Writer Judy Veramendi first heard about Uruguayan poet Delmira Agustini in 1972, when Veramendi was an exchange student in Pamplona. "I was sitting in class and my Latin American literature professor said, 'Today we're going to read the poetry of the first woman to write like a woman in the Spanish language,'" says Veramendi, who grew up in Park Forest. "I thought it sounded chauvinistic and started laughing at him. He said, 'Don't laugh, senorita, it's true.'
"I felt bad, so after class I went up and asked him if he had a book of her poems. I was bowled over by some of them, they were so striking and original. Some are very transcendental; some are erotic in a very sublime way."
Veramendi wound up writing her undergraduate thesis on Agustini, and now the poet is the subject of her first play, The Empty Chalices, which weaves together Agustini's verse and scenes from her tumultuous life. "The culture she came from was so Catholic and repressive, and still she managed to write this incredible poetry," says Veramendi. Born in 1886, Agustini published her first poem at 15; to her friends and family, she was known as "la Nena" ("the Baby"). Friends with other Latin American modernists such as Ruben Dario and Manuel Ugarte, she married at 26, shortly after publishing her third and best-known work, a collection titled The Empty Chalices (her metaphor for the Catholic Church's attitude towards women). She left her husband a month later because, says Veramendi, she "couldn't stand the vulgarity of marriage." The following year he shot and killed her and then himself.
"Everyone said her poetry came out of divine inspiration," says Veramendi, who tried for 20 years to translate Agustini's poems into English, but says they never sounded right. She was no happier with other English-language versions that have appeared here. The Evanston resident has raised three children and written 20 textbooks and children's stories, but always came back to the project; in 1993 she finally produced some translations she was pleased with. Two years later she enrolled in Columbia College's graduate program in creative writing and knocked out the first draft of a novel about Agustini, also titled The Empty Chalices. In 2000 she won the first of two Fulbright grants to do research in Montevideo. "I found her account of her first love affair at the age of 20," she says. "I found other stuff in her diaries that had never been published at the national archives. I saw her wedding dress, a parakeet that had died and her father had stuffed for her, and a lock of her hair. It was really thrilling."
She finished the novel in January and published it herself this month in both English and Spanish editions. Her theatrical adaptation is also being produced in both languages; the Spanish version premiered in Montevideo last month. "It's great to write and have people read your work, but there's nothing like having characters in your head for a long time and seeing them in flesh and blood on the stage in front of you and feeling the audience reaction around you," she says. She's also been trying to track down her old teacher in Spain. "If I ever find him, I can't wait to tell him about it."
The Empty Chalices opens Friday, April 25, at the Aguijon Theater at 2707 N. Laramie and runs Friday and Saturday at 8 and Sunday at 3 through May 18. Friday and Sunday performances are in Spanish; Saturday shows are in English. Opening night tickets are $25 and include a reception; all other tickets are $15, $12 for students and seniors. Call 773-637-5899 for more information.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul L. Merideth.