Words Will Light the Way
Coustillac works one-on-one with a student at Urban Vision on Oct. 11.
Fatima Mardi, IIA & Project Learn
My mouth is a honey jar,
sweet when it’s opened.
My heart is a butterfly
that flutters with love.
My soul is a white pigeon
returning to heaven.
My cheeks are fresh red tomatoes
ready for a kiss.
Words and Photos by Valerie Royzman
They chose to make the trek to the ocean at nightfall after a day of hiking. Winding their way down a steep decline, the seven-man group shuffled along through secluded trees, surrounded by towering, giant Redwoods. Much like Regis Coustillac’s life, the path through the dark was chilling, but the promise of something greater hung in the air. “I was stumbling forward in my life without any clear inclination of what I wanted to do,” he says. “And that was one of the times in my life when I realized going backward isn’t such a bad thing.”
Just one month prior, Coustillac made a bold decision for an undergraduate — he hit the pause button on a college career as a finance major and withdrew from Kent State, a decision his family supported.
In a final attempt to rejuvenate his fountain of inspiration, Coustillac and a group of high school friends embarked on a 25-day road trip across the country. Looking to explore the great outdoors, they stopped at seven national parks along the way, sleeping in cars to save money and showering at the beach. Coustillac took this trip, which he calls a “religious experience,” in August 2014, writing poetry along the way.
This expedition was symbolic of a period of growth in his life. He worked to identify the root causes of his emotional upheaval, focusing on clean eating, meditation and getting his mind right.
He recalls the phone conversation with his father shortly before deciding to withdraw from school. “I was in a really bad place in my life and it was affecting me emotionally,” he says. “[My dad] could just hear it in my voice. He’s like, ‘You don’t sound right, man.’” The two met for dinner on campus when Coustillac’s father, also named Regis, offered advice few college students hear from their parents. “He just looked at me and goes, ‘Drop out,’ and in my head it didn’t even register to me what he said.”
Not a religious man (although he was raised Catholic), it was under the night sky on his expedition that he found spirituality as a driving force in his poetry. Swirls of purple, gold and orange engulfed the sky, leaving only the outline of Wyoming’s Grand Tetons visible in the pitch-black atmosphere under the glittering Milky Way. “You realize that you’re very, very small, like not insignificant, but very very small,” Coustillac says. “You’re a part of the mountain, you’re a part of the trees, you’re a part of everything. In that moment, I was like, ‘I get it, this is it. This is God.’”
Now an English major, Coustillac is a senior student administrative assistant at Kent State’s Wick Poetry Center. As a teaching artist in the community, he relies on his natural abilities in Northeast Ohio where he interacts with a vast spectrum of ages, languages and cultures. He works closely with immigrants and refugees, giving a creative platform to share their stories. Coustillac merges poetry with English-learning for adults recently resettled to the United States at the International Institute of Akron. Additionally, he works with elementary and middle school students at Urban Vision, a weekly after-school program that acts as a poetry workshop for young writers.
Coustillac, a native of Mentor, calls this a “really fortuitous bunch of events” that led to his job as a teaching artist. He has discovered that his passion in life is to utilize his way with words to help others find their voices. For this 23-year-old, the empathy he brings to his global circle of friends is all out of love for poetry. “What I’ve realized in teaching to all these different populations is that the people you would least expect to be poets have the most beautiful stories to tell, the most wonderful poems to share,” he says.
Though Coustillac has loved words since childhood, he hasn’t always known that poetry was his calling. Only after his pursuit of a major in finance, a career he knew he could make a living in but not be fulfilled, went awry did he take a hard look in the mirror and decide to make a change.
David Hassler, director of the Wick Poetry Center, taught Coustillac even before his return to the university. Hassler remembers the first time he noticed Coustillac’s poetic abilities, which happened when he read a poem about his favorite color during a democracy symposium course Hassler co-taught in 2014. “I remember his presence, the tone and tambor of his voice, the way he read his own words,” he says. “[He] was not afraid of being vulnerable, [he] was impressive in the ability to show us his heart.”
The two didn’t reconnect until one year later when Hassler offered Coustillac an internship and commented on his poetry after returning from his time traveling. Hassler commended him for his daring decision to walk away from his original plan. “Of course it’s bold,” Hassler says. “All of our real work comes out of a sense of bravery and a sense of willingness to take a risk and to be courageous.”
In his year-long break from college, he channeled his creative energy into poetry, proving to himself it was worth pursuing and that it mattered to him outside the classroom. As his infatuation with words amplified, realizations began to unfold; there was something more he wanted to give the world. “I took a hard look at myself and realized I want to write. I want some kid to pull me off a shelf one day and for it to make a difference in their life.”
