Course Syllabi

Language for a New Century is an invaluable tool to introduce poetry, diversity, history and geopolitics into the classroom, threading together voices from 61 countries in Asia and the Middle East. This resource contains a master syllabus on how to structure a class around this one text, as well as other syllabi about how to incorporate the book into a Creative Writing, Ethnic Studies, Asian and Asian-American Studies, Middle Eastern and Middle Eastern-American Literature, Women’s Studies, World Literature, or other curriculum. Please explore our Course Materials to find discussion points, writing activities and exercises which surround nearly 30 poems from the book and the writing exercises are designed to help educators elicit maximal impact from their students, whether they are in high school or in graduate school. This space will be an evolving pedagogical hub and we encourage educators who have used the book in the classroom to share their materials and stories with us.

Studies in World Literature: The Changing World of Asian Literature

Studies in World Literature:
The Changing World of Asian Literature


The Changing World of Asian Literature is a course designed to introduce you to traditions of East Asian, Middle Eastern and South Asian literature, using the landmark anthology Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from Asia, the Middle East & Beyond as a guide to delving into various issues of language, politics and representation. We will begin with classical work and culminate in an analysis of a handful of contemporary works, but leap around in time and place during the course of the semester. We will frame the work we read in a historical context and arrive at a notion of what constitutes “Asian-ness” as a term of demarcation and how this idea has changed and evolved over time to encompass a variety of new voices and new modes of expressions. We will also look closely at Diasporic works of art, that is poetry and fiction created by a dispersion of people, language and culture formerly concentrated in one place. Part of our goal will be to better situate these writer in the larger canon of Western literature—for example, are we to read these authors as exotic and even innovative, but ultimately marginal to established, canonical figures such as Hemingway and Faulkner? Or do we find in their works new modes of expression that allow us to make these authors duly prominent in their own rights? What biases ultimately go into canon-formation? Finally, we will balance our literary interpretations with theoretical works that help us better understand the variety of experience that constitutes Asian literature.

You will be required to write one long paper, in addition to numerous shorter papers and exercises over the course of the semester, critically engaging with the work we discuss in class. You will be expected to participate fully and actively in our discussions. You will also be responsible for presenting an oral presentation that will require work outside the classroom.


  • Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from Asia, the Middle East & Beyond, W.W. Norton & Co., ISBN: 0-393-33238-1
  • V.S. Naipul, Bend in the River, Random House, ISBN: 0-679-72202-5
  • Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet, Norton, ISBN: 0-393-40428-9
  • Sanjay Patel, Ramayana: Divine Loophole, Chronicle Books, ISBN-10: 081187107
  • Murasaki Shikibu, The Tale of Genji [Abridged]. Translated by Edward Seidensticker. Vintage Books USA; ISBN: 0679729534
  • Arundhati Roy, God of Small Things, Perennial, ISBN: 0-060-97749-3
  • A good collegiate dictionary, such as Webster’s New World Dictionary
  • A folder in which to keep your work for this class.


WEEK ONE — Introduction to the Course and Methods

  • Reading: Confucius’ The Great Learning; excerpt from Edward Said’s Orientalism; Li-Young Lee’s The Cleaving
    Language for a New Century “Preface” by Carolyn Forché

WEEK TWO — Spirituality and Poetry: Gibran, Rumi & Asian classicism

  • Reading: Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet; poems from Rumi;
    Language from a New Century chapter “Bowl of Air Shivers”

WEEK THREE – Chinese New Culture Movement

WEEK FOUR – Manifestations of Mythology

  • Reading: Sanjay Patel’s Ramayana, excerpts from Joseph’s Campbell’s The Power of Myth
  • Lab: Computer Orientation, Marcus White Computer Lab

WEEK FIVE – Consciousness and the Roots of the Psychological Novel

  • Reading: The Tale of Genji

WEEK SIX – Representations of Homeland and Diaspora

  • Reading: Language from a New Century chapter “This House, My Bones”

WEEK SEVEN – Childhood and Custom

  • Reading: Language for a New Century chapter, “In the Grasp of Childhood Fields”
  • Viewing: Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, excerpts from Firoozeh Dumas’ Funny in Farsi: A Memoir of Growing up Iranian in America

WEEK EIGHT – Pan-Asian/Pan-African Consciousness & and Colonialism

  • Reading: V.S. Naipul’s The Bend in the River and Edward Said

WEEK NINE – Politics, Language & the Model Minority Myth

  • Reading: Handout w/ George Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant,” Amy Tan’s “My Mother’s English,” Matthew Salesses’ “Different Racisms: On Jeremy Lin and How the Rules of Racism Are Different for Asian Americans”
    Language for a New Century chapter, “Parsed into Colors”

WEEK TEN – Warfare and the Impacts of Globalization

  • Reading: Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things
    Language for a New Century chapter, “The Earth of Drowned Gods”

WEEK ELEVEN – Terrorism, Foreign Policy and 9/11

  • Reading: Arundhati Roy’s “The Algebra of Infinite Justice”
    Language for a New Century “Introduction”

WEEK TWELVE – Asian and Arab Avant-Garde and Cross-Genre Experimentation

  • Reading: Language for a New Century “Slips and Atmospherics” and “Buffaloes Under Dark Water”
  • Interactive: Young Hae-Chang Heavy Industries

WEEK THIRTEEN – Love, Eros and Sexuality

  • Reading: Love & Sexuality In Modern Arabic Literature by Roger Allen
    Language for a New Century chapter, “The Quivering World”
  • Viewing: Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood For Love

WEEK FOURTEEN – Spirituality & Renewal of Faith

  • Reading: excerpts from The Koran, from The Rig Veda, from The Life of the Buddha: According to the Pali Canon
    Language for a New Century chapter, “Apostrophe in the Scripture”


Introduction to Poetry: Poetry Studies Through Language for a New Century



This lecture course will use the nine thematic sections in the Norton anthology, Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia and Beyond, as a foundation to discuss poetry, focusing on close readings of poems with the goal of developing your reading skills as well as your methods of critical analysis and interpretation. You will read over 400 diverse voices, native and transplanted, political and apolitical, monastic and erotic, known and unknown, providing insights that transcend any narrowly defined strata of Eastern culture, and most importantly opening you to the universe of poetry.


  • Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia and Beyond (W.W. Norton), Tina Chang, Nathalie Handal and Ravi Shankar, editors
  • The Pleasures of Poetry by Tony Barnstone
  • Poetry Reader:
    • From The Double Flame: Essays on Love & Eroticism by Octavio Paz: “The Kingdom of Pan” ; “Eros and Psyche” ; “The Prehistory of Love”; “The Double Flame”
    • “Listening and Making,” from Prose on Poetry by Robert Hass
    • “The World Is Large and Full of Noises: Thoughts on Translation,’ Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry by Jane Hirshfield
    • “Poetry as a Vessel of Remembrance,” from Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry by Jane Hirshfield


Week One

  • 9/24 — Introduction: Reading Poetry // What is Poetry?
    • Reading: Preface and Introduction to Language for a New Century
      “The World Is Large and Full of Noises: Thoughts on Translation,’ Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry by Jane Hirshfield

Week Two: “In Grasp of Childhood Fields,” which embodies Rilke’s advice that childhood is that “jewel beyond all price, that treasure house of memories” // Section 1

    • 9/27 — Introduction to Language & Poetry from the Middle East & Asia // Introduction to Region
      • Reading: “In Grasp of Childhood Fields” from Norton anthology
        Chapter 1: How to Read a Poem from Barnstone
    • 9/29
      • Reading: Chapter 2: Imagination and Complexity from Barnstone


    • Reading: “Parsed into Colors” from Norton anthology
      Chapter 3: Music, Image and Symbol from Barnstone

Week Three: “Parsed into Colors”, which shows how the kaleidoscope of identity is defined // Section 2

