Thursday, March 9, 2017

Poetry in Action: Lily Yeh + the Poetry Friday Roundup


Lily Yeh speaking at the 2017 Convening Culture Conference


 
Hello and welcome to the Poetry Friday roundup!




 
My intention for today was to share my takeaways from the 2017 Convening Culture conference on February 22-23, sponsored by the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs. But as I reviewed my notes and composed my thoughts, I realized that I had too much material for just one blog post. If you have time, I hope you'll visit yesterday's post— the first part of my two-day review. I feature Dr. Elif Akçali, a professor of engineering at the University of Florida whose decision to embark upon a year of saying yes led to a creative journey that profoundly changed the way she approaches her life and work. We'll call today's post "Inspiration from the Convening Culture Conference, Part II."

I love the photo at the top of the page. It brings to mind the glowing impression of Lily Yeh I was left with after her keynote presentation on day two of the conference. The conference was not one I expected to attend, nor was it a conference that I would have thought to seek out, yet it made a profound impact thanks to this slight, yet remarkable woman.

Lily Yeh
Lily Yeh is an internationally celebrated artist whose work has taken her to communities throughout the world. As founder of Barefoot Artists, Inc, she brings the transformative power of art to impoverished communities around the globe through participatory, multifaceted projects that foster community empowerment, improve the physical environment, promote economic development, and preserve indigenous art and culture.

As you might have guessed, that description came straight from her bio. Impressive, right? But let me tell you, those words are nothing compared to the impression I was left with after seeing her in person. She's a soft spoken woman, kindly, unassuming, takes up very little space... until you hear the passion behind her words, witness the reach of her healing, and see the results of her life's calling—then her aura fills the entire room. Imagine a Mother Teresa of the art world. That's Lily Yeh.


Beauty is intimately engaged with darkness, with chaos, with destruction. You need to walk into the darkness and hold it in your arms. Broken places are my canvases, people's stories are my pigments, and people's talents and imagination are the instruments.
                                                                     – Lily Yeh

Lily Yeh's calling began in 1986 with an abandoned lot in North Philadelphia that she was invited to turn into a park.

Ile Ife Park, 1986 (before...)

She was scared. She didn't have much money and was warned that the kids would destroy everything she built. But then "the call" came, so fragile and clear:
If you don't rise to the occasion, the best of you will die and the rest will not amount to anything.

After that, she was scared to be a coward! So she responded, "Yes, at least I can do something with the children." With a group of residents, mostly children, she transformed the lot into an art park with mosaic sculptures, murals, and landscaping.

Ile Ife Park, 1990 (...and after)

From there, the projects grew and multiplied. More parks were born from other vacant lots, and in 1989, The Village of the Arts and Humanities was incorporated as a non-profit organization that began offering year-round arts and educational programs. Talk about a success story!

Yet the project she talked about that touched my heart most was not so close to home. It was her transformation of a rough mass grave in Rwanda into the Rugerero 1994 Genocide Memorial.

Genocide Memorial Park, Gisenyi, Rwanda (2004 – Present)

In 1994, during a period of only 100 days from April 6 through mid-July, approximately one million Tutsi and moderate Hutu sympathizers were killed in Rwanda—the largest organized killing of human beings in the shortest period of time in modern history. Rugerero was one of the villages that was struck hardest by the brutality. By example, an extended family of 134 was reduced to only four survivors. She describes what she saw when she looked at the mass graves:
There was no poetry. There was no beauty. . . . to truly honor the dead, we have to bring beauty and to remember them in that light. . . . it has to be better.

Rather than me describing what she did, I will leave the storytelling to this eight minute movie of the Rwanda Healing Project. Poetry in action, as I like to call it.



If you missed last week's interview with Helen Frost, she's challenged us to write her version of an ode poem—a 6-7 line poem with specific instructions about structure and content:
Choose an object (a seashell, a hairbrush, a bird nest, a rolling pin). It should not be anything symbolic (such as a doll, a wedding ring, or a flag). Write five lines about the object, using a different sense in each line (sight, sound, touch, taste, smell). Then ask the object a question, listen for its answer, and write the question, the answer, or both.

I confess, I've broken the rules. My object of choice is most definitely symbolic, but I was so moved by this video, I wanted to pay tribute to what Lily Yeh accomplished. Perhaps you'll give me a pass... just this once.

Ode to a Genocide Memorial

The hammer sings the story
of ten thousand broken shards—
the stench of old bones
and hope's gritty aftertaste,
scrubbed clean by twenty thousand tears.
What question hasn't been asked 
that has an answer?

