Archive for the ‘Poetry found’ Category

another Chicago snow scene for Chicago poets


One of the many reasons I’m enjoying the work of the Chicago ESL students featured this week is how their poems shine a light on the potential for community, regardless of background. Here we have people from different countries whose fluency is in different languages connecting on a common struggle and a common goal. Here we have poets from Taiwan, Ecuador, Ukraine, Columbia, Japan, South Korea, and China, a group that in other circumstances might form a veritable Tower of Babel. And yet here they are together here on the page, understanding each other at the deepest level.


Today our poets are from Taiwan, France and Ecuador.





by Ellen from Taiwan


My Chinese isn’t enough

I remember how I would laugh,

Arguing with my close friends,

And understanding the meaning of what they said

Art, classical music, love poetry and the meaning of life.

But that was in Taiwan.

Now I am in the United States,

Everyone speaks English

At the office, I didn’t know any answers to trivia questions they asked.

With neighbors, I don’t get the political problems they argue about.

At movie theaters, I was quiet while everyone laughed out loud.

My husband keeps correcting my pronunciation.

Sometimes at stores the clerks lose patience with me

I became chicken-hearted,

I became wordless,

I became dumb.

I finally took ESL classes.

I have to keep it up.

If I stop learning,

My world would be dark and silent.





by Alexandra from France


My French isn’t good enough.

I remember how I’d discuss

Society, politics, culture.

It was easy then.


Qui vivra verra*


But that was in France.

Now I have to find my words.

I don’t have enough English

But no matter what,

I improve it through English classes.


*French for “Time will tell.”





by Mabel from Ecuador


My Spanish isn’t enough.

I remember how I used to get the whole family together to share time.


Está servido y se enfría! Ya vengan a sentarse y siguen conversando mientras comen!” **


But that was in Ecuador.

Now it’s just my husband, my children, and I against the world.

We are a very close family standing together at all times,

But Birthdays, Holidays, and special dates are not the same anymore.

Now, they are more intimate, just us

The Happy Birthday song no longer sounds as uproariously as it used to.


However, we are very happy.  The four of us came together to begin a better new life here.


**Spanish for, “It’s served and the food is getting cold! Come have a seat and you guys can keep chatting as you eat!”




Teacher’s Note

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.


Ceci Greco



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Ceci, Chicago ESL teacher par excellence, taking a break from work


On day two of the ESL poetry series, let’s turn to native speakers of Japanese and Spanish.


(This week Poem Elf features poems written by Chicago ESL students in imitation of “Elena” by Pat Mora. Link here to read that poem. At the end of this post is an explanatory note from the ESL teacher, my sister Ceci.)


Anyone else delighted by the translated phrases in each poem, the way they connect readers to the poet’s previous life? They’re so unexpected they make me smile.




by Tomomi from Japan


My Japanese isn’t enough.

I remember how I’d shoot the breeze with friends.


「最近どう? ちょっと聞いてよ〜。」*


But that was in Japan.

Now I don’t have parents and friends nearby

No one to easily talk with about silly things.


Japan and the U.S. with different common senses.

At the grocery store, I try to read the numbers on the cans to see how much they contain.

But the unit looks like just a sign. I can’t understand.

All the alphabet and numbers float fluffy in the grocery store.


Reading and understanding worksheets that my daughter brings home,

Also, the alphabets begin to float in the room.


It takes so much time to collect and understand; I felt stressed.

I gave up contacting people except for my daughter’s school and public matters.

My heart got nervous and lonely, like when l’m driving on a snowy frozen road.

I want to go back to Japan. Tweet in my heart.


I escaped from learning English.


One day I noticed

My daughter is laughing. My husband is laughing. The dog is waving its tail.

Everyone is living here and moving forward.

Spring is coming little by little.


I want to be able to speak English little by little.

I change my mind.


*Japanese for, “Hey what’s up? Let’s have a chat!”





by Luisa from Columbia


My native Spanish language isn’t enough

I remember my family, my mother, my house and the weather with the wonderful landscapes in my city:


Baila conmigo mama y sonríe, estamos todos juntos, disfrutemos de este lindo dia, de la naturaleza, siempre en familia  **


But that was in Colombia, my country.

Now, I am speaking with Americans

in another culture, in another world, with another language.

I listen to Podcasts all the time  about diferent topics—meditation, brain, foods.

These things help me to improve my new language

And I have my English teachers (Ceci, Marie, Robbie) who help me and support me all the time with new knowledge.

I’m happy because I live with energy and I can learn.


