Hispanic immigrant stories captured through poetry

Line by Line, Poets Capture the Immigrant Story, New Jersey Style
Juan Arredondo, New York Times

WOODBRIDGE, N.J. - In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately... Wait. Wrong Xanadu.

Still, if you were poetically inclined you could have done worse on Friday than to cruise past the still-dormant retail-entertainment project, all phantasmagoric shapes and colors, along the New Jersey Turnpike, toward the phosphorescent glow of the refinery world around Exit 13, past the Swan Motel and the anti-Xanadu of the East Jersey State Prison, with its own hulking displeasure dome glowering in the night. Eventually you would arrive at the Barron Arts Center, a Romanesque revival marvel built in 1876 and 1877 as a library of churchlike arches and gables, a clock tower and stained-glass windows.

And if you came at the right time, you might have found Gretna Wilkinson, an energetic woman born in Guyana, declaiming like a soul on fire under the vaulted beams of the main room about saltfish and hot cungapump tea, Marvin Gaye and how Genesis caused Exodus:

i had hoped

to be intelligent about this

believe time could help me

strip this poem of metaphors

then i would write about

how, in a kinder world

one mother buries another

but saves the grip of her sons

for her own casket

i would write it raw. selfish. like that

And so it went, Peter E. Murphy’s view of ships passing under the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, José A. Rodriguez on his family of Hispanic laborers looking for work in Dimmitt, Tex., Timothy Liu’s erotic take on “Five Rice Queens,” Irina Mashinski’s sharp-eyed Russian émigré’s view of life in New Jersey and beyond. A cynic once said writing poetry is like ice fishing — you have to really want to do it to do it. But here we were Friday night in Woodbridge on the first day of the My New Life, My New Poem Festival of Contemporary Immigration Writing, reminded of how many people from such diverse backgrounds seem to want to do it.

Most, but not all, of the readers had New Jersey ties. Some were children of immigrants. Still, as a snapshot of our assorted diasporas, here it was : Emanuel di Pasquale from Ragusa, Sicily; Sheema Kalbasi from Tehran; Paul Sohar, a Hungarian native who for years combined being a chemist at Merck with writing poetry; Rich Villar of Paterson, part Puerto Rican and part Cuban; Heather Raffo with excerpts from her one-woman play about Iraqi women, “Nine Parts of Desire.”

THE festival came together largely because this stretch of Central New Jersey reminded L. E. McCullough, the township’s grants officer and the festival director, of Central Texas, where he had once lived. This is not a completely irrational thought if your frame of reference is the mix of cultures down there: Hispanic, Anglo, Cajun, Texas Czechs, African-American — and the you-name-it-it’s-there population mix in Central Jersey.

And anyone who has been around for a while, like Mr. Sohar, 72, has watched the incessant ebb and flow of ethnic demography in the area.

“Take New Brunswick,” he said. “It used to be solidly Hungarian. All around there were Hungarian clubs and five or six Hungarian restaurants. Now it’s all Mexican, Puerto Rican, Indians and everyone else. Some of these things change overnight, like all the Asians in the big new houses out here.”

So some of the themes in the poetry were very much about the immigrant experience, like Mr. Rodriguez’s “Resident Alien Card.”

This is what I know of that day: 5 years old

and being walked through the immigrant process

the photo first, two copies

one for the eventual alien card

and one that gets lost in a cardboard box

without a label

until today.

And others were the world we share: sex, family, visiting a mother’s grave.

Sometimes the differences among them seem more striking than the commonalities. But, no, most of the readers seemed to agree that what united them all was that outsider’s eye viewing our strange green oasis, which even in hard times still seems a place of heedless plenty — or at least the omnipresent dream of it.

There was Mr. Murphy, from Wales.

Crossing Brooklyn Ferry from Staten Island

did not close the doors of the orphanage inside him

On that boat he studied Casper the Friendly Ghost

and ate a hot dog and Coke, the first supper of a life

he hoped not to suffer.

Or Ms. Mashinski:

Traffic lights shine from bushes

steppe wolves

Passaic, Passaic! Your quiet but hissing name is

like Mongol campfires

squeezing the fortress

I am the last one to defend.

A Peruvian band, Viento Andino, played Andean music, the poets read and mingled. Other readings were set to be held on Saturday and Sunday.

When it ended on Friday, the musicians packed up their instruments and the hall emptied out like the slow exodus from church. Nearby young men sat on the tailgate of a pickup, drinking beer. The streets were dark and quiet as the nice woman inside the GPS led you this way and that as you headed back, way up the Turnpike, toward Xanadu.

E-mail: peappl@nytimes.com

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