Rosenie Mont-Gerard, GPJ Haiti

Haitian Poets Extol Nation’s Beauty, Highlight Potential


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Distressed that Haiti is primarily known as the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, Haitian poets are using their art form to highlight the country’s beauty and potential.

JÉRÉMIE, HAITI – With pen and notebook in hand, Caldwel Appolon, 32, walks through the streets of Jérémie, a coastal town in southwestern Haiti.

He carries the pen and small, black notebook with him everywhere he goes. In it, he writes poems on whatever sparks his interest and jots down the work of poets he admires.

As Appolon walks to his neighbor’s art gallery, he describes the inspiration he draws from the beauty of Haiti. It upsets him how the international media misrepresent Haiti, he says. Through his poetry, he seeks to demonstrate to Haitians – and to the world – that a poor country can still possess beauty.

The measured tempo of Appolon’s speech mirroring the artistic style of his poems, he laughs, charms and grins as he offers examples of Haiti’s beauty and the many reasons he is proud of his country: the picturesque mountains and beaches; the extraordinary sunrises and sunsets; the majestic walk of peasants in the countryside; the beautiful black women; the waves of the waters; the smell of the fruits; the tones of the music; and the harmony of the people.

But few understand Haiti’s value because it is not publicized, he says. Instead, the media focus on Haiti’s poverty and misery, which perpetuates negative perceptions. He hopes his poetry will demonstrate to the world that Haiti is beautiful despite being the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.

One of his poems, “Le Vénérable au Désespoir,” which translates from French to “The Venerable in Despair,” portrays Haiti as a “fragile and poor woman” who is often ignored and dismissed.

Haiti is like a caring mother who always attends to her children, Appolon writes in the poem, which he wrote from 2011 to 2013. Her children suffer, yet her ears are always open to their needs.

Haiti, “a red flower in frizzy hair,” is like captivating music that has been broken, he writes. But she still maintains a single beat, one that is persistent each morning and night.

“My country is beauty,” he writes. “I say that I am Haiti.”

Appolon, a native of Jérémie, dreamed of becoming a poet since childhood, he says. His father wrote often, and literature – especially poetry – was so important to his parents that they named him after a famous U.S. poet, though he cannot remember which.

Appolon has been writing poetry professionally in his hometown for about eight years. His most recent work was published in 2011 through Educa Vision Inc., a U.S.-based publisher of multilingual educational materials. Several academic institutions in Jérémie have also published his poems for their students and the community to read.

More awareness of Haiti’s beauty could attract tourists, who could facilitate the country’s economic development, Appolon says. But he acknowledges that this change in perception begins with Haitians, whom he considers the first to project negative ideas about the country instead of focusing on its potential. He is trying to ignite that change through his poetry.

Jérémie, the capital of the Grand’Anse department, became known as the “City of Poets” for its literary and artistic community. It is also the birthplace of the father of Alexandre Dumas, the author of the classic novel “The Count of Monte Cristo.”

Haiti, once known as the “Pearl of the Caribbean,” grapples with various political, socio-economic and environmental problems today.

It is important to understand the reasons behind the problems, says Kelly Duvert, a high school social sciences teacher in Anse-d’Hainault, a coastal town and district in the Grand’Anse department.

Haiti’s poverty stems from imperialism and colonialism during the slavery era, Duvert says. In 1697, Spain ceded the territory to France, which depended on slaves to export sugar and other products.

“During the colonization of Haiti by the French, the products of Haiti were taken in a brutal way and transported to France,” Duvert says. “At this time, the slaves could not approach their master in order to exploit their knowledge. After independence, Haiti had no goods or human resource[s]. This is today a country with all these bad images.”

A lack of education and professional training has also tarnished Haiti’s image, says Paul Macena, a technician for Fondation Nouvelle Grand’Anse, a nonprofit organization that fosters socio-economic development in the Grand’Anse department. The emigration of educated and skilled professionals has compounded this dearth.

