Immensity: A New Voices Story

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Writing united us. But could we actually pull off a reading? Yes, with help from some poets before us. 

Back row: Tami Truax, Portsmouth Poet Laureate; Pedro, Leidiane Gabi, Sarah Cristina Clemar, Pilar Nadeau, Terry Farish. Front row: Cynthia Chatis, Carolyn Hutton

A mom, her little son, her teenaged daughter, a young professional, a poet laureate, a teacher of literature, a flutist-singer-artist, and me joined together to present a New Hampshire Humanities' New Voices reading in Portsmouth. New Voices is an extension of the New Hampshire Humanities Connections book discussion program in which professional writers partner with English learners to write together and present public readings in their communities. Our goal? To collaborate as writers and leaders in our regions of the state. Portsmouth was New Hampshire Humanities fifth New Voices reading after Manchester, Lebanon, Keene, and Concord.

Our group met often in Leidiane's apartment to write poems. Writing poems led to writing more poems. Leidiane wrote poems at night on her phone between cleaning jobs. Her daughter Sarah drew anime illustrations and wrote poems about the character's she created. Leidiane wrote a poem called "Immensity" and that became our theme as we wrote about the world. Carolyn found a poem to capture our habit of not being able to stop writing poems, Billy's Collins' "The Trouble with Poetry."

the trouble with poetry is
that it encourages the writing of more poetry,
more guppies crowding the fish tank,
more baby rabbits
hopping out of their mothers into the dewy grass.

And how will it ever end?
unless the day finally arrives
when we have compared everything in the world
to everything else in the world…

That was us. And we inspired each other. Leidiane had written a dozen poems first in Portuguese, then in English, that made us weep. (Her daughter Sarah, 13, learned English in the past year and a half and writes in English only). One night Leidiane whispered to us. "I am very afraid to read." Carolyn said, "Look what you've done already. Look at all your poems. Even it we didn't have the reading, you have already been successful." 

We kept writing poems.

One Tuesday we read, "Always Bring a Pencil" by Naomi Shihab Nye. She advices that writing in pencil is a good thing for poets:

There will be certain things -
the quiet flush of waves,
ripe scent of fish,
smooth ripple of the winds' second name -
that prefer to be written about
in pencil.
It gives them more room
to move around.

That inspired Carolyn to bring another description – this by Emily Dickinson - of what poets need:

"To Make a Prairie"

To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,
One clover, and a bee.
And revery.
The revery alone will do,
If bees are few.

We were poets and we took the first word of Naomi's advice, "Always…" and with that beginning, each of us wrote a verse. Later, each of us drew a single line from our poem to make this one:

Always a voice in my heart
Always a mother's gentle hand
Always we all need you
Always ride the light
Always keep the right names
on the book of your life
Always be there if you can
Always listen to the voice in your heart.

We had boundless inspirations. Memory, paintings, our children, our parents, our homes, grit, immigration - whether first gen or the 1900s or the 1800s. Tammi wrote about the language of her great grandmother from the Azores, Portuguese, Leidiane's, Sarah's, and Pedro's first language. Pilar wrote inspired by a collage, clipping words about immigration from the newspaper. (Please see the prompt about collage as way to access ideas for poems at Fiesta: Focus on Immigration Education and Stories Through the Arts.)

No one tells the drama of building up to the point of actually doing a public reading better than Leidiane herself:

"One day a teacher, at an event at school, challenged us to write a poem. I did that on time and my teacher asked me to read it. I was shy, my English bad, Carolyn encouraged me and I thought "only one person."

Terry came smiling. I was terrified. We talked, and Sarah was invited to participate. I thought how wonderful it would be to be with my daughter for a moment and write about feelings!

It was fun but the holidays were coming and I did not want to stop write, I thought how it would all help in my English.

So we have a coffee in my house. What would be added to this coffee and poetry but a person. Oh, my God, one more person. Tammi. So you came, talking about feelings with watery eyes. We fit together like water, each in its own way. I feel like I've known them for a long time. Then there was talk about a presentation, for some people. Honestly, I did not want to. I was afraid to expose myself. Sarah was very excited, I saw her bright eyes, we sat on the floor and wrote poems, reading to each other, but inside, I was terrified. Everything was very natural and I was able to gradually remove my armor. When I went to see the space of the presentation I saw Cynthia with her incredible music, feeling peace and I thought on the day, look only for this."  - Leidiane Gabi

Cynthia came.

Tammi is a long-time collaborator with Cynthia at Beat Night at the Book & Bar in Portsmouth. At Beat Night Cynthia, a flutist and singer, accompanies or "embellishes" as she says, the spoken words of poets. Cynthia described how she approaches offering accompaniment at the New Voices reading:

"When I play to accompany a poet or reader, the experience is about ear, about listening and embellishing, if I'm called to do so -- hearing the energy behind words, behind the story. First, I will ask the reader or poet, seasoned or otherwise, if they'd like music or sound. I would ask the reader for a 'feel', subject matter or energy of their piece. Does it invoke a sweetness or is it edgy, like broken glass? We can have that sort of dialog. We improvise. I am energized by the dance, relationship, duet between us and the audience."  - Cynthis Chatis

We presented the reading at the Pontine Theatre on an evening late in June.

Leidiane read her poem "Immensity" about the experience of a moment on a beach in Brazil. Tammi wrote about her lost language, "Muito Triste," Carolyn about revery, Pilar about the sense of aloneness in America, Sarah about the power within, me about imagination - all with Cynthia's music embellishing us. Here's an audio postcard of Cynthia singing a reprise of "Always." 

Leidiane Gabi and her daughter Sarah Cristina Clemar

We invited the voices of people in the community who came to the event to be key to the evening. We wanted a dialogue, a conversation with them. So we talked. Can you tell about how you came to this country? they asked. Did you write poems in Spanish and Portuguese before you wrote in English? Sarah described her first year in school when she couldn't talk to anybody. The poets told about their home countries. Pilar described reading her poem in class and everyone understood the combination of loss and hope she had written about.

Yes, we did a public reading. Tammi, Poet Laureate of Portsmouth, is planning to bring the New Voices readers together to read again in the city and meet its people. The poets are ready.

Postscript: This is one story of the many New Voices stories that unfolded in New Hampshire this year. Each New Voices reading was an original creation shaped by the writers and their communities. We thank all the participating writers and musicians. 

Congratulations to Rusul Hassoon, Anaily Robles, S Stephanie, Chris O'Keefe and Patrice Pinette in Manchester; Binli Han, Lily Deng, Jie Zhou, and Sonia Araujo, Judith Hertog, Ewa Chrusciel, and Julie Puttgen in Lebanon; Vidhya Palanimuthu, Kalaivani Rajendran, Annu Bargale, Julie Moulton, Patrice Pinette, Alice Fogel, and Sarah Merrigan in Keene; Nawras Altaher, Sophia Bomba, Fatima R Ejam, Federica Odetti, Ewa Chrusciel, and Maura MacNeil in Concord; Leidiane Gabi Sarah Cristina Clemar, Pilar Nadeau, Carolyn Hutton, Tammi Truax, Cynthia Chatis, Terry Farish in Portsmouth.