Since late 2015, I have been teaching a poetry workshop to migrant and refugee women at a women’s center (Melissa Network for Migrant Women) in Greece, in downtown Athens. I say “teaching a poetry workshop,” but I do not mean the same thing I would mean about, say, a group of American undergraduates, or a session of well-published participants at a summer writers’ conference. The women at Melissa do not, on the whole, aspire to become writers (although there are two or three exceptions). I teach in English, but few of the women have a strong command of English, or of Greek for that matter. (Although in some cases their young children, born in Greece or with no memory of before-Greece, refuse to speak to their mothers in anything but Greek.) We have mostly had Persian speakers (the Iranian-Farsi speakers, and Dari speakers—Dari being variety closer to classical Persian—from Afghanistan), and speakers of Arabic from Syria, but also Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine. The sessions are about an hour and a half, with the women writing from a prompt of some kind, consulting translation apps and each other, occasionally getting into debates about vocabulary and definitions. I treasure these conversations about translation, because, in some ways, this is the essence of poetry.
Is what I do even teaching? Maybe “leading” a workshop is better. For that matter, is it a workshop? (We engage in no criticism. I sometimes offer a suggestion or adjustment, or point out something particularly striking, but there is no rewriting or revision.) Am I rather leading some sort of art therapy group? Much of the time, the women write in their native tongues, and an interpreter (not a poet herself) translates, very literally, and acknowledges with a shrug that some things are untranslatable. I write the phrases and sentences we have converted willy-nilly into English onto the whiteboard and read them aloud. Then the woman will read it in the original language. Is it poetry? A common idiom in Persian will often come across as poetry in English. There are, almost inevitably, moments when the words do rise to the state of poetry. There is certainly no lack of material: war, bombs, fire, journey, exile, death, family sent ahead or left behind, family members “lost,” and, most treacherous of all, hope, the inscrutable future: “mortal stakes” are the stakes for which these women are playing all the time. And the languages themselves, the mother tongues, are ones in which respect and love for poetry are deeply ingrained. To be a poet can be sometimes a bit embarrassing in English (at a party, I am more likely to say I am a writer). In Arabic or Persian, I think, it is an honorific.
Early on, we start with lists. Lists have a great advantage in such a group, as they convey meaning—and, often, narrative—without need of grammar or syntax. Arguably, poetry began as lists; they are a feature of our earliest poems. Consider the list of beautiful dead women in the underworld of the Odyssey, or the list of Italian forces that concludes book 7 of the Aeneid. Take Hesiod’s Theogony, its genealogy of the universe, beginning with Chaos: Chaos begets Night; Night begets Death and Sleep and Revenge and Strife; and hateful Strife (that is to say, Conflict) begets Famine, Sorrow, Deceitful Words, Ruin, and War.