The Serbian Express 5

Posted August 23, 2012 & filed under Notebook.

I just got back from working with Creative Writing Workshops in Northern  Serbia, even on the Hungarian border.  I was in Novis Sad and Subotica and then  South, towards Macedonia at Nis. It was fantastic. We had between 23 and 33 kids in each group at each American Corners. In Subotica, I got to see Hungarian Successionist architecture and, as I was already a fan of Viennese Soccesionism, you can imagine my delight with this mixture of art nouveau and art deco. Riding to and from the American Corners I would have had my head out the window like my daughter’s dog Freddie, if only we could have opened the window. But when  you are in an armoured car, you just have to bend over and look in air-conditioned comfort at what is outside that window.  In Nis we saw the amazing Roman mosaic instead of having lunch, and it was a good thing that we did, because we returned to a brilliant group of creative writing students ready to work from a Word Board in teams and then individually to create “Found Poetry” and then on to some pretty heady intellectual discussions on creative writing to influence.
My favorite moment of the traveling Creative Writing Camp was certainly the afternoon group at Subotica with 33 students-so many students that we had to get out an extra card table and put the students on the steps two to a step.  I called those students “My Step Children” and they did very well.  I actually had always wanted step children (having three children of my own) so, as these were likely to be my only step children in this life, I enjoyed directing them and their work.  The librarians at the American Corners were fabulous. They worked to make the Awards, Best So Far for each assignment and then  Best of the Best, accurate, even installing of the Creative Writing Meritocracy. Today I have three talks, including a noon speech at the National Library of Serbia on Creative Writing. May your good thoughts be with me, along with “the Force” of course.

by Merrilee Cunningham, Writers in the Schools

The Serbian Express 4

Posted August 21, 2012 & filed under Notebook.

So tonight we wrote the invitations to the closing party of the Belgrade American Corners Creative Writing Workshop. They were very beautiful, and we look forward to giving out two sets of awards: the “Best So Far Awards’ in the morning and the “Best of the Best” Award in the afternoon. The “What’s in my Head” and “What”s in My Heart” assignment went great with some of the teenagers. One of the burning questions came when I asked the students to  tape the two pieces of paper according to how they should exist. Should the work about “What’s in my Head” be beside, below, or above “What’s in My Heart.”  Since the question is too hard for me to answer, even for myself, I love asking other people what they think about it. Generally, all the students refused to put one above the other.  They were willing to tape their two anatomies of their heart and head side by side, but they were firmly unwilling to put one above the other. Is it their age? Is it their culture? Are they right? Alas, I do not know. All I know is that there were not ambiguous about their unwillingness to make one subservient to the other.

This morning we had the author’s chair for the award winners; then we took another chair and had the Harry Potter chair with the sorting hat. This is all from two amazing websites that David showed us called HarryPotter wiki and Pottermore. On Pottermore, you can actually answer some interactive questions and be assigned a house. I was tempted to have the younger children do that and then write about what it meant to be accepted to their university house.  I am still working on thinking about a Harry Potter assignment. Time will tell if it ever amounts to anything.

Tomorrow we also have a skype meeting and this will be my first skype meeting. All of you that are very practiced in skype meetings I wish you were with me now so that I could have your wisdom.  There are four more Creative Writing Workshops in four cities, including a city that is very close to the Hungarian border. So Friday I will be leaving in the morning for one of the cities, though I will be back on Friday night in time for my weekend of wandering around the citadel, enjoying the Serbian endless appreciation of Rock and Roll and Jazz.  I had a big argument with one of the students about the musical value of Bon Jovi.  It seemed that we agreed on the greatness of Guns N’ Roses, AC-DC ,and Megadeath, but when he introduced the possibility of a musician appreciation of Bon Jovi, I suggested that he might as well add Kiss and give them all music lessons.  I hope he is at the party. I liked his passion for Guns and Roses.

Tonight I will walk past this amazing building on the plazza that combines the architecture of Austrian-Hungarian work with Soviet themes. It shows two men holding up the earth.  Now, as a lover of mythology, I hoped that I would be seeing Atlas, the Titan, and Hercules, the hero, sharing the terrible task as Soviet brothers.  But I believe, from the hammer-like image those same figures are working lower in the sculptural messaging.  Alas, today it holds a shop that sells designer bags.  Off I go to sleep, but I will pass Atlas and Hercules, interpreted in the early  20th century by a genius who might not approve of the Marc Jacobs pocketbooks.

by Merrilee Cunningham, Writers in the Schools

Serbian Express 2

Posted August 16, 2012 & filed under Notebook.

