The U.S. Poetry Academy
Some spread democracy or religion. In Uzbekistan, I spread the good word of poetry.
Alime Sadikova was one of the smartest, most ambitious young women in Jizzakh, and one of the smartest, most ambitious women I had ever met. She was the first to learn English in her family — encouraging and helping her younger brother who was studying on a grant at a high school in Colorado at the time — and establishing her own successful language school in Jizzakh called En Course, where I taught. She would later receive a Fulbright scholarship to study at Texas Tech in Lubbock, but on the day after the En Course disaster, she had a quirky and tactless way of explaining my failure. She told me that I had been dumped. Again.
“Are you serious?” I said, shivering as I spoke on the public telephone in my host family’s store while my host sister, Zarif-opa, forced a steaming cup of tea in my hands. It was my first February in Uzbekistan and I wasn’t adjusting to it well. The En Course kids told Alime that they were uncomfortable with my class. They wanted to see other people, they said, or at least wanted the relationship to be a bit less serious. I honestly could not believe that they didn’t go home and reflect on “Mending Wall” and see the true beauty of it, that they didn’t gather their families around the xontaxta and recite with supreme irony: “Isn’t it where there are cows?/ But here there are no cows.”
“Why?” I finally mustered the nerve to ask.
“Kristen, I’m sorry. It’s not you, it’s them.”
“Do you want me to teach something else?”
“No — ”
“Because I can be different, I can change.”
Alime’s school had such a good reputation, and I wanted to teach there. I was starting to get a little dispirited with my regularly scheduled classes at Sayiljoy Academic Lyceum: Most of my students there didn’t know a word of English and didn’t want to learn; they cheated, and they paid for their marks. I felt useless, so when a couple of weeks earlier Alime asked me to teach a course at En Course, I jumped at the chance. I entered her classroom with a vague lesson plan to teach Robert Frost, completely unprepared to stimulate a bunch of rowdy teenagers. My lesson was a disaster.
“No, teach poetry, you like it,” Alime told me. “I have another class for you. They’re a little bit less fluent, but very eager to learn. And they like everything, even poetry.”
“Oh great!” I said. “When would you like me to come?”
Alime had told me that the class wouldn’t begin for another two or three weeks, so in the meantime, in addition to teaching my regular classes at Sayiljoy Lyceum, I planned on how I would get my new En Course students hooked. I don’t know exactly why this change was so smooth. I suppose because Alime was the director of her private school, and she saw that poetry was important, and hence reorganized. I knew that I just had to teach poetry — I wasn’t sure how — but I just had to, so I spent many nights flipping through the 2,000-page Norton Anthology of Poetry that I lugged with me to Uzbekistan and many hours at the Internet café pleading with people back home to send me materials to make my students realize what I had realized long ago: that poetry could change the world.
One day when I was 6 or maybe 7, my family gathered in the backyard of our home in Douglas, Arizona. We were struggling financially, but one thing we had in plenty was space, so our backyard was pretty big from what I remember: a honey suckle bush next to my mother’s failed garden, a gravel pit in the far right corner, an old clothes line whose pillars were so rusty that they rubbed red on my palms whenever they became an obstacle for one of my sister’s games. We didn’t have any grass, but we had a wild clover patch, which was so close to the cool comfort of real grass that sometimes I pressed my forehead in it. A few dandelions also grew in that patch, and I liked to rub one on my forearm and insist that it peed on me. On that day, I was pointing my finger at tinkling dandelions when I suddenly realized that everyone was ignoring me. My mom and dad stood with open mouths, watching my sister do acrobatics.
My amazing sister, three years my senior — by that age already tall, lean, flexible, and coordinated — bent her back in a semi-circle and rested her toes and palms on the ground to form a bridge. She was already the basketball star at A Avenue Elementary and she could even play a bit of chess. We had known that she could do the bridge for a long time, but for some reason this time was pivotal.
“Catrina Juliana,” my dad suddenly announced proudly, “we are going to send you to the U.S. Naval Academy!” The U.S. Naval Academy was very difficult to get into, my dad cautioned, but with Catrina’s brains and superior athletic ability, she doubtlessly would be admitted. “Or maybe the U.S. Coast Guard Academy,” he mused, somewhere at least where her athletic and strategic abilities would be of use to our country.