  • 10/4
    • Reading: Chapter 4: The Power and Pleasure of Story
      Chapter 6: Imagery and Close Reading from Barnstone
  • 10/6
    • Reading: Chapter 7: The Transformative Nature of Imagery
      Chapter 8: Metaphors and Similes from Barnstone
  • 10/8
    • Reading: “Slips and Atmospherics” from Norton anthology
      Chapter 13: Experimental Poetics from Barnstone

Week Four: “Slips and Atmospherics” stretches the cords of syntax, exploding normative lineation and familiar imageries to present an avant-garde sensibility // Section 3

  • 10/11
    • Reading: Chapter 9: Irony and Other Figures
      Chapter 10: How to Measure
      Pleasure: Meter and Music from Barnstone
  • 10/13
    • Reading: Chapter 11: Rhyming Patterns and Traditional Verse Forms
      Chapter 12: The Forms of Free Verse from Barnstone
  • 10/15
    • Reading: Earth of Drowned Gods from Norton anthology
      *PAPER about Reading Poetry: 3 pages on one poem

Week Five: “Earth of Drowned Gods” brings together a parliament of poems that reflect the world of politics and social strictures that too often dehumanize and delimit its citizens // Section 4

  • 10/18
    • Reading: Chapter 7: The Transformative Nature of Imagery from Barnstone
  • 10/20
    • Reading: “Listening and Making,” from Prose on Poetry by Robert Hass
  • 10/22
    • Reading: “Buffaloes Under Dark Water” from Norton anthology

Week Six: “Buffaloes Under Dark Water” contains mysterious, shrouded, duende-tinged luminescent bursts of lyric that resist the notion of taxonomy, even as they inhere together like shadows // Section 5

  • 10/25
    • *MIDTERM
  • 10/27
  • 10/29
    • Reading: “Apostrophe in the Scriptures” from Norton anthology

Week Seven: “Apostrophe in the Scriptures” speaks of war, the pervasive condition of discord that has damaged many countries and remains a continuing threat // Section 6

  • 11/1
    • Reading: Chapter 16: Bearing Witness: The Poetry of Protest and Compassion from Barnstone
  • 11/3
  • 11/5
    • Reading: “This House, My Bones” from Norton anthology

Week Eight: “This House, My Bones” shows the multiple manifestations of homeland, its comforts and conflicts, departure and ultimate return // Section 7

  • 11/8
    • Reading: “Poetry as a Vessel of Remembrance,” from Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry by Jane Hirshfield
  • 11/10
  • 11/12
    • Reading: “Bowl of Air and Shivers” from Norton anthology
      *PAPER about Reading Poetry: 5 pages on one poet

Week Nine: “Bowl of Air and Shivers” delves into spirit and mortality, sketching the specter of birth and death, consolation and bliss, the body and beyond // Section 8

  • 11/15
    • Reading: Chapter 15: A Love Supreme: Poetry of the Sacred from Barnstone
  • 11/17
  • 11/19
    • Reading: “The Quivering World” from Norton anthology

Week Ten: The Quivering World maps the terrain of bodies, whether they be loci of pleasure or the spiritual component of love, subverting stereotypes of Eastern sexuality // Section 9

  • 11/22
    • Reading: Chapter 14: The Forms of Love from Barnstone
  • 11/24
    • Reading: Chapter One: The Kingdom of Pan by Octavio Paz
  • 11/26
    • Reading: Chapter Two: Eros and Psyche, Paz
      Chapter Three: The Prehistory of Love, Paz

Week Eleven:

  • 11/29 — Love and Poetry
    • Reading: Chapter Nine: The Double Flame, Paz
  • 12/1 — Entering and Exiting the Mind of Poetry
  • 12/3 — FINAL EXAM

Course Material

Language for a New Century course material begins with the title of a poem, author, and page location in anthology. Discussion points follow each poem to generate in-class conversation. Writing activities also follow each poem to serve as prompts to generate creative material. There are two poems highlighted here.

Poems about Childhood and Family

A Child Who Returned From There Told Us

A Child Who Returned From There Told Us
By Dilawar Karadaghi, translated from the Kurkish by Choman Hardi, p.37-38

Discussion Points

  1. Al-Anfal was the name of the genocidal military campaign carried out in Northern Iraq in the final stages of the Iran-Iraq war between 1986-1989 against the Kurdish people. Discuss what you know and what you would like to know, or what is unclear to you, of this campaign.
  2. Conduct your own research regarding this campaign and make an oral presentation discussing its relationship to the literature of the time. Reflect on how this event has influenced current events in the Middle East, and when and how the country you reside in is or is not implicated.
  3. Why do you think the author, Dilaware Karadaghi, speaks of ‘Anfal’ as one entity, and as the children and people also as an entity? There are few individuals, and those who are named have died. What effect does this have on you as the reader? For what other reasons would the author speak of these people as groups, as opposed to describing certain individuals or a specific event? How does the title inform your thoughts?
  4. Discuss what is heard and seen in the poem, and by whom.
  5. Discuss what has been separated.

Writing Activities and Exercises

  1. Examine your surroundings and pick at least five objects to personify your emotions. Use one to two lines to describe each object. You can describe the room you inhabit each day or something as expansive as the surrounding town, city or natural landscape. Please use present tense.
  2. Anfal, the military campaign, is personified throughout this very intense poem. Anfal “entered while we were still eating” and “Anfal lied.” Choose a historical event that has personal significance and utilize personification to express the deeper emotions at work.
  3. Write a very short discussion between two people (approximately four to six lines). Translate that discussion into a poem using as little dialogue as possible. Instead of using words you may describe facial expressions, movements, actions.
  4. Write three paragraphs focusing on an atmosphere that is created in which genocide can take place. Be as detailed as possible. Do you think there are aspects of that atmosphere within your own homeland? Within people you know? Within yourself?
Directions to My Imaginary Childhood

Directions to My Imaginary Childhood
By Nick Carbo p.15

Discussion Points

  1. The poem draws from the many influences and a country that the author, Nick Carbo, identifies with. Can you identify any of the people, locations or languages used in this poem?
  2. Why is this poem in the form of directions? How does the form lend to the migratory nature of the poem and in what way does the title ground the directions? Why is the speaker’s childhood imaginary?
  3. Fredrick Funston was a general in the Unites States Army who was active in both the Spanish-American and American-Filipino war. Mr. Carbo identifies as an American, Spanish and Filipino poet. How does his use of General Funston deepen the poem’s exploration of history and the connections between the countries he identifies with? Please do your own research to inform your answer.
  4. There are numerous associations with literary figures throughout the poem. In what ways does this inform the end of the poem, and how do other locations and people, who are not necessarily authors or characters, lend themselves to your interpretation of the poem?
  5. Read the poem without having researched people and places with whom you are unfamiliar. Afterward, research figures such as Breton, Bataille, Camus and other streets and events with which you may be unfamiliar. How has your reading of the poem changed with further research? Is research necessary to understand a poem?