Today I am writing from beautiful downtown Belgrade.
After an adventurous flight in an almost empty plane headed for London to pick up American Olympians and their followers, I waited at Heathrow with the Slovakian Olympic Team to fly to Vienna and then, sans athletes, on to Belgrade last night. Today, we had the first of our three-day Belgrade Creative Writing Camp at the American Center and it was a wonderful start. The children arrived mostly not knowing each other, so we had a round of introductions of the young ones and their five counselors. The counselors were great. They created a program of explanation of Haiku as a Japanese poetic form for the campers and made selections from the great Basho.  They created a word wall in Serbian and English all over the bookshelves of the library to allow the students to create ‘Found Poetry” in the tradition of “Found Art”.  Small Japanese umbrellas were placed in another bookshelf in order to ask the students why umbrellas exist, what and who protect them and what and who are they willing to protect.  After a rather serious question like that, a colorful little umbrella that usually goes into some summer beach drink made of juices is not only the focus of a rather serious work, but then after the Haiku House is built, the umbrella works well on the house itself. I call those “Creative Writing Camp Two-fers” after the notion of a two for one sale found regularly, in Houston, at your local drug store.
The American Corners librarians are very brave. Even when the bottles of glue and finger paints came out, there was not a sign of faint-heartedness. But then historically, Serbians have had to be brave to be where they are, basically, at cultural dividing points between different worlds.  This can be seen in their Cyrillic alphabet.  No one even signed (in any of their languages) at the placing of open cans of fingerpaint on the beautiful blonde wooden table. “No worries, we can always wash it off” was the only statement from the head librarian.  I was very impressed,  I am getting used to the young men, aged 7 or 8, who speak native English that they learned from computer games and television and are brought to the American Corners workshops to practice their English with “real human beings.” The notion that these kids have actually learned a language from machines is very interesting to me, as I tried the same thing at the Northwestern University French Lab many years ago with much less success. Let me repeat, these machine-taught, native English speakers are 7 and 8 years old.

This afternoon we will start the Creative Writing Camp with the older students. But now I am free to go to the Citadel. Most Serbian cities have a Citadel. They are terrifically useful to gather together behind powerful walls and in a high place so that you can focus your efforts on defending yourself against your enemy.  A culture with a lot of cities with Citadels tells you something about their expectations and their preparation for those expectations. They expect to be attacked. They expect to have to retreat to the Citadel. They expect to have to defend themselves there and to be plagued by plagues, overcrowdedness, and warfare. Today the citadel in Belgrade is an entertainment and market center, a place to enjoy music, lilke the amazing blues festival that they will have tonight or the jazz I heard last night in front of the Austro-Hungarian edifice of the National Museum.  There I listened to a young Russian girl, two middle-eastern young men, and a Serbian host, argue over whether or not one should live for pleasure or the contributions one can make to the betterment of mankind. All of this argument was in English, because it was their only common language as that took classic Roman positions of Marcus-Aurelius-lilke stoicism versus Hedonism.  It was all I could do not to enter the conversation, but then sometimes the young should travel this path by themselves, unlike our campers, who better have their four haiku ready by in the morning. As I dear old friend of mine would say, “more anon” from Belgrade Serbia on the Serbian Express.

by Merrilee Cunningham, Writers in the Schools

A New WITS Mission Abroad

Posted August 15, 2012 & filed under Notebook.

 

The Serbian Express 

Did you miss the Macedonian Express last summer?  Are you ready for more reporting from the Beautiful Balkans?  This is a fair warning. I know last year you must have noticed the absence of blogging from the Balkans and must have wondered “what’s up?”  But here in the last days of Houston summer, as children begin attempting to get their Summer Book List completed at the local library, we in Houston watch one more time as Altuve plays like a madman and yet the Astros still can’t seem to get a win, and parents everywhere try to figure out how to buy and pay for those back to school items that simply must be purchased,  I am off, via London and Vienna, to Belgrade to begin the Serbian Express.

And I would love to have you go with me one more time as we try to expand our wonderful Creative Writing Camp to Belgrade,  Kragujevac, Novi Sad, Nis, and Sabotica (near the border with Hungary).  So, as you can see,  there will be a lot of traveling once we arrive in Serbia, though our first four days will be Belgrade.

