I’ve been tagged by the very interesting Hong Kong Born Poet, author of Summer Cicadas and Chinese translator, Jennifer Wong to do an interview for an expanding blog called, “The Next Big Thing.” You can read her interview at Jennifer Wong.
The idea is that I tag other writers to do the same on January 16, 2013. I accepted the invitation because it connects so many of us writers across the continents. For example, Jennifer is in London, some of the other writers she tagged are in Eastern Europe, I, in America, and on and on, writers are joining in from wherever they live to participate in “The Next Big Thing,” answering the same questions about their work. Now, the interview:
TNBT: Where did the idea come from for the book?
Patricia: The ideas for my books usually come from my life. I write about everything that happens to me, particularly, things that impress themselves on my life. The ideas for my first book mostly came out of my Liberian civil war experience, the trauma of watching my country, destroyed. As a poet, I witnessed something profoundly inhumane about the war that ravaged Liberia for fourteen years, even though I lived through only two of those war years. I wanted to bring to life the stories of my people who suffered in the war and those who did not survive the carnage of such a bloody war. My first book, Before the Palm Could Bloom: Poems of Africa (New Issues Press, 1998) was birthed out of those deeply felt feelings. My other books, Becoming Ebony, (Southern Illinois University Press, 2003) also came out of the idea of being a survivor, a woman, a mother, and an African, living in America. The other two books, The River is Rising, (Autumn House Press, 2007) and Where the Road Turns (Autumn House, 2010) also came from such ideas of living, being alive, being a mother, and being an African caught in one of the wars of the 21st Century.
TNBT: What genre does your book fall under? Patricia: Poetry
What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?
I would very much love to see Woopi Goldberg play my mother in a movie rendition of one of my many poems about my mother’s life and death. Having lost my mother to an early death in 2000, when she was only 63, I have written so many poems celebrating her life and her death. But mostly, I’d like Woopi because she is as funny as my hilariously happy mother was. Another actor I’d like to play a part in any movie on my poetry would be Chuck Norris. But this time, he’d be playing the part of the Liberian warlord, Charles Taylor, and he will not rescue anyone. Chuck Norris would be the villain. Another poem I have in my newest book is “The People Walking In Darkness: A Song for Barack Obama.” I would like for the American movie star, Morgan Freeman to play Barack Obama from my poem.
TNBT: What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?
Patricia: A synopsis would be that “My Poetry that seeks to rearrange the broken places of the world so there is some evenness for everyone’s feet to walk.”
TNBT: How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
Patricia: It depends. Most of my books took a few years to begin writing until publishing. The last book took me just less than two years to write, and another year to get published. A book of poems is written differently than prose, however. A book of poetry usually depends on the inspiration and the things happening around me. I can write a poem anywhere. I am working on a memoir now, almost ready, with three drafts done, but it took many years to even begin, to continue, and to get to this point.
TNBT: Who or what inspired you to write this book?
Patricia: Everything and everyone. I am a very keen observer of everything and I am moved both by humor and by pain. So, I could write a poem that is crazily funny because I am a very humorous person, and can find laughter even in the most painful situation. I am often moved by the pain that affects the world. About the who, I’d say I’ve been mostly influenced in my work by my mother, my father and my children. I guess being in a family is significant to my life as a writer.
TNBT: What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
Patricia: The fact that I write contemporary African and Diaspora African poetry and that I explore the human experience of the 21st century wars will interest readers. I believe that I have a voice that reaches many where they need to be reached, and that that voice is making a difference in those who follow what it is I’m doing.
Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
Patricia: All of my books were published by university or independent presses in the United States; so, hopefully, my next book of poetry, which is nearly done, as well as my memoir will be published by a notable publisher. My memoir, when it is ready, will be published by a publisher.
The Writers I will be tagging include:
Althea Mark, Caribbean American poet, living and writing in Switzerland
Armenian American Poet, Lola Koundakjian (Լօլա Գունտաքճեան)
According to the BBC Radio, 800 civilians were massacred in Duekoue, in just one town this week. Why?
As violence sweeps our world in a whirlwind of wars, angry protests, revenge in Africa and the Middle East, Ivory Coast goes down in smoke, and as if no one is watching, two crazy warring groups massacre innocent civilians as if they were animals. Why? Why are our wars so violent, so senseless, so beyond the real world, and why are African leaders so greedy, so unpatriotic toward their countries, so heartless, and why are our people so easily swayed to violence and wars? Why is ECOWAS or the African Union so incapable of bringing peace to this region for the last almost thirty years? Why is the UN asleep again on this region? Why has the world turned away from the Ivory Coast, pouring all its resources in Libya even while this war in the Ivory Coast needed our attention? Why focus on creating more wars when we already have enough on our hands? Why are Africans so sadly evil to their own people? Why should we always expect the world to help us kill ourselves or save ourselves? Why are Mr. Gbagbo and Mr Ouattara so difficult to understand that it is not democracy if it has to use guns to root itself among the people? With all the sacrificing of innocent Ivorians, how can Gbagbo or Quattara now tell us that either of them is capable of leading such a now fragile nation? Why? Why? Why?
Thousands of Ivorian civilians are now homeless and refugee, crossing over into neighboring countries, looking for a safe place.
I have been silently praying and hoping that Ivory Coast would not descend into wanton bloodbath as we saw in the 1990s to 2003 in Liberia, Guinea, Sierra Leone and other parts. I’d hoped that this region would at least be spared the horrific inhumanity of rebel warfare so our people can live life as difficult as it is, without massive bloodshed. But hope is never enough when we have been cursed with leaders who do not understand that statesmanship means giving up what pleases you for the rights and good of your people.
