From Poetry Magazine

Contributors to the April “Exophony” Issue Share Poetry Stories

By Holly Amos
The text, "I am the plural / who walks to you / as a singular one" appears in gray on a white background and is credited to Dunya Mikhail.

We invited contributors from the April “Exophony” issue to tell us how they began writing poetry in a “non-native,” or second, or other language, and why (in 100 words or fewer). Here are their responses. You can read responses to a previous prompt on the Editors Blog, and responses to a third and final prompt will appear next week.

Abdulkareem Abdulkareem
Writing poetry in a “non-native” language, I can say, is an automatic thing as a Nigerian. The English language was adopted as our official language above our major three Nigerian languages: Igbo, Yorùbá, and Hausa. As a country colonized by Britain, it was automatic because everything poetry I’ve read was written in English. From Wole Soyinka, Niyi Osundare, Chinua Achebe, and others. Their writings are all in English. Also, the literature-related course we do in our secondary school is titled “Literature-in-English,” which means everything we did in literature is in English. It’s an automatic thing. 

Jeffrey Angles
My poetic journey started with translation, that metaphysical, linguistic act that welcomes another, external voice into one’s body, allowing it to occupy and speak through oneself for just a moment.  At first, translating was an end-in-itself, but over time, the voices left something inside—fragments of ideas, phrases, and sounds that echoed and formed unexpected chords, giving me a new music to sing. 

Dani Charles
I had assumed the mainstay language of the university I was attending—until the production rate of my writing out-rigored me, overthinking every iota of the page, and saw to it that I accidentally turned in one of my unedited pieces for a workshop somewhere down the line. I received a lot of reading recommendations and new insight on the functionality of giving in, selectively. 

Moriana Delgado
Fall in Beijing, 2016. English became the vector that moved me through a city order-traced in characters where writing poetry, in that form of laowai-ish lingua franca, arose in me like a vessel too, not for what it contained, but for how it translated me: a conjugation of “I” I could only acquaint through that other form my tongue touched the palate-shell: a bridge to that self my-self had sprouted.

Michael Dumanis
In middle school I needed to recite something for English class. My father insisted I memorize a Robert Louis Stevenson ballad he loved growing up, “Heather Ale: A Galloway Legend,” where a brewer would rather have his son thrown from a cliff than disclose his ale’s secrets to Scottish invaders. The recitation was a humiliating ordeal, yet I was swept up by the ballad’s rhythm, its cadences and vernacular locutions, and started attempting disaffected metrical poems in English. I was particularly excited by English’s syntax—so rigid compared to syntax in Russian!—I kept trying to test and disrupt it.

Ukata Edwardson
I don’t think I know how I started writing in English, because it has been the language one was forced into very early enough. Being the standard language of Nigeria instead of the diverse tongues, and Pidgin, I had only the choices of writing or doing every other thing in it, or face degradation—we sort of take foreign things too seriously here, often times more than ourselves, and our things. As for writing in French and Español, I just had to have my poems in other languages, because it’s properly beautiful to possess diversity. 

Atar Hadari
The first English poem I wrote that I remember was written when I arrived in English junior school around eight, and it was a song the speaker was crafting to their canoe (I didn’t have a canoe). At sixteen I wrote a pastiche of Keatss “Ode to a Nightingale,” as a love poem about a girl in my class. Then at eighteen not a pastiche but a derivative of Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and “Portrait of a Lady” rolled into one, also a love song. My first pastiche published was a man talking to a paid companion about a woman he can’t approach in the manner of Browning’s “My Last Duchess.” Eventually I abandoned ventriloquism to take up translation of the native language in the manner of the English dead. The point being that I started with ventriloquism, moved to ventriloquism in translation, and abandoned ventriloquism (largely) in my own poetry. Although you might say the poem in the April issue is in the voice of my mother—so maybe still ventriloquism but only of the living!

Somto Ihezue
I think the very first poem I ever wrote was titled “Joseph” and it was in response to slavery in contemporary Africa. It was a blend of both Igbo and the English language.

Jack Jung
When I was lucky enough to get into a poetry workshop in college, I still wasn’t sure if it was possible to learn poetry. I wrote a short piece describing my mother’s eyes. My workshop teacher, Jorie Graham, set me down and showed me how I could make different line breaks and change some word orders. Suddenly, my mother’s eyes were singing on the page. I didn’t know English could do that. And I knew I had to learn how to do this.

