Guillen's father introduced him to Afro-Cuban music when he was very young. His father, a journalist, was assassinated by the Cuban government. As he and his brothers and sister finished school in pre-revolutionary Cuba; they encountered the same racism black Americans lived with prior to the 1950's. Guillen began writing about the social problems faced by blacks in the 1920, his first poems appeared in Camaguey Grafico in 1922.
This was followed by his first collection of poems, Cerebro y Corazon (Brain and Heart). In 1926, Guillen became a regular contributor to the Sunday literary supplement of Havana's Diario de la Marina and in 1929 published El Camino en Harlem, an article that condemned Cuba's racial structures. During the same year, Guillen interviewed Langston Hughes in Havana, he deeply admired Hughes and they became lifelong friends.
In 1930, he created an international stir with the publication of Motivios de son, eight short poems inspired by the Son, a popular Afro-Cuban musical form, and the daily living conditions of Cuban blacks. Composed in Afro-Cuban vernacular, the collection separated itself from with Spanish literary cannon and established black culture as a legitimate focus of Cuban literature. It was as if Guillen had touched on something that the people of Cuba could recognize as having been on the tips of their tongues waiting for Guillen to articulate it.
Like Hughes, he believed that black artists must be free to "express our individual dark-skinned selves without shame." Guillen was as much a political activist as a poet, in 1937 he traveled to Spain as a delegate to the Second International Congress of Writers for the Defense of Culture. In an address before the congress he condemned fascism and reaffirmed his black roots
In 1940, he ran for mayor of Camaguey and in 1948, Guillen was a senatorial candidate for the Cuban Communist Party; both campaigns were unsuccessful. He truly identified with the plight of blacks beyond his native Cuba, this is reflected in his Elegias (1958). Upon his return to Cuba in 1959, Fidel Castro awarded him the task of designing a new cultural policy and setting up the Union of Writers and Artist of Cuba, of which Guillen became president in 1961. During the next two decades, he wrote and published a number of collections of poetry including Tengo (1964), El gran Zoo (1967), La rueda dentada, and El diario que a diario (1972), and Sol de Domingo (1982). Guillen died in Havana in 1987.
Guillen: Man Making Words (1972) emphasizes the mature works of Guillen, one of an international group of poets of the African Diaspora, which includes Leopold Sedar Senghor and Aime Cesaire in the francophone literature, and Langston Hughes and Leroy Jones in the African-American tradition. Like his contemporaries, Guillen combined modernist and surrealist influences on poetic form and content — including a valorization of "Africanity"--with revolutionary political engagement in the construction of a new society, one that comprised exposure of the social discrimination, prejudices, and poverty which plagued Africans of the Diaspora, and revindication of the beauty of Africaness — physically, linguistically, musically, and culturally.
In encouraging revolt against the existing order, Guillen encouraged Afro-Cubans to pride of race and place. By connecting this revolt to International Socialism he wove a cosmopolitan interconnectedness for an otherwise disenfranchised people. Rooting this interconnectedness in the rivers, bars, cities, regions, and heroes of Cuba, Guillen created a new vision of Cuban culture on which to ground social and political change.
In these selected works of the Afro-Cuban poet Nicolas Guillen — ranging from his early sound experiments through his more overtly political poetry to his final works — the Afro-Cuban experience of everyday life and its socio-historical and contemporary political underpinnings are constants. From slavery on to the natural and urban settings of Cuba, to the international places and communities of poets, politicians and activists shaping contemporary Cuban life, to the twinned invasions of Cuba by soldiers and tourists, and to the triumph of the Cuban Revolution, Guillen portrays a life where everything, including love, is colored by suffering and rebellion
Like the other poets of revolutionary decolonization Guillen pointed the way to constructivist postmodernism and planted the seeds of contemporary postcolonialism. His poetry is thus an important page in the literary theorization of these movements.
Translated and annotated with introduction by Robert Marquez and David Arthur McMurray. Original titles and dates of Guillen's publications (in Spanish): Primeros Poemas 1920-1930 (1930), Motivos de son (1930), Songoro Consongo (1931), West Indies Ltd. (1934), Cantos para Soldados (1937), Sones para Turistas (1937), Espana (1937), El Son Entero (1947), Elegias (1958), La Paloma de Vuelo Popular (1958), Tengo (1964), Poemas de Amor (1964), El gran zoo (1969).
Univ. of Massachusetts Press (Amherst, Mass.,1972)