The word Balkans means mountains and  so I am very excited about seeing the beautiful land  that was once the central part of old Yugoslavia but is now its own country with many significant cities. So I will be flying into Nikola Tesla Airport, named after the great inventor who worked alongside Thomas Edison (and may have gotten a few ideas stolen from him during the relationship).  I love airplanes, and I love to be in airplanes that are traveling to exotic places, so, even though the trip will take about 18 hours, I am very excited about the ride.  For one thing, I will be returning on a plane from Houston to London to pick up the folks who have been at the Olympics and want to bring those  medals back to Texas. For another,  I am such a bad cook that  I love British cooking (alas, global warming has not gotten to the point where even British Airways can serve British wines).  For another,  since I am an Associate  Professor at University of Houston-Downtown, I always fall behind on my movie watching, and I get to catch up on my flight over the pond.  I know you  might think that these overnight flights were made for sleep, but I have no desire  to sleep on a plane.  I want that window seat so I can feel myself traveling thousands of miles to teach Creative Writing–the WITS way. It’s one thing to be alive, but it’s another to feel that you are alive or to know that you are alive.  I will be thrilled with airplane culture of a few hundred people traveling at 33,000 feet over the Atlanta on the way to the Old World. No doubt, from time to time, I will be humming  William Blake’s” Chariots of Fire”  before we set down in London on the way to Belgrade. (I have learned that the more stops you are willing to take, the cheaper your fare  if you amortize it by fun  and the more fun you will have).  If I can help British Air get their plane back to London in time to bring those medals home and they will reward me for it, I am willing.

Once there, the adventure starts.  Come with me in these dog days of summer to a place just as hot, but where great writing is about to take place, Haiku Houses are about the be built celebrating Basho,  plays will be written and presented,  and a world of imaginative use of words will rise like the ascents of those planes that I will be traveling on.

by Merrilee Cunningham, Writers in the Schools

Skopje Celebrates Young Writers

Posted August 11, 2009 & filed under Notebook.

You are reading the blog of a woman who has been through five small earthquakes and did not feel a thing, yet when the American Corners was full of both the early morning kids and the afternoon kids, doing the plays that they themselves wrote, it seemed chaotic.  The U.S. Embassy sent its best and its brightest to award the children their certificates of completion for the program and to congratulate the winners of “Best Play,” “Best Long Poem,” “Best Lyric Poem.” “Best Short Story.”  The competition was fierce, and I got up early this morning to arrive in front of the library where we had to make tough decisions about who go which awards with my co-teachers and translators.  We had our differences of opinions, but the disputes were friendly, and everyone played by the rules. We had stayed up all night typing the anthology entries, as Bitola and Skopje had full-blown anthologies, complete with videos of the plays and 200 pictures of the camp. Still, there was no tee-shirt, though the embassy promises a tee-shirt if we will just come back and do this again next year.  This is a bribe that will work on my 1960’s soul.

The librarians are very excited about the program and have allowed us to take our dramatic chaos throughout the library, all the while these committed guardians of learning are actively attempting to carry on their regular programs, check out books, check in books, and do all the other things that help allow for people to get the kind of information that they need in order to make wise decisions about their lives, their votes, and their families.

After the plays this morning, we continued the tradition of ending the program with a proclamation of the rights of children. The right to go to the dentist was perhaps the most interesting. One has to wonder about the story behind an eight year old child understanding the importance of dental hygiene.  But the right to clean water, clean air, life with a temperature that was livable (Macedonia has been very hot this summer) were also important. When the children read their table of contents on their journal, they were very happy with themselves and saw how very much they had been able to write.  Then I asked them which works still needed more revisiting, and they slowly were able to tell me which works they would be working on and revising. It was great. Click here to see a 3:30 video of a news story about the project.

Tonight my youngest daughter arrives from Cairo, and we have dinner with a friend from the embassy and then we are off to Kosovo and Bulgaria as my daughter continues on to Istanbul.  So the Macedonian Express will be traveling West away from Skopje and into Kosovo and Bulgaria.  I hope that you will be coming with us, because after that, I need to revisit my syllabi for World Literature I and World Mythologies, and Renaissance Drama and Roman History Independent Study at the University of Houston Downtown so that my university gets its fair share of what talents I possess.

posted by Merrilee Cunningham, Writers in the Schools (WITS)

Young Poets of Skopje, Macedonia

Posted August 7, 2009 & filed under Notebook.

