A House of Extravagant Colors

The 21st U.S. Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera visits a classroom of international English language learners at the Adult Learning Center in Nashua on April 12, 2018. (Photo by Elizabeth Frantz)

This is a version of an article I wrote for New Hampshire Humanities about the day the Council hosted Juan Felipe Herrera at the Nashua, NH Adult Learning Center.  Thank you Maren Tirabassi and the students of the class and Juan Felipe for their lines of poetry I include.

A Story from the House of Extravagant Colors

 Maren has been preparing the Adult Learning Center’s level 5 and 6 classes before the 21st Poet Laureate of the United States comes to visit. They are Rohingyas from Burma, Congolese, Colombian, Salvadoran, Haitian, Serbian Indian, Chinese. They have cooked for Juan Felipe Herrera. Their classroom smells of deep fried pakoras, red yam balls with butter and cream, rich chocolate.

They’ve written a welcome poem and when Juan Felipe arrives, they invite him to sit and a chorus of thirty-five international students read to him:

Welcome to our house of extravagant colors

in our classroom on Lake Street

which is for all of us a place of pause

on the road of our lives.

Juan Felipe has been traveling the country as poet laureate and has met many classes of new Americans. He has written poems about many of their countries. Senegal Taxi is a series of poems in which children from Darfur imagine escape ultimately to New York City. In it is “Mud Drawing #5. Abdullah, the Village Boy with One Eye,” which begins,

No village.

No mother. No father. One brother. One sister. No food. No water. No

cows. No camels. No trees. No village. No food no water. No cows…

 

But that’s not why he came. Juan pulls out his harmonica. He begins a repeat-after-me song and all the voices in the room chant with him in their adopted language English. He’s written a poem for them with the lines: I am your sister/ I am your brother/ Remember me. Dayanara is too shy to read a poem she wrote after reading Juan Felipe’s Calling the Doves, but Maren reads it.

Born in a big city

but destiny sent me rural bound.

A very small town with just two roads.

Downtown was all there was.

Juan Felipe writes downtown on the board. This is impromptu.

Johannly sings for him, “Ayudame Dios Mio,” “Help me God.” Juan Felipe writes song on the board. Rafael in a dusky voice sings “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen in Portuguese. On the board, Juan Felipe writes, You raise me up.

He writes many of their words on the board. Dove, breath of happiness, love, wisdom. The words become the refrain between his stories.

Everyone sings their repeat-after-me song.

We are the song

We are the dove

We take off flying

With wisdom

We cross downtown

You raise me up.

One of the students asks: what is your advice for us?

“Bring your families into your stories so others in the community can meet them,” he says. “I wrote about my parents so you could meet them. I grew up in migrant worker camps. When I heard my father speak, it was like poetry.”

He proclaims the students are poets. “Your voice,” he says, “is the natural and beautiful voice that everyone has.”

They break to eat the foods of the world they’ve prepared for him and present him with a framed copy of their welcome poem. The second to last verse:

So – to the poet of our new country

whose voice is beautiful

and whose tongue is not a rock,

and to those who have brought him here, welcome!

Everyone gathers for a group photo.

“That is why I came,” Juan Felipe tells them, “to say you have a beautiful voice.”

 

Ahmad Qadri, Potter

 

Please meet Ahmad Qadri. His story is the first I want to offer you about traditional artists in New Hampshire. I did a series of fieldwork reports for the New Hampshire State Council on the arts about traditional artists in the state with a focus on artists who work in arts from varied cultures.

Ahmad is a potter who lives in Concord, New Hampshire.  Ahmad worked as a potter for many years in Athens, Georgia. He became a Muslim in his youth and uses the art of Islamic calligraphy to adorn many of his pots. He married to a young woman from Burma. She fles as a refugee Muslim Rohingha in this predominantly Buddhist country.
Ahmad and I met to talk at Windsor Mountain International School in Windsor, NH where he teaches pottery to children from all over the world.

Ahmad said, “I’ve honed my teaching skills since I became a potter. I’ve been a potter and worked with children most of my life. My grandfather was a taylor and he showed me how to sew a button when I was a small boy and I became used to working with my hands.
“I never planned to be a potter,” Ahmad said. It came to him naturally as his grandfather’s grandson.  He set up his studio near 441, a term he uses for all the potters that have traditionally worked along Rt. 441 in Georgia.  Here, he met people in the ancestral line of Dave the Potter, a very skilled enslaved potter whose pots were much in demand in the 19th century.
Ahmad referenced an article about him and his work in Georgia by Susan Harper in the region where he began his studio called Rainmaker Pottery. The name draws on Ahmad’s Native American heritage.
Ahmad made vases, bowls, cups, tea sets using the process of oxidation firing.

Sometime later he journeyed to Senegal and taught ESOL in a school. While he was there,
he visited a village called Thidaye a distance from the capital city Dakar .  He said, there he learned to   throw pots in new ways. With the potters there he “learned their style of making coiled pots and pit firing, and using a cob oven. The clay was from the ground. In the rainy season, it makes a black clay. If you dig down deep you find a kaolin bed.” The kaolin is used as the grit – the sand – in the clay.  The women in Thidaye used iron oxide which Ahmad says is like meteorite dust.  They painted their pots with symmetrical lines. They fired the pots in a fire burning hot with millet husks, wood, and cow dung.
“I learned all this,” Ahmad said.

Later  he went to Turkey and studied and painted Arabic calligraphy on his pots. He describes the calligraphy: “It resembles Islamic floral art with bright glazes.” He said, “I’ve always admired Turkish pottery.  Earlier this year he was in Morocco studying Islamic calligraphy. He also made tagines, clay cookware used for making Moroccan dishes.

Ahmad’s pottery workshops are among the most popular activities for this camp with the children who range in age from seven to teenagers and are from Russia, Turkey, Indonesia, China, Honduras, France, Ireland, the U.S. and many more countries.

In mixed aged groups, they work together with Ahmad. He said he has used 1500 pounds of clay with the children and teens this summer. Ahmad teaches them techniques he learned in Georgia and in the many countries he has traveled to. His studio is bright with the work of his students where he praises their creations. He brings in skills that his individual students offer the class, using such things as the Chinese calligraphy known to his Chinese students. A line of text composed in calligraphy on his wall is translated from a poem Ahmad wrote. Here are the lines in English: “Serenity, please dance with me.” He clearly values teaching as well as his students, and his students make beautiful work with him.

Ahmad said  “‘Children and clay have something in common. They are both very impressionable’. I teach the children at Windsor Mountain International Camp at the beginning of the first lesson that “every time they touch the clay they change it.”

“Art bring souls together. Through the years children at the camp would just come to play in the clay and talk about life. It has been that way for me since I embraced ceramics as my medium of artistic expression over 25 years ago. The way I have been teaching children throughout the years and my time at the international camp, has been inspired by a Sufi saying, ‘Children become what they behold’. Let them behold love, kindness and beauty.”

Thank you, Ahmad.

 

 

Ezo African Restaurant: A Letter from Portland, Maine

Ezo African Restaurant: A Letter from Portland, Maine

By Terry Farish

…A restaurant in Portland links African refugees with their past and Maine with its future. Here’s an article I wrote some years ago.  Ezo is now replaced by Asmara Restaurant.  This story is replayed today in countless, thriving, American cities

The Federal Reserve Bank of Boston Regional Review Vol. 13 2003 Read more