By Diana Curreri
Immigrants and their stories of hardship in coming to America have slowly been forgotten over the years. People born in the United States take for granted the unavoidable struggles their ancestors endured to allow for an easier life for future generations. Woodbridge Township hopes to change this by showcasing immigrants.
About 35 people gathered at 2 p.m. Sunday, March 29 at the Barron Arts Center in Woodbridge, New Jersey for a festival of contemporary immigration writing, “My New Life, My New Poem.” This event joined twenty-two immigrant writers and poets from many countries such as Russia, Italy, Mexico, Hungary, etc.
Festival Director L.E. McCullough led the event and welcomed first the Middle East Ensemble consisting of a guitarist, a violinist, a man on the lute, and a dancer.
Laura McCullough, a poet and professor from Brookdale Commuity College in Lincroft was the first poet to speak. Although McCullough was never an immigrant herself, she adopted two of her five children from Taiwan. The poems “Submission” and “The Flags We Raise” were about the struggle her son, Rutger, had to endure while in America and Taiwan. “When I say Rutger, / I hear Kuan Lu. When I say Kuan Lu, I hear / beautiful boy. When I say beautiful boy, a flag / is raised in my chest that belongs to no country, / but the one all the hostages to fortune live in, one with no borders, which can not be escaped from, / and of which there is no government, only taxes.” Racism was a recurring theme in “What We End Up With” which she dedicated to her father. She also dedicated a poem to the excavation of the bones of 57 Irish immigrants working on a railroad in Duffy’s Cut, PA in 1832, whose identities have never been confirmed.
Following McCullough was Maria Mazziotti Gillan. Born in Italy, Gillan immigrated to America and was raised in poverty. Her poem “Growing up Italian” from Italian Women in Black Dresses spoke of the bullying she encountered in America as a child. Her voice hardened when she spoke of wishing to have “light hair and light eyes” like all the other pretty girls in her class. “It did not take me long to learn / that olive‑skinned people were greasy / and dirty. Poor children were even dirtier. / To be olive‑skinned and poor was to be dirtiest of all,” she said.Yet while being verbally harassed, Gillan believed that no American is really American unless they are Native American.
“Nothing Can Bring Back the Dead” from Things my Mother Told Me was a poem dedicated to Gillan’s mother, who had passed 17 years ago. Already having brought some of the audience to tears, Gillan stated, “the one who makes me furious could also bring me comfort.” The poem reminisced about how she could still remember the noise of the clasp on her mother’s purse that would snap shut after getting a sucking candy when she was young. Her lying father was the theme of a later poem, and although his relationship with her family members left much to be desired, she still loved him. Gillan is the founder and Executive Director of the Poetry Center at Passaic County Community College and has been published in the New York Times
The last poet, Hungarian Paul Sohar, immigrated to the United States in the 1950s and attended the University of Illinois where he received his B.A. in philosophy. He had been touched very deeply by the effects of immigration. Speaking longer then his allotted time, he told stories, read his writings from the magazine The Big Open World, and translated three short Hungarian poems written by other poets. He recounted his trip to America sitting in steerage, being told he had to leave behind his old country, in order to grow in a new one. His poem “The Toe Head” told of his struggle in accepting himself for who he was, and not to be bothered by the abundance of tan, dark haired people that now surrounded him. “Portrait of a Poet as a Young Foreigner” delved deep into the soul of poetry and how it quenches his hunger for comfort in his own skin.
The event was presented by Woodbridge Township Arts Council and Middlesex County College from March 27-29. The weekend-long workshop grew out of PoetsWednesday, a reading series at the Barron Arts Center that takes place every second Wednesday of the month since 1978. L.E. McCullough states PoetsWednesday is the longest running series of its kind in the nation.
In a pamphlet from the event, professional poets and regular citizens would “share the stage and express thoughts about Everything through the medium of The Spoken Word,” McCullough said. According to him, “My New Life, My New Poem” or similar events will continue to take place in the future. McCullough said on the event’s website, “We’re always hearing about immigration from the politicians and the talking heads on television. 'My New Life, My New Poem’ is a chance to hear what people are saying with poetry and stories and songs.”
Diana Curreri is a student at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. She will be receiving her B.A. in Journalism and Media Studies next year.