Friday, March 07, 2008

Poetry and citizenship and mashups

This is the week—some 42 years ago—that I became an American citizen. I was remembering the day fondly, and decided to make a poetry connection. I was 10 years old and my German-born parents were becoming naturalized citizens, so I was, too. I remember getting out of school, going to the Dallas courthouse, the seriousness and the celebration, and the chocolate milk shake that followed. What a day! A few years later, as a teenager, I helped my Oma (grandmother) master enough American history in broken English to pass the questions that were asked of her as she became an American citizen, too. This is the little old lady who stood up to Hitler and was a German refugee fleeing with five children and an elderly mother in tow. I am still touched when I see swearing in ceremonies and look at all the different faces that are proud to call the United States home. I know it may seem corny, but this is very real in my family.

And there are many poets who have written about their feelings about this country, both good and bad. Maybe that’s why I love Langston Hughes and his “I, too am America” poem—although I recognize a very different struggle there. Or why I relate to Janet Wong’s poem, “Speak up” about kids taunting a child who speaks another language. Many Latino/Latina poets have addressed this issue of immigration, language difference, and cultural assimilation in their work, including Pat Mora, Gary Soto, Juan Felipe Herrera, and Francisco X. Alarcón. One poetry collection that really speaks to me on this issue is Monica Gunning’s America, My New Home (San Francisco, CA: Children’s Book Press, 2004). Although Gunning is my mother’s age, and comes from Jamaica not Germany, her poems speak with wonder about the contrasts between her old home and new home, and about the challenges in straddling old ways and new, in ways that echo my own experiences and emotions. Across cultures, there are still children for whom “home” is a very real question, whose families talk seriously about loyalty and identity, and who walk the tightrope of keeping family traditions while being “real” Americans.

I looked for the perfect poem to share and decided to try an experiment. My 19 year old son has been educating me about “mashups,” a new trend in music to blend parts of many different songs into one. It’s led to interesting discussions between us about artistic freedom and copyright infringement, but it has also prompted me to think about what that might look and feel like in other arts—like poetry. So, with all due respect to two fantastic poets, Langston Hughes and Walt Whitman, here is a “mashup” of two of their poems meshed into one: “I, Too” and “I Hear America Singing.”

I, too, sing America.
I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear;

I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen

When company comes,

But I laugh,

And eat well,

And grow strong.

I'll be at the table

When company comes.

Nobody'll dare

Say to me,
"Eat in the kitchen,"



They'll see how beautiful I am

And be ashamed—

I, too, sing America.
I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear;
Those of mechanics—each one singing his, as it should be, blithe and strong;

The carpenter singing his, as he measures his plank or beam,

The mason singing his, as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work;

The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat—the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck;
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench—the hatter singing as he stands;
The wood-cutter’s song—the ploughboy’s, on his way in the morning, or at the noon intermission, or at sundown;

The delicious singing of the mother—or of the young wife at work—or of the girl sewing or washing—Each singing what belongs to her, and to none else;

The day what belongs to the day—At night, the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,

Singing, with open mouths, their strong melodious songs.

I, too, am America.

Thank you, Langston and Walt. Langston’s words are in brown and Walt’s are in green. FYI. What do you think? Is this poetry sacrilege? Or new and innovative? I’m not sure…

Join the rest of the Poetry Friday Round Up at The Simple and The Ordinary.

Picture credit: Me at 5, attending kindergarten in Germany


Christine M said...

What a lovely tribute!

laurasalas said...

Sylvia--Love your mash-up--And thank you for sharing your citizenship story. What an adorable photo!

Sylvia Vardell said...

Thank you both. I appreciate your kind words!

Joyce said...

Sylvia, I love this melding of two poets who, I believe, would have seen eye-to-eye. Good for you to experiment with a couple of classics!

anniedc said...

I like the mash-up. Whitman's poem has come to mind recently for me, too. I've been thinking about citizenship lately as I am completing papers to become a permanent resident of Japan in order to be able to stay here with our children if something should happen to my husband. I'm not being asked to give up U.S. citizenship but the step has been one that I've put off for some time. Maybe there's a poem in there...

Sylvia Vardell said...

Hi, Joyce and Annie-- thank you for stopping by and your lovely comments!

Beth Enochs said...

Dr. V - My stepchildren have just received Hungarian citizenship, so now they're dual citizens. It was important to their mother because it represented a very real end to the kind of life she lived growing up in Hungary under Soviet rule. When she became an American citizen ten years ago, the boys were so proud of her. The oldest's class recited part of I hear America singing when she brought the boys back to school from the ceremony, and they had a cake. I love the mashup! That's a poetry presentation strategy that would draw a reluctant high schooler out of a sulk so fast it would make his head spin.

Sylvia Vardell said...

Thanks for the compliment, Beth-- and for sharing that lovely story!

Jason said...

What a timely post. I stumbled upon your blog while researching print-form mashups. My students are collaboratively creating poetry mashups from their personal essays. We're recording our poems as part of a classroom podcast with the Nebraska Writing Project. Thanks for the example.

Jason McIntosh
University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Sylvia Vardell said...

Thanks for stopping by-- and for sharing your connection. Sounds like your students are doing some great stuff with poetry!