Quattara Supporter Ready for war (left: (Sia Kambou /AFP/Getty Images)
Already, one million had fled the embattled capital city & region by end of February
Since the election last year, these two men, both coming from two different regions of the country, Gbagbo, the incumbent President and Quattara, the supposed winner of the election, have been battling with each other to be seated as the legitimate President of the French speaking West African country of Ivory Coast. Both have refused to give in to any call for peace. Both formed a military that supports their wishes to lead the Ivorian people by killing innocent civilians, killing their way into power, in other words. Gbagbo, who is now said to be in hiding has just been abandoned by his Military General as the fighting engulfs the capital, and Quattara, who has been long supported by the UN feels good despite the untold thousands of dead, the million homeless and displaced, many already in refugee camps, and a mad militia on both sides, who make the already vulnerable region more susceptible to future civil wars. What is democracy, I again ask you the blog reader, if it is ushered in by guns and mortar attack on innocent civilians, destruction of infrastructure and the economy, if it produces so much anger, the region resorts to more civil wars? What is a Presidency if it depends on hooligans who have the ability to carve up the citizenry to usher in the new President?
I am certain that the founders of African democracy, those who shed their blood to free Africa of slavery and Colonialism are turning in their graves today. Liberia, that has just emerged from fourteen years of bloodbath under the Charles Taylor led rebel warfare that introduced to our West African region the most violent of all warfare, is now welcoming the new line of home seekers, the new refugee, who arrived speaking yet still another Colonial language the welcoming temporal homeland cannot understand. The only good news is that Liberia understands the language of homelessness, of displacement and dislocation, of terror in the eyes of innocent children, babies, dying of starvation, of old people who are too lame to walk, understands that war is never to be fought while not understanding not to do it again. Yes, but Liberia also understands to lend its experienced rebels who have not learned to stop fighting to the crazy war now raging in Ivory Coast, so now we hear of Liberian mercenaries being hired to fight the war in Ivory Coast. Why are our leaders made the way they are? Where were our leaders made?
Let me conclude on a poem of mine that I wrote during the last years of the 14 year Liberian civil war. Please indulge me for the mere fact that as a poet, I can only express my deepest emotions through poetry, and I still believe in the power of words to heal the broken. Also, here in America, we believe and celebrate poetry in April as National Poetry Month.
The poem, “Broken World,” expressed my anguish at the time with the difficulty of ending the bloodbath in my country. I was very sadly angry, but it was inspired most particularly, by my deep love of the Ivory Coast as one of my favorites of the countries that border Liberia. It was a day in Feb., Super Bowl Sunday in America, and of course, being the mother of boys and girls, my older boy, just a teenager then, probably, in 2001 or 2002, I had to sit there in my livingroom and enjoy the game in my then Kalamazoo, Michigan home. It was only after the game that I realized from news broadcast that a plane had crashed and killed 169 people in Abidjan, a country, that had given sanctuary to tens of thousands of my country people during the still raging civil war then. This was where on my way home in 2000 to and from burying my mother who had just died, I stopped and of course was stranded due to missing my outbound plane to the US, for days in a beautiful hotel in Abidjan. The people were gentle, loving, patient and kind to me. I loved them despite my horrible French. I wrote the poem, “Broken World,” in tears that all these people had died, but in the poem, you will note that I was writing about other deaths, the wars that were destroying the region, the wars in my country, and the wars in Africa. The poem was published in my third book of poems, The River is Rising, and is copyright by Autumn House Press, 2007.
———-By Patricia Jabbeh Wesley
To every winning team, many more will lose— Many defenders, goalies, line backers, dribblers, attackers,
ball catchers, and now one lone, winning cup from which no one will ever drink. To every war, there are no winners.
To every living, many more dead will go unmarked. So many lives lined up for death; so much of what took
forever to build, goes up in some cloud. So many buried alive or executed- a stray bullet, accidentally passing.
So many players who never knew the name of the game they played, yet they played, without even knowing they
were playing until someone found them dead by the road side. Today, here is St. Louis Rams, walking away from
the Super Bowl, carrying the Super Trophy. Tennessee watches with a tearful eye. But below the deep Atlantic
in Abidjan, a plane has just gone down. One hundred and sixty-nine, gone down, and all this time, I was here
watching what Americans call Super Bowl. I do not know the game; it is not even my game to lose or win, but my
heart pounds hard for the game. Sometimes, I can feel my skin slowly becoming American. Is life a game you can
win or lose? Will winning warlords ever know the extent to which they have lost their war? How can anyone count
those who have won and those who have lost our war? How can anyone travel from town to town, from country
to country, from refugee camp, to refugee camp, counting our living? How could we dig up each shallow mass grave
for all the tens of thousands who were never counted? Why should anyone want to count at all? Show me the trophies
of our war, so I will take you to a field, where all the massacred still gather at night to bind open, bullet
wounds even though they are already dead. When warriors come home from war, carrying on their hands, trophies
of booty, all the bullets from their weapons, gone, do we ask them to show us their scars? The after-war-Dorklor,
with all its drumming and dancing was never meant to be merry- not even in their jubilation at victory.
You have only to watch the dancing warriors’ feet to know.
——————(copyright: The River is Rising, Autumn House Press, 2007)
The International Poetry Festival of Medellin is always so amazing, neither rain, thunder or the blazing sun can drive away the thousands of lovers of poetry who pour in during the opening and closing ceremonies in any given year. The first sign of rain, and the thousands in the audience quickly begin to put on plastic coats, pull out umbrellas, sitting on the hard wet stairs of the Theatre Carlos Vieco to hear the World Poets read in their various languages one after the other, from 4 pm up until 10:30. Translators and poets, reading side by side while the audience cheers, screams, enjoying the power of poetry. For twenty years, poets have come and gone, children have been born, and have grown up under the warmth of this powerful tool of healing, and some of those young people are today volunteering with a literary revolution that gave birth to them.
