While differences in language may create communication barriers in everyday life, poetry has an ability to serve as a unifying force. At Thursday’s Multilingual Poetry Night, students attested to literature’s transcension of language as they recited poems in Arabic, Russian, Spanish, Ancient Greek, French, Italian, Japanese and Korean.
Poems differed greatly in emotion and theme, ranging from ancient to modern and from lighthearted to heartbreaking, and included the works of notable greats such as Mahmoud Darwish and Alexander Pushkin. In the living room of the Center for Multicultural Life, students conveyed the emotional weight of each piece to peers, faculty and community members. In between readings, Co-Director of the Middle Eastern Ensemble Amos Libby sang Palestinian and Egyptian songs while playing the oud, a small stringed instrument.
Lecturer in Arabic Batool Khattab reached out to various language faculty over a month ago to propose her idea for a collaborative poetry event. She had never heard of such a large-scale collaboration between language departments in her second year at the College, but nonetheless felt this would serve as a unique opportunity for students to showcase language skills outside of class.
“We don’t get the chance in our classrooms to focus that much on poetry, especially in the lower levels, like elementary and intermediate,” Khattab said. “And to my surprise, I found a lot of support and encouragement [from my colleagues].”
Khattab collaborated with several language faculty to spearhead the event. Associate Professor of Russian and Chair of the Russian department Alyssa Gillespie became interested in this opportunity to expose language students to poetry at a much more intimate level.
“Usually when I teach literature in translation, I do mostly prose because it survives translation a lot better. So I jumped at [this] idea,” she said.
While intermediate Arabic students practiced mostly in a larger group setting, professors like Gillespie worked with advanced Russian students on an individual basis to perfect their performance.
“With all three of them, I listened to them and made suggestions about pacing and the cadences of the lines … almost treating it as a musical performance,” Gillespie said. “Most people in the audience won’t understand the words but they’ll hear the sound, so you want it to be effective.”
Khattab similarly emphasized the artistic nature of poetry and how this presents itself in a performance setting.
“Poetry has a sublime [quality] and a beauty to it,” she said. “Even if you are reciting a sad poem, the idea of reciting the poem itself is a communal idea … It’s a ritual [that] involves the performer and the recipients.”
Students performed both individually and in groups, and several even chose to recite the same text in multiple languages.
Hannah Scotch ’22, a student in Khattab’s intermediate Arabic class, recited a 14th century Andalusian poem in both its Arabic and Spanish translations. The piece comes from a time in which the Islamic Moorish Empire ruled over Spain and cultural exchange took place.
“It’s a love poem about a woman and her name and unifying love, which could also be seen as a metaphor for unifying Arabic and Spanish histories and cultures,” Scotch said.
This chance to engage in artistic expression across language is a new and exciting one for many Bowdoin students. Gillespie recognized that language-centered events like this are unusual at the College.
“To be able to have all the different language programs come together and highlight the richness of the different languages and literary and cultural traditions—I think is something our campus really has lacked,” she said.
Scotch appreciated how the event bridged the gap between language barriers and allowed students from diverse backgrounds to learn from one another.
“It’s important to recognize how poetry is such a powerful tool for generalized sentiments that are kind of universal and how languages—although they’re very different—express things in similar ways,” she said.