Intense deforestation, poor soil and land management and a lack of training for farmers have also diminished Haiti’s physical beauty, says Macena, an agronomist for Caritas Internationalis, an international Catholic organization that provides aid and development in rural and oppressed areas, as well as a former professor specializing in agriculture.

In the face of these challenges, Appolon and other poets in the Grande’Anse department are using their art to shift the world’s focus from the nation’s problems to its beauty.

Haiti’s beauty will never disappear because it is so natural, says Mackenson Joaner, a 29-year-old poet from Dame-Marie, a seaside town about an hour’s drive from Jérémie in the Grand’Anse department.

Joaner has been writing poetry for three years. Various academic institutions in Jérémie and Dame-Marie have published his work and feature books of his poetry in their libraries.

Haiti is like a woman who is responsible for her home and cares for it daily without the support of her husband, Joaner writes in his 2010 poem “Ayiti Ki Nanm!” which translates from Haitian Creole to “Haiti, My Soul!” She works every day and still ends up without a piece of soap or water to bathe. Nonetheless, her face radiates, and her body has a sweet smell that attracts people from far and near.

He writes that Haiti – “se pi bèl fanm,” which means “the most beautiful woman” – “is a rope that unifies all hearts that sing love.” His poem calls his homeland the “rhythm to all hearts” and confronts Haiti’s issue with emigration.

“We do not want to leave each other,” he writes.

To him, Haiti is “the wonder of the world.”

Gelin Silfate Joaner, a poet from Jérémie, is not related to Mackenson Joaner but similarly highlights Haiti’s beauty in his work. Since beginning his career in 2012, he has concentrated on the beauty of the female form as well as the struggles of poor peasants, he says.

His 2013 poem “Haïti, une Beauté au Désespoir,” which means, “Haiti, a Beauty in Despair,” reflects a country that adjusts to both prosperous and hard times. It calls Haiti a woman “who knows to say good morning in the morning, good evening when the sun is drowning in its own blood.”

But the international community does not see Haiti that way, he says. The world views Haiti as a poor country and forgets that it also has a grand beauty.

“Many people make up the amalgam of Haiti because they do not really know Haiti,” Gelin Silfate Joaner says. “I recognize that there are a lot of problems in Haiti, as in all countries of the world. But, despite everything, its beauty is still stunning.”

He finds artistic peace in the Haitian coast, which stretches 1,770 kilometers (1,100 miles) and boasts prominent peninsulas in the north and the south, he says. The country’s folk, pop and classical music also inspires him.

“Haiti is still beautiful with its customs, manners, tradition,” he says.

Despite the tragedy caused by natural disasters in recent years, the culture, religions and history mark the beauty of a great black population, Macena says. And despite intense deforestation, many natural sites demonstrate Haiti’s beauty.

Haiti has two national parks, and UNESCO recognizes the National History Park in the Nord department as a World Heritage site, a place of special cultural or physical significance.

Tudor Hulea, a Canadian tourist who visited Haiti in 2013 with a Haitian friend, says he came to the tropical country because he understands that a country’s problems do not overwhelm its beauty. He enjoys the unique flavors of Haiti’s fruits and cuisine as well as its natural appeal.

“When I am in Haiti, I breathe a pure air,” Hulea says. “If someone does not speak of the beauty of Haiti, it is from ignorance.”

Poets in the Grand’Anse department strive to show others this beauty through their work. Positive images of Haiti may facilitate tourism, which could benefit the country economically, Appolon says.

But this change has to begin with Haitians, who have favored projecting Haiti’s negative image over the good image, he says. He calls on Haitians living in the country and abroad to change their mentality.

Appolon proposes campaigns to promote these positive images of Haiti at home and abroad. He says stories of great citizens in newspapers, fine paintings reflecting Haiti and its artists, education about Haiti’s history, a reforestation campaign, and local poetry are among the initiatives that could slowly but surely lead to much-needed change.

GPJ translated interviews from Haitian Creole and this article from French.