Words Words Words

As I (finally and belatedly) finish my project, I took a moment to look back over the collection of words I’ve amassed due to this project. Not only are there the poems that I painstakingly copied down because you can’t photocopy things from the NYPL, but there are my pages of scribbled notes from my interviews, the post-interview notes I wrote for myself, my synthesis of what I’d learned from the past and what I’d learned from the present situation. I looked at the newspaper clippings about immigration my grandma sent to me when she heard about the project. I looked at my three page Word document of links to online articles about the causes of immigration, the problems it poses, how it benefits us as a country.

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Definitely one of the coolest experiences I had while doing this project was the chance to interview four immigrants, two recent (and married) and two from just after World War II. Their experiences were very different–the latter two are both Italian women who married American GI’s just after World War II and moved to America out of necessity. They found America inhospitable and unwelcoming, found their new lives to be something to “make the best of,” and though they have stayed, one said she would probably do it again while the other definitively said no. They weren’t angry at America–it had given them a place to raise their children, a future–but it wasn’t the golden land their contemporaries perhaps dreamed of.

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Research in the Vatican

…or at least that’s what it feels like. I’m currently sitting in the New York Public Library, probably the most beautiful library in America, with a big stack of books next to me under its incredibly ornate ceiling and high vaulted windows.  I have a New York library card now and I feel oh-so-legit as I sit here with my pages of notes and my books filled with the stories of the people we come from. I didn’t realize when I started that immigrant poetry was both so popular and so hard to find. In the five (yes, five) hours that I’ve been here so far (I’m going to end up sleeping here) I’ve read poetry by Irish, Chinese, Russian, El Salvadorian and Jamaican immigrants, not to mention a slew of other writings by immigrants about their experiences. I’ve decided to loosen up a little on the strict poetry guidelines–I find that the theme of my research will probably be what these people left behind.

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The Huddled Masses: Immigration and Poetry in American Society

Immigration has been an integral part of American life from the first British steps off of the Mayflower.  Our society was founded by immigrants and supported by both immigrant labor, and a cultural hodgepodge of traditions from the many motherlands. With the opening of Ellis Island in 1892, New York became one of the most popular destinations, with demographics represented from every corner of Europe—and later, the world—arriving at its gates hoping to be granted admittance, as they did at Angel Island in San Francisco, and in Boston’s port. Immigration continues to be a hot-button issue today, with over a million new immigrants coming to America each year. This history of immigration has been filtered through the societal consciousness in a number of ways; newspapers, politics, and the arts have all found their own ways of responding. One of those responses has been through poetry. From the famous poem of Emma Lazarus that became a symbol for America’s acceptance of immigrants to modern elegies for the land left behind, poetry has been a powerful tool of both reflection and narration, of the colorful history of America’s immigrant roots. I will be looking at how poetry is used to translate the immigrant experience; I will be speaking with both new immigrants and people who deal with them on a regular basis; and then I will be synthesizing both of these things into my own poetry about these people and their struggles.