Wednesday, September 24, 2014
Wednesday, May 7, 2014
If you were that woman, sitting
every Friday in the public library, one week working
through the who and how and why
of simple questions whispering from your tutor’s lips,
the next week learning price and pay and sale and save
and How much does it cost?—
if you were that woman,
then you, too,
would ask for repetition of bag and back and bank,
of leave and leaf and left and live,
and you would struggle to produce the English sounds
that held the meanings you still held
inside your head: the dappled murmuring of leaves
outside your childhood home, the trees
full of sweet yellow fruit you could not name in this new life,
the lives you left so you could live,
and as you moved your lips in all the unfamiliar ways
to make the sounds your tutor made, she would nod
and you would smile, but you would never
write, for you’d not yet know how
to form or read those fast, firm letters you watched pouring from her hand,
and so you’d have no way to store what you had learned
except in memory and hope,
alongside memories of why you’d never needed written words
in your native world, where your mother had taught you all the skills
of planting and harvesting and weaving and singing that you would ever need
for living in a lush, good place,
and alongside memories
of gunfire echoing beyond the trees,
of rebels begging for or stealing food,
of soldiers from some distant city standing in your
village, barking about loyalty
and able-bodied men,
and then the memories
of jungle paths for five long nights,
of sharing food and whispered hope with others who had dared
and the memories of the daughter and the son, both
born and grown high as your eye in the refugee camp on the border.
The English words would nestle in amidst
get lost, be found again, and you would have to try
to pull them out but leave the rest behind, try
to let the new sounds tell you
not only the hard-edged names and places
of this brick and concrete life,
but also how to live in it:
how to take
a city bus, how to
and you would sit again, again, again
in a mauve chair at a round table in the library,
amidst the shelves and worlds
struggling with your who and how and why,
and you would not allow yourself
to figure how much it had cost
or how much you still had to pay.
You would just smile and thank your tutor,
and come back
|Photo credit: Sharon Freed|
Was “Lessons” based on a personal experience?
Before having children, I worked as an ESL teacher not only here in the U.S. but also in China and the Czech Republic. Since 2010 I've been volunteering as an English tutor for refugees who've been resettled in the Worcester area. The poem comes from all that background. More specifically, though, it was inspired by a few of those refugees. I didn't want to name them or their country because I didn't want to limit the poem to those specific women only, or even to people from their country only; the many difficulties of learning a new language, especially when you do not come from a culture that allowed you much of an education, would be the same for all of us. Add culture shock and the burden of past traumatic experiences, and the task is far harder than many people in the U.S. might imagine.
How did you decide that the subject of learning a language was something you wanted to write about for your poem?
The refugees I have been tutoring know how to weave their own clothes, how to build a home out of bamboo, how to grow their own food. But none of those skills serve them here in their new lives. Upon arriving in this country, they not only had to find a way to support themselves in what is to them an alien place, but also to learn an entirely new language.
Yet I've met people who, in spite of having sympathy and good will toward immigrants, nevertheless don’t understand why it may take so “long” to become proficient in English. The poem was my response to that.
You've written about your experiences in China and The Czech Republic. Did living in other countries influence the poem?
Yes, especially my time in China. When we English teachers arrived there, none of us had any ability to speak Chinese. We were told we would have a chance to learn the language when we arrived at the university where we were to work, but our promised Chinese instructors never materialized.
In addition, we were fairly isolated from Chinese people, presumably for political reasons. We were in a separate dorm for foreigners only, and visitors had to sign in at a guard’s desk, which may be why we had very few visitors. We had our meals separately too, just the five of us in a little dining hall set across the campus from the student cafeteria. We never got to mingle with or even meet the rest of the university faculty. So, for most of a year, we mainly interacted only with each other—and, in a very formal, controlled way, using English only, with our students during class. We had to ask how to say various useful phrases—“I want...,” “I don’t understand…,” “how much…,” and so we learned how to do practical things—how to count money, to order our favorite soup from a street vendor, to mail a letter home—but other than that, we had little opportunity to deal with Chinese people, and they didn't seek us out.
So I had the experience, right out of college, of hearing the sound of foreign speech all around me, and yet of having no entry into it. You don’t just “pick it up” by being in its midst. If you do not have a community of people who can interact with you in the new language in any kind of patient, daily, sustained way—as immigrants often do not—then the sound of that language becomes like traffic sounds. We all tune out what is unintelligible to us. So in the right (or wrong) circumstances, it is surprisingly natural to live in a foreign place and yet not learn its speech.
Wednesday, April 2, 2014
The One Time I Saw Monk Playing at Minton’s
He looked like a drunk hammering on a typewriter. Me and Corwell in gray silk suits, black-on-black shirts, and Butcher Boys shoes. Cigars and whiskies and little hotties on our shoulders. Did his “angular rhythms clash like gods in the smoke overhead”? Come on, kid, I wasn’t even listening.
Jazz. The theme for Volume XXXIV of The Worcester Review. Jaydn DeWald titles his poem after the famous jazz pianist and composer, Thelonious Monk who played at Minton's Playhouse in New York.
The Worcester Review: Why did you decide to write "The One Time I Saw Monk Playing at Minton's" in open form rather than something else?
