A Detroit writer brings poetry to a war-torn zone
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Published: May 30, 2012
The poems they created were based on Native American poetry and music exercises that I gave them. They wrote beautifully using this music and short poems as their lyrical and musical inspiration, which was totally foreign to them. (To read the good work these women are creating in anonymity, go to awwproject.org/ and support them by purchasing the brand new anthology of their work entitled The Sky Is a Nest of Swallows: A Collection of Poems and Essays by Afghan Women Writers [Bellville Books Press 2012].)
After the AWWP meeting, we headed via our trusty bulletproof SUV to the Afghanistan National Institute of Music in another part of town near Kabul University. The sidewalks of were jammed with pedestrians, and the unlined main roads were bumper-to-bumper with small cars, each packed full of passengers driving through the dusty, hot hazy streets of the capital. People on bicycles and walking wore scarves or surgical masks over their mouths and noses to keep the car and dust pollution from their lungs. If you think the bus system in metro Detroit is bad, try jumping in a moving Toyota minivan with sliding doors wide-open and broken seats for bus service commute. I watched an older guy in a suit miss the jump to catch a quickly moving bus-van and literally get left in the dust.
When we arrived at ANIM (The Afghanistan National Institute of Music — a public arts-based high school in city-center Kabul) and entered the building, I guessed this school was some sort of Fame-style high school, or Kabul's version of Glee. The students were a combination of working-class and middleclass students. The boys and girls, ages 12-18, wore school uniforms. This school is famous for graduating some of Afghanistan's most acclaimed musicians. The kids were very serious about their studies and their music. My plan was to introduce them to performance poems by showing them one of my pieces with tape loops that I created in various studios around Detroit with area musicians. This is a technique I picked up on after seeing Postal Service play The Hollywood Palladium in Los Angeles several years ago. The loops are created so musicians in other countries can play along. Sometimes, I plug my iPod into a sound system or amplifier for a fuller sound.
I performed a couple of my standards in a large ANIM High School classroom, including John Sinclair's "The Screamers," so they could see how I performed poems with music. Next, we discussed Langston Hughes' poetry, concrete and abstract language, and then I got them to write some poems using repetitious lines starting with "I Have a Dream."
I was now bringing a little M.L. King into the program. Next, I wanted the students to put the pieces to hip hop. We were doing everything from Langston's "Harlem" (with its famous question: "What happens to a Dream Deferred") to Notorious B.I.G.'s "Juicy" to M.L. King with the hip-hop thrown in for good measure. They were all totally unfamiliar with these American cultural signposts, but I could tell they were interested and ready to dig.
These were amazing kids who communicated at various levels of English, which these students were all learning as a required second language. In addition, the students are all music students. As they were writing their "Dream" poems, I got the idea to have them play their own live hip hop Afghan-style versus using a tape loop. I asked who had their instruments handy? Several hands went up. A very hip drummer kid had his doumbek (a sort of Middle East and Asian conga) handy; another kid grabbed his sitar; and I got a very shy, quiet, veiled girl to fetch her viola. I started the drummer with a cool, funky beat. Next, I had the girl bow repeating chords on her viola, and I told the sitar player to make like Jimi Hendrix and rip some lead. Many in the room seemed to know the name "Jimi Hendrix." I was surprised because they had never heard of Detroit, Eminem or hip hop, but "Jimi" they got. Breakthrough! I thought. Yes, we were making good progress in Kabul.
After they jammed a bit, I started bringing the poets of all ages up to rap their poems. Some were shy and more reserved, so they came up in small groups of two or three, but others jumped up and started reading their poems to the beats and sounds. It was beyond cool. A couple of dudes even free-formed after their written poems ran out.
The room was rockin'. They were on fire, and like true open mic poets, I couldn't get them to stop, so we jammed on for an hour or so. Their unique instruments jammed funky beats, and we were grooving, Detroit stylin', ancient Afghanistan. This class was seriously rocking out, and a lot of other students gathered outside the door to see "sup" with the goateed bald dude rockin' the ANIM poetry class. It ended a very cool and culturally rewarding first day in the 'Stan. This homey quickly realized that he wasn't in Kansas, or Motown, anymore, Dorothy.
The next day, I met with my first group of Access students in Kabul. Access is a U.S. government-sponsored English-language training program administered around the world to make the study of English more accessible to students and teachers. I have visited several of these programs not only here, but in Israel, the West Bank and Russia over the years. These students were very fluent in reading, writing and speaking English. I brought a little Paterson, N,J., with me to the class. I turned the students onto pediatrician and major American writer and poet William Carlos Williams, who often wrote short poems on the back of prescription pads. The students had all been to the doctor as children, so they knew what a prescription was and what it looked like. They seemed to find it amazing that a children's doctor wrote poems and stuffed his white doctor's coat with poems. I shared "The Locust Tree in Spring" and his very famous "The Red Wheelbarrow." The students were very familiar with wheelbarrows (which they called "carts") because it is quite common for Afghan men to push them down the sidewalks, down the middle of the busy streets and the side streets of Kabul. We even saw a guy pushing a red one down the road just after the class.
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