Last night I attended a poetry workshop at the Neutral Zone at 310 Washington. For those who don’t know, the Neutral Zone is a youth-driven center dedicated to personal growth through artistic expression and exchange of ideas. Students can get help with homework, create in workshops, and I don’t even know what else yet. I dropped in on a poetry workshop. High school kids chilled on bean bag chairs in a large circle with notebooks and the college senior leader gave the following quick prompts:
1. Jot down a sentence or two about a situation in your life in which you were speechless.
2. A time when you experienced an emotion that why impossible for you to describe.
3. A time when you tried to explain something to someone but no matter what you said, they did not understand.
Then she handed out a list of “untranslatable” words as well as two poems. These were some of the words on the list I received (each was different):
Fika (Swedish)—Relaxed social event involving coffee and pastries.
Hanyauku (Kwangali)—The act of walking on tiptoes across warm sand
Istories me Arkoudes (Greek)—Literally “stories with bears,” narrated events wich are too far fetched to be true.
Komorebi (Japanese)—Dappled sunlight through trees.
Neidbau (German)—A building constructed with the sole purpose of inconveniencing a neighbor in some way.
Poshlost (Russian)—Self-satisfied vulgarity masquerading as high morality.
Qualunquismo (Italian)—Apathy towards politics.
Uitwaaien (Dutch)—Literally “to walk in the wind,” to take a brief break to clear one’s head.
Waldeinsamkeit (German)—Feeling of being peacefully alone in the woods.
Yuanfen (Mandarin)—Binding force that eventually brings two people together in love.
Here are the two poems. The second poem is by A. Van Jordan (from M-A-C-N-O-L-I-A) and the first I did not catch the author of. I did not find her on Google, either (because I know that is what you were about to do or suggest I do.)
Seeing the Wind
When I get to the finish line, and God is just a herring, a mute with black eyes,
I will not have to offer what I had to offer in my life. I will not be able to give
the creature my award-winning books of poetry, for the fish cannot read
nor does the fish care to learn. The fish will not want my out-of-tune piano
ballads, nor the insense I burned each night in honor of who I thought he
or she was. Instead, he will ask me for all the words I don’t know.
“What? I…don’t know…” I’ll say, disliking this wet riddle at the end of all that
busyness and worry. This is what that giant waiting room was all about? I’d think,
studying the wordless gaping of his fish mouth, open and closed, pendulous
with emptiness. It expects only the unexpected. It explains nothing,
which is all there is to explain. Then the test would begin.
I’d say, “To touch someone lightly with one finger in order to tease them.
To scramble for something that has been thrown. To become stiff from sitting
in the same position for too long. To dodge the rain by moving quickly.
To swim with the hands only. To search for a thing below dark water.
To keep bending forward and then straightening out while climbing a hill.
To favor one parent. To walk along the water searching for something with your feet.
To walk in windy weather for fun. The truth that all know but no one talks about.
The forgotten bicycle. The broken piece of a key left in the lock. The bell
with no tongue. One who talks until her tongue aches. One who laughs
in her sleep. A face that cries out for a fist in it. To cut one’s nails too short.
To not in understanding while not understanding. Open signs left in shops
with the lights out. Arguments that can only be solved by dancing. Hunger
from sleeplessness. Hunger from sleeping too long. To philosophize oneself
into the madhouse. To find music in ordinary language. Obsession with whales.
Obsession with the way everything looks at night. Obsession with shared
quiet. The jokes heard in sleep. Seeing the wind as a friend. Seeing the wind.”
The herring will be astounded. It has met other humans before; in fact,
every other human to have bit the dark has met this fish. Nonetheless,
every human, in their own distinct mossy mess, astounds the herring. Its gills will
flex and this time it will study me—a souvenir from a life of wordless moments.
It will tumble forth from its fish mouth a planetary silence.
So this is where it ends, my friends.
With all we knew we did not know.
With empty hands, sharing.
And this is the A. Van Jordan poem:
In-cho-ate adj. Only begun or entered upon; incipient. As when ribbons of light peer through inchoate air, before the thought of loss or love came into focus, as when the first glance of a stranger brushes over you, and, for that breath of time, you wonder if time has double-crossed you; you wonder if this could be the start of a new ending, or if this look—this probe up your spine, this eye on your leg, neck, lips, hair—could come from a ghost of someone—someone, mind you, who you thought you deserved; someone, mind you, who taught you how not to live—whose hands opens like your mouth once did while saying, with innocence, Yes. over and over again.
Then the students were asked to follow Jordan’s model and come up with a word to describe one of their three moments and write some sort of poem describing the word using that experience.
Out of gangly, dirty, awkward or overcompensating high school kids sniffling with colds and trading stolen shoes before they came into the center I heard some of the most amazing poetry. Capturing a simple, single moment and opening it up to see how deep it really goes can be an incredible thing to write.