This is inarguably, the largest, the most fascinating, most revolutionary, and most people-centered poetry festival in the world. The International Poetry Festival of Medellin was founded in Medellín in 1991 by two young, idealistic and practical Colombian poets, Fernando Rendón, who was also editor of the Colombian magazine of PIW, and Gabriel Jaime Franco. Of course, they were assisted by a great group of poetry enthusiasts who banded together to establish what is now a cultural revolution, impacting the entire world over twenty years. Today, one of those hardworking poetry lovers is Gloria Chvatal, whose dedication to organizing and helping to run the festival is simply inspirational.
FOUNDERS: Fernando Rendón (R) and Gabriel Jaime Franco
Gloria Chvatal, a strong arm of the festival, Fernando, and Gabriel against the backdrop of one of the festival audiences.
With the powerful vision to reach their people through poetry, they launched a poetry festival that draws audiences from across the Americas, their neighbors and from other regions of the world. They have featured close to 1000 poets from around the world, bringing in African, European, Asian, South, North, and Central American poets and poets from every region of the world. This year, I was invited for the second time, including my first invitation in 2007, to be a featured poet among one of the largest if not the largest group of world poets in the twenty years, nearly 100 of us, in a celebration worthy of itself. Again, as with my first visit to Colombia, the International Poetry Festival of Medellin remains the most powerful experience of any poetry festival in the world. Stay tune as I bring you various features, photos, video clips, etc.I in this blog posting. It is long overdue, but you will forgive me if you realize I had to get a new book out and begin readings to promote the book.
A Poem for Fernando’s Colombia (copyright “Where the Road Turns, 2010) By Patricia Jabbeh Wesley
Medellin, Oh, Medellin…
to God, I wish I could take out my heart for you,
but how will I sing this song to you without a heart?
You, with so much heart for love and poetry,
for hope in the eyes of the little girl
who with a scrap of white paper, wants me to say a word
to her, to autograph my name for her, to write it in her
name. She tells me with that unusual smile how
she loves my poems, but she is only eight years old.
She and Carlos, the five year old brother who have
pushed through the thousands to get to me.
Medellin, Oh, Medellin…
where we go down from the mountain
into the bowl of a city, into the deep heart of a city,
so warm, a city where people still smile
and clap to a poem, and cry for the war, a city
where concrete houses hold up the hills with muscles
of steel, muscles of pain, and somewhere along the roads
as the bus descends from the airport, the poor have
erected their own lives so sadly, waiting,
and yet, they overlook the city with hope.
From the edge of sharp cliffs and the side roads,
the burning lights and flames of the city, hard
and indistinguishable from anger.
But theirs is of the pain from the years gone.
Medellin, Oh, Medellin…
Waiting can be so hard, Medellin.
And I love you from my heart. I love your laughter,
your warm hugs and kisses, your Spanish, so simply
plain and warm. I love even your tears that
you have shared with me, when a poem I’m reading
touches you in that place where only a poem can go.
At the International Poetry Festival, you sit there,
along your hill arena, clapping, thousands of people,
sitting and thinking and listening and hoping,
Medellin, I have never seen anything like this before.
Thousands of people sitting for long hours
at a poetry reading, Medellin…
we wait for that day, Medellin, we wait.
Trust me, I know how to wait, and I know you do too.
Here, I am, reading with African poets in the beautiful Jardín Botánico. Theatre al aire libre on July 10: l-r: Paul Dakeyo (Cameroon), Niyi Osundare (Nigeria), Patricia Jabbeh Wesley (Liberia) and Amin Haddad (Egypt), reading.
I was honored to read with, meet with, eat with, and be in the company of some of the finest poets in the world. Our poets came from every area of the globe, different languages and cultures, different world issues in their works, different looks, dress and cultural patterns, but we were all one in the use of poetry as a medium of expression of the sensibility of our unique people, and therefore, of the world.
Here, a group of us poets on our way to sight-seeing in Medellin, Colombia, were chased by newspaper crews who made us stand in the middle of a busy city street to take this shot, featured in the paper the next day. (L_R)Poets sJean Jacques Sewanou Dabla of Togo, Alhaji Papa Susso of Gambia, Lola Koundakjian of Armenia, Veronica Zondek of Chilli, Althea Romeo-Mark, representing Antigua and me, representing Liberia. Middle photo- Me and Althea Romeo-Mark, Me and Koumanthio Diallo of Guinea, West Africa, standing with an Afro-Colombian brother after our last Africa Reading.
Poets, Gemino H. Abad (Phillipines) and Imtiaz Dharker of India looking on.
I have been privileged as a poet to be in the company of Pulitzer Prize winning authors, renowned authors, even Nobel Prize winning authors and to be influenced by their unique ways of viewing the world. But the experience at the International Poetry Festival of Medellin 2007 and 2010 alone has been a life-changing experience for me. Let me discuss in brief the kinds of impact such a great festival has on the invited poet, the Colombian people and others from parts of the Americas who descend upon the city, and finally, upon the country, friends, associates of those who return home with this huge vision in their life experience.
