Morgan Mansour, a young poet and photographer from the US, is staying at ZVONA i NARI Library & Literary Retreat during March and April. As a part of her activities at the retreat she visited Centar Elementary School in Pula where she participated in an English language class where hosts were teachers Ljubica Redžović and Drita Jusufi with the school principal Melita Milić.
I came to Zvona & Nari after four months in Belgrade, where I meant to stay a weekend. On the bus there for the first time, I met an artist who told me that residencies exist for writers too, that support for one’s art might be rare but is possible, and not to give up without trying. I listened to her like an oracle, and holed up in Belgrade to binge-write poems till I ran out of steam. Months passed, I stumbled through plans, then very thankfully found Zvona & Nari.
My project here has been to revive my university thesis from the dusty tomb of academia and all the stress that surrounded writing it. As a student at Vassar College in Upstate New York three years ago, I struggled to hammer what I wanted to be poignant lyricism into an acceptable history paper. I was writing about French philosopher Simone Weil -- a closet mystic obsessed with Catholicism (though she refused formal conversion), who toiled in vineyards and factories (but disavowed the communists, and all political parties). The feats and fasts of her life which sprung from compassion tragically led to an early death. Though her own undoing was arguably deliberate, her life could most generously be seen as performance art -- as I hope to articulate through the mix of poetry and essays that I’ve been re-shaping in this residency.
I related to Weil as a former Catholic who misses the rituals and aesthetic, but rejects the Church’s politics (hierarchical and patriarchal). The leftist in me (like Weil) still appreciates the ethics of Christianity, however, as care and concern for the most vulnerable among us-- and I admire the direction the current Pope is challenging the Church to go. Though I was devoutly Catholic by choice as a teenager, I just barely passed for “Christian” in the Bible Belt culture of Northwest Arkansas. Growing up, I moved back and forth between my dad in a hilly college town, and my mom in a flat corporate sprawl. Fayetteville was home to the University of Arkansas, a flourishing theater, and a poetry press. Bentonville boasted several mega churches, endless McMansions, and the global headquarters of Wal-Mart.
On the last day of March, on the drive to a school in Pula, Natalija and Ognjen prepare and prompt me for the visit we were about to make. The students will want to know what it's like to grow up in America. It is a natural question, and I want to represent well, but in my mind I get blank at the task. Summing up youth in an instant feels as an unpracticed hand scanning braille: there's something beneath this blanket of indentations, but all one can affirm is its length. The meanings aren’t missing -- they’re a mystery. Memory becomes for me a parking lot, shadowless, overblown by light and with every inch visible; yet suddenly I can recall nothing of my own histories. And then it occurs to me, in large part, this is what suburban childhood feels like.
You are holding your mother’s hand, guided into a supermarket, where you can also coincidentally buy guns. There might be evangelicals pamphleting outside the door (you ignore them, unless you know them -- which you probably do), and when the automated doors yawn open, a grey veteran will unpeel a smiley face sticker, and shakily place it on the tip of your thumb. A star-spangled stripe of plastic, twisted into a ribbon and pinned to his trademark blue vest, will tell you which war he fought, in big blocky font. It may take you years to wonder why if he almost “died for our country” and should be retired, he has to work a minimum-wage job at a supermarket. Or maybe he’s gone now, unannounced, and replaced by a grinning empty-nester, once a housewife, who now has little else to do but distract children as their moms unhitch a shopping cart. You love them either way. That sticker will be the best part; it’s what got you in the van to come here. The bribe’s all that matters -- no past, just future; America.
But how to tell this to the young people, waiting in a classroom in Croatia?
We pull up to a soft speckled square, and step into a serene church whose foundation pre-dates my country’s oldest cobblestone by perhaps a millenia. We chat over coffee with the class teacher in an open-air terrasse outside the school, and I am immediately, immersively aware of how different this already is from my American childhood. When we climb the stairs to the classroom, my heart flickers at the thought that the framed posters of pottery and ruins on the walls were actually found down the street from here. What’s it like to have history so close to you when you’re so new in this world, still skipping up steps at school? I can’t imagine the excitement but wonder if for them, it’s become commonplace -- as it may have for me too in their shoes. Or perhaps proximity, attachment to the familiar, breeds the deepest appreciation of all...
In the classroom I feel a rush in the warm pastels and amidst the live-wire curiosity of the students. Their backs spout straight, lights on -- their quiet is attentive, not distant. Later, they’ll read us poems they liked, in several languages, shyly, but that look at the end: their eyes up, subtly proud but searching, not for applause but to know they’ve been heard -- there is poetry there too. “How do you feel?” Natalija asks a student standing at her desk after reading, paper flapped over her hands. “Both happy and sad?” The student nods. “So, alive,” Natalija concludes. I appreciate this decisive open-endedness (which perhaps itself is good living: to make bold choices while awash in contingencies).
She asks me good questions too, like an impromptu interview that makes it easier for me than I had quietly fretted, but likewise spurs me to be truthful. She asks me to describe what I write about, and I think of John Cage (Art is less like an object and more like the weather); I picture the posters of pottery on the walls in the staircase-- objects amassed in museums, monuments printed on postcards -- against the speckled light in the courtyard outside the school, the wood pew stout in the church or the clean spoon asleep on a saucer...what counts as plot and event, at the center of our experience? What don’t we notice as we consolidate, and fold into familiarity?
I am conscious that the students are young, in their early teens, and that this is a foreign language for them, so I must choose words carefully -- as if I am speaking another language too. Here is where the experience edged me upon myself, and stirred me at center, as a thumb traces the rim of a glass so it sings. Because what I likewise love most about learning a language is that I am forced to streamline my thoughts into simpler terms, to sift down to an essence. As a person who feels my own voice strongest in the silence of text-- this is a translation not just of sounds, but of thought. It feels to me, more creative than writing -- not only a task to string syllables, but an act of the spirit striving to see itself. For these faces before me, and for myself inside, I must become someone legible.
Photos by: Morgan Mansour and ZiN Daily