Interview by Hector Mojena
After proposing the Sunroom Project to the Oh, Miami Poetry Festival last year, Laurel Nakanishi founded an initiative that in short time has become one of the most ambitious poetry workshops in all of South Florida. Working with middle schools and detention centers throughout Miami-Dade County, the Sunroom Project (supported by the Children’s Trust) instructs burgeoning poets across a whole curriculum that includes monthly workshops, communal poetry readings, and the publication of chapbooks featuring participants’ verses. During SER’s recent chat with her, we learned much about the Fulbright fellow’s tireless work with her students in Liberty City’s middle schools and the day-to-day process of realizing the Sunroom’s ambitious, community-focused mission. We also spoke about her own poetry, which includes the Epiphany Editions’ prize-winning chapbook, Manoa Makai (Epiphany Editions, 2013).
Hector Mojena: Could you tell us about your background as a poet? How did you initially conceive of the Sunroom Project?
Laurel Nakanishi: I’ve taught poetry in Montana, Hawaii, and Nicaragua, so when I came to Miami I really wanted to teach poetry here. I got my start, I guess, in Montana. They have a really established writers-in-schools program there, the Missoula Writing Collaborative. While I was working on my MFA in poetry at the University of Montana, I got involved with MWC and was just really excited with the work that was going on there in the school. I sought to bring programs like that to my home state of Hawaii, and then to Nicaragua. When I moved to Miami about a year and a half ago, I proposed what is now the Sunroom to Oh, Miami through their open call, [which] they do every year during the festival. I proposed it last year, and we did a short session in April of . [Oh, Miami Poetry Festival founder P. Scott Cunningham] and [Operations Manager Melody Santiago Cummings] really loved it. They had been looking to do a more sustained relationship with the schools here, and so that’s how Sunroom’s school projects began. Last fall, we expanded it to another school, so now we are in Orchard Villa Elementary and Poinciana Park Elementary, both in Liberty City. We set up this model where we work with students when they’re in third grade and then follow them to fourth grade. So we work with them for two years of their schooling. It’s been really great.
One of the things that I find most fascinating about the Sunroom is the focus on inner-city schools and detention centers as spaces for teaching poetry. Obviously, there is some precedence here, with examples like the Nuyorican Poets Cafe that have historically provided a forum for minority voices in literature and art. I’m wondering how the Sunroom builds upon the legacies of minority-driven workshops like NPC. Has your work with the Sunroom significantly altered your own thoughts about poetic writing?
Part of what we’re trying to do with the Sunroom is exactly that: help give these [students] the opportunity and the space to express themselves and tell their story. That happens not only in the workshops, but (because Oh, Miami is so awesome at thinking about poetry outside the institution) we’re now using the students’ work in the festival itself. We’re not just helping kids write poetry. By placing the students’ poems in the festival projects, we are saying that theirs is an essential voice we need in Miami. Everybody needs to be hearing these stories and so that’s one of the reasons we feature [their work] in the Poems in the Sky project, on broadsides, and in various other projects. It’s something Miami needs.
That relates to my own work as a poet because I am really interested in broadening my point of view. This is something that I really found working on my latest manuscript. I got a Fulbright to Nicaragua to write a book, and when I went there I was really interested in the lines between my culture and other cultures and also the places where they cross over. So, [I was fascinated by] the borders I carry within myself and the ways they play out and become blurry. That’s part of my work in general, and it’s fun to work with these kids. I feel like they’re always stretching me and broadening me and helping me see some other points of view.
The mission of Sunroom echoes Oh, Miami’s emphasis on exposing as many people as possible to poetry over the course of one month. What’s so great about this project as well is how these students have the opportunity to publish their work for a larger audience and give voice to their own communities. How do you think projects like the Sunroom and Oh, Miami foster a community-driven approach to poetry?
It’s a joy to work with them. I come home after school, and I’m exhausted but also exhilarated. Also, what they write is really exciting and fresh. These kids are still really new to English. They haven’t been drilled as to what a poem is and by that kind of rhetoric of, “this is a poem, these are all the parts of a poem.” That’s really exhilarating to me.
I think that speaks more to Oh, Miami’s other work, how they approach different communities to create poetry. The Poet Laureate, Juan Felipe Herrera, visits communities to work on large collaborative poems. And he actually visited one of our schools, and the kids were part of that, which was very exciting. What we’re doing in the Sunroom still focuses on the individual kids writing poems. Of course, they’re still writing in a group. We’re working together to foster that voice and listen to each other’s poems and comment on them. It goes to the heart of what we want to do. So much of the way our academic world is built is that knowledge rests in one person, the authority of the specialist. You’re a specialist poet and you’ve been published a lot. That’s where authority lies. But we want to open up the conversation so that it includes a lot more people. At the basis of that is that we see poetry as really important for everybody, and not just a small group of people who are in a position in their lives where they can make that their center in an MFA program or in academia. Don’t get me wrong, I’m in an MFA program, and they’re great [laughs]. What we’re looking at here, especially in the Sunroom, is opening up that conversation and involving these kids because we think their voices are important as well.