© 2017 Michelle Heidenrich Barnes. All rights reserved.

At risk of completely overwhelming you, if you are interested in hearing more about Lily Yeh, in her own voice, I found this video which covers some of what she discussed in the keynote presentation I attended.

Please accept my gift of this final quote as I send you off on your Poetry Friday rounds:
My role is to light other people's pilot lights so we shine together and we light up the horizon. 
                                                                        – Lily Yeh






Helen Frost's challenge to write her version of an ode poem is off to a great start! Three poems were featured this week in addition to my own: Brenda Davis Harsham's Ode to Wrapping Paper, Michelle Kogan's Ode to Spring Soil, and Lana Wayne Kohler's Ode to a Piano. Linda Mitchell is featuring her ode poem today at A Word Edgewise and Catherine Flynn is featuring hers at Reading to the Core. I hope you'll post your ode poem on our March 2017 padlet!





61 comments:

  1. Wow Michelle. Lily's work and attitude to life is just amazing. Thank you for sharing your experience with us. And your poetic response is perfect. thanks for hosting today.

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  2. This is amazing and inspiring. You're so lucky to have attended the conference. Thanks for sharing about Lily Yeh and for hosting today.

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    1. I AM lucky... and thankful that Lee Bennett Hopkins was chosen for the Florida Artists Hall of Fame, or I never would have heard about it!

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  3. You rule-breaker, you! It's ok, we give you a pass, considering how moving and thought-provoking your poem is. Thank you for your spotlight on Lily Yeh...she does some incredible things! And I recall Kwame Alexander speaking at a SCBWI conference a couple years ago, and he impressed upon us the importance of saying "yes"!

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    1. Matt, is there a way to comment on your PF posts and/or poetry? I can never find it on your blog. But I so enjoy visiting.

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    2. That's weird Linda, I don't have any problem at all posting comments on Matt's blog.

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    3. And thanks for the pass, Matt! Yes, I totally was thinking about Kwame's "Yes" philosophy too. Clearly, good things come of putting yourself out there.

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  4. I have a lot of reading and viewing to do here. I'll be back, Michelle!

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  5. What an incredible spotlight on such an inspiring woman! The quotes are so moving. Thank you for sharing your experience with us and for hosting the round-up this week!

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    1. Aren't those quotes amazing? I would have liked to use a few more, but didn't want to get *completely* carried away.

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  6. Will return tomorrow to read about Lily. Thanks so much for hosting this week!

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    1. Thank you for telling us about Lily's amazing work. It's not easy to embrace the darkness and find the beauty there. She is such an inspiration, especially during these turbulent times.

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    2. Isn't she? Listening to her speak was one of those experiences that comes when you least expect it, but when it's needed most.

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  7. So very moving, and inspiring, Michelle - Lily's work (which I loved hearing about from you when I got to see you in Fla.), and your poetic response. As others have said, I'll return for the other post and to delve again here more deeply. Thank you - and Lily - for sharing. (This world needs fields and fields of "Lilies"!)

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    1. Yes, fields and fields of Lilies... and flocks of Robyns would be nice, too. xo

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  8. What a wonderful poem, Michelle. Life is about when to break the rules. You chose a good subject. What a great post, full of beauty brought to sadness. Knowing how to honor our dead and our history is what civilization is all about. It's what makes human different than animal. Very moving, Michelle.

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    1. Thank you, Brenda. I'm glad you enjoyed the post.

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  9. Michelle, I am so glad that you shared this amazing story with us. I am coming back to watch the videos. Your ode using Helen Frost's format is a beautifully crafted piece. I am working on one for your challenge.

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  10. This is a very deep, and moving post. 1994 when the Rwanda genocide occurred, was the same year my son was born. Thank you for bringing Lily Yeh to us, and sharing all of this. Out of pain comes art and poetry; your words describe the rawness and honors those lost, eloquently. Thanks for hosting the roundup.

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    1. Thanks so much, Michelle. Interesting 1994 connection. Death and birth... the cycle of life. How can we be hopeful otherwise?

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  11. Heartbreaking. It is always amazing the beauty that we find in such devastating situations. I pray we can always find that beauty in people; in their compassion and action.

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    1. Heartbreaking, yes, but hopeful at the same time. I pray the same, Kat.

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  12. Your poem is a lovely Ode, Michelle, and thank you for a beautiful post. There are people in the world we would never know about unless we share. I'm glad you went to that conference so we could know about Lily Yeh! Thanks for hosting!

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    1. Thank you, Linda. That's how I feel too. How could I not share an artist who has made such an impact in the world and on my heart?

