Ethnographic Poetry and the Leaping Bilingual Mind

[Savage Minds is pleased to run this essay by guest Melisa Cahnmann-Taylor as part of our Writers’ Workshop series. Melisa is Professor of TESOL and World Language Education at the University of Georgia. Winner of the 2015 Beckman Award for “Professors Who Inspire,” she is the author of a forthcoming poetry manuscript “Imperfect Tense,”(Cahnmann-Taylor, In Press), and co-author of two books on bilingual education and artful research: Teachers Act Up! (Cahnmann-Taylor & Souto-Manning, 2010) and Arts-Based Research in Education (Cahnmann-Taylor & Siegesmund, 2008).]

Acquiring Spanish as a second language led me to poetry, and becoming a better poet helped me become a better bilingual. I had been a good high school and college student of Spanish and had studied abroad in Spain and Mexico. After college, I wanted a way to give kindness back to the many Spanish speakers who tolerated and nurtured my emerging bilingualism. As a Spanish major with coursework in theatre and creative writing, it made sense to become an elementary school teacher. I was quickly overwhelmed. I struggled to teach third grade math, science, and California history in my new classroom in South Central Los Angeles.

This was 1992. Rodney King. Race riots.

Each school window had iron grating on the outside. On the inside, we decorated with window paint and crepe paper, a beautiful carpet displaying the map of the world. My students were all considered “LEP,” limited English proficient.. The institutional structure gave me, their inexperienced “bilingual teacher,” a few short months to teach Spanish literacy with the explicit caveat that English monolingualism was the true goal. To be successful in public K-12 education, my students had to forego Spanish proficiency. Meanwhile, I was learning more and more Spanish than ever before. The same bilingualism which was so privileged and nurtured in my college education was shut down for young, immigrant youth,; this didn’t seem right. As a hard-working teacher, I felt I had no time or energy left to contemplate this irony. I turned to poetry, and, then, to graduate school.

My first graduate school teachers were anthropologists of education at UC Santa Cruz. Dr. Greta Gibson and Dr. Cindy Pease-Alvarez taught me how to take field notes, to understand sociocultural theories of learning, to immerse myself in classroom life and interview bilingual parents and children. I was engaged by what I learned in educational research, but I yearned for methods and texts that were less planned and more playful, evocative of surprise and feeling. I read poets on the side: Martín Espada, Dorianne Laux, Chitra Divakaruni, Wislawa Symborska, June Jordan. I was moved by the ways in which these poets wrote about human experience across race, social class, language and culture. I wanted educational anthropology to stir as their words did, to reconsider bilingual policies and practices that seemed cruel and ineffective.

During one of my many summer indulgences in poetry, away from dry social science prose, I attended the Squaw Valley Writers conference. As I searched for my nametag, I saw Renato Rosaldo’s name a few rows away on the table. The “Renato Rosaldo,” author of Culture and Truth (1989)? Could it be that a prominent anthropologist was also an emergent poet? Indeed it was. Renato encouraged me to read other “antropoetas” as he referred to them: Ruth Behar, Dell Hymes, Kirin Narayan, and others. There was a small tribe of poetic anthropologists and they convened in the Society for Humanistic Anthropology. The word “humanism” became a new “homeroom,” a place to put my bookbag down and represent poetic evocations of ethnographic learning.

I had a quest, to place myself among a community of artful social scientists and socially evocative artists. I learned to use ethnographic strategies to understand forms of bilingual education and I could sift theory with fieldnotes and interview data and find the images, the music, the performance of bilingualism in everyday life. If I gave myself permission and I studied craft in both poetry and anthropology, then I might contribute to the creative and humanistic renderings that have continued to inspire my teaching and learning. I have written a great many terrible poems. I have also written many bland academic words in prose. I feel lucky that part of my job has the goal to improve the quality of my writing so that it might evoke greater understanding and action.