The monotonous three-day rain slides down the windshield, tiny droplets exploding as the car finishes winding through Kent, entering Akron. Coustillac turns his volume dial up. Childish Gambino’s voice echoes from the radio.
“I remembered to sharpen all the pencils today,” Coustillac jokes. Stepping out of the vehicle, he hurriedly parades up two flights of stairs and begins writing on a dry-erase board. Kids scuttle into the room, take their seats and eagerly await instruction.
Coustillac illuminates the entire space not with the click of a lightswitch, but rather the 100-watt upward curve of his mouth. The first thing eyes gravitate toward is his smile and the way it inspires others to return the kind gesture. What follows is an attribute easy to overlook but well worth noting. Underneath his cuffed, light-wash jeans and scuffed Vans is a pair of colorful, eccentric socks. These pieces project his energetic spirit.
Coustillac’s job as a teaching artist is to encourage free thoughts and the telling of familial stories, all intended to advance students’ confidence. Teaching artists work in both group settings and individual sessions to create poems meant to inspire a generation of young, culturally diverse poets.
As he tries to explain the meaning of the word “celestial” to second and third graders in honor of Earth Day, he urges them “put your thoughts on paper.” Giggles emulate in the room and hands shoot up into the air, some kids restlessly wanting to be called on, some blurting out responses from the excitement they cannot contain.
“A huge refugee place.”
“When I think of Earth, it feels like I’m holding a hand.”
Sarah Wallace, one of Coustillac’s poets from last spring, says writing poetry can be a challenge, but once she begins creating a poem, she can write forever. “It takes a long time to understand,” she says. “But once you get it, you’re like, ‘Oh my God, that’s amazing!’” Coustillac encourages students like Wallace to delve deep into their emotions. The 12-year-old says writing a poem sometimes depends on her mood. “Sometimes I don’t feel like writing,” Wallace says. “The hardest [part] is when you don’t feel like writing and Regis tries to make you. Then you feel like writing again.”
As the last crowd of thankful faces from Urban Vision heads home, Coustillac pauses for a brief moment, quietly mouthing, “I’m going to really miss those kids.”
For most, the journey to self-discovery isn’t always smooth sailing. Coustillac has, through the years, crafted a balance in life. He melds his passion for writing and his way of making sense of the world, with a newfound purpose: education. “I think that the education system is broken,” he says, “We need to be able to cater more to the students’ needs, to play their strengths rather than show off their weaknesses.”
Hassler, who Coustillac could go as far to call his “poetry dad,” thinks Coustillac’s newfound voice is what brings him success in teaching. “He felt that transformation himself before he could become the teacher he is today and certainly the person he is today,” Hassler says. This fall, Coustillac mentors three new groups of students. Trevell Thomas, a 10-year-old at Urban Vision, says poetry makes him happy because when he enters the classroom, “you can go crazy with words.” With a wide grin, Thomas says Coustillac “doesn’t care if you make a mistake” and that poetry doesn’t always have to make sense.
“You just have to like it,” Thomas says.
Fatima Mardi (left) interacts with Coustillac, discussing her latest poem in Akron on Oct. 25.
The smell of a traditional Bhutanese rice dish and spices wafts through the stuffy church room air. “Just a snack,” explains one of Coustillac’s students from the International Institute of Akron. For several folks in his class, this reminds them of home, a feeling Coustillac urges them to articulate out loud and on paper.
Other than Bhutanese students, Coustillac interacts with a wide variety of languages and backgrounds. Akron’s North Hill neighborhood is home to a myriad of immigrant and refugee populations, predominantly those from Nepal, Uzbekistan, Syria, Iraq and the Republic of Congo.
He turns to his students, a true melting pot, and instructs them: “Talk about your food. I am from … whatever, right? I am from spaghetti with marinara sauce and garlic and onions.” Faces of all ages smile across the room, a universal understanding. Coustillac is referring to his Italian ancestry. He says it can be difficult to picture walking around in the shoes of the immigrants and refugees he teaches, but his family history and stories from grandparents help. Coustillac’s humility aids him in connecting with populations at IIA, even through language barriers. “You just need patience,” he says. “Most people don’t give them the time, and it can take a lot of time, to figure out what they’re trying to say or to help them. These people are just in a tough spot.”
For Fatima Mardi, 41, a Moroccan immigrant who came to the U.S. 11 years ago, writing poetry didn’t come as an easy task, but proved to be helpful in coping with childhood memories after her mother died. Mardi lost her mother at 13, left to fend for herself and five younger siblings all on her own. Her father forced her to drop out of school to raise her siblings, as he, she says, no longer cared to be part of the picture. “When I write a poem about my mom’s life and my mom’s death, I am so emotional. [Her death] hit me like a storm when I was little,” she says, tears in her eyes. “This is like a therapy so I can smile again.”
