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Celebrated Cuban poet leaves Las Vegas

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Pablo Medina doesn’t seem a creature of Las Vegas or even of the Nevada desert. His essence is pure Cuban. The soul that stares from his richly dark-coffee eyes belongs in a Panama hat and a loose white guayabera seated on a Havana doorstep, inhaling with every breath the cracked and colorful city, its poignant jacaranda and sensual music.

Yet here he is on a bourgeois couch in just another stucco tract home in just another gated community in Henderson, a city as comparatively arid to Havana as the desert is to the Caribbean.

He loves it here. He was ready to stay here forever, as a sought-after creative writing professor, a mentor to MFA graduate students and an active member of the city’s literary and cultural milieu—but the powers-that-be decided to withdraw substantial funds from UNLV, critically affecting his beloved writing program and jeopardizing the state’s future in dire and unforeseen ways.

“You need to educate people as citizens--that’s why you have the liberal arts: history, the social sciences, literature. All of these subjects help to create citizens, people who are concerned about where they live and their fellow human beings, and the second thing higher education does is train people, as scientists, engineers, teachers, doctors. It also inspires innovation through training. This state is not going to survive based on its gambling and mining revenues. It has to diversify its revenue base. You can’t do that without having trained professionals. You can’t, for example, have initiatives for wind and energy without having trained professionals who know how to harness those natural forces, and the places they learn this is in universities.

“I thought I was going to stay here for good. I liked the university so much and the writing program so much. A number of my colleagues were very welcoming, the students were very welcoming. I love the students in the MFA program; I became very close to them. I came here as a visiting professor and then I was offered a permanent position (tenured professorship) which I decided to take …but then of course, you have the budget issue … it just seemed that politicians were playing a dangerous game with higher education. You can’t have a first rate state without having a first rate education system and a first rate university system. There is just no way. So if having that isn’t a high priority for them, then I don’t want to be here. Without education, and especially without higher education, people leave and don’t come back.”

Which is what Medina is now doing. In a couple of weeks he will close the doors of his suburban home and his UNLV office of three years and head east to Boston to teach graduate-level creative writing at Emerson College. Boston, of course, is replete with culture. Medina spent decades in similarly culturally rich New York City before coming west. I find it hard to believe that Medina has grown fond of a city whose claims to fame are gambling, tourism and showing people a good time, but he insists he has—although he has a few suggestions.

“Vegas is not a bad city but it doesn’t have enough. It needs to diversify its cultural offerings. It’s a great tragedy that the Las Vegas Art Museum closed. …

“They should do everything they can do to have a world quality museum, and the money is there. It’s difficult to think in those terms because of the economy, but down the road we need to make these institutions. The Las Vegas symphony is a good symphony but it could really stand to be supported and its profile raised. These are the cultural institutions that make a city great. … There’s got to be a sense that there is something here beyond work and making money. I’m talking about the people coming here to live, not just for a weekend of fun.”

Medina also views the literary scene as lacking, but with potential. He tells of a reading he did last year at the Contemporary Arts Center of his translation of Federico Garcia Lorca poems. “We had a Flamenco guitarist and there was a good crowd, about 30 people. The town is ripe for that sort of thing and there are people in the MFA program who want to continue and I put them in touch with the next director.

“There isn’t even an independent bookstore, except Bauman’s Books, that I know of—and that’s antiquarian books, you can’t afford them. The others are Borders and Barnes and Nobles, and rather poor Borders and Barnes and Nobles. They are small and have a small selection, definitely not of local authors.

“The Clark County Library is a great library. I’m surprised at how good it is. … The Las Vegas Book Fair is a good thing. I hope it takes off (Medina hosted a reading there last year at the Historic Fifth Street School).”

Medina names Vu Tran and Mailey Chapman, who both recently have had novels accepted for publication, as two young local UNLV writing program alumni with a promising future. “There are some people here worth looking at and worth following. There are a number of very, very talented people in the MFA program, both poetry and fiction.”

Medina himself, who has finished dozens of acclaimed novels, translations, story and poem collections, has two books in the works: a collection of short stories and a novel. While he won’t discuss their contents because it’s “bad luck,” the collection of stories should be published by the end of the summer and the novel in 6-8 months.

Medina, who is frequently called upon to give public readings and speeches (19 speaking engagements around the country last year) is reluctant to put a label on his genre. He names his big influences as Miguel de Cervantes, romantic-surrealist Pablo Neruda, the Peruvian poet Vallejo and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. These are all Spanish/Latin American authors, but Medina has also been shaped by North American authors such as Hemingway and Faulkner.

Medina calls himself a “city kid … an urban creature,” molded in his childhood years by the “gorgeous city” of Havana, and then by the dynamism of New York City. “Nature was not a real priority for me. I come here and I start taking drives into the desert and I begin to like it a great deal and I decide I need to … get into those mountains and into the sands. I became an avid hiker. I found the desert to be a very special place. It’s very stark but very beautiful at the same time.”

Medina’s newfound love for the desert landscape has infiltrated many of his recent poems. But still, wouldn’t he prefer Boston, with its august brick edifices, historic streets and intellectual East Coast society?

He replies like a gentleman refusing to compare two women’s beauty. “I’ve lived in enough cities to know that each city has its own spirit and its own mode of functioning. I’m already missing [Las Vegas] and I haven’t even left. The moment you leave a place you create an absence in that place. … I created a way of dealing with myself here, with the heat, with the desert, with the Strip, with the city itself, everything from Area 51 to the sound of slot machines in casinos. Once I leave here, I will also be leaving the presence that I created for myself here.”

He won’t be the only one to feel his absence.

Before I took leave of his house, Medina gifted me a signed book of poetry, The Floating Island, a CD of Cuban jazz, which he loves, a poem, printed below, and, in response to my inquiry if he dances, a repeatable quote: "If you don't know how to move, you don't know how to live." Another version replaces "live" with "make love." He is Cuban, after all.

The German Woman

By Pablo Medina

She calls at seven

the way passion calls

after the chemistry set breaks under a heavy stone,

shards of test tubes and beakers,

powders of many colors on the desert sand.

Then silence,

disillusion like liquid

fizzing as it touches the powders.

Then a sanguine unpreparedness,

my raptor instincts attacking

the empty bed. The desert. The woman.

(Either it works or it doesn't.)

An ocean without water.

You can't imagine the beauty.

Halfway across the world in her,

Bavaria, a deep snow falling.

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Jennifer Grafiada

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