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Blueprints: Bringing Poetry Into Communities

Blueprints: Bringing Poetry Into Communities

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02/01/2013

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First, a disclaimer: I am not a diplomat, just a poet who happens to work
in the feld of cultural diplomacy, which is defned as “the exchange of
ideas, information, art, and other aspects of culture among nations and
their people in order to foster mutual understanding.” Cultural diplo-
macy falls under the rubric of public diplomacy, which is sometimes de-
scribed as the art of winning hearts and minds. Since 9/11, these forms
of what the political theorist Joseph Nye calls “soft power” (in contrast
to the exercise of hard military and economic power) have generated
considerable debate in foreign policy circles. The University of Iowa’s
International Writing Program (IWP) has played a role in these debates,
developing models of soft power rooted in the practice and pedagogy of
creative writing, in artistic exploration, which may offer an alternative to
the dictates of extremist ideologies. In these refections, I wish to share
stories from the front lines of what has been called a war of ideas, a clash of
civilizations. This is in my view not a war, at least not yet (though war is

130 | Christopher merrill

one way that nations resolve competing claims and ideas), but a dialogue,
with far-reaching cultural, political, and spiritual implications.
Dialogue depends upon listening, and listening is essential not only to
cultural exchange, which ideally courses in both directions, but also to any
literary enterprise, especially poetry, which may begin with a poet hearing
something a word, a phrase, a rhythm that holds the promise of explo-
ration and the prospect of linking one thing to another in a system of cor-
respondences that may resonate not only for the poet but for the reader as
well. Hence E. M. Forster’s advice to novelists “Only connect” is an
organizing principle of the IWP, where we connect writers to other writ-
ers, students and scholars, translators, and editors. During the Cold War, the
IWP was a meeting place for writers from the Soviet Bloc. Chinese writers
started coming soon after the Cultural Revolution ended, and after 9/11
we began to invite more writers from Islamic countries. So many books
have been written in the IWP that one writer called the University of Iowa
a narrative nursery.

The World Comes to Iowa this was the title given to a pair of antholo-
gies of writings selected from the frst three decades of the IWP, and in
recent years the State Department, which provides a signifcant portion of
our funds, has encouraged us to bring American writers to the world. Thus
we have hosted symposia in Greece and Morocco, on topics such as what
we hold in common, justice, home, and the city, and organized tours of
American writers to Syria, Jordan, Israel and the West Bank, Turkey, Cyprus,
Oman, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, and Kenya. In the last, we visited a Somali ref-
ugee camp, where the importance of connecting, of cultivating better rela-
tions between one people and another, cannot be underestimated.
No one ever dies in Dadaab, humanitarians say, at least not in the Somali
refugee camp, which is the largest in the world. Here a food ration card is a
precious item, the fnal and perhaps most valuable legacy inherited by the
family of the dead, representing for some the difference between life and
death. The refugees subsist on aid provided by the international community,
which translates into 2,100 calories a day, plus cooking oil and soap.
Here is another truth: almost no one ever leaves Dadaab.
The camp, which is actually three camps (Dagahaley, Hagadera, and Ifo)
constructed in northern Kenya near the border with Somalia, was designed
to temporarily house ninety thousand men, women, and children feeing
the confict touched off by the collapse of Somalia’s central government in
1991. A succession of failed governments, fourteen in all, turned the camp

