In My House It is Not a House: An American Poet visits PEN Haiti
Come into my house / I invite you / Make yourself comfortable, Leon reads from the poem he’s just written. Leon is the author of two books of poetry. He is a “street poet,” one of fifteen Haitian jeunes (youth) granted a residency at PEN Haiti. Before I traveled to Haiti, if someone had called himself a street poet, I’d have swapped stories about the slams I’d attended over the years at the Nuyorican Café. Now the term means something more complicated. Books stacked on welded-thin copper shelves fan out to spell the letters PEN on the reception room wall. Leon sits on the couch beneath them, leaning forward to show us a sketch of his one-room hut furnished with a bed, a desk and a single bookshelf that was destroyed in the 2010 earthquake. And as we all consider the drawings we’ve sketched as part of the day’s writing exercise, Leon tells us that he didn’t flee his home without first saving his books—his most pressing possession. The final lines of his poem read: Come sit down on my bed / you will be very comfortable / on the floor or on my lap / there is no difference / Please come into my house / because in my house it is not a house / it is the street.
Our group of nine Drexel University undergraduate creative writing students is in Haiti to meet with authors Yanick Lahens, Franketienne, Beaudelaine Pierre, Bonel Auguste, Jean-Euphèle Milcé, and Clement Benoit. They are also here to observe first-hand the role of literature and writing in rebuilding the country. PEN Haiti’s Maison Georges Anglade plays a huge part. My students have signed up for this trip to find something inspiring to write about and to do volunteer work at an orphanage and a community center. Three of them had been students in my Intro to Lit course where we focused on Edwidge Danticat’s Create Dangerously and Beaudelaine Pierre and Natasa Durovicova’s How to Write an Earthquake, an anthology filled with the writing of some of the authors we are meeting.
It’s amazing how this project has gained momentum. It started when the project One Book, One Philadelphia chose Danticat’s book as their 2010 selection and, because of its impact, I hosted Beaudelaine Pierre at Drexel for a benefit reading for earthquake survivors and started teaching her book. I recall the day I stood before the class, frustrated by our lack of real knowledge about Haiti. Now, during the hour-long van ride to Maison Georges Anglade, three years after the Earthquake, we observe Port-au-Prince still in ruins. Buildings that have lost their façades stand with their insides exposed. People walking from place to place have to step over and around the gaps and rubble on the sidewalks, something like walking amid craters on the moon.
Testament to its mission, PEN Haiti’s new House of Literature, which opened its doors in 2012, stands in contrast. Its mosaic driveway and courtyard is filled with a dozen of resident artist Sebastien Jean’s street-art-inspired paintings and vodou-influenced sculptures made of recycled metal, glass, dolls, horns, cans, and pots. Inside reveals books, more paintings, soft lounge chairs, three dormitory-style bedrooms, two bathrooms, meeting rooms, internet, and a fully appointed kitchen. Plenty of quiet, just donkey brays in the warm air and rooster crows. Built on the mountaintop village of Thomassin. Forty-five minutes outside of Port-au-Prince. The view from the decks and windows engulfs us in lush greenery: flowering vines, palms, and one of Haiti’s rare green mountains, planted with terraced crops. Finally, the landscape feels and looks like the Caribbean—a cool breeze, a mountain half covered in cloud. It takes a little longer to acclimate to the surrealism of having escaped the sorrowful faces of the people on the street selling mangos in the “hell” sun or selling little plastic baggies of purified water stashed in nylon rice bags balanced on their head or their plastic washbasins stacked with boxes of hardware, electrical supplies, or toiletries.
PEN Haiti director and award-winning novelist Jean-Euphèle Milcé is busy slicing fresh baguettes in the kitchen, along with the cook, who’s laid out big silver trays and bowls. We’re being offered lunch, which we didn’t expect. We’d already agreed on a plan to purchase lunch on the days of our visits to help in our small way to create wages for the cook, but Jean-Euphèle graciously offers this meal. He explains that his family owned a restaurant. He still likes working in the kitchen. Serving people whenever he has the chance. He calls it part of his writing practice. He doesn’t want to be too removed from ordinary people. Sometimes he picks up a job in a café or bar for a couple of weeks to remind himself. If the food is any indication of his success, it is the best I’ve tasted in Haiti so far. Beautiful chicken and grilled red pepper sandwiches on such fresh bread, rice cooked with black mushroom shavings, but without being saturated in the awful tasting palm oil that seems customary, and fresh squeezed lemonade.
At first, the two groups keep separate, quietly gathering their sandwiches and taking a seat outside on one of the patios or in the main room. The fifteen Haitian jeunes who have appeared, mostly male, are somewhere between the ages of eighteen and twenty-six , dressed in fresh T-shirts, jeans, and lightweight sneakers. Of the nine Drexel undergraduate creative writing students, all but one is female. Even while they are eating, I begin to move them into groups of four, two Haitians and two Americans, and explain the day’s writing project through our translator. We’ve brought extra pens and paper, bug spray and water bottles. As the light changes from bright afternoon sunshine to bouts of rain and approaching dusk, the only item we don’t require is the water because the kitchen is stocked with gallon bottles. The workshop lasts five hours (three longer than we had intended)—is it possible for young people who have shared a unique experience but who live in different corners of the globe to say goodbye after only two hours?
