I first heard of the House Poem in 2007. My late husband had gone to the US on a fellowship to The University of Iowa, International Writing Program, in October that year. As part of the program, the details of which escape me now, he found himself in Pittsburgh for a few weeks. The City of Asylum, run by Diane Samuels and Henry Reese in Pittsburgh, hosted him.
Over long emails, he would describe this fascinating place where he was housed during his stay. He told me how the house was painted with verses by a Chinese poet who lived there after he escaped persecution in China and came to the US seeking asylum.
Celebrated today the world over for his bold and brilliant poetry, Huang Xiang had endured years of torture and imprisonment in his home country that left him hearing impaired. When Huang arrived at Pittsburgh’s City of Asylum in 1997–98, he was so overwhelmed by the air of freedom around that he expressed a desire to carve his poem (in the tradition of Chinese poets) on Pittsburgh’s Mt. Washington.
Henry and Diane, who were still figuring out how to grow the Pittsburgh City of Asylum community, instead suggested Huang paint the outside walls of the house he was staying in. As Henry always says, Huang was actually “writing his house”. It eventually came to be known as the House Poem.
This led to the development of a series of houses on Sampsonia Way (where the House Poem is located) for use by writers-in-exile, each with a text-based artwork on the façade. The project is called House Publications and Sampsonia Way has actually turned into a ‘public library’ one can read while walking.
How the City of Asylum came to be
Six years before Huang arrived at Pittsburgh, Henry and Diane had spent that many years requesting the European Charter of Cities of Asylum to let them create a Pittsburgh City of Asylum since they heard Salman Rushdie speak about it. They did receive an affirmative response from the network in Europe, but they had to go alone as far as funding was concerned. There are Cities of Asylum all over the world, founded about 20 years ago to provide sanctuary for exiled at-risk writers. These are mostly run on institutional sponsorship, specifically from universities.
A serial entrepreneur, Henry had earlier run successful businesses that involved telemarketing and call centres. Together with his partner Diane, who is a visual artist, he mobilized friends and influential people to raise money to provide housing, medical benefits, and a living stipend for the writers in exile.
They bought a former ‘crack house’ (house on the verge of collapse) on a small lane, Sampsonia Way, and refurbished it.
The lane is located in the North Side section of Pittsburgh. Once notorious for inter-gang rivalry, drug dens and random shootings, this rough neighbourhood has now transformed with better policing and residents’ participation in eradicating crime. Abandoned or ‘crack’ houses that attracted anti-social activities are being restored as art houses, culture hubs and residential accommodations, all mostly thanks to Diane and Henry’s efforts. Their house is also located on Sampsonia Way.
The City of Asylum’s various programs are thriving. There are regular jazz concerts and poetry readings that Diane and Henry host in their living room and in outdoor tents on Sampsonia Way. All are free to the public.
Till now, they have sponsored writers and artists from China, Burma, El Salvador, Iran, Venezuela, Iraq, and some more countries.
Finding poetry in the mundane
Thus, when I found myself at House Poem exactly six years after my husband had revealed its whereabouts I could only think it was destiny at work. In the summer of 2013, my son and I landed at Pittsburgh to join my husband who was living in House Poem (for the second time) following a Fulbright grant to research a book on Pittsburgh and compare its steel legacy with India’s own steel town of Jamshedpur (where he grew up).
We arrived in Pittsburgh on a crisp and clear evening and though it was still chilly outside there was an unmistakable hint of spring in the air.
In the coming days, we would be witness to the bare branches sprouting into buds of all hues — green, pink, deep red, orange — a colour palette splashed in abandon to compensate for the stark white of the winter snow.
In the backyard of the House Poem where we would stay, a new tulip with a new colour would surprise me every day until I had a rainbow to marvel at. The neighbour’s magnolia tree in full bloom, which I must admit I was seeing for the first time ever, would complete my joy.
The House Poem was our home for nearly a month and a half. At first, the celebratory status of the house was overpowering. It seemed unbelievable to be living in the same house where such a gifted poet as Huang had lived and made his home.
