Teaching Ideas for “Quaking Conversation”

By Linda Christensen

As poet Martín Espada said, “Poets have always embraced and articulated . . . a ‘culture of conscience.’” They make us see and feel events in ways that news stories don’t. “Quaking Conversation” is a call to the culture of conscience that asks the reader to think about what’s happening in Haiti today, as well as what happened in the past. Because it is a poem that demands knowledge of the reader, it could be the thought- and emotion-provoking introduction to a study of Haiti or a culminating activity.

After reading the poem out loud a couple of times, ask students to return to stanzas one through seven: “What does the poet mean when she says, ‘I want to talk about disasters/How men make them/with embargoes, exploitation/stigma, sabotage, scalding/debt & cold shoulders’?” Even without the historical background, students can understand that Haiti’s disaster, like New Orleans’ disaster, must be told within the context of historical betrayal.

Moïse’s poem provides space for conversation about Haiti, but also works as a model for students to write their own poems. Ask students to underline repeating phrases and lines so they can see how she stitched the poem together with a series of similar lines (for example, “I want to talk about . . .” then “How . . .”). Ask: “Why did she do that? What effect does it have on the reader?” Ask: “How does she weave in sparks of hope? Why?”

Using the same structure, students can create their own poems: “What do you want to talk about? What issues need to be brought to the attention of the school, the community, the world? For example, perhaps you want to talk about the lack of scholarships for undocumented students or expulsion rates for students of color.”

Share and discuss students’ ideas. Then tell students to create a list: “Notice how specific Moïse is. She uses dates and place names; she shows the baby pulled from the rubble. Get specific. Name names. Give numbers. Include details of hope and resistance.” After students have listed, ask them to share and add to their lists.

Now students are ready to write a first stanza using Moïse’s frame as a model. Ask a few students to share to give others ideas before everyone completes their poems. The intent is to get at the richness that emerges when students begin to name the forces that wreak havoc in their lives and then find the courage to talk about them, creating a culture of conscience instead of a culture of silence.