(c) Susannah Rigg,
Photograph by Susannah Rigg,

Recently, I’ve begun to shift my gaze. I spent 9 months in Oaxaca Mexico to study American adult Spanish language learners. Who are we, those of us who continue to seek fluency in one of our Mexico neighbor’s tongues? While no longer a Spanish language beginner, I easily identified with my study participants and rekindled the familiar feelings of strangeness, making “home” for the first time in another language and world view. While so many of us invest great resources to acquire Spanish as a second language, we continue to live in a society that rarely supports efforts for bilingual children to maintain and develop their bilingual abilities. It has been my goal to draw connections between Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages [TESOL] and teaching high quality World Language Education (WLE) to English Speakers  Sometimes, the most heartfelt way I’ve found to analyze ethnographic interviews, field work experiences and theory, is through the act of writing (sometimes terrible) poems.

Photography by Susannah Rigg,
Photography by Susannah Rigg,

The better results of this ethnographic poetry will be published in a forthcoming book, Imperfect Tense (In Press). In closing, I share one of these poems where the concluding reference to the “upside down question marks” in Spanish punctuation, resonated as an apt metaphor for the artful ethnographic work in second language education I pursue.

I am still seeking community. Inspired by the work of “antropoetas” such as Kusserow (2002; 2013), Stone (2008), Rosaldo (2013), and Faizullah (2014), I am on a never-ending quest for socially informed art and artfully informed social science. May we continue to stir one another with resonant knowing, to welcome the unexpected and lyric as we seek cross-cultural understanding:


Chances are you’ve said I’m pregnant when you meant 

    I’m embarrassed, 
                    fuck a bus 

    when you wanted         to catch it, 

or vaginas 

    instead of “páginas”        to describe an art book’s pages. 

Odds are you’ve boozed these errors, 

    loosened        the alveolar ridge, 

    that ineffable          tongue flap 

that probably made all the difference 

when you lacked that packed poncho, 

    exact pesos 

            or translations for the dose,   the punch line, 

the bus route,  the landlord,       the speedy 

vowels garbled into the phone you answered  and fat 

    chance you sent         the right words back, 

    misreading ingredients, 

hunting for ATMs.       Filthy footed, fed 

up with it all, you tangled in a carnival of outlets, 

    sickened from taco      cilantro, 

    broke       human likenesses 

with a stick.               You risked          time

reduced to      mere        numerals, 

    a few verbs         that evaporated 

    like desert water.              Raw 

as the bed- frame wood that men 

    back-holstered up missing cobblestones, 

you startled like       patron saint firecrackers 

    outside         a sleepy weeknight 

    wooden door.        But when you creaked, 

wide-awake, to blue mornings,   you exposed 

    like a rare     book’s  ink sensitive pages, as if damage 

    mattered    less to you than a small,  braided  fist of cheese. 

Whey spilt,     you inevitably unraveled,       turned question marks 

    upside down until tart tamarind         tasted sweet.




Cahnmann-Taylor, M. (In Press 2016). Imperfect Tense. Whitepoint Press.

Cahnmann-Taylor, M., & Souto-Manning, M.. (2010). Teachers Act Up! Creating multicultural community through theatre. NYC: Teachers College Press.

Cahnmann-Taylor, M. & Siegesmund, R. (2008). Arts-Based Research in Education: Foundations for Practice. London: Routledge.

Rosaldo, R. (1989) Culture and truth: the remaking of social analysis. Boston: Beacon Press.

Rosaldo, Renato (2013) The day of Shelly’s Death: The poetry and ethnography of grief. Durham: Duke Univ. Press.

usserow (2013) Refuge. Rochester, NY: Boa Editions

usserow (2002) Hunting Down the Monk. Rochester, NY: Boa Editions.

Faizullah, Tarfia (2014). Seam. Carbondale, Il: Southern Illinois University Press.

Stone, Nomi (2008) Strangers Notebook. Evanston, Il: Triquarterly Press.


Carole McGranahan

I am an anthropologist and historian of Tibet, and a professor at the University of Colorado. I conduct research, write, lecture, and teach. At any given time, I am probably working on one of the following projects: Tibet, British empire, and the Pangdatsang family; the CIA as an ethnographic subject; contemporary US empire; the ongoing self-immolations in Tibet; the Chushi Gangdrug resistance army; refugee citizenship in the Tibetan diaspora (Canada, India, Nepal, USA); and, anthropology as theoretical storytelling.

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