Posted on December 21, 2020
Last January, this blog published teaching suggestions for a poem about solitude that has become only more relevant over the past year of the pandemic.
Translated from Kurdish by David Shook and Zêdan Xelef, Cihan Hesen’s "[I speak to]" asks: When we are alone, to whom or to what do we send our thoughts ?
I speak to
The bare fingernails of my weak hands . . .
I speak to Loneliness
Ujwala Samarth, a teacher at Mahindra United World College in India, used Hesen's poem to help students cope with Covid-related shutdowns that not only separated them from their classmates but also, in many cases, forced them to leave India altogether.
As part of Mahindra's International Baccalaureate program, Ms. Samarth leads a "self-taught" literature class where students study literatures in more than a dozen different languages: Amharic, Greek, Polish, Persian, Swahili, and many more. The course gives students who have come to India from other parts of the world the chance to apply their original-language skills to high-level literary analysis.
When the Covid-19 pandemic intensified in India, schools shuttered and many of Ms. Samarth's students returned to their countries of origin. In assigning Hesen's poem, Ms. Samarth hoped to help students "speak to" their own feelings of isolation and sadness.
After reading "[I speak to ]" students wrote their own poems modeled on Hesen's anaphora, also often utilizing the repeating line "I speak to . . ." Ms. Samarth comments:
We met this poem with words left out . . . spaces for our own words to fill . . . I thought that by fitting our words into the shape made by someone else’s loneliness, we would see that we were not, in fact, all that alone. I also thought that maybe our hopefulness could redeem this poet’s pain.
The clarity of Hesen's structure, combined with its honest, vulnerable voice, seems to have inspired students in creating emotionally open poems of their own. Hanna Eliis, a student from Estonia, wrote:
I speak to
The silence of the carpet-ridden floor, cardboard boxes and passing automobiles
Maren, from Norway, reflected:
I speak to
The one who has yet to read a poem . . .
I, too, struggle with listening.
And Immi, from Belgium and Finland, concluded her poem on a sense of fragile connection:
But the hope in your voice reaches my ears
I too want to live.
What do your students speak to?
During a holiday season when many of remain separated from our loved ones by Covid, it may be worthwhile to try out Ms. Samarth's assignment with your own students. Here are the links:
- Assignment and student responses (You'll also see students' translations of literary works from their home language into English.)
- Blog post with teaching suggestions
- "[I speak to ]" in Words Without Borders
We'd love to hear about how this assignment went, or about other ways you are working with students this winter. You can let us know by writing to [email protected]
Finally, from snowy New York, we'd like to send everyone our best wishes for a happy New Year!