Nicolás Guillén was born in Camagüey, Cuba, on July 10, 1902. His father was a journalist who later became a senator, then died in 1917. As a young adult, Guillén found work as a typesetter to support his family. He graduated from the Institute of Camagüey with a bachelor’s degree in letters and sciences. He then entered the University of Havana’s School of Law, but dropped out in 1921 to write poetry.
Guillén began his publishing career by writing for newspapers. He also became active in the Communist Party and worked for Cuba’s congressional library. In his free time, he presided over gatherings at literary cafés with Havana’s bohemian circle. In 1930, Guillén published his first poetry volume, Motivos de son (Imprenta y Papeleria de Rambla, Bouze y Ca., 1930), which was praised as a masterpiece. He wrote more candidly about oppression in Cuba in Sóngoro cosongo: poemas mulatos (Publisher Unknown, 1931), West Indies Ltd (Imp. Ucar, García y Cía., 1934), and Cantos para soldados y sones para turistas (Editorial Masas, 1937). In the same decade, Guillén traveled to Spain and fought with the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. While there, he wrote the poetry collection España (Tipografia Moderna, 1937), based on his war experience. Guillén returned to Cuba after the war and resumed Communist activity during Fulgencio Batista’s regime. As a result, while trying to return home from a trip to Chile, he was exiled for five years. When he returned to Cuba, he became a supporter of Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution and later served as director of Cuba’s Union of Writers and Artists during Castro’s regime. Soon thereafter, Guillén became a member of the Cuban Communist Party’s Central Committee.
Guillén later wrote additional volumes about revolution: La paloma de vuelo popular: Elegías (Losada, 1948) and Tengo (Consejo Nacional de Universidades–Universidad Central de Las Villas, 1964). He also published a bilingual edition of Man-making Words: Selected Poems of Nicolás Guillén (University of Massachusetts, Press, 1975). Guillén is likely best known for representing African themes in his work, and for recreating African songs and rhythms in verse. He has also been hailed as a leader of the Afro Cuban movement of the 1920s and 1930s, and has been called Cuba’s national poet. Guillén’s poetry was first translated into English in 1948 by Langston Hughes and Ben F. Carruthers with the publication of Cuba Libre (Anderson & Ritchie, 1948). Guillén’s work has also been translated into Chinese, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, and Italian.
Guillén died on July 16, 1989, of Parkinson’s disease. New Love Poetry: In Some Springtime Place (University of Toronto Press, 1994) was released posthumously.