“…poetry, like bread, is for everyone.”
– Salvadoran poet Roque Dalton
Many people say they don’t enjoy poetry or they don’t find it accessible. But they didn’t have Merna Ann Hecht for a teacher. She teaches her students how they can find the small stories that tell the larger story through poetry.
As a poet, storyteller and essayist, Merna heads up a program called Stories of Arrival: Youth Voices at Foster High School in Tukwilla, WA. According to Seattle-based Jack Straw Productions, The New York Times described Foster High School as the only high school in the most linguistically diverse school district in the nation. It’s student body is composed of immigrants and refugees from Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Kenya, Mexico, Tanzania, Vietnam, Nepal, and other places spanning the globe. They have left behind family members, suffered war and poverty, and often will be the first in their families to graduate from high school.
In her work with Foster High School’s English Language Learners, Merna has seen how writing poetry (and listening to it) not only aids the students in learning English and connecting to people of diverse backgrounds but also helps them build bridges between their lives as they are today, lives they may not have thought to translate into their new language, and their lives as they remember them. Because the students are learning English, their words, according to Merna, often “side-step the rules and boundaries of grammar, syntax, punctuation, and sentence structure,” infusing their work with spirit or what Merna calls “the wild side of poetry.”
In addition, Merna says, because “poetry has the capacity to hold paradox and ambivalence, it can give voice to what grieves us, wounds us, troubles us, and at the same time give us courage and hope.” I believe we all need the opportunity poetry gives us to confront, record, accept and transform. With the gifts poetry brings, we learn who our experiences have made us into.
Here are descriptions of two exercises Merna uses to help students translate feelings and memories into a new language. Even as native English speakers, we translate when we write to turn the mundane into the luminous.
My Life is Like…
Using this exercise from Merna, Yosef Woger from Ethiopia began his poem:
My life is like a house
A house built on sand
It stands on the wish of God
Sometimes it falls when the wind comes
Sometimes it stands for a long, long time
To keep the promise of my God.
My life is like a tree
A tree grows its strong roots
It does not dry out due to lack of water
Because the roots are so deep…
Yvner Cadeus from Haiti began his “My Life” poem this way:
My life is like wind blowing
in the air to make flowers happy,
like the waves of the sea
racing until it gets to the shore
yet my life is also like a jail
where there is no hope.
Ai Ngo from Vietnam wrote this first stanza:
My life is like a wind
A wind so gentle
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