The Catalyst

A Writing Teacher Writes (plus some writing prompts and recipes)

Falling in Love with my Mother Tongue February 22, 2013

Filed under: Poems,Teaching,Vignettes,Writing Prompts + — Christopher P. DeLorenzo @ 9:17 am

Two poems worked as prompts this time: The Invitation,” by Oriah Mountain Dreamer, and the poem, “Harlem,” by Langston Hughes.

“The Invitation” is a live link; “Harlem” is below. What I wrote follows.

Harlem                                                                     LangstonHughe_25_2_2

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore—

And then run?

Does it stink like rotten meat?

Or crust and sugar over—

like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags

like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?


The first week of class, I ask them to highlight words from the poem, The Invitation, words they aren’t familiar with. Ahmed goes first, as always, his gold eyes bright and eager. “Shriveled,” he says. Violeta quickly follows, “Accusations.” Ling offers, “Sanctuary,” and Lam wants to know about “Longing.”

We spend quite a few minutes on longing. How do you describe that word? An ache for something you desire, something you hope for, something you miss?

“Is it like sadness?” Mai asks.

“Yes,” I reply, “But it’s different. It contains elements of hope, and sometimes fondness. Desire. Wishfulness. Like losing something and wanting it back.” Their pens scribble out notes onto notebook paper. “Sometimes, you can long for something you’ve never had,” I offer, still struggling to define a feeling I’ve had so often in my life, but now cannot put into words.

“Like what?” Kiko asks.

“Like a great love. Or a different body. A parent or a grandparent that you can’t really remember knowing.”  Zhu-zhu has her head in her notebook, then looks up at me.

“I know this word,” she says softly. “I have longing for home.”

“That’s it!” I say, remembering how on the first day of class I found her lack of eye contact and her bored expression a kind of silent rebellion. Now I see she is somewhat shy, and smart, and homesick. Lonely for anything familiar in this strange country.

“Have them write in class every single day,” my colleague Sonia replied when I sent out my “Help” email. With thirteen years of teaching experience under my belt, I haven’t been challenged by a class quite this way. I’ve been comfortable with the syllabi I’ve used over and over for previous classes. But Rhetoric 108 is a transition class, a class that takes international students from ESL Department courses into the undergraduate college writing program. I’m not exactly qualified to teach this class; I’m treading in unfamiliar water. But because of a scheduling SNAFU, it landed in my lap, and I’ve been pushed out of my comfort zone. “And have them keep a vocabulary log,” Sonia wrote. “They are still acquiring language.”

In the second week of class, I give them the poem, “Harlem,” by Langston Hughes. What happens to a dream deferred?
“How many of you have read a poem in English before?” I ask. Not one hand goes up.”No one?” I am truly incredulous. “Well,” I say, “I’m honored to give you your first poem.” Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?

“Write about a dream you have,” I tell them. “Not a literal dream when you are sleeping, but a dream you have now, in your heart, while you are awake.” I ask myself the same question. What’s your dream? And I return to thoughts of teaching English in Mexico, of writing about architecture, of learning to Salsa.

By the middle of the third week, I’m gathering ideas for how to get them to discuss their challenges and triumphs learning a new language. That Friday, we discuss Amy Tan’s essay, “Mother Tongue,” and we meet her mother on the white page. I ask them questions about what it feels like when we speak another language, and how I don’t find the words “broken” or “limited” helpful when we discuss how people who are still learning a new language sound. I use stories about my own struggles learning Spanish as a way to connect, to relate.

“How’s the new class going?” Sonia writes on the fourth week, and I surprise myself.

“I really love it,” I reply. “I’m learning so much.” I want to write: I am driving a car at night without headlights. That’s what it feels like. Every day I’m navigating my way through new territory.

Thankfully, I have the enthusiasm of my students, the language of poets, and the beauty of words as my guideposts.


Holding Hands February 3, 2013

Filed under: Poems,Vignettes,Writing Prompts + — Christopher P. DeLorenzo @ 11:33 pm
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For this prompt, I walked around the neighborhood we were staying in in Puerto Vallarta (Alta Vista), and collected leaves and flowers that were growing along the sidewalks. I brought those leaves and flowers back and passed them out to the group, asking them to spend some time with each one, then pass them on to the person on their right. Everyone sat in silence and entered what I call the “dream space,” while I read the poem below, by Luis Cernuda.

What I wrote that morning follows the poem.IMG_2300

Jardín (Garden)

by Luis Cernuda (excerpt)

From the corner where you sit,

Look out at the light,

The grass and the trees and mossy

Stone in the arbor

That measures time in the sun,

And the water lilies, tufts

Of dream on the motionless

Water of the fountain.

Above you, the translucent

Folds and pleats of the leaves,

The pale blue of the sky,

White clouds.

A blackbird sweetly

Sings, as if the voice

Of the garden were to speak to you,

In such a still hour

Use your eyes well, look

As if you gently touched

Each thing. you owe thanks—

For such pure calm

Free from pleasure or pain—

To the light, for soon

It will go, as you will.


My inner adolescent is finally coming of age. Now that he’s finally individuated from and forgiven his father, now that he’s said goodbye to his ex and his therapist, he’s ready to be a grown-up.

It’s a new experience, sitting down to breakfast with that part of myself I have battled all through adulthood. The one who always wants more: more food, more wine, more pot, more sex, more love, more attention. He has dragged me onto dance floors with strangers, called in sick when he wanted to stay home and read a book in bed, or masturbate, or take a long walk.

We have argued. I have stood there, looking at him in the bathroom mirror, saying, “You need to do your homework. You need to stay home.” All the while he sent text after text to Carlos, inviting him out to Oakland to dance with the tall brown man we are still too shy to ask out for coffee (after more than ten years). “You can’t go,” I told him. “You have to work tomorrow.” But Carlos re-Scan 2plied:  Come over at 9:00! followed by a smiley face. And even though my lips were moving, my inner adolescent wasn’t listening to me. He just patiently applied a coat of shiny white lip balm, and hummed a tune by Kylie Minogue.

But now, he’s asking about returning to Mexico. He’s asking in a new way, a way that indicates he might want to get to know Francisco a bit better, or talk with the editors of that little gay magazine. He sits with me at breakfast—a coffee latte, a ham and cheese croissant—and he tries to show me that he is indeed growing up. I look at his flawless face—the large eyes, the orangey glow of his skin, those unruly bangs he still tries to blow dry straight—and I wonder.

Last night we decided to drink water rather than have another beer. We stepped out onto the dance floor with friends and allowed ourselves one more dance (it was Nicki Minaj, after all), but we both agreed to jump in a cab right after that song. We had to get up early. We had a meeting in the morning with a beautiful blonde woman, and a tiny champagne-colored lap dog. There were plans to make for returning. Vamos a volver: We will return.

In the cab ride up the bumpy cobblestone street, he turned to me, that boy who still believes we are capable of everything, who believes that the world is still a beautiful place.

“Promise me we’ll come back soon,” he said.

And for once, I didn’t say yes when I meant no.

“Yes,” I said. “Yes. We will.”