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Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera had just arrived at the Adult Learning Center in Nashua, his second day with New Hampshire Humanities' Connections program. "For me," a student tells him, "the Learning Center is my second house."
Lauren Osowski, Director of Adult Education, tells Juan some of the countries her students have come from, including Burma, Brazil, Cambodia, Congo, Colombia, China, El Salvador, Haiti, India, Serbia, Ukraine, Venezuela, and more. They’ve cooked for Juan and their classroom smells good with deep-fried pakoras, red yam balls with butter and cream, and chocolate.
New Hampshire Humanities Connections facilitator Maren Tirabassi has been working with the Center's level 5 and 6 classes to read Juan's books and to welcome the country’s 21st poet laureate. They've written a welcome poem and a chorus of international students read to him:
Welcome to our house of extravagant colorsin our classroom on Lake Streetwhich is for all of us a place of pauseon the road of our lives.
Juan Felipe has been traveling the country as poet laureate and has met many classes of new Americans. He has written poems about many of their countries. In a full auditorium at the Currier Museum of Art the night before, he read from his book Senegal Taxi, poems in which children from Darfur imagine escape. He'd read "Mud Drawing #5. Abdullah, the Village Boy with One Eye," which begins,
No village.No mother. No father. One brother. One sister. No food. No water. Nocows. No camels. No trees. No village. No food no water. No cows…
But that's not why he came. Juan pulls out his harmonica.
He begins an echo song and all the voices in the room chant with him in their adopted language, English. He's written a poem for them with the lines:
I am your sister/ I am your brother/ Remember me.
Dayanara is too shy to read a poem she wrote after reading Juan's Calling the Doves, but Maren reads it.
Born in a big citybut destiny sent me rural bound.A very small town with just two roads.Downtown was all there was.
Juan writes downtown on the board. This is impromptu.
Johannly sings for him, "Ayudame Dios Mio," "Help me God." Juan writes song on the board. Rafael in a dusky voice sings "Hallelujah" by Leonard Cohen in Portuguese. On the board, Juan writes, You raise me up.
He writes many of their words on the board. Dove, breath of happiness, love, wisdom. The words become the refrain between his stories.
Everyone sings their echo song.We are the songWe are the doveWe take off flyingWith wisdomWe cross downtown.You raise me up.
One of the students has a question: What is your advice for us?
"Bring your families into your stories so others in the community can meet them," he said. "I wrote about my parents so you could meet them. I grew up in migrant worker camps. When I heard my father speak, it was like poetry."
He proclaims the students are poets. "Your voice," he says, "is the natural and beautiful voice that everyone has."
They break to eat the foods of the world they've prepared for him and present him with a framed copy of their welcome poem. The second to last verse:
So – to the poet of our new countrywhose voice is beautifuland whose tongue is not a rock,and to those who have brought him here, welcome!
Everyone gathers for a group photo.
"That is why I came," Juan tells them, "to say you have a beautiful voice."
For more pictures of Juan Felipe Herrera's visit to New Hampshire, click HERE.
By Terry Farish, Connections Adult Literacy Coordinator
Photos by Elizabeth Frantz Photography
New Hampshire Humanities programs are made possible in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this these programs do not necessarily represent those of the NEH or New Hampshire Humanities.