“What about me?” I asked, jealous as ever that no one seemed interested in my dandelions.
Now this was during the time before the influx of all those parenting self-help books. My dad wanted to treat us equally. He didn’t want a temper tantrum. He didn’t want to engender a sibling rivalry that wouldn’t end until we were in our 80s and both pissing on our forearms. But he also didn’t want to delude me. I was short, chubby, and so uncoordinated that I couldn’t ride a bike without training wheels until I was 11. My dad took my hand and said to me, “You, Kristen Ingrid, you are going to the U.S. Poetry Academy.”
“The U.S. Poetry Academy!” I thought “Where poems would be of use to my country!”
When I found myself back in that same En Course classroom a few weeks later, I felt a little more confident about my lesson plan. I was amazed all over again by Alime’s classroom, one that I hadn’t seen the likes of in Uzbekistan before. The infrastructure was just as debilitated, but the inside was brilliantly decorated with cards, banners, posters, a self-made model of the Statue of Liberty, the casts of 43 U.S. presidents. A large shelf to the side held folders, colorful paper, boxes of crayons, paste, scissors, and rolls of colorful yarn. The only thing typical about that classroom was the picture of Islam Karimov above the front board, keeping watch over his flock with piercing eyes and an absent grin. Different poses of Karimov usually dominated a school’s hallways and classrooms. Sometimes he’s shaking hands with peasants, sometimes he’s flashing a gold-toothed smile. In that one in particular, he looked like the 13th president, Millard Fillmore, with his smooth face and gently turgid cheeks.
Class began, and I introduced myself and told the students we were going to talk about poetry. Alime was right: All the students beamed. What made these students so different? I honestly don’t know. They looked for the most part the same, even exhibited the same restlessness before class, but my confidence and self-assurance may have been a factor. I wasn’t going to get dumped again. I passed out copies of a poem, and I began to read in a low voice Saul Williams’ “Penny for a Thought”:
Cancel the apocalypse
cartons of the milky way with pictures of a missing planet
last seen in pursuit of an American dream
this fool actually thinks he can drive his hummer on the moon
blasting DMX off the soundtrack of a South Park cartoon
… and you looking for another martyr in the form of a man
hair like a mane with an outstretched hand
in a roar of hearts, thoughts, reactionary defensiveness and counter intelligence
what exactly is innocence?
They erupted into applause. “Wow! This is poetry?” asked a student who turned out to be Aziz, one of my most excited students who I still work with today over e-mail. Other students began eagerly, “What’s an apocalypse?” “What does martyr mean?” “What’s brainwashin’?” “I didn’t know you could do that in a poem!” I explained that slam poetry, a.k.a., spoken word poetry, was another kind of poetry in the U.S.
“And you could be the first slam poets in Uzbekistan,” I said.
I created a template based on Williams’ poem, simplifying it and leaving some words blank that the students provided to create a unique poem.
Cancel the ___________________
Cartons of ___________________ with pictures of ___________________
What exactly is ___________________?
A girl of 16, Zarifa, wrote this one: “Cancel the pageant/ cartons of make-up with pictures of girls/ what exactly is beauty?” which prompted all the students’ accolades. Perhaps I was reading into her lines of verse, but I thought Zarifa’s poem was initial evidence of poetry’s ameliorating effect on her life; I thought her lines’ profoundly questioning the nature of beauty would empower her, give her a new clarity that would help her throughout her life. I started remembering what poetry had done for me.
I don’t exaggerate when I say that poetry saved my life. Not on the day of my accident (I owe that to the doctors and nurses in Tucson Medical Center), but I mean later, in the aftermath, helping me cope with what happened May 23, 1998, one week before high school graduation. On that day, I was ejected from a car traveling over 100 mph, and airlifted to Tucson Medical Center with massive head injuries, collapsed lungs, and a broken clavicle. I was in a coma for about a month and in the rehab hospital for a summer recovering from a paralyzed right side; double vision; impaired cognition, language, and speech; other residual complications of a traumatic brain injury sustained mostly in my left frontal lobe. My short-term memory was detrimentally affected, and I have no memory of up to a week preceding the event. I was the lucky one. My two dear friends, Stacey Hemesath and John Cooper, died on-site from massive head trauma after also being ejected from the vehicle. I don’t know how we forgot to buckle our seat belts, but sadly we did, and by most accounts the accident would not have been fatal had we worn them. Because we were all ejected, nobody knows for sure who was driving, but one thing is certain: We were not influenced by drugs or alcohol, just by happiness, speeding down the interstate as promising young adults, with invitations from state colleges and universities for the next academic year.
