Roland Legiardi-Laura by Bob Holman

“Poetry is a part of daily life there. The life of a soldier, a policeman, a pilot, a farmer, a banker.”

BOMB 28 Summer 1989
028 Summer 1989
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Filming Sandanista soldiers in the Segovia Mountains, Jinotega, near the Honduran border. Photograph by Roland Legiardi-Laura.

Azul is a film that’s a passion. A poem that started five or six hundred years ago in Nicaragua. Shot on location, Azul tells the story of Nicaragua through the poetry of its people. It is, in the best tradition of storytelling, an oral history.

Bob Holman How did you settle on the title Azul?

Roland Legiardi-Laura Originally the film was called Nicaragua: Land of Poets, which is a startling and wonderful film title.

BH Huh?

RLL It sounds like a National Geographic tour brochure. This guy watching us film on the street said, “It has to be Azul,” and the minute I heard it, it made perfect sense. It’s a classic film title. It’s mysterious, it’s eerie, it’s one word—it’s blue.

BH It happens to be the title of Dario’s …

RLL It happens to be the title of the first book book of “modernismo” style poetry in the Spanish language. Both Lorca and Neruda acknowledge Dario as their master.

BH When did you decide that you wanted to make a film? I never knew! This was a secret of yours? That you were keeping from all the poets?

RLL It was a poetic secret. I never knew either that I wanted to make a film about Nicaraguan poetry or anything else for that matter. I went down to Nicaragua the first time to observe a society that was undergoing a complex and profound change. That was in March/April 1984. I had gotten press credentials from the San Francisco Chronicle basically that gave me the right to ask tough questions.

BH So you were official. You had a job. You had a mission!

RLL I was on a mission. (laughter) I was on a mission from God. So I went down there and the first thing you find is when you say you are a poet, people are enlivened. Here, people run away screaming, or they give you the name of their therapist or even the name of a job consultant. There, people pull out a pile of poems or ask you to recite your work or take you to a reading, or they just look at you with tremendous love. Poetry is a part of daily life there. The life of a soldier, a policeman, a pilot, a farmer, a banker.

BH The life of a people at war.

RLL Not at war in the sense of World War I. Then we had a great number of poets who wrote beautiful romantic verse and got blown to bits. In Nicaragua, poetry is something people do all the time. In the heat of battle, or after a battle or just walking somewhere, they write poems. The government sends workshop leaders up into the mountains, into the combat zone to teach, and then publishes volumes of soldiers’ poetry. The poems range in form from classical rhyming verse to free verse. The subjects range from the love for a girlfriend back home in the barrio, to nature’s immensity, to the horrors of war.

BH But still you didn’t decide to come back and translate those poems or to …

RLL When I first got back I thought I would write some articles and translate my experiences into poetry. Which I did. But, after writing, I still felt a certain emptiness. I hadn’t really created what I wanted to in my own work. It didn’t feel really resolved. The word that kept coming to me was “epic.” This was an “epic” experience I had had. The whole culture was an epic culture and it had to be treated as an entire piece from its early history to the present. Now by epic I don’t mean grandiose. I just mean that the scope of it was under a titanically large ceiling.

BH I remember when you came back the first time you were changed. That you were charged.

RLL I was charged with the epic, of telling the story.

BH The telling of stories—that’s what the people in the film do that makes you feel they’re like us.

RLL They show us their lives. What they don’t do is tell us documentary, factual, historical things.

BH In the film you have history, but it’s hidden in the way that a poem contains—that every poem is an encyclopedia, but the information is so encoded that it takes the full faculties of the reader to understand the history of the universe by reading this haiku. So quick—how many times did the Marines invade Nicaragua!

RLL Sixteen times.

BH Sixteen times … that fact might not be there.

RLL That fact is in there.

BH But the fact of the invasions and of the US occupations, of who Rubén Darío is, of who Sandino is, that information is there, but not presented in strict chronological documentary style. That wouldn’t be a poem.