The Three Goat Story | 131

into a more or less permanent home to 275,000 refugees, most of whom
traveled for weeks by bus and car, on foot and camelback, in searing heat
and the red dust that covers everything in the badlands north of Dadaab.
The border has been closed since early 2007, but in the frst half of 2009,
more than fve thousand new refugees arrived every month to live in tents
and endure chronic shortages of running water, electricity, and toilets. Each
month, seven hundred babies are born in the camp, and thousands of teen-
agers have spent their lives in what one aid worker called a fenceless prison.
The Kenyan government does not allow refugees to move about the coun-
try. Thus there is nowhere to go and nothing to do; with unemployment
running at 80 percent, parents fear their children will return to a homeland
they have never seen to fght a war that goes on and on.
It is the forgotten war. No doubt the lasting image of Somalia for many
Americans comes from the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu, a failed operation to
root out a powerful warlord that cost the lives of hundreds of Somali mili-
tiamen and civilians and eighteen American soldiers. It was a military and
political fasco for the Clinton administration, recounted in Mark Bowden’s
best-selling Black Hawk Down and later brought to the screen by Ridley
Scott. The confict prompted the White House to withdraw troops from
Somalia and made it reluctant to employ force to stave off humanitarian
catastrophes in Bosnia and Rwanda. A disaster-relief specialist involved in
the planning for military action in Bosnia and Somalia told me that it was
possible to make a difference in Bosnia, not Somalia; after the Battle of
Mogadishu Americans largely forgot about Somalia.
However, another image of the war-torn country had formed by the
time we arrived in June 2009; Somali pirates were seizing ships in the Gulf
of Aden, prominently the Maersk Alabama, an American container ship car-
rying fve thousand metric tons of supplies for refugee camps in Kenya,
Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The pirates held the
captain hostage in a covered lifeboat, setting the stage for a drama on the
high seas. Days passed as an American warship sailed into the Gulf and tele-
vision crews camped outside the captain’s house in Vermont. When Navy
SEALs shot three of the pirates and freed the captain, there was the sort of
jubilation in America that in earlier ages might have attended the death of
Blackbeard or Captain Kidd. In Dadaab, where rations had to be reduced
by fve hundred calories a day, a relief worker pulled aside a local leader.
“You know your brothers are doing this to you, don’t you?” he said. The
refugee smiled, shrugged his shoulders, flled his canvas sack with grain.

132 | Christopher merrill

What happens when ad hoc arrangements take on the patina of perma-
nence? This is a question that my colleagues and I confronted in Dadaab.
The essayist and translator Eliot Weinberger, the poet and novelist Terese
Svoboda, and the poet Tom Sleigh joined me for what a State Department
offcial had described as a slightly fantastic (and perhaps dangerous) cultural
diplomacy mission: to conduct creative writing workshops for secondary
school students in the refugee camp. So one summer morning, we met an
American diplomat at a small domestic airport in Nairobi to board a turbo-
prop leased to the United Nations for the hour-long fight north. The plane
landed on an airstrip, where a press offcer from the U.N. High Commis-
sioner for Refugees (UNHCR) greeted us, and we climbed into white
SUVs for the drive through the dingy town of Dadaab, up and down deep
dips in the sandy road. Men sat on truck tires half-buried in the dirt outside
each shop crescents demarcating businesses that had sprung up to serve
the Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) community. Nailed to a tin
shack was a sign: Baghdad Enterprises. There were hand-lettered signs for
hotels, which offered food, not housing. And we learned that the UNHCR
was negotiating with the local community, made up largely of goat and
camel herders, to lease land for a fourth camp. The discussions were not
going well, though; years of drought, which had hastened the Somali exo-
dus, had bred resentment among Kenyans, who envied the international
largesse bestowed upon the refugees. They wanted ration cards, too.
The sun was blazing when we fled into the mess hall at the UNHCR
compound for our security briefng. An Irishwoman newly arrived from a
stint with the relief agency in Afghanistan spelled out some of the hazards
her staff and visitors faced an aid worker had been shot not long before,
and there were always red spitting cobras and scorpions to worry about.
She then explained that tensions were running high in anticipation of the
impending verifcation process, a UNHCR census in which 10 to 15 per-
cent of the refugees would likely lose their identity cards, costing many
families their extra ration cards. For recreation, we could use the gymna-
sium or the tennis court or run on the path circling the perimeter of the
compound. The press offcer advised us to take fashlights to the bar unless
we wanted to step on a snake.
I wondered how in the world we were going to share our experiences
of writing and the creative process the life of discovery, as the poet Brew-
ster Ghiselin called it in his symposium The Creative Process, which has sold
more than half a million copies since its publication in 1952. “Simply, the

The Three Goat Story | 133

self-interest of mankind calls for a more general effort to foster the inven-
tion of life,” Ghiselin argues in an introduction synthesizing ideas from a
range of thinkers. “And that effort can be guided intelligently only by
insight into the nature of the creative process.”
Thus he gathered together writings from poets and writers, mathema-
ticians and scientists, composers and artists, which in their totality suggest
that a common set of principles applies to every discipline: the importance
of preparation that is, mastering skills and techniques, acquiring a body of
knowledge, learning how to translate experience into wisdom and the
necessity of remaining open to different approaches and ways of under-
standing. How to glimpse what may lie on the periphery of vision, where
heretofore unimagined connections may be made? That is the task of artist
and scientist alike. “There is a right physical size for every idea,” the sculp-
tor Henry Moore reported, and this holds, fguratively speaking, for every
discipline. If there is any truth to the idea that the cultivation of creativity,
“the invention of life,” is crucial to our collective future, there was no bet-
ter place to explore this than in our meetings with students trapped in a
place lacking just about everything that might make life bearable. We ate
lunch, returned to our rooms to set up mosquito tents, and then drove off
to our frst workshop.

