Research in poetry: Engineers of the heart bridge language gap

In the week leading up to commencement, we celebrate the small-college experience that gives York its distinct personality in the City University system. The close student-faculty relationship here encourages undergraduates to engage in high-level academic research, from first idea to final presentation. Here is a look at two students who met in a poetry class:

Juan Carlos Recinos and Kessler Ardon are engineers of the heart and soul, building bridges across differences of language and culture and leading us to a place where meaning and message is universal.

Their foundation can be found in the Spanish department at York College, where Prof. Juana Ramos guided Recinos, a published poet, and Ardon, a poet and composer, to explore how a poem in Spanish is received by people who do not speak the language.

“They presented a series of six poems” on Research Day in April, Ramos said recently. “Three were more focused on visual and acting images, three more focused on the sound and audio images. They asked the audience to explain the meaning of the poems and saw how the images added context to the words.”

The result: A York College partnership between two talented students who create in Spanish.

Ardon’s path to York began in Far Rockaway, after arriving from Guatemala when he was 8 years old. He won a two-year business scholarship to NYU, but knew he’d have to transfer to CUNY after that. Coming to York and eventually majoring in Spanish was a no-stress decision. The Spanish lit professors at NYU turned him onto the department. The commuter van from his neighborhood takes him to campus and drops him off right in front of his home.

Recinos came here from El Salvador when he was 11, went to Long Island City High School and still lives in Astoria, near Astoria Park.  He started at New York City College of Technology in Brooklyn as a computer information systems major, but he quickly found it was not the right match.

“I had already become a writer,” he said. He had been writing since he was 15. “I had written poetry and short stories and was trying to write a novel. At City Tech, there were not a lot of students who were interested in literature.”

York was his first option when it came time to transfer as a Spanish and Education major. “I knew I could find what I wanted,” he said.

They met in Spanish composition class. “The professor had all the students introduce themselves, and we had common interested in poetry and music,” Ardon recalled. So we did a presentation together.” That led to an invitation – with Prof. Margarita Drago and  Zulena Luna– to read their poems at the 2009 Hispanic Book Fair in Jackson Heights.

“Kessler was a poet, a lyrics writer, a composer who wanted to take his music to poems,” Recinos said. “We challenged each other in the project. It’s not just writing poetry, but writing the melody, dealing with the technology of recording and putting images to it.” The project, he said, “combined what I know about photography and video taping. We were both experimenting with these elements.

“Professor Ramos helped give us ideas, suggestions on how to structure the project,” he said. “In my case, I wrote the poem then added music and images and sounds – the feeling of the voice can color how a poem is perceived. The idea was to show the audience the point of view of the poem and see how much of that point of view is received by primarily English speakers.

“We found especially the images helped give the audience access, helped them understand. In one of my proems, ‘Silencio,’ the person wants to scream, but he can’t. Images of me acting opened the door for the audience. I used myself as an image; I wanted to give the poems life.” See it at youtube.com/watch?v=RWeU1EuEfgI

“The audience didn’t need to know Spanish. They gave their own interpretation of the poems. In that sense, the results met our purpose – to communicate despite language differences.”

“Members of the audience were able to understand Juan Carlos’ poems more because in addition to the images on the video, the poem was seen performed,” Ardon said. “His actions came from the poem’s language. In my poems, you have to get the idea from the original music. Juan Carlos would give me his poems or show me a few of his images and I would come up with sound and music. It was research and artistic expression at the same time.”

Recinos said he now wants to repeat the presentation with different controls: First, only the words – just paper and ink. “This gives the reader his own door to the poem. Then, add only sound.” This allows the author to say what he wants the audience to feel.” Finally, add the video. “This is more personal, this is more what I want you to see when you read and hear the poem. The writer controls all the resources.”

“In fact,” he said, “versions two and three limit the imagination. It’s just like seeing the movie that comes out of a book. Whatever I had in mind as an author is different unless the audience goes back to the word.”

Despite different writing styles – walking a fine line between freestyle poetry and poems that could serve as lyrics – Ardon and Recinos said they will use their new perspective on poetry in future multi-media work.

Recinos is a member of the publishing group Written Expressions – the second edition of his collection “Mis Peguenas Experiencias” is available at www.e-written.com/jcrecinos.

At York, he plans to start a Spanish writers club, with Prof. Ramos as advisor.

“The project with Prof. Ramos made me alert to look forward, to open my eyes to what York has to offer,” Recinos said. “I want to say: ‘This is York and this is what I left behind.’ I’m looking forward to working more with her. She’s from El Salvador, too. She supported us, helped us manage our time, but she let us experiment and create. “We worked to impress her, to represent the department.”

Ardon plans to go to graduate school in Spanish literature and wants to teach on the college level, but right after graduation he’ll work at the Writing Center and as a recording engineer.

“When I came here, I didn’t really look to professors. Then I started going to their events and connected to them,” he said. “Because of them, I want to become an example for my friends and for the community.

“Without Professor Ramos I would not have an idea of what I want my talent to be. She encouraged me to find out. I see a world of Spanish, Spanish lit, as a performer. I can become part of that community.”

The chance to be part of that larger community of Spanish language poetry is important to Prof. Ramos. After the Queens Hispanic Book Fair, Recinos received an invitation to read at the Open Book Fair in theBronx. “People need to know who you are,” she said. “Then you start getting invitations to read, to travel to fairs and poetry conferences around the world.”

She is an active member of that community, too. When she started her CUNY undergraduate career, she did not speak English. “I went to Hostos Community College, where the bilingual program gives students the choice to work in Spanish or English. All of a sudden, I knew I understood the language. I jumped to Hunter College, then the Graduate School.”

“York has had a longstanding interest in encouraging undergraduates to do academic research, but this was the first time it came together in a coordinated way,” she said

“There is so much potential here. Research gives them a chance to show it. We have a lot of good writers here. They just need a window.”

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