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Cristina Domenech: Poetry that frees the soul

October 1, 2014

“It’s said that to be a poet, you have to go to hell and back.” Cristina Domenech teaches writing at an Argentinian prison, and she tells the moving story of helping incarcerated people express themselves, understand themselves — and glory in the freedom of language. Watch for a powerful reading from one of her students, an inmate, in front of an audience of 10,000. In Spanish with subtitles.

Cristina Domenech - Poet and educator
Cristina Domenech proposes to use language as an instrument of liberation and as a way to change the world. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
It's said that to be a poet
00:14
you have to go to hell and back.
00:18
The first time I visited the prison,
00:23
I was not surprised by the noise
of the padlocks,
00:27
or the closing doors,
or the cell bars,
00:31
or by any of the things
I had imagined.
00:36
Maybe because the prison
is in a quite open space.
00:40
You can see the sky.
00:45
Seagulls fly overhead,
and you feel like you're next to the sea,
00:47
that you're really close to the beach.
00:51
But in fact, the gulls are looking
for food in the dump near the prison.
00:54
I went farther inside and I suddenly saw
inmates moving across the corridors.
01:01
Then it was as if I stepped back
and thought
01:07
that I could have very well been
one of them.
01:11
If I had another story,
another context, different luck.
01:15
Because nobody - nobody -
can choose where they're born.
01:22
In 2009, I was invited to join a project
01:29
that San Martín National University
conducted at the Unit 48 penitentiary,
01:34
to coordinate a writing workshop.
01:39
The prison service ceded some land
at the end of the prison,
01:42
which is where they constructed
the University Center building.
01:49
The first time I met with the prisoners,
01:55
I asked them why they were asking
for a writing workshop
01:58
and they told me they wanted
to put on paper
02:02
all that they couldn't say and do.
02:05
Right then I decided that I wanted poetry
to enter the prison.
02:10
So I said to them
why don't we work with poetry,
02:17
if they knew what poetry was.
02:20
But nobody had a clue
what poetry really was.
02:23
They also suggested to me
02:30
that the workshop should be
not just for the inmates
02:32
taking university classes,
but for all the inmates.
02:34
And so I said
that to start this workshop,
02:40
I needed to find a tool
that we all had in common.
02:43
That tool was language.
02:47
We had language, we had the workshop.
We could have poetry.
02:50
But what I hadn't considered
was that inequality exists in prison, too.
02:56
Many of the prisoners hadn't even
completed grammar school.
03:02
Many couldn't use cursive,
could barely print.
03:07
They didn't write fluently, either.
03:15
So we started looking for short poems.
03:18
Very short, but very powerful.
03:23
And we started to read, and we'd read
one author, then another author,
03:26
and by reading such short poems,
they all began to realize
03:30
that what the poetic language did
was to break a certain logic,
03:35
and create another system.
03:40
Breaking the logic of language
also breaks the logic of the system
03:42
under which they've learned to respond.
03:45
So a new system appeared,
03:50
new rules that made them
understand very quickly,
03:53
- very quickly -
03:59
that with poetic language
04:00
they would be able to say
absolutely whatever they wanted.
04:03
It's said that to be a poet
you have to go to hell and back.
04:11
And they have plenty of hell.
Plenty of hell.
04:17
One of them once said:
"In prison you never sleep.
04:21
You can never sleep in jail.
You can never close your eyelids."
04:26
And so, like I’m doing now,
I gave them a moment of silence,
04:32
then said,
“That's what poetry is, you guys.
04:38
It's in this prison universe
that you have all around you.
04:44
Everything you say
about how you never sleep,
04:49
it exudes fear.
04:51
All the things that go unwritten --
all of that is poetry."
04:53
So we started appropriating that hell;
04:59
we plunged ourselves, headfirst,
into the seventh circle.
05:03
And in that seventh circle of hell,
our very own, beloved circle,
05:07
they learned that they could
make the walls invisible,
05:11
that they could make the windows yell,
05:15
and that we could hide inside the shadows.
05:17
When the first year
of the workshop had ended,
05:23
we organized a little closing party,
05:27
like you do when a job is done
with so much love,
05:29
and you want to celebrate with a party.
05:33
We called family, friends,
the university authorities.
05:36
The only thing the inmates
had to do was read a poem,
05:40
and receive their diplomas and applause.
05:45
That was our simple party.
05:47
The only thing I want to leave you with
05:51
is the moment in which those men,
05:58
some of them just huge
when standing next to me,
06:02
or the young boys - so young,
but with an enormous pride,
06:05
held their papers and trembled
