As a student of Spanish at the University of St Andrews, I was thrilled when I heard such that the influential poet Luis García Montero would be giving a talk at the Byre Theatre. What I did not expect, however, was to discover just how many ties St Andrews has to the world of Spanish poetry, nor how deeply moving his reading would be.
The evening started with a thoughtful introduction by St Andrews’ own Spanish professor, Javier Letrán. Taking place in the Lawrence Levy Studio, the smaller size of the space – as opposed to the main theatre area – was the perfect choice for the event as it created a feeling of intimacy. I often find the nuances of personal poetry, which García Montero’s certainly is, can be swallowed up in a larger room. The dark space with a simply lit stage and the poems projected onto the board to follow along with created the perfect setting for his elegant yet simplistic verse.
García Montero himself has written fourteen collections of poetry to date and he read a selection of poems from across his work, spanning genres of love, loss, history and intimacy. Very excitingly, the final two poems he read were from his newest book One Year and Three Months, which has yet to be released. This particular collection follows his experience of his wife’s cancer, to which she lost her life in 2021, and created a harrowing yet poignant culmination to an evening of thought-provoking poetry.
In his introduction, Letrán stressed the universality of García Montero’s work in that he writes poetry for the masses, dealing with every day experiences. This definitely came across in the poetry he chose to read, specifically one poem entitled ‘Mujeres’ (women). García Montero introduced the poem by saying it was about the contrast between images of female beauty portrayed in the media and the beauty of real women, inspired by an occasion on which he sat on a bus with his lover and remembered earlier intimate moments with her, whilst looking at a lingerie advertisement. This poem particularly struck me, and I think others in the room, due to its timeless relevance in a modern world so obsessed with filters and social media. The natural elegance and romance of the Spanish language beautifully evoked the quiet lust García Montero felt for his real woman, compared with the far-off, intangible beauty of the models.
Aside from the beauty of the poems in Spanish, as a bilingual event, the poems were also translated and read in English by St Andrews’ own alumnus, Anna Crowe. As a long-term resident and founder of the StAnza Poetry festival, it was interesting to learn about Anna’s impromptu career as a translator of Spanish poetry by writers such as García Montero. Apparently she began translating Spanish poetry because she did so on the spot at an event taking place at the StAnza Festival and, afterwards, was approached by a publisher due to the success of her translation. It was fascinating to learn how this annual festival in St Andrews sparked such an interesting career. Her translations were very fruitful and managed to capture the meaning of the poems, without losing their rhythm. It was nice, from an academic perspective, to hear the poem in Spanish first and then in English so I could see how much I could understand on my own and then deepen my understanding with her translation. That said, many in the room were not Spanish speakers and the bilingual nature of the Byre events means that any attendee can enjoy them.
As previously mentioned, García Montero ended the evening with two poems detailing his wife’s experience of cancer that painfully focused on the positive elements of a life of love well-lived. As such, through showing rather than telling, these poems described the importance of prioritizing every day relationships as much as possible. Particularly for a room full of students, it very much felt like García Montero was passing much hard-earned personal wisdom onto us through his poetry in a beautiful and non-sanctimonious manner. I am not embarrassed to say I was almost moved to tears.
Unfortunately, there was very little time left for questions at the end, but we did receive a very entertaining anecdote about when García Montero briefly joined the Spanish socialist party and, along with other famous Spanish creatives, was invited to the Soviet Union. He remarked that they soon realized it reminded them all too much of their own Francoist dictatorship than it did of any kind of freedom. He told this story within the context of a poem he wrote about being afraid of his words as a writer being misconstrued and it was an entertaining and insightful conclusion to the talk.
All things considered, this evening with Luis García Montero was a tremendous introductory Byre Talk – and the fact that it was free was an added bonus. I would certainly attend other talks there in the future and encourage others to do the same.