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Our Three-Hour Lunch With Acclaimed Cuban-Jewish Poet José Kozer

Acclaimed poet José Kozer, born in Cuba and the son of Jewish European immigrants, has a global following for his dense, "neo-barroque" poetry. Writing, he says, "is a form of resisting, of making sense of the madness."
Prize-winning poet Jose Kozer visits Dartmouth College to share his work and discuss poetry and policy in the age of Trump.
Prize-winning poet Jose Kozer visits Dartmouth College to share his work and discuss poetry and policy in the age of Trump. Sandra Guzman

HANOVER, New Hampshire — I got lost driving through New Hampshire’s winding roads going to interview José Kozer, the prize-winning Cuban-born poet who recently visited Dartmouth College as part of the prestigious Montgomery Fellows Residency Program. When I finally reached him, I apologized profusely. But Kozer, a Jewish Zen Buddhist, serenely responded in elegant Spanish, “Don’t worry, all those who get lost always find their way.”

During the next three-hour lunch, over bowls of ramen noodle soup in a small café, words flowed and everything that emanated from the 77-year old writer’s mouth sounded like the beginning of a poem, a delightful Caribbean canto.

Kozer, a retired professor of Spanish Literature at Queens College in New York, was visiting Hanover from Hallandale, Florida, where he lives with his wife of four decades, Guadalupe. The poet was part of a weeklong series, “Poetry and Politics: Politics of Poetics.”

Prize-winning poet Jose Kozer visits Dartmouth College to share his work and discuss poetry and policy in the age of Trump.
Prize-winning poet Jose Kozer visits Dartmouth College to share his work and discuss poetry and policy in the age of Trump. Sandra Guzman

“Poetry is a political expression, it’s a form of resisting, of making sense of the madness and of the beauty of the world,” he explained. “It has an important role, but in this country no one pays attention to us,” he laughed. “When one speaks of minorities, I say I am triple minority--I am Cuban, Jewish and a poet.”

Kozer’s identity embodies various nations and it’s a subject that he explores in his work, an enduring search of home, identity, beauty, and truth. He may be the pre-eminent Cuban poet of his generation but he is also a man without a country, he said.

He has lived in exile since he was 20, which is why a documentary on his life currently in production is titled, “Me, Japanese.”

“I was once asked by a reporter about my identity and I rattled off a dozen things that I am: Cuban, Jewish, Pole, Czech, Zen Buddhist, New Yorker, Floridian, Caribbean, and at the end I said I said jokingly, me, Japanese,” he laughs.

In the documentary preview, Kozer describes being asked when he was a kid if he was "Cuban or polaco" (Polish). He said he used a word like "simultaneous" to answer the boy.

Kozer was born in Cuba in 1940 to immigrants fleeing Nazi Europe, a Polish father and Czechoslovakian mother. His grandfather founded the first Ashkenazi Synagogue in Cuba.

He grew up bilingual in Havana; his father never fully learned Spanish and spoke mostly Yiddish to the young Kozer.

The younger Kozer told NBC Latino he left Havana when he was 20 in 1960, disillusioned with the revolution. He settled in New York. For a long time he only spoke English. It was during that time, he said, that he lost his way.

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“I didn’t write a word for a long time, I had forgotten Spanish, nothing came out, I was lost in alcohol,” he explained. “One morning, I remember preparing a triple martini at 8 am and when I went to take my first sip, I said to myself, “José, is this what you have become? I poured the drink down the drain and haven’t touched alcohol ever since.”

On a visit to Cuba in 2002, at the invitation of Fidel Castro (he was the first exiled poet to publish in Cuba) after a four-decade absence from is birthplace, something broke open inside of him and he began a daily practice of writing one poem a day in Spanish. He has not stopped.

“We live in an impatient world where everything is so easily accessible,” says Kozer. “You have to have patience with my poems.”

To say that he is prolific is an understatement. In fact Kozer may have broken a record; he has written a poem or two, sometimes five daily, since 2002. So far has penned over 12,000 poems and counting, has published ninety books, mostly poetry collections, and has been translated to several languages.

“Maybe it’s a form of madness or delusion, this desire to write a poem a day, but I am enjoying writing every day, I am making fun of so many things,” he said.

Recently, he has received well-deserved praise and attention. In 2013, Kozer won the prestigious Pablo Neruda Ibero-American Poetry Prize.

The morning of our meeting Kozer said he wrote a poem about water, one of his passions. At the center of the poem was the enduring philosophical argument between Plato and Aristotle on the essence of things. If a man steps into a lake, does the water change its essence, or does the water remain water?

In Latin America, where revolutions, civil wars, and the region’s never-ending search for freedom from authoritarian or antidemocratic forces never cease, many poets have been and are still considered rock stars—it’s the art form that can express the drama of the constant and dramatic societal and political transfigurations.

Kozer is part of a generation, and one of the leaders, of the neo-baroque school of poetry; in Spanish they are called los neo-barroccos. Los neo-barrocos transcend time and space, and their language harkens back to the Siglo de Oro, the Spanish Golden Age. The origins, in this case are 17th century Spanish, but the language contains the innovation of the New World, with its modernist influences and experiences of the region. The poetry is sensual, thick, and demanding. The writing seems to belong to a different era, something that Kozer defends.

“We live in an impatient world where everything is so easily accessible,” he says.“You have to have patience with my poems.”

In other words, Kozer does not write Twitter poems or fast-food poetry.

Kozer is not that known in the U.S. despite the fact he has followers dispersed all over the world, particularly in Brazil, Bolivia, Argentina, Colombia, Australia, Spain, and Mexico. Though he is fluent Portuguese and English, he only writes in Spanish.

For the opening night of the Dartmouth series he chose to read a restrained number of poems, twelve. Given the voluminous trove he can choose from, I wondered if deciding what to read was challenging.

“Not really, this event had a theme (politics) that I happen to love and write a lot about,” he explained.

The staggering volume of his work, contained in hundreds of notebooks have not come without some criticism.

“Some believe that I am not a great poet because I write a lot. These critics come from a school of thought that good poetry is polished, retrained. I happen to disagree,” he says.

His latest book is a breathtaking 1,000 pages titled “Ni Un Día Sin Escribir Una Linea,” or in Latin (Non Scribo Dies Absque Recta) published by Lume, a Brazilian publisher. It is a beautiful, thick volume containing poetry, essays, and his luminous photographs.

“I am having fun, I am happy. I just want to have more time so that I can continue to contribute to humanity," said the poet. "To keep writing, that is resistance.”

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