When Mary Villarroel was finishing her communications thesis in June 2018, her grandmother had an accident, and soon after died. Villarroel was plunged into deep mourning. She could not stop crying and wondered what meaning life had now that her grandmother, who had always cared for her with care like a good, loving mother, was gone. She tried to focus on becoming an arts and culture journalist. Villarroel loved museums. She could be moved to tears in front of a painting. And she longed to dedicate herself to cultural promotion.
As soon as she graduated, in January 2019, she began working in a state gallery. It took only weeks for her passion to dissipate. The managers treated the works of art as if they were unimportant objects. She understood that she could not continue there, so she quit.
Villarroel felt lost once more. In June of that year she heard of a poetry workshop being offered in a place called La Poeteca. She signed up without any expectations, just hoping to find something that might cheer her up a bit. She entered a reading room, full of shelves full of books and decorated with colorful furniture, and she had the feeling that she was safe.
La Poeteca is a foundation that seeks to stimulate and promote reading, writing and the study of poetry. Located in the Mene Grande building, on Francisco de Miranda avenue in Caracas, it opens its doors to the public from Monday to Saturday. Access is free for whoever wishes to go read, write, sit and think. There is always coffee. There is always silence. But it is more than a comfortable space: the place has three rooms where gatherings, book launches, tributes to renowned poets and workshops are held.
The initiative arose from a group of poets concerned about the closure of bookstores and publishers across the country. In 2016, Ricardo Ramírez, poet and university professor, and Marlo Ovalles, businessman and lover of poetry, considered opening a bookstore. After realizing that doing so would be a quick way to bankruptcy, they opted for a reading room to mobilize cultural activity around poetry and literature.
With 4,000 books, one thousand from Ovalles’ personal library, and the rest bought for a bargain from the poet Alfredo Chacón, they launched La Poeteca in May 2018. In the first year, as other writers donated books, the library grew to over 5,000, and they quickly ran out of space to display them all. The room was too small.
When they moved to the Mene Grande building in March 2019, everything in Venezuela seemed suspended in time. Distended power cuts had turned the country into a dark tunnel. Ramírez and his team did not stop. They renovated the place. And in May, just as La Poeteca was celebrating its first year, it reopened to the public.
"It is difficult to obtain financing because I know that there are more serious problems in the country. But we are dedicated to literature and it is from here that we can contribute. Poetry gathers the memory of the peoples. And we intend to keep that memory alive, "says Ramírez.
"In the midst of this crisis we are experiencing, organizations in the cultural field are beginning to take center stage because they provide experiences for people."
La Poeteca, which already has a collection of more than 8,000 books, works thanks to the contributions of Ovalles, president of the foundation, as well as contributions made by private organizations and embassies for specific activities. Ramírez insists that the goal in 2020 is for the initiative to be self-sustainable.
“One of our means of income is renting the rooms; another, the workshops that we deliver. If someone is interested in one and cannot pay it, they have the option to request a scholarship and we will give it to them. The workshops are not free because with part of these funds the teachers are paid; and the rest is what allows us to cover small operating expenses.”
It was in one of the workshops that Mary Villarroel felt she came back to life.
“Here I made friends; I met sensitive people, like me; and I felt that I was not alone or crazy. I understood the magic of words. I felt sheltered by art, "she says.
In one class, they read a poem that the writer Gabriela Rosas, the teacher, had dedicated to her mother. Hearing it, Mary burst into tears. "Nothing like a mother's blessing / to make the world go round." Maybe she remembered her grandmother with those verses.
"Poetry can be penetrating and deeply painful, but it has the power to heal, heal, and regenerate," she says. Smiling, she refers to La Poeteca with a string of complimentary metaphors. She says it is a lighthouse, an oasis, a compass, fresh water. She says it is a temple: a sacred place. As a fervent devotee, she has not stopped going there to read, to write, to think.