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In the Land of Poets

When I was thirteen, my family moved from rural Wells County, Indiana to Somalia. We went from a ten-acre woods surrounded by cornfields to a village bordered by a semi-desert region that stretched to the Indian Ocean. I was fascinated by what could survive the desert’s harsh heat and drought: graceful acacia trees with green umbrellas; weaver birds that wove intricate nests hanging upside down; nomads who herded camels and carried their houses. I had been writing stories about animals and kid detectives since third grade, but now I wanted to write a poem. Only a poem could express the inner connection I felt for that desolate and beautiful landscape.

I didn’t know much about how to write a poem, but when my mother wasn’t giving typing lessons, I’d sit at her manual typewriter and peck out words to an ode that grew almost to the length of Somalia’s coastline. I didn’t know then that Somalia is the Land of Poets. In Somalia, poems are so revered that they’ve prevented wars. The traditional coming-of-age ritual for young men and women has been the recitation of famous poems and the composition of their own verse.

My dad’s position at the Mennonite Hospital in Jamaame was only for a year, but when we returned to Wells County, the landscape looked different to me. There was now an expansive, mysterious aspect to the fields and creek and woods that I was drawn to explore through poetry. Fortunately, a visiting poet came one year to my high school’s creative writing class and in a series of lessons, covered many basics that became crucial to my poetry. For me, the highlight of her visit was my individual conference. She showed me things happening in my poems that I hadn’t consciously intended—places where sound and meaning coalesced and where certain combinations of words echoed other words not even present.

Forty years later, as Indiana Poet Laureate, I returned to my former high school to give a workshop on writing nature poems. I watched the students as they entered the classroom. Except for the fashions and hairstyles, they could have been my former classmates. All, that is, but one. By her physical features and dress, she appeared to be Somali. But that seemed too improbable. As an introduction to the workshop, I had planned to talk about how I started writing poetry in Somalia in response to the landscape. As I spoke, I felt from the student’s attentiveness and smile that she understood very clearly what I was saying. Later, as we all walked to the woods to collect images for our nature poems, she and I had the opportunity to converse. Yes, indeed, she was from Somalia! Specifically, she was an exchange student from Somaliland, a section of the country that broke away to declare independence in 1991. And, yes, she wrote poetry.

In the Land of Poets, a nomad’s journey begins where it ends, for the route is generally circular. That afternoon I felt as if I had returned full-circle. Time collapsed, as did the distance between worlds.

Written by Shari Wagner, Indiana's Poet Laureate from 2016-2017.

Visit Shari's website here.