like little kids and sweated,
06:11
and read their poems with their
voices completely broken.
06:16
That moment made me think a lot
06:23
that for most of them,
it was surely the very first time
06:28
that someone applauded them
for something they had done.
06:32
In prison there are things
that can't be done.
06:40
In prison, you can't dream.
In prison, you can't cry.
06:44
There are words that are virtually
forbidden, like the word "time,"
06:48
the word "future," the word "wish".
06:53
But we dared to dream, and to dream a lot.
06:58
We decided
that they were going to write a book.
07:04
Not only did they write a book,
but they also bound it themselves.
07:08
That was at the end of 2010.
07:13
Then, we doubled the bet
and wrote another book.
07:16
And we bound that one, too.
07:20
That was a short time ago,
at the end of last year.
07:22
What I see week after week,
07:28
is how they're turning
into different people;
07:31
how they're being transformed.
07:36
How words are empowering them
with a dignity they had never known,
07:38
that they couldn't even imagine.
07:43
They had no idea such dignity
could come from them.
07:45
At the workshop, in that beloved hell
we share, we all give something.
07:50
We open our hands and hearts and give
what we have, what we can.
07:58
All of us;
all of us equally.
08:02
And so you feel that at least
in a small way
08:04
you're repairing
that huge social fracture
08:09
which makes it so that for many of them,
08:13
prison is their only destination.
08:18
I remember a verse
by a tremendous poet, a great poet,
08:23
from our Unit 48 workshop,
Nicolás Dorado:
08:30
"I will need an infinite thread
to sew up this huge wound."
08:40
Poetry does that; it sews up
the wounds of exclusion.
08:47
It opens doors.
Poetry works as a mirror.
08:52
It creates a mirror, which is the poem.
08:58
They recognize themselves,
they look at themselves in the poem
09:01
and write from who they are,
and are from what they write.
09:05
In order to write,
09:10
they need to appropriate
the moment of writing
09:13
which is a moment
of extraordinary freedom.
09:17
They have to get into their heads,
search for that bit of freedom
09:20
that can never be taken away
when they write
09:23
and that is also useful
to realize that freedom is possible
09:28
even inside a prison,
09:32
and that the only bars we have
in our wonderful space
09:34
is the word "bars,"
09:40
and that all of us in our hell
burn with happiness
09:41
when we light the wick of the word.
09:45
(Applause)
09:49
I told you a lot about the prison,
a lot about what I experience
10:16
every week, and how I enjoy it
and transform myself with the inmates.
10:23
But you don't know how much I'd like it
10:27
if you could feel, live, experience,
even for a few seconds,
10:31
what I enjoy every week
and what makes me who I am.
10:36
(Applause)
10:43
Martín Bustamante:
The heart chews tears of time;
10:53
blinded by that light,
10:57
it hides the speed of existence
11:00
where the images go rowing by.
11:03
It fights; it hangs on.
11:05
The heart cracks under sad gazes,
11:08
rides on storms that spread fire,
11:12
lifts chests lowered by shame,
11:16
knows that it's not just reading
and going on,
11:19
it also wishes to see the infinite blue.
11:22
The heart sits down to think about things,
11:26
fights to avoid being ordinary,
11:30
tries to love without hurting,
11:32
breathes the sun,
giving courage to itself,
11:36
surrenders, travels toward reason.
11:39
The heart fights among the swamps,
11:44
skirts the edge of the underworld,
11:47
falls exhausted, but won't give in
to what's easy,
11:50
while irregular steps of intoxication
11:54
wake up,
11:57
wake the stillness.
11:58
I'm Martín Bustamante,
12:00
I'm a prisoner in Unit 48 of San Martín,
12:03
today is my day of temporary release.
12:07
And for me, poetry and literature
have changed my life.
12:09
Thank you very much!
12:13
Cristina Domenech: Thank you!
12:14
(Applause)
12:16
Translator:Sebastian Betti
Reviewer:Gisela Giardino

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Cristina Domenech - Poet and educator
Cristina Domenech proposes to use language as an instrument of liberation and as a way to change the world.

Why you should listen
Writer and philosopher Cristina Domenech coordinates reading and writing workshops for kids and adults, including the inmates of the Centro de Estudiantes Rodolfo Walsh of the Centro Universitario San Martín (CUSAM) Universidad Nacional de San Martín, Unidad Penitenciaria 48, in Buenos Aires.

She has participated since 1995 in numerous conferences and meetings of national and international writers, among which include the International Festival of Poetry in Havana, Cuba, in 2009 and 2010 and Cosmopoética 2013 in Cordoba, Spain.

Her published works include “Impalpable” (1994), “Condensación de la Luz” (1998), Tierra Negra (1999), Demudado (2007), anthologies of poetry in 2010 and 2011, and most recently “Sintaxis del nudo” ("Syntax Knot").
The original video is available on TED.com
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