In the aftermath of the Nepal earthquake, ripples from the tragedy shook Nepali citizens living outside of Nepal. Samyak Shertok felt the weight of the tragedy fall heavy on his shoulders, and turned to poetry for solace. Studying for his master’s degree in creative writing at Arizona State University, Samyak had used poetry for the purpose of healing as a visiting poet at the nearby Mayo Clinic. He decided to turn his gift for poetry into a project that would help his fellow countrymen heal from the trauma caused by the horrific quake. Samyak’s project, entitled “Healing Through Poetry: Nepal Earthquake Relief” was funded through Kickstarter, a popular online crowdsourcing site. Samyak’s belief in the power of words, coupled with his passion for his country, inspires many.
Tell me the basics of your project. What inspired you to create it?
Healing Through Poetry: Nepal Earthquake Relief strives to help Nepal heal and rebuild through poetry that at once embraces, documents, and transcends this historic tragedy as it is happening. I will go from house to house and talk to the earthquake survivors and write poems for them. I’ll also run several poetry workshops for the young people in the hope that it will help them confront the tremors that will be felt for years to come.
On your Kickstarter page, you talk about the people you helped at the Mayo Clinic as a Visiting Poet. How did you get that position? How did that experience change you?
It was an internship. It’s a collaborative effort of the ASU Creative Writing Program and the Mayo Clinic called Poesia del Sol. The project is led by Alberto Rios, the inaugural Arizona Poet Laureate and a professor of creative writing at ASU. It was meant to be for a semester, but I feel very fortunate to be doing this for almost a year and a half now, thanks to Alberto Rios, Corey Campbell, and Katherine Kough.
Just like with any other job, there are difficult times when you don’t find a willing patient or the patient you’re working with turns out not to be a good fit for the project. But most of the time, I receive overwhelmingly positive feedback from the patients. One woman, who was waiting for a new heart, after reading the poem, told me, “You bring back so many memories.” A veteran who hadn’t eaten all day concluded, “You were my medicine today.” There have been experiences of this nature, and it’s incredible to see how one poem can help people feel so much peace and comfort.
How do you think this project will help your people? What change will it bring about that otherwise wouldn’t have happened?
The first goal of this project is to simply listen to the stories of the people who have been affected by the earthquakes. To listen to them as a friend. To listen to them wholeheartedly without any purpose or reward attached to it. Not as a counselor. Not as a journalist who is interested only in the story. This act alone can bring great relief and comfort to many people as I have witnessed it firsthand at the Mayo Clinic.
After that comes the time to look at the story I have just heard and see if I can create a poem out of it. Some poems can focus on one specific moment or image while others can span one’s lifetime. Either way, the objective here is to create something that is true to the story, that maintains the voice of the interview, and that, at the same time, speaks to something much larger about life, about all people. Then I will print out the poem, frame it, and hand it to the participant. We will read the poem out loud. Sometimes the participant reads the poem, sometimes I do. Other times we take turns in reading it. This performance of the poem, I have discovered, can be extremely crucial to the experience of the participant, because this is where his or her story comes alive and in a way that he or she had never imagined. Suddenly they see their story is not only their story but many other people’s—they notice something in it that touches them deeply, and I believe this is when the most important task of healing occurs. This moment of becoming a part of something universal. Also, no matter how sad or heartbreaking their story is, the poem cannot risk to be sentimental, so they can see that there is some universal value and theme in the narrative of their lives. (Of course, all this is coming from my experiences at the Mayo Clinic, but I’m certain that it’ll be very similar to this.)
Then, finally, we will share the poem, pictures, and hopefully a video on the blog so that people around the world can read their story. And, if anyone is moved by the story and wants to help the person or family, they will be more than welcome to do so. That way, hopefully, at least some of the families I meet will get some tangible support as well.
What about poetry do you think can create healing?
Poetry is deeply intimate and cosmic at once. Poetry is the synergy of the personal and the universe. Also, poetry is very close to music—not just in terms of rhyme and meter—but in terms of cadence and lines. All of this makes poetry an art form that is our story but also everyone else’s. There are only words on the page, but we can’t help but feel the music as we read it. All of this, in my opinion, facilitates the healing effect in poetry.
What has poetry meant to you in your life?
Poetry for me is like a friend who is extremely difficult to please but who loves you more than anything else. It’s a meditation on the self, the everyday, and the cosmos. Above all though, poetry is prayer.
Do you have any stories about when poetry has helped you heal?
