The first Venezuelan-American artist I ever noticed was Devendra Banhart. His acoustic albums, Rejoicing in the Hands and Niño Rojo, were a minor revelation for me when I first heard them in December of 2004. It was during a visit to my family’s house in Florida, and I sat in my old room playing these records repeatedly for days, feeling a sense of immediate recognition. Those infinite riches I looped in a little room for two weeks would eventually have a big influence on my own work. In the fall of 2003, I had started the blog Venepoetics with the idea of translating and writing about a handful of Venezuelan poets. Venepoetics would turn out to be the beginnings of an anthology called Venezuelan Poetry: 1921-2001. These English translations of twenty Venezuelan poets are my version of Venezuelan-American folk culture, hybrid and lo-fi.


Venezuelan Poetry: 1921-2001 includes a handful of texts each by poets whose work is emblematic of 20th century Venezuelan literature. It goes without saying that my selection is incomplete and highly personal. I intend for it to serve as an introductory sample of poetry from a country that remains unknown on literature’s global stage. My choices are dependent on personal taste, as well as what I’ve been able to find during visits to Caracas between 2001 and 2010. Books from Venezuela rarely circulate abroad so this makes the task of researching Venezuelan poetry a matter of ingenuity, PDF files, photocopies, university libraries and contacts with Venezuelan writers via e-mail, blogs, Facebook and Twitter.


I have chosen two particular years as reference points for the anthology as a convenient frame for the 20th century. In 1921, the poet whose work inaugurates modern Venezuelan literature, José Antonio Ramos Sucre, published his first book, Trizas de papel [Paper Shreds], a collection of prose poems, essays and miniature short stories that was later incorporated into a subsequent book. During his lifetime, Ramos Sucre was acknowledged as a brilliant and admired poet whose work appeared regularly in Caracas newspapers and literary magazines. However, his radical reinterpretation of what poetry might accomplish was not fully understood in Venezuela until decades after his death. It was only in the sixties, when his work was championed by younger poets and critics aligned with the counterculture and the avant-garde, that his reputation as a foundational figure for Venezuelan literature was established.


In the spring of 2001, Juan Sánchez Peláez published a handful of new poems in Verbigracia, the now-defunct literary supplement of the newspaper El Universal. These would turn out to be his last published work during his lifetime. Sánchez Peláez’s first book, Elena y los elementos [Helen and the Elements], was a turning point in Venezuelan poetry when it appeared in 1951, serving as a guide for several generations of avant-garde writers with its ecstatic, surrealist poems imbued with an oneiric sensuality. Over several decades, Sánchez Peláez would go on to pare down his work, adopting a more austere and minimalist style that is exemplified by his elegant final poems. I interpret his death as representing the end of Venezuela’s 20th century in poetry. I first read Sánchez Peláez in Providence, RI in 1997 and everything after that encounter was utterly changed for me as a poet and reader. His work almost immediately pulled me into its dark orbit. It was Sánchez Peláez who led me to Ramos Sucre a decade later when I was researching Venezuelan literature in Caracas.


I’d like to briefly address the topic of Venezuelan invisibility for the reader to consider. While Latin American countries such as Argentina, Colombia, Mexico and Peru have produced writers whose work has been translated into English, with many of them becoming global classics, Venezuelan literature is terra incognita. When one mentions Venezuelan literature in the English-speaking world the immediate reaction is silence, as there are no reference points to guide readers. Even the ongoing political conflict in Venezuela that has made international headlines in recent years has not been enough to break that silence around Venezuelan literature. This is partly a problem of translation and research, as well as a result of the unequal circulation of culture in an age of empire. But the invisibility of Venezuelan literature has yet to be theorized and it remains an enigma. I’m fascinated and disturbed by this invisibility, so I translate.


In 1968, the poet and novelist Adriano González León (1931-2008), a member of the avant-garde writers and artists collective El Techo de la Ballena, published the novel País portatil [Portable Country]. González León’s book evokes the contrast between 19th century rural Venezuela and the sprawling Caracas of the late 20th century. Its protagonist is a Marxist guerrilla who carries a suitcase across Caracas on a dangerous secret mission. The book’s title is based on the notion of Venezuela as a compact, transferable entity, a country that after the arrival of petroleum in the 20th century shifted the national discourse away from its agrarian foundations toward a postmodern, fractured identity. Although País portátil was awarded the prestigious Seix Barral Biblioteca Breve Prize in Spain, González León’s work never circulated much beyond Latin America. The invisibility of Venezuelan literature is a problem that will have to be deciphered by those of us who care about the country’s contributions to that amorphous entity known as World Literature. With that in mind, I present Venezuelan Poetry: 1921-2001 as a portable country, a prelude to a much longer, more inclusive book. I think of these translations as a form of Venezuelan-American field recordings, DIY and outside the academy.


For readers interested in other translations of Venezuelan poetry, I recommend several titles: Juan Calzadilla, Journal with No Subject, translated by Katherine M. Hedeen & Víctor Rodríguez Núñez (Salt Publishing, 2009); Eugenio Montejo, The Trees: Selected Poems 1967-2004, translated by Peter Boyle (Salt Publishing, 2004); 5 Poems by Jose Ramos Sucre, translated by Cedar Sigo & Sara Bilandzija (Blue Press Books, 2008); my own translations of José Antonio Ramos Sucre, From the Livid Country (Auguste Press, 2012) and Selected Works (University of New Orleans Press, 2012); Ana Enriqueta Terán, The Poetess Counts to 100 and Bows Out: Selected Poems, translated by Marcel Smith (Princeton University Press, 2002).


I include three wonderful translations by my friends Anne Boyer and Cedar Sigo & Sara Bilandzija. Sigo and Bilandzija deserve credit for being the first translators of Ramos Sucre into English, with their 2008 chapbook listed above. Most of my own translations emerged from my experiences among the community of poets I was blessed to be a part of in Durham, North Carolina between 2006 and 2012. Among these comrades, Joseph Donahue and Dianne Timblin have been particularly helpful with their commentary on my translations. My wife, the Venezuelan fiction writer and scholar Dayana Fraile, has offered invaluable editorial suggestions. Finally, I’m grateful to Adam Clay, Matthew Henriksen and Tony Tost for their interest in this project and their support at Typo and Fascicle.




Spring 2013