Dong Li
I went to the desert and survived. Far from home, the longing rolls out like tumbleweeds in a cutting wind. Imagine a shipwreck. So I ate clouds and picked sounds from gnarled pines. The thirst would not let up. 

Mayowa Oyewale
I started writing poetry in the English language in secondary school. My first poem was co-written with friends, and it was all rhyme scheme. I had a friend who always rapped in alphabetical order, so I wrote an abecedarian long before I knew it was a thing in poetry. I could only write poetry in English because, due to the systemic hegemony of this colonial language, few of us could barely write in our native language(s). And, like the novelist Chinua Achebe once said, “There is no other choice. I have been given this language and I intend to use it.” 

Suphil Lee Park
I decided, at a point, that language shouldn’t matter. To be fair, South Korea has a multilingual history. We used Chinese characters for writing until our own alphabet became widely accepted; Chinese characters were still in use in twentieth-century Korea. This tradition still remains in many forms, such as Korean names that consist of Chinese characters, or public schools that teach ancient Korean literature written in Chinese characters. During imperial Japan’s occupation of Korea, Koreans communicated in Japanese in public, so my grandparents’ generation also tends to be fluent in Japanese. In a way, it’s written in my DNA.

Sasha Pimentel
Imperialism and migration!

Sara Abou Rashed
When we finished our Odyssey unit in English class, I wrote a poem as my final project. I had always been a poet in Arabic, but that was my first attempt in English, so when I looked up from the page after nervously reading it to my classmates and found my teacher crying, I assumed it was because of how terrible a job I did. The poem was full of incorrect grammar, mixed idioms, misspellings. But, thankfully, I was wrong; she cried because of how touched she felt, and insisted I join the writing club every Wednesday during lunch.

Öykü Tekten
Cemal Süreya was a member of The Second New Generation, an avant garde poetry movement that began in the mid-fifties in Turkey. He lost the second “y” in his surname in a bet over love and his entire childhood to the Dersim Massacre of 1937-38, one of the bloodiest against the Kurds by the Turkish State. This bitter-sweet poem of his in my own translation (translated with permission of the publisher Can Yayınları) is the briefest way to answer a rather complicated question:

 a short history of turkey #IV

during those years in our country
with various provisions
out of seventy-two languages
two were prohibited:

the second was turkish.

Laura Theis
School books aside, I think I first fell properly in love with the English language through song lyrics. I remember being twelve or thirteen years old and obsessively trying to detangle the meaning of the beautiful, poetic, often obscure words in Fiona Apple’s CD-booklets with the help of a dictionary. I was convinced that if I wanted to write my own songs, it would be impossible to do it in German. So I wrote English diary entries and fragments that turned into songs, and my adopted language has helped me find the words for what I want to say ever since.  

Shash Trevett
I left Sri Lanka in 1988 after the brutal intervention of the Indian Peace Keeping Force. Under them, I learnt to fear the Tamil language itself. People stopped speaking Tamil on the streets, switching to English, a neutral language. My mother, when negotiating with the Indian soldiers for food or safe passage, or when pleading with them as they lined us up to be shot, spoke to them in Hindi. When I arrived in the UK as a deeply traumatized refugee, I did not speak for six months. When my words returned, they were English words, and I made peace with them.

Zêdan Xelef
I read and reread my father’s Arabic books when I was a teenager. During those years I was sculpting and painting. When I was displaced in 2014 after a genocidal campaign targeted at my people, I was resettled with my family in an IDP camp where we all, a family of eight, lived in a tent. I did not have enough space, nor desire, to practice sculpting or painting anymore, so I took refuge in writing. I started writing in Arabic in my cellphone’s notes during my walks. My writing in Kurmanji was my way to make sense of minor memories from my early childhood as I obtained children’s literacy textbooks with evocative words. Meanwhile my writing in English was a learning exercise.

Khaty Xiong
In Hmong, I had a hard time understanding who I was and where I lived inside that language. The language itself is one of resilience and survival, and yet I didn’t feel as though I had earned it, even when my parents gifted it to me. I would speak the words and feel the heaviness in them, but it was too lonely. I turned to English because everyone seemed to speak it so freely, and so I began to write poetry in this “non-native” language. I learned very quickly that the heaviness would find its way back anyway through translation.