A Life- Changing Experience:
The city of Medellin, Colombia, is a city on a hill, skyscrapers of the wealthy alongside the dwellings of millions of the poor. As in any other country, the poor find a means of survival. It is in the center of this city that has survived forty years of civil war that poets from around the world must all merge with their many voices of hope with the voices of hope from Colombia and nations around the region. The most exciting is not in the structure of this beautiful city and country; the most exciting for me is in the people of Colombia. They are a warm and beautiful people, vibrant in every way, their warm hugs and kisses will melt your heart. But what will cause you to jump from surprise is their love of poetry. Upon arriving at the airport, you will hardly clear out of customs before noticing the crowd of volunteers, festival organizers and friends out at the Medellin Airport to meet you.
The hugs and kisses will be a regular part of your nearly two weeks of living in Medellin, basking in the beauty of poetry and culture. And then, another big surprise is the crowd at the opening and closing ceremonies. The number has been estimated at between seven to ten thousand out in the open arena, cheering, listening, shouting, enjoying the experience of one poetic voice after the other. If you are a first time festival visitor, your jaw drops, you wonder if it is real, whether you are now a rock star, and whether these great people have all lost their heads. But trust, me, it is real. They love poetry and they will change your world after this. This was when I realized that my coming to Colombia was meant to change me, not me, them.
Yira, my Spanish reader assigned to me at the 20th festival (l) Yira & me, Me, Norwegian poet, Erling and the Colombian team.
Images of the festival. Me at the Afro-Colombian center in Medellin, where I was the only presenter, Me after the reading with and my girls after our reading out of town in Municipio del Carmen de Viboral. Casa de la Culturaon next to a quick photo from the car driving from Bogota Airport to the city of Villavicencio.
The Most Important Impact of Such a Festival:
The crowds of thousands who are dedicated to listening to poetry, reading poets from around the world, sitting in rain or shine, bringing their babies, toddlers, old people for two decades now tells you something about this country, about the visionaries of the festival, about how poetry, reading of poetry, and writing can be a powerful tool of healing. If anyone tells you that you can have such a literary revolution where people are dedicated to using words as a tool in healing produces small results, that individual is a fool. When you begin to mingle with the people, whether they are poor or rich, you will know the impact of the festival on the country, on ending violence. Remember, in case you forgot, Colombia has been in a civil war with drug lords and armed movements for more than forty years now. So, how is it possible to have such a peaceful festival when the country is supposedly at war? Well, my visit in 2007 and the 2010 visit indicated to me that yes, there has been a great change.
A group of young people who had come for our last African poets reading on July 16, stayed on after everyone had left, lining up to greet us. They were a force to see.
One of the most powerful evidence of how the festival is positively affecting the Colombian people in a powerful way is through the photos. I know of no other place in the world where thousands of people will sit to hear poetry read in various languages with translators reading in the pouring rain, people pulling plastic coverings over their heads, and just intent on listening, where mothers will bring their children, including infants with gifts to authors they’d never met, as if these authors are Priests needing to bless the children, they come by the scores to teach their little ones how important it is to learn, to be intellectual instead of being a rebel fighter. This to me is one of the most wonderful gifts any people can give to their nation. But we all know how much it must cost for organizers to raise the money to feed 100 poets, excluding staff, student volunteers, to give them all stipends, to give them lodging in individual rooms in a beautiful hotel, to tend to them when they are ill during the 12 day for most and more days for others, to help provide transportation from across the world for many, and to pay for the use of numerous venues, to fly dozens of poets across the country or drive them hours away. It is a powerful machine that must be recognized. We are most blessed to have lived this experience; hopefully, some of us will be inspired to emulate this great example.
Poets Saturate the City & Country With Poetry: A Dynamic Organization by the Festival Organizers:
Many of us poets had several readings throughout the 11 day festival. The poets included the following number:We were eleven poets from Africa: Niyi Osundare (Nigeria) Alhaji Papa Susso (Gambia), Arif Khudairi (Egypt), Paul Dakeyo (Cameroon), Mohammed Bennis (Morocco), Luis Carlos Patraquim (Mozambique), Koumanthio Zeinabou Diallo (Guinea), Patricia Jabbeh Wesley (Liberia),Jean Jacques Sewanou Dabla (Togo), Amin Haddad (Egypt) and Chirstopher Okemwa (Kenya). Some of us poets came from the Diaspora of Europe and America while others came from the continent of Africa.
After the African poets reading the 16th of July, the elderly gentleman was so excited, he came up to be photographed with us.
The audience waiting before the African reading. Above: After the reading photos
Among the 100 invited poets, less than hundred in attendance, there were beside us 11 Africans, 58 poets from the Americas, 10 from Asia, and 18 from Europe. Some of the poets I connected to include all on the African team (speaking French, English and Arabic), Althea Romeo-Mark, my American Lit. professor of long ago, Sir Howard Fergus of Monsserrat, Obediah Michael Smith of Barbados, Grace Nichols and her husband, John Agard both of Guyana, Renato Sandoval of Peru, Bob Holman of the US, Gemino H. Abad and his spouse (guest), of Philippines, Hala Mohammad of Siria, Lola Koundakjian, U Sam Oeur of Cambodia, Uwe Kolbe, excluding our very fascinating volunteer translators, interpreters. Special among the entire crew was my dear reader, the young and beautiful Yira Plaza Obyrne. Yira went with me everywhere to read the Spanish translation of my poetry whenever I appeared, and where there was no interpreter to translate my short speeches before the reading, Yira would step in. The only trip she did not accompany me on was the one to the far away city of Villavicencio.
