Writing a poem in a foreign language is a feat for any poet, but writing a poem in a language you are still learning seems difficult on the order of cooking two dishes at the same time, whisk in one hand, beater in the other, different timers and directions for each.
This week I’m featuring poems from people writing in their second language. My sister Ceci, a longtime ESL teacher in Chicago, tasked her students with writing an imitation of “Elena” by Pat Mora, a poem about learning a new language in a new country. I’ll re-print the original poem at the end of this post, and in future posts will link to it, but to give you an idea of what Ceci’s students were working with, here’s the opening lines of “Elena” —
My Spanish isn’t good enough.
I remember how I’d smile
listening to my little ones,
understanding every word they’d say,
their jokes, their songs, their plots,
Vamos a pedirle dulces a mamá. Vamos.
But that was in Mexico.
Now my children go to American high schools.
They speak English. At night they sit around
the kitchen table, laugh with one another.
I stand by the stove, feel dumb, alone.
I thank all these poets for sharing their work, their vulnerabilities, their dreams. Each imitation poem touched me deeply, and some moved me to tears.
Let’s begin the series with an explanatory note from Ceci, followed by poems from native Korean and Ukrainian speakers.
These Imitation Poems express the deepest and most profound feelings of my students as they strive to make new roots in a new country with a new language. The poem, Elena, by Pat Mora was the inspiration. Writing poetry is an unfamiliar and challenging task for most of us, but writing poems in a second language is even more difficult. I applaud their efforts and congratulate them on challenging their minds and thank them for sharing their personal struggles of learning English while trying to make a new life here as they search for their “second soul.” The poetic images of floating alphabet letters, blurry worlds, birthday songs that are no long uproariously sung, and so many more touch my heart. I am so proud of their determination and persistence to never stop trying, like Elena.
by Sarah from South Korea
My Korean isn’t enough.
I remember how I’d enjoy
Reading books to my children.
I’d mimic the sounds, using some different voices for each character.
I remember how they liked it
또읽어주세요! 더읽어주세요 *
But that was in Korea.
Now my children are grown and educated in America.
One day we had a family movie night,
My husband and children were talking and laughing about the movie,
I was silent, and smiled.
One day my daughter called me from college.
She was talking and talking, crying and crying
I couldn’t stop her, couldn’t say “can you say it again?”
I comforted her and we were sad together.
I was sad because my daughter was sad,
I was sad because I could not understand more than half of what she was saying
I was living in a blurry world
I got the chance to join the ESL class.
I will learn more English and keep on going to practice
To see clearly, to hear clearly, to understand clearly.
Someday, I will read children’s books to my grandchildren
They will say, “Read it again! Read it more please.”
I dream it and smile now.
* Korean for “Read it again! Read it more please.”
by Iryna from The Ukraine
Both my languages are not enough now.
I remember how I’d study them hard,
Memorizing rules and exceptions,
Getting writer’s calluses after too much writing.
Studying hard and passing exams.
Пані Шанська, Ви не здали, приходьте ще *
Were the scariest words for me then.
But that was in Ukraine.
Now my son is in his last year of elementary.
Four years flew by so fast,
Nowhe speaks English fluently.
Before I helped him a lot with his English,
But now I need his help more and more.
I’m almost forty and still embarrassed at my poor English skills,
Disappointed with my useless studying forso long.
Frustrated with the thought that those who taught me before
Knew English from Russian school books and no more.
It’s harder to study right now,
With all my home duties and kids on the arms.
But I gave a promise to myself:
“I’ll never stop studying and I’ll do my best.”
And one day, I really believe it,
I’ll speak English fluently without any limit.
* Ukrainian for “Ms Shanska, you failed the exam, please come back again.”
Here’s the “starter poem”—
by Pat Mora
My Spanish isn’t good enough
I remember how I’d smile
Listening my little ones
Understanding every word they’d say,
Their jokes, their songs, their plots
Vamos a pedirle dulces a mama. Vamos.
But that was in Mexico.
Now my children go to American High Schools.
They speak English. At night they sit around the
Kitchen table, laugh with one another.
I stand at the stove and feel dumb, alone.
I bought a book to learn English.
My husband frowned, drank more beer.
My oldest said, “Mama, he doesn’t want you to
Be smarter than he is.” I’m forty,
Embarrased at mispronouncing words,
Embarrased at the laughter of my children,
The grocery, the mailman. Sometimes I take
my English book and lock myself in the bathroom,
say the thick words softly, for if I stop trying, I will be deaf
when my children need my help.