José Kozer will received a highly coveted prize on Friday.

Revered New York poet wins coveted Latin American prize

He might not be a household name, but Cuban-born and long-time U.S. resident José Kozer is one of the most revered Latin American poets. The announcement that he had been awarded the Pablo Neruda Ibero-American Poetry Prize will likely make him a bit more well-known to the general public and consolidate his place in the upper crust of Spanish-language letters.

The prize ($60,000, a medal, and a diploma) will be presented to him by Chilean President Sebastián Piñera on Friday, July 12, which is the birthday of Nobel-prize winning poet Pablo Neruda, one of the world’s most acclaimed poets. Established in 2004 for the centennial of Neruda, the award honors a lifetime contribution to poetry. It has been received by Nicanor Parra, Juan Gelman, and Ernesto Cardenal, among others.

The jury said that Kozer’s “vast and distinctive work stands out for its innovation, passion and devotion to the craft,” and praised his multilayered poems as an expression of the intricacies of memory, family history, multiculturalism, and the transforming experience of exile. (Read a sample )

“I’m happy but exhausted,” said Kozer in a telephone interview from his current home in Hallandale, Florida. “This morning alone I received 50 emails, and I answer every email I receive. l need to go back soon to my daily routine—reading and writing”.

For the past four decades he has written one poem a day, largely surpassing the 9,000. “Once I reach the 10,000 I’ll start writing one single poem that will end with my own end”.

The author of 60 books, Kozer is normally associated with neobarroco, a Latin American movement that draws inspiration from the daring use of language by Golden Age poets, especially Luis de Góngora. Kozer was also co-editor of Medusario, an anthology of Neo-Baroque poetry. “At least since the death of Argentine Néstor Perlongher, Kozer has been the principle voice of this movement,” says Mark Weiss, the translator and editor of Stet, a selection of Kozer’s poems.

Born in Cuba in 1940 to Central-European Jewish immigrants, in 1960 Kozer took a plane to Miami with 50 dollars in his pocket. “The island was becoming too small for my dreams and the Revolution disillusioned me pretty soon,” he said. “I’m the first Cuban Jew who left Cuba after Castro’s takeover.”

He quickly moved to New York, where he would remain for the next 38 years, first as a student and then as a professor of Spanish and Literature at CUNY’s Queens College. “New York was my formative experience, the city where I lived everything after my adolescence,” he says.

The first years were harsh. “Back then there weren’t as many Spanish speakers as today. I wasn’t interested in blending Spanish and English, so I had little contact with the Nuyoricans. Books in Spanish were hard to get by and expensive, and I married an English-speaking woman. As a result of all that, I started to lose my Spanish.”

That loss was tragic. “A novelist can write in a second language, but a poet must write in the language of his childhood,” he says. For 8 years, Kozer would not write one single line of poetry.

After a bout of alcoholism, a divorce and a second marriage with his current wife Guadalupe, Kozer began writing again. At the same time, immigration transformed New York into today’s Spanish-language metropolis.

“In Cuba I never met a Dominican or a Puerto Rican. I met them in New York, as well as Peruvians, Mexicans, etc. From them I picked up words that found their way into my poetry.”

This will be the first major prize of his career. “But the really important thing is our work,” he concluded. “That is what survives us.”


Claudio Iván Remeseira is a New York-based award-winning journalist, writer, and critic. Translator of the Spanish-language on-line section of The Nation and editor of Hispanic New York, an online portal and blog on current events and culture. Editor of Hispanic New York: A Sourcebook (Columbia University Press, 2010), an anthology of essays on the city’s Latino, Latin American & Iberian cultural heritage, and winner of the Latino International Book Award in the category of Best Reference Book in English (2011).

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