Podcast • March 19, 2010

Whose Words These Are (25): Fabienne Casseus’ Broken Haiti

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Fabienne Casseus (16 min, 7 mb mp3) Fabienne Casseus is a 17-year-old poet of young Haiti, broken Haiti, corpse-like Haiti, where she witnesses that a strong heart is ...

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Fabienne Casseus (16 min, 7 mb mp3)

Fabienne Casseus is a 17-year-old poet of young Haiti, broken Haiti, corpse-like Haiti, where she witnesses that a strong heart is still beating. Fabienne is a senior at a pilot public high school in Boston, “Another Course to College.” She came to the States with her mother at age 9, and has been writing — mostly poetry — ever since.

Fabienne’s Haiti is “who you are,” an island that people leave but never get away from, she says, a state of mind strong and rich in language, culture, and history.

What I’ve chosen to do when it comes to the earthquake and writing about it is: I look at Haiti as a woman, basically, that’s been broken. Reading throughout the history, I consider Haiti as a raped country. I consider her as somebody that’s been stolen from so many times that eventually her land is just tired. The earthquake is just her exploding from being manipulated and used for too long, and being pacified for too long.

I’ve started writing many different pieces where I speak of Haiti as a person: she’s a woman and she’s going through turmoil and she’s going through heartbreak. I don’t see it as something that’s ugly. I see pain as something that’s actually very beautiful, and I see the earthquake as a way for her to just cleanse herself and to remind people of who she is, to speak about the fact that she’s there, and she’s not just an isolated island in the world. She has something to say.

The attention is negative, but I feel that this is a way for her to speak and remind people that Haiti is strong, and Haiti is here, and Haiti’s been going through a lot and this is not the beginning or the end of it.

This is the fifth conversation in a series with Haiti-minded artists since the catastrophic earthquake in January. Link to the others here.

Podcast • March 18, 2010

Whose Words These Are (24): Eli Marienthal’s Spoken-Word Haiti

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Eli Marienthal (15 min, 7 mb mp3) Eli Marienthal’s Haiti story is about a little-boy obsession with his Haitian twin, met on the first of many trips to ...

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Eli Marienthal (15 min, 7 mb mp3)

Eli Marienthal’s Haiti story is about a little-boy obsession with his Haitian twin, met on the first of many trips to Haiti to visit his father. The earthquake this winter seems to have jolted loose his fixation, toward insight and action.

Eli is the very picture of millennial possibility. He was a teen idol movie star growing up in California. He’s got a Brown degree now, in international development and comparative literature, and the zeal to apply it:

There is a practical aspect to the work I would like to be doing in Haiti that has everything to do with growing food. The Haitian landscape has been devastated by any number of natural and unnatural phenomena. I think that everywhere in the world, one of the most successful strategies for healing the planet is permaculture, which mimics natural systems in such a way that humans at an appropriate scale are able to reap what they need to sustain themselves — and the ecosystem of which they are a part. As Wendell Berry says, all creative work is a strategy of healing. My Haiti story — click and listen above — is itself a strategy of healing. Growing food is another strategy of healing. They aren’t separate to me.

This is the fourth in a group of conversations with poets, word-artists, about a catastrophe beyond words: the earthquake in Haiti this January. Tomorrow: Haitian-American High School Senior and poet Fabienne Casseus.

Podcast • March 17, 2010

Whose Words These Are (23): Marilène Phipps-Kettlewell’s Haiti

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Marilène Phipps-Kettlewell (24 min mp3) “Looking in” by Marilène Phipps-Kettlewell is an oil almost six feet wide, in the collection of Partners in Health. Marilène Phipps-Kettlewell is a ...

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Marilène Phipps-Kettlewell (24 min mp3)

“Looking in” by Marilène Phipps-Kettlewell is an oil almost six feet wide, in the collection of Partners in Health.

Marilène Phipps-Kettlewell is a Haitian-American artist in prose, paint and poetry. She speaks to us a poem about the January earthquake, in which the sky, it seemed, let go of the Christ statue that had looked over her childhood; God let go of his son’s hand as the roofs of Port-Au-Prince collapsed on her city.

Marilene Phipps Kettlewell is a visual artist, too, celebrated for her brilliant impressions of Haiti’s street life, its voodoo temples, its spirit life.

And then, in a spooky coincidence, on the very day of the earthquake, January 12, she got the news that her book of Haiti stories, titled “Company of Heaven,” had won the University of Iowa award for short fiction.

