Processing Cross Cultural Experiences through Poetry

poetry across cultures Melibee workshop

Today’s guest post is by Melibee intern Katie Ahlman. I was so moved by her participation in a recent MelibeeU workshop that I asked her to share her experience with our readers. Please enjoy this very authentic post of Katie’s experience with spoken word and reflection. If you’d like to learn more about the Crossing Cultures through Verse workshop, please click here.

Stasis in darkness.

Then the substanceless blue

Pour of tor and distances.

God’s lioness,

How one we grow,

Pivot of heels and knees!

— The furrow*

(*excerpt from Ariel by Sylvia Plath)

…Wait? What the heck does that mean? Why is this poem so convoluted, dense, and just down-right aggravating? Stupid poetry! In my head I scream to the poet, “Just say what you mean already! Why must you make me figure out that all you want is to live a simple life?…That’s not what it means? Argh!!” and the conversation continues as the poet continues to speak in riddles and I struggle to understand. Frustrated, I throw the book across the room in disgust.

That is how I feel about poetry. I hate it. I hate reading it, writing it, deciphering it, and listening to it. Why go to any extra work? If the poet wants me to understand it, they should use proper English (or Spanish, French, etc) grammar and not write in Dactyl style or using a Haiku. It’s much simpler that way! Basically what I’m saying is…I have no interest in poetry and I am ok with that.

But then…something unexpected happened. I attended the spoken word workshop led by Kane Smego and Will McInerney, Spoken Word Artists and hosted by MelibeeU. As a Melibee intern, I am fortunate to participate in the great workshops offered and this was one of them. Remember, I hate poetry and went into this workshop very skeptical about how it would be “inspiring, fostering and promoting artistic expression.” Pu-Lease. But then I remembered part of being a global citizen is keeping an open mind to all new opportunities so I participated to the best of my abilities (but still skeptical 😉 ).

The workshop was facilitated by Kane Smego and Will McInerney, two spoken word artists from North Carolina who went to Egypt and Tunisia during the Arab Spring to capture the voices of the youth in revolution. Out of this experience emerged Poetic Portraits of a Revolution and an eight-week radio series on “Morning Edition.” Kane, the 2010 National Poetry Awards ‘Slam Artist of the Year, and Will, Director of Sacrificial Poets/YouTh ink, a nationally competing youth poetry organization devoted to fostering social transformation, are both dedicated to sharing art through education. They aspire to focus on stories from the people themselves, rather than what information the media decides to tell society. Will and Kane want to change the way we think about information by adding the human element.

The workshop began with each participant listing certain “events” of his or her life. The events could be whatever the participant chooses, but it had to be significant to that person. For me, deciding on these events was difficult at first—basically because I didn’t want my events to be cliché or cheesy. I wanted them to be original. Yet the more I thought about it, the more I realized that, while cliché, these events were important to me and unique in that these specific events only happened to me and therefore could not be cliché. After I accepted this, my list of events gushed forth. As the workshop continued, I kept wondering where Kane and Will were going with this unusual technique. We were asked to continue examining our lives in an unconventional manner and quite unexpectedly, I realized my creative juices were flowing. When the experience (for indeed this was most definitely an “experience” by this point, not a simple workshop) was over, I was both surprised and pleased with what I had produced.

For the rest of the day I kept reading my poem, amazed that I had actually written a poem and liked it! I realized that Will and Kane’s workshop would work in a variety of settings—study abroad (all stages: pre-departure, in-country, and re-entry), international students (as a way to understand their experience and strengthen English skills), staff training, personal reflection…almost anything since we all have meaningful events that impact our worldviews.

My meaningful event was learning to stand up for myself while in Ghana. Many (but not all!) of the young men there liked to think they were an answer to my prayers and dealing with them became an almost daily frustration when I first arrived until I learned to stand my ground. I think about this experience frequently since it helps me strengthen my resolve when I am backed into a corner or frustrated. Below is what emerged through my participation in Will and Kane’s “Crossing Cultures in Verse” workshop.

A note on a few words in the text: ‘Obruni’ is an Akan/Twi word that literally means foreigner and Caucasians in Ghana will hear this on a daily basis. Like ‘gringo,’ the term is not necessarily derogatory, but a way to identify someone who is clearly not a local. ‘Small boy’ is a term used to denote an unmarried young man, often denoting a lack of power or influence in the community.

A note on my behavior: This is completely acceptable behavior for women in Ghana be they Ghanaians or foreigners living in the community. If you do not feel comfortable challenging someone in the middle of the road like I did, just find the oldest woman in the area and stand next to her. The boys will stop bothering you instantly since all Ghanaian men fear their Ghanaian women.

Casting Off/Hooking the Small Boys

Walking down the potholed road, I smell the

Overwhelming power of the sewer, watching the

Acrobatic street hawkers

Weave thru the Cacophonous Ravelry.

Their technique is like

Magic.

Suddenly the crowds

Cast Off and leave two

Solitary boys.

Their language is

Custom-Made for my Ears alone.

‘Obruni! I love you! I want to

F*** you all night long.

Why do you walk

Away?’

I quickly lose all

Serenity and try to

Escape. To my dismay they continue their

Enterprise.

‘What to do I ask myself?’ I just

Arrived 3 weeks ago and am tired of this

Pattern already.

Determined to stop this,

I Teleport myself to their side and

Cast the Yarn on to my

Needle in order to

Puncture their egos. ‘Who are you to talk to me that way, you small boys?’ I

screamed. ‘Do you talk to your mother, grandmother, or

Sister this way?

How would you like it if

Strange boys disrespected your sister this way?’

As my Needle continued its work,

Purling through their hearts and minds, I could see they

Wished to Time Travel and repeat this moment

Again but with different results as the rest of the community

—the women—were coming to my defense.

As the shouts grew

Louder, I Escaped to the background and

Enforced the Prime Directive.

The Boys in my neighborhood soon learned to respect and

Support me but outside I still encountered these

Taunts. But this Hobbit had grasped her

Blue Sword and defending herself in this

Manner became EZ whenever I Cast Off to

Begin my Star Trek.

Author’s Bio: Katie Ahlman has been in love with learning about other cultures since the 3rd grade when her class did a project on Kuwait. Frustrated that her schools didn’t offer more courses on other cultures, she began her own exploration that took her to Costa Rica, Cuba, Ghana, and more places in between. Her childhood passion turned in to her career and an MA in Comparative and International Development Education from the University of Minnesota. Her work focuses on the internationalization of higher education and helping international students transition to a university environment (and she even likes doing immigration paperwork!). Her travels have taken her to Northampton, MA where she looks forward to establishing roots and helping others find their love of “The Other.”

  • ds8607a

    "This was most definitely an “experience” by this point, not a simple workshop" — YES!! Katie, this was such a wonderful reflection on that experience. Prior to the workshop I too felt extremely skeptical, and maybe a little scared even, that I could actually produce spoken word poetry. But there I was, even willing to share my poem with the group at the end! And let me tell you–that NEVER happens–I am the basic epitome of "introvert". Will and Kane created such a safe environment and were so very encouraging that presenting what I had composed simply felt natural. I would share my poem here too, but it's rather long. Imagine that, I wrote a long poem in about 20 minutes time!

    • Missy Gluckmann

      I was shocked at what I wrote also. I wasn't so afraid bc I recruited the guys based on the work I had seen firsthand in Chapel Hill, but WOW , I was FLOORED at what I wrote. I really hope folks will be as willing to take a chance on this workshop as you two were! bravo for being open to such a journey! They are really two very skilled poets and educators!