally dominant languages such as English.

I spoke to Arubian-Argentinian poet Arturo Desimone, Founder and Creative Director of the International Poetry Encounter in Aruba, and this is what he had to say. 


J: Why a poetry encounter in Aruba?

A: Aruba never had such an event previously. We inhabit a region of cultures that highly value risk-taking poetry and poets, where the young also listen to their countries’ poets–as is certainly the case in Venezuela, Colombia, Nicaragua, Chile, where young people will likely know something about Rafael Cadenas, or Raúl Zurita, or can cite Rubén Darío. These are nearby, related societies and landscapes but we forget that, what with being an island. It’s time to reestablish and revisit our interdependencies, engage with surroundings, by way of a poetry-canoe or poem-submarine. Aruba is anchored in the same region as very popular mass events such as the Medellin Poetry Festival (which is a powerhouse among poetry fests), or the international poetry festival of Granada, Nicaragua.

J: Why do you say it is “not a festival”?

A: I do not have the capacity to do a festival on the scale of the mega-events for poetry in our region, let alone compete with their model. Also, a mere festival, even if executed on a miniature-golf scale, would be premature. Aruba, Curaçao, Surinam – this part of the Dutch Caribbean – remain enigmas for much of the world and even for the Americas. So it would be superficial, or unfair, to speed foreign poets in and out of the island, rather starting by building relationships with the desert island’s landscape and culture. Tourism has been too influential in conditioning our society, and we cannot miss the opportunity to let poets be inspired by the island, in ways that transcend very limiting touristic depictions. Jesús Montoya, a Venezuelan who writes in Portuguese now, began a series of poems about Aruba thanks to this mini-festival-slash-residency. Papiamento is like an organic version of Esperanto, it’s a fascinating language for modern-day poets who explore and experiment, like painters do, with the alchemy of language. Becoming for the first time acquainted with the language, or beginning that relation, is actually feasible within a short residency, but nigh impossible in the case of a rushed event lasting only a few days.

J: What inspired you most of the first edition?

A: The energy and dedication of the poets, the way they supported each other, and their curiosity and amazement towards the island. Most of the invitees were around my generation, born in the 1980s, and people at that point in life have an acute sense of describing themselves as geriatrics nearing retirement – which is always a joke in the eyes and ears of our elders – but over the course of the events and our living together, there emerged an extremely youthful and generous dynamic, which our audience also perceived and enjoyed greatly. It felt more like what happens in the performing arts when things work well. The invitees’ humility also: despite some of them being rather famous in their countries, we had a breathable absence of prima donna syndrome among the internationals. I’m part Argentine, mind you.

J: What does it mean to write in Papiamento?

A: To write in Papiamento means, foremost, to prove over and over again the existence of this language, that it lives, it is its own reality and this is often inspiring to behold, it is marvellous, thrilling. Second, it is harder to escape from long ongoing debates about the collective, the national, which is one reason why poetry remains the dominant literary form. Regardless of the personal values of the author, and even if the times have changed and the globe sailed on from the era of the struggles of national languages and national questions and their paladin poets (I tend think of Chaim Nachman Bialik with Hebrew, though other examples abound from the world over), whosoever chooses to write poetry or narrative in Papiamento is somehow confronted with this reality, we are in a different stage even if the historical context has changed. These are tongues of national identity and are important for democracy to function.

J: What next for the poetry encounter?

A: Next encounter continues the edifying work we began here, with an emphasis on comparative literature in minority languages and on the importance of translation, which remain the pivots and keystones of this project for the long haul. Not all poets will have to master a minority-language, of course, but there must be some relationship with translation or bilingualism. Expect some echoes of Ladino (Judeo-Spanish), supplemented with some North American bilingual poets.

J: Why North Americans if Aruba is already very much oriented towards tourism from the USA?

A: It’s an important challenge, given the profile of the North American visitor we’re accustomed to on Aruba because of the tourism industry: let’s see what other, lesser-known faces of North American culture we can bring to Aruba – post-Beach Boys – for our audience of locals and travellers alike. 

With the support from organisations such as the MANA National Archaelogical Museum of Aruba, the Dutch 
Foundation for Literature, Basha Foundation, Casa Looren América Latina, the Prins Bernhard Cultuurfonds Caribisch Gebied, UNOCA (Union of Arubian Cultural Organisations), the Community Museum San Nicolaas, and the Aruba Tourism Authority, Desimone is hoping to expand the International Poetry Encounter in Aruba to invite more publishers present in future events, to create more dialogue with other literatures of the Caribbean, to further involve the local communities, to increase the international visibility of the region, and to continue fostering cultural and interdisciplinary collaborations.

With such a wide-ranging scope, the International Poetry Encounter in Aruba is sure to have lasting ripples, and I am certain it will continue to grow. 

© Juana Adcock
Gemeente Rotterdam
Nederlands Letterenfonds
Stichting Van Beuningen Peterich-fonds
Ludo Pieters Gastschrijver Fonds
Lira fonds
LantarenVenster – Verhalenhuis Belvédère