The children in the Creative Writing workshop in Skopje were ready to select their images for the Ekphrasis assignment and one of the masks that the teachers put on the board looked, from far away, like the famous Mask of Agamemnon, so, gold mask macedonianever the one to stand back timidly, I said, “Oh, the mask of Agamemnon.”  At that point both my Macedonian teachers (one married to an archeologist), fell upon me and gave me the what-for!  “Oh no. Many golden masks have been found in Macedonia.” One, found in 1934, is in the museum in Belgrade with its fellow. Others have been found recently in 17 graves from the 6th. century B.C.  in a village near Lake Ohrid. There is much excitement about the discovery of the bronze age graves near Ohrid. But there is also much pride about the beautiful mask that is in Belgrade. I was amazed by its beauty, the face surrounded by the ancient image for enigma and questioning.

Which brings me to the constant questions that the kids in the workshop are asking. “Do you go to NASA often?” How many computer languages do you know?”  “Do you know Obama?”  “Have you seen AC/DC?”  “Do you have a hamster?”  What do you do with questions like that asked by students who have learned their English by playing video games or whose goal in the workshop is to write an epic poem?

The answer, of course, is provide them with challenges, and that is exactly what I am best at, so tomorrow they have to perform the play that they are writing today, but only after they create their life clock on a large white paper plate, starting, at 12 o’clock with they day, month, and year that they were born.  Did you want a brother?  Did you want a baby sister? Did you want to learn computer languages?  Did you want a hamster?  Did you want to make good grades?  Did you want to have a bird?  Did you want to fly? Did you want to work with E.A. Blizzard or Krytech?  Did you want to meet Miley Cyrus?   Did you want to be a teacher? Did you want two new cousins?  I know I did. Did you want someone to love you all your life?

I feel like the Art Linklater of Creative Writing Teachers.  Kids say the funniest things.  They also say the wisest.

posted by Merrilee Cunningham, Writers in the Schools (WITS)

Our Indiana Jones and the Macedonian Hamburgers

Posted August 6, 2009 & filed under Notebook.

Mere technology interrupted my transmittals from Macedonia. It seems that I was in line for a new computer at my university, and I knew that IT was going to take this time to get rid of my XP-powered bulky computer and arm me with my beloved Microsoft 2009 with all its many charms, templates, and  almost apple-like advantages.  Little did I know that getting rid of my literal machine would interrupt the flow of the Macedonia Express. But there is time now to catch up and my new machine, I trust, is awaiting me in my little office at the university, a better fate than Indiana Jones would have had in his handsome office at the University of Chicago. Yet there has been an Indiana Jones quality of this adventure. Five earthquakes, however small, in Bitola, a trip to Heraclea’s amazing mosaics, and a look at the on-going archeological work there, a wonderful ride from Bitola on the mountain rode to Tetovo, and we were ready for the second round of writing workshops.The anthology from Bitola was amazing. The children outdid themselves, and the staff, Elena and Bijana, worked so hard to make the anthology happen and make sure that the students revised well, and their work was not in vain. When I left Bitola for my sojourn on a narrow road through the beautiful mountains on Macedonia, past Lake Ohrid, where the Roman amphitheater is and where the amazing golden mask, that looks a bit like the Mask of Agamemnon, was found. I will write more about that mask tomorrow as it is one of the images of our Ekphrasis assignment.

Today I want to write about our adventures in Tetovo.  I was, once again, fortunate enough to have an enthusiastic and able staff of teachers and students who were more than  ready to work.  The walls hung with Leslie Gauna’s “found poetry” assignment as well placed words in Albanian as well as English on the walls. By now, we have a cache of words in Macedonian, Albanian, and English for the students to select from.

After the workshop, my colleagues took me to an amazing natural spring in the mountains where people came who wanted to both bathe in the waters and drink the spring waters for their health. As this site is an ancient Ottoman Empire site, the very center of the spring is circled by white material for the use of the women who want to bathe and enjoy the waters, while the men enjoyed the waters outside the very large white circle where they could not enter. The mystery of inside that forbidden place was almost more than I could stand as I watched women go in and out of the large white, covered center.  After we bathed and collected water from the spring, offered us in used Coca-Cola bottles, we were off to have a Macedonian hamburger (the less said about this the better).

I was then off in my car to Skopje and the final week of workshops at the American Corners Center there. Tomorrow, more about the recent archeological discovery at Lake Orhid. And, not  a single earthquake I hope.

