By Alyssa A. Lappen
City Lore, Poets House and thirty-nine other organizations and foundations hosted the bi-annual, three-day People’s Poetry Gathering at Cooper Union and myriad other nearby locations on March 30, 31 and April 1. Nearly 150 events crowded the three-day poetry extravaganza and more than two hundred poets lectured, discussed, read–and that says nothing of dozens of musical readers and musicians.
The staggering wealth of artistic genius presented in this forum, with events stacked together by as many as five or more into hour-long time slots, made it impossible for one person to see it all. Yet the feast of poetry–eight, ten and twelve hours a day–enabled me to happily miss lunch on all three days. I hungered for the poems, not food.
What spoke most to me were the poetries of downtrodden and endangered people, often in endangered languages. Of these, I unofficially dub U Sam Oeur poet laureate. This slight Cambodian poet, a survivor of the Pol Pot regime who committed his horrifying experiences to Khmer verse in Sacred Vows, gave one of the most soulful readings I was privileged to hear. “I am the ambassador of the silenced,” he said at the opening of his reading, noting that the Cambodian people remain imprisoned in their own land. He would read first in English (translations by Ken McKullough) and then chant his poems a capella in a voice as vibrant as it was heart-piercing.
What a lowing my wife put up
when she gave birth to the first twin.
Very pretty, just as I’d wished, but those fiends
choked them and wrapped them in plastic.
This stanza from “The Loss of My Twins” seared my ears as he read the clean, crisp language of loss.
That language was equaled at many other readings throughout the three days. Softspoken Chilean poet Cecilia Vicuna, for example, shared the work of several Mapichu poets of the Argentine and Chilean Andes, for whom she said the disappearance of forest and language, are synonymous and inseparable. Of the twelve languages extant in this region of South America at the time of the Conquistadors, she said only three survive today. “They believe that language falls from the trees, and so, if you cut down the trees, you lose the language.”
Some of the poetry shared last week hail from literatures long dead. At another session on ethnopoetics, Vicuna brought the house to its feet with her rendering of what may be the sole remaining poem of the ancient Aztecs, recorded in Kipu, writing made not of paper and pencil or papyrus and ink, but of knots from methodically spun wool. The Spaniards, she explained, burned entire libraries of knotted literature, and murdered the priests, the only ones who could read them. Thus, virtually none of a vast literature survived. In decades of study, she reported, she has found only one poem from that period. Although read without a translation, its power was enthralling.
Deaf poet Joseph Castronovo similarly resurrected a voice unknown to most–the poetry of hands enshrined in an ancient Etruscan sarcophagus. A man who communicates silently through the dramatic American Sign Language, he can read much not comprehensible to the hearing world. The hands of two figures, entwined, he said through ASL translators, spell out phrases of life and afterlife–in spatial rhymes.
Still others shared languages still very much alive, but endangered in some aspects, among them, Yiddish and Irish. Yiddish lives within Hasidic Jewish communities worldwide, said Irene Klepfissz, but they use the everyday and spiritual tongues, while the rich literary lingua that exploded into life in the mid-19th Century, died almost entirely in the Shoah, along with three million Yiddish-speakers. Work survives from dozens of Yiddish poets–from well known writers like Abraham Sutzkever, Chaim Grade and Yitskhok Perets, to lesser known masters like Rokhl Korn and Yisroel Shtern; but few poets today write in Yiddish. Similarly, Irish inhabits everyday life in many villages in Ireland, but poets like Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill and John O’Donohue are rare.
From all these voices, one remarkable fact grew eminently clear: Indigenous languages can be inhabited even by strangers. O’Donohue explained it like this, in terms which themselves danced on the edge of a poem:
Language comes from that restless space between loneliness and experience. It lives through people, but without them as well. Poetry is travel to the inner language, and every poem is a threshold crossing between the ancient and the [now]. Even when one does not understand these languages, the poems speak.
Indeed they do, not least when the poems are spoken by the Roma, a people known to most through the nearly mythic stereotypes of Carmen and Hugo’s Esmerelda, but a people largely impoverished, landless, and illiterate, struggling for basic human rights worldwide. The Roma’s five hundred years of slavery in Eastern Europe remain a secret of history that the voices of Romany poets Katja Tanmateos, Gregory Kweik (read by Carol Silverman) and George Kaslov, unlock.
These and others anthologized in Roads of the Roma describe an endless cycle of running from hatred that is renewed in each new place, even in America, a cycle that has denied most of millions of Roma worldwide homes, jobs, schooling–and in the case of the Kosovo Roma, even the deserved right to international refugee status. Their language of loss, like so many others, changes easily into the cadences of music. Appropriately, one of the last programs of the weekend a concert by Szaszcsaras, a Hungarian Rom family of master violinists whose strings, like poetry itself, pluck at the heart.
Alyssa Lappen’s chapbook, The People Bear Witness, won the 2000 award sponsored by Ruah: A Journal of Spiritual Poetry.
Published in Big City Lit in June 2001.
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