Adding New Voices to Old in the “City of Poets” – A Workshop in Jérémie, Haiti

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Renate Shneider, coordinator of Haitian Connection, invited me to lead a two-day poetry workshop for young adults and adolescents in Jérémie, “The City of Poets,” Haiti, on July 11th and 12th; I happily obliged.

Haitian Connection is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization that has “been established as a compassionate response to the poverty and misery that so many Haitians face. We are committed to the creative energy and inherent worth of each individual. We foster self help and grassroots development by building shelter for the most vulnerable in society – women and children, by promoting mental health and by strengthening the educational infrastructure.” Recently, the group expanded from city to nationwide.  I support Haitian Connection because they have built over 100 houses for women and children, worked tirelessly to help area residents to survive and rebuild after Hurricane Matthew, offer Divergent Thinking workshops, host an after-school program, hold stress reduction workshops and a literacy program for women, assist women with microbusinesses, work with a business that turns breadfruit into flour, and more. I was honored to be asked to contribute.

In Haiti, events such as workshops customarily begin with a prayer or other religious component. On the first day, Renate, who both attended and served as translator between English and Haitian creole, asked our youngest workshop attendee, a thirteen-year-old boy, Kendy, who is a preacher and intellectually and musically gifted, to sing to both open and close the session. He sang a cappella, and it did not matter that I couldn’t understand a word that he uttered – his voice enveloped the room with a melodic richness that would “wow” even the toughest judges in an American TV star search competition.

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Kendy

We then began with an ice breaker that many people are familiar with – “Two Truths and a Lie.” I have learned over the years that cultures vary when completing assignments. For instance, I once taught English to an almost all Mexican-American adult student-filled college class, and when I asked them to bring in a poem or song lyrics for discussion, they all chose work that focused on love. Love was not assigned, and I would have received more variety from a more diversely-populated class. Similarly, several students stated that they hadn’t been to church the past Sunday or something of a similar vein; it was their lie, and it revealed a bit about their sense of priorities.

After discussion of Jérémie’s history of poets and writers, types of poetry, tropes, and what makes poems effective or ineffective, we delved into an exercise and then focused on narrative, place, protest, and epistle poetry, which included discussion of work by primarily African-American, Haitian, and Haitian-American poets, and exercises related to each form. (A big thank you to Indiana Poet Laureate Shari Wagner for posting poems and related prompts for public use on the Indiana Humanities website during National Poetry Month this April! I used several of the pairings.)  We enjoyed stimulating discussion throughout the workshop as well as some laughs.

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Some highlights for me included Pierre Moise Louis forming an extended metaphor in which his mother became a “big truck” because she is strong and unstoppable; Pierre Benic reciting an original poem off of the top of his head in Haitian creole and my being able to hear the lyricality of it, even without comprehending the words; a theology student, Juste Pierre Weslaire’s oration style – so powerful with its resonant voice and effective pauses; and Steeve Janvier’s extensive knowledge of Haitian poets and poetry, appreciation of the protest form and fairness in perspective when considering an issue, and expressive facial and body language.  I also appreciated the seriousness with which students took discussion of issues faced in their country, such as deforestation and restaveks. Honestly, there wasn’t a “slacker” in the group!

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(Left to right): Steeve, Brunel, Juste, Darline, Kendy, Benic, Janine, Judith, & Pierre Moise

After workshopping and revision, participants presented their poems to an appreciative audience of peers. They were wonderful! One or more attendees considered themselves as poets before ever entering the workshop. I hope that whether it be tomorrow or a decade from now, some of these young, needed, and insightful voices of Jérémie find their way from paper to published page, and they continue the literary legacy begun long ago in the “City of Poets.”

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Judith

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Darline

My Haiti series will continue next blog with a look at the new MEPGA professional school!  (After that, I’ll get to things that go bump in the night…)

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