Latin American Market – Seven Sisters, London

I meant to hand out this poem – ‘La extranjera’ by Gabriela Mistral and my translation ‘The foreigner’ – in Chile, but it never seemed like the right time. I found the poem in The Biblioteca Regional Gabriela Mistral in La Serena, and later visited Montegrande, the tiny village where she grew up and is now buried.


Mistral is hugely famous in Chile. She was the first Latin American author to win a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1945, and her face is even on the 5,000 Chilean peso bank note. So maybe it made more sense to hand the poem and my translation out in the UK, where less people have heard of her, and what better place to do so than my local Latin American market in Tottenham?

The market is just opposite Seven Sisters tube. It is very easy to miss because it is hidden behind shops and doesn’t draw attention to itself, but it’s a great place for a café con leche and I will definitely be spending more time there to keep on practising my Spanish!



I had forgotten how different handing out poems in England is compared to South America: here, a lot more people say no. And in London, especially, people don’t have time to stop and chat. My favourite response was the man who held up his hands and said “sorry!” as if he really had no choice but to refuse a poem. But it was a good idea to stand near this market, where I could catch people on their way out and offer them the poem in Spanish, which I think they appreciated. I was happy to see two men, who had just met up outside the tube, looking at the poem and translations together and talking about them as they walked down the high street.


La extranjera

    a Francis de Miomandre

Habla con dejo de sus mares bárbaros,
con no sé qué algas y no sé qué arenas;
reza oración a dios sin bulto y peso,
envejecida como si muriera.
En huerto nuestro que nos hizo extraño,
ha puesto cactus y zarpadas hierbas.
Alienta del resuello del desierto
y ha amado con pasión de que blanquea,
que nunca cuenta y que si nos contase
sería como el mapa de otra estrella.
Vivirá entre nosotros ochenta años,
pero siempre será como si llega,
hablando lengua que jadea y gime
y que le entienden sólo bestezuelas.
Y va a morirse en medio de nosotros,
en una noche en la que más padezca,
con sólo su destino por almohada,
de una muerte callada y extranjera.




The foreigner

    for Francis de Miomandre

She speaks with an accent of her rough seas
with some sort of seaweed and some sort of sand;
she prays to a god without size or weight,
so old she’s almost dead.
That garden of ours has become strange to us,
she filled it with cactuses and clawing grass.
She breathes with desert wind
and has loved with whitened passion
but she never tells and if she did tell
it would be like the map of another star.
She could live between us for eighty years
but it would always feel like she just arrived,
speaking a tongue that pants and groans
and is only heard by animals.
And she will die among us too
one night at the height of her misery,
with only her destination for a pillow,
a death silent and foreign.


“¡Es cultural!”

Biblioteca Municipal de Puno

My mum came to Peru to visit me. When I told her we would be staying on the floating islands of Uros on Lake Titikaka in Puno, the first thing she asked was: “will we be able to watch the Champions League final there???”

The day we arrived, after we had been told about the history of these amazing islands and met the family we were staying with – who have lived and maintained their island with reeds and roots for generations – we asked for a lift back into Puno to watch the big English final.



During half-time, I popped out to hand out the poem ‘Compañera’ by Carlos Oquendo de Amat, and my translation ‘Companion’. It comes from his book 5 Metros de Poemas (1927) – and it really is five metres of poems! Each page of the book folds out to make one long poem. I bought the book in Cusco for 20 soles (about 5 pounds) after being introduced to it by a good salesman who told me the price was offensive to Carlos, who was never appreciated in his own time, and died penniless in Puno.

I wandered out of the fancy, empty restaurant where we had found to watch the game, and was just about to ask tourist information if there was a library nearby when I saw the words ‘Casa de la Cultura’ on the high street, and a little library right under it. It was closed but it would do.

The people of Puno seemed very friendly, and lots of them stopped to ask me what I was doing. I met Olid who works in the National Archives of Puno: “con muchos documentos importantes” (with many important documents!). He said he he likes poetry: “¡es cultual!” and had heard of Carlos before.

I also met two friends Liliana and David, who tried to read the poem out in both English and Spanish but mainly just giggled a lot. They thanked me for: “la oportunidad” and ran off, still giggling.




Tus dedos sí que sabían peinarse como nadie lo hizo
mejor que los peluqueros expertos de los transatlánticos
ah y tus sonrisas maravillosas sombrillas para el calor
tú que llevas prendido un cine en la mejilla

junto a ti mi deseo es un niño de leche

cuando tú me decías
la vida es derecha como un papel de cartas

y yo regaba la rosa de tu cabellera sobre tus hombros

por eso y por la magnolia de tu canto

qué pena
la lluvia cae desigual como tu nombre





Your fingers knew how to comb like no one else
better than expert hairdressers from across the atlantic
and your marvelous smiles umbrellas for the heat
you who wear a cinema on your cheek

when with you my desire is a child of milk

when you told me
life is right like a piece of white paper

and I watered the rose of your hair around your shoulders

because of this and because of the magnolia in your song

it’s such a shame
the rain falls uneven just like your name

¡Feliz día de la Madre!

