Illuminating Lanterns, Illuminating Poems


By Yuqing Zhu

“Baby doll, bat, puppy, watermelon, plane, tree, ice cream truck” a kid at Morningside Park counted lanterns of different shapes passing by, as if watching a cartoon. “Oh, look! A green monster!”

More than 100 people carried handmade lanterns as they walked from Morningside Park to Columbia University’s main campus last Saturday, celebrating the fifth annual Morningside Lights. This year, visual performance artists Alex Kahn and his partner Sophia Michahelles taught the local community to make lanterns inspired by 100 years of Pulitzer Prize winning poetry. The lanterns illuminated the park, and the poems written on them could illuminate the neighborhood.

Orri working on his monster.

Orri working on his monster.

“I come here every year since they started [Morningside Lights],” said Orri Zussman, a six-grader who designed the giant green monster lantern by himself this year. “I really wanted to do a monster, so I found a poem with a monster.” Orri chose a verse from “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket” by Robert Lowell, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1947.

During the week-long free workshop led by Kahn and Michahelles, Orri designed the lantern based on Blobby, a green, Jell-O like and semi-transparent monster character from Hotel Transylvania. Each lantern has a sign attached, with poems written in bold black.But he said he tried to be creative with the sign than just holding it above the lantern or below it.


“I thought of a monster eating the sign,” he said. The monster lantern had a wide-open mouth with a wavy sign saying, “Sky-high, where mariners had fabled news Of IS, the whited monster.”

Orri’s family joined the week-long workshop before the Saturday procession. Together, they built the shape with wires and bamboos, covered four layers of papers, and added colors. Everyone contributed, including Orri’s younger brother (a first grader), who turned out to be “a glue expert,” said Orri’s mom.

After the procession, Orri brought the lantern back home. Three years ago, Orri designed a clock tower lantern, which later became his elder brother’s birthday piñata. They were not sure what to do with the monster lantern, but Orri’s mom joked that it might become Orri’s Halloween costume.

Like Orri, most people came to the workshop to have fun and enjoyed collaborating on a project. But Michele Walker hoped her lantern to deliver a serious message against the gun violence.

Walker at first made a red cylinder lantern, then attached to it the long white ribbon with a verse from “Do Not Be Afraid of No” by Gwendolyn Brooks, the first African-American woman to win a Pulitzer in 1950. Then, the lantern looked like a NO sign (  ⃠  ).

“I’ve been to Morningside Lights for three times. This was my first time to make a political one,” said Walker. “This particular poem stuck in my head: ‘Do not be afraid of no, Who has so far, so very far to go.’”

Walker added pictures of black people killed by police to the body of her lantern. She explained that people had a tendency to think of things in numbers, but, when looking at these faces, they might realize that “this is a potential that is lost.”

Walker spoke in a very soft and gentle voice, but she once went to demonstrate in front of a state building against fatal police shootings of unarmed black people. As a former hospital police at Kings County Hospital, Walker hoped the lantern and the poem would encourage people to say No to gun violence.

“Say no to the attitude that we become gods whenever we pick up a weapon,” said Walker.

Most people coming to Morningside Lights lived in the neighborhood, but Sara Paredes and her boyfriend took two weeks off work and flew all the way from San Francisco.

“I have been looking online for giant puppetry classes and lantern classes. And I saw the work Alex and Sophia do,” said Paredes. “I didn’t find a class close to home, so we come this far to do it.”

Paredes, a nurse at her 50s, wanted to express female freedom through her lantern, which looked like a woman flying in a dark blue dress. She picked “The Way West, Underground” by Gary Snyder who won his Pulitzer in 1975. Paredes said her parents read Gary Snyder to her when she was a kid. The verse, “Women with drums who fly over Tibet…or elder wilder goddesses reborn,” went along with the free image of woman in her mind.

“I’m a nurse. There’s a history of nurses not having a lot of power in the system.” said Paredes. “The fact that someone else doesn’t think I should have independence and autonomy in my work, doesn’t mean I can’t take that independence and autonomy.”

It was also the sixth anniversary of her and her boyfriend. “We’d like to have an adventure together and create something new,” she added. But it was unrealistic for them to bring the large lantern back to San Francisco.  

“We have to destroy these lanterns. But we’ll try to find home for [some of] them.”said Sean Nair, who worked for Morningside Lights, was taking the light bulbs out of the lanterns after the procession.


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