I wouldn’t necessarily say that poetry has helped me heal, but there have been times when the only way I could express my feelings was through poetry. For example, when the first quake struck Nepal on April 25, I couldn’t express in any other way but through words.
How did the earthquake affect you?
The district of Sindhupalchok, my birthplace, was one of the worst-hit areas. This means the house I was born and grew up in is now gone. And so is about ninety percent of the houses in that district. People have described many villages as war zones or ghost towns. My niece lost her daughter, and my sister lost both her houses. Yet these losses are nothing compared to some other parts of the country.
What were your feelings hearing about the earthquake and not being in your home country?
Mostly helplessness. Some of my friends were saying that they felt sad that they were not in Nepal at this difficult time, but I’m not entirely sure what I could have done if I was there. What I was really worried about though was the safety of, first, my mother and other family members. But soon it was very clear that it was a national tragedy, and I prayed for the whole country in my own way—which was through poetry.
Once people couldn’t go back to the house and started living in tents, it occurred to me that it was in some ways a metaphor for many Nepalis that are living abroad. Of course, some of them are in America or Europe because they want to be here, but the vast of majority of us have been, in a way, forced to leave the country, whether temporarily or permanently, because of the political, educational, employment, and environmental situation in the country. While it’s not fair to point the finger just at the government, they must take the majority of the blame, for they have ruined the country with corruption and inaction.
Why will you be focusing on a specific age group for your poetry workshops?
The age group is tentative, but I wanted to focus on the young people in part because I think they are the ones that are most affected by this disaster, and, in part, because they are likely be more open to constructive criticism that is indispensable to any writing workshop. Of course, everyone has been greatly affected, but these are the people whose schools have been closed down for over a month. These are the people starting to worry about their future, and I’m sure there are some who might be considering going abroad to study, and they might never come back, partly because of this horrible experience of not just the disaster but of how incompetent the Nepali government has been with rescue and relief efforts. And, of course, the future of any country is its youth. I’m not saying these workshops will make them not leave the country, but it will help them to share their frustration, grief, and fears in a creative way that will not only help them share their feelings but also encourage the others to do so.
Do you have any plans for continuing this project once the first tour is completed?
If the project receives enough funding, I plan to make it a long-term project. Every summer, I want to take a team of writers and run workshops for one to three months throughout the country. And I could collaborate with the local writers to have the workshops running even when I’m abroad. But, of course, that really depends on how much funding we have and how the first summer goes.
What made you turn to Kickstarter to fund your project?
Deadline and a funding goal—both of which are absolutely crucial for the success of this project.
What suggestions do you have for people trying to fund humanitarian projects through Kickstarter?
It’s a really big commitment, so don’t do it until you’re absolutely sure about it. But once you do, give it your all. It can be a humbling, rewarding, frustrating, and exhilarating experience all at once.
What suggestions do you have for people trying to help people, but don’t really know where to start?
Help with what you know best. Not everyone can donate a hundred dollars to every cause, but we will have something we are really good at. You may be a musician, a teacher, or a businessman, and if you really want to help, you can always find a way to help through what you have doing already. Above all, all of us can pray. Sometimes a prayer can be the most important thing in order to overcome the dark times. Sometimes a prayer is all we need.
Domatophobia by Samyak Shertok
All day we sit in the field by the lotus monastery and wait,
my niece says. Sometimes they take so long
you forget why you are not inside your house.
Alone, the ground shakes all the time,
so you sit close by someone, even in the bathroom.
Some kids haven’t eaten in days
from the fear of having to go to the restroom.
But walking, you hardly feel them.
So my niece goes from one end of the field
to the other, and then back until she cannot tell
whether the earth is shaking, or her body.
A German shepherd that was on the third floor
when the second quake struck, my niece says,
has refused to go back into the house ever since.
The man offered him goat curry, the dog’s favorite.
At nightfall, he tried dragging him up with the leash,
but the dog wouldn’t climb those stairs.
In the morning, when the man came down
with the dog’s breakfast, he was gone.
The man and the dog lived alone.
Two days later when he heard that his dog
had been seen amongst the strays by the dumpster,
he grabbed a leash and went after him.
He called him by his name.
The dog looked at him for a good minute,
then went back to eating the garbage.
When the man reached for the collar that was still in place,
the dog bared his teeth and barked.
The man dropped to the ground.
A small crowd had gathered around him.
They’re here! They’re here! A deranged woman
rolled and writhed in dust. Some of us laughed.
The man got to his feet, looked up at the sky
and muttered, I f***ing hate this earth.
Then dragging the weightless leash behind him,
he walked into his house.