The issue, said the diplomat on the way to Hagadera, was that al-Sha-
baab, an extremist Islamist group believed to be affliated with al-Qaeda,
was offering young men in the camp fve dollars a day and a Kalashnikov to
join their countrymen and a small band of foreign terrorists (some of whom
had honed their fghting skills on the battlefelds of Iraq and Afghanistan) in
an attempt to overthrow the government in Mogadishu, which the interna-
tional community had gone to great pains to establish the previous autumn.
Some Somali Americans had heeded the call to take up arms, and one had
just been killed near the capital. The diplomat had seen a group of Somali
Americans breeze through immigration at the airport in Nairobi. He feared
that they were heading north.
We arrived at the community library, an octagonal building with a tin
roof, and took our places at old wooden tables; taped to one wall was a
UNHCR poster that read TOGETHER, and next to it was a Macmillan
map of the world, the top half of which was missing. There was a scattering
of books on the shelves; what light there was fltered through the open
windows. The young men in blue shirts and black or white trousers sat on
one side, the young women in blue or red hijabs on the other, and Ali, a

134 | Christopher merrill

Kenyan Somali, translated for us, our English accents being mutually incom-
prehensible. The 1993 riots in Nairobi had curtailed Ali’s studies, dashing
his dream of becoming a journalist, and as the students introduced them-
selves I wondered what he made of their grand ambitions. “I want to be
prime minister,” said one girl. “I want to be a pilot,” said another. “I want to
be a heart surgeon,” said a third.

“To be a writer,” said Tom, “all you need is a pencil and a piece of paper.”
Then we handed out pencils, notebooks, and lollipops Tom said that
he liked to suck on something sweet when he was working and the stu-
dents began to write.

It turned out that the exercise we had assigned them was too compli-
cated, and in our eagerness to make it work, we threw out one idea after
another, which added to the confusion. It was a wonder that the students
came up with anything at all. But as they read their stories aloud, we were
struck by the sophistication of their writing, all subordinate clauses and
compound structures, and then by the revelation from one student that
each camp had its own writing club, the entrance requirements for which
were quite stringent: applicants had to turn in stories on a variety of sub-
jects local and international news, sports, culture which were judged by
what sounded like high standards. After the workshop, on our drive back to
the UNHCR compound, there was some tension in the SUV we wanted
to succeed, we knew we had not which did not begin to dissipate until
we tried to devise a new exercise for the next workshop.
“Let’s have them write a three-goat story,” said Terese.
“What’s that?” said Tom.
“We’ll fnd out when we get to Dagahaley,” she replied.
And so we did. Her instructions to the students who passed through
the barbed wire gate to meet us in a bare cinder block building were won-
derfully simple: put three goats into a page of prose or verse. The results
were often moving. Here is what Abdi Kadar wrote:

to be a writer,” said tom, “all you need is a pencil
and a piece of paper.”

The Three Goat Story | 135

The Three Goats

Once upon a time there were three goats. The three goats were
called Blacky, Horny and Shouty. They lived in the forest where
many predators like the hyena, the lion, and the leopard existed in
a larger population.

The three slept together, grazed together, and helped each
other in terms of hardships.
It was not long when one of their enemies, Hyena, decided to
eat the three goats. In fact it was diffcult for the hyena to eat the
three goats because they were always together. Hyena thought for
day and night but he could not get a way of eating the goats.
One day Hyena went to his friend Hare to discuss the issue
of eating the goats. Hare who had a character trait of trickery and
wisdom suggested to his friend that he would bring tonight Shouty
alone so that Hyena can eat her alone and the next night Blacky so
that the brave Horny will remain alone.
Hare went to the three goats and made good friends with them.
He told Horny that Hyena was going to eat him tonight and you
can’t hide away from him unless you chase Shouty away because
she will shout and help Hyena to easily discover your hiding place.
Horny without thinking started chasing Shouty. Since she was
afraid of Horny she went away. By nightfall Hyena came and ate
Shouty. The next day Hare went to Blacky and told her that last
night Hyena ate their friend Shouty and tonight he is going to eat
Horny and if he fnds you with him he will also eat you. Blacky
thought for a while and decided to leave Horny alone.
Again Hyena came and ate Blacky after fnding her alone in
the forest followed by Horny the next night.
My story ends there.

