Villamil: The Role of Poets

In her interview for Voices in Wartime, Antonieta Villamil talks about the disappearance of her brother. She states: “Disappearance means we don’t know where, we don’t know how, we just don’t know. He went out one day, like anybody else, and never came back. He had no reason to leave. No reason. He just never came back.” In the excerpt from her interview below, Villamil talks about what she believes the role of a poet is in society.


What do you think is the role of the poet?

Poets are the critics of feelings and experience.  We do pretty much what the mathematicians do with numbers, but we do it with language.  Poetry for me is at the foundation of culture.

At this moment we are speaking of poetry but we’re also recording.  We’re recording a memory of the human experience that will last a long time.  That memory has to be put into words first, of image and color, and then our human experience takes off to a place in time and permanence.

I think poets are witnesses in charge of making human experience permanent.  One of the funny things about poetry is that you will never see a bestseller poet.  Maybe, after 50 to 100 years, you can make it into the news, like Neruda.  So I’ll be very lucky if people hear a little bit of what comes through me.

Children, for the poet, are the eyes into the future.  You cannot help but to realize that what you are writing, even though it may sometimes sound wordy or complicated or deep or dense, you’re writing for that child. Hopefully they’ll be reading that when they’re 40 or 50. I’ve seen poems change people’s lives.

Is the role of writers and poets in Latin America more vital than here in the United States?

The role of the poet everywhere, not only in the United States but also in the rest of America, is to be the conscience of the culture, of the community; not only by writing, but also by reading.  There are a lot of young poets performing their poetry now because we have mass communication like radio and movies. That seems to be getting people to listen to poets.

It is a challenge but I think that poets resort to all kind of mediums.  We collaborate with painters, with musicians, with dancers, with film people.  So there is this active, organic life of the writer and the poet within the community.

What else can poets do?

Organize and be aware of their surroundings.

One very important thing that poets can do is bring poetry from up in the clouds and put it on earth.  Put jeans and tennis shoes and a T-shirt on poetry and send it walking the streets to pick up on what’s going on in the present. Hopefully poetry at that moment can find the same rhythm as a human breathing.

How has the political situation that you grew up with in Colombia affected your poetry?

The political situation I grew up in affects my writing, and I write about social content a lot.  I also write about love. But when I write about love, even an erotic poem, I speak of something that exists within a social context.

I think that we are individuals, but we are also a collective, a community. Everything that has to do with social issues influences our individual lives.  Love, the things we see, regular daily life, is all influenced by what’s going on around you.  How you make your bread, how you speak of something, you cannot get away from it.  That affects our individuality and for me it’s very important to speak of that place where you can be an individual with taste and eccentricities and whatever.

But then that social context is there, present.  It’s the stuff of our history and it’s the stuff of our experience.

Questions for Reflection on Antonieta Villamil’s Interview: The Role of Poets
  1. According to Villamil what role does a poet serve? How is this different, or is it different from what was expressed by Chris Abani?
  2. Comment on Villamil’s statement that “poetry is the foundation of culture.”
  3. What role does memory play in culture, in poetry and in the human experience?
  4. Villamil talks about children and how they are “the eyes into the future.” Comment on what this means to you.
  5. Why is it important for poets to collaborate with other artists as Villamil suggests?
  6. How does Villamil explain the social context of poetry?
  7. Research the current political situation of Colombia. Include explanation of the continuous evolution of the country’s armed conflict, its problems of indebtedness, and legislative policies that are an immense challenge to the government.
  8. Prepare a report on the practice of disappearances in Colombia and other Latin American countries. Present as many facts and figures as you can about the practice, showing how wide-spread it is, and how people locally and internationally are working to bring the practice to the forefront of peoples’ thinking and concern.
  9. Villamil refers to Neruda in her interview. Pablo Neruda has the honor of being named Latin America’s people’s poet. Research Neruda’s life, especially his involvement with the Spanish Civil War, and his friendship with Federico Garcia Lorca. Read some of Neruda’s writings during this time and include them in your report.