RLL It wouldn’t be even a catalog poem. What I’m trying to do is find the subliminal history of the Nicaraguan spirit. Which you should walk away with, intuitively buried in your own neurons, your vision swallowing the film’s vision.

BH An amazing range of poets actually appear in this film! What’s the oldest poem read?

RLL The oldest is a pre-Columbian poem in the original Nahuatl which is a lament for the setting sun—the sunset is compared to a lover’s leaving. The poems stretch over five to six hundred years and encompass the variety of cultures that make up Nicaraguan culture.

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Carlos Rigby and Roland Legiardi-Laura. Photograph by Kristin Reed.

BH When you have Carlos Rigby and Jose Coronel Urtecho nose to nose, you’ve got just room enough to fit the rest of the world between them. They are really opposite sides …

RLL Absolutely. Carlos is the quintessential rasta, or Rastanista as he calls himself.

BH Sandafarian.

RLL From the Atlantic coast, Rigby is from black Caribbean culture, he speaks with his beautiful lilting Caribbean accent, left over from the days when the Atlantic coast was a British colony. His black culture is mixed with Miskito Indian culture. And Urtecho is Puck in an 82-year-old body. There’s a Miskito Indian poem that also appears in the film. Again about the loss of a loved one, a loved one’s departure.

BH It’s a theme in Nicaragua.

RLL Themes. That’s the other thing the film has to deal with. My imprint on the film has to be made in the choice of the poems. Twenty-seven poems make up the thread which carries you through the film. The coherence of the film has to be woven into those poems. That’s one of the tasks I set for myself in the film: to make an epic poem of smaller poems.

BH You had to deal with the top governmental officials in the Sandanista bureaucracy. In the United States, what was the highest level of bureaucracy that you had to deal with?

RLL I had to deal with the Norton Air Force Base here. I had to get permission to use their archives.

BH What was in them?

RLL They have five reels of old 35 mm film from the ’20s and ’30s when the Marines were down in Nicaragua. We ended up using about four seconds of it—nothing particularly extraordinary, just enough to carry the image we wanted. I don’t know what it would be like to get a US government official to read a poem on camera. I imagine the effort would be slightly greater than what I had to do in Nicaragua. The Sandanistas are anarcho-bureaucrats. It’s a honed down bureaucracy because they don’t have the luxury of a phenomenal budget with which to expand their bureaucracy endlessly. But they have a built-in bureaucratic nature so that nothing happens if they don’t want it to happen: they don’t say, “You must fill out this form. You must come here.” Things simply don’t happen. They’ll set something up with you. Dozens of times. “Oh yes! That’s a great idea. Tomorrow at noon. No problem. Right there.” No problem. They’re not there. You’re there. You’re standing there with your camera and crew.

BH But luckily you’ve made a second appointment for the same time.

RLL Well, that’s what I learned during my first trip down there: that anything I was going to do would be by the grace of Sandino and a doubled schedule, for every minute of every day. And the minute that someone didn’t show up, it didn’t matter. It wasn’t a question of being polite and waiting 15 more minutes—you were out of there.

BH Was there a certain moment in making the film where you felt that it was going to happen? A certain section of the film when you knew as it was going on that this—Ah ha! Now we can do it—that it was going to work?

RLL You know, it never seemed to me that it wasn’t going to happen. And that blind optimism probably is a lucky genetic flaw of mine. But on the other hand, it never seemed that it was definitely going to happen either. I think I felt the greatest relief when the ambush was over and I knew that I was going to continue to happen.

BH So the ambush happened right at the end?

RLL It happened fairly close to the end of the trip with the military. We would get up every morning at 5:00 AM and march for three or four hours. We’d film the daily lives of the soldiers, especially the three young poets in the company. From the time they woke up and took their morning piss, brushed their teeth, to the time they fell asleep at night. We were up by the Honduran border at a time when the contra tactic in the sector was to travel in small bands, not get cornered, surrounded, and wiped out—just do, “hit and run.” I was with a company of B.L.I. The best way to describe the BLI is that they are the Nicaraguan Green Berets—they go up in the mountains for a month at a time, guerrilla fighters, seasoned at the age of 17. Anyway, we were scheduled to go and film a poetry workshop. Ten or 15 of them would sit down and read each other’s poems and talk and share their work. There was a great little place that they knew up on a hill that seemed safe and secure and was going to have the right kind of light for the shooting; magic hour light.

