San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

U.S. woman to translate and publish Costa Rica poetry

From the print edition

Julia Guez, pronounced like “guess,” recently arrived in Costa Rica on a Fulbright fellowship, to take a look at Costa Rica’s poetry. Her idea: to translate the poetry into English and introduce it to the world of literature. She found that Costa Rica has a wealth of poetry and literature, and that Costa Ricans are certainly proud of it.

“There is a lot going on here in the way of poetry; salons, tertulias [literary circles], readings, festivals and events. The scene is very alive,” Guez reported. 

She has met with poets and writers for readings and roundtables all over the country. Through the Culture Ministry and the universities, she has made many contacts with the literary world. A poetry event at Puggo’s Restaurant that Guez attended in Montezuma drew “about a hundred poets reading their work, and an enthusiastic audience.”

Guez found that Ticos appreciate their poets and writers, particularly Jorge DeBravo, Carlos, Luis Fallas (known as Calufa), Carmen Lyra and Carmen Naranjo. “Everyone is familiar with Lyra’s ‘Cuentos de Tia Panchita’ and some of her other works,” she said. 

She’s right. Lyra is pictured on the {20,000 bill. Calufa’s works are studied in high school. “For a small country, Costa Rica has produced many important writers and poets, and there are many poets in the general population,” Guez said. Costa Rica is also known for its ubiquitous bombas (couplets), a form of poetry. 

“Poets give a country an identity,” Guez said. “Ruben Daría in Nicaragua, Jose Martí in Cuba, Pablo Neruda in Chile and Octavio Paz in Mexico are known internationally. And Jorge DeBravo [1938-1967] is Costa Rica’s national poet. His birthday, January 31, is celebrated here with poetry workshops and readings.”  

Guez is especially interested in the period from 1910-1940 in Costa Rica, which produced writers such as Fallas, Lyra and DeBravo. “Those were years of social foment, of rights and causes which influenced poetry and literature,” she said.

Guez came to Costa Rica with a goal – to translate and publish an almost unknown work of poetry, “Testimonio de Entonces,” or Testament of Then, by Mario Picado Umaña. Picado lived from 1928-1988 and was the adopted son of Clorito Picado, the man who developed the snake anti-venom. This work is barely mentioned on the Internet, but Guez found it intriguing as a historical account of Costa Rican history, beginning with the arrival of Columbus in Limón. The University of Costa Rica Press published the book in 1978, and Guez has begun working on a translation.

Her interest in Costa Rica’s poetry came about in an unconventional way. A Texas native, she graduated with an English major from Rice University and spent two years in Houston instructing English with Teach for America. Her students came from 70 different countries with a total of 42 languages. From that experience she was determined to learn Spanish by living in Argentina for two years. Work on a master’s degree in arts at Columbia University in New York followed. 

Two years ago she needed a vacation, so she came to Costa Rica and stopped in at the Goodlight used bookstore in Alajuela, north of San José. There, she discovered “Testimonio de Entonces” and other Costa Rican poetry books on a top shelf. 

“I cleaned out the whole shelf, about 15 books,” she said. 

She began thinking of how to present this wealth of work, but needed time off and financial help to make it happen. “I started working on my application for a grant on the plane, writing notes on napkins,” she said. 

Her acceptance into the Fulbright program arrived April 1, 2011, and she landed in Costa Rica in September. She’ll stay until July, but she isn’t sure yet how she will use all that she’s learned. 

For now she is exploring the country’s  poetry and literature. One stop on her agenda will be San Ramón – the City of Poets – in Alajuela. There she will learn about poets of the past and meet those of today.

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