Farewell To Nicanor Parra, Latin America's Great Anti-Poet

Chile has buried Parra, the antipoet who turned to 'impudent' street talk for inspiration and revolutionized modern Spanish poetry.

Nicanor Parra died at the ripe age of 103
Nicanor Parra died at the ripe age of 103

BUENOS AIRES — Chilean "anti-poet" Nicanor Parra was one of Latin America's preeminent writers of the past century, destined to be remembered for creating a genre of poetry that precisely eschews "poetic" language.

Parra died in Santiago died on Jan. 23 at the ripe age of 103. Back in 2014 during celebrations for his 100th birthday, he decided to stay at home in Las Cruces. But across Chile they were reading "The Imaginary Man," the poem he had written some 30 years before to surmount a failed love affair.

Chile's president-elect Sebastián Piñera reacted to his death saying it gave Parra "the last thing" he needed to become immortal, namely "leaving this earthly world." But admiration for Parra cut across Chilean society.

He spent much of his time on the streets.

Nicanor Segundo Parra Sandoval was born in San Fabián de Alico, a tiny village near Chillán, southwest of the capital, a month after World War I began. He was the first of nine children who became musicians and writers, stimulated by the folk culture their mother spread about the house. Their father, a teacher, was also a singer. A sister, Violeta Parra, became one of Chile's most popular folk singers and author of the songs "Gracias a la vida" and "Volver a los 17". Both have become part of Latin America's musical heritage, familiar to millions as sung by Argentina's Mercedes Sosa.

Nicanor was the only one of the children to later finish university (becoming a physicist and mathematician), and was teaching past the age of 80. But he was a man who "spent a lot of time on the street," listening to the city's "daily conversation" as our correspondent Julieta Roffo has written. That is where he found "humor, irony and impudence ... the raw material for his anti-poetry." His years in the United States and the United Kingdom were influential, as he began reading Walt Whitman, John Donne, Shakespeare, William Blake and T.S. Eliot.

In time his reputation grew, but he avoided labels and his anti-poetic style sought to oppose the canon. His first poem, "Cancionero sin nombre" ("Unnamed Songbook", 1937), showed the influence of the contemporary Spanish poet Federico García Lorca. His second book (Poems and Antipoems, 1954), was decisive in forging his literary self. He wanted poetry to be "accessible to all" and wrote at the time that "antipoetry is simply the ying and yang, the masculine and feminine principle, light and shadow, the cold and the heat." His antipoems, he wrote, had a "narrative focus, often around an antihero, using colloquial language marked in particular by humor and irony."

He said he did not want to write poetry like his contemporaries Vicente Huidobro and Pablo de Rokha, nor even the world-famous Pablo Neruda. Asked once if he wanted to be Chile's greatest poet, he said "I do not want to be Chile's greatest poet. I shall make do with being the greatest on Isla Negra," the town near Las Cruces where Neruda lived. Did that not amount to the same thing, given Neruda's stature?

Neruda wrote the prologue to Parra's Poems and Antipoems, which would turn out to be revolutionary.

In addition to antipoems, Parra created "artefacts' (short, sharp texts and images some might see as precursors of "memes'). One was Artefacto USA with the caption, "Where liberty is a statue." The Argentine writer Ricardo Piglia observed these were to Hispanic literature what Marcel Duchamp's cheeky installations were to modern art.

During the military regime (1973-1988), he took his distance from politics and stayed in Chile, which would later earn him reproach. He did publish texts like Chistes parra desorientar a la policía (Jokes to Confuse the Police), with allusions to the disappearance of opponents and civilians in Chile.

Laugh, cry, do as you please

In 1991 he received the University of Guadalajara's Juan Rulfo prize, in 2001 the Queen Sophia Hispano-American Poetry Prize and in 2011, the Cervantes Prize, the highest honor in the Spanish-speaking world. He was also long cited as a possible Nobel candidate.

Reviewing once a compendium of his own works, Parra said, "I am surprised with Obras completas. I read those poems and do not feel I am their author. I feel I was not the author of anything because I always fished things wondering through the air."

Parra, who married three times and had six children, left instructions of sorts for his funeral in "Últimas instrucciones:"

A pair of football shoes

A florid potty

My black driving glasses

A copy of the Holy Bible

After the service

Keep Your Freedom of Action

Laugh, cry, do as you please

But remember, should you come across a blackboard

Do not slouch

For that black cavity is where I live.

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Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."

Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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