I’ve read the physicist’s reconstruction of the accident scene since then, and according to him, our car was attempting to speed past a semi at 104 mph, lost control and flipped end-over-end three times into the median. He determined that I was in the back seat and fell out the back window on the second or third roll. My friends went out the windshield and died. But memory validates experience, not a physicist, no matter how glittering his credentials, and my memory is gone, its dying embers stamped out by the impact of bone and asphalt. The accident was my fault, somehow.
After the accident left me with a traumatic brain injury, my doctors and therapists advised against attending college. I wanted to attend college, just like I had planned before the accident. I was accepted on scholarship at the University of Arizona, and I didn’t see why that should change. I was the same person, I thought, smart and capable as ever, but the doctors and therapists disagreed. Attending college would mean that I would be living without parental supervision, and I was still adjusting to living, period. Who would take care of me? How would I negotiate collegiate demands? Before I was discharged from the hospital, a therapist tested me for hours to gauge my cognitive function. She concluded that I wasn’t bad with math, as only my left frontal lobe had been injured — the area of the brain integral to language comprehension and facility — but my math lobe was still formidable from high school trigonometry. According to the therapist, I had a math ability that surpassed college level, but my language ability would set me back: I had the language comprehension of a fifth grader. That didn’t seem too bad, because my future career at that point wasn’t language-oriented, but rather science-oriented (before the accident I wanted to be some kind of animal scientist, and after the accident I wanted to be a physical therapist inspired by my own rehabilitation). In the end, doctors and therapists, and most notably my parents, reasoned that I couldn’t be that stupid if I could still do math. We reached a compromise and I enrolled in only one class at the U of A.
As a part-time student, I couldn’t live in a dormitory so I lived in an apartment in Tucson with one of my friends from high school who was a professional DJ. My class “Investigating Learning Strategies” met two days a week, and as my license was revoked because of an increased risk for seizures, I had to negotiate Tucson’s limited public transportation system. Most of the people who used public transportation in Arizona were marginalized in some way, and I was so lonely I would talk to anybody. My roommate was always busy with work and his girlfriend, and I was often alone because I didn’t have any friends. I had poor social skills and slurred speech, so on the bus I made friends with homeless Vietnam vets and crack addicts, who were apparently the only people who would talk to an awkward girl missing a large tuft of hair.
I mourned the loss of my physical ability as I had to use a cane to walk long distances, and I lost my former balance and spatial orientation. I had grown up unimpressive by athletic standards, but I also was raised in the shadow of my sister, so I forced myself to develop some sort of athletic skill. The only thing I could really do well was run long distances, and I ran all the time, becoming the captain of the cross-country team and accepted onto most athletic teams because my speed and endurance were assets. The loss of my physical ability doesn’t compare to how great my other loss was, when I was smart enough to realize how stupid I had become. On the days I didn’t have class or outpatient therapy, I could be found on the west corner of the U of A campus under a tree reading, or more accurately, wrestling with language and trying to read. For six months, I was struggling with three books: The Princess Bride, Fried Green Tomatoes, and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. I couldn’t for the life of me understand them, even The Princess Bride, my favorite book which I had read something like 15 times in high school and which my dad read aloud to me while I was in a coma. I felt stupid, inadequate. Stupid! I rage when I recall how I felt when I opened The Princess Bride post-accident: I not only saw incomprehensible vocabulary and syntax, but I saw them in two planes of vision; the left eye’s plane of vision was dominant, but I saw another plane in a more-vibrant hue (as my right pupil was more dilated) floating to the right-hand side that made me sick and confused. I saw an ophthalmologist who prescribed special specs, but my eyes never adjusted to them, and I had to read with one eye closed, a particularity that made me feel weird and ashamed. Though I rage now when I recall this memory, I handled it like a proverbial trooper. I carried a pocket dictionary, through which I would constantly be flipping to locate a word, and then I would write that word in my notebook, using a former paralyzed limb that struggled to write on one line. I was ashamed of my bad handwriting, too, and I used to type up a list with words and their definitions when I got home, a long, grueling process that steadily rebuilt my vocabulary.
