Wednesday: Poetry Amid the Rubble

BY Jeffrey Brown and Joanne Elgart Jennings  January 26, 2011 at 2:41 PM EDT

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I talk to writers and artists at home and abroad all the time, but I can’t recall another scene quite like this: About 30 men and women crowded into a small, hot room — the Bibliotheque Justin Lherisson — reading, reciting, declaiming, shouting lines of poetry back and forth. It’s all too fast for my poor French — let alone the Creole verses — but I catch some references: to cholera, the earthquake, hungry children, drinking, love. And I hear names of poets I know: Rimbaud, Apollinaire.

It is at once chaotic and ordered — people seem to know when to jump in, though at times lines will overlap. A drummer plays, sometimes laying down a beat for the poetry, sometimes to accompany a song that all burst into. At one point everyone begins to recite at once, piling on with different poems, in glorious cacophony, that ends in great laughter and clapping. One poet tell us, “We’re just a bunch of crazy artists here and we want to see what Haiti can become and what Haiti will become.”

And to think, I almost missed it!

The scene, on a rubble-strewn street in a neighborhood of destroyed buildings in Carrefour, the vast “suburb” of Port-au-Prince, was one of the last things we shot on our recent trip to Haiti. I had been thinking I should stay back at the hotel to write the script for our report on cholera — there was pressure to have it ready quickly — but my colleague, producer Joanne Elgart Jennings, convinced me that I should come along.

Joanne and I had learned of the weekly poetry gathering from Thomas Spear, a scholar of Haitian literature in New York, who told us that while it was important to talk to some of Haiti’s better-known writers, including the larger-than-life Franketienne, with whom we spent a wonderful afternoon, we should also see the energy of writers at “street” level, such as the those at the library in Carrefour. He was right. And so was Joanne in pushing me to come.

Our first two NewsHour reports, along with a debriefer I did from Port-au-Prince, have already aired and speak for themselves. Cholera is taking a terrible toll, particularly in rural areas. There is hope of containing it, though that hasn’t happened yet. Experts told us that the disease is now likely endemic to Haiti and will continue to strike episodically.

The reconstruction a year after the earthquake is too slow, too little and, many said to us, still not focused and coordinated. The only hopeful way to think about it is as a long-term, multi-year project. In the meantime, though, many people wondered aloud whether the “temporary” tent camps for the homeless are becoming “permanent,” whether Haiti will ever move beyond the “emergency” phase of the recovery.

And all of this amid a political limbo from what’s now been labeled a fraudulent election that threatens more disruption, delay and potential for violence.

“How was your trip to Haiti?” I’ve been asked by friends and colleagues. My answer: “Exciting, stimulating, frustrating, depressing.”

There are many more adjectives. And the order I put them in changes. I was just a visitor to a place where the full force of culture, nature and history are on display everywhere. (“In Haiti,” the writer and scholar Evelyne Trouillot said to me, “people refer to history like it’s yesterday”). I won’t soon forget the man in a small village telling of how his son died in his arms of cholera; the teacher in his stiflingly hot tent in a camp built on a soccer field (“This is not made for people to live in”); the children in their new school reciting their French grammar, many living in tents but somehow in clean, pressed uniforms (how do they do that?); and, of course, the “crazy artists” and poets at the small library on the rubble street in Carrefour.

Editor’s note: Jeffrey Brown and Joanne Elgart Jennings’ report from Haiti can be found here. Below, watch some extra footage of the artists produced by Joanne…

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Born in Port-au-Prince, Evelyne Trouillot is a member of one of Haiti’s most recognized literary families. Her uncle is the historian Henock Trouillot, and her siblings are novelist Lyonel Trouillot, anthropologist, historian and political scientist Michel-Rolph Trouillot and Creole scholar and children’s book author Jocelyne Trouillot.

Evelyne Trouillot has published several volumes of poetry, short stories and novels. Last month, she was awarded the prestigious Prix Carbet de la Caraibe et du Tout-Monde prize for her novel, “The Memory at Bay” (La Memoire aux abois), which recalls the brutalities of the Duvalier dictatorships in Haiti.

Trouillot says she grew up surrounded by books, which piqued her intellectual curiosity, but it took much more to become a writer. In an interview with NewsHour senior correspondent Jeffrey Brown, Trouillot said, “People think because you are in a family of writers, or intellectuals you will naturally become one. I don’t think so. I think that to write you have to work for it.”

In an extended excerpt of that interview, below, Trouillot talks about the complexities of Haitian society, filled with “so many contradictory realities,” how the earthquake affected her work as a writer and the role Haiti’s unique history plays in the lives of average Haitians.

In the days that followed the January 2010 earthquake, Trouillot said she felt paralyzed with despair and could not write, but she eventually succumbed to pressures from outside and within to put her thoughts into words.

In this poem, translated from Creole, Trouillot starts with the line, “Please don’t ask me to talk about the earthquake,” but then she goes on to describe her feelings about the quake. When we asked her about the poem, she spoke of the overwhelming pressure she felt to express not just her own experience but that of the millions of Haitians whose voices are not usually heard.

(Here’s an op-ed Trouillot wrote for the New York Times after the quake.)

Every Saturday afternoon, a group of young writers gathers in a small library in Carrefour, a sprawling suburb outside of Port-au-Prince, which was hit particularly hard by the earthquake. The poetry readings are often accompanied by music, and on the day we visited, the group Acoustic Poetry (Poesie Acoustique) sang a song in Creole with the refrain, “One star above the head of every child will light their dreams.”

Poesie Acoustique are: Chelson Ermoza, Billy Elucien, Raul Saint-Cyr Junior and Jhonny.

Franketienne, widely regarded as Haiti’s father of poetry, is much more than that. He’s a recognized novelist, playwright, painter and singer. UNESCO, the cultural arm of the United Nations, recently named him an Artist for Peace. His plays held a prominent role in the ’70s and ’80s in challenging the Duvalier regime. His most recent play, “The Trap” (La Piege), was written several months before the earthquake, but described an apocalyptic scene that greatly resembled the realities on the ground in Haiti on Jan. 14, 2010.

Franketienne’s home, which had also served as an informal archive of rare Haitian literary artifacts, was partially destroyed in the quake. When we visited earlier this month, he and his wife had moved back into the house. Most of the interior walls on the first floor had come down, and Franketienne decided he preferred the airy feel, so he painted the remaining support structures with his artwork. While he was giving us a tour, he told us that he first started his artistic career as a tenor, singing Puccini and Verdi when he was 20. And then he broke out in song with a beautiful operatic voice. It was a Haitian folk song, he said, an invocation to “Legba,” the spirit of light.