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.

Why We Write the Poems

Poets

Sarah, aged 13, and I, with the poet laureate of our city and all of us in the photo have been gathering on Tuesday nights to write together and be part of New Hampshire Humanities New Voices project. Sarah, her mom, and little brother are new Americans and bring their first language to the poems they’re writing in English. Sarah is a poet and and an artist. Here’s one of her anime drawings.

illustration by Sarah Cristina, grade 7

In the New Voices project, immigrant writers partner with local writers to write together and present together at a public reading. Thank you to teacher Carolyn Hutton who invited me to be the writer with her students. We’re gearing up to do our public reading. Here’s a poem I wrote about the magic that happened when we wrote together.

Why We Write the Poems

Because it stops raining and the dogwood tree finally

  relents and blooms,

Because it’s June and we can wear dresses off our shoulders

  and flip flops and our bodies can feel the sun,

Because, on the night Leidiane invites us over, the moon

  grows enormous and lights the expanse of the sea,

Because Tammi brings blooming azaleas and Carolyn brings

  miniature clipboards and pads she found at the Dollar Tree,

And because there are still people in the world singing love songs,

   we begin to write poems.

Because Pedro is two, his poems are giant circles on his Dollar Tree pad.

Because, combined, we speak Portuguese, English, Spanish, Music,

  Youth, Age and Indonesian coconut pancakes, we have

  immensity of imagination.

No one can stop writing the poems.

No one can stop remaking the world.

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.”