Reading and Writing and the Occasional Recipe: Where the poem comes from: Mary Bonina

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Reading and Writing and the Occasional Recipe

Where the poem comes from: Mary Bonina

Monday, January 4, 2010

I probably first saw Mary Bonina’s work back when I wrote a literary column for The Boston Globe and did a story on the trail of poetry and prose inscribed on monoliths along the MBTA Orange Line. She wrote the poem that’s outside the Green Street Station. I can only imagine how satisfying it is to see your words carved in stone!

I talked with Mary on a fall day just as she was getting ready to go on a residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts , where I've also had the pleasure of working. It was a little cool but not so much that we couldn’t sit outside at Cafe Pamplona in Harvard Square hunched over our hot coffees. She told me about the pleasures and challenges inherent in switching among genres, in her case fiction, creative non-fiction, poetry, and memoir She is the author of a poetry chapbook, “Living Proof.” Here is her poem, “English Lesson Plan: Present Perfect,” published in a 1991 issue of Hanging Loose, along with her description of how that poem came to be written.

“One of the many jobs I have held while trying to balance a writing life with financial needs, has been that of freelance ESL teacher to recent immigrants in their workplaces, mostly hospitals and banks in Boston. I was teaching adult students new to the U.S. from China, Haiti, Central America, Africa, Sicily, Poland, and other countries, students who spoke some sixteen different languages and held a variety of positions, including clerk, cashier, cafeteria worker, phlebotomist, research doctor, custodian, patient transporter, parking attendant, and nurse’s aid. Many of those I taught had had professional positions in the countries they’d left, but coming to the United States and not knowing English, most of them had taken service jobs.

“I loved teaching these students and I had great empathy for their situation. I suppose I was motivated to help them partially by my own family’s experience, immigrating from Sicily and Ireland, and having to negotiate a new culture and language themselves. So I took my role seriously, always prepared with a lesson plan I had labored over.

“Often though, after just a few exchanges of dialogue, I would have to abandon my script. Desperate to learn the language, to be able to navigate in a new culture, my students would interrupt me with their own pressing needs for specific vocabulary or grammatical construction; and when they did follow my lead, they asked questions and offered interpretations I had not anticipated when planning my classes. Eventually, I accepted and gained more confidence and got comfortable with allowing what I’d initially seen as interruption.

“I began to find it exhilarating, letting my teaching benefit from an improvisational style. I began to feel like a jazz sax player must, taking my cues from my students, and creating something new, building upon what they offered me. I felt like I was writing a poem, recognizing that familiar process of one word, one thought, leading to another -- often unanticipated – recognizing endless possibilities and finally settling on specific ones, when realizing a moment of revelation. I learned how to encourage the flow, to go with the stream of consciousness, and how to bring it back to my intended lesson.

“ The poem “English Lesson Plan: Present Perfect” is one from a collection of poems called Lunch in Chinatown, after the fact that one of my teaching sites was on the edge of Chinatown and students there often attended my classes during lunch break, “brown-bagging it.” This poem, as the title suggests, is about teaching the present perfect tense, a task that has stymied many an English teacher, even those working with native speakers of the language. It just might be the best example in the collection that illustrates the way I would encourage a riff to take its natural course, yet bring it back eventually to the original theme.”

English Lesson Plan: Present Perfect


The Roz Chast cartoon in The New Yorker
shows a goofy mother, father, and children
seated all in a line, pressed tight together
between the sofa arms, staring at the TV:
“The Lintners,” the caption says,
“Stuck on the sofa since 1987.”

I show it to the class, thinking: will they laugh?
The clipping is an example I use
to illustrate the present perfect tense.
It gets passed around. Everyone nods,
very, very serious about learning
the present perfect tense.

Q. “How long have the Lintners been stuck on the sofa?”
A. The Lintners have been stuck on the sofa since 1987.”
Stuck on a sofa, “hypnotized” by TV, brings up new
vocabulary. I explain “to be in a trance.”
This leads to “sleepwalking,” then to “daydreaming,”
and finally to “hallucination.”

“Hallucination” inspires Margarita to tell a story:
her last job....the State Hospital....there was a man
who had lost his mind when he lost his wife.
Whenever he got angry, says Margarita,
he would hallucinate that he was still in Cuba,
still in the hot sun. He would mime
cutting sugar cane with his machete

Someone is using the word “cuckoo.”
I must explain that it is the name of a bird,
and not the right word to describe someone who is ill.
The Haitians think I’m talking about the owl, a bird that
frightens them, its face, the face of a cat, the eyes....
When they say nocturne I know
their mistake, draw an owl on the chalkboard.
And the lesson for the day ends this way,
me saying, “It is an owl, not a cuckoo.
Haven’t you ever seen a clock shaped like a house
and a little bird comes out of the upstairs window saying,
“Cuckoo! Cuckoo!” the exact number of times
to tell the hour? The present perfect tense, like time
goes on and on, or like the Lintners, or the man who has
been cutting sugar can ever since his wife died, or
the owl that has been awake all night long, hooting.”

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Blogger Mim said...

Whole lives open up as Mary Bonina discusses her poem.

January 4, 2010 at 2:10 PM  

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