Plaza Túpac Amaru – Cusco

This Sunday was Mother’s Day in Peru, so I decided to give out a poem about mothers. The poem also happens to by Peru’s national poet, Cesar Vallejo – who clearly loved his mama. It comes from a sequence of poems called Trilce (a made up word), published in 1922, which features the word ‘madre’ (mother) 19 times in the 77 poems.


Often described as a pre-surrealist Surrealist, Vallejo’s poem was hard to translate, but also a lot of fun. My Spanish co-worker Silvia assured me that it doesn’t make much sense in the original either, so I just enjoyed myself playing around with the strange and often seemingly random images chosen by this visionary poet.

I intended to hand out the poem on Sunday – outside a big Mother’s Day festival in Tupac Amaru Square – but all the printing shops were closed to mark the occasion, so I went back the next day to hand it out in front of a pet shop…




Tahona estuosa de aquellos mis bizcochos

pura yema infantil innumerable, madre.

Oh tus cuatro gorgas, asombrosamente

mal plañidas, madre: tus mendigos.
Las dos hermanas últimas, Miguel que ha muerto
y yo arrastrando todavía
una trenza por cada letra del abecedario.

En la sala de arriba nos repartías
de mañana, de tarde de dual estiba,
aquellas ricas hostias de tiempo, para
que ahora nos sobrasen
cáscaras de relojes en flexión de las 24
en junto parados.

¡Madre, y ahora! Ahora, en cuál alvéolo

quedaría, en qué retoño capilar,
cierta migaja que hoy se me ata al cuello
y no quiere pasar. Hoy que hasta
tus puros huesos estarán harina
que no habrá en qué amasar
¡tierna dulcera de amor!
hasta en la cruda sombra, hasta en el gran molar
cuya encía late en aquel lácteo hoyuelo
que inadvertido lábrase y pulula ¡tú lo viste tanto!
en las cerradas manos recién nacidas.

Tal tierra oirá en tu silenciar,
cómo nos van cobrando todos
el alquiler del mundo donde nos dejas
y el valor de aquel pan inacabable.

Y nos lo cobran, cuando, siendo nosotros

pequeños entonces, como tú verías,
no se lo podíamos haber arrebatado
a nadie: cuando tú nos lo diste,
¿di, mamá?



Hot oven that baked my favourite cupcakes

pure childish gold innumerable, mother.

Your four whirlpools, surprisingly
deep sobs, mother: your dirty laundry.
Two sisters left, Miguel gone
and me still dragging along
a curl for each letter of the alphabet.

In the room upstairs you divide for us
in the morning, in the evening, in dual stowage
those rich hosts of time, all
that we have left now
husks of bent watches bent on 24
stopped on the dot.

And now, mother! Now into which socket

will I fit, which blood vessel,
which exact crumb that today is tying up my neck
and doesn’t want to pass. Today until
your bones become flour
that will never be kneaded.
The sickly sweetness of love!
until the harsh shadow, the great molar
whose gums are throbbing behind that milky dimple
that unnoticed ploughing and swarming – you know it so well!      
in the closed hands of the newly born.

The earth will hear it in your silence
the charge of everything
the rent of the world you leave for us
and the value of that endless bread.

And it charges us, even when we are
children then, as you would see,
it can’t be taken away
by anyone; just like you said,
say something, mama?

“!Es mi mercado!”

Mercado Modelo de San Sebastian – Cusco

Because of the title of this week’s poem, I decided to hand it out in front of a market, instead of a library. The poem, ‘Mercado’, comes from July Solís’s debut collection, Leche Derramada (Paracaídas, 2015). July is a poet from Lima who you can watch reading another poem from the collection here

When I got to my local indoor market in San Sebastian I found a huge tent selling books right outside! So I sort of had my library too.



I was met by lots of people happy to receive a poem, often struggling to take one because they were holding so many bags of groceries. One teenage girl with a big smile asked: “¿cuestan?” (“do they cost anything?”) and reached for her purse, but I reassured her they were free.

Then I met Marcosa, who came over to ask what I was giving out. When I gave her the poem she immediately folded it open and began to read aloud. She told me she liked poetry, and when I asked what she thought of this one, her answer was to read out some of her favourite lines out again, as if in reverence.

Though she said she couldn’t understand my English version of the poem, she seemed fascinated by the fact of translation. With her finger she followed from one Spanish line across the middle to the same line in English: “aquí el poema está en español, y aquí está otra vez, exactamente lo mismo…” (“here the poem is in Spanish, and here it is again, exactly the same…”).

