Teaching Ideas for “Quaking Conversation”

By Linda Christensen

Spring 2010

By Lenelle Moïse

I want to talk about Haiti.
How the earth had to break
the island’s spine to wake
the world up to her screaming.

How this post-earthquake crisis
is not natural
or supernatural.
I want to talk about disasters.

How men make them
with embargoes, exploitation,
stigma, sabotage, scalding
debt & cold shoulders.

Talk centuries
of political corruption
so commonplace
it’s lukewarm, tap.

Talk January 1, 1804
& how it shed Life.
Talk 1937
& how it bled Death.

Talk 1964. 1986. 1991. 2004. 2008.
How history is the word
that makes today
uneven, possible.

Talk New Orleans,
Palestine, Sri Lanka,
the Bronx & other points
of connection.

Talk resilience & miracles.
How Haitian elders sing in time
to their grumbling bellies
& stubborn hearts.

How after weeks under the rubble
a baby is pulled out
awake, dehydrated, adorable, telling
stories with old soul eyes.

How many more are still
buried, breathing, praying & waiting?
Intact despite the veil of fear & dust
coating their bruised faces?

I want to talk about our irreversible
The artists, the activists, the spiritual leaders,
the family members, the friends, the merchants,
the outcasts, the cons.

All of them, my newest ancestors.
All of them, hovering now,
watching our collective response,
keeping score, making bets.

I want to talk about money.
How one man’s recession might be
another man’s unachievable reality.
How unfair that is.

How I see a Haitian woman’s face
every time I look down at a hot meal,
slip into my bed, take a sip of water
& show mercy to a mirror.

How if my parents had made different
decisions three decades ago,
it could have been my arm
sticking out of a mass grave.

I want to talk about gratitude.
I want to talk about compassion.
I want to talk about respect.
How even the desperate deserve it.

How Haitians sometimes greet each other
with the two words, “Honor”
& “Respect.”
How we all should follow suit.

Try every time you hear the word “Victim,”
you think “Honor.”
Try every time you hear the tag “John Doe,”
you shout “Respect!”

Because my people have names.
Because my people have nerve.
Because my people are
your people in disguise.

I want to talk about Haiti.
I always talk about Haiti.
My mouth quaking with her love,
complexity, honor & respect.

Come sit, come stand, come
cry with me. Talk.
There’s much to say.
Walk. Much more to do.

Lennelle Moïse is a Haitian American poet. You can read more of her poetry at: http://www.lenellemoise.com/home.html.

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.