When the spring semester arrived, so did hope when the possibility of driving like a real adult presented itself. I had to take the road test again, and I took it in my hometown of Sierra Vista. Though it is not a big town at all, I misunderstood the instructor when she told me to turn left. I went straight, thereby proving that I was not competent enough to drive. I failed, and I can’t quite capture in words the weight of this failure. But the whole town of Sierra Vista knew of my accident and the deaths of my friends, and I think the driving instructor who led me on the course the next day took pity on me. He didn’t make me do the three-point turn and he complimented every neurotic glimpse into the rear view and speedometer. I didn’t tell anyone that I saw double. I assume the instructor thought my glasses corrected anything that was wrong with my eyes, and he gave me my license again — class D with an eyeglasses restriction — and I smiled crookedly as he took my photo.
Since I had a license, I drove down to my hometowns of Sierra Vista and Douglas almost every weekend that semester. Though I found books good company, I was alone much of the time with my books, and even though driving terrified me, I didn’t want to be alone, so I stayed at my dad and my stepmother’s house, or sometimes I drove to Douglas to visit my mom. I took I-10 to get home, and I would have to drive by the accident site, so I recited prayers and poems to keep me afloat, over and over again, until 40 miles of that freeway were behind me and I turned south on Highway 90. Most often I recited the Lord’s Prayer and Henry V’s Eve of Saint Crispin’s day speech:
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.
Henry V makes this speech to inspire his weary soldiers before a bloody battle with the French, and as he succeeds in inspiring them, he inspired me. I was fighting my own battle, and I needed all the help I could get. I recited this speech (always trying to imitate the cadence of Kenneth Branaugh) so many times that it always stays with me. I also recited the Lord’s Prayer, Macbeth’s “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” monologue, and of course, “To be or not to be.” My speech improved, slowly but surely. I saw the woman who had been a note-taker for me in the first class I ever took at the U of A after two years, and she couldn’t believe how much I had improved. “Your speech is so much better,” she had said. I was no longer stumbling over Shakespeare’s iambs, though I stumbled internally. Usually, I was relatively happy, perhaps due to counseling and antidepressants, but when I had an idle moment, I felt emotions that I knew I was entirely too young to feel: guilt, shame, fear of death.
When I took my first poetry workshop the fall semester of 2000, I finally understood the phrase “Everything’s falling into place,” which is something I heard my academic advisor say a few times to me. I studied craft in a lecture setting with poet Richard Shelton, and met on Fridays for workshop led by poet Carolyn Hembree. I will never forget Richard Shelton’s unbridled excitement over concrete descriptions, nor Carolyn’s encouragement and diplomatic persuasion to eliminate my sentimental verse. She, among the many others who encouraged me to write, gave me my life back. I wrote a series of “Pokie” poems — “Pokie” being my childhood nickname that symbolized my lost self — that more important than their literary merit, were powerful, empowering expressions of self. At the age of 20, I realized I could turn my ache into art.
Reading and comprehension were easier with poetry. As it was lineated, I could read poetry easier with my double vision. I also didn’t have to use my pocket dictionary as much for poems because they were so much more concise. I only had to look up three or four words per poem, and an incredible story unfolded. I also didn’t need to use disability accommodations (note-takers or testing accommodations where I used a computer) in my poetry workshops as I had to in my other classes, which meant I didn’t have to make special requests. I didn’t need to submit a “Notification Sheet” from the Disability Resource Center explaining my rights. My poems were typed on a word processor — just like everybody else’s. The only thing that made me special was the way I wrote.
Before the accident, I had been Senior Class President, a straight-A student, captain of the cross-country team, and a participant in numerous athletic and other extracurricular activities. After the accident, all that changed, but in poetry workshop, I realized I could be that perfect student again. My double vision, my morbid sensibilities, and my preoccupation with death were actually an asset in poetry workshop because they provided unique subject matter. My body and mind were indelibly scarred, but I was thrilled when I discovered that I could, in some small way, be exceptional again. I started to think that I survived the accident so that I could write and study poetry.
