Poetry is multilingual
Arizona Daily Star
Sept 13, 2008


Students to write in 2 languages in first Educational Enrichment celebration

By Rhonda Bodfield

Tucson, Arizona | Published: http://www.azstarnet.com/allheadlines/257391


When Hawo Mohamed talks about her birth country, Somalia, her quiet voice becomes more animated, and her smile is bright and a touch wistful.

The 17-year-old senior at Catalina Magnet High School tells of houses made of clay and trees. Of laundry washed by hand and hung on lines to dry. Of a place where domestic animals are more likely to run along the lines of chickens, goats and sheep than dogs, fish and ferrets.

She tells of her arrival here three years ago. How she was so shy, and it was made worse because she didn't know the language. And the food was so different that she didn't eat for three days.

Mohamed, draped in a rose head scarf, was one of about a dozen students participating in a poetry-writing workshop this week for Tucson Unified School District students interested in taking part in the inaugural International Language Poetry Celebration, hosted by the non-profit Educational Enrichment Foundation.

Students will be asked by November to submit poems in at least two languages. The resulting work will be published in a book, with the poem and its translation on facing pages. The celebration will culminate in a reading at the end of February in which students will read in both languages.

Mohamed said writing is a way for her to share and remember her culture and people.

Foundation Director Robert Padilla said he's anticipating as many as 100 students participating in the event. With at least 88 different languages spoken in the district, Padilla said he expects poems from several of the better-known languages, such as Russian, Portuguese, Chinese, Arabic and Vietnamese. But there are others that might send folks scrambling to Google: Dinka, from Sudan; Zonka, a language of Bhutan; and Tigrinya, spoken in Eritrea.

Padilla said there are several benefits. "It reinforces the inherent value of being multilingual and recognizes that these students have complex, interesting backgrounds," he said.

It also rewards creativity in the current drill-and-test era, Padilla added. "It's often not the power brokers but the artists who have shaped the world," he said. Remember Pope Julius II? Probably not. But Padilla bets you've likely heard of the sculptor he hired to repaint the Sistine ceiling: Michelangelo.

Padilla said the program also will be challenging. Even adults, he said, might hesitate to write poems in two languages because of nuanced differences in translation or because the switch to another tongue will muddle rhyming patterns. He's hoping the fearlessness of youth will show them through. Indeed, when he told a friend about the project, he was told, "Let's get them to do it before they find out it's impossible."

Shukuru Kalunga, an 18-year-old sophomore at Catalina, said he was immediately interested when he heard about the project through his teacher of English as a second language.

Kalunga, from the Congo, said he hopes to write his poem in French, Swahili and English.

With his homeland long beset by wars and rebellions, Kalunga said it was in high school that he began writing poems and plays about violence.

"It helps to write," he said. "When we write, it's like a cry. It's how we let people know how we're feeling about what's happening around us."

In the workshop, every student wrote a line of a poem, then passed it along to the next student, who added another. After two rounds, they read the work in its entirety. The poem was no longer theirs. It had become a work of community.

It didn't matter if the other words came from someone from South America or Africa.

And that was the point.

● Contact reporter Rhonda Bodfield at 806-7754 or at rbodfield@azstarnet.com.

Interested?: The International Language Poetry Celebration is open to all multilingual Tucson Unified School District students who have been enrolled in the district for at least a year. Students are asked to submit two to three poems and a short biography by Nov. 7. One poem will be published in both languages, and a reading will take place on Feb. 26 at Tucson High Magnet School. The top three poets will win college scholarships, with first place winning $3,000, second place receiving $2,000 and third place earning $1,000. For more information, contact the Educational Enrichment Foundation at 325-8688 or at eef@theriver.com.