VIDA’s list of Twenty ‘Gypsy’ Women You Should Be Reading


Portrait of Papusza, the mother of Romani poetry

I’m so delighted to share my Twenty Gypsy Women You Should be Reading with everyone In honor of Roma and Traveller History Month,. Gypsy culture is vastly misunderstood and underrepresented, and literature is a beautiful way to discover it. You may not have heard of many of these writers before but they will astound you with their talent. Happy reading!

“And while I spend a lot of time on my soap box bellowing that Roma and Travellers are just human, as a storyteller and a poet, I will say that some of the most beautiful, dark, and hauntingly fantastic stories I’ve ever heard or read have been from Gypsies. It’s a MathildeVonThieleworld-view that outsiders would never be able to reach on their own, and I feel this poignantly as a not-quite-white looking girl who grew up knowing that, way back, her Gypsy ancestors sailed up and down the Danube from Germany to Hungary, working as dancers and fortune tellers in the riparian towns before the war tore everything to shreds. Their lives were not idyllic, but the stories my grandmother told were beautiful. I would hold them close to my chest when I was stoned at school, or given detention for “witchcraft and the evil eye” in a town where there were no Gypsies, where my mother and grandmother routinely referred to the Gypsy community (some abstract thing I imagined) as “they” instead of “we.” I worried about my “percentage of Gypsy” and whether or not it was enough to claim. The few practices my grandmother kept and passed down to me didn’t make sense until I began to research my own people when I was a teenager and realized that alienation is also inheritance. I found Papusza, the Mother of Romani poetry and an omen of exile and connection. I stepped into the river-mouth of my blood.”


My great-great grandmother Mathilde as a young dancer


Unite and Celebrate: A Band of Roma. Quail Bell Magazine supports International Roma Day

“Unite and Celebrate: A Band of Roma,” my lyric essay celebrating International Roma Day, is in Quail Bell Magazine. The essay revels in Romani culture, takes a hard look at Romani human rights infringements in the U.S. and Europe, honors Papusza and other important Romani artists, professionals, activists, and writers, and explores a little family history. 

An important part of today is education and awareness, and spreading the word does a lot to highlight the current Romani human rights crisis in the U.S. and Europe. A large part of the new wave of Romani activism is art and writing, which feels both beautiful and fitting, both for the Roma legacy of arts and the “GypsyRepresent” ethos. Thanks for reading, and thank you for sharing. Opre Roma!

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Blog 10: a free for all poem about some aspect of Romani culture (aka: the research poem) (aka: the wild card poem)

For the last poem in our series, you will write a poem inspired by any aspect of Romani culture that you wish. For this, you need to do some research. Pick an aspect of Romani culture that you’re curious about, like rituals, human rights, language, music, dance, history, beliefs, taboos, idioms, celebrations, Romani icons, spirituality, famous Roma, folklore, folk medicine, cuisine, fashion, etc… whatever you fancy. Some good places to start are ROMBASE  PatrinRADOCThe Gypsy Chronicles, and the Romedia Foundation. Also, your coursebooks We are the Romani people and Roads of the Roma will be helpful too. Then, write 300 words or more about the topic you chose, citing your (trustworthy) source, and explain what you want to achieve in your poem.

Here are some more specific examples for inspiration

Romani music

an article on Hungarian Romani music on ROMBASE

Esma Redzepova, one of the most famous Romani singers in Europe, singing Dzelem Dzelem, the Romani anthem, written to commemorate those who died in the Holocaust (O Porrajmos), and for International Roma Day, celebrated April 8th.

Balkanarama— a short list of Romani singers and musicians

 The Avalon Jazz band, Gypsy-style Parisian jazz

Bireli Lagrene, The Gipsy Project, “Minor Swing”

The Gypsy Kings, “Djobi Djoba”

Famous Roma

Papusza, the mother of Romani poetry

Matéo Maximoff,  Romani writer

Katarzyna Pollok, Romani artist

We are the Romani people has a good list of famous Roma

Romani spirituality

Romani (“Gypsy”) Religion by Dr. Ian Hancock

Patrin– Romani beliefs

Rom-facts– Roma Culture: an introduction

The Romani Goddess Kali Sara by Ronald Lee

Romani Fashion

Interview with Erika Varga of Romani Design

“Romani Fashion and the Politics of Dressing ‘Gypsy'” in Quail Bell Magazine


And on and on….

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The Romani flag

Blog 7: Ars Poetica

We start the poetry unit! Writing ars poetica means that you use poetry to explore, define, or articulate the nature or function of poetry itself. It’s poetry on poetry. It can also be a poem about or inspired by a specific poem. So your job this week is to select a poem from Roads of the Roma: a PEN Anthology of Threatened Literature (Etd: Ian Hancock, Siobhan Dowd, and Rajko Djuricthat inspires you and write a poem in response to it. You can use a line from the inspiration poem in your own poem, you could use a line as an epigraph, you could use a metaphor from the poem, write it in the style of that poem– there’s a lot you can do. Make sure to make it clear who you’ve been inspired by.

