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.”

 

Juan Takes His Turn – JabberWalking with Juan Felipe Herrera

Juan Takes His Turn – JabberWalking with Juan Felipe Herrera

 

He calls a poem a burble.

A writing pad is a paperbag, or a newspaper, periodico, or whatever you want it to be.

All that matters is that you hurry, hurry, hurry.

And write down whatever you see in the world.

What you hear,

what you taste,

What you love.

He says whatever you breathe, whatever word lifts its soft, wet

nose to the tendrils of your mind, it matters. Keep a penny notebook

like Walt Whitman who wrote as he walked America.

Like Juan Felipe Herrrera, 21st Poet Laureate of America
writes America.

I’m reading Juan Felipe Herrera’s book, JabberWalking, Candlewick, 2018, (ages 10 and up) and I have to stop every few pages and fall into a poem of my own imagination – it’s that kind of book. It’s half memoir: Juan Felipe gathering up his Chinese Pitbull Sharpei named Lotus along with memories of his Mama Lucha and his Papa Felipe who are “somewhere in my heart life” and us, you and me the reader (any age), to board a jet to D.C. with Juan Felipe to assume his poet laureateship of the country. The first Mexican-American, the first any Latino-American U.S. Poet Laureate.  The other half is a sort of creative spirit guide. We are racing and Juan Felipe reels us, the reader, into our own selves, as poets, creators of burbles!, washing any grinding homeworkness of writing out of us. He says…

….I think to free us, loosen us, take us some place where we’re a little lost.

He assures us, “The poem does not want to know where it is going or what it is saying.”

It could begin like this, he says:

“Scribble your burbles, your words of things – that you see and think and feel but it is really not thinking or even feeling. It is plain ole bonified, fuzzy, puffy blue-cheese, incandescent, brave  Jabber!”

Write in  any language! Maybe two. And from this generated jabber, circle words you like, you want to play with. And…

 

Between his cheering for our unharnessed imagination, Juan Felipe tells us stories, about his mother – “Let me tell you, I sang as loud as I could from every corner of that tiny apartment and outside in the alley. Now it’s your turn, Juan.”   And his father – “He put words on newspapers! He wanted to make sure he could stop time and space, write history in a split second, even though he never went to school like yours or mine.” (97)

He invites us to write our family stories and memories on newspapers, put our words on words.

I love Juan Felipe’s memoir-stories, entries in what he calls his Jabber Notebooks to give us ideas for our own. His last one begins:

Writing saved my life. What could a campesino boy raised on the way-outskirts of farm towns and cities of California do?  What could I do with so many incredible things – tadpoles, newborn colts, my Papa Felipe making miracles out of pieces of ancient wood, busted metal, scuffed leather, Mama always teaching me the alphabet from a broken book she bought for twenty-five cents at la segunda, the secondhand store—my dear traveling farm-working parents with long legs and strong hands. (127)

This is a spread from Calling the Doves, a memoir by Juan Felipe Herrrera, with illustrations by Elly Simmons, Children’s Book Press, an imprint of Lee & Low Books

Writing saves lives.  It could save yours.

Cover of Juan Felipe’s memoir, Upside Down Boy, about his family settling in a town so that he could go to school for the first time.

Reading Ruby with New Americans

Ruby Nell Bridges at age 6, was the first African American child to attend William Franz Elementary School in New Orleans after Federal courts ordered the desegregation of public schools.

One of the jobs I cherish doing is bringing NH Humanities’ book discussion programs to English Language Learners.I met with Christine Powers’ class of adult learners in Salem, New Hampshire this spring. They were all new Americans and also mothers. We met in the school where their kids go. Together we read a series of illustrated biographies including The Story of Ruby Bridges by Robert Coles, the psychologist who wrote The Moral Life of Children.

I discovered Robert Coles’ The Moral Life of Children, years ago. For the book, he interviewed many children including Ruby Bridges, six years old. A New York Times reviewer explained Coles book like this, ”’No one teaches children sociology or psychology,” Dr. Coles remarks; ‘yet, children are constantly noticing who gets along with whom, and why.’ His tales are about what they have noticed, and how it affects them.” Ruby Bridges told Robert Coles about the mobs of people screaming hate at her as she crossed in front of them to go to school:

”They keep coming and saying the bad words, but my momma says they’ll get tired after a while and then they’ll stop coming. They’ll stay home.”

It was powerful reading about social justice issues in the U.S. with women from Pakistan, India, Lebanon, Vietnam, and Latin American countries. They are all mothers and know the power of family words. I stayed only for a short time, but Chris and her students kept delving into the book and the questions it asks of us and what we say to our kids.

In this new language of English, each student wrote a cinquain poem.

Here’s one:

Ruby Bridges

Religious Brave

Reading Praying Talking

“I was praying for them.”

Love.

Thank you, Chris Powers and all the women in your class for our time together.