|Lily Yeh speaking at the 2017 Convening Culture Conference|
Hello and welcome to the Poetry Friday roundup!
My intention for today was to share my takeaways from the 2017 Convening Culture conference on February 22-23, sponsored by the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs. But as I reviewed my notes and composed my thoughts, I realized that I had too much material for just one blog post. If you have time, I hope you'll visit yesterday's post— the first part of my two-day review. I feature Dr. Elif Akçali, a professor of engineering at the University of Florida whose decision to embark upon a year of saying yes led to a creative journey that profoundly changed the way she approaches her life and work. We'll call today's post "Inspiration from the Convening Culture Conference, Part II."
I love the photo at the top of the page. It brings to mind the glowing impression of Lily Yeh I was left with after her keynote presentation on day two of the conference. The conference was not one I expected to attend, nor was it a conference that I would have thought to seek out, yet it made a profound impact thanks to this slight, yet remarkable woman.
As you might have guessed, that description came straight from her bio. Impressive, right? But let me tell you, those words are nothing compared to the impression I was left with after seeing her in person. She's a soft spoken woman, kindly, unassuming, takes up very little space... until you hear the passion behind her words, witness the reach of her healing, and see the results of her life's calling—then her aura fills the entire room. Imagine a Mother Teresa of the art world. That's Lily Yeh.
Beauty is intimately engaged with darkness, with chaos, with destruction. You need to walk into the darkness and hold it in your arms. Broken places are my canvases, people's stories are my pigments, and people's talents and imagination are the instruments.
– Lily Yeh
Lily Yeh's calling began in 1986 with an abandoned lot in North Philadelphia that she was invited to turn into a park.
|Ile Ife Park, 1986 (before...)|
She was scared. She didn't have much money and was warned that the kids would destroy everything she built. But then "the call" came, so fragile and clear:
If you don't rise to the occasion, the best of you will die and the rest will not amount to anything.
After that, she was scared to be a coward! So she responded, "Yes, at least I can do something with the children." With a group of residents, mostly children, she transformed the lot into an art park with mosaic sculptures, murals, and landscaping.
|Ile Ife Park, 1990 (...and after)|
From there, the projects grew and multiplied. More parks were born from other vacant lots, and in 1989, The Village of the Arts and Humanities was incorporated as a non-profit organization that began offering year-round arts and educational programs. Talk about a success story!
Yet the project she talked about that touched my heart most was not so close to home. It was her transformation of a rough mass grave in Rwanda into the Rugerero 1994 Genocide Memorial.
|Genocide Memorial Park, Gisenyi, Rwanda (2004 – Present)|
In 1994, during a period of only 100 days from April 6 through mid-July, approximately one million Tutsi and moderate Hutu sympathizers were killed in Rwanda—the largest organized killing of human beings in the shortest period of time in modern history. Rugerero was one of the villages that was struck hardest by the brutality. By example, an extended family of 134 was reduced to only four survivors. She describes what she saw when she looked at the mass graves:
There was no poetry. There was no beauty. . . . to truly honor the dead, we have to bring beauty and to remember them in that light. . . . it has to be better.
Rather than me describing what she did, I will leave the storytelling to this eight minute movie of the Rwanda Healing Project. Poetry in action, as I like to call it.
If you missed last week's interview with Helen Frost, she's challenged us to write her version of an ode poem—a 6-7 line poem with specific instructions about structure and content:
Choose an object (a seashell, a hairbrush, a bird nest, a rolling pin). It should not be anything symbolic (such as a doll, a wedding ring, or a flag). Write five lines about the object, using a different sense in each line (sight, sound, touch, taste, smell). Then ask the object a question, listen for its answer, and write the question, the answer, or both.
I confess, I've broken the rules. My object of choice is most definitely symbolic, but I was so moved by this video, I wanted to pay tribute to what Lily Yeh accomplished. Perhaps you'll give me a pass... just this once.
Ode to a Genocide Memorial
The hammer sings the story
of ten thousand broken shards—
the stench of old bones
and hope's gritty aftertaste,
scrubbed clean by twenty thousand tears.
What question hasn't been asked
that has an answer?
© 2017 Michelle Heidenrich Barnes. All rights reserved.
At risk of completely overwhelming you, if you are interested in hearing more about Lily Yeh, in her own voice, I found this video which covers some of what she discussed in the keynote presentation I attended.
Please accept my gift of this final quote as I send you off on your Poetry Friday rounds:
My role is to light other people's pilot lights so we shine together and we light up the horizon.
– Lily Yeh
Ode to Wrapping Paper, Michelle Kogan's Ode to Spring Soil, and Lana Wayne Kohler's Ode to a Piano. Linda Mitchell is featuring her ode poem today at A Word Edgewise and Catherine Flynn is featuring hers at Reading to the Core. I hope you'll post your ode poem on our March 2017 padlet!