For example:

Title of poem, after Papusza’s “Extracts from untitled verse”


Body of the poem

lines of your poetry

“I have been left alone

like a fallen tree”


It’s clear who you’re quoting because of the title and the quotation marks. 


Title of your poem

        “I have been left alone/ like a fallen tree.” Papusza, “Extracts from untitled verse”

Body of your poem

lines of your poetry. etc.


A subtitle or an epigraph are other ways to attribute credit and make clear which lines are yours and which are the other poet’s. The style you use depends on the kind of poem you write.  Make sure to include the translator if there is one.

For this unit we’re writing four poems total– check the CPS for the assignment details. You are allowed to write one form poem and/or poem with consistent rhyme, but the other three must be unrhymed free verse. If you prefer to write all four as unrhymed free verse that’s fine. This week, you’ll write a twenty line (minimum) ars poetica poem to workshop in class on Friday.

For Wednesday’s class, read Papusza’s “Excerpts from untitled verse” and be ready to discuss it. She’s one of the most important Romani poets in history, considered the mother of Romani poetry. 

For Friday’s class, bring 3 hard copies of your ars poetica poem for workshop

For your blog, you need to analyze the poem you chose in 300 words or more and explain what this poem says or makes you think about the nature of poetry. The poem itself might not be about the nature of poetry, but in keeping with the ars poetic theme, try to pick something that inspires you to think that way about it. Due Friday.

Pointers for analysis:

1. What is happening in the poem?

2. What is/are the main metaphor(s)?

3. What are the poetic techniques the poet uses and what is their effect?

4. What kind of imagery and sensory description does the poet use?

5. What is the tone or mood of the poem?

6. Are there any religious, spiritual, literary, or cultural references? What are they? What do they mean in the poem?

7. And if there’s a word, name, or phrase you don’t understand or know, for goodness’ sake, look it up! You’ll understand the poem a lot better if you know all the words.



Bronislawa Wajs ‘Papusza’. Image source: 

Based on a True Story


Poet Mariella Mehr

Image Source:


Today in class we talked about the difference between biographical interpretation and cultural interpretation. It can be tricky: it’s good analysis to interpret Papusza’s references to living in hiding in her poem “Tears of Blood” as references to WWII. The poem’ speaker explicitly describes the Romani experience in Europe at that time. She describes soldiers and Germans, hiding in the forest, the fear of being hunted, and imminent death. It’s the cultural and political context of the poem, and knowing that the speaker is describing WWII is essential to its analysis.

At the same time, we know that Papusza had a very similar experience to the speaker of her poem. She was also in hiding in the forest, also hunted, also cold and terrified. So should we assume that the speaker in the poem is her?

Nope. Unless the author says, “this is autobiographical so please read it that way!” you have to assume that the author has personal autonomy from the poem. As a critical reader, it’s your job to look to the text for analysis and not the author’s biography. Today we talked about the “pelican” as a symbol in  Béla Osztojkán’s poem “As the pelicans.” We talked about the myth of pelicans feeding their young from the blood of their own breast and how they were then seen as Christ-like animals in the Middle Ages. That helped us to understand the layered meanings of self-sacrifice and “cannibalism” in the poem with respect to the cycle of discrimination, poverty, and begging or crime that some impoverished Romani are trapped in. It could also be a reference to the isolation that so many Romani experience and how the Romani community can only count on themselves. We talked about the harsh cry of the pelican and how that relates to the “ugly” or sad cries of the poem, even how the whole poem, with no full-stop punctuation until the very end, may be a cry in form. All of these cultural, social, political, syntactical, and textual elements helped us interpret a very rich work of art. To assume that Osztojkán was the speaker of the poem and that he must be writing from some personal pelican experience wouldn’t be very helpful. It would knock our analysis off-track, sending us on a wild tangent that would probably dead-end. The author’s biography is almost entirely irrelevant.

Almost. That’s not to say that biographical information has no place whatsoever in your exploration of poetry. Usually, writer’s lives are interesting. Papusza’s life is so tragic and she sacrificed so much to be heard that it seems a true shame not to know her story. Mariella Mehr’s gorgeous poem, “A red foundling strolls into this dream” seemed richer knowing that she was taken from her parents by the state (purely because they were Romani) and grew up in orphanages and foster homes, a foundling who nobody really found. But see it as that, another (separate) story.

At the same time, would a deeper awareness of Papusza’s life have saved her work from being misappropriated and used against her community? Maybe. Maybe not. But a deeper understanding of Romani culture and concepts of “home” may have. However, the publisher who misappropriated it had his own nefarious political agenda, so it would be fair to argue that no amount of cultural context could have saved Papusza and her community from its gross misuse. It may have changed the way it was received though. But that’s another issue.

