Transporting Poetry Across Borders: On Teaching Ethnographic Poetry in Japan

With its multiple writing systems, Japanese seemed to lend itself particularly well to the task of writing multilingual poems.

Educator’s Guides are published alongside each issue of Asymptote and include detailed lesson plans that can be used with students of literature, language, or writing. The Asymptote website has additional audiovisual materials, translator and author bios, and works in the original language, making it a valuable educational resource. The most recent issue of the Educator’s Guide can be found on the Asymptote for Educators page.

This article describes the lesson plan Language in Transit: Understanding Ethnographic Poetry from the Asymptote Summer 2018 Educator’s Guide. The piece, from House to House, consists of two poems, “House to House” and “Barjeel,” both of which were written and translated by Shamma Al Bastaki. These poems are part of her undergraduate senior project based on interviews she conducted with people living in the United Arab Emirates. Although she has translated the poems into English, some words or phrases are transliterated, while others are left untranslated and remain in the original languages. From the translator’s note, we discover more about the role of language in the piece:

. . . it is a project about language: language in translation, language as bearer of meaning and medium for story telling, language as a catalyzer of communion and communication, language as sound and a series of phonetics, and language as physical material, existent for its own sake.

Al Bastaki’s work is an ideal fit for English language learners who experience the liminal space between languages firsthand. To learn about the concepts and ideas within these poems, Japanese university students read and discussed them in a poetry class. As part of their undergraduate degree, students enroll in a four-semester English language program which consists of skill-based courses (reading, writing, speaking, listening) and content-based courses (learning about topics, such as poetry, in English).

In the poetry course, the learning outcomes include using the skills learned in other English courses, conducting research, and participating in small group discussions. The students have recently graduated from high school and share the common language of Japanese. Although the students have studied Japanese literature, many mentioned that they did not have as much experience reading or writing poetry in their English classes. 

With this in mind, as the course instructor, I prepared a short reading for the students which included a brief author biography and a list of necessary key terms and definitions for understanding and discussing the poem: ethnographic poetry, enjambment, stanza, translation, and transliteration. Students studied the author information and vocabulary list in preparation for the lesson.


Students read the text of “House to House” in class. However, students read a version with the formatting and line breaks removed. In other words, in order to gain experience with enjambment, the poem was in paragraph form.

A big rock of salt was crushed into tiny crystals. That’s what we used to salt . . .

From there, students decided where to insert line breaks and how to create stanzas. All answers were accepted; the only rule was that no punctuation could be used. The purpose of this activity was twofold: to reinforce the concept of enjambment and to preview the text of the poem. The following is one student example, using line breaks to highlight the repetition of the word “salt”:

a big rock of

was crushed into
tiny crystals

that’s what we used to

After finishing, students discussed their reasons for choosing these particular line breaks with a partner. Their reasons varied from inserting a line break after a specific number of words or syllables, to insert a line break instead of punctuation, or to insert a line break based on feeling. Even though all the students in the class were working with the same text, few versions were the same. Students then compared their work with the original text:

a big rock of
salt was crushed into
tiny crystals that’s what
we used to salt

Students were surprised when the author’s use of line breaks and right alignment was revealed—the discovery sparked intrinsic motivation to read and discuss the poem in more depth. Furthermore, reading the same text multiple times with different purposes is an effective way for language teachers to scaffold reading skills and gradually develop comprehension of the text.


Following the enjambment activity, students reread the poems and discussed their ideas with a small group. A selection of discussion questions from the Educator’s Guide was used: (1) What is the poem about? Who do you imagine the speakers might be? (2) How does the format of the poetry and the poetic elements impact the reading for you? (3) Why do you think the writer chose to translate these conversations into English only partially? (4) When reading these poems, what are you reminded of in your own life?

After reading and talking about the poems, but before moving on to composing their own poems, we reviewed the context of Al Bastaki’s work and the students’ responses to the above questions, giving particular emphasis to the translation process. The translator’s note explains,

These poems were birthed from interview transcripts that I conducted with elderly members of different Creek communities, and while most of them were conducted in Arabic and some UAE minority languages, such as Ajami, I have translated most of the material into English, keeping some in the original languages, either in the actual script or transliterated where I felt the sounds and oratory quality of the words outweighed their meanings.

Students were particularly interested in the use of the transliterated Arabic word ya3ni in the poem. One stanza reads: I told them my / wedding was here they / were surprised ya3ni they were/ like how ya3ni how. This led to further discussion of the shift from oral to written modalities during the writing process, and brought out the differences between spoken language, with colloquialisms and dialects, and written language used for literary or classical texts, to the forefront.

In the Educator’s Guide, a definition of the genre of ethnographic writing is given as writing that “focuses on everyday situations with ordinary people, and an emphasis on their point of view.” Barjeel retains evidence of turn taking between the interviewer and interviewees through the use of punctuation, such as italics and brackets. Listening to a portion of the audio recording from Al Bastaki’s project (available on the Asymptote website) made an excellent accompaniment to this portion of the lesson, giving a voice to the words on the page and illustrating the interactive nature of the field work that preceded writing the poems.

Students could identify with the experience of seeing a familiar place through the lens of experience. Sharing their own recollections sparked a lively discussion and segued into the last stage of the lesson—the poetry project. 

Poetry project

Students were assigned to write their own poems about a memory related to food, housing, a ritual, or another topic of their choice. Memory and language intertwined in the finished poetry projects, and the process of asking a question, listening to the answer, and recording what was learned breathed new life into dialogue in the language learning classroom.

Almost half of the submitted poems were about food: popular Japanese foods, such as rice, miso soup, omelet rice, and sushi, and sweet foods like fruits or desserts. The poems conveyed food memories and connected them with close relationships: writing a message in ketchup on omelet rice to express feelings for a loved one, packing a lunch box or making a rice ball for a family member, eating strawberry shortcake to celebrate a friend’s birthday.

Only a few students wrote about their house or apartment, but their works were rich with sensory imagery: the sounds of a younger sibling practicing the piano, the feeling of a humid day during rainy season, the sight of favorite photographs decorating the walls. The remaining half of the students chose to write about other memorable experiences, such as studying abroad, participating in school club activities, or having fun with friends.

The interviews were conducted in English, Japanese, or a combination of languages, and the responses were then transcribed. The transformation from transcript to poem was made by modifying the form (using enjambment and formatting) and language (choosing between translating, transliterating, or using the original).

With its multiple writing systems, Japanese seemed to lend itself particularly well to the task of writing multilingual poems. The students wrote poems in English with an occasional Japanese word or phrase transcribed (written in romaji) or untranslated (remaining in kanji, hiragana, or some combination of writing systems). In a creative use of language, one student used katakana to phonetically transcribe the sentence “I want to go to New Zealand”!

Through studying enjambment, reading the poems, and composing their own poems in a similar style, students studied key concepts about poetry and engaged in a relevant and meaningful language learning activity. This process helped to consolidate knowledge and deepen appreciation of the text. At the same time, they experienced something more abstract—the tenuous connections between languages and memories. 

Mary Hillis is an Educational Arm Assistant at Asymptote. She earned an MA in English with a specialization in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages. She lives in Japan, where she teaches English language and literature at the university level. 


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