**Spanish for, “Dance with me, Mom, and smile, we are all together as a family and enjoying this beautiful day, with nature, always with the family united.”





by Ana Maria from Columbia


My Spanish isn’t enough

I remember how I would go out with my mother or friends for long walks and long talks,


            Que clima tan rico, vamos a caminar hasta el zoológico y a tomar un poco de sol.  Salgamos ya para almorzar en el camino! ***


But that was in Colombia

Now, for me it is not easy to have these special spaces here

I miss my mother, friends. . . the nice weather of my country.

I still have difficulties trying to understand what people say.

But I keep trying

Despite the frustration of not understanding what people are saying

Or the fear that people will not understand me.


*** Spanish for “What a nice weather! Let’s walk all the way to the zoo and we can take some sun on the way.  Let’s go now, and we will have lunch on the way.”



Teacher’s Note

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.

Ceci Greco

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Chicago snow for these Chicago poets


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.


Teacher’s Note

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.

Ceci Greco





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

읽어주세요! 읽어주세요 *

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


Ukrainian, Russian,

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 ШанськаВи 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.


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Sick and tired. Is there anyone who isn’t sick and tired? Granted we may be sick and tired of different things, but aren’t we all glad to put campaign mailers in the recycling bin and see the neighbor’s lawn cleared of irritating signs?


Let’s change the channel. We need something else to think about, something that doesn’t make anyone anxious or angry.


Poetry, duh.


I’ve been listening, rapturously, to two different poetry podcasts, both great for a walk or a listen while you make dinner. The fact that neither of the podcasters are American and bristling with our particular preoccupations of the last four years is part of the charm, especially for me, a committed Anglophile.


Let me know if you give these a listen and how you like them.


(And let me know if you have favorite podcasts of your own. I’m always looking for something new to listen to.)


Frank Skinner’s Poetry Podcast. I first heard Frank Skinner on another podcast, “This Movie Changed Me” (highly recommend that too), discussing The Exorcist. His passion for that movie was such that he almost convinced me to watch it. (Didn’t though, and won’t.) He’s British and whip smart and says things like, “I once went to a cricket match drunk,” by way of explaining the word amanuensis. But you’ll hear no posh accent or academic piffle. He’s a just regular guy who loves poetry. The way he talks about each featured poem is a mix of a gourmand eating something delicious and a football fan after a game-changing play. “Oh C’MON!” he says in wonder. He takes up poems and poets I have avoided or never heard of and me makes me love them as he does. Most of the episodes are a half-hour and they fly by.





Pádraig Ó Tuama’s “Poetry Unbound,” brought to you by OnBeing. The word “lovely” is so overused these days that I hesitate to employ it, but it is simply the best word to describe this gem of a podcast. Ó Tuama’s Irish voice will soothe the most frazzled nerve. Play before bed as a meditation or listen at the bathroom sink to start your day in calm. Each episode is under ten minutes.


Go forth in peace!

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I’m a stickler about thank-you notes, a real pain to my children after birthdays and Christmas, and self-righteous and judgey when my own presents aren’t acknowledged. And yet, as with other deep and firmly-held beliefs, I can be a hypocrite about applying the rules to myself. Which is all to confess that I haven’t sent a proper thank-you note for a very thoughtful gift I got from two friends, a gift apropos of nothing, a few months back.


Down in the French Quarter of New Orleans, my friends came upon a Poet for Hire. Give her a subject, a few minutes and twenty bucks and she’ll hand you a poem on parchment paper in green ink. Here’s the poet, a recent New Orleans transplant named Shannon, at work:

Image 4


This is Shannon when she’s finished:



And here’s Shannon’s creation, the present I mentioned, an ode to Poem Elf:


(Apologies to the poet for messing with her poem by covering up my name at the end.)


I’m not going to analyze such a sweet gift, but I do want to mention two things:

1.  The opening line

You seek your secret pleasure

could belong to anyone, but I’m glad that in this case it refers to leaving poems for strangers and not to sniffing men’s socks or to ursusagalmatophilia.


2.  Speaking of strange desires, Shannon has revealed my Poem Elf fantasy without ever having met me. She instructs the person who finds her poem

Keep it in your pocket until you return

home–you unfold it slowly

as to not break it.

Place it in the frame


I hate to quibble with a gal who’s paying the rent by writing poetry, but I do have a correction. The only person framing this poem will be me. I won’t part with it.


Thank you, Kelly and Michelle! I adore this present!



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Today is National Poetry Day, and I feel like I’ve been caught without my school project completed. I’m stalling in the hallway, scribbling out enough verbiage to meet the word count, hoping I don’t get asked to read it out loud.


