Brazil, A Land Of Working-Class Poets

In Brazil, a tradition inherited from the Portuguese remains popular today — stories on a string: slender pamphlets written in verse, hung up for sale on a piece of twine.

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And now to a literary tradition next door to Vargas Llosa's native Peru, in Brazil. When the Portuguese arrived, they landed in the northeast and they brought literatura de cordel, or stories on a string. They're pamphlets written in verse and hung up for sale on piece of twine.

Cordel caught on and to this day, it's a popular, informal way to describe everything from current events to humor and romance. And as Brazilians from the northeast migrated to other cities, they have brought their stories on a string with them. Annie Murphy reports.

ANNIE MURPHY: Brazil has a lot of internal migration. Many of the migrants to Rio de Janeiro originally came from the poorer northeast, looking for work and opportunity, and they settled in the neighborhood of Sao Cristovao.

It's a long subway ride from the white sand beaches of Ipanema, a working class suburb and home to the northeastern market. Just about anything from the region is sold here: Hot pants and platform sandals, corn pudding and guava jam and stories on a string.

Mr. JOSE JOAO DOS SANTOS: (Speaking foreign language).

Jose Joao dos Santos is better known as Mestre Azulao, or Master Bluebird. Seventy-eight years old, his trousers are pulled up high and he wears a cap of cured leather with ribbon tied at the back. He came to Rio when he was just 17 and kept on writing and reciting cordel poems, mainly as social critique.

Mr. SANTOS: (Speaking foreign language).

MURPHY: This poem is entitled "The Chaos of Public Hospitals." Waving his hands and speaking grandly, Master Bluebird recites:

Mr. SANTOS: (Speaking foreign language).

MURPHY: Chaos and waste isn't just the hospital but in every public place, in offices and the justice hall. There's no one who will help. But when it comes to health, such misery is worst of all.

Behind him stands a small kiosk, strung with hundreds of cordel pamphlets, and subject matter ranges from love and off-color jokes to poems about the environment, malaria, even AIDS.

Mr. SANTOS: He says: I'm a poet, and through poetry, I can say whatever I want. It's how I figure out what's good and what's bad about the world.

Eulice Tessari is a former librarian who has been selling these stories on a string for six years.

Ms. EULICE TESSARI: (Through translator) Years ago, at the end of the day people would gather around the one person who knew how to read, and he would read cordel. Many people come here who might not know how to read, but they know these stories by heart.

MURPHY: Goncalo Ferreira da Silva runs the Brazilian Academy of Cordel Literature out of his house in Rio. One rambling floor is filled with thousands of pamphlets and old machines for making them, like this printing press.

Mr. GONCALO FERREIRA DA SILVA (Brazilian Academy of Cordel Literature): (Speaking foreign language).

MURPHY: Goncalo came to cordel later. Another migrant from the northeast, he spent most of his youth working as a servant for a wealthy Rio family, then in radio and finally, cordel.

Mr. DA SILVA: (Speaking foreign language).

MURPHY: He says: I brought cordel with me in my DNA, in my soul. It was just a question of time. Cordel is part of our spirit. Our way of communicating is full of cordel. Now Goncalo is Rio's cordel historian and still writes the poems himself. He says that today, cordel has less to do with raw talent and everything to do with priorities.

Mr. DA SILVA: (Speaking foreign language).

MURPHY: Brazil doesn't have a lot of poets, he says. No country in the world has a lot of poets, including you all in the United States. Being a poet is hard, he says. What Brazil has is a respect for its culture.

For NPR News, this is Annie Murphy in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

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