It turned out Marcosa has her own stall in the market – that even sells fish! It was closed for the day, but she showed me where it was quickly before being told off by her son for not helping him to tidy up! When I asked if I could take a photo of her in front of the market, she replied: “si, es mi mercado!” (“yes, it’s my market!”). 




Y dar el pescado sin las branquias
cortar la cabeza
o quitar el espinazo donde sujetarnos
sería una pena más

El dolor descargándose en las alas muertas
y en la balanza tramposa
las patitas estiradas
alcanzando su última madrugada

Pagar un precio justo es el gran dilema:
todos los animales gritando en tu monedero
y ese sol cinquenta que regresa a casa
se avergüenza en sus dos caras de tu huida

Alguna vez alguien pagará esta voz que sobrevive?
este nervio mordido que tragaste
esta sangre estancada en tu mal aliento
o estos huesos que entierran los perros.



And give the fish without the gills
cut the head
or remove the spine which we deem
one more nuisance

Pain unloading itself in the dead wings
and crooked scales
little legs stretched
reaching towards its final dawn

Paying a fair price is the big dilemma:
all the animals screaming in your purse
and this loose change that returns home
ashamed with both its faces of your escape

Will anyone ever pay for this voice that survives?
this bitten nerve that you swallowed
this stagnant blood in your bad breath
or these bones that the dogs bury.

“If you didn’t exist…”

La Librería Dragona, Cusco

I have been in Cusco for a month now, and have started working full-time for a charity called LAFF (Latin American Foundation for the Future).

So far the only library I’ve found is a bookshop, La Dragona – recently opened by a former LAFF volunteer, Rocio Diaz – where you can also get a subscription to take out books. They also run lots of events, like a poetry and music event for International Women’s Day, and reading groups. La Biblioteca Municipal is just around the corner, but is having refurbishment work done at the moment.


I decided to stand somewhere between the two when handing out the poem ‘Rescate’ by Elvira Sastre from her book Baluarte (Valparaíso, 2014), and my translation, ‘Rescue’. Elvira is a poet and translator from Segovia, who also performs her poetry alongside musicians.

Strangely, being so close to the centre of Cusco, I didn’t see many tourists. There seemed to be lots of mothers with children on their way somewhere. I met Andy (a Peruvian with an English-sounding name) who works in a local coffee shop. He likes poetry but prefers writing it to reading it. But when I walked back past the shop I caught him reading this one intently!




Si no existieras tú,
si fueras, no sé,
un tirabuzón trenzado,
una dicotomía entre tu alma y tu cuerpo,
ganas que se quedan en ganas.
Si fueras, cómo decirlo,
alguien que se ajusta a los límites de los días,
una sospecha,
un intento.

Si no existieras tú,
si fueras otra cosa
con tu misma cara, voz y manos,
pero otra cosa,
en mi fin y en tu cabo,
te atravesaría entera,
te rompería las barreras,
te cruzaría de norte a sur pisando tu brújula
como el náufrago que traspasa los bosques para llegar al mar
y te habitaría con mis barcos
en la proa de tu esencia
sin ningún tipo de duda
ni tiempo
el rescate.





If you didn’t exist,
if you were, I don’t know,
a plaited curl,
a dichotomy between your soul and your body,
better than the remnants of wishes.
If you were, how to say it,
someone who fits within the limits of days,
a suspicion,
an intent.

If you didn’t exist,
if you were something else
with your same face, voice and hands,
but something else,
when my all is said and yours is done,
I would pierce right through you,
I would break your barriers,
I would cross you from north to south trampling on your compass
like the castaway who crosses forests to reach the sea,
and I would inhabit you with my boats
in the prow of your essence
without doubt
of the imminent

“Poesía es muy rico”

¡Feliz día del amor! 

For the last two weeks I have been travelling through the Central Andean Highlands of Peru. I managed to visit the library in Tarma – an impressive building on the central square with helpful staff and a big reading room to hide in on rainy days – and a much smaller one in Jauja – camouflaged on the high street and closed because the only librarian was on holiday. But I never managed to find one in Huancavelica, where I only stayed for 2 nights and it was too cold and rainy to persist in searching!

Biblioteca Municipal Adolfo Vienrich, Tarma
Biblioteca Municipal, Jauja


Biblioteca Municipal Luis Carranza, Ayacucho

Now I am in Ayacucho, a bigger city with a bit less rain and slightly lower altitude, where I am staying for a week and have had time to translate a poem and hand it out today. I was surprised to find that inside the library – on the side of a local market in a bustling neighbourhood – is a small and tranquil reading room, with light green walls and white desks. It is fronted by Juanito, who told me about Luis Carranza who founded the library in 1843, and found me two anthologies of Ayacuchan poetry to peruse. When I asked if he liked poetry he said: “por su puesta, poesía es muy rico” (of course, poetry is very rich).