Hala of Syria, making an early departure and that goodbye photo as the poets hurry through breakfast for another busy day
I had about ten readings throughout Medellin, reading in various venues with a team of four assigned different authors each time. I also had one solo presentation at the Afro-Colombian Center of Arts. My two out of town readings included a reading far into the Andes Mountains. This was one of the most fascinating of my participation. The Nowegian Poet, Erling Kittelsen and I were sent out to read in a far city of Villaviciencio on July 12, returning on July 13. I also had another reading out of town, with Armenian poet, Lola Koundakjian, just about an hour away to the town famous for its ceramic art, china ware. The town, Municipio del Carmen de Viboral.
Here are some connections in photos made during various readings:
In Municipio del Carmen, a five or six year old girl clung to me after the reading, telling me how much she liked my poetry and how she wanted to me to take her with me.
Connections to Children When Parents Bring Them:
Book signing after the African Poets reading in the Botanical garden that morning. Whenever there was a reading, the audience was so inspired and excited, they in turn inspired and excited us poets. Many in the audience came from various parts of South America. Besides these readings, I did a number of print, TV and newspaper magazine interviews.
Reading InVillaviciencio, Colombia:
When I arrived in Medellin on July 7, 2010, I saw that I would have to be driven to Medellin Airport for a one hour flight to Bogota, the capital city, and then driven to Villaviciencio for two hours. So on the morning of July 12, the Norwegian poet and I were taken to Medellin Airport to be flown to the high mountain city of Bogota. The driver, one of my favorite and the son of one of the founders of the Festival made the journey to the airport. To my surprise, the driver stopped by a mountain side eating/stop place and treated all of us to a beautiful lunch. We then took photos in the kitchen of the stop station.
The Driver The sign says 50, but hey.
The City of Villavicencio, according to Wikipedia, lies “in a rural zone of tropical climate… on the great Colombian-Venezuelan plain called Los Llanos. The city is east of the Andes Mountains. The Andes are a series of endless mountains that allows you to drive on clouds as if you were on a plane. I was so mesmerized, I took numerous photos as clouds swirled around the windshield of the car.
Despite its closeness to the vast Savannas that lie between the Andes range and the Amazon, you cannot drive from Bogota to Villavicencio without meandering through high mountains, long winding tunnels or feeling the pressure of the height of the region. According to the records, Bogota is the second highest capital city in the world, boasting more than 9000 feet above sea level. Right off the plane from Medellin, the cold chill hits you along with the pressure of the height. My allergies kicked in right away and I was quick to grab hold of my jacket. My Norwegian poetry colleague, Erling was a gentleman who quickly took my laptop from me as we made our way to the outside for the ride to Villavicencio. Our reading that night was at 7 pm, therefore, we became a bit nervous at being picked up fairly late.We arrived more than two hours later to an auditorium filled with more than 300 people, eager to hear these two foreign poets from different ends of the earth. Our Colombian colleagues and poet partners, interpreters, translators, including the Director of of Cultural Affairs were again as Colombians are, very warm, excited, loving, happy and welcoming. We were exhausted, but we went through quick orientations with our partners, which poems to read, gestures, what to expect, rehearsing quickly, hugs, embraces, laughter, and we hit the stage. Below are the photos of that evening, one of my last three reading evens of the festival.
Erling reading while I try to stretch my back on stage at our reading soon after arriving in this far away town.
Here in this photo are Erling of Norway, me, my reader, a Colombian young woman, a Colombian poet, Erling’s reader and the government official, Cultural Affairs Director, who hosted our visit and the Festival in his city. What a privilege it was for us to meet these warm people. Before the program began, the Colombian poet read a poem dedicated to me, presented flowers to me, a surprise, and everyone was happy.
Reading that evening in Villavicencio, Colombia
A Cross section of the hall that night.
The After Reading Photos: Folks are often excited after reading, and in this city, the norm was no different.
Kids who come to the reading ask the toughest questions. They know so much about poetry, about suffering, about war, and want to know how someone like me can end up not only in the US, but in a huge poetry festival. How did I begin writing, whether I like their country, and how I feel about returning to another festival. Often, they are accompanied by parents, also wanting answers. The most fascinating when the questions are posed is the warmth, the appreciation, and the open affection of the Colombian people, grateful to the visiting poet. There’s so much to learn from the Colombian people, from the International Poetry Festival, from their survival stories.
Kenyan poet and a friend posing and photo from my hotel room porch with my visiting bird friend.
The visiting bird at the Gran Hotel visiting the visiting poets.
Bringing a Great Festival to Closure:
The last couple days of our stay in Colombia, many of us needed to go shopping, but the rain, the busy reading schedules, the lack of individual private translators, and of course interview schedules for some of us kept us from doing so. And yet, we found the time to slip out, some of us in small groups, visiting small vending places nearby the Gran Hotel where we were lodged. Althea, Grace Nichols, and others with me, joined the others, shopping for souvenir for our families and friends. We met the warmth of more Colombians in the market places, receiving small gifts and being recognized by the many who had followed us around the city. I took off on my own in between the beautiful hand-made jewelry counters, and came upon one Colombian vendor unlike everyone else I had met. He wanted to sell a necklace to me for 80,000 Pesos, but the necklace was worth 12.000 pesos, and I knew that. I could not speak Spanish, so I gave him a sheet of paper to write down the price. He did, and I asked him again to do so, and he repeated the price. I looked at him and smiled. “You are a big crook,” I said, but he did not understand me. I left him as he stared after me and went to the next vendor to purchase the same necklace at less than 12,000 pesos. In every beautiful country, you will see someone who is ugly, I laughed as I made my way bravely through the busy traffic back to the hotel where a journalist working for a French news agency was waiting to interview me.