She is telling us about a large landscape of memory and imagination — no small part of what the earthquake smashed. Her poem “Man Nini” is a glimpse of the Haiti of her childhood:

    Man Nini was queen of the coal kitchen,

    standing within six square feet of soot,

    in front of four pits glowing with embers,

    churning the bubbling bean sauce, beaming

    the yellow kernels of her smile at the chickens

    flapping in the loose ashes below, strung

    together by the feet with sisal,

    their furious claws resembling the old

    people’s toe nails. She sighed as she sat

    on a low straw chair, the heat-lacquered

    columns of her black legs folded in a squat,

    her soiled apron caught between her knees

    forming a valley just below the wrinkled

    mound of the belly, to sort out

    peas, the good, the diseased, though all

    grew round together in the same pod.

    When she took off the flowered scarf she wore,

    Man Nini’s hair resembled rice paddies,

    with traced avenues on her scalp that

    glistened like the moist red earth

    of Kenskoff Mountain in soft fog. The remnants

    of frizzy white down were gathered

    into inch-long, upright, puffed-up braids

    which, in the darkness of the windowless

    kitchen, seemed the luminous gathering

    of her ancestors’ will-o’-the-wisps, filled

    with murmurs about the secrets of her strength,

    joy, and the sweetness of the food she cooked.

This is the third in a group of conversations with poets, word-artists, about a catastrophe beyond words: the earthquake in Haiti this January. Thanks to the Grolier Poetry Book Store in Harvard Square, Cambridge for studio space. Tomorrow, performance poet Eli Marienthal.

Podcast • March 16, 2010

Whose Words These Are (22): Peace-Poet Fred Marchant

Fred Marchant approaches the unspeakable horror and loss of life in the Haiti earthquake with a gingerly air of obligation. It’s the poet’s job, he says, to find words and speak them. His instructions came ...

Fred Marchant approaches the unspeakable horror and loss of life in the Haiti earthquake with a gingerly air of obligation. It’s the poet’s job, he says, to find words and speak them. His instructions came from his teacher of old, Saul Bellow. Bellow said he took them from Keats’ line that art and artists dwell in “the vale of soul-making,” not in the commonplace “vale of tears.”

I find the line in a famous Keats letter from April 21, 1810 — 200 years ago, almost to the day. “Call the world if you Please ‘The vale of Soul-making,’ Keats wrote. “Then you will find out the use of the world… I will put it in the most homely form possible–I will call the world a School instituted for the purpose of teaching little children to read–I will call the Child able to read, the Soul made from that school and its hornbook. Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an Intelligence and make it a Soul?”

In Fred Marchant’s cheerful radicalism, the impulse then is to take up meaning-making and life-building as a pastoral, virtually sacramental opportunity:

If you believe in language, and you believe in language’s capacity for carrying human experience, both inner and outer dimensions of it, then you have to lean into it and try… Poetry is an art, it’s the art of using this language in ways one hasn’t quite dreamed of yet, that somehow express things that one hasn’t quite yet named even. The degree to which any poet, any writer, can muster the resources of language that would allow or enable you to stand with someone suffering in these kinds of catastrophes. Then, I think, that is the sum total of human good.

I mentioned earlier that Saul Bellow had been a teacher of mine. One of the great things that Saul taught me — he told me to read Keats’ great letter about this world being a vale of soul-making. And Saul said think about what that word means, soul-making. Think about how it implies that the soul could be diminished or could be greater, depending. It was offering a theory of art. The work of art is in fact increasing the dimension of soul in the moment you’re alive. And frankly, there are moments in life when it disappears.

His Haiti poem is “A Place at the Table”:

It means you can face your accusers.

It means there is no place to hide.

It means you will not drift off to sleep,

or carve your name on your arm.

Or give anyone here the finger.

It means you do not have to wave your hand as if you were drowning.

It means there is nothing here that will drown you.

It means you really do not have to have the answer.

Since there are only a few of you left, sitting across from you,

it means you can study their faces as you would the clouds outside.

You will not totally forget them.

It means you are now, roughly, for a while, just about equal.

In the center before you there is nothing unless someone gives it.

It means that when you are gone, everyone feels it.

It means that when you leave, you feel as if you haven’t.

That you still have a place at the table.

Later in your life this moment will return to you as a mote

of dust that floats in on the spars of sunlight.

