NEW YOUNG VOICES
Scenery from my window
I see through my window
used to see out my window
the winds came
The Day So Angry
streets of Lhasa--
soldiers caught my grandfather,
of people slaughtered,
eleven, did nothing,
When I was Departed from Her
I was ten my parents
the Chinese were asleep
left my beloved parents,
the sun rose,
I heard the cockoo-cockoo
left my beloved school, my friends,
the daytime we rested. Others slept,
I left everything.
I look at my mother's picture,
Stone, Snow, and a River
saw them on my way from Tibet to Nepal,
the first half of the journey,
the waterfall, a huge stone blocked our way.
I asked my parents why
jumped this mountain stone
father took me on his back
day later again we reached a place
the directions covered with snow,
the river without a bridge,
take out our tsampa,
tree felt rough,
joined a rope around our waists
then I prayed for a long time
A Day So Sad
we crossed the borders at night.
Things I Miss
high Potala Palace, kissing the sky,
a tiny zone in the Milky Way
the world of cruelty and violence,
Step by step
man with a horse
former cultivates great kindness
the way the journey begins.
Poetry of Tibetan Refugee Children
The classroom itself was bleak: concrete walls and floor, old wooden desks, rags bundled and tied to serve as blackboard erasers. Outside the small window, the foothills of the Himalayas rose and Tibetan prayer flags fluttered, and as I walked into the room, twenty Tibetan high school students stood up, their black hair neatly combed, their uniforms of green blazers and gray pants clean and pressed, their smiles shy, tentative. "Good morning, madam," they said in unison. "Tashi delek," I tried to reply. They smiled at my garbled greeting. I was a guest poet there, thousands of miles from my home in Western Maryland, far from the university where I teach, far from the familiarity of home and friends, all of which I returned to a month and a half later. The students were also miles from their home, their ancestral land high on the Tibetan Plateau. Most of them will never go home.
During the fall of 1999, I taught poetry at The Tibetan Homes Foundation School in Mussoorie, India. Established in 1962 under the direction of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the school currently has about 1800 students enrolled in classes from kindergarten through grade twelve. Many of the children were born in Tibet and made the dangerous crossing over the Himalayas at night to escape Chinese oppression and to have a chance at a better education in India. Some of them are second generation refugees, their parents having fled Tibet some time after the Dalai Lama escaped and established his government-in-exile in northern India. Many of the students are orphans; some have family still in Tibet whom they may never see again. Through courses such as Thangka Painting and Tibetan Language, the school works to preserve traditional Tibetan skills and knowledge. Through its use of English as the primary medium of instruction and its computer lab, equipped with Internet access and international live video capabilities, the school works to prepare its students for a global community.
On that first day of my residency, the students stood by their desks for several minutes, waiting politely, until I finally realized I was supposed to tell them they may be seated. It was only the first of many reminders of how much I didn't know about this culture and this community. I worked with students in grades eight through twelve, hung out with them between classes and on weekends, shared meals with Tibetan friends, and watched the questions rise in my mind. I'd anticipated language barriers and differences in teaching/learning styles, but I hadn't expected the impact of cultural differences to raise so many questions about the nature, even the goal, of creativity. What I discovered was that the Tibetan students' shared history of oppression and exile and the tight bonds required for a safe refugee community do not necessarily translate into the freshly rendered story, the clear image, the surprising insight that are the pleasures of a good poem. As I walked daily from hotel to school and back again, two questions plagued me-- How to move the students beyond their collective rage and gratitude and into the small, fresh details of their private experiences? And the harder one: Why?
The students and I fumbled around for days, trying to get used to one another's ways . My zany icebreakers and free association exercises collided against their tradition of recitation and need for perfection and usually failed. Eventually I settled into "assigning" poems and began what I finally realized was the most fruitful work: the one-on-one, two-heads-bent- over-drafts conversations. "I miss the high plateau," Ngawang wrote. "I can't picture it," I told him. "Show me." He looked to Nyima for help. They whispered over the paper and in a few minutes the high plateau became "a field where flowers/ shone like the spread of stars." Dorjee wrote that the Chinese changed everything. "How?" I wanted to know. A half-hour later, he showed me these lines: "Even the land and animals/ became uneasy." Sonam struggled to describe the violence and how it affected her family: "The day my mother heard/ she became a stone./ Nothing like a human being."
Detail by detail, the stories emerged, the memories of their families, the landscape of home. And then the bigger question began to haunt me: how to know if such focus on what they've lost is worth the poem that emerges. I wrestled with whether some stories are better left buried. Does Dawa really want to so vividly remember watching her friend get shot by a Chinese soldier the night they tried to get to the Nepalese border? What will happen to Jigme, still miles and maybe years from his family, his story of brutality unearthed, relived, written down and now tucked into my filing cabinet in Maryland?
What will happen to Namgyal if he tries to go back to his homeland? After class one day I dragged a chair out onto the concrete balcony that overlooks the school's main courtyard to watch him play a game of basketball. Beyond the school grounds, the Himalayas rose, and above them, the sun glared bright in the thin air. I squinted, trying to watch him dribble and shoot too far from the basket. Lhamo pulled another chair out of the classroom to sit next to me. She folded a piece of notebook paper into a sun visor and silently offered it to me. In a poem last week, she had written, "Hope arises with more/ bitterness than happiness/ But it leaves an indelible imprint/on my soul."
When the game was over, I slipped my backpack on and gathered up the folders full of poems. I was too many thousands of miles from home then to remember Lewis Hyde's exact words in The Gift, but I knew he says something about a culture's art being its gift to people both of that culture and beyond, a gift that holds the potential to transform the recipient. It's a feeling I know, that potential, the way those children's poems felt like treasures in my hands, in my bookbag. Some of them were quickly scribbled; some are more thoughtful and heartfelt. All of them hold that potential to transform--me, the poet, anyone who reads them. This is, perhaps, the only answer to the question of why. It is the promise of poetry, its work in a world of jarring lunacy: that a single image, a couple of lines, can penetrate, can slide inside our busy lives and sturdy logic, our devotion to efficiency, can strike a note of such surprise or beauty or wisdom that we stop and listen.
Tsering called my name as I headed back to the hotel after the game and joined me on my walk across school grounds. A small offering, a tiny gathering of icons and incense, burned in the dirt by the sports field. A couple of monks in maroon robes watched the boys practice pole- vaulting. Tsering is shy. Three weeks ago, she'd titled her first poem "Silence All Over." Its first lines read, "No one spoke--/not the mountains, trees, pond." On this day, she dug into her notebook, pulled out a folded piece of paper, extended her hands to me. Her poem fluttered on her palms like a prayer flag.
University of Connecticut
These poems were written in 1999 by Tibetan refugee children at the Tibetan Homes Foundation School in Mussoorie, India, in creative writing workshops conducted by Barbara Hurd of Frostburg, MD. The poems and accompanying photographs are part of a manuscript entitled Echoes Across the Himalayas. For more information, contact Barbara Hurd, Department of English, Frostburg State University, Frostburg, MD 21532 or Email!