July 17 marked the end of the festival; therefore, our hotel was ready for the last party with our own private dance group to shake up the place. Many of us watched for a few minutes and went to our rooms to pack. We would depart early for the airport, groups of us, coming from various regions of our one world, carrying in our hearts the one spirit of poetry, telling our sad and happy stories in stanzas and metaphors, the power of language that can heal and destroy, depending on how you want to use language. But here in this mountain country, these wonderful people have discovered that words can be more powerful as a tool in forging peace. They have found the treasure of life, and have passed on this wonderful gift to their children over two decades, have brought the world to their doors, won hearts, and have sent us all out to let the world know that we have seen here is bigger and more wonderful than the negative propaganda that we’ve been told. As for me, I will never be the same again after meeting Colombia, after meeting the world at the festival, after sharing my own stories of pain and suffering with the Colombian people, after learning that love is not about what we have, but rather, about what we can give.
And so, the great festival ended on this note even as we poets sat around to watch the professional dancers do their thing.
(All photos are the exclusive right of Patricia Jabbeh Wesley, and must not be used for any commercial purposes)
The United States Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has denied Delta Airlines direct flight to Monrovia, Liberia and to Nairobi, Kenya. In a June 3 statement, the TSA said, “due to noted security vulnerabilities in and around Nairobi, and the failure to meet international security standards and appropriate recommended practices established by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) at the Roberts International Airport in Monrovia, TSA is currently denying air service by Delta to Nairobi and Monrovia until security standards are met or security threat assessments change.”
The decision to deny Delta permission to fly directly to Nairobi may or may not have a strong basis, but my blog discussion will focus only on the TSA decision against Monrovia, Liberia. This is because of my experience as a Liberian immigrant and my experiences with travel to Liberia.
Liberians are shocked, and of course, it is obvious that many Liberians would be disappointed in this decision. Liberian nationals and immigrants living in the US as well as other international travelers desperate to fly directly and cheaper to Monrovia would love to get a relief from the desperation they face when they have to book a ticket to Monrovia. There is a high demand for flights to Monrovia, and with each demand comes higher ticket prices. Try booking a ticket to Monrovia, and it is like striking a steel wall with another piece of steel. From my experience, you sit at the computer for weeks, trying to find a suitable airline to a country you so love. So, anyone can understand how desperate Liberians and international travelers to Monrovia can be and how desperately we need relief.
–My beautiful baby sister, Margretta Yeeyee Jabbeh Meeting me at the Roberts International Airport near Monrovia
Besides these travelers, it is inarguably true that Liberian officials and the President of Liberia would love to have such a reputable airline as Delta introduce direct flights to Monrovia. This would give the impression that things in Liberia are improving and that the country is ready to move toward a great future. Maybe this is one more need for window-dressing. Maybe this is a real desire on their part. Whatever their motive might be, one cannot argue that the move to deny Delta this opportunity is a blessing in disguise and is good for the country and for travelers right now. It is also a good thing for Delta. But you do not have to agree with me. Just keep reading on.
——Parts of Monrovia- Photo by Wyne Jabbeh
The TSA here in the US may have its faults, and their faults are numerous. In fact, I have regularly been targeted at airports each time I fly, and everything I carry on me is examined with double eyes for whatever reason or the other. My suitcases are always among the “random” checked baggage, something that is surprising. It does not matter where I travel to, throughout the US, to China, to South America or within Africa, they usually stamp the “SSSS” on to my ticket. Often, they examine me as though I were a specimen, and all my private documents are poked at, including my medications. I often have to be at the airport at least two hours before since I expect to be the victim of unnecessary inspection. But I don’t despair, and since I love the job they do to keep us safe most of the time, I really don’t mind. I also love the special attention they give me, and simply smile my way through. After all, I have nothing to hide. But you know, I’d prefer they found the right person to search instead of me, who is such a peace loving woman.
But I believe in the TSA and what they do to make us safe in the air and on the ground. I believe in the TSA’s need to monitor which countries, cities, regions of the world American planes can fly to, and if Monrovia is found unsafe or the airport is found unready, can anyone argue against that?
Try checking with international travelers, Liberian immigrants returning home or even Liberians traveling back and forth wherever they want, and find out what they know about the Roberts International Airport. Then find out from travelers of Delta Airlines between any country where they fly directly from the US to Africa, and discover for yourself their opinions about the sorts of planes Delta flies to Africa, the process of booking and checking in passengers, and the sub-standards for Africa compared to the high standards they have for European or American cities.
—Beautiful West Africa- 2008
But before we discuss Delta, let’s first get down to the issue of the Roberts International Airport. Do not despair, it is not all bad. The folks at the airport, receiving and sending you off do not mean any harm. They are simply doing what they used to do before the war. Corruption and bribing still abounds. Someone has to do something about the craziness at the airport, and I hope the Delta denial causes the government to probe into this and put an end to the corruption and the craziness with checking in and departing the country at that airport.
—The burnt down E. J. Roye Building and the Centennial Pavilion in the background
The Roberts International Airport needs attention if it is to compete for international airlines, and that improvement begins not only with the rebuilding of infrastructure in order to accommodate the after-September 11 standards, but also with airport personnel attending to travelers at the airport. During my 2008 visit home, I was shocked to note that airport workers were engaged in all sorts of tricks in order to obtain bribe from me. They ceased my passport upon entry, claiming that a passport that I was approved to travel with from the US was outdated. I informed them that I was entering the country and that I would buy a new passport. I also told them that my passport was valid since it had just been renewed by the Liberian Consul General in the US, but they just pushed me around, yelling, and treating me like a criminal until I demanded to see their manager. When the manager, a woman took one look at me, she ordered them to release my passport to me immediately so I would get out of the airport. I was spared the opportunity of giving them a bribe this time.
