Class Notes on Language // 6-8-16

We started Wednesday’s session on language with sharing our highs and lows from the week. Rahat’s kitten turned one! Nia won her sixth basketball game in a row! Many of us were thrilled to be in the last week of school, even if a lot of exams and state tests were looming.

Hemayel Martina

Our discussion started with Hemayel Martina, a Curaçaoan poet who died tragically in a car accident in his early twenties. We read his untitled prayer-poem from Ansestro Preokupa and thought about his translation of his own work from Papiamento, a Spanish Creole language mixed with Dutch and Portuguese, to English. His work also introduced us to cryptogram poems and apostrophe.

Then we compared Sandra María Esteves’s “Not Neither” to Carol Lee Sanchez’s “Tribal Chant.” Esteves, of mixed Domincian, Puerto Rican, and Taino descent, is a founder of the Nuyorican poetry movement, born and raised in the South Bronx. Sanchez comes from the Laguna Pueblo Native American reservation in New Mexico; her mother was mixed white, Mexican, and Native, and her father was Lebanese.

Although making sense of these poets’ Spanish interjections were difficult for many of us who did not speak Spanish, we were up to the challenge! We talked a lot about the extent to which access to a language determines our ability to make sense of the story, but we can also infer a lot through context and repetition, especially Sanchez’s song-like refrains. In both of these poems, it was interesting to notice that we could often discern who these poets were via whom they claimed “not” to be in English.

Next followed three writing prompts. Take up one at home, if you didn’t already start in class! Or finish one if you did.

Untitled Poem

  1. After Hemayel Martina, write a prayer-poem apostrophizing your “[ADJECTIVE] ancestors.”
  2. End by declaring yourself “I am [FILL IN IDENTITY],” in any language you choose.
  3. Consider writing the poem in your original/native language (if not English), then translating it to English. Or writing it as a cryptogram (shape poem).

“Not Neither”

  1. After Sandra Maria Esteves, write a free verse confessional poem about your conflicted identity.
  2. Try interjecting an original/native language, cultural references, and/or non-standard English to reflect on your internal conflict.
  3. Strive for whatever transitions feel right even if they don’t “make sense.”

“Tribal Chant”

  1. After Carol Lee Sanchez, write your own free verse tribal chant about who you are and where you’re  from.
  2. Consider incorporating a refrain that repeats essential conflicts from your origin story.
  3. Try interjecting an original/native language, cultural/religious references, or non- standard English.

After a few snapworthy share-outs from students, I read aloud one of my own published poems and gave a Q&A about publishing poetry in literary magazines. In the Winter 2011 edition of Descant, a Canadian print literary magazine, I published my poem, “Missing Persons,” which also won the 2010 Kathryn Irene Glascock Intercollegiate Poetry Competition. One of the oldest and most prestigious college poetry contests in the U.S., its past winners have included Sylvia Plath, among many others.

Here were a few tips that emerged from our Q&A:

  1. Find reputable print literary magazines and journals by perusing the periodicals section of your local library (or a university library, or even Barnes & Noble!). Skim magazines for a sense of their tone. Prioritize the publications that publish writings that remind you most of your own. You can find online magazines with resources like the New York Public Library’s Best of the Web List.
  2. Have 5-6 poems ready, regardless of how long or short they may be, or one long poem (mine had five sections, like five short poems). Often magazines will want to pick two to four to publish in a batch.
  3. Make a habit of sending out your work at least once a year– especially once you’ve had some success! Gain momentum with your first publication; don’t just check it off your bucket list and forget about it.
  4. When revising poetry, keep in mind resonances between lines, including rhymes within lines, and cyclicality between the beginning and end of your poem. With a pen, circle the assonance and consonance that recur from line to line, or ideas or themes that are linked. Check that some thread from your beginning crops up in the end. These moves will tighten up your words and reinforce your lyricism.
  5. Take advantage of inspiration whenever it comes! Pause in what you’re doing (if you can) the moment you feel inspired, and capture your language the moment it occurs to you.
  6. If you’re into spoken word, decide for yourself whether your poem works in print. If you feel the performance is really essential to the meaning of the poem, consider creating a YouTube channel like the teens at Get Lit in Los Angeles instead.

Next week: Immigration with stories from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Edwidge Danticat, and M. Evelina Galang and our first guest speaker, the poet Deborah Paredez.


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