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Cordel and Caribbean Poetry: Showcasing the Brazilian and Caribbean Collections

(The following is a guest post by 2021 Hispanic Reading Room Junior Fellows Sara Kittleson, Liam Josef Morrissey Sims and Karla Roig Blay.)

Poesías e historias del Caribe: Mapping Caribbean Women Poets in the PALABRA Archive

Karla Roig Blay

When my internship in the Hispanic Reading Room began ten weeks ago, I started exploring the PALABRA Archive recordings of poets and prose writers, asking myself the question that prompted my research: Are there any Puerto Ricans here? To my surprise, there were! I couldn’t have imagined the extent of the Library’s holdings on Puerto Rico, and I knew I wanted to integrate these materials into my project. My research progressed with the help of my project mentor, Acting Chief of the Latin American, Caribbean and European Divisions Suzanne Schadl, who was an integral part of my internship experience, and who met with me twice a week to brainstorm all the ideas I had and findings I made through my research. She supported me as I defined the scope of my project by analyzing the PALABRA Archive’s database and gathering meaning from statistics and percentages. I wanted to focus on a section of the Archive that wasn’t as well known, bringing together elements I was already passionate about, but hadn’t previously explored together: women poets, the Caribbean, Latin America, and identity. I decided I wanted to feature women poets whose work spoke about what it’s like to be from an island in the Caribbean and who feel as proud as I do of that heritage. My project is told through digital humanities tools – which are also a focus of my graduate studies – because they allowed me to create freely available and accessible online resources, as well as curate exhibits that anyone can visit from anywhere in the world.

A young woman with dark hair and red glasses wearing headphones sits in a room decorated with pictures.

Karla Roig Blay discusses her project featuring women Caribbean poets in the PALABRA Archive.

A map of the Caribbean labeled with the names of women poets and statistics related to the PALABRA Archive.

As the infographic shows, there are 13 Caribbean women poets in the PALABRA Archive. The poets are from islands across the Caribbean.

Self-Publishing from Brazil’s Margins: Literatura de Cordel

Liam Josef Morrissey Sims

As a Brazilian-American, I have always yearned for a deeper connection with Brazilian culture. I was lucky enough to live abroad for half of my life, experiencing unfamiliar cultures, which challenged me to constantly reevaluate my perceptions of the world. I began my formal study of Portuguese in college and dreamed of finally visiting my relatives in Brazil soon after. While the COVID-19 pandemic put my travel ambitions on hold, it gave me the opportunity to work virtually from Pittsburgh, PA as a Junior Fellow on a project showcasing Brazilian culture.

I collaborated with Sara Kittleson, another Junior Fellow, and the staff of the Hispanic Reading Room to create a Story Map highlighting the Library’s collection of literatura de cordel (cordel or chapbook literature). An informal form of musical poetry often printed on paper pamphlets, literatura de cordel is known for its colorful depictions of life in Brazil’s Northeast. Home to the earliest Portuguese colonial settlements like the coastal city of Salvador in Bahia, this often-neglected region has long influenced Brazilian culture at large. The Northeast was a hub for the transatlantic slave trade and its culture continues to maintain a strong African influence.

The Library of Congress Story Maps are online platforms for visual storytelling, which incorporate multimedia elements like images, videos, and interactive maps with textual analysis to tell compelling narratives. When Sara and I started this project, we decided that including photos of life in the Northeast would be essential to both providing context and connecting viewers to cordel poetry. During our research phase, I came across the Library’s newly acquired and digitized collection of photographs by the Brazilian photographer Andre Cypriano and immediately knew we needed to include them in our project. Cypriano captures daily life around Brazil in bold black-and-white imagery, which unflinchingly acknowledges the suffering of oppressed Brazilians while celebrating human perseverance and passion, just as cordel poetry does.

Set against a map of the Northeast of Brazil is a description of the project highlights, photos of Brazil, and cordel booklets.

The Cordel Story Map introduces chapbook literature and explains how cordel often reflects the culture and daily life of the Northeast of Brazil.

Sara Kittleson

For me, one of the highlights of creating the Cordel Story Map was being able to include the PALABRA Archive recording of the well-known cordelista J. Borges (José Francisco Borges) reading from his work. The recording was done in Recife, Brazil in 1976 and I knew immediately that it would be perfect for our project. Unfortunately, the Library didn’t have the rights to publish it online. As poetry with musical influences, cordel literature has a strong oral component, and to me, hearing writers read their own work is always ideal. Liam and I decided to contact J. Borges to ask for permission to share the recording online – and now it is available on the Library’s website and in our Story Map! When I listened to the recording for the first time I was totally blown away. J. Borges sings each cordel, and it’s really incredible to listen to his voice. I am so glad we are able to share this aspect of the cordel tradition with readers (and listeners) who may be learning about this form of literature for the first time.

As we were trying to get permission to use the recording, we were also trying to find and scan a portion of a physical copy of one of the cordel that J. Borges reads, so that users of our Story Map could read the original text while hearing it performed. Reference librarian Allina Migoni made it happen for us! Together these aural and visual elements add so much to users’ experience of the Story Map. I learned that providing access to the Library’s collections requires behind-the-scenes collaboration and teamwork among staff members from various divisions with a wide range of expertise. I’d like to offer special thanks to Catalina Gomez, curator of the PALALBRA Archive, Allina Migoni at the American Folklife Center, and Hope O’Keefe at the Office of General Counsel for their support.

A young bearded man and a young brown-haired woman wearing gold wire-rimmed glasses on a split screen.

Liam Morrissey and Sara Kittleson explored the Library’s cordel collection and created a Story Map based on their research.

Learn More

Watch a webcast of Karla Roig Blay explaining her research and project related to poets in the Caribbean.

Watch a webcast of Sara Kittleson and Liam Morrissey describing their collaborative project on cordel.

Use this Research Guide to explore the PALABRA Archive and listen to writers from Latin America and Caribbean read from their works.

Learn to search the Handbook of Latin American Studies to find books and articles by and about Caribbean poets and other writers.

The American Folklife Center houses an extensive collection of cordel, some of which are digitized and available online. The site also provides access to a webcast of a symposium on cordel and information about how the Library acquires Brazilian cordel.

Explore the Library’s Cordel Web Archive, which is comprised of sites or blogs containing full-text cordel, video or audio clips of performances, and news about cordelrelated events.

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One Comment

  1. Pamela Howard-Reguindin
    August 15, 2021 at 12:59 pm

    Congratulations to both Liam and Sara for this splendid project. I’m grateful to see that the fruits of our labor in the LOC/Rio Office has been improved upon so well enabling further exploration of this unique cultural expression from Brazil. The addition of the Cypriano photos and J.Borges voice to the story map was brilliant! I will share this link with Marli Soares (Rio Office acquisitionist), who dedicated many years of her life to ensure the excellence of this cordel collection. And say “Hi” to your mom for me, Liam!

    Pamela Howard-Reguindin
    Retired director of LOC/Rio Office

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