Jaydn DeWald: Because [it] is the product of an assignment—Write a piece of prose in 50 words or less—put to me by my terrific friend and fellow writer Kyle Bilinski (whose work can be found here: http://kylebilinski.weebly.com). There was far less freedom, less openness, involved than one might expect. But I feel impelled to mention that, for me, “open form” poetry, or “free verse,” tends to produce too many choices, too many possible (and equally alluring) paths. Preferring my choices to be fewer and more susceptible to the vagaries of chance, I almost always adhere to some self-imposed requirement(s), whether traditional (rhyme, meter, syllabics) or non- (lipogram, found poetry, N+7).
Furthermore, since we’re on the subject of jazz, I find it somewhat odd that “free jazz”—the music equivalent of free verse, one might argue—should be reserved for our most virtuosic and most eccentric musicians (the Ornette Colemans and Cecil Taylors among us), while verse libre should be so ubiquitous and, in general, dull.
TWR: Did you actually see Monk perform live himself at Minton’s? Or was the inspiration for the poem the desire to experience the music from a perspective of that time period?
JD: Monk died in ’82, the year before I was born, so I never had the opportunity to see him perform live at all, much less at Minton’s Playhouse—the club Miles dubbed “the bebop laboratory”—where he (Monk) served as house pianist during most of World War II.
For better or worse, I also think it’s impossible for me to “experience the music from a perspective of that time period.” While I can appreciate the historical freshness of the bebop vocabulary, for instance, I would struggle to hear its historical freshness; it even strikes me, in certain moods, as quaint.
More precisely, “The One Time I Saw Monk Playing at Minton’s” is a quick exploration of conflicting interests and temperaments: the juxtaposition of a jazz enthusiast (“Did [Monk’s] ‘angular rhythms clash like gods in the smoke overhead?’”) and a stereotypical club-goer (“Cigars and whiskies and little hotties on our shoulders”).
TWR: Do you enjoy writing about the small moments in life as you did with “The One Time I Saw Monk Playing at Minton’s?” If so, is there a particular reason as to why that is?
JD: I do like to write about small moments, particularly moments of fantastic, life-altering interiority in which nothing, outside of a person’s mind, happens. Lyric poetry often seems to have been created for, or to have arisen out of, these moments, and though it’s unfashionable to admit it, I tend to think of myself as writing old-fashioned lyric poems.
Wednesday, March 5, 2014
Do you remember the first poem or creative story you wrote? Did you ever go back to them for revisions? What were your thoughts upon your return to them?
I began writing at age 12. My first effort was a poem called “The Storm.” My sixth grade teacher put it up on the bulletin board. In high school, I won first prize in the National Scholastic Writing Awards for poetry. I wasn't very good at revision then. Now I’m an ardent reviser of my work, going through sometimes thirty or more drafts before I consider something worthy. Even then, I’m often dissatisfied. When I look at what I wrote as a child or a teenager, I think it is clumsy but still representative of my love affair with language. I came from a family where I was read poetry. My father was a visual artist who loved poetry and literature. My mother was an English teacher.
I feel encouraged by the trend of texting because it is getting people to write more. As a professor, I do not accept texting shortcuts as writing, but as a person in the world, I appreciate it because I have always found writing easier than speaking. I think technology will continue to redefine our methods of communication and I’m okay with that. Communication has changed throughout history. That said, I will always prefer letters to emails, and I am saddened that the process of sending someone a letter is quickly disappearing.
As we live in a fast-paced world. I know that for you poetry is one way of slowing down. How do you suggest others take a moment and jot down their thoughts and feelings?
Poetry is not only a way to slow down; it is also a way to encourage observation. We miss so much in our fast-paced lives. I don’t believe that a person has to be a writer to benefit from writing. Some people keep journals or jot down poems without any desire to publish or even share their work. Creativity can be cultivated, and really, it is necessary to keep pace with the changes in our culture. The employers of tomorrow will want employees who can think critically and creatively, and becoming a good observer and writer are skills that can benefit everyone. Reading, analyzing what you see and read, and writing are ways to develop critical thinking and creativity.
As a creative writer and poet, is the emotional truth the same for both prose and poetry? Or does it vary?
Emotional truth simply means that my first allegiance is to the emotional viability of a situation rather than the literal truth. The emotions must feel authentic, revealing some aspect of human nature. It is less important that anything else in the story or poem be plausible. I do think poetry allows for more leeway with experimentation. It is a very different process for me than fiction. To me, poetry comes from a deeply emotional place while fiction is completely the work of the imagination. There is something very freeing about writing fiction. I can create characters who bear no resemblance to anyone I know.
Can you talk about the fiction you’re currently working on? Is there a correlation between your creative stories?
The Worcester Review would like to thank Lisa Taylor for her time to participate in the interview and her contribution to the publication.
Lisa C. Taylor
Cathedral of Shadows
The saddest lies
are ones we tell ourselves.
inviting the disillusioned
in the chisel of stone
or lead seams on cobalt blue.
Eyes follow, someone
is speaking; we decipher
the language which sounds
both familiar and unfamiliar.
Does truth speak in tongues?
Ask the windows looking out
on the shifting shoulder
of day. Each step
leading us closer
to the mirrored hall,
cathedral of shadows.
One woman lifts a bronze arm,
another has no mouth
but we hear
a psalm; her name.
We chant liturgy,
disguise ourselves with veils,