Learning About Inequality

A poem for two voices

By Linda Christensen

Illustrator: Thea Gahr at justseeds.org

The two-voice poem, or dialogue poem, became a full-time resident in the Literature and U.S. History class Bill Bigelow and I co-taught for years. Our love affair with this poem started when Gail Black, our colleague in the Language Arts Department at Jefferson High School in Portland, Oregon, gave us “Two Women,” a poem written by a working-class Chilean woman in 1973, shortly after the overthrow of Salvador Allende, Chile’s socialist president. The poem was originally published in Sojourners magazine. The paired voices of the two Chilean women—one poor and one rich—show how the historical events in their country changed their lives, from Allende’s election to his overthrow.

The poetic format of the dialogue poem helps students get at something fundamental about social reality: Different social groups are affected differently by the same historical events. Writing the poem alerts students to inequality—from the coup in Chile to slavery in the United States to immigration policies. This disparity can be seen in the Chilean women’s dialogue:

I am a woman.
I am a woman.

I am a woman born of a woman whose man owned a factory.
I am a woman born of a woman whose man labored in a factory.

I am a woman whose man wore silk suits, who constantly watched his weight.
I am a woman whose man wore tattered clothing, whose heart was constantly strangled by hunger.

I am a woman who watched two babies grow into beautiful children.
I am a woman who watched two babies die because there was no milk.

I use the dialogue poem to evoke discussion about literature as well as history so that students can understand how race, class, and gender differences impact their own lives as well as the lives of historical and literary characters. Students explore the contradictions between social groups as they focus on inequality by contemplating and writing from diverse perspectives. When writing these pieces, students can also discover surprising commonalities between groups.

Content Knowledge First

Students need the solid foundation of content knowledge prior to writing this variation on the persona poem. Because Bill and I asked students to partner up to write the poem, the assignment also facilitated collaboration between kids. The poem forced them to return to the materials we studied as they struggled together to make sense of the history or literature, discussing both overview and detail to create their poem. To make this piece work, students must pinpoint the conflict, or inequality, so they have something to write about.

Because of the history of inequality in our country, there is no shortage of topics. In a unit on slavery and resistance, for example, our students focused on dialogues between enslaved women and women in the “big house,” slave and master, and abolitionists with differing positions about how to end slavery. In The Grapes of Wrath, students constructed conversations between tenant farmers and bank owners, Ma Joad and the sheriff. In the young adult novel Esperanza Rising, students identified the inequality between the field workers and the owners/bosses, but also between workers who went on strike and those who didn’t, between the authorities who rounded up and deported Mexicans and the deportees. The sharp edges of class in Mexican society created friction between Esperanza, whose father owned land, and Miguel, whose father worked the land.

Digging the Bones

Before class on the day I launched the poem, I found two students, strong readers, and asked them to rehearse reading “Two Women” out loud a few times to get into the voice and rhythm of the speakers. I started class by giving students a brief overview of a piece of Chilean history, so they could understand the poem: Salvador Allende was elected president of Chile in 1970. His Popular Unity government initiated changes, like nationalizing the copper mines and other pro-working class reforms. These reforms angered both the wealthy of Chile and the U.S. government, which sought to undermine Allende’s government. A coup took place on Sept. 11, 1973. Allende and many others were killed or imprisoned, and the dictator Augusto Pinochet came to power and instituted a radical free market, pro-rich reform. That flip from a government that supported the poor to a government that supported the rich is the wrinkle in history from which the poem was written. After I distributed the poem, I asked the two readers to stand on opposite sides of the room as they read “Two Women” out loud. I get goose bumps every time I hear the poem.

Once students heard the poem, I asked them to talk about it. “What did you notice about the poem?” Often students’ first responses were about the format. When I taught the poem to a class reading Fools Crow by James Welch, Elisa noticed that one line was written in italics and the other in bold to help the reader follow the two voices. Llondyn pointed out that sometimes the women had the same starting point on the line, but depending on their class, the line ended differently. Llondyn’s observation led to others’ comments about how the writer showed the difference by using details like clothes, children, husbands, or food. Hannah drew us to the line about the husbands. “One owns a factory, the other works in a factory.” Using the students’ remarks, I constructed a T-chart on the board so they could visually see how the poet used the same items in each line.

