Arts, Culture & Media

Poetry and hope in Haiti

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Photo of young writer Assephie Petit-Frere (by Jeb Sharp)

This story was originally covered by PRI's The World. For more, listen to the audio above.

By Jeb Sharp

It was just a few days before the anniversary of the earthquake. I had been invited to attend a meeting of a youth writing group in Port-au-Prince.

American graduate student Laura Wagner helped start the group. She was living in Haiti at the time of the quake.

Like so many others, she was trapped under the rubble and injured. In the aftermath she wanted to do something that felt useful. She teamed up with her friend Marlene Jean-Pierre, a student and community organizer, and the group was born.

"It's a very open place," says Laura Wagner. "People know each other; they talk about things without a lot of reservations or fear. One of the rules of the group is that the texts go out, but what happens in the group stays in the group. I think in a lot of ways it's actually kind of therapeutic. It's not conceived that way and we're not professional therapists, but it's sort of a place to meet and talk about things."

The writers range in age from 16 to 25. Most are students, a couple are teachers. Some go by names like G-Love and Atom.

They meet most Saturday afternoons in this a classroom in an elementary school in Pont Rouge, not far from Cite Soleil.

News reports don't usually describe Cite Soleil in flattering terms -- outsiders generally regard it as a crime-ridden slum -- but these young people want you to know it's also a vibrant neighborhood full of creativity and talent.

They've called themselves the Konbit des Jeunes Penseurs -- the Gathering of Young Thinkers.

Marlene Jean-Pierre explains that these are people who aren't in art school or performing arts school, but who know how to write really well, are very expressive and have lots of opinions about their community.

"The idea is to have a place where they can come together to express a new vision for their country," she says.

And they do that by reading Haitian literature and writing their own poems and stories -- about the earthquake, about cholera, about religion, but also about life and love and sex.

Laura Wagner says there's also a lot of teasing.

"Haitians joke a lot," she says. "When they're comfortable with you they'll make fun of you, which is why when I'm late I have to sing."

Marlene Jean-Pierre smiles and says she thinks the group laughs too much sometimes. But on this occasion, just a few days before the anniversary of the earthquake, there's not a lot of laughing, at least not yet.

People straggle in. The tone is subdued. It's the same all over the city. People are bracing themselves.

Laura Wagner asks where everyone is. It turns out some of the group are late because they're preparing a special performance.

I'm here to sit in on a regular meeting, but it looks as if today's meeting will be irregular. Still, the delay gives me time to interview a member of the group, 19 year old poet Assephie Petit-Frere.

But first she peppers me with questions. What's your name? How old are you? Are you married? How many kids do you have? What is your goal as a journalist? When I tell her I hope journalism makes things better, she says, "In Haiti, our leadership lacks responsibility for the people."

I ask her what happened to her during the earthquake.

"I was at school," Petit-Frere says. "We were writing. The teacher was in front of the class. One student said 'What was that?' Then everyone felt the ground shaking.

"I was on the second floor," she continues, "and I felt as though my feet were going into the ground. The school collapsed but not evenly. The floor above us fell on the students at the front of the class. I saw a hole and crawled out. And then I saw the whole four story school had fallen. Everybody was crying Jesus Jesus and when I got out I thanked God I was alive. I had survived."

I ask Assephie Petit-Frere if she'll read one of her poems for me. It's called Cruel Love. She doesn't have a copy with her so we use my iPhone to pull up the group's website.

She reads the poem off the tiny screen. It is indeed about cruel love, and betrayal and loss. Eventually everyone arrives and the session begins, about an hour later than usual.

It's a simple piece but the effect is powerful. A couple of people leave the room in tears. Others go out to console them.

Marlene turns to me and says, "If you'd been here during the earthquake, you'd be crying too." I suddenly feel self-conscious, not sure whether I should keep recording. The writers invited me here to witness their weekly meeting, not to expose their pain.

A few minutes pass. The room fills back up. And what happens next transforms the room. Laura Wagner translates for me: "They've promised they're going to do a text that's going to make people not sad anymore."

People start reading silly poems and telling jokes, about anything and everything, about women, about breadfruit, about a young man, eager to impress his new girlfriend's family, trying to blame his farts on the dog. Unsuccessfully.

Soon everyone is spluttering with laughter. Some people are doubled over. The grief dissipates, stamped out by all the hilarity. Now I understand what poet Assephie Petit-Frere told me earlier.

"I like the group," she says. "Ever since we came together, we've been happy. If you have a problem, it goes away."

For the moment at least. Laura Wagner wrote about the meeting in an essay for an anthropology blog a few days later. She noted that the laughter wasn't necessarily inspirational. She writes: "It doesn't allow us to say, you see, they've still got laughter. Everything is going to be all right in Haiti."

That's for sure. But as Wagner also points out, humor does allow these young people to assert their humanity.

To control their own stories a bit. And to laugh at all the awfulness around them.

One of the main goals of the writing group is to project a different image of Haiti than the one you see on the news. These young artists yearn to be seen as full human beings, not just victims.

Laura Wagner wants that for them too. She translates their material into English and posts it on the group's website. "I'm like their agent," she says.

"But they do all the work."


PRI's "The World" is a one-hour, weekday radio news magazine offering a mix of news, features, interviews, and music from around the globe. "The World" is a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston. More about The World.

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