Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Off the String and Onto the Wall: Northeastern Brazilian Poetic Graffiti

Brazilian graffiti artist, Derlon Almeida, and a work in progress

"Literatura de cordel" or "Stories on a String" refers to a genre of poetry from Northeastern Brazil. 

Image source
This literary tradition has its origins in the European chapbook traditions of the 16th and the beginning of the 17th century, where the“pliegos sueltos” and “literatura de cordel” circulated in Spain, “broadsides” in England and “literatura do cego” in Portugal. Although it is very difficult to trace when the first of these chapbooks arrived in Brazil, it is generally agreed upon that it came as early as the 1500s, along with the first wave of settlers. Over time, the chapbook tradition in Portugal lost its novelty and gradually obtained a reputation for being a poor man’s literature, leading to Charles III of Spain prohibiting the distribution of these pamphlets due to their “harm to public morals”. 

In Brazil, however, this tradition survived through a process of adaptation. Not only were the European plot-lines adjusted to accommodate local interests, but its prose form was changed to poetic form, particularly influenced by the spontaneously composed verses of cantadores and repentistas, an influential element that has been credited with forging many of the unique features of the Brazilian tradition.

Woodblock print, "Moça Roubada" by José Francisco Borges
One of the particularly interesting features of the traditional and contemporary Brazilian manifestation of Literatura de cordel is the now emblematic woodblock print adorning the covers of the newspaper grade paper upon which the poetry is published. These woodblock prints (xilogravuras in Portuguese) served to attract potential buyers with alluring and sometimes perplexing images that usually but not necessarily related to the chapbook’s content.

Along with xilogravura developed a stylized method of reciting or singing the verses in public spaces. Although a musical element was present in the cordel’s literary predecessors of Europe, the Brazilian musical sensibilities that emerged in literatura de cordel's recitation were informed by various types of improvisational lyrical duels. For example, "repente" (literally meaning "suddenly") consisted of two participants, each with guitars, spontaneously composing verses for a traditional melody. Here is a brief example of repentista music style, as it survives today (remember, these guys are making it up as they go along!).

Now-- it is hard to believe that only 7 years ago, YouTube was created by 3 former PayPal employees. Since 2005, the video-sharing website has skyrocketed to popularity around the globe and has allowed people to publish a preponderance of movie clips, short films and home videos... making it possible for us to share in the live aspects of the repente improvisational art form that was once reserved for those that living in or traveling to Brazil. 

As a resource for new material that is constantly being updated, as well as serving as a popular cultural archive, YouTube has created a space in which creativity can build on itself in new and exciting ways. It is not surprising then, that in addition to the footage of cordelistas reciting their poetry online, artists have begun creating animated short films that use the musical tradition, animate the woodblock prints, and recite or sing cordelista poetry. Here is an example.

Debra Castillo notes in her essay, “http://www.LAlit.com,” that increased use of the Internet as a literary resource has allowed authors to expand their readership and audiences at an impressive rate: "Writers can get their works out to an ever-larger international community of casual readers, fellow writers, and literary scholars, and do it extremely rapidly and efficiently." This instantaneous distribution to international audiences ushers in a unique cordel expression, one that can be experienced in a completely digitized way that at once preserves and innovates. Castillo remarks: “Writers and critics can engage in dialogues heretofore impossible or exceptionally complicated [...] Through the increasingly pervasive computer network, underrecognized writers [...] can meet and share their works.” 

In another, less technological but equally as public a medium, the cordel aesthetic has been mimicked by several Brazilian graffiti artists. The graffiti is usually figurative, executed in a style that imitates the cordel’s xilogravuras as closely as possible and sometimes offers traces of a narrative.
Piece by Derlon Almeida - in Pernambuco, Recife. Image source

Piece by Derlon Almeida - in Pernambuco, Recife. Image source 

Piece by Derlon Almeida - in Pernambuco, Recife. Image source 

Piece by Derlon Almeida - in Pernambuco, Recife. Image source 
From what I can tell, there is also no official website or online archive dedicated to tracking and archiving these "xilografites." These temporary works of art will disappear eventually, as they are literally “published” on reclaimed ("stolen") public space. This beautifully fits into the literatura de cordel tradition, as the chapbooks were published on cheap paper that was available, without posterity as a first priority. 

So, what can we make of this renewed interest in the cordel aesthetic and its ability to continue to adapt to Internet and graffiti outlets?

I propose that the cordel poetry has always presented itself in a moment in which the framework for a communal narrative has shifted. In a Brazil where travel agencies are shifting the meaning of the Pelourinho--a place where slaves were sold as chattel-- to accommodate the imaginations of tourists who find it charming and may not wish to recognize the space’s troubled, violent past; access to technology spreads; and internationally acclaimed film, prose and rap spring from favelas, the literatura de cordel poetic style has reemerged to construct a new narrative for an as yet unknown future. 

Your thoughts...??? 

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