BOB HOLMAN IS ON A MISSION
If it’s Wednesday, Bob Holman may have just landed atop Juneau’s Mendenhall Glacier. Or maybe he’s prepping for an Inupiaq-English poetry workshop. Or in the Australian bush. Or learning Welsh, then writing a poem in Welsh, then performing that poem at a Welsh poetry slam (he came in second place).
When I tried to schedule an interview, he was between gigs: working on a play with Crimean Tatars in the Ukraine and visiting the Nisenan people who were writing an opera in their native tongue.
You get the picture. Meet Bob Holman: poet, impresario, teacher, editor, innovator, performer, producer and activist. The man who coordinated readings at the St. Mark’s Poetry Project for nearly 20 years and co-directed the Nuyorican Poets Café (introducing slam poetry there). He famously founded and has been the proprietor of the inimitable Bowery Poetry Club since 2002. He is also the co-creator of the United States of Poetry, a PBS television series.
Holman’s latest endeavor is the documentary film Language Matters, released in January 2015 by PBS, which highlights the plight of endangered languages across the globe. Holman contacted award-winning filmmaker David Grubin with the idea and the two co-produced the film (written and directed by Grubin). Grubin was a natural fit for the project, having produced three major poetry television series for PBS and often featuring poets in his other films because “they are the ones thinking about the big questions.” The film won the 2015 Documentary of the Year award at the Berkeley Film Festival.
When the film was first screened in New York, one audience member was the head of a New York hula group who also happened to work at the Ford Foundation. After seeing the film, she asked how she could help get the word out.
Fast forward to today: on a grant from the Ford Foundation, Holman spent the fall of 2015 travelling in Alaska to screen the film, participate in poetry workshops and slams, visit language revitalization centers and meet with teachers, poets, language activists, parents, and community leaders. In Alaska, he scheduled at least two dozen formal events in about ten communities. Just this past February, Holman brought the message to Hawaii, scheduling over ten talks, screenings and meetings with teachers, linguists and native speakers –again with the support of the Ford Foundation.
On March 20, Holman brought to Bowery Poetry as part of his “Unheard Of” series, Baitz Niahosa [pictured above], a speaker/musician of the Tsou language. Tsou is one of the 12 indigenous languages left in Taiwan. None of the 2,200 speakers of the language is under 30.
Many more such performances are planned for 2016.
For as frenetic and scattered as his schedule is, his focus is singular: preserve the world’s endangered languages. And his message is clear: language is the heart of who we are as humans. Language is the vessel that holds our unique stories—the rituals, history and knowledge that comprise our cultural identity. As his life’s work bears out, Holman also sees language as art, as music, and much of our interview touched on his thoughts about the importance of “orality” versus literacy in a world transforming to digital (or what he calls “3rd (Digital) Consciousness.”)
Holman’s interest in this project began in 2000, when he met some linguists in Eritrea at a conference titled, “Against All Odds: African Language and Literature in the 21st century.” His involvement grew from there and now he’s a leading international voice advocating for language preservation.
The film is nothing if not a call to arms. Says Holman, “We are witnessing a global crisis of massive proportions. The truly scary fact is that half of the 6,000-7,000 languages spoken today on our planet will disappear this century.” Holman likens the importance of linguistic diversity to that of other ecology movements, saying, “The interrelationship of species of plants and animals is crucial to the physical planet’s survival. What this is is the ecology of human consciousness: an interdependence of knowledge, culture and wisdom that can be found in and through our languages.”
Though poets and linguists increasingly worry about this trend, concern and understanding is not yet widespread—an information gap Holman hopes to fill. Says Welsh poet Gwyneth Lewis in the film: “We are being narrowed and homogenized by the loss of languages that we’re not even aware of.” Each language presents a window into the past, how humanity evolved, formed societies, and adapted to their unique habitats as civilizations spread across the planet. According to linguist Nick Evans, “Each language is shining a little torch somewhere. These are treasures for the whole of humankind.”
The native languages in the film have become extinct or endangered for almost always the same reasons. Whether it’s Australia, Wales or Hawaii (the three examples showcased in the film), when a colonizing power takes control, the indigenous language(s) are typically, quickly put down. How much easier to subdue a culture, a people, when you silence the native tongue. That in itself is testimony to the power of language. The means were often brutal, including everything from physical violence to public shaming.