Writing Activities and Exercises

  1. What cultures or ethnicities do you identify with? Pick an art form, food, ritual you’ve enjoyed or have been influenced by and take some time to learn about its history and the various cultures involved. Write a poem that incorporates aspects of the information you have taken in.
  2. Using influences from your own life, write a short poem utilizing directions to either your own residence now, or where you see yourself in five years. End on an image.
  3. Write a poem focusing on a route you take regularly. Include as many senses (touch, smell, sight, taste, sounds) as you can. Use one metaphor, extending it throughout the poem.
tiger skins

tiger skins
By Aku Wuwu, translated from the Yi by Mark Bender, with Aku Wuwu and Jjiepa Ayi, p. 40-41

Discussion Points

  1. What significance is the tiger skin to the speaker? To his culture? What evidence can you provide to support your thoughts? How does the image of tiger skins transition throughout the poem? What, ultimately, do you understand about this image?
  2. Please interpret the line, “A man leaves behind only his name at death / A tiger leaves only his skin.” What is being relayed about mankind? About wildlife?
  3. What does the speaker mean when he utters, “Those tiger skins would reveal my person”? How would you describe the speaker’s personality or stance? Reference specific lines that support your idea.
  4. Take a few minutes to note the repetitions of sounds, words, and phrases in the poem. Discuss and compare your findings with another poem in this section. How is music established in this poem? How does the repetition of a word or phrase influence your reading? What emotions are extended or magnified?
  5. In the third stanza the Mother “died, yet was brought to life again.” Her life may be considered a form of repetition. Discuss this line’s significance. How does her death relate to the ongoing image of the tiger?
  6. What do you think the author means by “the midnight of that day” by poem’s end? Why does he repeat the line?
  7. The poem was originally written in the Yi language. Please research this language and report your findings to the class. How does it differ from the predominant languages in China?

Writing Exercises

  1. Choose an object that is valuable to you for personal reasons. Detail at least seven characteristics of this object; they do not have to be purely physical but can be metaphoric. Choose two of these characteristics and write a short poem, repeating these characteristics within the poem.
  2. Write a paragraph relaying a story an elder has described to you that you have never seen or experienced. Now rewrite the story in first person as if the story were your own. Pay close attention to detail, elaborating and expanding where necessary.
  3. Write briefly about someone you have not seen in many years, paying attention to small details. Describe what you remember about his or her personal habits, facial expressions, quirks, and anything else particular to his or her character. Incorporate a—real or imagined—personal conflict in the poem. What has he/she not resolved?

Poems that Focus on Identity

Leaning My Shoulder to the Sun

Leaning My Shoulder to the Sun, p. 81
By Firuza Mammadli

Discussion Points

  1. Who is the speaker in the poem referring to when he/she says: “You are between me and my shadow. / We are talking about you.”
  2. Explore the various meanings “shadow” can have. How is shadow linked to identity?
  3. Do you think this poem is about one woman’s identity or feminist identity?

Writing Activities and Exercises

  1. If you were sewing your shadow to his/her shirt, what would it look like? Begin a poem of your own with this line.
  2. Write a poem entitled “Self Portrait,” exploring the multiplicity of the word identity.
  3. Read several international newspapers for one straight week and write about someone you identify with. Choose a subject or conflict you don’t identify with. Write a poem meditating on that as well.
Is This You or the Tale?

Is This You or the Tale? p. 93-95
By Unsi al-Haj

Translated from the Arabic by Sargon Boulus

Discussion Points

  1. Unsi al-Haj, one of Lebanon’s most well regarded contemporary poets, died in early 2014. What is this poem relaying about his country and its history?
  2. Conduct research on the conflicts in Lebanon since 1975, and the dominant national identities that exist in the country. Divide the class into two-three sections, each representing a view of the conflict.
  3. The poem states, “My sorrow is great/for a history steeped in destiny.” How do you interpret this line as well as the words “chance,” “fictions,” and “astrology”? How do these many and sometimes opposing forces converse with the speaker’s history?

Writing Activities and Exercises

  1. Write a poem beginning with the anaphora “My history goes back” in every stanza.
  2. Research post-1950 Beirut and visit the column The City and the Writer from Words without Borders magazine ( Write a short prose piece from the voice of a Lebanese writer describing Beirut.
  3. Listen to Unsi al-Haj or another Arabic poet reading a poem in Arabic and translate it phonetically.
  4. Qit’a means “fragment.” It is a short poem in the Arabic tradition, up to ten or twenty lines in English, which tends to concentrate on a single subject or theme. It is thought to have “broken off” from a longer poetic form, the qasida. Research examples of qit’as and write a qit’a focusing on your identity.
Immigrant Blues

Immigrant Blues, p. 109
By Li-Young Lee

Discussion Points

  1. Discuss Li-Young Lee’s exploration of what it means to be an immigrant: issues of assimilation, displacement, double consciousness, hyphenation, plurality.
  2. How do you define identity? Please ponder origin, ancestry, birthplace, nationality, the language(s) you speak.
  3. Research Indonesia and the Indonesian Diaspora. Then read interviews with Li-Young Lee and discuss how the poet identifies himself and what it means to have multiple alliances.
  4. Discuss the lines: “Practice until you feel / the language inside you.” How important is language to cultural identity? Can someone feel included within a culture without speaking that language?
  5. Explore the similarities and differences among the words house, home, homeland.

Writing Activities and Exercises

  1. Li-Young Lee’s poem attempts to gesture toward aspects of the public domain by quoting found material (“Psychological Paradigms of Displaced Persons”) and the private domain where the speaker questions the body and heart. Search for found material in the most unlikely places: consumer magazines, instruction manuals, cooking recipes, public advertisements and set that against more personal admissions found in your journal. Write a poem where public and private concerns converge.
  2. Imagine you were born in the East (which country would you come from?) and describe your country, customs, culture, language. Imagine the speaker moves to a continent and detail the changes in his/her perception of culture and identity.
  3. Write a dialogue between two voices inside you.

Poems of Linguistic and Aesthetic Experimentation

Ontology of Chang and Eng, the Original Siamese Twins

Ontology of Chang and Eng, the Original Siamese Twins
By Cathy Park Hong, p.127

Discussion Points

  1. Cathy Park Hong’s poem is about conjoined twin brothers from the country now known as Thailand. They were joined at the sternum by a small piece of cartilage and ended up touring the United States with P.T. Barnum as sideshow attractions. How does Hong’s poem render their plight of always being connected to one another? How do you think having a physical connection might affect the consciousness of such twins?
  2. The structure of the poem uses the backslash as a way to both connect and separate the characters of Chang and Eng. But in the middle of the poem, the backslash is not used and the two are referred to as “both.” Why do you think the poet might have enacted this change and how does it affect the way we read the poem?
  3. In contrast to Charles Baudelaire’s figure of the flâneur who is seen as the quintessential modern figure who strolls around a crowd, blending in and having leisurely aesthetic experiences, Hong writes about figures such as the Siamese twins Chang and Eng, and the Hottentot Venus who was exhibited as a “freak show” attraction because of her large buttocks and elongated labia. These are figures for whom going incognito or blending in is impossible, and who often were taken ridiculed and made a spectacle. What do these figures tell us about the nature of the human body and how does Hong use language to examine this notion of spectacle?
  4. All of the biographical points in the poem are accurate. What does the reader feel about the fact that Chang and Eng, who were of Asian descent and treated as a sideshow attraction, were eventually able to buy their freedom and ended up marrying white women and owning slaves? What does their story tell us about the American identity?
  5. Cathy Park Hong in an interview at Poets & Writers [] says, “English is always in transition, although the Standard version is more likely to be frozen in its glass cube. But spoken, English is a busy traffic of dialects, accents, and slang words going in and out of fashion. Slang is especially fascinating. I love outdated slang dictionaries—these words are artifacts that tell you the mindset and squeamish taboos of a certain milieu during a certain time period. I wanted the English in the book to be a hyperbole of that everyday dynamism of spoken English.” Elsewhere she writes about how Korean history provides a latticework of border-crossing in her work and claims that “like most writers from bicultural backgrounds, I do share a “stranger within one’s own language” consciousness, but as I continue to write, it has less to do with the actual naming of my ethnic identity.” What do you make of this idea of being a “stranger within one’s own language” and how does this inform our reading of “The Ontology of Chang and Eng”?

