San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Inmates share their work at annual Costa Rican poetry festival

On Thursday afternoon, seven poets arrived at the Alianza Francesa in San José with a cadre of armed guards wearing flak jackets. The poets were dressed in unremarkable attire, looking ordinary and giving no indication that security was required because they are also inmates at La Reforma Prison north of the capital. Another surprise was the eloquence with which they wrote about their lives behind bars.

Smiling poet Roberto Guadamúz took the microphone and said, “Thank you for coming out this afternoon, and thank you for the opportunity.” Then he began to read.

“After 18 years/I return to the village/to recover something/nothing is like yesterday./Known things/are gone/now I will be a stranger.”

One by one, the seven men read their works, and the audience followed along in printed chapbooks, which were handed out for free. The booklet, “Harvest on the Other Side of the Sun,” is a 25-page anthology, collected and edited by Norberto Salinas, director of the 12th International Poetry Festival.

Since 2009, Salinas has taught classes on a volunteer basis at the penitentiary, where he cultivates the inmates’ literary talents. The project is a collaboration between the prison’s Departments of Psychology and Education and Salinas’ own organization, The House of Poetry Foundation. To whit, the reading at the Alianza Francesa was more than an opportunity to publically share their work; the event punctuated the Poetry Festival, which has been unfolding throughout the Central Valley since last Sunday. As in past years, the festival has featured a variety of poets, including local writers such as Ana Istarú and far-flung authors like Javier Bosalongo of Spain and Muhsin Al Ramli of Iraq.

Readings have taken place in a variety of towns and venues, from the Palestra Theater in Ciudad Colón to the Museum of Costa Rican Art in La Sabana, yet the Alianza Francesa reading was the most unconventional. The presentation had a profound impact on its audience: During a talkback session, one woman stood and said, “This isn’t a question, but I am so grateful to hear your words.”

A young man added, “It seems so important to hear about your reality.”

At the conclusion of the reading, Salinas spoke passionately about his work with the inmates and the group migrated to an adjacent art gallery, where a buffet table of pastries and drinks awaited. The corrections officers lingered in the background, keeping a watchful eye, but the inmates mingled openly with guests, answering questions and posing for pictures.

A final presentation is scheduled for tonight, Oct. 25, at 7 p.m. Poetry fans will have to travel some distance for the closing ceremony, as it takes place in Parque Vargas in the Caribbean town of Limón, but for connoisseurs of Spanish verse, the journey should be more than worthwhile.


Readers from the inmates’ poetry workshop present their work at the Alianza Francesa.

Robert Isenberg

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