When the day of the workshop had drawn near, our fourth day in Haiti, Ahaji, (Drexel’s Study Abroad director who accompanied us on this trip) along with my husband, corralled me in the lobby of La Plaza Hotel. Even as late as the van ride to Thomassin, ascending the narrow one-lane to the mountaintop, they again called their concerns over the language barrier. They worried how I was planning to pull this off when the Haitian jeunes spoke French and Creole and my Drexel students (with the exception of Meghan, who studied French on the Intermediate level) sadly spoke only English. Sure we had a translator, they expressed, but if the intention is for the two groups to interact, how is that going to happen if they speak different languages? Usually, when I lead a writing workshop, I prepare on the spot, striving for the Kenneth Koch “maelstrom of creation” atmosphere. I’d been trained as a Poet-in-the Schools in the 80s, crisscrossing all five New York boroughs on subway, bus and ferry armed with mimeographed worksheets copied from Koch’s Rose, Where Did You Get That Red and Wishes Lies and Dreams. Maybe the language barrier is a big deal, I told them, but we’re all going to speak the language of poetry, right? They stared at me blankly, especially Ahaji, who had been to Port-au-Prince six times in the last two years and was familiar with miscommunications, blackouts and traffic jams. I want process. I want spontaneity. I want intuition.
As I once more notice the lack of road signage and guardrails on the van ride up the mountaintop, I lose the headiness I’d felt over the prospect of communicating in the one true language, that of the imagination, and consider their point of view. After all, Jean-Euphèle had lured the Haitian jeunes to a writing workshop led by me: “an American poet and professor.” Many of them traveled over two hours by tap-tap, which means a seat on a hot, hard wooden bench in the back of a dust covered truck hurling through intersections at breakneck speeds with no stop signs or traffic lights to halt them, lacking a real public transportation service. Maybe you have a point about the translation, I relented, and told them about an exercise I might use from the work of the French poet and philosopher Francis Ponge. It turned out to be an exquisite choice because the Haitian jeunes, I would discover, know Ponge’s works well, and I will tell you why that is. It’s because they speak and write in French—Ponge’s language. Basically, the exercise involves sketching a home you’ve lived in and labeling the rooms and furniture, sharing your house in a group, then writing a poem based on your experience. Ponge, the “poet of things,” believed, according to the Poetry Foundation’s website, “that everyday objects reveal the hidden depths of being.” True to Ponge’s method, the homes the Haitians sketch are like Leon’s one-room structures, some made of cinderblock, some of wood and others of canvas and plastic (tents). When I see the homes my American students draw I’m aghast: three stories, many with up to five bedrooms and appointed in brick. Sure, their homes are larger and made of good building materials, but do they have to emphasize it? So much for planning ahead. Despite their disparities, however, the two groups look so happy just being together. Communicating the way young people do, with charm and wit and body language and much laughter and a smattering of the few French or English words they know in common, they manage to overcome what miscommunications remain, passing their iPhones back and forth with the Google Translator app downloaded onto their screens.
The House of My Childhood
by Billy Midi
It was small but very beautiful
The chant of birds woke me up every morning
The odor of my grandmother’s hot coffee
—the odor of the earth
When I left it was as if time stopped
I left all that I am and was
—my first experience of love
Since that day
all my loves are in reverse.
After Billy reads his poem, everyone claps. He smiles and continues standing during the critique which follows. What I love most about Billy’s poem is the last line, how it can’t be explained in words and doesn’t need to be because the poetry touches something essential that transcends language. Gabriel Fedelus, founder of an orphanage for Haitian children called Love Orphanage that we are supporting on this trip, has served as our translator all week. He’s never translated poetry before, yet what is so terrific, is that he leaves the mystery in the lines intact, as he does each time someone else gets up to read, translating from French and Creole to English, and English to Creole and French, entrenched in the three languages. The readings are a fresh reminder of poetry’s power to connect people, but the critiques are astounding, a kind of intellectual boxing match rare in American classrooms. Led by the Haitian jeunes, quoting French philosophers and poets whose names my Drexel undergraduates have never even heard pronounced. Maybe my students live in bigger homes, but we quickly discover its insignificance in the range of experiences.
Books are precious in Haiti. Four of its twenty municipal libraries got destroyed in the 2010 earthquake. According to the American Library Foundation, the country has a population of over nine million but only twelve professional trained librarians. One of the Haitian authors we meet with during our trip, poet Clement Benoit, is dedicated to restoring and enhancing libraries. His latest initiative, Bibliocheval (Library horses), brings books on horseback to people in rural communities. Jean-Euphèle Milcé tells me how hard it is to develop writers for the long-term when the struggle for daily survival offers so many challenges. After the workshop, we get an email list going. Jacob Jean Jacques, one of the Haiti jeunes, asks if I’m planning on coming back to Haiti next year. Would I be willing to lead a workshop at a place called Ana Litteratura at the PEN Haiti club in Petit-Goave? Petit-Goave is a city in Northern Haiti where he’s established an affiliate of PEN Haiti for younger writers. Gabriel Fedelus is translating our conversation. I wonder, maybe Jacques can introduce poetry to the children at Love Orphanage? It’s a thrill to initiate this particular exchange. Having gotten to know Gabriel Fedelus over the week and how hard he works fathering 19 children left parentless after the Earthquake, I know how a visiting writer will give him a few hours break in the long day for children too poor to go to school. I remember how the kids I taught in a Poet in the Schools program in the U.S, kids as young as six, stood at the front of the room and proudly read their poems.
Sometimes we forget why we’ve traveled somewhere, why we’ve been pulled toward a particular journey. No place demonstrates this better than the Maison Georges Anglade itself, which was built from donations Jean-Euphèle and others raised after PEN Haiti’s former offices were destroyed in the earthquake in which the previous PEN Haiti director, writer and activist Georges Anglade, and his family were killed. The goal of PEN Haiti’s Maison Georges Anglade is to bring literature to local communities and to open its doors to writers worldwide. Having been our home this week, clearly it is a herald of Haiti’s future.