Writing Activities and Exercises

  1. Imagine yourself inhabiting a body with another human being. Have a dialogue with that person trying to visualize what challenges that predicament would engender. Write from your own perspective and then from the perspective of this other being who would be part of yourself.
  2. Cathy Park Hong’s poem utilizes biographical research to make its point. Find a historical figure, especially once that has been marginalized and research as much as you can about that person, trying to find primary source documentation, photographs and newspaper articles, and write a poem that delves into their life while also incorporates their history.
  3. The Russian critic and philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin wrote about the “carnivalesque,” as a festival that can be traced back to the Dionysian ceremonies of the Ancient Greeks and the Saturnalias of the Romans. The carnival represented an abolishment of society’s normal rules, undermining traditional power structures, celebrating the grotesque and encouraging excessive behavior. P.T. Barnum’s circuses, of which Chang and Eng were part, partake of this idea. Imagine what the carnival or circus of the future would be like. What would you see and do? Try to use as many specific details as possible while allowing your imagination to run wild.
311 Series 2 (Turkish Red)

311 Series 2 (Turkish Red)
By Lâle Müldür, translated from the Turkish by Mural Nemet-Nejat, p. 146

Discussion Points

  1. The author’s note to this poem tell us that Müldür spent several years in Belgium married to a Belgian painter and that the different color titles of the poems in this series refer to the names of specific colors in her husband’s painting box. How does this poem convey the feeling of a “Turkish red”? Synesthesia is Greek for blended feeling—think about how the poet uses our other senses, such as sound and smell, to convey the feeling of a color.
  2. Anaphora is a rhetorical term for the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of successive clauses or verses. In this poem, the phrase “turkish red” is repeated numerous times. What do you think the author’s intention with these repetitions might be? Does the phrase take on a certain incantatory effect and deepen in power and signification every time we hear it?
  3. In an interview, Lâle Müldür has said, “in my poetry sound structure and meaning is one and the same, because I think I write from a total spontaneity. It is automatic. I realize the importance of music as I first read it. From another angle, Brecht and Walter Benjamin going against Lukacs’ concept of internal consistency, they give importance to the bits and pieces, unbalanced and contradictory forms. In other words mimesis is out.” How does this poem embody the ideas that she expresses about sound and meaning? Mimesis comes from the Ancient Greek word “to imitate,” and means imitation or representation of parts of the sensible world. What about this poem works against mimesis? Why do you think Müldür might be interested in unbalanced and contradictory forms and fragments?

Writing Activities and Exercises

  1. Müldür is not the only poet to have found a special relationship between poetry and colors. The French symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud in his poem “Vowels” assigned each vowel a particular color and characteristic. Find a box of crayons or go to a hardware store and pick out a swatch of a paint color. Write a poem that attempts to delve into the mood and import of that particular color.
  2. Another way to engage with what a painter does is to write an ekphrastic poem. Ekphrastic poetry is a verbal representation of a visual representation, or a poem about a painting, sculpture, installation, photograph or other work of visual art. Müldür was clearly influenced by her husband’s paintings, so go to an art gallery and find a painting or other artwork of your own that influences you. Write a poem about it, trying not just to describe what you see but using the form of the poem to reflect the materiality of the object you are writing about. See Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” Monica Youn’s “Stealing The Scream,” W.H. Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts,” and John Ashbery’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” for other examples.
  3. Elsewhere in her interview, Müldür, who writes in Turkish, tells us that, “frequently there is internal music in my poetry, which gets lost during translation” and that in Turkish, “you can say a lot in a single verb. We can say a lot in a tiny line.” Take a poem of yours and run in through Google translate to turn it into Turkish and then translate it back into English. Use one of the lines from this new poem as a starting point for another poem and write from there to discover where you end up. Try this same exercise by translating your poem into different languages from Europe, Asia and Africa, and then turning it back into English. Keep a notebook full of the interesting phrases and sounds, and try to seed those bits of language back into a poem that you are already writing.
The Body

The Body
By Jenny Boully, pg. 182

Discussion Points

  1. Jenny Boully’s book-length project “The Body: An Essay” is totally composed of footnotes to a non-existent text and has been called by her publishers “a meditation on absence, loss and disappearance that offers a guarded ‘narrative” of what may or may not be a love letter, a dream, a spiritual autobiography, a memoir, a scholarly digression, a treatise on the relation of life to book.” What was our experience of reading these footnotes without being able to read the text to which they referred? Did we feel compelled to imagine what that absent text might have been? Are we frustrated by what we can’t access or empowered by the white spaces in the text?
  2. Reading the footnotes, we have a range of references from what seems like a diary entry (“But in those days, I thought by believing in magic and miracles, by believing hard enough, harder than anyone on earth, I would be witness to the sublime”) to what seems like references to an archaic text written in Old English (“1606 SHAKES. Ant. & Cl. IV. vi. 37, I will go seeke Some Ditch wherein to dye.”). What is the effect of having such a range of diction and perspective in these footnotes to an already absent text?
  3. Arielle Greenberg in a review of Jenny Boully’s book has written, “this is a sustained, intricate project, concerned with profound issues and riddled with fine gems of language and insight. Boully is able to subtly draw fascinating connections betweens species of absent bodies, from former lovers to heroes mythical and personal, and she has woven the book from compelling notions of other lacks, from the simulacra of films, theater and dreams to the falsities of irony… The entire book is an alias to itself.” What do you think she means by saying the book is an alias to itself? What is the relationship between what is seen and what is unseen? And what do you think the practice of foregrounding the footnotes, which normally would be the part of a book we would tend to ignore or gloss over attempts to convey?
  4. In this essay published in Triquarterly [], “A Short Essay on Being” Jenny Boully describes her Thai-American background by observable behavioral details like, “I thanked my friend from grad school for correcting me, because that is just the Thai way. You move about quietly. You don’t show others their errors—you let them eventually come to learn the errors of their ways and have them come to you for forgiveness later.” Read the essay and then go back to read the poem, thinking about how what you learned from Boully’s essay and her insights into being Thai.

Writing Activities and Exercises

  1. Take one of the footnotes from Jenny Boully’s The Body and write your version of what you think the absent text that it refers to might be. Write it first as prose and then turn it into a poem with line-breaks.
  2. Find a poem that you have already written and revise it according to some of the principles in Boully’s The Body, removing sections of it and using white space in the middle of it that evokes something that it doesn’t come out and express directly. Think of the practice of poetic erasure and redaction, where you remove certain things that you don’t want to be read so that it’s up to the reader to recreate what might be there.
  3. Writing about her process in creating The Body, Jenny Boully has written, “I had a story to tell, certainly, but I wasn’t sure how to tell that story. I thought I would use footnotes and then tell the story later, but that never happened. So, the footnotes became annotations to something inferred, imagined, sensed, and the blank pages were born.” Think of a story that you want to tell but that you don’t know how to tell. Imagine a series of footnotes to that story and make list of them. Now after having come up with this list of footnotes try to see if you can tell the story or if the footnotes lead you in a different direction.
  4. Jenny Boully’s poem is based on a pre-existent form that we might not think of as intrinsically poetic, that is footnotes. Other poets have written poems from such forms as a Table of Contents, a dictionary’s definitions, discussion questions, a menu, or instructions to a repair manual. Find a textual form that is not usually associated with poetry and write a poem in that form.

