Students at Foster High School in Tukwila, all of them refugees, tell their "Stories of Arrival" in verse. An anthology of their work will be released next week.
Kang Pu is working hard to perfect his English. His Burmese accent is still strong, and he’s still building his vocabulary.
When he recites poetry, however, Kang is eloquent.
Yesterday, he stood before his classmates at Foster High School in Tukwila and recited a piece he wrote called “In My Mother’s Kitchen.”
When my mom cooked it smelled of sweet wintertime cherries,
of a solitary forest with rain falling
and it smelled like the murmur of a lonely bird, singing
I picture the spherical smoke rising from her kitchen
it was like the sound of sleep at night,
it was like arriving home safe and sound
the sounds of her kitchen were peaceful
The poetry of Kang and his classmates in Carrie Stradley’s English language class have been collected in an anthology called “Our Table of Memories: Food and Poetry of Spirit, Homeland and Tradition.”
The book launch is scheduled for Dec. 17 from 5:30 until 8:30 at Tukwila Community Center. The students will read their work, and food will be served from some of their home countries, among them Burma, Somalia, Thailand, Vietnam, Iran, Iraq, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Mexico, El Salvador and Nepal. Proceeds from the project will support a scholarship fund for the poets.
As they gathered in Stradley’s class on Thursday to practice, the kids seemed nervous but excited, proud to share their work. Some of them stumbled over the words a few times, but Cecilia Dawt Iang, who is from Burma, read her poem, “Standing in My Grandmother’s Garden,” in a clear, steady voice.
“I miss my grandmother so much and I have the best memory in my grandmother’s garden,” she said, introducing her work. “I hope have a chance to see her one more time.”
All of her vegetables and fruits
taste as sweet as my parents’ love.
When I stand in my grandmother’s garden,
it feels like traveling the world.
This is the sixth year that Stradley’s students have published an anthology of their work. The past versions were self-published, but this year’s is being produced by Chatwin Books, a Seattle publisher.
This year’s project is a collaboration with Project Feast, which supports immigrant and refugee women seeking to embark on careers in the food industry. The poems focus on food and its connection to home, culture, family and memory. They also touch on the themes of hunger, poverty and war.
The project is also supported by the Jack Straw Cultural Center, which records the students’ readings each year. KCBS also broadcasts their work daily during National Poetry Month each April. (You can listen to last year’s readings here.)
Although the students are still learning English, many of them spoke two or three languages in their homeland, where the dialects are many and varied, said Merna Ann Hecht, a Seattle poet who has worked with the students for all six years.
“They’ve already got a facility with language,” she said. “Poetry gives them a passport to telling the stories they want to tell. It lets them break the rules of grammar and transcend the rules of spelling and tenses and so on. I tell them it’s the language of the heart, and they get it.”
The Tukwila school district, just south of Seattle, is one of the most diverse in the nation. Students speak 80 languages. Many have survived war and civil strife. Many have lived in refugee camps. Kang, 16, arrived just over one year ago with his aunt and his uncle. His road to Tukwila was long and winding.
When he was 11 years old, his mother died in childbirth, leaving his father, a poor rice farmer, to support five children and their two grandparents on his own. At the age of 13, Kang left school, in search of work. His family had five water buffalo. After walking for two days, he sold one of them at a market in neighboring India. He used the proceeds to buy a plane ticket to Malaysia, where he worked in a Chinese dim sum restaurant for three years.
Finally, in 2014, he immigrated to the United States with an aunt and uncle who also lived in Malaysia.
“I’ve been away from my own family for five years,” Kang said. “I’m alone. I do a lot of crying. I miss my country. I love my family — my dad, my brothers, my sisters.”
With so much weighing him down, it’s sometimes hard to concentrate on school work. And he has a lot of catching up to do after missing three years of schooling. Although he is 16, he’s starting Foster in ninth grade.
Kang started writing poetry long before joining Stradley’s class. In Malaysia, he filled a notebook with verse in his native language, Zomi, a Burmese dialect. One night, he burned it page by page on the restaurant stove — all 47 pages.
“There was so much sadness in them,” he said. “A lot of sad.”
His father could not afford to send him to school in Burma, where school isn’t free. But he always encouraged his son to go to America and study hard.
“I’m happy with what I have right now,” Kang said. “I’m proud to be at Foster. Challenges and difficulties give us experience — experience for the future.”