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In Chaos of Post-Earthquake Haiti, Artists Create Poetry Amid Rubble

January 26, 2011 at 5:46 PM EDT
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On his recent reporting trip to Haiti, Jeffrey Brown explored the story of Haitian poets and artists surviving -- and creating -- amid the rubble of last year's earthquake.
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GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight: poetry amid the rubble.

Jeffrey Brown has the last of his reports from his recent trip to Haiti, one year after the earthquake.

JEFFREY BROWN: In Carrefour, the sprawling area of almost half-a-million on the outskirts of Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, scenes of destruction from last year’s earthquake are everywhere.

(SINGING)

JEFFREY BROWN: But also, perhaps unexpectedly, there are voices, raised not in anger but in verse.

Every Saturday afternoon for the last 10 years, a group of writers and readers has gathered here in a tiny library. They come to write, discuss and recite poetry in French and Creole. This woman’s verse imagines a place where nothing can harm you. This man speaks of wiping away horrors and hunger with a dance.

There is pain in this poetry, violence, AIDS and now cholera, and yes, the ravages of the quake. But there’s also joy, the pleasures of friendship and, as with poetry everywhere, love.

It’s a remarkable scene, and it captures how artists here not only carry on through so many hardships, but find ways to address them and show the world that Haiti is more than what’s seen in daily headlines.

COUTECHEVE LAVOIE AUPONT, poet (through translator): We’re conscious of the image people say Haiti is projecting. That is why we took the initiative to assemble our strengths and talents. Like it or not, it’s only through culture and literature that we can question our problems as a nation and as human beings.

GARNEL INNOCENT, poet-actor (through translator): We’re just a bunch of crazy artists here. And we want to see what Haiti can become, then what Haiti will become.

JEFFREY BROWN: There have been strides made in literacy and education in Haiti. But so many here don’t have access to good schools or books.

Even so, Haiti has a thriving and longstanding literary tradition.

Evelyne Trouillot, from a family of writers and intellectuals, is a professor, novelist and poet.

EVELYNE TROUILLOT, writer: You can see it’s a country that is so full of complexities, that I have enough things to write about. I don’t have to look elsewhere. But, at the same time…

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: And Haiti keeps you busy enough, right?

(LAUGHTER)

EVELYNE TROUILLOT: It keeps me busy.

JEFFREY BROWN: Haiti is a place that most of us only see when there’s a disaster. Now it’s the earthquake. What don’t we see? What don’t we know about Haiti?

EVELYNE TROUILLOT: Even for us Haitians, it’s very difficult to explain to somebody Haiti, because it’s like we have one country, and inside that country, we have a lot of realities so different, so opposite, so contradictory, that it is very difficult to see in one visit or in one lifetime.

And we have to — to face the reality that Haiti is a poor country where people don’t eat when they are hungry, where they don’t have the basics — they have the basics to live a decent life. But Haiti is much more than that. And even the people in poverty know that Haiti is much more than that.

JEFFREY BROWN: Trouillot, like others we talked with here, points to painting and music, to the culture of vodou, and, above all, to history. In 1804, Haiti became the first colony where African slaves overthrew their masters, the French, and achieved independence.

But it’s struggled ever since amid violence, misrule and outside interventions. That history, she says, permeates the culture.

When there are so many needs out there, basic needs, what — what point does literature serve? Why write?

EVELYNE TROUILLOT: Because you need the voice. You need the voice of hope. You need a voice of revolt and resistance. And I think, for me, literature can do that, poetry can do that. And when you are in a situation that is very, very difficult, I think a human being need that, needs the beauty of literature, the beauty of creation to make them go through it and to carry them further.

JEFFREY BROWN: On a lot across the street from her house, Trouillot and her family are using donations and their own money to build a new cultural center for young people in the neighborhood. It will offer computers with Internet access, readings and concerts and, most basic of all, books.

Right around the corner, there are tents. There are shacks.

EVELYNE TROUILLOT: Yes. And…

JEFFREY BROWN: The kids don’t have books…

EVELYNE TROUILLOT: They don’t have books. That’s for sure; they don’t have books. And books is a luxury for them.

And we want at least to have them be able to touch the books. And I think that’s very important for kids to develop very early this love of reading. That will change his life or her life. That’s what we want do.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, this is all restoring?

All restoring, restoring.

JEFFREY BROWN: And then you paint.

And paint.

JEFFREY BROWN: Perhaps Haiti’s most celebrated writer goes by the single name Franketienne.

FRANKETIENNE, artist: I am essentially a poet.

JEFFREY BROWN: Essentially a poet?

FRANKETIENNE: Essentially a poet; a poet who is writing novels, a poet who is painting, a poet who is singing.

(SINGING)

JEFFREY BROWN: Last year’s earthquake brought down many walls in his home. Support columns and remaining surfaces are now covered with his artwork.

As a painter, Franketienne is known for his colorful, abstract works, often portraying apocalyptic scenes.

FRANKETIENNE: All my works, my artistic works, my literary works, announce the atmosphere of an apocalypse.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, you think this is a premonition of the earthquake?

FRANKETIENNE: Premonition, premonition. It’s a premonition.

JEFFREY BROWN: He believes his most recent play, written two months before the quake, was also a forewarning.

“Le Piege,” or “The Trap,” takes place after a major disaster, as survivors crouch in the rubble. A production was recently staged in Paris by UNESCO, the cultural arm of the United Nations, which also named Franketienne one of this year’s Artists for Peace.

He first made his name writing during the horrors of the Duvalier dictatorship and told us he feels a responsibility to be a voice for Haiti’s voiceless people.

FRANKETIENNE: Now, after the earthquake, I think that my country is in the field of deaths. After earthquake, cholera, after cholera, a nasty election, my — my country is dying.

JEFFREY BROWN: Your country is dying? And, yet, there are artists and writers and culture.

FRANKETIENNE: The literature, the words cannot — cannot save the world.

JEFFREY BROWN: Still, Franketienne told us, creativity is the true wealth of Haiti.

Today, that wealth is found in the work of writers and artists scattered in other countries, members of Haiti’s diaspora, as well as those who have stayed here, like the young poets in Carrefour, who told us that, for better, and often for worse, Haiti offers the writer all the material he needs.

On our visit, the poetry reading ended with a song in Creole, with the refrain, “One star above the head of every child will light their dreams.”

(SINGING)