It will search every room until it finds you.

from The Looking House. Graywolf Press, 2009

Fred Marchant has the distinction of being the first Marine Corps Officer honorably discharged for conscientious objection, during the war in Vietnam. Fred directs the creative writing program at Suffolk University in Boston and has published three books of poetry.

This reading continues our series with poets, “Whose Words These Are.” Tomorrow: Mariléne Phipps-Kettlewell.

Podcast • March 15, 2010

Whose Words These Are (21): Afaa Michael Weaver on Haiti

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Afaa Michael Weaver (20 min, 9 mb mp3) Afaa Michael Weaver leads off a week of poets’ reflections on the catastrophe in Haiti. His poem “Port-au-Prince” is not ...

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Afaa Michael Weaver (20 min, 9 mb mp3)

Afaa Michael Weaver leads off a week of poets’ reflections on the catastrophe in Haiti. His poem “Port-au-Prince” is not “news analysis;” it’s a stab at fitting disaster news, now two months old, into a context between heart and history.

Port au Prince

“Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace. Where

there is hatred, let me sow love.”

–St. Francis of Assisi

If the sky were to crack, the floor of heaven

would be pearl white, a bed of ice after snow

in Montreal, asylum from Port au Prince,

the children under sheets, stiff and undone

near cement walls filled with sand on the bottom

stoops of Mary, Blessed Mother Erzulie,

complex chance of a soul torn from Ile Ife,

in the rubric of the crucifix planted on shores

of empires–

The seam of the spirit tears in earthquakes,

ripping the cloth of the breath, suspending

every wish you had in that single moment,

the wet mess of your heart suddenly slapping

the tiny plan of earth growing from the Earth,

some alien presence driving the real thing,

the evil of The Enlightenment, husbandry

of farmers ranking goats with black children,

ledgers for the wealth of banks, investments,

hedge funds, Blackberrys, joys we hold onto

like the monstrous Coscos on the hill

twisting the roots of our hearts, nowhere

to run, to scream in the coming apart,

human bodies slapped inside human bodies

pierced with jagged things, rocks and glass,

zombies the mute saints, pious and solemn,

the French language humming to itself.

“les negres ne sont pas Francaise”

Writing a letter, plotting to buy Louisiana,

the pen of Jefferson moves to contain what

cannot be contained, collapsed buildings,

family photographs lying on broken bodies

sticking their tongues out in the rubble,

reporters walking by with microphones,

selling news as if it were cheese and bread.

@Afaa Michael Weaver

Perspective is everything. Michael Weaver worked in the steel factories of Baltimore (the world of “The Wire”) for 15 years before he finished his college education and declared himself a poet — and before “Afaa,” the Ibo honorific meaning “oracle,” was added to his name. Afaa Michael Weaver is widely published and traveled by now, a professor at Simmons College in Boston, though he identifies himself still as “a working-class African American poet from Baltimore.”

I’m coming from what is popular knowledge among black people about the significance and the position of Haiti, which is that we generally understand that Haiti’s position is a matter of being punished for speaking back, for daring to be rebellious. There are all kinds of complexities around the history of Haiti. But it goes back to the original problem presented to the American government of how to deal with the first successful slave rebellion in the Western hemisphere and how to keep that information and that inspiration away from black Americans. It haunted Jefferson. It framed his national policy, and remnants of that national policy are still present. Jefferson came to a final conclusion that he hoped that the expansion of America’s economy and national policy beyond its own borders would somehow compensate for the contradictions in the democratic ideal. So Haiti’s situation begins there. This earthquake seemed to another in a long list of problems. So I had this kind of sad image of being punished for talking back.

Afaa Michael Weaver with Chris Lydon at the Grolier Poetry Book Shop, Cambridge, March 9, 2010.

Afaa Michael Weaver’s reading resumes our series with poets, “Whose Words These Are.” What our first score of poets confirmed is that they are still our “unacknowledged legislators,” as Shelley famously elected them. They’re the ones you can trust, after all, to tell you that your coat is on fire, or your country. Tomorrow: Fred Marchant.

Podcast • September 26, 2007

At Home and "Global" in the US: Edwidge Danticat

Like her friend from the Dominican east side of Hispaniola Junot Diaz, Edwidge Danticat is writing "global" literature in our midst, for our mainstream, documenting the "permanent floating" migration games and the fascinating creolization of identities in our time.

