For showing how creativity, beauty, free expression and community can flourish amongst and overcome even deeply entrenched fear and violence.
The International Poetry Festival of Medellín is one of the world’s largest and most prestigious poetry festivals. By organising poetry readings in public space, the festival aimed to re-establish cultural life and help residents reclaim their city.
It started in 1991 as a beacon of hope in Medellín, one of the world’s most dangerous and violent cities. Today, the festival is an international well-recognised poetry event drawing people from around the globe to celebrate art, democracy, freedom of expression and discuss solutions for some of the world’s most pressing problems.
Poetry to reclaim the streets
The International Poetry Festival of Medellín started as a protest against the political violence and hatred prevailing in Colombia, especially in Medellín. In the early 1990s, Medellín was ruled by fear, political terror and fighting between criminal groups. Some 100 people could be murdered on the weekend. After 8 p.m., the city was usually dead due to a curfew imposed by the paramilitary, nowadays still active in the country.
Fernando Rendón, the co-founder of the Festival, says: "It seems a difficult task to find flourishing and tranquil decades in our country in the last 150 years, but the decade of the 1990s was particularly sombre and mournful. The festival arose from a proposal to overthrow the wall of terror and fear imposed by the internal feuds of our country". It was an attempt "to create through poetry an atmosphere that without ignoring the spiral of death and the inertial strength of hate could put a little light in this sombre scene."
The idea was simple: by organising poetry readings in the streets, the Festival initiators helped people re-establish a cultural life and reclaim their city. More and more listeners overcame their own fear and attended the poetry readings.
During the 10 days of the annual Festival in Medellín, there are public readings of poetry in the streets, in parks, residential areas, at the university and libraries, in theatres, cooperatives, schools and cultural centres, restaurants, malls, subway stations, factories, churches and even in prisons. Each year, some 80 artists from up to 55 countries participate actively in the festival. Up to 200,000 people come to listen to about 100 poetry readings.
The Poetry Festival has been facing death threats, attacks on its office and its homepage and has to deal with a reduction of the Colombian state's economic support. Nevertheless, it has managed to keep its activities ongoing.
Campaigning for peace and democracy
The International Poetry Festival of Medellín was organised for the first time in 1991 by thirteen people connected with the literature magazine Prometeo, founded in 1982. The main inspiration came from the editors and poets Fernando Rendón and Angela García. The organisation responsible for both Prometeo magazine and the poetry festival is the Corporation of Art and Poetry Prometeo. Which has also run a TV documentary series entitled Tiempo de Poesía, an International Poetry School and the Gulliver Project, poetry workshops for children in the most marginalised neighbourhoods of Medellín.
In 2003, the Festival brought together the first Global Conference on Poetry for Peace in Colombia, which passed a declaration about the political situation in Colombia. Ten years later, they helped develop a Global Campaign for Peace in Colombia in cooperation with the World Poetry Movement, which included nearly 230 organisations and 1240 poets from 134 nations from all continents. They expressed support to the advancing peace dialogues between the Colombian government and the FARC guerrilla group, asking for the strengthening of the peace talks, an immediate ceasefire and the materialisation of agreements leading to a state of social justice, peace, dignity and reconciliation among Colombians.
In 2016, they celebrated the Peace Agreements in La Habana and the “great choice” from the Norwegian Nobel Committee, selecting former Colombian president Juan Manual Santos for the Peace Prize for his efforts to achieve the peace deal. The following year, the Poetry Festival organised its first edition in times of peace. Since then, some Right Livelihood Laureates take part in the festival programme each year.
When Santos' period was coming to an end, the festival organisers campaigned to avoid anti-peace agreement sectors get back to the government. The incipient and already fragile peace process continued to weaken during the following years under the mandate of the right-wing President Iván Duque. The number of social, environmental and indigenous defenders and former guerrilla members assassinated increased alarmingly.
In 2020 the International Poetry Festival of Medellín celebrated its 30 anniversary. A joint celebration in Medellín planned with the Right Livelihood Award, which celebrated its 40 anniversary, had to turn completely to a virtual mode due to the global Covid-19 pandemic.