Merna Ann Hecht and Our Table of Memories

Merna Ann Hecht
Mer­na Ann Hecht

When one poet, Mer­na Ann Hecht, and one edu­ca­tor, Car­rie Stradley, observed their com­mu­ni­ty, their schools, their stu­dents, and real­ized that a pletho­ra of life expe­ri­ences sur­round­ed them, they put their teach­ing and their hearts togeth­er to cre­ate The Sto­ries of Arrival: Refugee and Immi­grant Youth Voic­es Poet­ry Project at Fos­ter High School, in Tuk­wila, Washington.

These weren’t typ­i­cal high school sto­ries. Instead, these stu­dents have expe­ri­ences of leav­ing their homes, their friends, their schools, their coun­tries … to emi­grate to Amer­i­ca, where life is often astound­ing­ly different.

Encour­ag­ing these Eng­lish Lan­guage Learn­ing stu­dents, more than 240 of them over the past six years from 30 coun­tries, to com­mu­ni­cate their sto­ries through poet­ry helps to empow­er them to find their voic­es and move con­fi­dent­ly into their cho­sen futures (a para­phrase of the project’s mission).

Stories of Our Arrival

Com­bine this project with anoth­er, Project Feast, and you have not only a cook­book of world­wide appeal but a book of poet­ry that is often eye-open­ing, com­pas­sion­ate, and heartrend­ing. A recipe for under­stand­ing. A taste of the mem­o­ries, trav­els, and long­ing behind the poets’ words.

Togeth­er with their part­ners The Insti­tute for Poet­ic Med­i­cine (Palo Alto, CA), the Jack Straw Cul­tur­al Cen­ter (Seat­tle, WA), and Chatwin Books (Seat­tle, WA), these two women and their projects have cre­at­ed Our Table of Mem­o­ries: Food & Poet­ry of Spir­it, Home­land & Tra­di­tion. It’s a beau­ti­ful book, part poet­ry by high school stu­dents, part recipes from the tra­di­tion­al cooks from their coun­tries, and part art with illus­tra­tions by Mor­gan Wright, a recent col­lege grad­u­ate, new­ly enrolled in New York City’s Bank Street Col­lege to pur­sue her Mas­ter of Arts in teach­ing.

By pub­lish­ing this inter­view with Mer­na Hecht, it is the hope of Bookol­o­gy’s edi­tors that you will be inspired to con­sid­er a pro­gram like this in your own com­mu­ni­ty. Feel free to con­tact Mer­na with your questions.

  Can you tell us a bit about your life, in particular what pulled you toward poetry?

 There is not a moment I can recall when I wasn’t pulled toward poetry. I first heard the incantatory rhythms of poems from my grandfather who gave beautiful, memorized recitations of Longfellow and John Greenleaf Whittier. I think it was second grade when I began writing rhymed poems. Those childhood poems were shaped by what then seemed the magic of the natural world. Noticing details of bugs, petals, leaves, cracks in the sidewalks on my way to and from school often made me late. At the time it seemed like a secret world. Now I think that early impulse for close observation and a deeply private inner world have shaped the poet I’ve become. I have always turned toward poetry to nourish my spirit. As a young woman, I began to read many different poets who spoke to me, challenged me, provoked me and opened my eyes and heart to the beauty and suffering of the world; I’ve not stopped turning these pages. Poetry is the place where I find a wellspring for expression of what seems most tender, most true and most unsayable. 

How did you find your way to teaching?

By a somewhat gnarled and twisted path and I’m so glad I got there! I was a registered nurse by the age of 21 and worked for five years as a pediatric nurse. I usually carried finger puppets in my pockets and offered impromptu storied puppet shows at children’s bedsides. Then came a realization that I much preferred the storytelling and puppets to the nursing! “The rest is history,” from working with midwives on the Navaho reservation, to jaunting about as a puppeteer and poet in the schools in rural Idaho, to earning a Masters Degree as a children’s librarian. Under the tutelage of master storyteller, Professor Spencer Shaw at the University of WA, I fell in love with the art and craft of tale-spinning. Fast forward to working as a children’s librarian for Seattle Public Library to my first formal teaching job in a progressive teacher certification program and onward to becoming a teaching artist and a university lecturer.

You’re nationally known as a storyteller. In 2008, the National Storytelling Network presented you with their Brimstone Award for Applied Storytelling, with which you created a pilot program as a poet and storyteller at Bridges: A Center for Grieving Children in Tacoma. Can you tell us about applied storytelling? What does that mean and how do your stories work toward that specific application?

