“Gender and Global Change” Dialog with Poet Nina Serrano
A remarkable dialog occurred when innovative Professor Ariana Vigil’s class at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill dropped in electronically on Nina Serrano, poet and activist author of Heart’s Journey, Selected Poems 1980-1999, here in Oakland, California. Professor Vigil’s class is called “Gender and Global Change: Militarization and Transnational Latino/a Literature”. Through the miracle (to some of us) of technology, the transcontinental visit happened via a video Skype call over the internet. The call brought a woman poet involved in international solidarity and resistance to imperialist wars into a dialog with students across the continent. Such an event, in the context of the internet and the ebook, can take place today anywhere in the world.
The students had been assigned Nina’s new poetry eBook, Heart’s Journey, Selected Poems 1980-1999, and had a few questions for the poet. Nina addressed the class while looking at them on her computer screen, and in turn, they saw her on a screen at the front of the classroom. Nina read some of her poems from Heart’s Journey and then took questions. To ask questions the students walked up to the camera in the front of the classroom. It was a friendly exchange from across the country and across generations that separated Nina from the students, all accomplished on the computer, with no air fares, no per minute costs and no technical glitches. It was new for everyone involved: for the students who had never heard a poet read her own poems before; for the poet who facilitated deep interactions and insights with young people that might not happen any other way; and for the Professor who brought creativity and outside resources into her teaching without much expense for the students (ebook $4.99) or the university.
Professor Vigil assigned the students 1) to write up their reflections on the eBook and 2) their responses to the Skype call itself (scroll down for the Skype comments).
1. Here are some of the student’s comments on reading Nina’s poetry in an eBook:
“It was really exciting to come across a work like this that acknowledges, and even utilizes, modern technology. It almost seemed like it was meant for college students to read, since the hyper-linked footnotes led to Wikipedia pages and Google searches, much like what would make up background research when reading such a text for class. The text alone would have been just as good – but the attached internet material really gave the poetry context, thus bringing the social and political background to the forefront in a very direct way. At first it was a bit disorienting to move back and forth between the e-book and various articles, but going back and re-reading sections helped with that problem.”
“I enjoyed the way Serrano used poetic elements to retell the history and craft a counter-narrative of the United States’ funding death in Central America. I appreciated the poet’s mirroring phrases to emphasize them (for example, “persistent/insistent” and “insistent/persistent” in “Mosquito Night Flicks” or “Don’t cry baby/baby don’t cry” in “Blue Lullaby”). In “Mosquito Night Flicks”, when the poet gives “is gone” its own line, she emphasizes the phrase and thus illuminates the power of oppressive forces to extinguish marginalized peoples with deadly violence. … Many of Serrano’s poems deal with the destruction and pain caused by militarization, but Serrano does not leave the reader with a message of despair, but rather inspires hope and pride in resistance to the oppressive forces of U.S. imperialist violence (“A new Nicaragua/that insists/that persists/and therefore exists” from “Volcano” comes to mind).”
“The footnotes started to really help in the later poems such as A Song for Ben Linder. The significance of the poem is difficult to understand with out knowing who Ben Linder was and the reason he went to Nicaragua. Again we see repetition of “Ben Ben” and for this poem she actually ends the lines with a rhyme pattern, which could have been because of the simplicity of Ben’s mission to work in Nicaragua in the midst of chaos.”
“The poem that stood out to me the most was “Red Flower of the Last Blood,” particularly because of the subject matter of the poem and the diction used to describe the process of menstruation. The words “wet juicy” and “bloody mess” seem so simple and non-descriptive, yet are the most vivid words that seem to come to life when read, especially reading it as woman. The poem is describing a woman’s desire to be able to menstruate again, as she has reached menopause. It is evident that every word in the poem was thoughtfully chosen and every line was carefully constructed to remind women of the kinds of episodes they must undergo when menstruating. The poet repeats “That wet juicy/bloody mess” throughout the piece to reiterate how much of a hassle being on your period is, and how involved of a process it is to being a woman.”
“What I found most interesting about our poetry assignment was the ability to interact with the text. Many times when I read poetry, especially poetry that is written in a historical context, I get confused in the meaning or significance of the poem. With Serrano’s ebook, I was able to read, then explore, and then re-read the text. The ability to find articles written about the historical context added to the meaning and my comprehension of the poem. The ability to explore the historical context in which her poems stem from allows the reader to do their own research based on which poem they found interesting. I definitely like the more hands-on approach and I appreciate the ebook!”
“Heart’s Journey was a completely new experience, and I found that having the background information which gave context to the reading was so helpful in both understanding the poems as well as enjoying them. I used the Kindle Cloud reader on my computer, so navigation between the links to the information and the poems themselves was a little tricky and inconvenient. Apart from getting lost a few times in search of the correct link or the place where I left off, I really did like this interactive and informative style of reading poetry.”
2. And here are some of the student’s comments about the Skype call:
“The most meaningful and powerful takeaway from our conversation with Serrano was listening to a renowned poet recite her poetry… To hear a poet’s on-the-spot close reading was encouraging to my own creative thought processes. The appreciation I gained for poetry as a broad style of literature cannot be downplayed. I have never met a poet before and I was imparted with a sense of belonging and duty to the poetry community.”
“Speaking with Serrano was very fun and engaging. I wasn’t expecting her to read her poetry to us so that was a pleasant surprise! The words sounded much different coming from her. I also appreciated the humble, haphazard approach she took towards writing; the poem about mosquitos really was a poem about mosquitos (but the reader is free to map on other meanings, of course). Speaking with Nina Serrano also reminded me of just how long life is. She had a family of her own by 1961 and she is still vigorously living. She reminded me that life doesn’t just wither from us once we are “over the hill.” She is an inspiration because she is still bringing new, creative energy into the world after all these years and her work is now tinged with the wisdom of many decades.”
“Talking to the poet was an amazing experience; especially, having her read her own work. It provides a whole new perspective on the poetry and the way the author intended the work to be heard, emphasizing the key elements….Her last message of living for your dreams and giving anything you do your full effort, left me feeling very inspired. This was one class I will probably remember for the rest of my life.”
“Being able to listen to Serrano read and speak about her poetry was incredible. As readers, we can try to make connections and see themes in texts that the author may have, or may not have, intended to create. After speaking with Serrano, I found that the most interesting is that Serrano herself was still discovering themes in her own poetry that were written decades ago. Having not only the historical background given by the hyperlinks in the text, but also the personal insight of the poet, made the experience feel tangible.”
“Talking with Nina Serrano was so interesting and inspiring. I have never heard a poet read their own work before, so that was great to hear how she imagined the cadence and rhythm of the poems. She had a lot of good advice to give, like on editing and revising work and how the writing process is never really finished and to be involved in the world around you.”