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USM Voices: Stonecoast MFA student teaching on the island of Lesvos

Stonecoast MFA student Becky Thompson

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Story by Stonecoast MFA student Becky Thompson

On the island of Lesvos, the Aegean Sea keeps you honest—the most powerful of bodies, the source of the island’s bounty of fish, a border between shores with a long history of dangerous crossings.

Lesvos, the closest Greek island to the coast of Turkey, has been the heart of migration from the Middle East and Africa since 2015. I initially came here to work with an elder yogini on a writing project, only I quickly became part of a grassroots effort to welcome and guide people coming from Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Palestine, and later Sudan, Eritrea, Somalia and other countries. For the first several months, I wrote for the international press about what became the forced migration of a half million people to this tiny island in less than a year. What was eventually labeled a “refugee crisis” (a problematic term since it puts the onus on refugees, rather than on the geopolitical conditions that force people to leave their homes), I came to see as the biggest multilingual, intergenerational peace march since WWII.  Three trips to Greece later, I went mute, not wanting to be part of any more writing “about” refugees (as if they cannot speak for themselves). My sadness and outrage eventually led me back to poetry. First, I co-edited a volume with the Palestinian poet Jehan Bseiso, Making Mirrors: Righting/Writing by and For Refugees, which included offering workshops in several camps/centers to help generate poems by people in transit. Then, I turned back to my own poems.

The Grandmothers, student imageI applied to Stonecoast last summer (2018), based on a whim that became a whisper and then a psychic shout for guidance to write poems about this “atlas in transit.” Some part of me knew then I would need new skills as I tried to do justice to what I had witnessed: families who pushed grandmothers in wheelchairs up mountain roads; parents who held their shivering babies; and what it felt like to wave my hands above my head on the shore so people in the rafts could see where to land on gentle sand. I needed help to get words on the page that might resonate with those I had walked with, have met in workshops, have come to call friends. 

It was an act of faith to apply to Stonecoast at this point in my life. (Could I make the time to write before dawn for two years before my “day job”; would they support political poetry; could I find people willing to “be” with my intense-feeling, insecure self; could I afford it?) I come from a culture where I am supposed to figure things out on my own. To admit that, with this project, I needed help was a big deal. 

A year into this adventure, I can honestly say there is no way the words coming onto the page would have arrived were it not for the mentorship I’ve been granted, particularly that of Katherine Larson. She has lovingly helped me sit, listen, swim, talk, walk, and cry through this writing process. I didn’t know where I was stuck in my writing until she showed me. For example, as an intellectual trained as a sociologist and an activist, historical accuracy matters. I thought using my imagination might betray people’s stories/lives. I didn’t yet know that imagination can carry us to deeper truths at the level of feeling and spirit. Imagination helps people stay alive when they are living in containers, in limbo for months, years, at a time, unclaimed by any country. The same with poets, we need our imaginations to write poems that can move us beyond rhetoric, into a place of human resilience, audacity, love. 

USM student, travel imagesI also needed to learn more about my craft. This has been humbling for someone who has been teaching poetry for more than a minute.  Early on, Sonia Sanchez taught me that writing haiku is a way to hold difficult subjects in beautiful small packages. ( I think it was also her way to cure me of academic language.) For “Atlas in Transit” (working title, current manuscript) I need other formal poetic forms as well—villanelle, ghazal, pantoum. I also needed guidance in how to work with voices of feeling unworthy to the task of this subject. From my mentor I have been gifted with substantive letters about craft, generous phone calls, line-by-line edits, exceptionally high standards, and her willingness to see vulnerability as a strength.  

For those of us who find ourselves on the edges of life—as we witness the courage and ingenuity of people who have risked their lives to save their lives, as they live in containers, as they take their children to the poetry classes and hold them in their arms even as they struggle to write in a completely new language—poetry allows us to drop into a deeper register. The MFA program is giving me the time to widen my study of the legacy of poets conscience—Akhmatova, Ping, Wolpé, Borzutsky, Kaminsk—to add them to the list of poets I have already been teaching—Forché, Sanchez, Nye, Jordan, Espada, Hikmet, and Lorde. And to study poets who might not be considered “political,” whose words plummet and soar. 

In 2015, the “work” here in Lesvos was to sneak families in tinted SUVs across the island at dawn to safety before police barricades. We ran to shore to meet rafts, watched families celebrate their safe passage, and listened for boat engines at 4:00 in the morning. I looped people’s satchels onto the handlebars of my clunker bike and walked up the mountain pass with families. In 2019, over 12,000 people are “stuck” in Lesvos, in tents, containers and on the streets of Mytilini, waiting for the achingly slow asylum process. Most wait for more than a year before they see a UN official for the first time. All live with the threat of deportation. Families face being split right down the middle as some members are granted asylum while others are denied. 

Becky ThompsonThis summer and last, I have been teaching poetry and storytelling classes in refugee centers in Mytilini (the biggest “city” in Lesvos).  In the spring, I assembled a packet of poems in English, Dari and Arabic. Most of the families coming to class are from Afghanistan. The first day I learned that the interpreter I had been assigned, Naweed Balkhi, was a professor in Afghanistan and speaks Dari, Farsi, English, and Hindi. By the second class, we were co-teaching, a far better model given his multiple talents.  In the storytelling class, a cosmopolitan, Afghan woman who had been translating from Dari to English has been joined by an Afghan writer who now lives in Barcelona who translates from Pashto and Dari into English. The women who come have taken courage to a whole new level with their fierce, storytelling selves. The session is in a storeroom brimming with 100’s of stacked suitcases and a whole wall of cardboard boxes that are collapsing into each other. We propped two fans on the boxes so there is some ventilation in this windowless room.  The women share about hiding their infants in forests, surviving the rafts, and how they gather tree limbs from outside of the camp to cook their food. In her poem “Mediterranean Blue” Naomi Shihab Nye writes, about refugees, “They are the bravest people on earth right now//. Each mind a universe.” 

Becky Thompson Ph.D. is the author of several scholarly books, including, most recently Teaching with Tenderness: Toward an Embodied Practice and Survivors on the Yoga Mat: Stories for Those Healing from Trauma. Her poetry includes Zero is the Whole I Fall into at Night  (editor’s choice) and two co-edited volumes, Making Mirrors: Righting/Writing by and For Refugees, with Jehan Bseiso and Fingernails Across the Chalkboard: Poetry and Prose on HIV/AIDS from the Black Diaspora with Randall Horton. She is currently co-editing a volume on the life and legacy of June Jordan and is an MFA student at Stonecoast 

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