Upon departure, again, my passport was ceased. I had bought me a new passport, but was told by check-in agents that I needed to use my old passport that had been stamped throughout my trip in order to validate myself on my way out. This was in keeping with international standards and laws, the first person who checked me in told me. I was traveling with Kenya Airlines to connect in Accra, Ghana to Delta. After I had been checked in, I proceeded to immigration, where my passport was again ceased, and I was lectured by some agent, and again tricked that I needed to pay a fine for coming into the country with an old/valid passport. I was delayed, and of course, there were others being delayed by this same craziness. Around me in the small room, were crowds of travelers who were confused about what was going on, people passing through, and I wondered.
This craziness must end if Monrovia is to compete for and with international airlines. The denial of Delta to begin direct flights to Monrovia this month is a something that should make the Liberian fficials stop and do something drastic to regulate the airport workers and bring sanity to traveling to Monrovia.
Finally, Delta Airlines is a point I will conclude on. Delta is not ready to go to Liberia, I’d say. First of all, Delta needs to improve its standards for this very important transatlantic trip. Delta is not ready for Liberia. Why am I saying such a horrible thing, oh God?
I used to be the greatest Delta fan. I flew Delta at least a dozen times a year until last July, 2008, when I flew with Delta to Accra, Ghana. I have never ever flown Delta since then, and my mileage points are still waiting to be claimed. I had the experience of my life that made me cry, kept me stranded another day in Accra, cost me unnecessary hardship, and made me so desperate for cash, my son had to wire money to me in Ghana.
—Monrovia, 2008- Meeting with Cuttington University Officials
On my flight to Accra for a two week poetry teaching experience, I traveled alone on July 4th instead of with the group of Pan African Literary Forum (PALF) Creative Writing team. The first awkward thing I noticed at the airport in New York was that the Delta flight was so overbooked. We had to fight for a place on the plane since way too many passengers had been booked. Of course, others were left behind in New York. On the plane, I noticed how substandard the plane was with only one working restroom for the back cabin. This plane carried about three hundred passengers. But that was the better side of my journey.
On my return trip to the US via the Kotoko International Airport in Accra once more, I arrived at 7 a.m. on August 4th for a 10:30 flight. That should have been enough time, you’d say. After all, I had confirmed my trip, and had obtained my confirmation via internet in Accra the day before. When I arrived at the airport, there was a pandemonium. Delta had overbooked once more, but here, the game was different. The airline attendants did not care whether a passenger was confirmed or not. They had preselected who would and who would not travel through another corrupt selection. So, those of us arriving at 7 am were told that we were too late. We were given the run around to check this and check that until 8 am. Then they shut the gate for checking in. Others who had better connections got our places on the plane, and we were left stranded. After all the shouting and confusion, I was told to go and rebook for travel the next day.
After the initial shock wore off, and I was left in the crowd of confused travelers, I tried to pose my arguments to the agents. I was ill, and had already been in Accra two days on my connection, and my medications were out. I took my case as far as to the Manager, went to several offices, requesting that my original seat be given me since the plane still had yet to arrive. I met with a team of managers, broke down and wept, called Delta USA, but all my pleas were to no avail.
I then took up the matter for Delta to give me accommodation since I arrived at the airport at 7 am for a 10:30 flight, but they refused to check me in. The airline agents had in their corrupt deal claimed that I arrived at 8 am. What if I had arrived at 8 am? Wouldn’t two and a half hours have been sufficient for someone who had booked and was confirmed?
So, what did they do to accommodate me? Nothing. By noon, I dragged my luggage back to town, returned to my hotel and pleaded with hotel clerks to recheck me in. I paid for another day and waited for the next Delta flight to come in. The day of my travel, I was at the airport at 4 am for a 10:30 flight. I was shocked to note that in order to give seats to the wrong passengers, Delta agents in Ghana told their friends to arrive that early. So, I went through check-in, and was upgraded without any cost to me. The agents thought that this would calm my frustrations. If they could do that, why couldn’t they do what was right in the first place?
So, here was I in First Class with others like me who had been left behind the day before. Everything should have been great- right? No.
The agents on the plane knew better than to be fooled by non-first class passengers being given a one time opportunity in first class. The plane was already delayed by five hours so the agents were probably tired and angry. They were so rude to us, refusing to give us the same treatment real first class passengers were given. But that was not bad enough until we arrived in New York six hours delayed for no weather or apparent reasons.
We had missed all of our connecting flights, naturally, arriving close to midnight instead of at 5 pm. After customs, we were told to find our way to some
Ramada Hotel, and if we could speed up there fast enough, we would find rooms. If we delayed, we would be out of luck again. With so many passengers from our flight and other delayed Delta flights, it was another rush. Handicapped passengers could not make it fast enough, of course. I was one of the few lucky ones to get one of the last rooms. That night, there were dozens of African and other international travelers with small children who were stranded in the hotel lobby. Some of them were with children, with their Delta vouchers in their hands. But they had no food or rooms to sleep in.
Yes, we need a great airliner to travel to Monrovia, but Monrovia and the airline must be ready to do the job according to international standards. The TSA is a great security monitor, and it is making the best decision for all of us. If the quality of services I have described is what Monrovia is to expect, then this is a good time for both Delta and Liberian officials to reassess their mission and purpose. What do we want in an agreement between Delta and Monrovia? Do we want to travel safely or do we simply want to travel?
One of our first outings was at the Theater to see the Grand Chinese Opera.
This photo above is our first dinning in Guiyang, the city of 3 million that Chinese refer to as a small city. I love the spicy food in this region and the people are so wonderful here.
