A wonderful essay sent to the Providence Journal in support of what we are all about!
MY TURN: CREATE A RIVER OF VOICES. WRITE AND SHARE AN ‘I AM FROM’ POEM
By Ellen Landay
Submitted to the Providence Journal
August 30th, 2018
In the summer of 1993, Kentucky poet and teacher George Ella Lyon opened a black-and-white speckled composition book and began to make a list of items—mostly ordinary and everyday—that she remembered as important and memorable aspects of her life. After collecting image after image, she edited her list and crafted it into a poem that begins
I am from clothespins,
from Clorox and carbon-tetrachloride.
I am from the dirt under the back porch.
it tasted like beets.)
I am from the forsythia bush
the Dutch elm
whose long-gone limbs I remember
as if they were my own….
I am from those moments–
snapped before I budded —
leaf-fall from the family tree.
With the words ‘I am from’ Lyon combined names of people, images, events into a poem that tells a delicate and vivid story of who she is and where she comes from. She began to share the poem in readings and classes with other writers, teachers and students in Kentucky and beyond. As she described it, “The idea immediately took off.” Years later, the format has become a classroom classic, well known and much loved, inspiring writers of all ages and backgrounds to select and assemble their own recollections into rich distinctive portraits of who they are and where they come from.
Named Kentucky’s poet Laureate in 2015, George Ella wrote in a blog post “Little did I dream, when I began this poem…that I was starting a process that would involve countless teachers and writers, young and old, in the United States and in Germany, Great Britain, Spain, China and the Sudan, that folks would write Where I’m From poems in prison, a refugee camp, homeless shelters, English as a second language programs and children’s hospitals.”
“Where I’m From has been handed around the world like sourdough starter. It’s been part of photo exhibits, videos, obituaries, family reunions and dance. A line from the poem declares, ‘I am from the . . . pass-it-ons’ and that’s what keeps happening to it, a testimony to the power of place, of poetry, of teachers and of the hunger for a voice.”
As a teacher educator, over the years, I have introduced the model to my students and seen versions of the poem written and shared widely across Rhode Island classrooms. At a professional development institute in Kentucky several years ago, I had the privilege of teaching alongside George Ella, whom I now call my friend.
In 2016, The Kentucky Arts Council made the poem the centerpiece of a statewide project receiving over 700 submissions from counties across the state and sharing them on a website, http://artscouncil.ky.gov/KAC/Vibrant/WhereFromAbout.htm.
Now, George Ella and partners have devised a new future for the poem: to create a tapestry of Where I’m From art—poems as well as photos, music, dances, songs, videos, essays and stories—as a tangible demonstration and celebration of our diversity as a nation and to share the work widely in the time leading up to Indigenous People’s Day on October 8. The website www.iamfromproject.com and @iamfromproject on FaceBook provides details.
From Rhode Island and across the nation, the goal for the project is to create a river of voices that tell the story of who we are and where we come from. We invite people of all ages and backgrounds as individuals, in classrooms and schools, community centers, churches, synagogues and mosques and other organizations large and small and to share their art in print, posters, post cards, websites, through performances and other art forms. We recommend also, that you send copies of your art with or without additional commentary to your legislators, locally and nationally, so that they have a clear idea of who their constituents are, what we believe in and hope for.
Please consult the website to read George Ella’s full poem and other examples, to share work of your own, to gather ideas for ways to inspire, write and teach others to write a Where I’m From poem, to read about plans for sharing the work, and to get up-to-date information about the project.
Eileen Landay directs The ArtsLiteracy Project , is a Visiting Scholar at Brown University and a co-author of A Reason to Read: Linking Literacy and the Arts. (Harvard Education Press, 2012.)
Updated call for Indigenous People’s Day
The I Am From Project
to be part of a Poem-In
October 8-12, 2018
We face a critical moment in our democracy. If we are silent, voices of fear, hatred, bigotry and greed will dominate and define us.
As one way to counter those voices, we urge you to join us at the I Am From Project & write a poem that expresses who you are and what you value, and then to share it with your community & your legislators during the week of Indigenous People’s Day.
Harking back to Walt Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing” (1860), we call out a multiplicity of voices to raise a new Song of Ourselves—diverse, equal, free–and make it heard in D.C.
–George Ella Lyon and Julie Landsman
WAYS TO PARTICIPATE:
Announce this project on your Facebook pages, in local papers, on posters, in op-ed pieces, etc.
If you are a teacher, consider beginning your year with your classes writing I Am From poems, and then mail copies of them to your legislators or leave them at your legislators’ office doors.
Create posters with I Am From poems on them and post them around the neighborhood, near government buildings, in the coffee shops, etc.
Mail copies of poems on postcards (anonymously, or not), stage impromptu readings, get on your local radio station, go wherever your imagination takes you.
Send poems to the firstname.lastname@example.org and we will get them up.
Share your suggestions for this project. We’ll post your ideas, plans, on the website Updates section.
Send us news on how it went–and we’ll post that too.
In this way we can be a central virtual location for creating a visible presence, whether it be through videos, collages, photos, or text. We hope to have an action in DC. Sending poems to representatives and senators is a beginning toward that event.