“No party is complete without a goat,” is what the UNHCR T-shirt
says, so one night at an Ethiopian restaurant run by a refugee we ate goat.
The conversation turned to piracy a student had sent Terese a poem prais-
ing the pirates and it occurred to me that I knew next to nothing about
the students, except that for all intents and purposes they had no prospects.
The chances of resettling abroad were slim only ffteen hundred refugees

136 | Christopher merrill

are issued permanent resident visas each year to the United States and a
handful of other countries; it is equally diffcult to secure one of the few
university slots available. But perhaps it was better to jaw-jaw than to war-
war, as Winston Churchill famously said. I hoped that in the scheme of
things some good might come of our attempts to describe what it feels like
to engage in the creative process.
Thus in each workshop Eliot cited the example of Chinese poets’ tap-
ing their writings to communal walls during the Cultural Revolution;
Terese read her translations of Sudanese poems; and Tom praised the hero-
ism on display in Nadezhda Mandelstam’s memoir, Hope Against Hope,
recounting how she and Anna Akhmatova kept alive the poems of Osip
Mandelstam, a victim of Stalin’s gulags. I told a story about the Greek poet
Yannis Ritsos: how he had prepared for his looming imprisonment during
the military dictatorship by removing the stuffng from a winter coat and
then writing poems on cigarette papers, which he hid inside the hollowed-
out coat. When he was released after a year, he gave the coat to his editor,
instructing him to publish all the poems because he needed the money to
pay for his daughter’s wedding. In short, each of us felt called to invoke the
witness of writers who had testifed to some of the darkest chapters of
human history, for this was what our students faced in Dadaab.

There came a moment in each workshop when a student would ask
what we would do for him or her. The students were accustomed to well-
meaning foreigners promising them this or that. But what could we offer
besides anecdotes about writers bearing witness to oppression, imaginative
exercises, and encouragement to read and write? Eliot said that as writers
we could barely tie our shoes a line that always elicited stunned silence
and then general laughter, which changed the dynamics of our encounter.
The atmosphere lightened as we found ourselves to be on more equal foot-
ing. We suggested that they translate literary works from English into Somali
and vice versa. (All the students were bilingual, and some were fuent in

what could we offer besides anecdotes about writers
bearing witness to oppression, imaginative exercises,
and encouragement to read and write?

The Three Goat Story | 137

three or four languages.) We smiled, we told jokes (which lost something in
translation), we listened: hope against hope. We were exploring together the
contours of the life of discovery.

* * *

The line outside the camps’ registration tent stretched as far as the eye
could see individuals and families arriving from their war-torn country,
hungry, thirsty, exhausted, sometimes sick, often scared. Children sat on
their mother’s laps, waiting to be vaccinated, to have their eyes swabbed
with medicine. And then another line into a building, where there was
paperwork to be flled out and questions to answer. Religion. Nationality.
Languages. What are your main needs? What did you encounter along the
way? What made you fee your country? Please tick as appropriate:

 Lack of Food
 General Insecurity
 Family Members Killed
 Financial Diffculties
 Lack of Education
 Loss of Employment
Other (specify)____________________________

Other reasons included membership in a militia. These men were inter-
viewed separately from the rest of the population. Some have a lot of blood
on their hands, said a relief worker which put into perspective the logisti-
cal diffculties that we faced in conducting writing workshops.
First we needed permission from the UNHCR to work in the camps,
fy on its planes, stay in its compound, and use its security detail. Then we
had to gauge the risk of working in a volatile environment, with inadequate
communications and a lack of supplies books, paper, pencils that
belonged to an overall picture of dearth: the camps were short forty thou-
sand latrines, and there were not enough doctors, medical facilities, medi-
cine, schools, or teachers, to say nothing of clean water. No wonder the
humanitarians looked harried at the end of the day.
That night in the bar at the compound, I fell into conversation with the
press offcer, who told me stories about snakes: how a refugee working in
the kitchen had killed a red spitting cobra and hung it outside the mess hall

