Fourth graders had an opportunity to experience the power of poetry in a whole new way in class on Thursday morning, February 15, the beginning of the Vietnamese New Year known as “Tet.” Poet Kevin Bowen, a veteran of the Vietnam War who writes poetry based on his life experiences both as a soldier and later as a friend to the Vietnamese, shared some of his works with this class of fledgling poets. “Poems are there to capture moments,” he explained to the children.
Kevin’s visit was particularly meaningful to the students as they are in the middle of a writing unit on poetry and had just finished reading an award-winning book by a Vietnamese-American writer, Thanhha Lai, “Inside Out & Back Again.” A combination of novel and verse, the book is about her experiences as a young girl during the war and leaving her home in Vietnam with her family to come to America to create a new life. Kevin’s insights about poetry and his experiences with Vietnam and its people over the last 40 years provided a wonderful context to the book and the fourth graders’ work writing their own poems.
Many of Kevin’s poems reflect his experience first as a soldier fighting against the Vietnamese and then later as a humanitarian and educational representative aiding the process of reconciliation between our two countries. He told the children that, like the author of the book they were studying, he had looked for many years for ways to share his experiences. He had tried writing stories and novels, but was just not satisfied with either medium. He eventually discovered that poetry allowed him to recapture his memories and experiences, and for the past forty years, he has published and won awards for his own poetry as well as done translations of Vietnamese poetry.
He also taught the students a few particulars about Vietnamese language, which he had studied at Harvard University, explaining the subtleties of accents and tone that create meaning. He taught them how to say “Happy New Year” in Vietnamese, which the students had fun practicing: “Chúc Mừng Năm Mới.” The students were so inspired by the poetry and stories he shared that one by one they ran out of the room to grab their iPads to share their poems with Kevin and each other.