The Australian aborigines once numbered half a million people. As nomadic tribes, they developed a vast array of very different languages (not just dialects but discrete languages). When the British Empire came to dominate Australia, aborigines perished in large numbers, as did their languages. From a peak of about 250, only some 50 languages remain. In Wales, the invading Anglo-Saxons made English the official language in the 1500s; it stayed that way until the 1960s. Hawaii’s native tongue was banned three years after it became an American territory.
Even today, the forces of change continue. Holman’s website features the words of linguist and language activist Leanne Hinton, asserting, “The decline of linguistic diversity in the world is linked to the world political economy which invades and takes over the territories of indigenous peoples, threatens the ecosystems in which they live [and] wipes out their traditional means of livelihood.”
While the motivations today may be more economic than political hegemony, the result is the same. And thus the much-vaunted “flattening” of the globe which brings us into contact with more societies than ever before is ironically limiting our understanding of the wide diversity of human cultures. Holman finds this trend of homogenization disturbing.
WHY DOES LANGUAGE MATTER?
Says Holman at the film’s conclusion, “Language is the lens through which we see the world and become more fully ourselves, how we learn from and about each other, how we express our deepest wisdom…all in words.”
Holman visits and films Goulburn Island, Australia, a community with a population of 400 individuals where 10 languages are spoken— though often those languages are spoken by only a handful of people or in some cases just one person. Linguists and activists are hard at work preserving these languages, especially writing down the oral languages, before the last remaining speakers pass on. The native speakers interviewed in the film talked of how knowing a variety of languages shows an understanding and respect for others. It is not uncommon for someone’s mother-in-law, husband and grandparent to each speak a different language. Says Welsh poet Lewis, “It’s a myth of the dominant Anglophone cultures that the normal state is to be monoglot—far more people are multiglot.”
The residents of Goulburn value the language as they would the individual. “It’s like someone saying ‘This is me. This is who I am,’” Australian musicologist Reuben Brown says in the film of indigenous language and song.
Wales is the one success story in the film Language Matters. According to Holman and those interviewed, for the Welsh, storytelling is in their blood; language is integral to their sense of personal and community identity. The annual Eisteddfod gathering, a festival dating back to the Middle Ages, celebrates the Welsh language and is hugely popular, drawing an audience of 150,000 a year. Here the highest honors go to poets. The intrepid Holman, who gamely entered the slam with a poem he wrote in Welsh, wonders aloud in the film, “Do they heckle at this thing?” and asks his new Welsh friends how to translate “stupid American.” The festival includes a progression of people dressed as Druids—a living connection to their cultural past. Says Lewis about the experience, it’s like being in a “cloud of witnesses.”
The last society featured in the film is Hawaii, where there exists a vast array of meles or chants. These chants are used for thanks, blessing and supplication. More practically, they are codes, instructions for how to act and live on a daily basis. According to linguists interviewed in the film, the Hawaiian language is very cognizant of the connection between people and the natural world; there are thousands of names for winds and rains. Language also contains pragmatic information that helps a culture physically sustain itself. In Hawaiian, the same word is used to indicate a certain type of grasshopper and the time of the year that it appears and the type of yam that needs to be harvested at that exact time.
Says singer Keali’i Reichel, “We have forgotten how to communicate with the world around us since we’re so westernized. This is what it means to be Hawaiian.”
The world’s languages shed historical, and even prehistoric knowledge as well. Says Holman, “The aborigines made it through the Ice Age. They have stories about when Australia was connected to the mainland 40-50,000 years ago. I read in the New Yorker about a coming earthquake in Seattle, in the Northwest. Scientists now realize that a large-scale earthquake is much more likely there than the San Andreas fault. Part of the way that this was discovered was correlating oral stories of Pacific Northwest Indians with written records of tsunamis in Japan since the 700s. Now science is catching up.”
Says Kepa Maly, the executive director of the Lanai Culture and Heritage Center: “The minute we severed them from their ability to speak their language, we separated them from a knowledge, from a spirit, from an identity. In the perpetuation of one’s culture, there’s no way to describe how important language is.”
THE IMPORTANCE OF ORALITY
As a poet, Holman is equally gripped by sound as he is by meaning. He recently posted on his Facebook page: “Children are born into the blessed state of Oral Consciousness—why don’t we let them live there, in a multilingual, multicultural world so they can experience the beauty in difference, the essence that is variety, rather than force feed multiplication tables?”
Of all the known languages spoken today on earth, only 700 are written down. People who live in an oral culture have this oral consciousness, according to Holman. “We need to start to see this as a separate and equivalent way of thinking that has its strengths and weaknesses. We can use orality as a way of being. That’s how it’s like with people who live in their mother tongues.” Holman has even begun to look into the positive health implications of speaking your birth language.
