April 12, 2016

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Poetry Friday: Meet a World Class Poet

Writerly Friends and Poetry Friday followers, I have a HUGE treat for you. It involves a wonderful poet, a book that will break your heart, and a giveaway!

Meet my friend, J. C. Elkin.

After you say "hi" to Jane, visit with
the rest of the Poetry Friday party guests
at the Miss Rumphius Effect.
Tricia is hosting this week's blog roll.
Jane is a poet. Like many of us in the Poetry Friday community, she is also an educator. Jane teaches adult ESL students here in Maryland.

This is the melting pot she explores in her new book, World Class: Poems Inspired by the ESL Classroom. It's a fascinating, poetic look at the lives, stories, and struggles of one adult ESL community.

Jane is stopping by to talk about her book today. I know it will appeal to many of you who work in the classroom. World Class goes on sale tomorrow, 2/1, so happy book birthday, Jane! If you'd like to win a copy of World Class, leave a comment.

Buy the book at Amazon.
5 Questions for J. C. Elkin

Author Amok: The double entendre of the title is very apt. The world of the adult ESL classroom is one that most people don't see. Could you talk about what it is like to create a sense of community in a group where languages and cultures are so varied?

J. C. Elkin: First, I have a rule that people who speak the same language cannot sit together. That forces students to develop friendships outside of their normal sphere. After that, our sense of community just develops from our shared humanity. Everyone has stories: the luckiest thing that ever happened to them, their favorite foods, bad coworkers, getting lost… These are the kinds of topics that crop up on a daily basis in our readings and conversations. It’s like an extended cocktail party with notebooks – minus the alcohol. Rarely have I experienced cultural insensitivity or animosity between the students.

Amok: In the introduction, you mention "accentual verse." Would you explain what that is and why it was a good fit for these poems?

Elkin: Accentual verse is poetry with a fixed number of stressed syllables in each line, and it’s as old as oral tradition – from Beowulf to Mother Goose to Rap, (though it doesn’t need to rhyme.) Take the poem “Adios Fernan,” for example. I’ve rewritten it here with capitals to represent the strong syllables of each line, and you can see how the speech falls into a steady beat, like a walking gait:

FerNAN wears his CAP Gangsta-STYLE.
and MUCH less SURE than he LOOKS.
He STAYS after CLASS with QUEStions,
TOO shy to ASK in CLASS.

It was an apt fit for this collection because I focus so much in class on the stress patterns in our language. Some students need to be taught to hear and repeat intonation and stress patterns because it is absent in their native tongues. Others, who speak Romance Languages, may place the stress on the wrong syllable, modeling their pronunciation on a similar word from their native tongue.

Also, as a singer, I naturally fall into rhythmic patterns when I write, so I decided to go with it, as I would in class.

Like the United Nations, students in Jane's ESL
class must learn to communicate with one another.

Amok: I like that you addressed people who might say your students "should speak our language or just go back home" in the poem "World Class." How do you help your students cope with such push-back?

Elkin: I encourage them to use their limited English because it not only sharpens their skills but also demonstrates their desire to fit in American society. That’s something most people respect.

Having lived abroad and felt the arrows of linguistic snobbery myself, I can vouch for the fact that there are nice people and insensitive people in every culture. Those who would denigrate a foreigner’s earnest efforts to communicate in a second language display their own lack of empathy and (often) monolingualism.

One student told me how his American-educated coworker insisted he was mispronouncing a certain word, so I checked by having him spell the word for me and repeat both pronunciations. He has an exceptionally good ear for pronunciation, and he was in fact right and she was wrong.

He asked why his coworker was always doing this, looking for opportunities to point out his short-comings and insisting she was right because she was born here.
“Some people,” I said, “just have to feel smarter than someone in the room.” The whole class laughed with recognition.

Amok: Do you use poetry in your ESL classroom? How and why? How do your students react to poetry?

Elkin: My students are at the basic level of English acquisition, rather like the base layer of meat in a club sandwich, so imagistic or ambiguous poetry is beyond their grasp. Sometimes, though, I teach them simple childhood chants such as Rain, Rain Go Away, and they like to read the lyrics to popular songs on YouTube. Because they’ve already encountered the words so many times in the real world, they can focus on vocabulary and grammatical structures.

Amok: There are so many stories in World Class of students who touched you. Why did you decide to turn these stories into a book of poems? What do you hope readers will take away from these stories, and from your experiences?

