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

Serbian Express 3: The Power of Pizza

Posted August 17, 2012 & filed under Notebook.

The American Center in Belgrade

This was the second day of the Belgrade Creative Writing Camp and it was amazing. Last night, this guy brought a group of ten teenagers into the American Corners who belong to a club that has a stipulation of membership that you have no parents taking care of you.  There are other stipulations of age as well, but that first one can be a real shocker. They came in together and the leader explained that there would be more tonight, but there was a rugby game final that they were in so some of the guys would miss the first day.

We started working on Haiku from our books on Haiku and then they began to write their own as they build the hut of a great Haiku master from Japan.  They were great and soon laughing and talking with each other.  Then the pizza came. As a former debate squad coach and presently a coach of UHD’s Model UN Team, I can promise you that pizza (or the cheese on the pizza) is the glue needed for all student organizations. And it seems that the long-time leader understands what we do, the universal binding nature of this wonderful food invented just one peninsula away from the peninsular that is The Balkans.

This morning the children made hearts and told us what was in their hearts. And the answers are wonderful:

There is a bunny in my heart

My lost dog is in my heart

My brother is in my heart.

from the wonderful blog thirteen red shoes

Then we put sleeping masks on the students and drew the configuration that is their profile so they could write what is in their head.  I thought of this concept from looking at Eighteenth Century children’s cut-out portraits done in black paper. PPS announces that “Adventure requires a trusted friend” and this is, in part, a test of trust. Does the child trust the counselor enough to allow the counselor to take away an important protective aid (sight) in order to protect those eyes?  It was wonderful.  The children were so excited about what was going on.  They loved that their counselors were giving them an outline of their actual head. They loved the attention, and they wrote wonderful works about what lives in their heads and hearts.

What would it take to put a bunny in your heart, metaphorically speaking?

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

WITS Travel Journal: Belgrade

Posted June 17, 2008 & filed under Notebook.

Belgrade is called the white city, probably because of the whiteness of the Ottoman Empire fortifications against Bulgars, Hungarians, early Serbians and others who would have liked to control and tax the trade at the confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers. I have been here for three days, and they have been more than busy. I have given two workshops in creative writing for children at the libraries associated with the embassy American Corners program. Along with that were four interviews for cultural features in magazines and newspapers. One of the best questions that I was asked is “Can you really teach creative writing?” I was surprised at how passionate a response I had for the reporter, stressing how important it is to teach creative writing in a way that will actually achieve both writing and creativity.

In my first lesson with the children, we used brown paper bags. (I have a small suitcase with my clothes in it and a large suitcase with my colored paper, bags, note cards, pencils and other supplies.) My writers (there were about 30) were very happy to be writing, and in this paper bag project, they wrote about something that they would like to get rid of. The youngest of my writers had a list of carrots, pears, bugs, and teachers that he would like gone from his life, at least over the summer.

Yesterday at noon was my scariest audience. I gave an hour lecture to the Faculty of English and Creative Writing at the University of Belgrade. Though I was a little nervous, and had spent the entire night working on my lecture and getting no sleep, they were all very generous about what I said and friendly. They would like to establish a relationship with Writers in the Schools Houston. Afterward, I was invited to lunch with several of their writers and I want to discuss more about that meeting with Serbian authors in the future. I have about 7 novels by Serbian authors and as soon as I have read more than one, I will blog on the state of great modern Serbian authors.

Today the embassy attache is coming to take me in an embassy armored car to the south of Serbia where I will meet with public school teachers and their creative writing students this afternoon and tomorrow. You might be wondering about the armored car. On February 28th or so of this year the American embassy was set afire about recognizing the independence of Kosovo and later Montenegro. Yesterday marked the official independence of that state so things are very tense here concerning both these events and the ambiguity of the recent elections.

Tomorrow evening I hook up with Amy Storrow, and we begin our simulacra of the WITS Summer Writing Camp in Macedonia. Amy has prepared, to say the least, an ambitious schedule, but I have every intention of keeping up with her and it. Once a WITS Writer, always a WITS writer, I say.

I will keep you in the know about what is going on here. Belgrade is fascinating, often beautiful, always interesting, with book stores everywhere. People are very serious about what they are reading. I look forward to my drive south through the green countryside of what was once part of the Byzantine empire. More anon.


Merrilee, WITS Writer in the Balkans

[photos of Belgrade by Akcjia / Katarina 2553 on flickr]