A great deal has been researched and theorized about oral cultures versus literate, the benefits and drawbacks of each. But Holman is not romanticizing primitive cultures where languages are only spoken. He is positing that in our rush to make children grow up, fit in to the dominant culture, be good test-takers, perhaps be more marketable, we don’t allow their brains to luxuriate in the richness of a diversity of sounds.
Says Holman, “We are so owned by the didacticism of literacy, parents get scared. If we only let them learn to read later, trust that they will pick it up later. The brain changes with reading. When you learn to read, you close something off.”
We discussed other implications of literacy. For example, when the Bible was first put down in words, there was great resistance by religious leaders, as the interaction between student and teacher would be subverted, the back and forth that comprises true learning. Socrates too was opposed to reliance on the written word for a similar reason— the risk that students would mistake information for wisdom. Says Holman, “The tactility of the printed page and its immutability give the aura that this must be the truth.”
Holman has become an expert on various poetic traditions across the globe. He says the American tradition has everything to do with writing. “When the spoken word movement started in the 90s, people thought they were inventing something. But it was memorized. You could do that because you have writing. Rappers have a vast storehouse of images, mnemonics, they know their rhymes—the bards called it a storehouse of rhymes.
“But you know, Homer didn’t write the Iliad and the Odyssey; he spoke it. It wasn’t until the 60s that people got that point. All the repetitions, wine-dark sea and rosy fingers, that was a mnemonic device, a rhythmic placeholder, while he was devising the next segment. Writing has a different aesthetic: generally, you can’t or don’t repeat a word or a phrase. But that kind of thinking doesn’t work in orality. Creating the moment, the event, is very different from clinically re-writing it. The ability to hold your audience mesmerized requires that you be present in the moment with them.”
HOW TO SAVE A LANGUAGE
So in this morphing, melding modern age, how do we save ancient or remote languages? Holman believes it’s not just a matter of money. “The first thing is to respect their wishes and do what we can to help them.” There are burgeoning movements not only in the two most far-flung states of the U.S. but across the globe. This is what Holman hopes to do with his travels: bring his film out into communities, connect people with common interests, and advance the dialogue.
By the way, notes Holman, a lot of people don’t realize that two American states have official languages other than English. In Hawaii, both English and Hawaiian are recognized. Alaska just voted to make 20 native languages official, in addition to English. On the wall of Tim Argetsinger’s government office in Kotzebue, Alaska, is the pen that signed the bill giving the state 21 official languages. But Argetsinger himself is not impressed. “What good is being official,” he asks, “if no one speaks it?”
Given then that language is inextricably bound to – perhaps inseparable from– our personal and communal identity, reviving an at-risk language requires more than half-hearted measures. Holman speaks on camera with former U.S. Poet Laureate W.S. Merwin who has lived in Hawaii for some 40 years. Says Merwin in the film, “You have to treat [it] as the first language and start thinking in it, joking, singing, playing…when you restore a language, you have to restore the spirit of the language.”
Indeed, Holman says that research has shown that “early childhood immersion in the language is one proven way for a language to grab hold. The Welsh model offers the option for children to go to school in that language, not as a foreign language. In Hawaii, parents bring the child and stay. So parents are learning as the child does. It’s a real commitment. It’s also happening in New Zealand, Ireland, and Catalonia. This method allows children to grow up in their mother tongue.”
In the film, Holman and Grubin track the development of a language immersion school in Hawaii started in 1983, not by teachers but by second-language learners who believed that there was no other way to save their language. Though they admit they were a bit unprepared with somewhat quixotic goals, they were committed and persistent and the school has been a resounding success. Hawaiian children are now learning in their native tongue and then passing it on to their parents, many of whom never heard the language spoken in their homes growing up.
Though the gains at times feel tenuous, linguists and activists understand that revitalizing the language is critical to ensuring their cultural survival. For Merwin, language itself remains a mystery. “Humans arrived at language as much as it came to them. In some respects, the language knows things that you don’t know and always does and always will.”
Kristina Bicher’s poetry has appeared in Grist, LIT, Tupelo Quarterly, Crab Creek Review and others and has been nominated for the Pushcart prize. Her essays have been featured in The Atlantic and The Rumpus. Bicher’s chapbook, Just Now Alive, was a contest finalist in the New Women’s Voices Series (published by Finishing Line Press, 2014). She received a BA from Harvard University, an MA from Manhattanville College and an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College.