Federico Garcia Lorca, one of the most famous and beloved writers and playwrights of the past century is coming back to New York. Starting next month, the largest-ever North-American festival celebrating his book “Poeta en Nueva York” (Poet in New York) will take place in the city that inspired almost a century ago. The centerpiece of this celebration is “Back Tomorrow” – an exhibition of Lorca’s manuscripts and drawings curated by Andrés Soria Olmedo and Christopher Maurer and presented at the New York Public Library.
Alongside Pablo Neruda, Lorca is probably the only Spanish-language poet who made the crossover to English-language audiences (Borges, who started his literary career as a poet, is mostly known for his short stories) and whose work influenced American writers.
“Lorca’s influence on American poetry cannot be overestimated,” says Susan Bernofsky, director of Literary Translation program at Columbia University’s School of the Arts. “Something about his imagination has proved inspirational for many generations of writers.” One of the most outstanding products of that imagination is this book, which has become a symbol of the interconnections between the Hispanic and Non-Hispanic cultural worlds.
“The New York Public Library is honored to be part of this exciting citywide tribute to legendary writer Federico Garcia Lorca, and to present for the first time an exhibition of materials he created while writing his masterpiece Poet In New York,” a spokesperson for the NYPL said.”It is fitting that Lorca’s manuscripts, drawings, letters, photos and more return to the city for this landmark exhibition, so they can inspire a new generation of New Yorkers.” The exhibition, produced by Fundación Federico García Lorca, will run from April 5 to July 12 and will be accompanied by a series of lectures, poetry readings, theatrical shows and concerts.
The full list of events includes the inauguration of a plaque at Columbia University, where Lorca studied in 1929-30; a Patti Smith concert; lectures on different aspects of Lorca’s oeuvre; a smaller exhibition on the relationship between Lorca and his American lover Philip Cummings; and a special tribute featuring some of the most outstanding American poets alive: John Ashbery, Paul Auster, Eduardo C. Corral, Aracelis Girmay, John Giorno, Ben Lerner, Charles Simic, Mónica de la Torre, and Frederic Tuten, among others.
Federico García Lorca was born in 1898 in the village of Fuente Vaqueros, near Granada, Spain, in a family of wealthy landowners; his father was one of the caciques, or political powerbrokers of the region. Federico’s privileged upbringing allowed him to fully develop his talents for music, literature and the theater. In 1928, his poetry collection Romancero Gitano (Gypsy Ballads) made him a household name throughout the Spanish-speaking world.
The following year, he travelled to New York to study English at Columbia. It was during this nine-month visit that he began working on this book.
Poet in New York is divided into ten sections, whose headings provide a roadmap for an inner journey— “a journey into the heart of an alien world,” in the poet’s own words. That alien word is, of course, the city and the materialistic society it embodies. Indeed, the title was meant as an irony: in Lorca’s eyes, New York, the epitome of capitalism, was the very antithesis of poetry.
Lorca, who was born on the same year of the Spanish American war, shared many of his fellow Spaniards’ negative views of the U.S., and that sentiment emerges in the poems. During his stay in New York, he was also witness to the 1929 market crash (“Office and denunciation”) and was shocked by the blatant display of consumerism (“Landscape of a Vomiting Multitude”), poverty, and racism (“The Blacks”), as well as by the decline of spirituality in every-day life.
Yet Poet in New York is not a mere catalogue of social ills.
“It is both an indictment of contemporary civilization and a dark cry of metaphysical loneliness,” says Maurer, who is also the editor of a new English-language version of PNY to be released in April. The city of “geometry and anguish” is a metaphor for all cities, and the feeling of alienation that connects the book’s different themes is today recognizable everywhere.
Lorca was fascinated by black culture, which he considered a transatlantic equivalent to his own Andalusian culture. Shortly after arriving in New York, he toured Harlem with his friend, novelist Nella Larsen , one of the figures of the Harlem Renaissance. The poem “The King of Harlem” summarizes Lorca’s vision of “the Negro,” as was the standard denomination in those days, but the whole book is permeated by references to an African heritage.
Another key issue is homosexuality (“Ode to Walt Whitman”). Lorca had traveled to New York in the wake of his breakdown with sculptor Emilio Aladrén, one of the great loves of his life. The affair had fuelled gossip in Spain, and Lorca’s parents hoped that the trip would dispel rumors and help Federico overcome his depression.
In the post-Stonewall era, it is difficult to understand to what degree homosexuality was stigmatized in Lorca´s day, especially in Catholic Spain. Conversely, our own era of marriage equality creates the conditions for a fresh approach to Lorca’s homoerotic poetry. “His reflections on love do not apply exclusively to gay love, but to all sorts of love,” says Laura García-Lorca de los Ríos, Federico’s niece and president of the Fundación García Lorca.
In part for fear of homophobic attacks, but mostly because the hermetic imagery of Poet in New York was strikingly different from his previous poetic work, Lorca postponed publishing the book until he felt more confident on its artistic merits.
In 1936, with the Spanish Civil war already under way, he brought the manuscript to his publisher in Madrid, José Bergamín. Bergamín was not at his office when Lorca dropped by, so the poet left the package for him with a note saying that he would be probably “back tomorrow” to talk about it.
He never returned. On August 19, 1936, Federico García Lorca was shot by Nationalist forces in the outskirts of Granada. His assassination generated an international uproar and transformed him into a symbol of the atrocities of Fascism.
Because of the disruptions imposed by the war, the book was first published in bilingual editions in London and New York in 1939 and 1940; the first Spanish version was published in Mexico by Bergamín later that year. “Textual differences between the different editions triggered decades of scholarly debate about the poet’s intentions, the configuration of the book, and the text of specific poems,” says Soria Olmedo, one of the chief curators of the NYPL show. “Most of these questions are resolved by the manuscript, which forms the centerpiece of the exhibition.”