Chinese and Whittier poets alike engaging in a metaphorical “round table” discussion about the impact of environmental degradation on poetry.

Chinese and Whittier poets alike engaging in a metaphorical “round table” discussion about the impact of environmental degradation on poetry.

Sabrina Marshall

   Last week, visitors from Cuba, China, and Long Beach were invited to share their poetry in Whittier College’s annual Writer’s Festival. Students engaged with a variety of decorated poets and delved into issues of home, self-identification, and the environment. Half the festival was devoted to Latino writers giving readings and craft talks to students, and the other half on ‘China and the Environment,’ which incorporated the alternative spring break classes in China. The festival appealed to students of many fields or interests. 

  Writer’s Festival kicked off on Monday, March 20 with Richard Blanco, a Cuban-American poet and fifth Inaugural poet in U.S. history, presenting his work “Becoming American: An Inaugural Poet’s Journey,” in which he spoke about his life as a Cuban immigrant born in Spain and raised in Miami, leading to his poetry reading at the 2013 Inauguration. Blanco described his poetry as being particularly obsessed with the idea of home and belonging, saying of Cuba, “it was a place I hadn’t been, yet somehow belonged.” 

Several of the poems Blanco recited revolved around his family and the topic of acceptance. Three of the poems, “Betting on America,” “Papa’s Bridge,” and “Mother Country” opened him up as a poet to his audience, describing his home life not just as a location, but “home in the sense of a safe space,” said Blanco. “A place that accepts you.” When Blanco read and explained his poem “Queer Theory,” the tone of the evening shifted to a more dramatic personal narrative, invoking his grandmother’s voice pressuring him to be more masculine and Cuban and not be gay.  

As the only gay person to ever be an Inaugural poet, several of his shared poems were about discovering and dealing with his sexuality as a kid, which seemed to vibe with students who attended the event. “I think his background makes him more interesting,” said sophomore Sarah Flower-McCraw. “That makes his poetry more meaningful and gives his work more flavor as the reader.” 

Blanco compared poetry to a mirror, saying it reflects certain aspects of ourselves we don’t always see, and we all see something different looking back at us. Finally, he read “One Today,” the poem written after Obama’s second Inauguration, reciting images of the collective American people, regardless of race, gender, orientation, or experience, discussing how the culmination of all types of people built the America we live in today. 

  The following day started with a faculty poetry reading in the library. Visiting Instructor Kate Durbin read two poems from a series of poems inspired by the TV show Hoarders titled “Linda” and “Greg.” Attendees chuckled at the premise of using this reality TV show for poetic inspiration, but found Durbin’s juxtaposition of the accumulation of things to the losing of their home, lives, and families captivating, earning her strong applause. 

Following her poems were readings from Visiting Instructor Scott Creley, Assistant Professor Michelle Chihara, and Visiting Assistant Professor and Quaker Campus Advisor Joe Donnelly. In addition, all five of the Chinese poets — visiting in collaboration with the alternative spring break — read one of their poems while Whittier professors read translations as a preview for last Thursday’s Chinese reading event. 

“Poets are badasses the world over,” said Donnelly, whose reading followed that of Chinese poet Zang Di. The Chinese poets and their translations were interspersed and flowed between the faculty’s poems. “I thought they were all well planned, informative, and inspirational,” said junior Carolyn Simms. This event was a combination of many different types of inspiration and interpretations, which show students that there is no right or wrong way to write a poem or experience the world. While Durbin drew from reality TV, Donnelly discussed attempting the perfect pitch in baseball.

   Following this event was an afternoon craft talk with Blanco, where several creative writing and English classes were invited to a private discussion about poetry and sensory imagery. Blanco had them identify multiple senses that could be evoked from his piece “Looking for the Gulf Motel”— How the ocean smells like seaweed, tastes like salt, looks clear, sounds like crashing waves. The poem and its sensory images help the reader to be reminded of something relevant to them. “There is no abstract nostalgia,” said Blanco, “unless I show you this place then pull it away from you.” Blanco told the group that writers should be trying to translate sensory experiences into words on a page, to get the reader to experience that sense simply by reading it. Students engaged by offering their own ideas and images for Blanco to critique and respond to.

   Finally, rounding out the night was a poetry reading by Blanco and David Hernandez, who teaches at California State University, Long Beach with two Pushcart Prizes. Hernandez opened the night with poems from his book Dear, Sincerely. He started with “Dear Professor,” lightening the atmosphere, then moved to “We Would Never Sleep,” which brought a more serious tone. The poem discussed how numb the population has become to mass tragedies, which struck a chord with many of the student attendees. “I loved David Hernandez’s reading. I felt like I related a lot more to his poetry,” said sophomore Iyesha Ferguson. “I was really shocked by the amount of openness both poets shared about their lives and work.” 