These days, storytellers show up in many places: detention centers, hospitals, war torn countries at centers for young people in trauma and drug rehab facilities for teens. These raconteurs bring the age old pleasure of listening to a tale well told. This allows young people (and all of us) to temporarily walk in someone else’s shoes; it sparks the imagination to life. Through ancient patterns of myth and folktales stories can allow a trust in possibilities to take hold. To apply storytelling in settings for young people and adults who have experienced loss or trauma helps create safe space and gathering places where deep listening can occur. There are universal truths in stories from all cultures. Many stories reflect the inevitability of loss in human life and they speak to our interconnectedness to each other, to animals, trees, the moon, the stars and to mysteries beyond us. In this way stories can ease a sense of isolation and loneliness. Finding the right story for a situation, a group, or an individual is part of applying storytelling to special settings and using stories to help others trust that they can overcome obstacles and find their inner strength and courage.

What drew you toward working with refugee and immigrant children?

The short answer is that these young people are my teachers! Their determination to succeed in high school, continue on to college and contribute to this country and/or to return to their homeland to help others inspires me and gives me hope. They dream of becoming doctors, nurses, peace-makers, environmentalists, actors, pilots and they do not bemoan the difficulties they have experienced at such a young age. Loss of family members, life in refugee camps, forced migrations, lack of enough food, health care, education and still they are model citizens. They are young people who are hopeful, curious, and deeply kind who wish to help create a more peaceful, humane world.

Stories of Our Arrival poets
The Sto­ries of Our Arrival poets. Edu­ca­tors Car­rie Stradley (front row, left) and Mer­na Hecht (front row, sec­ond from right) feel priv­i­leged to have worked with more than 240 stu­dents over the past six years from 30 countries.

You’re an organic gardener with respect for food traditions. How did this inspire you for Project Feast and how did the idea of the cookbook, Our Table of Memories, with poetry and illustrations come into being?

Our Table of MemoriesWhen I heard about Project Feast and found that it was located within a mile of the school my idea for a collaboration sprang in part from years of “hands on” intensive gardening and cooking and from a passion for exploring different ways people across the globe prepare and share food. This love of cross cultural food is something Carrie and I share. When she heard the idea for collaborating with Project Feast her eyes lit up with a “yes!” We both recognize that when people leave their homelands, a deep sense of home remains with them, in part, with eating and growing the foods of their cultures. We felt that a food-themed project would generate a rich outpouring of poems. Given that food and poetry both speak languages of flavor, scent, spice, texture, and color we wanted to include illustrations that would reflect the sensory feel of the poems—to create a presentation much like a memorable meal which the eye feasts upon before the palette! We also wanted to celebrate our students and the refugee women of Project Feast by including beloved recipes from their memories, their families and their homelands.

 Can you share a particular story from this Project that gave everyone hope?

One of Carrie’s ELL classes had fourteen boys and only two girls. Hope certainly flourishes when a group of adolescent boys, all refugees from different countries, cultures and ethnicities, openly support and applaud each other for writing poems that are vulnerable and emotionally expressive. Hope flourishes when they tell us that they’ve found their voices and a way to tell their stories through poetry. At the project’s conclusion those who wished to apply for a scholarship were asked to reflect on what they learned from poetry. Their replies filled us with hope and in truth, with tears, here are a few short excerpts:

Khai, from Burma

I can speak the truth in the poem I wrote… Poems will make oth­er peo­ple under­stand us (immi­grants). As an immi­grant and a lot of oth­ers who are just like me, we have a vast­ly hard life… One of the ways that we can explain our painful past is only by a POEM, it is the only way to make a con­nec­tion with every­one; poems make us two in one. Poems are vast­ly cru­cial to all of us because poems are ALIVE! There is peace, love, friends, fam­i­ly, and much more in a poem. This is why poems are extreme­ly impor­tant to us (immi­grants) and to every­one who has a heart.

Abdi A.
Abdi A.

Abdi A., from Somalia

I was born in a refugee camp in Dadaab, Kenya, and lived there most of my life. Writ­ing poems helped me remem­ber and appre­ci­ate what I have now and also helped non-immi­grants to have a bet­ter under­stand­ing of what is it real­ly like to be a young boy with a hope­less dream of becom­ing a doc­tor. I remem­ber a white man who worked with the IOM ask­ing me what my dream was and I told him I want­ed to be a doc­tor and laughed at myself because I thought it was ridicu­lous and ‘’too big’’ for some­one like me. But here I am today liv­ing a hap­py life and work­ing towards my dream… Poet­ry does­n’t just show us how much we share, it helps us see the world in an entire­ly dif­fer­ent way. When I heard Kang Pu’s poem about how his mom died and the strug­gle that his fam­i­ly had and how the gov­ern­ment didn’t even help, I under­stood him bet­ter… Poet­ry is uni­ver­sal. ELLs can learn about or read poet­ry in their pri­ma­ry lan­guage, help­ing them bridge their worlds… I plan on going to a four-year col­lege and I still have that dream of becom­ing a doc­tor, so I can go back home one day and help the sick and the needy.