BH For shooting the movie.

RLL Precisely. We were walking along this road and gun fire began. It was incredibly loud. I’d heard exchanges of gun fire all through that month, but nothing like this. It was right on top of me. And the next thing I remember was that I just dove into a ditch at the side of the road and I could feel the gunshots passing over my head and sure enough they were passing over my head. The image I had, my little cinematic image, was of a bullet passing diagonally through my skull. So I just dug my face deep into that ditch while the gunfire went by. When I looked up, the camera man and sound man were up and running through the gunshots, following the poets. And they were just totally—this was their job, this is what they were waiting for the whole month. And so I got up and followed them. And we went into the trees following our poets who were running and chasing the contra who were firing at us. The firing went on for 15, 20 minutes. If it was a real ambush, I think we would have all been dead. I mean they would have been laying for us, they would have known we were coming and we would have been wiped out. What I think happened was that we were walking at one point on a parallel line with this band of contra who saw us first and didn’t themselves know what was happening. It made me realize I’m not making another film where I have to crawl around in a ditch and worry if I’m going to be around to finish it.

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Roland Legiardi-Laura and Mark Daniels. Photograph by Kristin Reed.

BH Well how about love?

RLL Ah! The Nicaraguans in love, that’s pretty easy. They’re an amazingly enamored people. The love poems travel through the whole film. There’s Gioconda Belli, whose work expresses that sensuality. Back in the late ’60s, early ’70s, Nicaraguan society was undergoing the same kind of upheavals we were having with regard to feminism. And for her to write sensual poetry, love poetry that was not afraid of the body or nature or any sensual expression, caused her tremendous difficulty. She had a hard time countering Nicaraguan machismo and that struggle comes through in her work. What comes through in Carlos, mad Carlos Rigby’s work, is that love, also. In his most political work, love and sex and passion and politics float together. Love comes through also in the soldiers’ poems. In one sense I’m sure what keeps them moving from hill to hill are the thoughts of their lovers.

BH What changes have you seen over the years in Nicaragua?

RLL I think in the course of three years I saw the revolution being ground to a halt. I don’t know how you’d describe it; the naive joy of victory began to fade even for the most committed. Certainly that was something good and healthy. But it is one of the great dilemmas of political analysis. I mean, do you say that the source of the current problem is the traditional path of every revolution, that it simply devours itself or runs out of steam? Or do you say the reason it is faltering is the phenomenal pressure of the US intervention?

BH That’d be the way I’d look at it. It seems to me that the economic sanctions, the embargo by the United States, coupled with the low intensity conflict funded by the US, is enough to keep the Nicaraguan people from tasting the fruits of their revolution, what it could be, because they’re continually at war. They can’t utilize the literacy campaigns, the hospitals are still filled with war victims …

RLL I think what changed for me, one of the things that was both a scary and a pleasant change, was to lose my own naivete, my own sort of over-zealous approval of what I saw and see in the Nicaraguans—see in the Sandinistas in all of their glorious inefficiency, their egomania, their own abuse. One sees that and then accepts it. Not to justify it, but to say, okay, look, this is the pragmatic reality of what’s there. It’s not black and white. There’s a lot of grey. There’s a lot of dark grey. And still I feel that’s the nature of Nicaragua now, that’s what a revolution is really. That’s actually why and how it survives. It just does not survive on its own tautology, on its own ideology. It has to recreate itself everyday, which is a very, very, muddy process. It’s not clear it will never be clear. They are not all nice guys. They are not all pure. They make mistakes, they make errors. They abuse rights. All those things are part and parcel of the environment. But ultimately there’s no question that the nature of life there has been profoundly changed and it’s better, it’s profoundly richer and freer.