Poems of a Politically Charged Nature

America, America

America, America
By Saadi Youssef, translated from the Arabic by Khaled Mattawa, p.197

Discussion Points

  1. Saadi Youssef’s poem “America, America” introduces us to the perspective of an Iraqi citizen, like Youssef himself, who both opposes Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime and the constant warfare imposed on the country by the United States of America. So much blood has been spilled and Youssef asks us why in a lyrical and memorable poem, part of which is excerpted in the anthology. What does this poem tell us about the relationship between Iraq and the United States? What does the speaker seem to want from America? When the speaker was born an Iraqi citizen, why does the poem keep repeating “God save America, My home sweet home!”?
  2. Often we can tell what is important to a poet based on the repetitions of certain phrases or words. In “America, America,” the words “soldiers,” “gods,” and “drowned” are repeated multiple times. In what way are those words important and why does the poem use water imagery and the idea of being drowned? What does this tell us about the predicament that Iraqi citizens find themselves in?
  3. Poet Joshua Robbins has called Youssef’s poem “A visionary poem. A fierce poem. A playful poem. I couldn’t help but think of Whitman, Ginsberg, Rich, even Eliot, while listening….Saadi Youssef is writing in protest to American colonization and hegemony and military power. It’s humorous, surreal, magical.” What other poets do you think about when you read Youssef’s poem? Why do you think the poem has parts like a blues interlude and a section of humming (“La Li La La Li La”) to intersperse with the more lyrical and political portions of the poem? What do you make of the series of exchanges the poem proposes, of what the speaker wants America to take and to give Iraq?
  4. In an interview with Joy Stocke, when asked about the US invasion of Iraq, Saadi Youssef has said, “Well, after the invasion, my first reaction was a kind of waiting for things to get better. At first, I thought America had a responsibility to uphold the values of democracy as it was written in the U. S. Constitution. Then, gradually, I got frustrated more and more. Now, it is common knowledge that the invasion was a failure and has caused more separation among the Iraqi people. No one has exact numbers, but at least 700,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed. And then there are about 100,000 prisoners. We are the new refugees. There are millions of displaced people. It is a human catastrophe.” How does this poem speak to this tragic fact?
  5. Since the writing of this poem, there has been a great upsurge and revolution in the Middle East yearning for freedom and democracy, called the Arab Spring. Why do you think poetry has played such an enormous role in these protests?

Writing Activities and Exercises

  1. In an essay for PEN America, Youssef has written “the horror of exile is in the uprooting of the individual from this point of intersection and transplanting him in another spot, which is not a point of intersection, where neither heaven is the primordial one nor the ancestors are ancestors; where there are no homes, no memories and no childhood playgrounds. What remains therefore?” Take a trip out of your community to a place where you are a minority. It could be to another country or simply taking a bus to another part of town where there are mainly Spanish speakers, Orthodox Jews or a community of people where you are the marginalized. Sit on a bench and take notes about what you see and most importantly how you feel. How would your life change if all of a sudden you lived in this place instead of the place you live in now?
  2. The middle of the poem personifies America and proposes a series of exchanges: “America let’s exchange gifts / Take your smuggled cigarettes / and give us potatoes.” Personify your country, the town you live in or your neighborhood, and imagine a series of exchanges that you would like to make with that entity. What would you want to receive as a gift and what would you want to be taken away? Turn that series of proposed exchanges into a poem that has an active dialogue with a sense of place.
  3. Khaled Mattawa, the translator of Saadi Youssef’s poem, has said in an interview that in translation “you’re true in the aggregate.” The example he uses to make this point is how Yo-Yo Ma, the great cellist, is allowed to play a composition of Rachmaninoff differently that Rachmaninoff himself would have played it. “You’re true to poetry,” he says, “you’re not true to the literal meaning, you’re true to poetry, which means you’re true to rhythm, you’re true to complexity and simplicity of language.” Take a poem that you love or loathe and translate it, even if it’s already in English. Enact a homolinguistic translation—that is an English-to-English translation—changing the poet’s words into your own words, trying to both stay true to the original but also putting your own spin on it.
Letters from Exile

Letters from Exile
By Pireeni Sundaralingam, pg. 225

Discussion Points

  1. Pireeni Sundaraligam was born in Sri Lanka and educated in the United Kingdom and in the United States. Do as much research as you can about the contemporary political situation in Sri Lanka, concentrating on the historical and political differences between the two main ethnic groups, the majority Sinhala and the minority Tamils, who are concentrated in the north and east of the island respectively. How does the information you have found out about the civil war and the relationship between the different factions in the country inflect your reading of Sundaralingam’s poem?
  2. Censorship has long been a tool of various despotic governments and even in countries like Sri Lanka that are purportedly democracies. According to the organization “Reporters Without Borders,” several news websites have been blocked within the country and Sri Lanka was named the fourth worst country in the world for press freedom by the Committee to Protect Journalists. 3. There have been multiple cases of violence against journalists and attacks against media outlets that have never been properly investigated or prosecuted. How does this poem deal with the idea of censorship? Why does the poem call the censors “the most sensitive audience I could ask for”?
  3. Sundaralingam has described in interviews what she calls the dance of exile, “catching sight of a stranger, on a crowded street, of wanting to approach her because she looks like she might be Sri Lankan, only to find that language can be treacherous. The simplicity of small talk—asking someone’s name, where she lived in Sri Lanka, when she left—becomes fraught with political meaning against the backdrop of an ethnic civil war because the answers inevitably reveal ethnicity, possible political allegiances, perhaps even the history of your family and the nature of your leaving. Asking such basic questions may only serve to conjure up the ghosts of a troubled past, and when so many Sri Lankans have arrived in the West as illegal immigrants, the sudden questions of a stranger can be terrifying. And so, you find yourself on a busy city street, wanting to reach out to someone who reminds you of people you once knew, someone who is probably looking at you with the same questions in her eyes, and finding that war continues to hold both of you as prisoners of silence.” How does this poem both evoke and penetrate that silence? What does it tell us about the notion of exile? There are political exiles, but also people who feel like they are exiles because of their place in society. Can we identify with the speaker of this poem even if our own letters have never been censored?

Writing Activities and Exercises

  1. “Letters from Exile” can be seen as a kind of epistolary poem, or a poem in the form of a letter. As another poet from our anthology, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, has written about this form, “epistolary poems underscore the best intimacy that can arise from a letter: the measured and focused address to a specific recipient.” Write a letter poem of your own addressed to someone specific. As Nezhukumathil advises us, write an epistle to any of the following:
    • an animal or plant
    • yourself, ten years ago,
    • yourself, twenty years ago
    • your beloved, twenty years ago
    • a future version of you, even if the future you imagine is simply ‘tomorrow’
    • a company or corporation
    • one of the seven deadly sins or virtues (ie. Dear Lust,… or Dear Patience,…)
    • your zodiac or birthstone
    • your favorite “guilty pleasure” food, or
    • the city you call ‘home’ in all its complicated and wondrous glory.”

    Or write a letter to someone or something else entirely!

  2. Imagine that you live in a country where censorship is prevalent and that you need to write a poem about something intimate, a poem to a lover or to an enemy, where you cannot express things directly. How would you transform what you want to say in such a way that it would get past a Culture Ministry that deems anything sexual, suggestive, violent or religious be banned? Try to transform your idiom and your language so that it elicits what you want to say without coming right out and saying it.
  3. Write a poem on a postcard and send it to someone who is an actual political exile. Amnesty International and PEN International have contact information for dissidents and others who are being held against their will. Keep in mind November 15, which is PEN’s day of the imprisoned writer [].If you can’t find an actual exile, write a poem to one of the many thousands of inmates who are incarcerated today. Keeping in mind that your poem will be read by someone before it reaches your intended audience, try to express something that will give the recipient hope and provide a momentary burst of beauty.
The Disappearances

The Disappearances
By Vijay Seshadri, pg. 246

Discussion Points

  1. Vijay Seshadri’s poem, “The Disappearances,” originally appeared in The New Yorker, two weeks after 9/11. Why do you think the editors thought that it was an appropriate poem to sum up the tragic events of the Twin Towers? What does the poem speak to with respective to collective mourning and to the nature of tragedy? Do you think it was a good choice by the editors to print this poem so soon after 9/11? Why or why not?
  2. Seshadri has said the “The Disappearances” was not about 9/11 at all; if anything it was more about the Kennedy assassination. How does thinking about JFK’s death add to your interpretation of the poem? Elsewhere, Seshadri has said that the poem, “revolves for a while around how uncanny loss is. If you think about the experience of people who have died, they’re there and they’re gone, and that’s the real mystery of it. It’s the great oblivion of death that is the most interesting thing about it, and that’s what I was really baffled by. Narratives of loss tend often to be very coherent; they resolve into grief. We imagine people who have lost someone to have grieved and to have gone on. Nobody deals with the deepest existential response, which is bafflement.” What does the poem convey to us about bafflement and death? Why do you think the poem moves from a radical reduction of dimensions in the culminating few lines of the piece, from five dimensions, to seven, to three, to two, to a dimensionless point? To what do you think “you at the speed of light” might refer?
  3. The poem begins with an unattributed quotation, “where was it that one first heard of the truth” and then it proceeds into the poem. What is the relationship between the first line and the rest of the poem? Why do you think that other than the first line the poem is rendered in second person? What do you think would be changed if the poem had been written in first person or third person instead?