How are the students’ poems assembled for publication?
It’s funny. Just when you called I was typing up some poems. There are a couple of levels of publication in the Sunroom. The first is that we make a chapbook after every semester of each kid’s work. Throughout the semester, after every class I go through and pick what we call the “star poet of the week.” The star poet’s poem gets framed and placed in the classroom. It’s a very coveted position at this point. So as this semester continues, I try to find those poems that really stand out because of originality of voice, a really stellar image, that show they’re taking the prompt and running with it in really interesting ways. And each kid has their personal best. Some of the kids I just wait for: “Next week is going to be the poem!” And some kids produce amazing poems week after week. We do a community reading at the end of each semester, give the kids a chapbook, and have a pizza party. They read their poems for their parents and family members and it’s a celebratory time for them.
On the second level, I select a best-of from each of the schools and send it to Scott and Melody. They then use those poems in the project they’re working on. It all depends on the project, what kind of poems they’re looking for, like the Poetry Prescription Project: They’re really looking for hopeful, uplifting poems to go into that. So they pulled that side of things. In another project, we were sponsored by Kind Bar to make broadsides and showcase them before at Art Basel. This project takes another kind of selection: We need to find poems that really stand out with the design. What I’m prefacing is that the second level of publication really depends on the venue and the goal of the project O’Miami is doing.
Finally, I wanted to ask about your poetry chapbook, Manoa Makai. I was actually really struck by the book’s accompanying quote from Kimiko Hahn, which states that the “language [of poetry] itself is an archipelago, drawing me inside the circle of story and scene.”
One of the things I love about poetry is that there is a lot of space in and around it. You can play with silence in a really cool way that surrounds poetry, how oceans surround islands. In that way, I’m excited about the potential of poetry not just to tell stories but also to choose what is left unsaid and then how to effectively use silence in the web of words. It’s interesting now talking about poetry because I’m actually writing a lot more lyric essays. Poetry and lyric essays have a lot in common and I often embed poetry into my lyric essays. So it’s a similar process. What I like about poetry is that space. Especially in Manoa Makai, I was thinking about mythology and landscapes both past and present and ways to tell the story. A lot of times we say the word Hawaii, and people have visions in their minds of peaceful beaches and tiki torches and hula dancers. And that’s part of our reality – that there’s this kind of mythos of Hawaii. In conjunction with that is the actual Hawaii which includes the reality of [racial] segregation, but also the beauty of the land and the mythology and culture of the native Hawaiians that still live there and which is still a strong part of what Hawaii is. So, when I was writing those poems, I was thinking about what is the story of Hawaii that I want to tell. Where does it intersect with the stereotypical story of Hawaii and where does it diverge.
It’s interesting because I teach poetry to kids in Hawaii every May through the Pacific Writers’ Connection. It’s a fascinating jump for me because we have this really intensive April with O’Miami and the Sunroom, and the culmination of that. And then I take a plane to Hawaii and suddenly I’m in a very different culture and landscape, teaching kids in public schools and charter schools. But some things are also so similar and so resonant between those two places and my interaction with the kids. That’s one of the things that’s fascinating for me each time, thinking about how they intersect. I feel really fortunate to be part of these conversations in all these different places.
Below are some poems from Laurel’s 3rd grade students at Orchard Villa Middle School:
My brain feels like a spinning tornado,
mad and turning really fast.
I hear the trucks and cars
blowing their horns
and their engines.
I smell red blood in my nose.
Broken and Whole
Crayon broken on the floor of my room.
Book torn in the bathroom.
Teddy Bear outside on the ground.
A toy outside is brown on the ground.
The yellow sun outside in the sky.
Ms. Dana likes the color of the sun
when it is setting she is falling in love
it is so pretty for her
The books on the shelf
look like explorers hiking
on a mountain
where it is cold as
the artic seas.
My Rhyming Word
My mom is like the deep blue sea;
she is like the summer breeze; she
is like a royal queen that has a
big castle; she is like a dream
catcher; she is kind of like a
snatcher but she is till my mom.
I am from a place where you hear the ice cream truck
pass by in the neighborhoods
I am from a place where I can call home and sleep
peacefully in the night air
I am from a place where at night the beautiful
plants blow in the night breeze and the smell flows
into your window
I am from a place where I can hear the melody blow
right in my ears
I am from a place where the tall buildings cover the
sun from my face
I am from a place where at night the neon lights shimmer
Born and raised in Honolulu, Hawaii, Laurel Nakanishi received her M.F.A. from the University of Montana. She is the recipient of a Fulbright scholarship to Nicaragua, and a Wrolstad travel award. She is the author of the prize-winning chapbook, Manoa Makai, and her work has appeared in Black Warrior, Gulf Coast, Fourth Genre, and elsewhere. She currently teaches poetry in Hawaii and studies non-fiction at Florida International University.
Hector Mojena is a writer and sometime editor currently based in Tallahassee, Florida. In addition to publishing work in magazines such as Strangeways and editing for the Miami Rail, Hector enjoys playing the drums and singing the praises of the Velvet Underground to anyone who will listen.