Found Poets

Rebuffed by mainstream publishing, a group of exile writers has been busy producing darkly astonishing accounts of life after Cuba

From the raft he saw kaleidoscopic
mirrors reflect the light defeated
of a beautiful dusk that, in its falling
descended to the most plebeian of topics.

Fluvial city of the south of Florida
facing Havana, rose of the tropics,
you raise your telescopic stained-glass eyes:
obscure bonanza darkly forewarned.

Guided by stolid gulf stream currents
the river mouth he ignored, the outlet overshot,
and passed under steely bridges
-- all raised to make the tallest talk --

that have seen a thousand innocents arrive
from historic seas of insanity.

Confesiones del Estrangulador de Flagler Street
Nestor Diaz de Villegas

Ramon Alejandro and his two young sons live in a rented Mediterranean on the fringe of Coral Gables that a real estate agent would refer to as cozy, meaning small. The sunny, sparsely furnished living room must serve double duty as Alejandro's painting studio. And the artist's bedroom closet has recently become the archive of a fledgling publishing venture of historic, if neglected, import.

Alejandro has the kind of robust good looks that ripen with time, and, at age 54, he has the energy of a man half his age. He rummages around in the closet, where his clothes hang like curtains amid stacks of books and manuscripts that are piled on the floor and stuffed onto shelves. Emerging triumphantly from between two shirts, his thick gray hair swirled chaotically, Alejandro dumps an armload of stapled and bound photocopies on the bed. He throws up his hands and grins. To his delight, he has been besieged.

A year ago, with $40,000 he earned from sales of his large oil paintings, Alejandro began editing and illustrating a series of books, primarily poetry, by various exile authors. So far the Cuban-born painter has created, with a French publishing company, five handsome, heavy-paper volumes in editions of just 500 copies each. They are sold only at the Libreria Universal bookstore on SW Eighth Street and by Alejandro, who frequently carries copies with him in a plastic grocery bag when he leaves the house.

Despite the books' limited availability, word of the project has spread quickly among Cuban-born writers, and he has received a stream of submissions from poets and novelists living on and off the island. Frustrated authors corner him at parties, in stores, and in restaurant parking lots. Friends appear at his house for afternoon tea bearing manuscripts along with bakery boxes. The mail brings a flotilla of manila envelopes.

The best-known Cuban emigre literature has typically been a combination of nostalgic fantasy and political memoir. Established American publishers continue to scout for the next The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love or Dreaming in Cuban, lured by the heroic romanticism of Latin lovers and glorified stories of the bourgeoisie who came to the United States in the early Sixties.

But Alejandro has instead sought out writers who expose the underbelly of exile experience in works that explore poverty and isolation, celebrate decadence, unflinchingly examine Cuban culture, and lambaste the status quo on both shores. The latest book in Alejandro's series, a sardonic autobiographical novel by Lorenzo Garcia Vega, is called Vilis, which can be translated as both Vile and Bilious.

The next title to be published is Confesiones del Estrangulador de Flagler Street (Confessions of the Flagler Street Strangler), by Nestor Diaz de Villegas, a gothic suite of sonnets narrated by a drug-crazed, whore-killing balsero.

"This is the first time that this kind of writing is really being exposed," Diaz says. "The books have been written, they've been there, but now awareness about them is expanding, and I think that's the work of Ramon. Before I met Ramon I was a nonperson here. I was never taken seriously. Now people are starting to listen."

"He's changed everything for Cuban writers in Miami," the poet stresses. "Ramon's not going for big names. He's here looking high and low for people."

Actually, Alejandro has not had to search very hard. While the writers he has chosen to publish are unknown to a large audience, they are part of an extensive literary circle of Cuban authors and bibliophiles living in Miami. These writers pass well-worn books and photocopies to each other in much the same way that censored material has been disseminated in Cuba. They also meet regularly to read and critique poetry.

Some of them lead lives of relative obscurity in exile, despite estimable histories. Alejandro, for instance, knew Garcia Vega had been an esteemed member of the Cuban intelligentsia of the Forties. Three decades later he discovered the 71-year-old novelist bagging groceries at a Publix in southwest Miami.

While kismet seems to bring Alejandro together with most of the writers, he's made sure that his selections reflect the varied voices of exile. The novice editor wants to include all generations of living Cuban writers in the series. To that end, the first book he marshaled into print was Trenos (Dirge), poems by 59-year-old Armando Alvarez Bravo, known as a poet in Cuba but recognized most widely here as the art and literature critic for El Nuevo Herald. For Alvarez Bravo, the obscurity of Miami's Spanish-language writers is due to one simple fact: "People don't read," he says. "They're too busy watching TV or going to malls. Nobody reads. People aren't acquainted with the wonders of poetry. What poetry needs is an audience. I hope there's an audience here for these books."

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