Sunday, May 29, 2011
Somerville Poets Patrick Sylvain and Kim Triedman: Words as a balm for disaster.
Interview with Doug Holder
Poets Kim Triedman and Patrick Sylvain joined me on my Somerville Community Access TV show “Poet to Poet: Writer to Writer,” to talk about the acclaimed poetry reading they were part of and the subsequent anthology “Poets for Haiti.” All this was in reaction to the tragic earthquake that brought Haiti to its knees. Triedman, managing editor for the Ibbetson Street Press in Somerville, Mass, edited the anthology and was instrumental in organizing the reading. Sylvain is originally from Haiti and now lives in Somerville. He is a well-regarded poet, educator and activist.
Doug Holder: How do you think poetry has helped people connect with Haitian culture? Did your readings and others like it help people realize what was lost during the earthquakes?
Kim Triedman: I think the enormity of the disaster was enough for people to stand up and take notice. Poetry, at least to my knowledge, had not been used in this way significantly before—in terms of the way the poetry community supported us. I think it was a very valuable model if nothing else. The fact that so many people came out and responded to the poetry, responded to the situation, responded with donations, made the reading a tremendous success. We had five Haitian American poets. I think the situation in Haiti demanded this attention.
Patrick Sylvain: I agree, I was thrilled with it, and when I saw the lineup of all the other poets, I knew it would be a success. But I did not think it would be as successful as it turned out. Even the reading we did at Porter Square Books in Cambridge was great—I think we sold 170 books.
KT: Yes. It really excited us. There was tremendous energy. The whole thing took over two hours. And no one got up to leave.
PS: What impressed me was all the generosity of the poets and Kim in putting it together.
The Arts have been central to Haitian culture. Whether its poetry, fiction, painting, etc… Haiti is known for its artistic expression. After the earthquake we sort of made a pact with the devil. It brought us attention, but also destruction. Haiti has been demonized in so many ways. So I think an event like this to counterbalance that image—is so good for an alternative way to look at things. It provides a way took beyond the fact that Haiti is the poorest country. The language of poetry is universal. And poets speak with one another. The readers at the event and the poetry lovers interacted in a very warm and heartfelt way.
DH: Kim-- there is always a litany of disasters-so why did this particular one—light a fire for you?
KT: I can’t say exactly. But I happened to be in my poetry workshop a couple of days after the incident and one of my colleagues said as we were leaving: “I wish there is more that we can do.” We had all written checks; we all watched the footage. For some reason I couldn’t keep my eyes off of it. And that night it occurred to me that I had a friend who was a poetry organizer. She made me realize I could put something together with poets and artists. I ended up working with Jim Henle of Harvard University who had the same idea. I think what prompted me was that line from my group: “I wish there is more that we can do.” Once we asked people to be part of our reading etc…we had a full roster of poet in two days, etc…
DH: The reading took place Feb. 23, 2010 at the Harvard Ed. School. It has been said that the “Poets owned the evening.” What does that mean?
PS: Our words and emotions took us someplace that was unexpected. It was not a catastrophe reading so to speak, nor was it overwhelmed with emotions. It was sort of a heartfelt literary event that took us to a spot where we understood human frailty, human resilience, but at the same time we talked to each other. Fred Marchant (Director of the Suffolk University Poetry Center) read a poem by a Haitian poet. The poem he read was connected to one of his own poems. There were many of these “interconnections.” Fred read the work of a poet he never met. We had 13 poets, and the audience wanted more!
KT: It almost had a spiritual aspect. People were elated. It was an incidental reading forum. There was no grandstanding. Robert Pinsky (Former U.S. Poet Laureate), as well as an award-winning Haitian High School poet read. Other poets like Rosanna Warren, Gail Mazur read—so we had an amazing group. It took its own shape.
DH: Patrick—in your poem “Boulevard Jean Jacques Dessalines” you write of this famed street in Port-au-Prince. Tell us a bit about the street in its salad days, and how it is now. Who was the man it was named after?
PS:When I grew up was you Port-au-Prince was very small. I left Haiti in 1981. The Boulevard was like Mass. Ave. in Cambridge, Mass. It was a central artery. It had a lot of business going on, and two hundred yards to its right you had the seaport—so literally you could see the sea. I remember when I started to go to school you could see the increase in merchants. And when I went back to Haiti in 1990, I wanted to see some of these places. I wanted to look at people. To me Haiti is theatre. The merchants pressing against each other, all the theatrical battles that took place between them…I wanted to witness this yet again. I had a very specific memory of a very chaotic place. So when I went back, I could see the street was overwhelmed by vendors, and the poverty and desperation was very evident.
Dessalines was one of the founders of Haiti. He became a liberator and later ironically a dictator. Later he was murdered, a little outside Port-au-Prince. So this same thoroughfare named after the great liberator is full of chaos and poverty.
DH: Kim—in your poem “Toil” you write “Spring will come.” Has spring sprung in the aftermath in Haiti?
KT: It’s going very slowly. I hope it will. There is just a relentless of catastrophes these days.
PS: I think we can only be hopeful. People in Haiti don’t believe in suicide—as long there is hope there is life.