This photo above will be in the next chapter of my Chinese blogging, but here is our group in Shanghai’s Jin Jiang Hotel. left to right: Elizabeth (Betty) Me, Linda, her husband, John, Jane, and Barbara on our way to our last dinner in Shanghai. By the way, John Peacock is a Native American poet who will interest you poets out there. His wife, Linda is a blast, I mean, a fun person to know.
This photo above was taken in front of (毛泽东) Mao Zedong’s, pronounced Mao Tse-tung statue. Our group was escorted to tour our second city of Guiyang soon after we arrived in the 3 million people city. Opposite the monument is the largest Walmart compound you have ever seen, and I was thinking how ironic that was when the crowds noticed our strange group, and a bunch of people rushed to me to beg to be photographed with them. The funny thing was that this girl with the brown highlighter was the biggest of my fans, who quickly posed with me, but later discovered she had no camera of her own. She pleaded for me to wait for her to get a camera, and when she did, she already had a crowd who wanted to be in the photo. My favroite is the elderly woman here. She could not get her eyes off me, and was glad just to be in the photo even if she never saw the photo or me again.
And those I met treated me with the utmost love and reception. It was unbelievable why so many Chinese people loved me so much. It was amazing how kindly they received our entire group. Explore with me, will you?
So why did I photograph Walmart in Guiyang, China? If anyone needed a department store, it was me. My luggage of two suitecases were lost between Los Angeles and Beijing. My airlines let me down, for nine days, I almost had no change of clothes except the two or three items I carried in my overnight. So, I needed Walmart. Throughout Beijing and now Guiyang, I could not find clothes or shoes that fit me. Walmart had a couple things that I could use, so I went in the next day to a crazy store. The irony of the statue of the Communist leader and Walmart opposit each other was interesting to me.
So Why Was I in China??? Hello?
I was on a delegation of People to People Citizen Ambassadors, visiting with eighteen other scholars, professors, writers, teachers, and retired professors to serve on the Educational Equity and Social Justice Team. We visited three Chinese cities between Dec. 9-19, but our long trip began on Dec. 7. We flew from Los Angeles, California on the evening of Dec. 7, losing Dec. 8 (Monday) in the clouds, arriving in our first city of Beijing, China at 8 a.m. The rest of the trip is filled with amazing site-seing, interesting meetings with college officials, students, classroom visits, eating, eating, eating, busy on the move. In between, I will give a picture of my amazing journey with a bunch of the best women team members in the world, the laughing and sharing with both our group members and the people of China. You will be surprised to know that I was finally a celebrity in China. From the city of Beijing to Guiyang and to Shanghai, the Chinese people loved me. Women, men, young girls, not too diffeernt from American college students, old men and women flocked out after me, wanting to be photographed with me, wanting to touch my hair, my hands, posing with the peace sign everywhere, sparkling eyes, they came, to my utter surprise. But I too, had a camera, so I too caught their loving smiles, their excitement over my Africaness or my womaness or my blackness or whatever it was they thought I was. There were two other black women in our group, so everyone could not get it. But what was apparent to me was that these people loved strangers; they loved us, the entire group; they felt connected to us. I wish I had time only for them, for their company, to follow them where they came from to know them, to know what it is that makes them smile, cry and laugh. To follow the college girls who surrounded me with their love, holding on to my arm, squeezing me in their midst, refusing to let go of me. To know their tears as well as their achievements. But time is so inadequate, so unkind, and the separation by land and sea so vast. Most of all, the separation by politics so physical, and yet so unreal.
In Beijing, we visited the Forbidden City, an amazing old empire city that is so endless, it takes 2 hours or more just to walk through even without entering a building. Here are a few clips of this preview of my visit there. This was my first request for a photo at the entry to the FORBIDDEN CITY.
The Forbidden City was the Chinese imperial palace from the mid-Ming Dynasty to the end of the Qing Dynasty. It is located in the middle of Beijing, China.
Troops in review at the entry to the Forbidden City
Here in this photo in the Forbidden City gates is another one of my impromptu poses with Chinese people who wanted a photo with me. I learned to also have someone do a photo for me because I too wanted to find time to study what all this excitement over me was for. My friend, Betty, one of the three black women in our team is standing at the other end. Over and over, I noticed the difference between how the Chinese would pose and how we are used to here in the US. I usually would give a half embrace, but they would place and arm in between my arm and the other around my shoulder. To me, that showed a better kind of affection than my half embrace.
FINALLY, HERE WE ARE BELOW, CLIMBING THE GREAT WALL OF CHINA: My roomate Carlie, with the support of another team member, Dawn were the only two in our group who climbed the highest peek at our end of the Great Wall. We were all afraid for Carlie because she is over seventy and had just heard news of her ill mother, but she proved us all wrong with her strength and endurance. The wall was filled with icy snow and the stairs were treasurous to climb. I went up only one one hundredths of the way- hey, but I was there, and I got a sweatshirt to prove it.
Here, our team members are determined to climb the Great Wall of China. Below and moving up is Dawn Burke in the black shawl, a very strong woman and professor whom I admire greatly. At the top to cheer on are Trish and of course, Carlie, the determined one. I am not even in this photo because I am down there trying to follow, but of course, I was too afraid of the ice and my Chinese bought shoes did not have the grip the boots in my then lost suitcase have. I am below in the photo, huffing and puffing and dragging my body down after a few steps. Life just isn’t fair.
A nine year old girl from Malaysia came to me and wanted to photograph me because she liked my hair. Her family were touring China from Malaysia, she said, and I let her catch me in my lazy movement.
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