Writing Activities and Exercises

  1. Think of the one historical event that you have felt a deep and communal connection to. It might be the explosion of the space shuttle ‘Enterprise,’ or the verdict of the Trayvon Martin trial. Write two separate poems that speak to that same event, one as a public testimony and one as a private document. What changes when you try to write something meant to capture the feelings of many people as opposed to capturing the feelings of just one?
  2. The last line of the poem is “this is you at the speed of light.” Imagine yourself travelling at that speed. What would you see? With whom would you engage? Try to use all five senses—visual, aural, tactile, gustatory, and olfactory—as well as the kinesthetic sense of movement to capture your hurtling body through space.
  3. Another line in the poem is “this is you as seen by them, and them as seen by you, and you as seen by you.” Write a poem in three sections that imagines yourself being seen by a group—whether your family, a class, a bus, a posse of friends—and the group being seen by you. Make the third section inductively react to the first two sections by imaging yourself as seen by you after you’ve seen this group and this group has seen you. Try to play with point of view and look at yourself from the outside and from within, being more descriptive and narrative in one case, and more introspective and lyrical in the other. Play around with the different sections to see if you can make a self-portrait poem out of what you have written.

Poems Lyrical in Nature, Mystically Born

Scoop Up the Sea

Scoop Up the Sea
By Angkarn Kalayanaphong, translated from the Thai by John T. Mattioli, p. 280

Discussion Points

  1. Angkarn Kalayanaphong’s poetry often addresses issues of globalization and its effects on the people and land of Thailand. Discuss how a topic as concrete as consumption/waste is combined with mythological language in “Scoop Up the Sea.” How does the juxtaposition of such language make for a more interesting poem? Please look up any words you do not recognize.
  2. How does the structure of the poem effect you as you read? Discuss the various ways the poem could be read, and how the alternating ways of reading alter your experience and understanding.
  3. Globalization has changed Thailand greatly over a short period of time. This vast change creates ‘temporal dislocation,’ or a sudden disconnect/confusion with the routine everyday life. Research this aspect of Thailand’s culture. How can important subject matter be relayed without being heavy handed or directive? How does Kalayanaphong accomplish this?
  4. Discuss a time in your country’s history when great changes took place. How many people were affected by this change? What aspects of your life changed and what or who remained constant?

Writing Activities and Exercises

  1. Choose a location in a highly trafficked area: a walkway/path, a train station, a section of campus, etc. Visit this space regularly for thee days. Notice the changes that take place. Take notes, whether via bullet-points or jot down a sentence or two each day. Write a poem utilizing the detailed notes, placing emphasis on the changes that have occurred in the location upon each visit.
  2. Free write about a time when many things in your life changed. Reread the page and highlight any specific details that are notable. Notice themes that may not have been apparent to you before. Now write a poem, making use of line breaks, stanza breaks, and punctuation in order to convey the feelings of change. You can use “Scoop up the Sea” as a structural template, allowing lines to shift as your thoughts leap.
  3. Make a ‘To Do’ list for three consecutive days. Keep track of what you accomplished and what was left undone. At the end of each day record your feelings about what was accomplished and what was not. Write a poem that is separated into two columns. The left side will focus on positive aspects of the list and the right side will focus on the more negative aspects of the list. Allow the opposite sides to have a dialogue with one another.
Woman Translating, or La Belle Infidele

Woman Translating, or La Belle Infidele
By Hung Hung, translated from the Chinese by Steve Bradbury, p. 289-290

Discussion Points

  1. The author, Hung Hung, is a contemporary poet living in Taiwan. Please research the current poetry environment in Taiwan as well as Hung Hung’s (also known as Yen Hung-ya) place in that poetry landscape. Discuss some of his views about poetry (some of which are very strong) with the class and allow the discussion to expand organically.
  2. Death is referenced many times throughout the poem and, by poem’s end, death is personified, given hands and the ability to control. What other characteristics does death hold and who ultimately holds the power at the poem’s conclusion? Refer to specific words, phrases, and passages for support.
  3. The woman is aware she is already dead, yet death is unable to take her while she is translating. Explore these contradictions.
  4. Discuss the stanzas within the poem. What does each stanza contribute to the poem? How does the form influence your reading and what are the main subjects, or sub-topics of each stanza? Would the poem be as strong in another form (for example couplets or tercets)?
  5. Look up the definition of ‘injunction.’ In what ways can you interpret line nine? How do the different interpretations affect the poem?
  6. The woman in this poem is translating which is different from, say, writing in a journal. What significance does translation hold in this poem? How does it relate to the various chambers that are described in stanza three?

Writing Activities and Exercises

  1. Write your personal definition for ‘death.’ Transform this definition into a poem, both showing and enacting as many of the senses as possible.
  2. The “cool hand” is an aspect of the body that returns again and again. Each time it appears, it changes in a major or minor way. Choose a part of the body as well as an uncommon situation in which that body part is allowed to play an entirely different role. Write a poem where that aspect of the body has a mind of its own.
  3. Using the above discussion points, reflect on what ‘life’ means, and what holds ‘life’ for you. Perhaps it’s a physical exercise, a subject you study, or a person with whom you share your time. Write a poem about this activity that gives you ‘life.’ Over the course of at least three days alter the structure of the poem. Alter stanzas, change line breaks, try another form such as the sonnet, haiku, or pantoum.
The Wolf Girls of Midnapure

The Wolf Girls of Midnapure
By Bhanu Kapil, p. 302-304

Discussion Points

  1. What do you know of India in the early 1900’s? Research literature, music, film and other textual information from India in the 1920s. Discuss your findings and how this may have contributed to the poetry environment during of that time.
  2. What is the definition of a prose poem? How does the poem break from the traditional definition? How does the sentence structure, stanza order, descriptions, and white space contribute to the reader’s experience? What do you think the author hopes the reader will gain from reading this poem?
  3. There are three questions raised in the poem. “Where were we?” “What did I see?” and “What is it?” How do you interpret these questions and are the questions answered within the poem?
  4. Why do you think the author chose to end the poem from the perspective of the wolf mother? What do the final line breaks and white space lend to the poem’s ultimate meaning?

Writing Activities and Exercises

  1. Pick an event from recent history. Consider the many people directly and indirectly involved. Consider the location, time, culture, and their role in the event. Noticing and acknowledging what was involved write three poems, each from a different person’s perspective. Pay attention to each character’s voice, ensuring that each voice varies according to speaker.
  2. In “The Wolf Girls of Midnapure,” aspects of the animal kingdom are brought to life: “she yowls all night,” and “my sister crawls under the thorn bushes and hisses.” Choose an animal, which holds a special fascination for you, and write a poem which gives that animal human elements. Combine aspects of beast and man and have fun with the results.
  3. Record your dreams for one week. From those notes, choose one or two characters who are entirely unrelated (for example: your mother, the janitor in your building) and allow them to converse in a poem. What situation arises that speaks to the larger themes of your life? Allow the poem to tune into the surreal aspects of your dreams.

