Science people and literature people don’t usually mix. We use different languages – dew and anguish for the lit types, water vapor and comorbid anxiety disorder for the science folks.
But there is a kinship.
Environmental activist and poet Jane Hirshfield, who knocked out crowds at a 2007 reading for HoCoPoLitSo at the Howard County Conservancy, showed that science and poetry should march hand in hand more often.
On April 22, Earth Day, at the rain-soaked March for Science in D.C. to support the scientific community, Hirshfield read a poem from the main stage (photo). Cheers and whoops broke from the crowd of hundreds of thousands who crammed the park below the Washington Monument and spilled over into Constitution Avenue.
She prefaced her poem with this statement: “On Jan. 25, when the federal scientists were told to be silent, this march was first conceived. By the afternoon, I began writing the poem I’m about to read you.”
“On the Fifth Day” begins:
“On the fifth day
the scientists who studied the rivers
were forbidden to speak
or to study the rivers.”
A few hundred yards from the main stage, through the crowds with their creative signs (Got Smallpox? Me neither! Thanks, science!), the March for Science community had set up tents to hold science teach-ins. Marchers crammed into sessions about the benefit of preserving nature in cities, about efforts to save the bees and manage stormwater. In a tent sponsored by #Poets for Science – a popular place on the rainy day – people popped in to write poems. The tent was surrounded by a collection of eight-foot-tall signs printed with verse by writers such as W.S. Merwin and Linda Pastan, each poem chosen by Hirshfield.
The activities inside the tent were directed by Kent State University’s Wick Poetry Center and its Traveling Stanzas program. As the rain pattered on the tent’s ceiling, hundreds of people created “emerge” poems, striking out some words in long paragraphs of scientific language. Copies of the speeches given on the stage that day were handed to anyone who came in – from four-year-olds to gray beards. Using markers, the authors crossed out blocks of words, leaving poems to emerge from the blackness.
The intrinsic value
of diverse and abundant plant and animal species
That value has been shared
The Wick Poetry Center site features more photos and emerge poems.
In Washington last Saturday, the crowd was exposed to the connections between poetry and science, demonstrating the ideas that many activist poets are trying to express — that art and science are not expendable, they are intrinsic to survival in the world.
As many signs read: “There is no Planet B.”
Hirshfield explains in her statement on the #Poets for Science site:
“Poetry and science are allies, not opposites. … Observation and imagination, the microscope and the metaphor, the sense of amazement— you need all of them to take the measure of a moment, of a life. Poetry and science each seek to ground our lives in both what exists and the sense of the large, of mystery and awe. Every scientist I know is grounded in curiosity, wonder, the spirit of exploration, the spirit of service. As is every poet.”
Many signs at the march were lettered with the March for Science’s slogan: “Science, not silence.” I would add, though the rhythm isn’t quite as sublime, “Poetry and science, not silence.”
Susan Thornton Hobby
When poetry lovers attended a Carolyn Forché reading Oct. 30, they probably expected gorgeous wordplay. But beyond the language, the world’s troubles — even those we didn’t know about — were laid bare.
Should we expect any less from the writer who coined the phrase “poetry of witness”?
At HoCoPoLitSo’s most recent event in the annual fall Lucille Clifton Reading Series, Forché gave HoCoPoLitSo audiences an exclusive — a reading from her yet-unpublished manuscript, In the Lateness of the World.
The whole world crept into the theater on the coattails of her words: the refugees fleeing Syria in flimsy rubber boats and her grandmother’s crossing of the Atlantic to reach Ellis Island, the siege of Sarajevo and the resistance of the Russian poet Pushkin.
Despite being thick into recovery from pneumonia, Forché delivered a forceful reading of her work, and answered questions for half an hour after the reading with the audience about how she helps translate poetry from Vietnamese, Bulgarian and Arabic, the tradition of oral poetry and human rights around the world. Even in the questions from the audience, in which one poetry lover talked about the thousands of annual deaths along the Rio Grande, the world’s woes were evident.
Author of two collections of poetry of witness, including the seminal Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness (1993) and the more recent Poetry of Witness: The Tradition in English, 1500 to 2001 (2014), Forché has always been both a human rights advocate and a poet.
During the afternoon’s taping of HoCoPoLitSo’s The Writing Life, a thirty-minute writer-to-writer talk show hosted by Grace Cavalieri (also the host of the Library of Congress’ The Poet and the Poem: https://www.loc.gov/poetry/media/poetpoem.html), Forché talked about her beginnings, and about “my poet’s responsibility.”