For her, poetry is a creative outlet of emotion and thought, pure honesty without judgment. Coustillac says poetry is an excellent way of dealing with sorrow without masking it. He wants his students, young and old, to understand that even through pain, there’s always something there, there’s a reason for it.
After years of living in the dark questioning why she was “punished” after her mother’s death, Mardi says poetry answered this question for her. “Poetry helps realize,” she says. “This is something you can’t control. Do not save it inside of you. Put it on paper. Just leave it in the air. Say, ‘Air, take it away.’”
Mardi adds that individuals like Coustillac have really made the difference, giving her opportunities she’s never had before. “I appreciate so much from him and I will always be thankful,” she says, going silent for a moment, unable to find the right words. “I don’t know how to describe him. It’s everything about him. I want to say, ‘I wish I had a son like you.’”
Though Coustillac feels grateful for the praise, he said it’s really the stories of the refugees and immigrants that make his work rewarding. “At the end of the day,” he says,“I feel like I did something worthwhile. I feel like I reached people.”
Coustillac explores syntax, sentence structure and native sounds with his students. He says traditional English classes sometimes cause learners to fall into rhythms that don’t always work. In poetry, they’re forced to play with language and think creatively. Coustillac hopes his students feel proud after they leave a two-hour session with a poem in hand. It’s more than learning English, he says, it’s a creation they go home with, not just another sentence to throw away.
“A lot of people think that with immigration, once someone immigrates to America, the work is done,” he says. “No, because now they’re living in communities, they may be isolated, they may not be accepted. It’s our job to make sure not only that they get here, but that they feel welcomed, that they feel part of society. If we’re not doing that, we’re only doing half the job.”
Mardi feels that in stepping foot into the world of poetry, she gains a voice not only for herself, but for everyone like her. Poetry helps her realize the message, she says, all immigrants and refugees in the community should hear: “Let’s let love grow and come in. In the end, we are human beings; I love you and you love me. All these people come and teach me — that’s love right there. I don’t think I can ask for more.”
A Lesson in Meditation
Back flat on the floor
face to the ceiling.
I let go my muscles
the way a Vietnamese monk,
exiled to France,
taught me from a book.
Pebbles of rain
thrown against the window
as if the storm beckons to me
from behind the glass. She wants me
to join her shifting torrents.
Count your breaths.
Keep a half-smile perched
upon your lips like a bird—
breathe too quick and it will flit off.
It takes longer than I thought
to reach fifteen breaths.
The moment moves more slowly
in silence; time opens itself in the mind
like a lotus in mud.
Live your whole life in silence
and deem yourself immortal.
My leg twitches and I grow
frustrated. I do not excel at meditation.
I take note that I grow
frustrated when I do not excel.
The patter of rain, like timpani drums,
crescendos into a clash of wind
against the glass pane, followed
by a siren in the distance,
like a lonely violin.
I focus on the darkness that closes my eyes
and opens them again more clearly.
Two quick buzzes from my phone
on the desk above me,
and the room is flooded with light.
Without my face to obstruct the sterile, white beam
the light leaps freely about the room,
as if lightning stormed into my sheets.
After a breath and a half,
the light is gone.
Where did it go?
If only it had stayed,
it could have lain with me all night
and listened to the breathless storm.
Coustillac, who’s preparing to graduate in December, brushes off compliments with humble smiles and quiet gratitude. He tries to find the words to explain how he feels knowing he helps give others a new voice. Using the skills he knows best, he offers a metaphor, comparing himself to a copper wire. “That’s all you need to be because it’s the most unsung thing in the world, yet it’s everywhere, it’s all around you,” he says. “And you get to transport all this energy, all this electricity from one place to another.”
He says the children and adults he interacts with have so much energy in them, but sometimes they don’t know how to get it from one point to another, which is where he steps in. “If I can be that in-between, if I can be that wire that runs from their community to another place to amplify that voice, it feels awesome,” he says.
If society was made up of people who wanted to be copper wires, Coustillac says the world would function differently. As he sees it, the problem is that everybody wants to be the light at the end of the wire. “They all want to be the star; they all want to be famous — why?” he asks, shaking his head. “I don’t think it feels any better. Light bulbs burn out pretty fast, wires last forever.”
Valerie Royzman is the copy desk chief, contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Look for the Fall 2017 issue of The Burr Magazine, on stands Tuesday, Nov. 28.