Poems of Conflict, War, and Perseverance

Bomb Crater Sky

Bomb Crater Sky, p. 337-338
By Lâm Thi Mỹ Da

Discussion Points

  1. Lâm Thi Mỹ Da has been one of the Vietnam’s leading female poets. In “Bomb Crater Sky,” she relates the story of a woman who was killed by a bomb attack while on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. It is believed that she sacrificed herself to save the troops with whom she was traveling. In this poem, the speaker praises the idea of the “woman warrior.” Discuss what the term “woman warrior” means to you? Is there an inherent contradiction in the notion of maternal care and resolute violence that term embodies?
  2. What are some sensual details about Vietnam you gleaned from reading this poem?
  3. The Vietnam War is known as the American War in Vietnam and remains one of the most controversial military engagements in American history. Research the reasons for the war and the relationship between the Viet Cong (also known as the National Liberation Front, or NLF), and The People’s Army of Vietnam (a.k.a. the North Vietnamese Army). What does your interpretation of “Bomb Crater Sky” add to what you’ve learned about the history of the conflict?
  4. The Vietnam War had a profound affect on American literature and poets like Yusef Komunyakaa and fiction writers like Tim O’Brien have detailed in depth what that experience was like for an American soldier. What can you find that details the countervailing perspective, that of a Vietnamese soldier? What more can you find about how the conflict affected the arts and literature of the country?

Writing Activities and Exercises

  1. Take what you have discovered about the Vietnam war and imagine yourself living during that time. Write a dairy of one week of your life witnessing war.
  2. Rewrite “Bomb Crater Sky” as a nonfiction narrative.
  3. “And my friends, who never saw you—Each has a different image of your face.” A face is what humanizes us and gives us our subjectivity in the mind of another. Imagine that you are a cinematographer casting for a movie about the Vietnam War. What qualities would you look for in the face of the actors you want to cast on both sides? Write a poem drawing from these perceptions.
At Least

At Least, p. 359-360
By Waleed Khazindar

Discussion Points

  1. The poem utilizes the repetition of the words, “If you would…,” a device known as anaphora. What is the effect of that repetition? What does the verb tense of that repeated phrase tell you about the request?
  2. In war, everyone believes in their own truth. When is war necessary? Some argue that sometimes violence is the only form of change or resolution. Discuss the recent events in the Middle East—The Arab Spring, Syria, Lebanon, Iran—and your projections about the future and whether or not the “revolts” have changed anything.
  3. Prepare a brief report on the Arab-Israeli conflict since 1948, and then discuss Khazinder’s poem in the context of that conflict. What role can poetry play in the political process?

Writing Activities and Exercises

  1. Among other things, the poems in this section are homages to the ruins of memory, to the spiritual and collective experiences of people and nations. Write a homage to the ruins of your own memories, tribe of people or sense of nation. Think about what the difference is between a homage, an ode, and an elegy as you respond specifically to your own experiences.
  2. Playwrights incorporate dialogue to create tension. Write a dramatic monologue on a conversation between two adversarial forces. Make sure you allow each country’s background and positions to emerge in the dialogue. Read George Polti’s list of Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations and write a poem that incorporates this conflict into one of the listed situations.
  3. Take any one word from Waleed Khazindar’s poem and use it as the title of a poem that reflects your own perspective on the Palestinian experience based on your research and understanding.
The Word PEACE

The Word PEACE, p.375
By Naomi Shihab Nye

Discussion Points

  1. One line of the poem states, “You could find words or parts of words/ inside other words, it had always been a game.” Poet Charles Simic has written about his own childhood experience in war-torn Belgrade and the games the children would invent in bombed out buildings. Explore the value of “games'” in a time of war and peace. What does it mean metaphorically that there are some words that contain others within them?
  2. What is accomplished by deconstructing/breaking down the word “PEACE”? We often speak of the relationship between abstract and concrete language in poetry and this is resolutely the former. How does Shihab Nye successfully navigate the use of this abstraction in the poem?
  3. Is peace sustainable? How do you think the speaker of this poem would answer that question? What elements would you bring to the negotiating table if you could get the leaders of the Arab and Israeli worlds together?

Writing Activities and Exercises

  1. Think about the game the speaker in the poem used to play. Think of a word of your own that contains another word within it (like the “war” in “thwarted”). Write a poem that explores the relationship between inner and outer word and how they are related.
  2. Read the poem, “War Symphony” by Chinese poet Chen Li on p. 376, a striking visual display that starts with the Chinese character “soldier,” marching as an army on the page. As the reader’s eyes continue downward, the poet presents two characters that suggest “one-legged soldiers.” Chen Li leaves one with the terrifying spectacle of war. Research a word in Arabic and create a visual poem surrounding the word.
  3. Write an epistolary poem to a politician or public figure, suggesting three specific actions you would take to help make a lasting and sustainable peace.

Poems about Home and Homeland

Excerpts from "Misfortune"

Excerpts from “Misfortune”
By Xi Chuan, translated from the Chinese by Wang Ping and Alex Lemon, p. 389

Discussion Points

  1. Xi Chuan, is a Chinese poet, essayist, and translator, and one of the most influential poets in contemporary China. He often plays with formal elements in his poetry and writes in long sequences. What do you make of the form of “Misfortune”? Why do you think it is in Lettered and Numbered sections? What happens from section to section that provides an alteration in the momentum of the poem? What do you make of the evolution of the character in this person? Who is the “he” and what does he seem to represent?
  2. The excerpts from “Misfortune” also reference Confucius who was an ancient Chinese thinker, political figure, and educator whose ideas form the basis of many ideas about how to live in a society, how to govern, and what morality encompasses, even in Chinese society today. He has been compared to Socrates in the West. What does the section on Confucius tell us about a man’s numerological age and what wisdom he/she should possess? What is the relationship between what Confucius tells us should take place at a certain age and what happens with the protagonist of the poem? Is there a productive tension or contrast between the two elements? Does the poem prove or disprove Confucius’ ideas?
  3. In an interview, Xi Chuan has written, “logic contains its own absurdity, and discovering this absurdity makes me happy.” What in this poem seems logical and what absurd? Is there a relationship between these elements that we can parse out?

Writing Activities and Exercises

  1. Confucius’ most famous work is called “The Analects,” and it has a series of epigrammatic assertions on humanity, such as “the superior man is catholic and not partisan. The mean man is partisan and not catholic,” and “it is virtuous manners which constitute the excellence of a neighborhood. If a man in selecting a residence do not fix on one where such prevail, how can he be wise?” Come up with a series of epigrams, or brief and memorable, pithy or surprising statements, of your own.
  2. Make a timeline of your own of what should happen at any given moment. Think of yourself in the past and into the future. What did you learn or do at ten? At twenty? At thirty? At eighty? Write a line for each of the decades of your life, trying to summarize what you were like back then.
  3. In the final section of the excerpts from the poem, there is a lot of forgiveness. What or who do you forgive? Write a poem in which you forgive someone or something for what they have done to or against you. Try to make it absurd as Xi Chuan does, so forgive the sky for turning to night, or forgive reconstituted beans for stewing in a can. Be imaginative but sincere in your expiation.