The creaking wooden floor and staircase that led up to the bedrooms would remind me to walk softly least I disturbed the few specks of dust settled deep into its boards from Huang’s days. At nights, as I lay on the bed, I would imagine the movement of light on the ceiling from the cars that drove by below setting the stage for the verse just outside the window to come alive. This one in particular (translated version) enchanted me no end.
“…The most wonderful way to write poetry/ Is to stand right on your head / With mind and body as one / And dab ink/ On the ground!”
There were instances when the bell would ring at odd hours during the evenings and I would find myself looking at strangers with kind faces enquiring about the ‘calligraphy’ outside. “Did you paint this?” they would ask. And then I would happily tell them about Huang Xiang and his beautiful poetry.
The house that became home
As the days passed, the house slowly turned into our home. The extraordinary gave way to the humdrum of daily living.
The cooking and cleaning, laughing and loving bound us to a strange place in a strange land.
There was this time when the smoke alarm went off while I was frying some sausages and we could not figure out how to turn it off. It was funny how we ran around willing the alarm to shut before all the neighbours came rushing to the door. Or the time when my husband instructed us not to use the shower without first tucking the shower curtains inside the tub. He had found to his embarrassment earlier the results of not heeding this advice from Diane when the water had leaked through the floorboards.
We made friends for life. Henry and Diane lead that list. The Venezuelan writer and poet Israel Centeno and his beautiful wife Graciela Bonnet’s warm home was often a refuge for my husband living away from his family. In fact, the entire City of Asylum family had adopted him as their very own. He, in turn, would love to feed them Indian food. Such was his success with cooking and serving Indian food — the menu always comprised of channa masala, puri, pulao, chicken curry, mushroom curry, and salad — that this exercise quickly turned into his project ‘Food and Words.’
Every word matters
Recently, I read in The Atlantic an article on the City of Asylum’s art projects with names like River of Words and Alphabet Reading Garden, that almost sounded like an invitation to Alice in Wonderland kind of adventure. I remember Diane asking us to write a few alphabets in Hindi, which, she said, she would use in her art installation along with alphabets from languages around the world. She was planning this for the Alphabet City that they wanted to build in the neighbourhood.
One windy evening, we walked down the North Side neighbourhood to look at the old, derelict theatre, the historic Masonic Building, which was going to be refurbished into the Alphabet City. Once it is ready, the building, which was vacant since the mid-1990s, will house the new City of Asylum office, a bookstore, a café, and a performance space.
“Our goal with this project is to create a neighborhood and regional hub for literature and global culture, a social space full of interesting people and interesting happenings,” Henry and Diane said about their dream project.
It was hard to imagine then how this transformation would be possible. But I do get a glimpse — on Diane’s Facebook page — of how the Masonic Building is slowly morphing into the Alphabet City scheduled to open sometime this year, and it warms my heart to see their dream taking shape.
This year, I got an incredible opportunity to curate and host a one-of-a-kind festival of Indian languages, called Bhasha, under the banner of my organisation YourStory.com. It too is an attempt at inclusion; inclusion of the majority of people in India who have been banished from the internet only because they do not read or speak English. It is an attempt to bridge the digital gap by providing a platform to startups working to make internet accessible to Indian language speakers and readers.
It will be three years since I left the City of Asylum, but I find this new connection very special.
The Venezuelan writer and poet Israel Centeno at the City of Asylum must have started River of Words, a public art installation, much after we left. In this project, he chose 100 words, relevant in some way to Pittsburgh. Neighbours were invited to choose a word which was then represented as an art piece and displayed on their doors and windows. Had we been there, I certainly would have chosen ‘voice’.
For there’s no denying that this place is giving voice to those who go unheard.
Looking back, this perfect holiday that came to be our last as a family must have given me the courage to carry on, and to know that my words matter. To quote Alice (Through the Looking Glass), “Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas — only I don’t exactly know what they are!” Yet.
(Also read my piece ‘Back to the Future’ on Pittsburgh in The National Geographic Traveller, India, here on page 11, published in January, 2014)