While American exports to Cuba are a mere trickle, a UNLV professor is about to bring to a new product of immeasurable value to the Caribbean island nation: poetry.
Claudia Keelan, who has taught English at the university since 1996, is part of the first delegation of American poets to attend the Havana International Literary Festival.
“We were invited as Americans, and that has never happened,” Keelan said. “We want to go there and wage peace and show the good face of America.”
Keelan — who is an author of seven books of poetry — will be traveling with nine other poets, including former U.S. Poet Laureate Bob Hass and Helene Cardona, a poet, literary translator and actor.
“For our creative writing program to be part of this international mutual recognition of poetry across our two national boundaries is wonderful,” said Douglas Unger, a professor and director of UNLV’s creative writing international program. “It’s meaningful for our university and our state. I’m honored for Claudia to be a part of it.”
‘Something very important’
The delegation is the brainchild of Narlan Matos, a Brazilian-American poet who always dreamed of visiting Cuba. Matos made contact with Cuban poet Pierre Bernet, who accepted Matos’ proposal immediately.
“In the beginning, I thought it would be a small delegation,” Matos said. “But things became big, and all these really famous people accepted. I took a look around, and I realized that this is becoming something very important.”
Matos said the poets will participate in three poetry recitals a day over eight days in places of importance to Cuban history, including the house of Jose Marti, a Cuban national hero.
They will also visit American author Ernest Hemingway’s residence in Cuba.
“In a metaphorical way, when he (Hemingway) left Cuba, he closed the door somehow,” Matos said. “What we’re going to do is to reopen the literary door.”
The poets are visiting as President Donald Trump has tightened travel restrictions to the island for Americans.
“We decided we’re going anyway because we don’t feel endangered, and we want to show how literature bridges gaps,” Keelan said.
Keelan said the Cuba trip will add to her previous experience visiting other countries and using literature to forge connections.
Promoting democratic ideals
She was invited to an international event in Albania shortly after the collapse of Communism. She also has been to Berlin, Germany and Spain, where she participated in discussions about American literature as an engine for promoting democratic ideals.
“Cuban writers have been jailed for 40 years for writing what I write every day, for what I believe to be the truth about freedom,” Keelan said. “They have not had the power to speak in that way. You can still be jailed for saying something that’s not in (the) party line.”
She also believes the opportunity aligns perfectly with the mission of UNLV’s master of fine arts international program, which is to help students become citizens of the world rather than citizens of one country.
“That’s the space that literature inhabits,” she said. “It’s about where we meet, rather than where we’re separate.”
Unger agreed that the type of exchange that will take place this week can transcend political differences.
“I would hope they would continue and that this is the beginning of regular exchanges between the writers of Cuba and the United States,” he said.
Matos sees a grander possibility.
“This is history,” Matos said. “This delegation has produced a sparkle, and this sparkle … maybe it will become a sort of lantern, a new renaissance.”
Contact Natalie Bruzda at email@example.com or 702-477-3897. Follow @NatalieBruzda on Twitter.
Claudia Keelan’s poetry
— “O, Heart,” Barrow Street Press, 2014
— “Missing Her,” New Issues Press, 2009
— “The Devotion Field,” Alice James Books, 2004
— “Of & Among There Was a Locus(t),” Ashata Press, 2003
— “Utopic,” Alice James Books, 2000
— “The Secularist,” University of Georgia Press, 1997
— “Refinery,” Cleveland State University Press, 1994