After students located the major points in the format of the poem, I asked, “Where can you see the history we discussed earlier reflected in the poem? Where can you find the ‘beats’ or changes in history that we talked about before we read the poem?” Maya directed our attention to how the lines that the women say together point out the change: In the beginning they are both women, but their lives are very different. Later when the women say, “But then there was a man,” the line signals a change—Allende coming to power. And the third time the women speak together, “And I saw a man” indicates another change: Pinochet coming to power. Although students didn’t remember the names and dates from my brief overview, they could see how the writer took those historical events and created a flow to the poem.

Fools Crow

Once students understood the model, we turned our attention back to Fools Crow, a novel about the invasion of whites into Blackfeet land, which threatened to change their traditional ways of life. The Blackfeet had to choose to fight or assimilate, and the author deftly portrays the multiple perspectives of the tribe about the invasion, the consequences, and their choices.

“Where do you see that historic ‘wrinkle’ or tension in the book? Can you isolate two people or two groups of people who might see the world differently, like the two Chilean women?”

Students began shouting out pairs: Napikwans (whites) and Blackfeet, elders and young warriors, Fast Horse and Fools Crow, Owl’s Child and Fast Horse, men and women in the Blackfeet society. They also named particular characters who had different ideas about how to address the coming of the settlers.

Next, I drew another T-chart on the blackboard and said: “When we looked at the ‘Two Women’ poem, we made a list of the different historical moments that surfaced the women’s responses. Now let’s make a list of those moments in Fools Crow, as well as the items that you might compare to show the different reactions of the Napikwans and the Blackfeet or whatever pair you choose to write from.”

Kevin started out the listing: “The raid on the Crow Camp, when the Napikwans arrived, when they started taking over the land, setting up forts, bringing small pox.” As a class, students listed the “beats” of the novel together. We wrote the poem about two-thirds of the way through the book, so we didn’t have “beats” for the entire novel.

After going through the historical beats, I asked students to think about what items might demonstrate the difference between the people they chose. “Let’s go back to the ‘Two Women’ poem, and remind ourselves how that poem is constructed. We have the two voices, we have the historical beats. Now let’s go back to the items the writer chose to show the difference. Remember how you all pointed out that the writer showed the difference by using details like clothes, children, husbands, or food? What items would you use to show the difference between your two people?”

Taylor pointed out that for the elders and the young warriors, they could use the points of disagreement—whether they should trade with the whites, make war on the whites, try to assimilate. We looked at a couple of other pairings to make sure students understood how to proceed with the poem, then I said, “Partner up. Find someone to work with, decide who you will write about, and get started.”

Creating Dialogue Poems

Now, to be honest, some students hadn’t read the book or weren’t deep enough into it to write this poem. And although this is frustrating, it is also a fact of life in most classrooms. The upside of this is that students had to read at least some of the book to fulfill the assignment. Listing the beats of the novel helped them, and partnering them with someone who had read helped them. We also reminded students to look at the walls of the classroom, which were filled with previous work on the book: quotes, debate notes, and character silhouettes that include character traits, quotes, and page numbers.

We didn’t write this straight through. I roamed the room checking on the students’ character charts, seeing who was stuck, who had filled out their charts, who had interesting insights.

Once most of the students were rolling, I stopped the class and said, “Let’s take a look at how a few partners have tackled the poem.” I had a few students show their charts on the document camera and explain their rationale of who and what they were comparing to help the students who were still flailing around. During the last five minutes of the class when students started actually writing the dialogue lines, I invited a few partners up to share their poems.

Savannah and Brianna chose to write from the points of view of two leaders, one who wanted to fight the whites and another who believed that, in order to survive, the Blackfeet had to assimilate:

I am a leader.
I am a leader.

Let us fight.
Let us make peace.

They want our land.
We are willing to share.

If we surrender, we die.
If we fight, we die.

They call for us to stand down and give up.
They called for us to negotiate and reassured us.

I will not go and hear more lies.
I made sure they knew we were allies.

As students bent their attention to their poems, they returned again and again to the book, discussing points of view, agreements and disagreements, choice points.