That semester, I stopped taking antidepressants and I haven’t taken them since. I started running again, and ran my first race since my cross-country races in high school. I also ran the Bisbee 1000 Stair Climb, which was a 5K course that included the over 1000 stairs that dominate Bisbee’s landscape. Bisbee — the seat of Cochise County, which includes Sierra Vista and Douglas — sits at an altitude of 5,280 feet, exactly one mile. It’s a historic copper mining town, and the mountains shine reddish-orange, dappled by the green of mesquite trees and other shrubbery. Bisbee’s hilly roads and stairs constituted a race that was the most difficult I could ever remember running, keenly feeling the cold October air in that long-neglected part of my lungs. The finish line was at the bottom of a hill, affording relief so I could concentrate on my form as I crossed it, beating my dad, a daily runner, by several minutes. I was alive, and yes, what a miracle it was to be alive.
On September 11, 2001, I thought my destiny grew bigger. After my classes were cancelled that day, I went to my favorite coffee shop, the Raging Sage, to try to make sense of the world I lived in. An emergency TV was propped on a chair right in the middle of the shop, and I watched two airplanes dive into the twin towers, over and over again. I was sipping an iced latte. At that moment, I became keenly aware of my privilege and my insular world, and suddenly was overwhelmed with a sense of duty to save the world, to save the world the way I had been saved, and though my mind is clearer now than it was back then, I know that this sense of duty compelled me to join the Peace Corps. And the Peace Corps provided me in part with an answer to the haunting question that I asked myself everyday since May 23, 1998: Why did I survive?
I survived so that I could join the Peace Corps. I survived so that I could join what ultimately turned out to be the U.S. Poetry Academy.
In the En Course class in Jizzakh, Slam poetry gave way to more academic poetry (which was more within my skill set); my next series of lessons was on “Crazy Poets” (which was also more within my skill set), during which we studied Dickinson, Roethke, Berryman and Silvia Plath. As I mentioned, I didn’t know exactly how to teach poetry — I just knew I had to teach it (Having been an ESL teacher for going on six years now, I admit my former methodology was poor).
I began class with a brief biography of the poet; the rest of the class consisted of writing a poem using a template I had created. My students will never forget Emily Dickinson because she taught them “agoraphobia” — it’s a big word, so they were proud to learn it, and it’s relatively easy to pronounce for the Uzbek tongue. My students could understand this affliction, because the wide world outside was often hostile, they knew. Demons lurked behind the government-propaganda billboards that lined the roads, in the phallic monuments that proclaimed the glory of each Uzbek city.
Zarifa paired up with Zebo, another girl of about 16, to work on this poem together, using Dickinson’s “The shut me up in Prose” as a template:
They shut me in the kitchen
As when a little girl
They put me in the dishes
Because they liked me “kind”
I could hear this insubordinate voice as they spoke in class. They weren’t as talkative as the other boys, but they were smart and their words were deliberate, Zebo with wide, inquisitive eyes and Zarifa with more narrow, discerning ones. I’ve corresponded with Zebo over e-mail — she’s a teacher at En Course now, and still writing poetry. I never got a hold of Zarifa, though. I wonder how she is. She could feasibly be married now; she could be a kelin, a new wife, which necessitates an extreme form of supplication to the husband.
My students could not, however, understand the mood disorders of the other poets, especially what compelled Sylvia Plath to stick her head in an oven. I brought a picture of me at the “Dress Like Your Favorite Poet” party I attended in Tucson and I passed it around the class. My students could not contain their laughter. Naturally, I was dressed like Sylvia Plath, a box over my head in the likeness of an oven: I grinned maniacally in the “oven window” as “John Ashbery” turned up the heat. The poetry template that we used was based on Plath’s “Daddy,” and one of my best students, Ali, wrote a scathing critique of the Uzbek government:
You do not feed us, you are not safe for us
Anymore, very poor city
In which I have walked like a dog which wants to pee
For 25 years, trustful and faithful to you
Barely daring to develop or increase
I.A. Karimov, I have had to kill you.
You lied to people before I was your citizen,
Greedy, a homeless heart full of Jilli-Gulli
Undeveloped village with one lost city
Individualism as a bird in the cage.