In each of the anthologies there was only one woman poet, so I translated one poem by each of them. I decided to give out the poem ‘Maestra de escuela’ by Serafina Chuchón Huamaní – and my translation ‘School Teacher’ – because it’s Valentine’s day and it seemed fitting to give out a love poem to good teachers everywhere.




When I came back to show Juanito the poem he said “muy bien” and tucked it safely into his jacket pocket. While handing out the poem I received a lot of ¿por qué? and ¿para qué?‘s, but a lot of big smiles and gracias‘s as well. I met a man from Chile who asked if I had heard of Gabriela Mistral, and recited a Pablo Neruda poem to me. He said he had moved to Peru because he was looking for love, but walked off before telling me if he’d found it yet.


Maestra de escuela

Maestra, nombre universal
luces místicas, tornasol
te ancló el vendaval
tu presencia festival
para niños, felicidad.

Toda la humanidad
de los continentes
de todas las épocas
te ofrendan gratitud
por siempre “Maestra”.

Maestra, los niños sueñan
paz, tranquilidad del aula
paredes encontradas
de bullicios y alegrías
espejo que no traiciona.

Maestra infatigable
paciencia hecha canción
carisma hecha bendición
comprensión angelical
soporte sin igual.

Maestra, sublime en valores
siempre de pie
forjaste Jefes de Estado
con dedicación y esmero.

inculas patriotism a generaciones
el respeto mutuo
amor filial entre hermanos
y amor a los “padres”.

hoy luces cabellos blancos
signo de años vividos
junto al futuro hombre
descanso ¡Misión cumplida!




School Teacher

Teacher, universal name
mystical lights, shining
the gale anchored you
your festival presence
for children, happiness.

All of humanity
every continent
every era
we offer you gratitude
forever “Teacher”.

Teacher, the children dream
of peace, calm in the classroom
walls confused
by chaos and joy
mirror that never lies.

Untiring teacher
patience made song
charisma made blessing
angelic comprehension
support unequalled.

Teacher, sublimely secure
always on foot
you feign leadership
with dedication and care.

you instil patriotism in generations
the mutual respect
love between siblings
and love of parents.

today light white hairs
signal years well lived
beside the future generation
rest – mission complete!


“Before internet we used to read books”

Biblioteca Municipal Ricardo Palma, Miraflores – Lima

This week I gave out the poem ‘Secreto de Familia’ by Blanca Varela – and my translation ‘Family Secret’ – from her first collection Ese Puerto Existe (1959).

Born in Lima in 1926, Varela is a Peruvian national treasure. Here is a child reading out her poem ‘Fútbol’ (in spanish):

The poem I chose to give out, ‘Secreto de Familia’ (a bit darker than the football one…), was a difficult one to translate because, like the poem last week, it doesn’t have any punctuation. Varela also cleverly uses phrases that could be interpreted in different ways. The last line was especially difficult – I looked at what some other translators of the poem had done, but it didn’t seem right to me. In the end I decided to imagine what I would say if it was my poem.

I also learned some fun new words like ‘legaña’, which means rheum aka sleep/sleepy dust/eye-goo (I found a forum where people discuss what it is called in lots of different languages).


While handing out the poem I met Rocío, who was on her way back from a job interview as an english teacher. She told me all about falling in love with her English teacher when she was in her 20s (but then he had to go back to Scotland).

She had vaguely heard of Blanca Varela, and when I asked if she liked poetry she said: “yes, I love books. You know, before internet we used to read books”

Blanca Varela and Fernando de Szyszlo.
(Paris, 1949)


Secreto de Familia

soñé con un perro
con un perro desollado
cantaba su cuerpo su cuerpo rojo silbaba
pregunté al otro
al que apaga la luz al carnicero
qué ha sucedido
por qué estamos a oscuras

es un sueño estás sola
no hay otro
la luz no existe
tú eres el perro tú eres la flor que ladra
afila dulcemente tu lengua
tu dulce negra lengua de cuatro patas

la piel del hombre se quema con el sueño
arde desaparece la piel humana
sólo la roja pulpa del can es limpia
la verdadera luz habita su legaña
tú eres el perro
tú eres el desollado can de cada noche
sueño contigo misma y basta.


(Listen to Blanca Varela read out her own poem here)



Family Secret

I dreamed about a dog
a dog with no skin
its body was singing its red body whistling
I asked the other
the one who turns off the light the butcher
what’s happened
why are we in the dark

it is a dream you are alone
there is no other
the light doesn’t exist
you are the dog you are the barking flower
sweetly sharpen your tongue
your sweet black four-legged tongue

the man’s skin burns in the dream
the burnt human skin disappears
only the red pulp of the canine is clean
the real light lives in the sleep of its eyes
you are the dog
you are the skinned dog of every night
I dream the same as you and that’s enough.