Peace Corps Writers
Talking with . . .
. . . Poets

For more about the Conference panels.

An interview by John Coyne
IN PREPARATION FOR THE NPCA Conference, I had a Q&A email exchange with the panel that will be discussing poetry and the PeacePrinter friendly version Corps experience. Participating in the emailings were

    Mark Brazaitis (Guatemala 1991–93), who has had poems published in The Sun, Notre Dame Review, Atlanta Review, Slant: A Journal of Poetry, the Bryant Literary Review and other literary magazines.

    Chris Conlon (Botswana 1988–90), author of the chapbook A Stained Dawn: Poems About Africa.

    Sandra Meek (Botswana 1989–91), author of The Circumference of Arrival, and an assistant professor of English at Berry College in Georgia.

    Ann Neelon (Senegal 1978–79), author of Easter Vigil, and a teacher of creative writing at Murray State University in Murray, KY.

    Susan Rich (Niger 1984–86), author of The Cartographer’s Tongue: Poems of the World.

    Margaret Szumowski (Zaire and Ethiopia 1973–75) the author of the chapbook, Ruby’s Café, and a full-length collection, I Want This World.

  If nothing is lost on the writer, what is gained by the poet being in the Peace Corps?
    Brazaitis: As a narrative poet (or, put another way, a fiction writer whose very shortest stories become poems), I love good stories, and Guatemala, where I lived as both a Volunteer and technical trainer, is full of them. To this day, I haven’t stopped writing about Guatemala.

Conlon: What’s gained, I think, is what everyone gains from being in the Peace Corps — perspective, maturity, a larger and, one hopes, better “self.” These things are as valuable for a poet as for anyone else.

Szumowski: I think the poet gains a great deal from the Peace Corps experience. She absorbs the sounds of other languages, takes in imagery never seen before, observes the way families operate compared to her own experience, sees the struggle other peoples have to survive at all. The visual shock and splendor of Africa is enough to keep the poet writing for the rest of her life — take as an example, the baobab. I’d never seen such a strange and magnificent tree, one that blooms at night, harbors night creatures such as lemurs, and provides food for humans from its fuzzy pods. I’d never seen donkeys in the streets of Addis Ababa, laden with their loads, or a woman dancing around our house, rags tied to her feet as she cleaned the floor. I’d never seen soldiers with their guns pointed at us, as I did in Uganda. All of these experiences gave me enough to think about and absorb for the rest of my life.

Neelon: In a word, foreignness. Foreignness is important to a poet because it teaches humility. Humility is important because without it there is no mystical experience. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “I am a transparent eyeball. I am nothing. I see all.” In Senegal, I gained many things useful to a poet. These included hours of direct exposure to the oral tradition via West African griots, caches of exquisite bush and desert images, and French and Wolof syllables, but none of these can compare with the opportunity to have Africa erase who I was. Only after thus losing myself could I find myself as a writer.

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