Blanco followed him, adding new poems he hadn’t discussed and showcasing a project he started with a photographer called “Boundaries.” This project pairs unique photographs, such as the sight of the last lynching in the U.S., with related response poems by Blanco. With this series he hopes to tell a story all readers can relate to: “There is only one narrative,” said Blanco, “and that is the human narrative.”  The evening ended with a mutual feeling expressed by Blanco; “[Poetry] has to be from your heart.”

   The final day of the Festival started with a round table discussion with English department faculty and the Chinese poets on eco-literature and environmental impact on society and literature.  “[The theme of half the festival is] ‘China and the Environment, having to do with literature,” said Professor of English Tony Barnstone. “With the idea that we’re part of the Pacific Rim, how does the environment affect people of the Pacific Rim from California to China?” 

 While the round table was meant to encourage questions to all of the writers, most of the questions were directed towards the Chinese poets, who have a different cultural experience of their environment. Out of the five Chinese poets, Ming Di spoke Chinese and English and provided translations of the other Chinese poets’ thoughts. One poet, Qing Ping, explained to the audience that ‘eco-literature’ is not really a sub-genre of writing in China the way it is here. Zang Di also offered that many poems about the environment in China focus on the illusion of loss of home due to air pollution — these poems discuss fresh air, green grass, and clear skies that are now missing in China.     

Many Environmental Studies majors, as well as alternative spring break participants, were in attendance. “[The students in China] were all studying issues of sustainability, water quality, desalination, and pollution,” said Barnstone. “The Chinese writers who are talking about the environment are tying in the kinds of themes they’re studying.” It was these students who opened up the discussion from eco-literature expressing our environmental despair to eco-politics attempting to solve these problems. 

 Towards the end of the discussion, the Chinese poets were given the chance to ask our faculty and students questions. Qing Ping asked about the importance and significance of eco-literature in America, as it does not really exist in China. Chihara brought up that environmental issues and writings exist across multiple fields, not just English, and Donnelly explained how it is becoming a growing aspect of journalism. With the post-industrial world, he explained, environmental issues worldwide have become explicit pages or tabs within a newspaper. “It is an economic luxury to look at environmental issues,” said Donnelly. The more industrial we become and the more we pollute our air, the more we repeat China’s sense of environmental loss in poetry.

 “I really liked the round table with the Chinese poets the most,” said junior Rebecca Grenier. “Definitely because it was a perspective we don’t get here. East Asian literature isn’t popular in America, so being able to discuss from their perspective was enlightening.” 

The whole week’s activities ended back at the chapel for a poetry reading from the Chinese poets with Whittier English professors reading the translations. Each Chinese poet read three poems followed by their translations, so each poet was given their moment on stage with a PowerPoint slide behind them showcasing their poetry. 

With a limited number of classes on Asian cultures, the Chinese poets offered a different perspective to eco-literature, one based on the loss and neglect of their now-polluted environment. “Even though I do not personally speak Chinese nor have a clear understanding of it when I hear it, I was taken in by the emotional readings they gave,” said junior Sophia Renteria. “I could tell when it was meant to be emotional or funny or thoughtful.” Ending the reading was a special performance by Ming Di, who read part of her final poem “Looking for Maya” off a long piece of white ribbon. She slid the fabric between her fingers from right to left, not pausing or stumbling once. When Chihara came up to read the translation, she told the audience that she promised if Ming Di read her poem off the ribbon, she would as well, pulling out a spool of white craft ribbon with her English translation.

The Writer’s Festival was a week of poetic exploration after a year and a half’s worth of planning. Professor Barnstone has been one of the facilitators for the event, contacting writers, working with on-campus groups, and being a part of the alternative spring break in China. “We visited the writers there,” said Barnstone. “We brought some of the same writers back to visit, so it’s really a cultural exchange.” 

Associate Professor of Religious Studies Rosemary Carbine was a key figure in bringing Latino poet Blanco to campus, sharing Barnstone’s vision for a well-rounded and cultural festival. “My other hope is that students took away from the events the value of an interdisciplinary liberal arts education for tackling tough personal and social questions,” said Carbine. “A signature feature of Whittier College.” 

 “In an age where people are so hell bent on separating each other, it was very refreshing to see a group of people come together for the poetry,” said Renteria. The festival had this diversity in mind, trying to reflect the diversity within Los Angeles’ with the people we bring to campus, according to Barnstone.  Overall, the Writer’s Festival fueled a powerful discussion about integration, environmental degradation, and poetic diversity.