By Banira Giri, translated from the Nepali by Ann Hunkins, p. 395

Discussion Points

  1. Kathmandu is the capital city and largest urban center in Nepal. What do we learn about this city in this poem? Etymologically, Kathmandu is named for the temple in the central square of the city. In Sanksrit, Kath means “wood” and Mandap means “shelter.” What in this poem speaks to the past and what to modernity? Do we still see inflections of ancient history in the poem? How has contemporary culture changed the place?
  2. Banira Giri’s poem describes some of the plights of Kathmandu. What are they? Does the poem ultimately seem hopeful or bleak with respect to the people? What does the traditions that are being “forever repeated,” tell us about the possibility of change within the culture?
  3. Banira Gira has written, “poetry is my first love; it is my most personal urge….if someone wanted to punish me, forbidding me to write would be a far greater punishment than sending me to jail….we are all connected to life and nature. Poetry celebrates this connection. It also raises a warning voice to those who would ignore and violate all that is human and natural. To ignore the call of the earth, to violate our human connection to ourselves and to our surroundings—is that not also to strike a blow against poetry, against inspiration? The poet will always raise his voice against this desecration.” Does this poem seem to give voice to environmental concerns? Nepal is the home of the Himalayas, the world’s tallest mountain range, (Himalayas, the world’s highest mountain, including the highest peak, Mount Everest) and is considered a beautiful and pristine place. What does the poem seem to indicate about what might be happening to this beauty?

Writing Activities and Exercises

  1. The poet Richard Hugo in his seminal book “Triggering Town” asked us to write poems about cities that are not our own; however, Banira Giri writes a poem about a city that is very much her own. Write a poem about a city that you have lived in and that you feel a connection to, titling the poem as Giri does, with the name of the city. Try to be as descriptive as you can, forging a personal connection to the place.
  2. And remember Katie Ford’s advice on how to choose where to write about: “If the city haunts, if the suburbs are pouring questions into you, if the farmland vexes you, if a place makes a vessel of you into which it pours its waters, whether foul or fair, if a certain landscape is requiring your mind, if it feels endless in its questions, then begin there. The gravity of the place might pull you in. And, if you find you were wrong, if you find there is no world of ideas and discoveries for you beneath that topsoil or crust, you will have to abandon that city or village. You will have to begin the world again.” Begin the world again by writing a poem about a city that you love.
  3. Ecopoetics is a poetry movement based on our awareness of ecological concern and environmental disaster. Multidisciplinary in approach, the poetry includes science and theory, and the kinds of formal experiments one finds in conceptual poetry. As Jonathan Skinner has written, “Eco” here signals—no more, no less—the house we share with several million other species, our planet Earth. “Poetics” is used as poesis or making, not necessarily to emphasize the critical over the creative act (nor vice versa). Thus: ecopoetics, a house making.” Write your own eco-poem about the incursion of urban space into the environment and vice versa. Think about the relationship between humans, nature, technology and commerce. Try to include all of these elements so that what you write is not simply a nature poem but something more.
  4. Write a poem for a city that doesn’t exist. Make yourself the ethnographer of this imagined population. Think about what the place looks like, what the citizens speak there and how they entertain themselves. Report back to us in poem form.
Two Voices

Two Voices
By Kirpal Singh, p. 425

Discussion Points

  1. Singlish is colloquial Singaporean English, a creole language spoken in Singapore. In “Two Voices” there is an alteration between the official language of the country and what the citizens speak. What do you make of this difference? How do the verses in different dialects interact with one another?
  2. The last stanza of the poem tells us that, “somewhere there must be a merger/fusion of the two, the old, the new.” Do you think such a fusion is possible on the basis of the poem? What about in the place that you live? How do you think history can be married productively to progress or change?
  3. Singapore is the world’s only sovereign city-state that is also an island country. What do we learn about this country in this poem? Would we be surprised to learn that it has the world’s highest percentage of millionaires, with one out of every six households having at least one million US dollars in disposable wealth?

Writing Activities and Exercises

  1. Formally this poem alternates quatrains, or four line stanzas, with tercets, or three-line stanzas. Write a poem of your own that has this kind of regular alteration of stanzas. What does a regular pattern like this help provide?
  2. There is a profusion of English based Creole languages around the world, including Singlish—which Kirpal Singh’s poem is at least partially written in, Englog—spoken in the Philippines, Gullah—spoken in the Sea Islands, and Bonin English—a Japanese-inflected Creole. Do some research on some of these Creole languages and find a text in one of them. It shouldn’t be too hard to discover as there are major newspapers in Jamaica that publish in patois, for example. Enact a homophonic translation of what you find that render what you read or hear into what it sounds or looks like in English, allowing for nonsense constructions to emerge. Use this as the basis for a poem.
  3. Write your own poem in two voices, whether it is an internal and an external voice, a call-and-response poem between the voice of a predator and the voice of prey, a dialogue between a mother and a child, a dramatic rendering of one’s innermost thoughts being juxtaposed to something overheard on television or radio. Make both voices distinct and try your best to make a third element appear from the interaction of these two voices. Think of this as a script for performance that could be read by two people on stage.

Poems about the Spirit, Faith, and God

How Middle-Eastern Singing Was Born

How Middle-Eastern Singing Was Born, p. 467-468
By Sargon Boulos

Discussion Points

  1. Sargon Boulos was a writer of Assyrian descent from Iraq. Please conduct some research on Assyrians culture and religion post-1950. How does your research impact the reading of this poem?
  2. The poem is divided into four sections: “Prophet,” “Book,” “God,” and “Oud.” What do you think the poet was trying to convey in these subtitles? What are the links between the four sections and the title of the poem?
  3. Explore the various shades of meaning a “wounded voice” can have?
  4. Discuss the differences between being religious and being spiritual. How are the two connected or not to god?

Writing Activities and Exercises

  1. Choose a piece of music that could accompany the poem: play it to the class and explain why you chose it.
  2. What is an oud? Look it up and write a poem in four stanzas about it.
  3. Write a song that represents one of the images in the poem.
  4. Is there an experience in your past that makes you question god or your faith? Write a brief essay.
  5. Write a dialogue between you and god that is full of doubt. Then write a dialogue between you and god that is full of belief in him.
The Procession

The Procession, p. 506
By Sasaki Mikiro

Discussion Points

  1. What is the meaning of procession to the speaker?
  2. Please research and describe how processions in Japan differ from those in the United States?
  3. How do past, present, and future speak to one another within the poem?
  4. Detail how light and darkness connect to the repetition of the word “procession.”

Writing Activities and Exercises

  1. Pick one word that intrigues you in “The Procession” and write a poem repeating that word in every line. 2 page limit.
  2. Research three dominant religions in Japan. Choose an art medium—watercolor, sculpture, even digital art—and relay aspects of each religion through this visual format.
  3. Find a quiet place, close your eyes, then repeat a word from the poem again and again, as if it was your mantra, as if you were meditating. Write a poem about the experience. Include spiritual thoughts, emotions, or images it provoked.
The Corpse of a Sufi

The Corpse of a Sufi, p. 513
By Eshqabil Shukur

Discussion Points

  1. Please conduct research and describe modern day Sufi practices.
  2. Explore the meanings of the lines: ” The corpse of a Sufi lies flaming, / It has been thus for five hundred years.” Why does Shukur repeat “five hundred years” throughout the poem?
  3. What does the snake represent in this poem?
  4. Eshqabil Shukur is from Uzbekistan. Research Uzbekistan as well as its neighboring Central Asian countries. What are their religious differences and similarities?
  5. List 5-10 important facts about Uzbekistan —historically, politically, culturally, linguistically. How might some of these facts affect your reading of this poem?

Writing Activities and Exercises

  1. Acquire and listen to music from Uzbekistan. Write a poem based on what the music invokes.
  2. Gather images of a sacred place in Uzbekistan. Write a poem inspired by each image and make a chapbook. Choose an Uzbek word as the title of the chapbook.
  3. Imagine you are from a country in Central Asia. Write a persona poem from this individual’s perspective and a change in his/her beliefs during a critical moment in his/her country’s history.

Poems of Eros and Romantic Love

What Is Love

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