Romper el bloqueo cultural: Translation and Solidarity in El Corno Emplumado/The Plumed Horn

 

In July of 1967, U.S. poet Margaret Randall and Mexican poet Sergio Mondragón, editors of the Mexico City-based bilingual poetry journal El Corno Emplumado/The Plumed Horn, wrote of the need to “romper el bloqueo cultural,” to “break the cultural blockade” (No. 23).1 Randall and Mondragón’s call to action introduced the twenty-third “Corno,” dedicated to new Cuban poetry. This fully bilingual issue (the Spanish originals alongside English versions by a team of translators) was meant to subvert heavily regulated borders, carrying Cuban poetry beyond the Socialist Block to which the United States’ economic and cultural blockade had sought to limit its circulation.2 Through El Corno 23, the poets of revolutionary Cuba reached hundreds of subscribers in more than twenty countries. A “small homage to the 26th of July!” wrote Randall, “the right to know what is happening in the arts in that island 90 miles off [the US] coast” (No. 23).
 

An exclamation point on El Corno’s revolutionary translation practice, Issue 23 might mark the height of the magazine’s inter-American project of bridge-building, or as Randall once put it, “[shouting] to both Americas” (No. 16). Known affectionately by its contributors as simply El Corno, the magazine published 31 issues between January of 1962 and July of 1969. Launched shortly after the Bay of Pigs Invasion, it was born out of a sense of deepening provincialism in the cultural sphere; in reference to poetics and politics, the editors wrote in their inaugural editor’s note, “relations between the Americas have never been worse” (No. 1). A bilingual poetry magazine was a concrete, actionable way to resolve that divide, a vehicle through which poets from across the continent could come to know each other’s work. El Corno printed some of the most influential voices of the twentieth century, many for the first time in Spanish or English translation: Jorgenrique Adoum, Rosario Castellanos, René Depestre, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg, Nicolás Guillén, Denise Levertov, José Emilio Pacheco, Nicanor Parra, Ezra Pound, Jerome Rothenberg, César Vallejo, Cecilia Vicuña, William Carlos Williams, among many others. Each issue also featured the highly anticipated letter section; hundreds of pages of contributor correspondence were printed, giving way to new collaborations, updates on local social-political circumstances, and heated intellectual debates.

At its core, El Corno negated literal or de facto blockades; it operated as a space where ‘60s countercultural communities from across and beyond the Americas coalesced. What foregrounded this project was also what made it stand out among the many “little magazines” of the decade: translation as an inherently political tool for catalyzing social change. While only a handful of issues were completely bilingual, translation in El Corno went beyond the interlinguistic to represent the broader philosophy of crossing borders through poetry and the conversations it elicited. The editors and contributors imagined the magazine as a platform that could build coalitions outside of institutional forces, remap hemispheric networks, and combat cultural and intellectual isolation. This vision of translation––a consciousness-raising project, a tool for dismantling or growing, an expression of solidarity––drove El Corno across the decade.

Centered in Mexico City, but with one foot squarely in the U.S., El Corno leveraged the power of its dual positioning to lessen divides between North and South. In a letter dated October of 1962, Nicaraguan poet, and regular contributor of poems and translations, Ernesto Cardenal articulated the ambition of hemispheric union. He wrote:

I’ll say it: you are creating the true Pan-American Union. The Pan-American Union is one of poets, not of those who sit at banquets and “devour my people as though eating bread,” as the Psalm says. […] If poets don’t make Pan-Americanism, no one else will. And they are making it. And for the first time in history North America and Spanish America will begin to understand each other, a true understanding of peoples, because their poets understand each other. In Washington, they still haven’t realized that the great nations (even the U.S.) have been made by poets. As Pound says, a transformation of verse has great social consequences. (No. 5; emphasis original; my translation)

Less than a year after El Corno’s first issue, Cardenal could see its immense promise, the potentially world-shifting impact of traversing deeply entrenched borders with poetry.

This excerpt has become rather emblematic of the magazine’s hemispheric reach: networks of solidarity to bring the North and the South into contact, outside and, in many ways, in direct resistance to the institutionalized programs of 1960s U.S. foreign policy. As a number of watershed studies have shown (Bennett; Cohn; Stonor Saunders), the so-called “cultural diplomacy” of the Cold War––in actuality, cultural imperialism––emerged to quell the influence of the Cuban Revolution by making U.S. cultural production attractive to Latin Americans through grants, conferences, book deals, literary magazines, and MFA programs.3 These initiatives largely extended into the cultural sphere a kind of hemispheric ideology reminiscent of the Monroe Doctrine of 1823 and nascent U.S. imperialism: “American” solidarity built on the maintenance of the U.S.’s right to single-handedly police hemispheric relations. Their existence was also, of course, a tacit acknowledgement of the subversive potential of intellectual and cultural exchange and a strategic choice to surveil and regulate it by centering the U.S. within it. Cardenal’s letter frames El Corno as a vehicle that could re-route hemispherism towards a more equitable union.

Circulation between U.S. poets and Latin American poets only tells part of El Corno’s inter-American story. The second half of Cardenal’s letter identifies a concurrent continental calling, equally built around exchange and framed by the magazine’s transnational scope, but exclusively centered on Latin American networks. He wrote:

Additionally, it is necessary that Spanish American poets (and this is another mission of EL CORNO, too) immediately begin to lay the foundation for the consolidation of a great Latin American nation. Soldiers and businessmen won’t do this. Demolish our borders, the poet Bolívar’s plan, create this new, formidable nation, from Mexico to Patagonia: that is something only our poets can do (now with help from the poets of the North). (No. 5; my translation)

Contributor letters and accounts demonstrate that Cardenal’s hope became actualized across the magazine’s lifespan. El Corno was a place where the Latin American neo-avant-garde read the San Francisco Beat poets, but just (if not more) impactful were the ways it circulated south of the Río Bravo. It was through El Corno that the Colombian Nadaístas were read outside of their country, that Brazilian and Guatemalan concrete poets exchanged work, that the struggles of guerilla poets echoed across the continent, that a young Cecilia Vicuña gained access to the network that would lead her to publish Saborami, and that the Mexico City Infrarealists of the ‘70s and ‘80s found countercultural inspiration. Roberto Fernández Retamar, director of Cuba’s Casa de las Américas, considered it a sister publication.

