Tuesday, November 26, 2013


On a narrow cobbled street near the river, my friend and I followed the muffled sound of socialization and at last found what we were looking for: La Casa de Max. We pushed open a big black door and found ourselves in a dimly let space that must have once been a garage or basement, and had been converted into a venue. A skull on the wall made me feel vaguely like I was in Little Five Points in Atlanta. Elongated wrought iron stick figures that seemed to dance and stretch supported a rounded raised stage.

At length from behind a gate that could have belonged in a haunted house came three masked men. They called themselves Los Poetas Pluscuamperfectos (The Pluperfect Poets). Two wore Mexican lucha libre masks, and one wore a black sack cloth over his face. Already in character, they began their performance—a mixture of theater and poetry reading that formed an extended and ironic ode to “el odio” (hatred). Max, whose house it was, puffed calmly on a cigarette in the shadowy background as he managed the remixed salon music from the twenties that played softly throughout.

Here I was, in el casco antiguo—the old part of town—enjoying a show that had nothing to do with the flamenco shows put on for guiris (foreigners), the baroque churches, the processions of virgins—in short, it had nothing to do with what one might expect to find in the old part of a storied Andalusian city like Sevilla. And yet, this experimental performance and funky venue, I have learned, are examples of something that is far from simplyan “alternative” to this other Sevilla that we think of. They are part of one of the many Sevillas present in this city that continues to surprise me. These Sevillas are not exclusive or independent of one another; they are different threads in the larger fabric of the city. Some of these threads, like the warp on a loom, are somewhat hidden away, while others, like the weft, are more obvious. But they nonetheless work together (thought not always harmoniously) to sustain the city’s vibrancy.

I recognized the poet with the Mexican accent behind his lucha libre mask. I can’t tell you who it was because the Pluscuamperfectos are supposed to be anonymous. But let’s just say that Iván Vergara, who had told me about this event, only appeared after the performance was over and the poets had left the stage. Iván, the energetic leader of the Plataforma Chilango Andaluz here in Sevilla, had invited me to read that Thursday at his venue, Ultramarinos, for the eighth annual installment of the Recital Chilango Andaluz, a dynamic poetry event that takes place in Mexico City and Sevilla.* After experiencing the spectacle in La Casa de Max, I wasn’t sure what to expect that Thursday, October 31st.

I arrived at Ultramarinos on Halloween huffing and puffing, certain I was late. It was fifteen minutes after the time I was supposed to be there to prepare for the performance. But no—I was among the first ones there, including the other poets who were supposed to read. Ultramarinos is accessed through a big black door much like the entrance to La Casa de Max, except that the door opens to a large corral, an old enclosure with a complex of houses. Not many of these still exist in the city. Ultramarinos is one of the houses in the corral—a venue with a cheap bar and books everywhere: old copies of classics interspersed with beautiful handmade cardboard books from Editorial Ultramarina. A few lucha libre masks hung from one wall.

All the poems read were accompanied by video, sound, images, or some combination of these. The poets ranged from nineteen or twenty to middle aged, and included both women and men. I closed the show with a few pieces accompanied by Mexican mariachi music and Spanish fandangos. Squinting in the darkness and addressing this cozy place was a far different experience from performing poetry in Lowell Lecture Hall at Harvard’s Presencia Latina. It was as if it was all a bit of a secret.
My poetry reading at Ultramarinos

At a nearby bar called Un Perro Andaluz,** things were bigger and louder. A reddish hue tinted everything, including the old books, the white piano, and the writing on the walls. Two poets named Adriana read their poems to a crowd that drank and clapped and listened and laughed in the light of a lamp that was shaped like a woman but had a shade for a head. It was the first of a revival of the series Las Noches del Cangrejo, a once-monthly event put together by Cangrejo Pistolero Ediciones and spearheaded by the Cangrejo Pistolero himself, the poet and editor Antonio García Villarán.

On the second of the revived Noches del Cangrejo, the Perro welcomed a pair of artists nicknamed Yellow and Vicio. They combined theater, music, and poetry in a series of performances that had us all laughing. Perhaps the Sevilla of the Noches del Cangrejo is not the Sevilla of the Poets of the Generation of 1927, who sought to both revive the elusive poetry of the Baroque poet Luis de Góngora and to break with modernismo. Or perhaps, in a way, it still is. Perhaps this is the twenty-first century, crisis-driven response to more traditional poetry readings. Perhaps Perfopoesía—performance poetry—is a re-enactment the theatrics of the surrealist movement, but in a new, updated way that serves the needs of Sevilla and the Sevillanos of 2013.

Antonio García Villarán and Nuria Mezquita present La Noche del Cangrejo in El Perro Andaluz

I’ve found other Sevillas, too. In Especie de Espacios, a bookstore right around the corner from a dance school that serenades the street with flamenco stomps, poets, novelists, and photographers comingle and peruse books by Sevilla natives that share shelves with the Chilean Raúl Zurita’s Zurita and translations of Philip Roth novels. A section of the Mercado de Triana where I buy fresh groceries has recently been converted into a theater. Money may be lacking for Sevillanos—but not creativity, and an urge to re-invent and invigorate a city that is much more than the Catholic, traditional Sevilla that the tourists see.

And yet the traditional Sevillas do exist. Just this past Sunday I hurried outside to watch the procession I knew must be happening because of the loud, measured drumbeats I heard, as well as the throngs of well-dressed people passing by my window—including small children in their best camel, cherry red, and pastel blue outfits who chased each other and laughed beneath my balcony before their parents hurried them on. A huge float with a baby Jesus rising from an ornate complex of roses approached the entrance of a church. A large crowd of young and old was gathered to watch. A toddler kept repeating to his father who was about to duck back under the float to help carry it, “Que te vaya bien, Papi! Que te vaya bien!” “I hope it goes well for you, Daddy!”

A photo of a similar procession of a virgin in Triana. The virgins in Bar Garlochi resemble this.

How are we to make sense of this mixture of old and new, this perpetuation and rupture of tradition all at once? One bar in the Alfalfa neighborhood in the center of town offers a postmodern approach to addressing this question. A crying virgin with a triangular golden robe that could easily be atop a traditional processional float greets visitors at the entrance of Bar Garlochi. Enter and the red and gold baroque niches and figures are too much to take in in one night. In place of a virgin in one window-niche is the latest heiress of the fortune of the Duchess of Alba. Here you can enjoy the house cocktail Sangre de Cristo (Blood of Christ) and you might run into a novelist who is drinking to help him decide what to tell his agent who wants to change the title of his book. Behind the bar, the big-bellied owner serves drinks, keeps tabs, and surveys his blasphemous church and its clientele contentedly.

The city I am getting to know is a multifaceted mixture of the sacred and the profane. In this post I have attempted to provide a few snapshots of the Sevillas I have encountered. There are still many, many Sevillas of whose existence I am not even aware—and a year here is not enough time to discover them all.

*Chilango is slang for someone from Mexico City, and Andaluz refers to being from the Spanish region of Andalucía.
**A reference to Salvador Dalí and Luis Buñuel’s film Un Chien Andalou