Few of us in America know what it is like to leave our childhood homes and have to travel thousands of miles to settle in a country whose citizens know little about us. Sojourner Ahebee, age 18, is an exception. Today she shares her story of how poetry writing helps her keep “home” close. Next week, Sojourner talks about her year as a representative of the National Student Poets Program.
Poetry Is Remembering What’s Left Behind
National Student Poet Sojourner Ahebee says she is “a girl with two homes:” Cote d’Ivoire, where she was born, and America, where she lives now. Had there been no Ivorian civil war, which in 2002 forced Sojourner, age 7, and her family to flee to Philadelphia, her mother’s birthplace, we might never have learned the name of this poised young woman who, with four other American high school students, was singled out in 2013 to serve as a national “poetry ambassador.”*
Sojourner “grew up with the written word all around me”—Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou substituted for bedtime stories. Her mother is a poet, and her grandmother, an “avid” poetry reader, committed many poems to memory. “It is because of my family’s long history with language and poetry that I, too, am able to love [both] with an open heart.”
Even so, Sojourner adds, the beginnings of her poetry writing are “a direct reaction” to having to leave her childhood home. “I became obsessed with the act of remembering, ” Sojourner relates, and “started writing poetry as a means of preserving my memories . . . and everything else I was leaving behind” in Cote d’Ivoire. Looking back at her early poetry Sojourner notes that “most of the poems were descriptions of rooms in my home that I loved, or people and memories that I didn’t want to forget.” From the very beginning, poetry writing was “a way to ‘safe-keep’ all that I was afraid of forgetting.”
In Philadelphia, Sojourner says, she also was “faced with questions of identity” and “completely shocked by how much Americans didn’t know about Cote d’Ivoire and the continent of Africa as a whole.” So, in addition to being a “therapeutic tool” that helped her “discover and understand myself as a girl with two homes, ” poetry became “a vehicle for me to dispel stereotypes and misconceptions associated with my birth country. This outlet, she maintains, “has truly aided me in becoming more aware of myself.”
Given her experiences, which include the “complicated circumstances” of her father’s death just before the Ivorian civil war, it’s natural that Sojourner would take as her themes home and diaspora and find resonance in the work of several of her favorite poets, Nikkey Finney, Warsan Shire, and Louise Gluck, who “continually touch on themes of home, injustice, politics, and the human condition. I love poems that make you reconsider your role in the world, poems that haunt you, poems that have physical effects on you, ” Sojourner explains. By writing poetry on such subjects, she continues, “I’ve come to understand how universal these forces are in the lives of many human beings, and through this discovery I’ve come to realize that my narrative is not a singular one . . . that I am part of something much bigger, something much more profound.” While clarifying that she has little “first person” experience of war, Sojourner claims a “responsibility . . . to tell the narrative of the Africans I did have the opportunity to encounter, as a means of showing the range that Cote d’Ivoire and Africa have to offer, and also . . . to tell the stories of those who were affected by the act of leaving, by loss.”
Reflecting on how she addresses what impels her to write — those “personal things that have happened to me, things that appear unjust, things that have yet to be talked about honestly, and things that are hiding away in the darkness” — Sojourner says she will “always start with an image, an image that follows me, haunts me, an image that is relentless in every sense of the word. Then, I let the language take me places, I let the words do their own talking and, in the end, I am left with a poem, a breathing life.” Inspired to write poetry “because I am in search of truth”, Sojourner finds that “each poem I write, each stanza I break, each period I mark onto the blank page, takes me one step closer to this ‘truth’.”
Asked what make a poem effective, Sojourner replies, “I think an effective poem must come from a place of great longing, a longing for something that isn’t quite understood yet. Every poem a poet writes is an attempt to uncover something that the poet and the world are grappling with. That’s why an effective poem should never have too much [of an] agenda [that] intimates that one knows all there is to know . . . [A]n effective poem should push the reader to question his or her reality but a great poem should . . . be able to comfort the reader.” Even more important, she adds, what makes a poem effective “is the poem’s fearless approach, its audacity to look into the darkness and make some change.”
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