BH You’ve called it a documentary. You’ve called it an epic. Now you’ve called it a poem itself and you’ve called it an anthology of poems …

RLL I call it a lot of names. I curse at it all the time. Well look, the film, if it works as a film, has to work on different levels, the way any good poem works. It has to work on the oral level, there has to be a language, a traveling poem that takes you from the front to the back of the film. And it has to work on a gut level—to step back from the traditional documentary form and not offer history. Not offer the fact. Because the fact is something that none of us should trust, because the facts are constantly and easily manipulated. You can read the New York Times two years and not know anything about Nicaragua. Nothing. In fact you’d probably know less than before you started to read the goddamned paper.

BH There was a great story they told about Steven Kinzer the New York Times correspondent when we were down there. He said, “Don’t blame me. It doesn’t matter what we write; it always ends up 60 percent anti-Sandinista and 40 percent pro-Sandinista.” My take on Nicaraguans is that they are much more open than we are. There’s the image of Cardenal and Urtecho, wandering through the forest there, outside the Ministry of Culture, chatting about Pound and Poe and Whitman. As if we could have Cap Weinberger and Reagan wandering through the rose garden pondering Ashbery or something.

RLL Urtecho, who is the reigning grand-master of Nicaraguan letters, pays homage to Whitman during that walk—it’s not hard to see the generosity of their spirit, Whitman’s spirit.

BH It’s like poetry is Nicaragua’s national language.

RLL One of the things that drew me to make the film was the need to find the link between our lives in the course of the days we live and the art we make. One of my next projects is a film of Alastair Gordon’s book, Between the Rooms, explores what it means to live in a home, what each room means in terms of our emotional history. That’s architecture for me. That’s the daily life of architecture. That’s what a house is: you buy a place, you fix it up, then you live in it. You bang into the table every morning. You’re scared of going to the attic because you remember stories your grandma told you. You can’t find your records that are lost on the upper shelf of a closet. The Nicaraguans write poetry as an integral part of their daily experience. For me, that’s where art begins to have its most magical quality: Its intersection with everyday life. Americans live in houses—but in a deeper sense we all have become homeless.

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Roland Legiardi-Laura and Sylvia Maijorga. Photograph by Kristin Reed.

BH And Azul fits into your life as being your foray into film to bring to the public’s attention not only the uses of poetry in another culture, but also to focus on another culture that our nation seems to be intent on annihilating.

RLL My fear is that this film might become a document, an historical record of a culture that no longer exists in ten years: the result of our murderous activity south of the border. We’re frightened by their culture, because if it works, Reagan is right, the Sandinistas will be driving their 1950 Chevys right up to Harlingen, Texas. Not carrying the guns of a revolution, but the ideas of a revolution. And when the Mexican shoe workers hear those ideas once again, ideas they haven’t heard echoing since the days of Villa and Zapata, then things must change. Then the price of a taco goes up. Yes—the daily life of a poetic people is to be feared, they’re carrying dangerous, powerful tools. In Nicaragua, you take your skill as a poet not just into odd corners of society but you take it into the seat of government. You become a poet-president, you become a poet-minister of interior. You become a poet-soldier. It’s not considered shamanism or magic or weird. It’s considered a necessary thing to do. It’s considered useful.

Bob Holman is a poet who lives and works in NY. He and Roland Legiardi-Laura are working with Miguel Algarín to open The Poets’ Cafe, a seven day a week poets’ nightclub and literary center. Azul will be playing at The Global Village, Downtown Film Festival, Museum of Modern Art, and The Public in May.

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Originally published in

BOMB 28, Summer 1989

Featuring interviews with Patrick McGrath, Craig Lucas, Mary Ellen Mark, Isabel Toledo, Guy Gallo, Gary Indiana, David Kapp, Bobbie Ann Mason, Roland Legiardi-Laura, John Ford Noonan, Roni Horn, and Richard Edson.

Read the issue
028 Summer 1989