She talked with Cavalieri about winning a Guggenheim, meeting someone in California who talked with her about El Salvador, and about voyaging to Central America to find out what was happening. Turns out, it was death squads, the military dictatorship’s brutality and an impending revolution. She began writing to Amnesty International, and putting poems on paper. Those experiences gave rise to her book The Country between Us (1981), which became that rarest of birds, a poetry bestseller.
At the tail end of the question session after her reading, a student asked, “What would you tell young poets of witness?”
“Stay open, stay awake,” Forché said, and don’t think you have to travel the world to find trouble. There’s plenty here at home. “Enlarge your capacity for empathy.”
“Poetry,” she told Cavalieri during The Writing Life taping, is “the natural prayer of the human soul,” and can work to heal the world.
— Susan Thornton Hobby,
Here are some numbers about Afghan refugees:
- 2 million Afghan citizens were displaced by violence in 2015.
- 5 million are awaiting repatriation or citizenship in Pakistan, but the government there is starting to force the refugees back to Afghanistan.
- 1 million wait in Iran and are enduring increasingly rough treatment and deportation.
And here’s why we can read those sentences and glaze over: because our brains can’t comprehend the millions of stories in the refugee crisis.
That’s why one photograph, of one drowned toddler and his two tiny shoes sparked more outrage than the daily tally of refugees. That photo told a story that had been incomprehensible.
Novelist Nadia Hashimi, who is of Afghan descent but grew up in New York and New Jersey, wanted to tell one family’s story, to show the humanity in the humanitarian crisis that is the migrant emergency.
Hashimi centered her 2015 novel, When the Moon is Low, around a schoolteacher, Fereiba, who lives with her family in Kabul until the Taliban imprison and kill her husband. She and her children escape the violence of Afghan’s capital and endure boat trips in the dead of night, border crossings, predatory smugglers, hunger, cold and exhaustion in their quest to reach family in London.
In the prologue, Hashimi writes in the voice of Fereiba, who is lying in a hotel bed with her children: “One day, we will not look over our shoulders in fear or sleep on borrowed land with one eye open or shudder at the sight of a uniform. One day we will have a place to call home. I will carry these children — my husband’s children — as far as I can and pray that we will reach that place where, in the quiet of their slumber, I, too, will rest.”
Hashimi will read from that novel June 26 as part of a program HoCoPoLitSo is producing with the Columbia Festival of the Arts’ summer festival. The Toronto Star wrote of When the Moon is Low: “A heartfelt story of courage amidst a world short on compassion.”
Hashimi’s own story is compelling. Her mother grew up in the 1960s and ’70s in a modern Kabul, going to college, wearing mini skirts, listening to music with her friends. When the Soviet invasion was imminent, her mother migrated to the Europe, then got her master’s degree in engineering. Her father emigrated to the U.S. to seek his own education. Afghanistan, under the influence of the Taliban and extremist warlords, forced women to cover, divided families, reinstituted child marriage and outlawed women’s education.
Now a pediatrician from Potomac with four children, Hashimi has written three novels in four years. When she traveled to Afghanistan after the publication of her first two novels, she found it much changed from her parents’ stories. The years have not been kind to her parents’ home country, she told an audience at the Miller Library earlier in April. Since 1970, life in Afghanistan has become especially hard for women — who were for years forbidden to work, go to school or walk unaccompanied — and she wanted to tell those stories.
When the Moon is Low is particularly topical now, in the midst of the ongoing wave of migrants seeking a better life than in their turbulent, violent native land.
Foreign Policy, in a fascinating piece about the responsibility of America in the twisted history of Afghanistan, wrote, “The case of the Afghans, one of the world’s largest refugee communities and the second-largest group – behind Syrians – to arrive in Europe recently, should serve as a reminder that the origins of today’s predicament are neither recent nor confined to the refugees’ home countries.” (Full article.)
America and its policies bear responsibility for the refugees struggling to reach a peaceful place. We should not ignore the crisis, neither its numbers, its images nor its stories. Join HoCoPoLitSo and the Columbia Festival of the Arts on June 26 to hear Hashimi read from When the Moon is Low, and a sneak peek at her upcoming book about the stories in a women’s prison in Afghanistan, House Without Windows (August 2016).
— Susan Thornton Hobby
HoCoPoLitSo board member
and recording secretary