A favorite prompt of mine from Kenneth Koch’s classic book Wishes, Lies, and Dreams: Teaching Children to Write Poetry is an exercise in which he asks his students to compose poems using words from a list of Spanish vocabulary. Writes Koch in his commentary:
“Writing these poems enabled children who knew Spanish to enjoy their knowledge of it and gave those who didn’t a feeling for another language . . . Too often, the non-English language a child knows is regarded in school as something that has to be overcome rather than as an additional source of knowledge and pleasure.” (297).
I love the idea of allowing a language whose rhythms feel natural to one’s ears (whether it is a first or second language) to color and inflect the poetic voice, and so to give it a place in one’s own [English language] writing. A year ago, when I traveled back to my undergraduate institution to co-present a writing workshop at an Asian American activism conference, my collaborators and I tried out Koch’s prompt with the group in attendance, but instead of using Spanish, we challenged ourselves to substitute words from our own families’ native languages. While preparing for this activity, I found myself struggling mightily with the question of authenticity, since my knowledge of Chinese (in either Mandarin or Cantonese) is limited to the names of a few foods and assorted pleasantries like “hello,” “thank you,” “good morning,” “did you sleep well?” “see you tomorrow.” What right did I have to claim (and was I crazy to even attempt) a language that for all practical purposes, is really not mine? But as I began to think about it more, I realized that I do feel a type of rootedness in the Chinese language, and specifically in the Cantonese dialect — but this sense is grounded in sound rather than in meaning. I grew up in a house in which Cantonese was spoken among the adults of the family, but because I never understood what my parents and grandparents were saying to one another, the musicality of the dialect’s tonal cadences and phrasal inflections are what have stayed with me. I associate Cantonese with home, with the smells and tastes of food, with dinner table conversation, with family rituals like going to Philadelphia Chinatown on Saturdays to buy our groceries and eat dim sum. With words that held meaning and shape for me only in childhood [there was a time at which I knew only the Chinese names for certain actions, body parts, foods, but those resonances have since slipped away as medical terms and American slang have come to fill their places]. And so I tried to engage with the prompt by using what words remain with me to form a kind of sound portrait of a place. I ended up being quite surprised by how easily the words seemed to come once I’d started. It was as if my brain had already clustered those words in with the part of it that stored my early memories. And I began to feel a little homesick. I still do, a little, each time I encounter Cantonese. Whether in a half-empty restaurant in South Bend, IN; a TV switched on in the back of a corner store; someone talking on their cell phone in the subway of an unfamiliar city, a part of my aural knowledge flashes on for a brief instant, and pulls me into a place of deep longing. I still feel a bit awkward and self-conscious whenever I read the poem I wrote from Kenneth Koch’s prompt (knowing that my pronunciation is awful and that I barely understand the words that I’m repeating, myself), but the simple act of working on the poem enabled me to lay claim to a kind of heart knowledge which I’d always felt too timid to access before.
Prompt: Write a poem that incorporates non-English words.
Here’s a draft of my own non-English-words poem:
I know you – not for your big Ben Franklin bells
or your liberty towers at screaming heights –
but for the gum-choked pavements of 10th
and Market, the smoke-thick corridors of Arch
and Race. I know you for your Chung May’s
and your Joy Tsin Lau’s, for your bakeries
studded with fruit-glazed sweets, your blue
tilapia tanks, your gleaming racks of char siu
hanging in clouded windows. I know you for
the smell of oranges on the street, the wail
of engines emerging from the firehouse, the clatter
of pushcarts and plates, the tables we sat at
on Saturday mornings, the din of the dim sum
crowd, tongue against tongue in a language
whose seams still elude me: Ha gow, siu mai!
(Child, your hands are like ice). Dan tat! Ma lai gow!
(Put your gloves on, a draft blows under the door),
Ha cherng! Lau bok gow! (Place your palms in mine,
my warmth will feed yours). Pei dan siau yook jook
ngo jap! (Let me button your jacket closer to your heart).
As usual, we’d be thrilled, should you care to share an excerpt of any work that this prompt might help generate. Happy weekend!