The cultural and intellectual dialogues opened up by El Corno transformed the way it imagined its positioning, and its politics evolved in turn. As the decade progressed, the journal’s political stance shifted further to the left, its vision of hemispheric union became less in line with U.S.-funded cultural programming (although they were always wary of it) and more so with the Latin Americanist model established in early ‘60s Havana. In no place is this shift more apparent than the editorial notes. Beginning most notably in July of 1965, when Randall and Mondragón condemned the violence waged by the U.S. government in Vietnam, the Dominican Republic, and Selma, Alabama, these opening pages of each Corno transformed into outlets for denouncing interventionism and repression, wherever they occurred. Using the platform it had cultivated across the years, the final few editorial notes embrace Cuban revolutionary ideals and, in what would be the beginning of the end, stand in solidarity with the student protestors following the 1968 Tlatelolco Massacre. Government crackdown on the students’ supporters forced the magazine underground. Its minimal funding was pulled, its printers were threatened, and Randall, then-co-editor Robert Cohen, and their family fled to Cuba.

The history of El Corno’s impact, especially in the context of Latin American literature, is still being written, and is far too vast and textured to do justice to here. (Harris Feinsod’s The Poetry of the Americas provides an excellent overview of the journal within an inter-American framework; Margaret Randall’s memoir I Never Left Home offers an essential retrospective account.)4 With the 1967 Cuban feature as perhaps its greatest triumph, the journal reminds us that there are few things more revolutionary than crossing deeply regulated borders with art. The message contained within this aspect of the journal is of immense importance. A bilingual poetry magazine broke through imposed barriers––precisely the ones that were expedient to U.S. empire––transforming into a channel for the building of transnational solidarity. In so doing, El Corno offered models of inter-Americanism in service of anti-imperialist revolutionary struggle, and in opposition to Cold War cultural imperialism. The centrality of translation to the journal’s circulation as well as the evolution of its politics across the decade demonstrate simultaneously its ideological power and malleability. Translation can dismantle and amplify; it can build some bridges and burn down others.

One of the 1960s most essential cultural documents, El Corno’s revolutionary practice of translation is something to which we (as translators, as writers, as readers) should pay more attention. The magazine drew out translation’s inherent political power. It offered a space for the collective action of chipping away at cultural and intellectual blockades. In the 1960s, it was a tool of resistance to the individualist, apolitical poetry model promoted by the United States as well as that country’s attempts to quarantine revolutionary ideas to that island 90 miles off the U.S. coast. Today, translation is uniquely equipped to combat the rampant xenophobia and ethnonationalism we are living. Translation is a refusal to be walled-in, to close off our consciousnesses to others. It is an act of allyship, a use of power and privilege to amplify the interests of marginalized groups. It is also a commitment to solidarity, the recognition that our liberations are bound up together, that we all have a stake in the struggles of our moment. If El Corno had not been subversive, it would not have been shut down. If translation were not always potentially subversive, if it did not offer new ways of seeing and thinking that threatened the status quo and those who profit from it, it would not be as marginalized as it is in this country, the rhetoric of monolingualism and border militarism would not be so aggressively pushed. Thanks to El Corno and those who were a part of it, we have a blueprint, a map, a way forward. In its pages lies an increasingly urgent reminder of the power of translation, the power of solidarity.

 

1 All quotations are taken from facsimile editions of El Corno Emplumado/The Plumed Horn; the specific issue is specified in the parenthetical citations. All 31 issues are freely accessible through the Open Door Archive: https://opendoor.northwestern.edu/archive/collections/show/5 

2 As recognized in the issue, these translators were Carlos Hagen, Lionel Kearns, David Osman, Elinor Randall, Margaret Randall, Tim Reynolds, and Stephen Schwartz.

3 See, for example, the following books: Eric Bennett, Workshops of Empire (U Iowa P, 2015); Deborah Cohn, The Latin American Literary Boom and U.S. Nationalism During the Cold War (Vanderbilt UP, 2012); and Frances Stonor Saunders, The Cultural Cold War (The New Press, 2000).

4 Harris Feinsod, The Poetry of the Americas (Oxford UP, 2017); Margaret Randall, I Never Left Home (Duke UP, 2020).

Languages

Elicura Chihuailaf
Number 16

In our sixteenth issue, we celebrate Mapuche poet Elicura Chihuailaf, who in 2020 became the first indigenous writer to receive Chile's National Prize for Literature. We also feature dossiers dedicated to the work of Andrés Neuman, Latin American literary criticism, and the Latin American essay, plus a bilingual selection of texts from Dispatches from the Republic of Letters: 50 Years of the Neustadt International Prize for Literature commemorating Gabriel García Márquez, the first Latin American author to win the prestigious Neustadt Prize.

Table of Contents

Editor's Note

Featured Author: Elicura Chihuailaf

Dossier: Andrés Neuman

Dispatches from the Republic of Letters

Latin American Literary Criticism

Fiction

Poetry

Essays

Interviews

Brazilian Literature

Chronicle

Translation Previews and New Releases

On Translation

Nota Bene