Going around the world in two hours
The first time someone read a poem in American Sign Language at the International Poetry reading, Audrey Fessler, assistant professor of English and women’s studies, said the change in the room was astounding.
“I remember how the room went silent with a kind of visual intensity I have seldom experienced when we shifted from ears to eyes to understand poetry,” she said.
American Sign Language is just one of the 36 languages from around the world being showcased in this year’s International Poetry Reading, which will be held at 7 p.m. on April 23 in the Council Fire Room in the Davies Center.
Bryton Fredrick, a junior sociology major, is reading in American Sign Language this year, his first year involved with the reading.
Fredrick said he got involved in the reading “kind of by accident, but kind of on purpose” when Fessler, one of the event’s co-directors, mentioned it in class and volunteered him for ASL.
Fredrick, who will be performing “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou, said he is looking forward to the reading.
“I’m really excited to hear other languages and to hear the similarities but also the differences the languages have,” Fredrick said. “But I’m also excited to be able to share this certain culture with people of other cultures.”
Fessler and associate professor of German Jeff Vahlbusch are co-directors of the event and brought the idea for the International Poetry with them from Washington College (Md.) where they both taught in the early ’90s.
“The idea was to get as many people from the college and the community who knew languages other than English to come and read poetry,” Vahlbusch said.
Now entering its sixth year at Eau Claire, Vahlbusch said that the reading is meant to be an evening devoted to listening to the sounds of other languages.
“If you think about it, it’s really hard to spend time listening to languages you don’t understand,” he said. “We don’t have opportunities to do it. When we do it’s often in passing, and we don’t have a chance to sit and focus and concentrate.”
The poems will be read by students, Eau Claire professors — including Fessler and Vahlbusch — and community members in languages from around the world, Fessler said. Italian, Russian, Serbian and Vietnamese are four of those languages.
Several languages will be present at the reading for the first time, Fessler said, including Yiddish, Swahili and Efik, a language spoken in Nigeria.
Vahlbusch said the large number of languages present at the event allows the audience to experience the diversity and beauty of languages that are found in the Chippewa Valley.
“We sometimes don’t think of Eau Claire or UW-Eau Claire as very culturally rich and we’re wrong,” he said.
He added the reading is an event that shows that proves the diversity issue wrong.
“We have incredible amounts of richness and diversity and amazing people on this campus who have so much to teach us and to show us,” Vahlbusch said. “This is one of those places where that can happen if we let it.”
Fessler said she wasn’t expecting the International Poetry Reading to gain a large audience, but even in its first time being held at Eau Claire, the event gained attention.
“We were hoping that maybe readers and maybe 25 of their friends might show up,” Fessler said. “We held it in the Tamarack Room and before the reading even started, we had to open up the doors into the cafeteria and people were sitting all the way to the back of the seating area there.”
A program booklet is provided at the event which features the poems written in both the language they were spoken in and also translated into English.
However, Fessler said many people don’t read the translations right away.
“Many people chose simply to bask in the sheer beauty of the language at the time of the reading and wait until later to read the poems,” she said. “I find it remarkable how much one can intuit about the messages of a poem just by the intonations of the readers and the way the poets use sound to convey meaning.”
Vahlbusch said that the evening is the chance of a lifetime that many will never get the chance to experience.
“It’s a kind of ear-opening experience,” he said. “If we pride ourselves on having open eyes then we ought to open our ears to the world as well.”