On fire

InThisPlace-flamesI faced the room of orange jumpsuits. We began where we had left off a week earlier, by composing a landay, the two-line poem of nine and 13 syllables favored by Afghan Pashtuns. Actually, three class members began where we had left off. The other 10 ladies scattered around the common area were new to the class. That’s one of the challenges of teaching creative writing to inmates. The students are a transitory lot.

My request was met with furtive and not-so-furtive whispers. I doubted they were favorable. It’s harder than it sounds, I warned, adding that spontaneously making up landays about everyday life is hugely popular in Afghanistan. This elicited eye rolls and louder whispers. However, working alone, in teams or as entire tables, the women were bent over papers, their fingers ticking off the syllables.

One lady looked up. “It makes you get rid of the unnecessary words,” she said.


“That’s the point isn’t it?” comprehension dawning. “In poetry, each word has to count.”

I called time and asked who wanted to share. A hand shot up. The woman read; the others broke into impromptu applause. She beamed. One lady, who had remained determinedly aloof in the previous three classes, asked to share. Each reader drew murmurs of approval and applause. The sea of skepticism had become a tsunami of fervor.

We read and discussed poems by published writers, each using different poetic devices and written in various forms. Now, write 12 lines, I told the women. Use one or more of the devices we’ve observed and discussed. Immediately a hand shot up. The first landay reader. She had been struck by the repetition on one of the poems we had read, and she had adapted her landay to a longer form, using repetition for emphasis. It was not 12 lines, she apologized, but she’ll write a 12-line poem next. She just wanted to write this one.

Keep writing, I urged, as the class ended. Several of the drop-ins asked if they could come back this week.

These ladies were on fire.

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