Talking with Poets (page 3)
Talking with Poets
page 1, page 2, page 3, page 4, page 5
 
Do you think that the experience enriched your poetry, or changed your poetry?
Brazaitis: I don’t know if living in Guatemala changed my writing style. It certainly changed what I write about. I’d written poetry before joining the Peace Corps, but I hadn’t owned the eyes I needed to become a really good writer. Living in another country and using another language taught me to see myself outside of my narrow culture. I became, as it were, my own third-person omniscient narrator. Suddenly, thanks to the Peace Corps, I could see myself and, indeed, everything around me as if I were seeing them for the first time.

Conlon: It forced my poems to grow up. Within months of arriving in the Kalahari Desert I was writing about it, about the people I knew and the things I saw. I dropped the obsession with self that is the bane of most young writers. I stopped writing about how miserable my childhood had been. And that realignment of my vision, as it were, has proven permanent — not that I don’t write about myself, I certainly do, but in a different, more encompassing context, I think.

Szumowski: Even poems that don’t on the surface discuss my experience in Africa, use imagery from that time. For example, I have a series of Ruby poems in my forthcoming book, and many of them draw on what I saw in Africa. Some even pick up on the spirituality of Africa.

    Ruby said, come here, little parakeet.
    See the people coming towards us.
    They love the bright-winged birds leading them home.

(Maybe I like this line for expressing my love for
Africa even better than the one above!)

Neelon: Yes, I would say both. Africa gave me a powerful metaphor for the writing life. Now every subject I write about (take otherhood, for example, which has been a recent obsession of mine) is a country I don’t understand, even if I am living right smack in the middle of it. I have to be patient. I have to stop projecting my assumptions. I have to develop an appreciation of its salient details. Only then will I ever be able to SEE. Africa also gave me subject matter, which keeps developing with respect to contemporary events. For example, in a poem of mine about pregnancy, the speaker juxtaposes the life of her unborn with the corpses of Hutus floating downriver in newsreels of Rwanda. It may be, too, that as far as Africa is concerned, I’m a lot like the serpent swallowing its own tail, in the sense that my choice to go to Africa came partly in response to my coming of age in Boston during the busing crisis. I needed the hugeness of Africa to counteract the smallness of racial vision to which I had been exposed.

Rich: I had given up on my writing before I went into the Peace Corps and it took seven years after I got out to finally be ready to try writing poetry again.
     I didn’t want to commodity other peoples lives. And really what did I — an American — know about the life in Niger after only two years? It took a very long time before I was brave enough or had gathered enough chutzpah to try and write about life in Africa. And then the only way it felt legitimate was to write about people I knew well, or people I had observed closely. Anything else would not ring true.

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