Dialogue Poems as Portals

Once students completed the poems, they shared their pieces in class. In addition to literary show-and-tell, these dialogues also provided a platform for students to discuss the historical beats of the novel, the points of difference between generations, races, and genders on the coming of whites into Blackfeet land. In other words, the poems provide a way to move deeper into the content of the class.

The poems can become a framework or a position for an essay. In essays on Fools Crow, students have explored the divisions between members of the Blackfeet nation on how to deal with the coming of the whites, and examined how the different perspectives or worldviews of whites and Blackfeet led to conflict. In Andy Kulak and Wendy Shelton’s classroom at Jefferson High School, the students wrote their Fools Crow dialogue poems on long pieces of butcher paper, creating what Andy calls “an interactive wallpaper” that he leaves up as students work on their final essays: “Thus, if one line of thinking in building their essay proves to be a dead end, or students have difficulty providing evidence for their ideas, they can ‘look up’ and hear another previously unconsidered voice that might lead them to a more successful essay.”

For me, the dialogue poem is more about content than poetry. This poetic vehicle forces students to examine fundamental disparities in our society through literature, history, and their own lives as it develops their analytic capacity in preparation for future encounters with inequality. It is this awakening of consciousness that schools should be about.  

Two Women

I am a woman.
I am a woman.

I am a woman born of a woman whose man owned a factory.
I am a woman born of a woman whose man labored in a factory.

I am a woman whose man wore silk suits, who constantly watched his weight.
I am a woman whose man wore tattered clothing, whose heart was constantly strangled by hunger.

I am a woman who watched two babies grow into beautiful children.
I am a woman who watched two babies die because there was no milk.

I am a woman who watched twins grow into popular college students with summers abroad.
I am a woman who watched three children grow, but with bellies stretched from no food.

But then there was a man;
But then there was a man;

And he talked about the peasants getting richer by my family getting poorer.
And he told me of days that would be better, and he made the days better.

We had to eat rice.
We had rice.

We had to eat beans!
We had beans.

My children were no longer given summer visas to Europe.
My children no longer cried themselves to sleep.

And I felt like a peasant.
And I felt like a woman.

A peasant with a dull, hard, unexciting life.
Like a woman with a life that sometimes allowed a song.

And I saw a man.
And I saw a man.

And together we began to plot with the hope of the return to freedom.
I saw his heart begin to beat with hope of freedom, at last.

Someday, the return to freedom.
Someday freedom.

And then,
But then,

One day,
One day,

There were planes overhead and guns firing close by.
There were planes overhead and guns firing in the distance.

I gathered my children and went home.
I gathered my children and ran.

And the guns moved farther and farther away.
But the guns moved closer and closer.

And then, they announced that freedom had been restored!
And then they came, young boys really.

They came into my home along with my man.
They came and found my man.

Those men whose money was almost gone—
They found all of the men whose lives were almost their own.

And we all had drinks to celebrate.
And they shot them all.

The most wonderful martinis.
They shot my man.

And then they asked us to dance.
And then they came for me.

For me, the woman.

And my sisters.
For my sisters.

And then they took us.
Then they took us.

They took us to dinner at a small, private club.
They stripped from us the dignity we had gained.

And they treated us to beef.
And then they raped us.

It was one course after another.
One after another they came after us.

We nearly burst we were so full.
Lunging, plunging—sisters bleeding, sisters dying.

It was magnificent to be free again!
It was hardly a relief to have survived.

The beans have almost disappeared now.
The beans have disappeared.

The rice—I’ve replaced it with chicken or steak.
The rice, I cannot find it.

And the parties continue night after night to make up for all the time wasted.
And my silent tears are joined once more by the midnight cries of my children.

And I feel like a woman again.
They say, I am a woman.

This poem was written by a working-class Chilean woman in 1973, shortly after Chile’s socialist president Salvador Allende was overthrown. A U.S. missionary translated the work and brought it with her when she was forced to leave Chile.
Reprinted from Sojourners.

Linda Christensen (lmc@lclark.edu) is director of the Oregon Writing Project at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon. A Rethinking Schools editor, she is the author of Reading, Writing, and Rising Up and Teaching for Joy and Justice, and co-editor of the new Rhythm and Resistance: Teaching Poetry for Social Justice, in which this article appears.

Illustrator Thea Gahr’s work can be found at justseeds.org.