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Collaborative Poetry can push an experience and build group cohesiveness, validate feelings and foster confidence with words. My first experience facilitating a collaborative poem remains a model for my other forays into group writing.
In 2000, I was working with an inter-generational group of refugees from Central America in the Owl and Panther Program, a partnership of The Hopi Foundation and the Pima County Public Library. We started the workshop by viewing the poignant film If the Mango Tree Could Speak. The film documented youth who couldn't flee the violence in Guatemala and El Salvador as the families in this workshop had. We watched and listened as the youth in the film shared what they experienced and witnessed.
After the film, I asked the group to write as many responses as they could think of to the line: "If the mango tree could speak." Then participants were invited to rewrite what they considered their strongest line on a strip of paper.
As each person finished, he or she placed the strip on the floor in the center of the room. Participants walked around the growing number of lines - reading and rearranging until we'd reached a consensus.
The resulting poem has been published in Writing out of the Darkness: An Anthology of Poetry by Refugees in Transition, edited by Ann Dernier. It's been reprinted in blogs, shared on websites and read on radio. The participants have had opportunities to read in front of their Tucson peers as well as international audiences who applauded their words.
IF THE MANGO TREE COULD SPEAK
A collaborative poem
By Owl and Panther
Inspired by a film of the same name
If the mango tree could speak,
it would be honest.
It would tell us how it feels inside.
It would touch our hearts
and we would know what is good and bad.
It would talk about my people
and say how they live.
It would talk about my broken heart of memories,
My broken heart of my past
My broken heart
hearing people cry for their relatives.
If the mango tree could speak it would weep with the fear of thousands of years.
It would cry for all the suffering of the people.
It would say what happened a long time ago.
It would speak about what has been lost.
It would teach numbers
by counting how many people
it has seen killed.
It will tell how the people are suffering.
It would say that the children are strong.
If the mango tree could speak
It would be a storyteller
It would be shy
It would know great and sad stories
If the mango tree could speak it would say
that the people are beautiful
and that they have love to give.
It would say "help the poor people."
It would sing
"Hope lives on
Peace can come
Wave its banner in my leaves."
If the mango tree could speak, it would say
"Do not cut me, please."
It would say
"I love you."
The mango tree would tell the truth
I've used the technique with a variety of literature prompts or after interactive experiences including:
- A women's group that wrote after walking a labyrinth.
- Yaqui and Tohono O'odham elders in an ArtsReach program who wrote their I Remember lines after smelling creosote, tasting rosemary, viewing images, touching silk, throwing a beach ball and listening to a rasp.
- Students in the Word Journeys after school program who put on crepe-paper wings and pretended to fly, then wrote about what they saw.
- Visiting Borderlinks, delegations who shared lines reflecting their time on the border or in the desert.
Refugee youth in an Adaptations Workshop at the Desert Museum who photographed with Josh Schachter, learned about the desert from naturalists and wrote their "I was, I am, I will be" lines.
Whether the finished collaborative product is printed on beautiful paper, sewn into a handmade book, pasted into an altered book, transformed into the script of a digital story, formally published in an anthology or read once in the group and released into air, the experience for the participants and facilitator lingers.
Marge Pellegrino, a writer on the Arizona Commission on the Arts artist roster, is a book-bonkers, word-wild library lunatic who creates situations in which students participate, discover and make connections in a nurturing setting. Her newest book Journey of Dreams won the Judy Goddard Award for young adult literature and was included in a number of booklists including: Smithsonian Notable Books, Kirkus Best Books, Southwest Books of the Year, US Board on Books for Young People (USBBY) honor list of international books and on the Americas Award Commended List.