Elkin: The collection began with two stories that haunted me for months before I was able to write them: “Young Means Forever Unchanging” about a seemingly hopeless student who demonstrated progress in a most poetic fashion, and “Adios Fernan,” about a student whose unexpected departure saddened and worried me. Once I told their stories, the others came pouring out as if I’d opened a faucet, and I realized I had created a profile of a unique segment of American society that we all need to understand.

The immigration story that is as old as our country continues today. It just wears different garments. Even if I never publish another word, if I can help 1,000 readers to appreciate the immigrant population and their shared human condition, I will consider my writing career a success. 

Thanks to Jane and her publisher, Baltimore's Apprentice House, for giving me permission to share "Adios, Fernan" today.

Adios Fernan
by J. C. Elkin

Fernan wears his cap Gangsta-style.
Tall and strong and proud
and much less sure than he looks.
He stays after class with questions,
too shy to ask in class.

A waiter who can’t take orders,
he thrusts his notebook at me.
“What drinks you want? You write.”
It’s more command than request
but his smile is pure gratitude.

One day he stays to tell me
he must go bury his mom.
Home to El Meximala.
Who knows when he’ll return –
if he ever returns.
I don’t know if he’s legal.

I picture him sprinting at night
trying to cross the border.
Mentally cheer him on,
though once I’d have been livid.
When did I change my mind?

Vaya con Dios, my friend.
Your seat is empty today
but will be filled tomorrow
with another young dreamer.
The wait-list is long as the fence.

Jane Elkin is the founder and facilitator of The Broadneck Writers’ Workshop, as well as a theater critic and essayist for the Bay Weekly. Her prose and poetry have appeared in such journals as Kestrel, Kansas City Voices, Off the Coast and Ducts, and she has won awards with the Maryland Writers’ Association, Poetry Matters, and the Poetry Society of New Hampshire. A self-proclaimed Renaissance Woman, she works as a language teacher, singer, and handwriting analyst. 

Jane has a hot-off-the-presses copy of World Class for one lucky reader. Leave a comment on this post, and you will be in a drawing to win the book. I'll announce winners on Monday.

If you don't win, help support the student run press Apprentice House by purchasing World Class through their website after 2/1: Want to know more about the nation's only publishing house run  entirely by students? Of course you do! Go here to get the scoop.

Thanks for visiting, Jane! Congratulations on World Class
J. C. Elkin featured at Bay Weekly online.


jama said...

Thanks for the introduction to Jane's new book and the wonderful interview and sample poem. It's definitely important to promote deeper understanding of today's immigrant population. Happy Pub Day tomorrow, Jane!

Liz Steinglass said...

Congratulations to JC and to Laura thank you for sharing. These students' stories and points-of-view must be heard. I was particularly struck by the line "The wait-list as long as the fence."

Tara said...

Congratulations, Jane - and thank you for sharing your poetry and your teaching life with us today. Like Liz, the last line of your poem really stuck with me - that's the sad and hopeful truth. So many people in search of a better life.

Nancy Rex said...

Congratulations, Jane! So excited for you and proud of you--thank you for sharing your gifts in such a way that you give us a window into the world of present-day immigrants.

Author Amok said...

The final simile in "Adios, Fernan" breaks my heart every time I read it. I'm so glad I'll be able to share Jane's book with one of you. She is a master of the portrait poem and this is a community I enjoyed learning more about.

Linda B said...

I'd love to have had this book a few years ago when my class studied immigration, Laura and Jane. It sounds as if it will be a beautiful enlightening for us. I have helped several immigrants who cared for my husband in a nursing home, and heard some of the challenges, both in the English language & in their immigrant status-trying very hard to be accepted, & working hard to have more education! Thanks for sharing and congratulations on your book, Jane!

Author Amok said...

I'm glad the topic of Jane's book spoke to you, Linda. Seeing immigrants as individual people, hearing their stories, that's what World Class is all about.

Author Amok said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mary Lee said...

What a fabulous collection, and huzzah for the publishing company!

That last line of Adios, Fernan is a zinger!

Heidi Mordhorst said...

I think Jane's job must be one of the most fascinating in the world--people from all over, often with dramatic stories, invested in learning something new as adults. I can't wait to read this book. And I do love that multilayered title! Thanks for introducing us, Laura.

Author Amok said...

Heidi, I agree. All of us teachers are really community stewards, right? The classroom is -- for its hour or its schoolyear -- a community of individuals working together.

Catherine said...

"The immigration story that is as old as our country continues today." This is such an important point! Thank you for sharing the story of Janet and her students.

Doraine said...

Such a beautiful collection of stories told in poems. Thank you Jane and Laura for sharing.