I got nothing prepared, folks.


But as it happens, I visited Artprize in Grand Rapids yesterday and had an experience that I can connect to National Poetry Day, so here goes.


Artprize is an international competition, now in its sixth year, that brings art out into the community in a spirit I also try to embrace in this blog. The competition is open to anyone, and anyone can help with the judging. (The grand prize is $200,000, and visitors can vote as often as they like, but only once for each entry.) Entries are exhibited in coffee shops, abandoned buildings, banks, boutiques, public museums, and even in the river.

Alex Podesta's "Self Portrait as Bunnies (The Bathers)"

Alex Podesta’s “Self Portrait as Bunnies (The Bathers)”


One of the entries was WeavePeace.


WeavePeace, an installation on the grounds of the Grand Rapids Public Museum, is a cooperative project between visitors and the artist, Michele Miller-Hansen. WeavePeace began as a bare structure, but in a week’s time has sprouted hundreds of strips of colorful messages. IMG_2160Artprize visitors write intentions and wishes for peace, and tie them to the dome.




Michele Miller-Hansen, on the left

Michele Miller-Hansen, on the left

I spoke with the artist, who hangs around inside the dome for a few hours every day. She said she’s pleased that WeavePeace seems to make those who visit feel happy. “Our world is so busy,” she said, “and people come in here and they get to slow down.” People read strips other visitors have written, spend time thinking of what they’d like to write themselves, and enjoy the beauty of the strips fluttering in the wind.


That sure sounds like the work of poetry to me. Poetry forces readers to slow down, reflect, connect, and appreciate beauty, if only the beauty of language and concision.


As I stood inside the dome with my friends waiting on the corner, ready to move on, I had trouble coming up with a poem related to peace. Finally I came up with the last lines of Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese.” (Yes, these lines are overly-familiar, popping up everywhere these days, but I guess that’s why I remembered them.)



Here’s the full (and more legible) text:


You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

(Italics mine.)

Good luck to artist Michele Miller-Hansen!


I took a few photos of other entries.


This one you have to experience. I can’t tell you how beautiful it is when you find yourself covered in lacy shadows.

"Intersections" by Anila Quayyum Agha at the Grand Rapids Art Museum. So beautiful!

“Intersections” by Anila Quayyum Agha at the Grand Rapids Art Museum.


My favorite, “Maternal Fortitude” by Lindsay Moynihan, is at the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel.



I took a picture of the artist’s statement for my daughter, who wants to be a midwife:




Finally, a mural in front of the Gerald Ford Museum, which artist Tom Panei is completing as visitors watch:

"I Hear the Train a Comin'"

“I Hear the Train a Comin'”


Artprize runs through October 12. Visit if you can.




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It was a season of near disasters.   Two weeks before Christmas I lost my aunt’s pearls, a graduated strand of Mikimoto beauties which her husband had brought back from Japan after WWII.  Just as I was getting ready to confess, that same aunt had a fall and landed in the hospital.  She recovered, the pearls were found, and thus did the overcooked tenderloin on Christmas Eve and the overnighted presents which didn’t arrive by Christmas take their proper place in the ranks of what is not important.  (My advice to Hamlet:  readiness is not all.  Perspective is.)

Aunt Joann, not wearing her recovered pearls

Aunt Joann, not wearing her recovered pearls


It was also a season of unexpected gifts.  Here’s one, from my daughter Lizzie:


Out of the overturned nest fall four eggs, and out of the eggs fly nine origami birds.  I didn’t get the symbolism at first, but with a little help I understood. An empty nest.  Re-birth.  Possibility.  Next fall, when the last of my four leaves for college, I’ll have my mobile to remind me to look at the situation with hopefulness.


The second unexpected gift was from my youngest little bird. On Christmas Eve after everyone had gone to bed, she stayed up for hours cleaning out my laundry room/office.  It was a big job.  Piles of laundry, stacks of books, framed prints, unframed prints, office supplies, loose papers, notebooks, textbooks, photo albums, boxes of pictures, and probably plain old trash had covered the floor, desk and bookcases.  When she presented the tidied room on Christmas day, I nearly fell over with joy on the empty floor.

my cleaning gal

my cleaning gal


The third gift I’ll mention is related to that room, before it was cleaned.  Truly I had despaired of ever organizing the mess there.  My husband, who usually delights in throwing out things I hoard, had refused to help me because I had un-done his past work.  So a week before Christmas I was ironing (unusual in itself) and looked at a pile of books stacked on a chair (not unusual at all) and decided that while I was waiting for the iron to heat up, I could at least put away a few books (highly unusual).  I picked up a book of Edna St. Vincent Millay poems belonging to my father that my mother had recently sent.