Check out Kathleen Rooney’s essay “Based on a True Story. Or Not.” It’s a fascinating exploration of what is gained or lost when we find out that poem or story that “seems” autobiographical isn’t. Would we still feel the same way about “Tears of Blood” if Papusza had never lived in hiding? Would you feel like she had a “right” to write about such an emotionally intense experience if she hadn’t lived through it? And, since we know that she did live through an experience similar to her speaker’s, do you consider the autobiographical even if not all the details are “based on a true story”?

If you want to go for some extra credit, read the article and respond. Illustrate your points with examples. I’m curious about what y’all will think. If you want to talk about the poem that you presented on/will present on, go for it.

Blog 8: Ars Poetica Romani

We’ve made it to the poetry unit! Ars poetica in essence, is poetry about poetry. Sometimes it’s poetry about the art of poetry, like Archibald MacLeish’s “Ars Poetica.” Ars poetica can also be a poem inspired by another poem, which is exactly the kind of ars poetica we’re writing this week. The assignment for the first poem is to read through Roads of the Roma: a PEN Anthology of Gypsy Writers, edited by Ian Hancock, Siobhan Dowd, and Rajko Djuric, and find a poem that inspires you to write your ars poetica poem. You can also look up Romani poetry and find poems via alternative sources. For your blog entry then, give the title, author, and translator (if applicable) of the poem you’ve chosen and analyze the poem in 300 words or more. Be sure to explain what inspires you about it. So you’ll be writing your blog response and your ars poetica poem on the same poem

About analyzing poetry: A poem is not a code that must be cracked– there are no hidden meanings, and there’s no need to treat words as symbols that stand for something other than what they mean. So, if you don’t understand a word in a poem, look it up! The FSU Library website will give you access to the Oxford English Dictionary, and that’s my favorite dictionary in the whole world because it gives a thorough etymology and history of a word as well as its definitions. Search for the OED as you would search for a database on the library website.

Anyway, poetry is about crystallizing language to convey an emotional, intellectual, physical, and/or spiritual experience. T.S. Eliot writes, “Poetry cannot report the event; it must be the event, lived through in a form that can speak about itself while remaining wholly itself.”  So read the poem you’ve chosen quite a few times. So if I picked “Tears of Blood” by Papusza, the mother of Romani poetry, I would take notes to answer these questions: What is happening in the present action of the poem? How does the poem make me feel? What’s the tone? What’s the language like? What are the important images and sensory details? Which are my favorite lines and why? What are the symbols used? Tip: The poems we’ll be reading from the anthology all deal with Romani culture and identity in some way, so that will be important in your analysis too. 

Some important poetic terms: imagery, sensory detail, simile, metaphor, sound, assonance, consonance, rhythm, meter, rhyme, slant rhyme, irony, personification, allegory, synecdoche, metonymy and symbolism. Look up any terms that you’re not familiar with, or bring them up in class. We’ll talk about most of them, but you might still have specific questions. How does the poet use these elements? These are the most common poetic devices. How does the poet use them? What is the effect?

And then the easy part of the response: What do you like about the poem? Why? If you want, you can use this entry to brainstorm about what your ars poetica poem might be like.

“I too am a dark Gypsy,
of your blood–a true one.
God help you
in the black forest…”

     Papusza, excerpted from “Tears of Blood,” translated from Polish by Yala Korwin


Papusza, the mother of Romani poetry. Image source:


Blog 7: Romani Literature

For this week, I’d like you to select a poem (one of the assigned poems for this week, preferably) from Roads of the Roma: a PEN Anthology of Gypsy Writers edited by Ian Hancock, Siobhan Dowd, Rajko Djuric, and do a little research and analysis. Find out about the poet, the time it was written, and give an analysis of the poem. Remember that we can’t assume that the author is the “speaker” in the poem, unless it’s noted that the work is autobiographical. For your analysis, notice the metaphors and similes the writer uses, the patterns in the work, the rhythm, the images… and give your interpretation, supported by your evidence. 300 words minimum, due Friday 3/22. Remember to comment on a peer’s blog by Sunday night. Think of the comments as an opportunity to have an intellectual/artistic discussion with your classmates.

The interesting thing about this anthology is that it is anthologized by culture, and also by theme. These are all poems about Romani culture and history. So there are a lot of Romani writers who write about other things, but I wanted to use this anthology to teach because 1.) It’s a brilliant anthology, 2.) almost all the writers in the anthology are living writers, and 3.) art is a connection between people of all cultures, and a wonderful way to learn about the human experience–the things we share and the things we can discover about each other. Doesn’t that just melt your heart?

You can by the book through Herts or Amazon, for the readers who aren’t in the class 😉


Papusza, the mother of Romani literature ❤