Edwidge Danticat — loyal child of Port au Prince and Brooklyn — says in conversation: “I always feel like I bring some of there to here, and some of here to there.”

edwidgeLike her friend from the Dominican east side of Hispaniola Junot Diaz, Edwidge Danticat is writing “global” literature in our midst, for our mainstream, documenting the “permanent floating” migration games and the fascinating creolization of identities in our time.

The definitions of identity are so fluid. Sometimes people in Haiti will say, “well, you’re Haitian if you live here.” That’s one definition. There’s global youth culture. It would be hard to tell a kid from Johannesburg from a kid from Sao Paulo or Rio or Port au Prince if you put three of them together and they didn’t speak.

There are kids in Port au Prince who don’t even speak English but can recite to you an entire 50 Cent song, who can “do” Kanye West with the same accent and tonality…

If you concentrate on young black men of a certain age in all these places I’ve mentioned in the African diaspora, if you think of them as a particular element of the diaspora, and the disuniting of them throughout time and our history — you know, the slave trade and so forth — then I think these things, whether you like them or not, like hip-hop might be the only common culture there is. If might be the one thing in which all these young men from all these different places can see themselves as one.

All this is part of a cosmopolitan culture, which is usually an urban experience of living in crowded places in a kind of outsider status. These are people who are trying to redefine their outsider status and make something that others find appealing, as they young men and women did in the Bronx with Rap, when that began. You see it in the Paris suburbs — young people who know they’re not part of the main culture: they’re lucky if someone thinks they’re French, or unlucky! They know they have this outsider status. A lot of them, taking their cue from Rap, are trying to create a culture of their own. That interests me a great deal! Young immigrant people who are struggling to become part of a culture, or if that doesn’t happen trying to create a culture of their own that they can belong to and that others end up emulating. That’s their inclusion. That’s where they belong. They create their own belonging.

Edwidge Danticat, in conversation with Chris Lydon, Watson Institute, Brown University, September 18, 2007

Edwidge Danticat has just been through her own “year of magical thinking,” encompassing the deaths of the father and uncle who brought her up, and the birth of her own daughter in Miami, all in the space of a few months. Her new non-fiction book, Brother, I’m Dying is a cool, meticulous chronicle of family history, of sudden shock and turmoil, and of her heart, breaking and surging.

The first part of our conversation tells one of those “refugee stories” that could seem someday to typify this era of mass displacement. Danticat’s 81-year-old uncle Joseph was a Baptist minister in Port au Prince. In the autumn of 2004, in fear for his life in a neighborhood beset by gangs, he fled to Miami, en route to his brother’s place in New York. Though he had visited the States many times and had a current tourist visa, he was detained, then shackled by Homeland Security officers who saw him as “another black man trying to get in.” In his “credible fear” asylum interview, Joseph Dantica vomited violently in an apparent seizure, but humanitarian parole was not to be considered, nor the process interrupted. “I think he’s faking,” said the medic on duty. Then suddenly Joseph failed. “His eyes are open and he’s not unconscious,” the medic commented. “I still think he’s faking, but we’ll take him to the clinic.” Then suddenly, at Jackson Memorial Hospital, Joseph Dantica was dead. When Edwidge saw his body, she was struck by the look of anger on her gentle uncle’s face — a look described in Haitian Creole by a word meaning “you were choked by your own blood.”

Podcast • September 26, 2007

Edwidge Danticat (Part 2)

In the second part of our conversation, Edwidge Danticat takes a "transnational" view of the "cosmic mobility" in a globalizing economy and culture. She says: "Even before people get here, they're working for you, making your baseballs and denims." About Iraq, she says, Haitian memory begins with the US invasion by President Woodrow Wilson in 1915 and the occupation of Haiti until 1934 .

DanticatIn the second part of our conversation, Edwidge Danticat takes a “transnational” view of the “cosmic mobility” in a globalizing economy and culture. She says: “Even before people get here, they’re working for you, making your baseballs and denims.” About Iraq, she says, Haitian memory begins with the US invasion by President Woodrow Wilson in 1915 and the occupation of Haiti until 1934 — “one of the most scarring things that ever happened to us… The Haitian in me sees the circularity in these things… It takes a long time to recover from these interventions and occupations.” I ask her, as I did Junot Diaz, to write us an immigration bill that corresponds with real demography and her own heart’s experience.