138 | Christopher merrill

to deter other snakes, how an aid worker had nevertheless been sprayed in
the face by another spitting cobra, how they had saved her life by lighting
the airstrip with headlights from their vehicles so that a plane could fy her
to Nairobi. I realized that I had forgotten my fashlight, and when I left the
bar I wandered down one path and then another in search of my room,
praying that there were no snakes out.
The diplomat and I went for a run one afternoon on the dirt path sur-
rounding the perimeter of the UNHCR compound. A herd of black-faced
goats with hijabs, went the local joke rooted in the scrub under a silver
water tower, and thirty or more marabou storks perched in an acacia tree, a
congregation of huge carrion-eating birds that thrive on human activity.
There is a story that when a butcher in Kenya laid aside his bloody knife for
a moment, a marabou swallowed it whole. We could see the birds circling
above the camps or walking near the heaps of garbage. An aid worker blamed
the garbage on a kind of camp-induced lethargy, the chief benefciaries of
which seemed to be the marabous. I asked the diplomat if he thought that
what we were doing had any merit, and he replied that giving 250 students
the opportunity to listen to American writers speak from the heart about
their work was nothing to sneer at. He picked up the pace. “Can you run
another lap?” he asked. “Yes,” I said, panting. And so we did.
Morning and afternoon, we would drive from the UNHCR compound
to the police station in Dadaab and wait for the Kenyan police offcers to
escort us to the camps. “They’re probably drinking tea,” the press offcer
would say, shaking his head. “They’ll come when they feel like it.”
The police offcers accompanied us after the last workshop in Ifo to
N-0, the newest camp, where the latrines placed between two rows of tents
were used by forty people. Thorn branches served as gates to each tent,
some of which housed as many as twenty people. Three students joined us,
one of whom had opened the question-and-answer session earlier in the
morning at the community center by saying that because he was giving up
his time to study for exams, he wanted to know what was in it for him. We
had praised the pleasures of aesthetic exploration, but I had the feeling that
we had not convinced him or his friends that this would be time well spent.
But here they were, now translating for a wizened man who recited a poem
about businessmen in Somalia sending their families out of the country and
doing nothing for refugees, now helping us wade through the crowd that
swarmed around us. An old man harassed me for failing to visit sooner, and
after he said his piece he shook my hand in the traditional way and led me

The Three Goat Story | 139

on a tour of the camp. A woman surrounded by children took up the theme
of his tirade, saying that at the hospital she could not get any medicine.
“What are you going to do for us?” she demanded to know. I said that I
could write about what I had seen and then one of the students said that
he and his friends could write about this, too.
“That’s right,” I said, brightening. “I’ve been here three days; you’ve
been here years. You know this story better than I will ever know it.”

On our last day in Dadaab, fghting in Mogadishu left at least forty
dead, including the police chief, and more than 130 wounded. The next
day, the internal security minister, the former ambassador to Ethiopia, and
many others were killed or wounded in a massive suicide car bombing in
the city of Beledweyne, where they had gone to meet with tribal and reli-
gious leaders, hoping to stem the violence. The Somali president blamed
foreign terrorists for the attack, and indeed there were news reports that
some members of al-Qaeda had moved to Somalia and Yemen to escape the
military offensives in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The U.N. plane lifted off from the airstrip outside Dadaab and few
over the parched land. Peter Matthiessen titled an account of his travels in
East Africa The Tree Where Man Was Born, and I had just opened his book
when one of the pilots turned to me and said, “Are you OK?” I caught the
eye of the diplomat seated across the aisle. “I can’t say I’ve ever heard a pilot
ask that before,” I said and then began to read about the land below, which
contained the origins of our species: its vast natural resources, its terrible
history of bloodshed. The plane rose through clouds the frst sign of rain
in months and by the time we landed in Nairobi the sky had darkened.
Near the terminal, ambulances were lined up beside a military cargo plane
from which soldiers were unloading the victims of a gruesome accident.

i said that i could write about what i had seen and then
one of the students said that he and his friends could write
about this, too. “that’s right,” i said, brightening.
“i’ve been here three days; you’ve been here years.
you know this story better than i will ever know it.”

140 | Christopher merrill

For the third time in two months, a fuel truck had crashed, and as people
siphoned up the fuel, something a cigarette, a spark touched off an
explosion, killing and maiming dozens of men, women, and children.
A van was waiting to take us to our hotel, and on the drive through
town the diplomat called his offce to pick up his messages. He asked his
secretary if she had heard anything about the explosion. She had not. The
road wound up a hill lined with nurseries, and at the top, not far from the
American embassy built after the 1998 al-Qaeda bombing that had killed
hundreds of Kenyans, there was the smell of burning charcoal. Men walked
on the side of the road, past jeeps in which sat Kenyan police offcers. A
Somali had lately been arrested here on suspicion that he was doing recon-
naissance for another attack. On we drove.

141

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