Juan Felipe Herrera visits the American Folklife Center and discusses Literatura de Cordel with folklife specialist and curator Margaret Kruesi. View the webcast, read the Poet Laureate’s poem response, and learn more about the collection from the curator.


Cordel for the People

Take a homespun sheet of paper and turn it into a market-microphone on a string. This is the secret of the Cordel, a Brazilian hand-made poetry “newspaper” . . . well, almost—you make the art, you print it, you colorize it, and most of all you say what you want to say. Who is your audience? The people! Where? In the market place, on the streets. How, you ask. Said that already. You fold your Cordel on a cordón (now I am introducing Spanish into this description—a string). Remember hanging clothes out to dry? Here you hang your cordel out to dry on thick threads pinned with clothes pins. If you like, you can flag them out in the open air while people pass by through the mercado—the market, where we all must go a least twice a week to purchase our sundry goods and jump into the talky-news of the day. Part of that talky-news is the cordel—the poetry chat of the Cordelista. What is really going on? People’s writing culture—in words that you and me and Ms. Dulce Gomes and Johnny Da Silva will enjoy. Welcome to the Cordel. Of course, here in the USA we have our very own hand-size books. In the early ‘80s, while strolling through North Beach of the Mission District, San Francisco, I would bump into Jack Hirschman handing out his one-page chapbooks. It was more like a 4” x 5” poster, with a few words like “Centroamérica Libre—Free Central America,” or just a swirly hand-painted signature by Jack. In those years I also printed Red Trapeze, a one-pager folded in half with a poem on the centerfold, art on the cover, and an address on the back. Cordel, chapbook, Jack’s hand-sized special, or a one-page magazine—that’s what makes the word and the world go ‘round. Nowadays we have blogs, texts, Twitters and more—and the market is in our imagination, the street, and a smart screen. Good. All Cordels are accepted (try one, get started—as we speak, OK?).

Please create an acrostic, as King Alfonso did in the thirteenth century. Find a word with seven letters—it could even be your name. Use each letter to start a line in your poem. Each line will be our guideline to a better world. I believe in you!

Cordel—O, Cordelistas

Cordel, cordel—hanging in the air

beauty wild & folded from Ipanema to San Francisco

wearing cut-off pants & a dandelion

in your hair—toss me up so I can shout

& I’ll tell you all the news—what is really

happenin’—the mayor, the senator,

the spindly world—OMG!—just wait till you

turn this nimble page—there is love always

love these rough poets & tough time strings &

handsome tales

Juan Felipe Herrera
21st Poet Laureate of the United States

Curator's Comments

Discovering Brazilian literatura de cordel at the Library of Congress

The Library of Congress holds one of the world’s largest collections of literatura de cordel – Brazilian chapbooks -- around 12,000 pamphlets (and growing) published from 1930 to date.  The collection was begun in the 1970s by Sol Biderman and continues through the present through the collecting efforts of staff in the The Library of Congress Office, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Materials from this collection and several related archival collections of chapbooks, fine art prints, woodcut blocks, and artifacts from Brazil were on view in the Folklife Reading Room when the Poet Laureate, Juan Felipe Herrera, visited the American Folklife Center (AFC) on September 9, 2015.

This extensive resource is little-explored and under-used for understanding grassroots perceptions of Brazilian history, politics, religion, humor, folklore, and popular culture.  Literatura de cordel are descended from European chapbooks usually made from a single sheet of paper folded into an 8-page or 16-page pamphlet, decorated with a woodcut on the cover (later with photographs, collages, and other cover art).  Hung by vendors from a string (cordel) in the marketplace (the source of the name literatura de cordel), the chapbooks  often contain poetry commenting on current events, politics, bizarre news stories, lives of the saints and popular devotional figures, folk heroes and bandits, sex and romance, obituaries and elegies.  Some are issued as a means of educating people about HIV, safety, vaccines and other health issues.  The publication of chapbooks took hold in the northern and northeastern states of Brazil (Pernambuco, Ceará, Alagoas, Paraíba, Piauí, and Bahia), and they reflect the cultural diversity of these states as well as issues of poverty, violence, destruction of the rainforest, and many other concerns.

Up until 2015, the Library’s cordel were cataloged in a database that was accessible only onsite, so the wealth of titles in this collection remained hidden.  This November marks the transfer of those titles and bibliographic data to the Library’s online catalog for discovery by people around the world. (Hint:  search for “literatura de cordel”).  Making these bibliographic records available online will be of great use to other libraries worldwide that house collections of cordel.  Due to their ephemeral nature and local production by multiple publisher-poets, description of cordel in a catalog is a challenge, and this project will aid in developing best practices for description and access.

The continuing vitality of this popular literature tradition is reflected in the movement of the genre to online publication and forums. In 2011 the Library hosted a symposium, “Literatura de Cordel:  Continuity and Change in Brazilian Popular Literature,” which can be accessed online.  Since 2012, the Library of Congress has been harvesting and archiving websites and blogs featuring literatura de cordel.  The American Folklife Center also has several audio recordings of performances of cordel poetry and song by cordelistas in the marketplace.  Stop by, in person or online, to discover these collections for yourself!

Margaret Kruesi
Folklife Specialist/Cataloger, American Folklife Center