While I was thumbing through the book, I found a letter.  It was from my sister-in-law’s father, now deceased, to my father, also deceased.  Des was writing to thank Don for loaning a book, and ended with this:

“I think one could meditate forever on Francis Thompson’s lines in his final stanza:

‘Is my gloom, after all, shade of His hand, outstretched caressingly?’


I re-read the letter a few times.  I forgot about the iron, forgot about shelving the book.  I was overwhelmed by the humanity of it, there in my hand, this intimate record of two old men trying to understand themselves, their lives, their emotions. Des’ handwriting as elegant as his expressions.


Here’s the gift part of the story:  I emailed my sister-in-law to ask if she wanted the letter.  She wrote back immediately.  Turns out she had just been thinking of it.  Long ago, shortly after her father died, my father had read her the letter.  She didn’t ask for the letter, although she wanted it, and had wondered over the years what had happened to it.  By chance, it re-appeared in her life, just a day after the anniversary of her father’s death.


Make of that what you will.


I also found this in the book:


look closely for the golden crumb

A crumb of food.  It’s a little disgusting, but also touches me somehow, this image of my father reading a poem-play and, maybe bored or maybe just sloppy, eating a cookie and dropping his crumbs in the pages.  Hardened now and preserved in a closed book, evidence of his constant reading, his yearning for things beautiful, his love of sweets.


Happy New Year!  Thanks to all you wonderful readers!




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If I measured my value in the number of Christmas cards I’ve received this year, I’d be having a Charlie Brown “I got rocks” kind of feeling right now.

But the depressing emptiness of my Christmas card holder lost its sting when I opened my email yesterday.  My friend Trish Rawlings, artist, writer, and frequent commentator on this blog, sent me a digital copy of her annual handmade Christmas card.  Her work is usually dreamy and strange and always delightful.

With her permission, I’m reprinting her card here, and a few of her past cards as well.




My favorite:

Image 2


A two-parter:

Image 6


Image 1



Being lost inspires her most unsettling pieces:


Image 5


Image 4



Finally, one featuring her cat:

Image 3


Pantaloon, my feelings exactly.


Anyone interested in Trish’s work can reach her through the comment section. From there, she’ll give you her contact information directly.

Thank you, Trish!



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I’m still a schoolgirl when it comes to summer’s end.  I dread the fall.  Pumpkins and football games make me anxious. Give me hot, humid weather, a little body odor, and a good book every time.


Speaking of good books, there’s still a few weeks to enjoy summer reading.  On a friend’s recommendation, I’ve been reading everything by Barbara Trapido that I can find. (Temples of Delight is my favorite so far.)  I can’t resist British humor and eccentric characters.  Also been reading Elizabeth Bowen, another British writer.  She’s as somber as Trapido is delightful, but oh, those sentences!  I don’t cry reading too many books, but  The House in Paris left me stunned and weepy.


On a lighter note, my summer song this year is “Pata Pata,” by Miriam Makeba.  Link here for the best audio version, but be sure to watch this video of Makeba singing the song.  Great set, great costumes, and Makeba’s stage presence is enchanting. I’m a Johnny-come-lately to “Pata Pata”–it was released in 1957–but it sounds current to me and I can’t stop dancing to it.  Makeba, an anti-apartheid activist, breast cancer survivor (at age 18), wife of Stokey Carmichael, and international star, is long due for a bio-pic.


So what have you been reading this summer?  And what’s your summer song?


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Hilary Mantel by NatashaLamontA break from poetry today to showcase a few lines from a brilliant novel.


Decades before English writer Hilary Mantel won the Booker Prize twice in four years (becoming the only woman to win the prize twice and the only writer to win it for a sequel), she wrote another historical novel, A Place of Greater Safety.  The book follows French revolutionaries Robespierre, Desmoulins and Danton from cradle to guillotine (beheading seems to be Mantel’s particular interest).  I’m reading it now, less than a quarter way through, and already I’m wearing out my pen with underlining, stars and exclamation points.


So far I’ve sent two excerpts to my kids, and those I’ll share here.  I hope my daughters, in particular, take Mantel’s wisdom to heart.


The first is the advice given to a young Robespierre by a priest:


“Most people are lazy, and will take you at your own valuation.  Make sure the valuation you put on yourself is high.”


The second is Mantel’s judgment of King Louis XVI:


“He hoped that by refusing to make decisions he could avoid making mistakes.”


I haven’t read Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, but I doubt her words could speak to me half so powerfully as Mantel’s.

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