Merrilee Cunningham, Writers in the Schools (WITS)

Mayor and Ambassador Praise WITS Writers of Bitola

Posted July 24, 2009 & filed under Notebook.

bitola art of wordsYesterday the United States Ambassador to Macedonia came, with the mayor of Bitola, to give out the awards to the children who are completing the Creative Writing Camp.  Today we did a new assignment that basically uses chopsticks to create a proclamation of the rights of children. We glue the chopsticks to a paper that has been turned sideways once the child has written about the rights of children all over the world.  We talked about the Emancipation Proclamation in the United States and what it meant.  Then we played (thanks to YouTube) a song by Tose called “This World.”  It is an amazing song about the rights of children that seems to both owe a debt to Michael Jackson’s songs about children and move away from concepts of Neverland.  If you have time, you should take a look at the musical poem.

 

After they read their proclamations and tied the proclamation with ribbon we began working on the plays.  All agreed on the rights of children to have kind families, to have enough clean food and water, to have access to education, books, and information, to be treated with dignity, to have health care. The debate was over whether or not a child had the right to have a dog. So you can see how things are going here.  Things that great men are still debating, are easy to solve here, but the right to have a dog, now that is an issue. Perhaps this battle is fresh in the minds and hearts of some of the children at the camp.  I remember this battle with my own child, Meredith Cunningham, who bought a dog and walked the dog four miles home and simply dared me to take that dog (Buster) back.  Of course, I did not.

Today, the play is the thing.  This afternoon the students will present 6 plays as writer/actors.  They are busy memorizing their lines.  That is right.  I said memorizing.  Some of these plays are long, but Macedonia has a great bardic tradition.  I discovered this last year when I listened with wonder and amazement to my students, who memorized their play in 48 hours.  I did not ask them to memorize their lines. I told them this was “Reader’s Theatre”; that we are a Creative Writing Camp, not a group of roving players.

It didn’t matter. They were sure that I needed saving from myself and the best way to do it was simply present me with the Macedonian reality that you don’t bring paper with your lines on it into a threatre in Macedonia.  I had read about the great 20th century bardic tradition in Macedonia, about a man who could simply speak poems for 33 hours at a time, but I had no idea that I would be looking at the bardic tradition with my on eyes and hearing it with my own ears.  It reminded me that Mnemosyne (memory) is the mother of the muses. (We will get into their paternity another time). I will let you know how the plays work out in the next blog post.

Until then farewell from the World Capital of Memory, Bitola and the Macedonian Express,

Merrilee Cunningham, Writers in the Schools

Live from the Corners of Macedonia

Posted June 19, 2008 & filed under Notebook.

Every embassy sets up a number of American Corners in  Cultural Centers and Libraries. Both Serbia and Macedonia have around 7 American Corners apiece. The ones in the major cities can be very large and have many programs a day. Right now the American Corners in the main Library in Skopje is having a program on how Macedonian students can apply to the right American Universities for their majors, their tuition needs, etc. These are very busy places and the State Department staff members work long hours cooperating with the American Corners. There must be 30 people in the library right now in a little room, and it is 6:26 at night. You can come to Friday night movies at an American Corner in a town that has no movie theatre. You can practice your English, read free books, check out American movies, all sorts of things. The American Corners open at 9 am and close at 8 pm. They also offer free internet for people like me!

Our summer creative writing camp starts tomorrow.  Today I met with my co-teachers from Bitola, Tetovo and Skopje, and we planned the assignments for the four day program. I used so many wonderful lesson plans from experienced WITS Writers, and my co-teachers are very excited about our venture. This is the first time, according to Amy Storrow who should know, that a Department of State American Corners Library has offered a creative writing course. Evidently, this has been done in the distant past by the British, but never before with us.

After three meetings, including a lunch meeting, we had one final meeting with Elizabeta Hristovska-Iceva the President of the English Language Teachers’ Association of Macedonia, and she invited me to write an article about our Creative Writing Camp in their newsletter, which I will be doing. There should be several Google accounts of Writers in the School’s Macedonian Express since so far I know that I have given at least 10 interviews. Please keep an eye out for them.

Tomorrow is the day that we find out how the children do with not just a single day of creative writing but four days of assignments including turning a Pourquoi short story into a Reader’s Theatre play to be produced by the writer/director and his or her writer/actors on the final day of the camp.  I will stay late after tomorrow’s workshop and tell you exactly what happened with our four hours of Creative Writing Camp here in Macedonia.

Reporting from the Macedonian Express, this is Merrilee Cunningham, Writers in the Schools (WITS)