Has there been an effort made to replicate this project in other high schools around the country?

This is a next step that project co-director and ELL teacher extraordinaire, Carrie and I have wanted and intend to accomplish. Along with the wonderful engagement and sage advice of John Fox, founder/director of the Institute for Poetic Medicine, (we are proudly an IPM Poetry Partner Project) we intend to take the next step and publish a template of poetry prompts and activities along with a collection of resource material for replicating this poetry project.

WHERE TO BUY OUR TABLE OF MEMORIES

The poems in this book are lus­cious but, to tempt you fur­ther, the recipes includes Doro wet: an Ethiopi­an Chick­en Stew (pgs. 120 – 121), Arroz con Leche, (pgs. 130 – 131), Zawng­tah: Burmese Tree Beans with Tilapia (pgs. 136 – 137), Orange Iraqi Teatime Cake (pgs. 154 – 155) and many more. Is  your mouth water­ing yet? Every­thing about this book is invit­ing … you will embrace it!

Pub­lish­er, Chatwin Books

Your Local Bookseller

SAMPLE

Kang Pu
Kang Pu

Here’s a sam­ple of one of the heart-touch­ing poems in Our Table of Mem­o­ries:

MY MOTHER’S KITCHEN
Kang Pu, from Burma

When my mom cooked it smelled of sweet win­ter­time cherries,
of a soli­tary for­est with rain falling
and it smelled like the mur­mur of a lone­ly bird, singing,
I pic­ture the spher­i­cal smoke ris­ing from her kitchen
it was like the sound of sleep at night,
it was like arriv­ing home safe and sound
the sounds of her kitchen were peace­ful. 

I still long for the laugh­ter of those fam­i­ly meals
we all wait­ed for that table, my mom’s table,
how she pre­pared every fam­i­ly meal,
this is what I still long for,
so often I remem­ber my mother
noth­ing can take her mem­o­ry away from me,
it is tru­ly dif­fi­cult that I have departed
from my motherland,
and from my mother’s kitchen.

Kang Pu – MY MOTHER’S KITCHEN
The rea­son I wrote this poem is for mem­o­ries of my mom and her kitchen. It was dif­fi­cult for me to write this poem because I still long for my mother’s kitchen. Some­times it makes it hard for me to study. Yet, no mat­ter how far away from my par­ents, I am still hold­ing their lessons and still using what they taught me. With­out lessons from par­ents it’s hard to be in com­mu­ni­ty with oth­ers and hard to stand on your own.

Nathaly Rosas
Nathaly Rosas

And anoth­er sample:

WHERE FOOD IS ART
Nathaly Rosas, from Mexico

I am from a place where
The food is an art and every bite
Is a spicy piece of our culture.
Where the smells call you to enjoy
And the fla­vors take you to your memories.

Read more poems like these on Mer­na Hecht’s web­site.

RESOURCES

Sto­ries of Immi­gra­tion and Cul­ture” poet­ry pod­casts are avail­able here, host­ed by the Jack Straw Cul­tur­al Center.

Insti­tute for Poet­ic Med­i­cine, found­ed by John Fox, where Mer­na and Sto­ries of Arrival are Poet­ry Part­ners.

Jack Straw Cul­tur­al Center

Sto­ries of Arrival: Immi­grant Youth Voic­es Poet­ry Project

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Karen Cushman
5 years ago

Fab­u­lous inter­view about a fab­u­lous project. Many thanks for sharing.

David LaRochelle
5 years ago

What a won­der­ful project…both for the young poets as well as for every­one who hears their stories.

Terry Lawhead
5 years ago

I bow deeply to the achieve­ment of all of the young poets and sto­ry­tellers and their par­ents and rel­a­tives and to Mer­na Hecht and her col­leagues. Thank you with all of my heart.

Erica Helm Meade
Erica Helm Meade
5 years ago

Mer­na Hecht’s poet­ry projects with immi­grant youth have so inspired me over the years. Each stu­dent finds his or her voice, comes to under­stands the val­ue of his or her own sto­ry, and in the shar­ing is affirmed by a larg­er com­mu­ni­ty. This process invites love and hope where loss and fear could so eas­i­ly takeover. Part­ner­ing with Project Feast to cre­ate Our Table of Mem­o­ries was sheer genius.

Jeri Kuoppamaki
Jeri Kuoppamaki
5 years ago

To begin to step inside anoth­er’s life through their poet­ry and shar­ing of their expe­ri­ence and long­ings, is a gift of immea­sur­able val­ue. Can we not see our­selves, and feel con­nect­ed to these won­der­ful young peo­ple? They can­not remain strangers in our minds, for they touch our souls in the deep­est fathoms.