I believe in poetry as a way of surviving the emotional chaos, spiritual confusions and traumatic events that come with being alive. —Gregory Orr (as posted by Image Journal)
This quote comes up on my Facebook feed while I am straining for a wireless signal from a humid guesthouse in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. I am a few days into a work trip as a staff writer at a disaster relief and community development agency. Sweat gathers in my back. My eyes are dry from a full day in contact lenses I rarely wear. I have just finished a supper of spicy beef and beans over rice accompanied by bread and mango juice, both fresh.
I am safely accommodated here in this bustling metropolis, where honking cars and colorful tap tap crowd the narrow streets bordered by litter-clogged gutters. Here, where bright purple flowers spill out over barbed wire-topped gates and roadside vendors sell wares ranging from intricate handcrafted metal art to unlabeled pill bottles.
Safety and comfort have been rare commodities in Haiti. Just over twenty-one decades ago, this nation claimed independence after the first successful slave revolt in human history. Just over five years ago, a horrific shaking of the earth killed an estimated two hundred thousand people and reduced buildings in the city and countryside to rubble.
What might it mean to believe in poetry as “a way of surviving” here, in this place of concrete streets and mountain crests, poverty and creativity, political corruption and revolution? As a visitor—a foreigner with a notepad and a fixed agenda—I cannot of course know completely. I can only glimpse and theorize and listen as I meet with project leaders and literacy students in my path.
In addition to learning about beginner literacy programs already underway, I’m also here to see a new program in its seminal stage. It is a post-alpha program giving those with basic reading and writing skills the chance to grow in their capacity to read and write and their love for these activities. These lessons focus heavily on the form of poetry. Students memorize poems and learn how devices such as rhythm, meter, metaphor, and rhyme give language its deep music. Eventually they work at their own creations.
Gregory Orr’s words of belief enter my tired mind with a fitting weight as I think of these learners perched on poetry’s earliest threshold. I’ve read Orr’s books, even heard him give a lecture. I know his personal story of a life marked by violence, addiction, civil disobedience, and a tragic shooting accident that claimed his brother’s life in childhood. He does not speak lightly of suffering or survival. He reminds me that poetry is a generative spark. A lifeline. A rush of breath, a new light. Pick your survival metaphor; they all click with some power here where daily life is a struggle for many.
These literacy classes are not about bringing poetry to Haiti. I bristle at that word, so often used in missions-speak about “bringing God” to a country or community. God is always there and everywhere, already. He is present. His Spirit is moving, working.
I believe it is the same with poetry. It is already present in this country, woven into its history and the new legacies made by those who have cause to speak heavy of both great affliction and great joy. Every country is a country of creators. Literacy is about naming and shaping what we, as creative people, read and make. Oh Lord, what a gift. Help me see it freshly in this place.
(Read Part 2 here)