Reviving wonder and fighting against conformity — poetry through the eyes of Fernando Valverde

Distinguished visiting professor brings another dimension to Spanish poetry at U.Va.

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Valverde at a photoshoot in his birthplace, Granada Courtesy Juoaquín Puga

In the Nahuatl language, “flower and song” is nearly synonymous to poetry — “in xochitl in cuicatl.” Fernando Valverde, a native Spanish speaker, literary icon and distinguished visiting professor, believes the value of life comes not from wealth, but from these two simple components. From reading poetry written by others to writing his own poetry, Valverde has found remarkable success in his journey to become exactly what he thinks a poet is — a nightingale singing in the darkness. 

Valverde’s love for reading emerged when he was a child in the library of his grandmother’s house in Granada, Spain. He describes the room as a place of mystery and full of secrets. This magical place was influential in shaping his love for writing, and later, poetry. 

Before turning to poetry, Valverde worked as a journalist for the Spanish newspaper “El País” for 10 years. As a journalist, Valverde travelled all over the world and reported in places where simply surviving was a struggle. On a few occasions, he was sent to countries either still engaged in war or that had just gotten out of a war, such as Palestine, Kosovo and Bosnia. 

Although Valverde admires journalists for their dedication and commitment to their work, he felt it was personally too strenuous and wanted a change.

“You’re constantly fighting,” Valverde said. “You’re even fighting against yourself to maintain your independence.”

Poetry then became the outlet for Valverde to truly express his love for writing. It was a source of wonder and an instrument for him to convey his ideas, constructing a link between the unknown, the mysterious and the great questions of humanity. 

After establishing himself as a successful poet in Spain, Valverde came to the U.S., where he was influenced by the sound of American poetry. He explained that Spanish poetry contains a different number of syllables, but by being in touch with American poets, he was able to learn a new type of rhythm that he could incorporate into his own poems. 

Valverde’s latest book, “The Insistence of Harm,” was the best-selling poetry book in Spain for months, and it received the 2019 Book of the Year award from the Latino American Writers Institute of the City University of New York. His work discusses harm in a broad sense, explaining how human lives are often shaped and defined by pain and suffering. 

One of the greatest moments in Valverde’s life came when he received a nomination for the Latin Grammy Award for Best Flamenco Album after writing the album lyrics of famous flamenco singer, Juan Pinilla. Both Valverde and Pinilla signed the album as if they were both singers. To Valverde’s surprise, he received a call that they had been nominated for a Latin Grammy. 

“It was really crazy, really fun,” Valverde said. “I was just there in this little town in north Georgia. I became the most famous person in the whole town.” 

The award show took place at the MGM in Las Vegas, and Valverde was able to attend the same dinners and meetings as artists like Enrique Iglesias and Shakira. The president of the Academy initially thought that Valverde was a flamenco singer, and it was only after some clarification that they realized he was a lyricist. Nevertheless, Valverde was able to keep his nomination, and he became the first lyricist nominee in the Latin Grammys. 

Although he didn’t win, Valverde has received numerous other accolades for his work, including prestigious Spanish poetry awards such as Federico García Lorca, the Emilio Alarcos del Principado de Asturias and the Antonio Machado prizes. Nearly 200 researchers and critics from over 100 international universities — including Harvard, Oxford, Columbia, Princeton, Bologna and Salamanca — voted Valverde as the most relevant Spanish-language poet born since 1970. 

“The world needs song, especially when nowadays so much of our lives occur on the screens of computers and phones,” Valverde said. “The world has turned into something completely narrative… We need to get together and sing and celebrate life.” 

University students have the privilege of learning about contemporary poetry from an expert in the field. As a distinguished visiting professor in the University’s Spanish department, Valverde currently teaches two 4000-level courses — Spanish Contemporary Poetry and a special topics seminar on Hispanic Transatlantic Poetry. While these discussion-based classes are geared towards University students pursuing a Spanish major, Valverde both encourages and welcomes students with a diverse range of interests. 

Classes consist of an in-depth analysis of Spanish poetry through both a historical and cultural lens. In addition, Valverde incorporates guest lectures into his curriculum. This semester, students heard from visiting poets and musicians from all over the world and learned about the poetic writing process. 

“Being in Professor Valverde’s class is definitely my favorite class experience I’ve ever had at U.Va.,” fourth-year College student Ben Borenstein said. “You’re just having fun. I can’t remember [another] class that I’ve gone to where … every time before I walk out I’ve smiled.”

Next semester, Borenstein plans to take another class taught by Valverde, Spanish Culture and Civilization. 

“Although taking a class with a professor two times is not the craziest thing in the world, the crazy part is I’m a fourth-year, and I haven’t had a Friday class since second-year,” Borenstein said. “But this next class is Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and I’m making an exception just to take a class with him.”

For fourth-year College student Katie Cantone, the University doesn’t do enough to emphasize the importance of their distinguished visiting professors. Valverde soon became one of her favorite professors, but this extended much further than just his accolades and expertise. 

“[Valverde] really tries to emphasize you are all poets if you want to be,” Cantone said. “He is just the most compassionate, caring person and the type of person that education needs.”

Valverde occasionally holds bilingual poetry readings with his literary peers. His next event will be with University Spanish Professor Samuel Amago at the New Dominion Bookstore Feb. 28 at 7 p.m. 

The interview with Valverde was conducted in Spanish with the help of a translator. 

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