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  13. What an incredible woman, and an incredible life! It's amazing and sobering to think of the things we might accomplish if we stopped letting fear stand in our way.

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    1. Exactly! You can't help but wonder, if I got that "call" would I be able to act on it?

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  14. As always, coming back for more transformational details over the weekend. Thanks, Michelle, for all your "more thorough" posts!

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    1. Sometimes maybe a bit *too* thorough...? Ah well, I yam what I yam.

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  15. We have to go into the darkness...hold it in our arms....the broken pieces are a canvas.
    Michelle, I am gobsmacked by this post. Thank you for bringing this beautiful spirit, Lily Yeh, into our lives today. Thank you for joining your light to hers and extending an invitation to us. Absolutely beautiful sharing of vital work.

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    1. Gobsmacked... that's a good word to describe how I felt too! Well, that and "blubbery" after watching the video. I'm glad it was the former that came through in this post and not the latter.

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  16. Thank you so much for introducing me to Lily Yeh. Wow! Her words and her work are truly inspiring and thought-provoking. Thanks also for sharing your Ode ("hope's gritty aftertaste"--another Wow!) and for hosting this week's Poetry Friday Roundup.

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    1. Thanks so much, Molly. I appreciate your kind words.

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  17. Wow, what a beautiful and inspiring post! I love the work Lily Yeh is doing in the world... we, too, can bring beauty. And thank you for your poem, Michelle, which sings, much like that hammer. xo

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    1. Thank you, Irene. A rather daunting topic, to be sure.

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  18. Full post! What a special woman. I got a lot of it but will return - not on my phone this time - to revisit in full size!

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    1. It's definitely worth visiting in full size! Especially the videos.

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  19. "Ode to a Genocide Memorial" is a potent tribute to the Tutsi and Hutu people who were lost in horrific murder, and also to Lily Yeh's love poured into the site in the form of the artistry of the Rwanda Healing Project.

    I look forward to learning more about Lily Yeh.

    (And, I feel like P.F. folks know the Muse takes precedent over an week's guidelines/rules . . . You varied it with pure purpose and we appreciate the result.)

    My schedule is such that I'm pleased to leave my Nancy Willard post stand, so that's why there's no link from me. Thank you for connecting us this week.

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    1. Thank you for taking the time to visit me, Jan, even without a new post of your own.

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  20. Michelle, thank you for hosting today, and a million thanks for sharing Lily Yeh's inspiring work and story. Your ode is a fitting tribute to both the victims and the survivors of the Rwanda atrocities.

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  21. Wow, Michelle, powerful post! Thanks so much for sharing Lily's story and for hosting. =)

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    1. Thanks Bridget. This post *needed* to be written.

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  22. What a beautiful, hard post. Thanks, Michelle!

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    1. Yes, well sometimes you come across someone or something you just have to share. Thanks, Laura.

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  23. This is a perfect example of why it's so valuable to step off one's usual path.

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  24. Very moving post, Michelle and what a woman! Thank you for sharing her with us (and for hosting today).

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    1. Thanks, Violet. I'm glad I had the opportunity to share Lily Yeh with everyone.

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  25. I linked up, but just now got around to reading your post. So powerful, thanks so much for sharing. And thanks for the quotes. This one is my favorite: "My role is to light other people's pilot lights so we shine together and we light up the horizon."

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  26. Tremendous poem, Michelle. Wow. And lovely, thorough post about this fine human.

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  27. I can see how you were impacted, Michelle. I have a friend who worked with with survivors of the genocide. They were the children who hid in the fields. As teens and young adults, they live in family houses established by churches and government. So many precious lives still caught in the trauma of that awful time. I was so moved by many of her stories of how she used art therapy to help so many come to terms with the tragedy. Thanks for sharing this. Your poem is beautiful.

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    1. Thank you, Doraine. I appreciate hearing about your friend. It's far too easy from where we sit to say, "That was then. It's over now."

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  28. Thanks, especially, for that last quote. And for your ode; my favorite section:
    "hope's gritty aftertaste,
    scrubbed clean by twenty thousand tears."

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  29. Hope's gritty aftertaste. Ew, wee, you capture what we feel after loss. This is a powerful post and powerful poem. Thanks!

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  30. Hi Michelle, I'm sorry I didn't comment on yours! I knew it would take more time than I had. Thanks for sharing Lily Yeh's inspring story with us. Sounds like her calling was clear, and she ran with it so beautifully and successfully. I always wonder what we can learn about how to live in diverse societies from the rest of the world and how they respond to one another. Something, I hope, about mistakes to avoid.

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