Immensity – Reading with Immigrant Writers

I’ve been working with the talented staff of New Hampshire Humanities to create the New Voices project. We were matchmakers. We matched many New Hampshire poets with immigrant writers to work together with the goal of creating a community reading. Here’s one story.

Writing united us.  But could we actually pull off a reading? Yes, with help from some poets before us.

Back row: Tammi Truax, Portsmouth Poet Laureate, Pedro, Leidiane Gabi, Sarah Cristina Clemar, Pilar Nadeau, Terry Farish, front row, Cynthia Chatis, and Carolyn Hutton

A mom, her little son, her teenaged daughter, a young professional, a poet laureate, a teacher of literature, a flutist-singer-artist, and me joined together to present a New Hampshire Humanities’ New Voices reading in Portsmouth. 

Sarah Cristina

Our group met often in Leidiane’s apartment to write poems. Writing poems led to writing more poems.  Leidiane wrote poems at night on her phone between cleaning jobs. Her daughter Sarah drew anime illustrations and wrote poems about the characters she created. Lediane wrote a poem called “Immensity” and that became our theme on how it felt in our imaginations to write together. Carolyn found a poem to capture our habit of not being able to stop writing poems, Billy Collins’ “The Trouble with Poetry”

the trouble with poetry is
that it encourages the writing of more poetry,
more guppies crowding the fish tank,
more baby rabbits
hopping out of their mothers into the dewy grass.

And how will it ever end?
unless the day finally arrives
when we have compared everything in the world
to everything else in the world…

That was us. And we inspired each other.  Leidiane had written a dozen poems first in Portuguese, then in English, that made us weep.  (Her daughter Sarah, 13, learned English in the past year and a half and writes in English only).  One night Leidiane whispered to us. “I am very afraid to read.” Carolyn said, “Look what you’ve done already. Look at all your poems. Even it we didn’t have the reading, you have already been successful.”  We kept writing poems.

One Tuesday we read, “Always Bring a Pencil” by Naomi Shihab Nye.  She advices that writing in pencil is a good thing for poets:

There will be certain things-/ the quiet flush of waves,/ ripe scent of fish,/ smooth ripple of the winds’ second name-/ that prefer to be written about/ in pencil./ It gives them more room/ to move around.

That inspired Carolyn to bring another description – this by Emily Dickenson – of what poets need:

“To Make a Prairie”

To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,
One clover, and a bee.
And revery.
The revery alone will do,
If bees are few.

We were poets and we took the first word of Naomi’s advice, “Always…” as a beginning, and each of us wrote a verse. Later, each of us drew a single line from our poem to make this one:

Always a voice in my heart

Always a mother’s gentle hand

Always we all need you

Always ride the light

Always keep the right names

  on the book of your life

Always be there if you can

Always listen to the voice in your heart.

We had a million inspirations.  Memory, paintings, our children, our parents, our homes, grit, immigration – whether first gen or the 1900s or the 1800s. Tammi wrote about the language of her great grandmother from the Azores, Portuguese, Leidiane’s, Sarah’s, and Pedro’s first language.  Pilar wrote inspired by a collage, clipping words about immigration from the newspaper. (Please see the prompt about collage as a way to access ideas for poems at Fiesta: Focus on Immigration Education and Stories Through the Arts

No one tells the drama of building up to the point of actually doing a public reading better the Leidiane herself:

One day a teacher, at an event at school, challenged us to write a poem.  I did that on time and my teacher asked me to read it. I was shy, my English bad, Carolyn encouraged me and I thought “only one person”.

Carolyn Hutton
Teacher Carolyn Hutton

Terry came smiling, I was terrified. We talked, and Sarah was invited to participate.  I thought how wonderful it would be to be with my daughter for a moment and write about feelings! It was fun but the holidays were coming and I did not want to stop write, I thought how it would all help in my English. So we have a coffee in my house.  What would be added to this coffee and poetry but a personOh, my God, one more person. Tammi. So you came, talking about feelings with watery eyes. We fit together like water, each in its own way.  I feel like I’ve known them for a long time. Then there was talk about a presentation, for some people.  Honestly, I did not want to.  I was afraid to expose myself.  Sarah was very excited, I saw her bright eyes, we sat on the floor and wrote poems, reading to each other, but inside, I was terrified. Everything was very natural and I was able to gradually remove my armor.  When I went to see the space of the presentation I saw Cynthia with her incredible music, feeling peace and I thought on the day, look only for this.”  Leidiane Gabi

Cynthia came.

Cynthia Chatis

Tammi is a long-time collaborator with Cynthia at Beat Night at the Book & Bar in Portsmouth. At Beat Night Cynthia, a flutist and singer, accompanies or “embellishes” as she says, the spoken words of poets. Cynthia described how she approaches offering accompaniment at the New Voices reading:

“When I play to accompany a poet or reader, the experience is about ear, about listening and embellishing, if I’m called to do so — hearing the energy behind words, behind the story.  First, I will ask the reader or poet, seasoned or otherwise, if they’d like music or sound.  I would ask the reader for a ‘feel’, subject matter or energy of their piece.  Does it invoke a sweetness or is it edgy, like broken glass?  We can have that sort of dialog.  We improvise.  I am energized by the dance, relationship, duet between us and the audience.”  Cynthis Chatis

We presented the reading at the Pontine Theatre on an evening late in June. Leidiane read her poem “Immensity” about the experience of a moment on a beach in Brazil.  Tammi wrote about her lost language in her poem, “Muito Triste”, Carolyn about revery, Pilar about the sense of aloneness in America, Sarah about the power within, me about imagination – all with Cynthia’s music embellishing us.  

Leidiane Gabi and Sarah Cristina Clemar

We invited the voices of people in the community who came to the event to be key to the evening. We wanted a dialogue, a conversation with them. So we talked. Can you tell about how you came to this country? they asked.  Did you write poems in Spanish and Portuguese before you wrote in English?  Sarah described her first year in school when she couldn’t talk to anybody. The poets told about their home countries. Pilar described reading her poem in class and everyone understood the combination of loss and hope she had written about.

Yes, we did a public reading. Tammi, Poet Laureate of Portsmouth, plans to bring the New Voices readers together to read again in the city and meet its people.  The poets are ready.

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.