I can only imagine the courage it took for Ali to write that poem. Even though he was only 16 at the time, it’s likely that if Karimov ever read this poem, he would accuse him of Islamic fundamentalism and throw him in prison where he would be boiled alive, hence I have changed his name and his biographical particulars in this essay. I don’t know why Ali, and indeed all my students, opened up to me so much. I think it had something to do with my lack of a rigid pedagogical plan, and my being pretty clueless. Of maybe out of characteristic Uzbek generosity, they were doing me a favor by writing poems.
Maybe teaching poetry was something I had to do to heal. Poetry had saved me, but I didn’t stop to think that the wonderful instruction I had at the U of A had also played a part in my healing. When I read of other momentous poetry instruction — like that of my former professor Richard Shelton’s Crossing the Yard or Mark Salzman’s True Notebooks, in which they led poetry workshops in prisons — I’m always reminded that I could have done more. I could have, should have, been a better teacher. When the Peace Corps evacuated its volunteers out of the country in June 2005 because of terrorist threats and the Uzbek government’s anti-American sentiment, I felt like I left so much work unfinished in Uzbekistan, though I was only three months away from fulfilling my service. Since then, since I stared out the window on our ascent from the Tashkent International Airport and imagined raised hands in the blocks of buildings, Uzbekistan has left an ache in my soul so profound that daily I think, “If I could only go back…” Though today, I try to nourish my relationship with my students over e-mail, it feels like a last ditch attempt to recapture a relationship I never fully developed because, back then, I was too preoccupied with my personal healing to reach across the divide of nationality, wealth, age, gender, and whatever else separated me from my students. Most of my students exist for me now as poets on the page, my tools of literary analysis assessing what impact my instruction had.
The next spring of 2004, we hadn’t studied Slam poetry in about a year. We had moved on to lighter poems designed to teach specific vocabulary. Summer was coming and the students were getting restless. Nonetheless, something inspired Ali to write a slam poem on his own, unprompted by a template:
Man, woman, these are human
Guy, girl these are youth
Mama, dad these are parents
Money, gold, these are problems
We have trouble
We have unluck in our life
That’s not easy to stay for that
That’s not easy to win them
You, I and others
Have our own favorite things
You can have a girlfriend
They can have money
I have another
Which gives me chance
To cuss somebody, to beat something
To kill my enemy, to save my princess
Gives me pleasure
Gives me freedom of speech
On a Slam I can kill my school principal
On a Slam I can marry Jennifer Lopez
On a Slam I can be buried on the moon
I learned poetry
Just simple poetry at school
The Uzbek writers wrote
Just poems which the President and governors wanted
They are just cowards
Who want to protect their back
I will, I will write a SLAM
Because I have lots of inspiration
May the governor send me to the jail
May the school principal fire me
May a hurricane kill me
But it can’t stop me
I will write a SLAM.
I realize now that this was the goal I always had: for a student to write in response to an internal need for self- expression, and not to help a young teacher achieve her idealistic needs. In 2005, Ali obtained a grant to study at a high school in Georgia. He’s now majoring in business at the University of Central Florida with two of my other students from Uzbekistan. He just sent me via MySpace a Slam poem he wrote. He worried it was too harsh, due to his foul language and direct indictments of a former friend. I told him that the nature of Slam poetry is often harsh, and gave him the best advice I’ve ever known: “Keep writing."
Teaching poetry ended up defining my service. Uzbekistan was, for me, the U.S. Poetry Academy, an institution that continually changes place and name. I almost would want to earn a diploma one day for all my hard work, except that I never want to graduate from the U.S. Poetry Academy. I never want to finish using poetry to try to better the world, which admittedly seems a little corny to say. Emily Dickinson says it better: “I dwell in Possibility,” possibility being her metaphor for poetry. In poetry, everything is possible — healing, growing, grieving. It is a dwelling for me, and though the edifice may change, I will always live there, “spreading wide my [chubby] Hands/ To gather Paradise.” • 20 August 2009
Kristen Hoggatt received her MFA from Emerson College. She leads a double life as a poet prone to an excess of self reflection and an ESL teacher motivated to elicit correct student pronunciation of the /p/ and /ð/ phonemes. She writes the Ask a Poet column for The Smart Set.