Talking with . . .

Poets

An interview by John Coyne (Ethiopia 1962–64)

    I N PREPARATION FOR THE NPCA Conference, I had a Q&A email exchange with the panel that will be discussing poetry and the Peace 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.

    Do you have a line or two (or three) that expresses the experience for you from one of your poems?

      Brazaitis:

        She wants to know my name,
        where I’m from,
        how old I am.
        Her questions come as quick as water
        rippling over rocks.

      These lines are from “On the Roof of the Hotel Pasaje.” For me, they capture the experience of being in a foreign country — how people were curious about me and how I, in turn, was curious about them. From such curiosity (and such questions) grew many friendships.

      Conlon: I was a PCV in Botswana but lived only a few miles from the South African border. As a result I spent a good deal of time in South Africa with friends from all racial groups, and I found myself in Cape Town on the very first day after the beaches had been desegregated. Here’s a three-line poem about it:

        Beaches Open To All Races Today
        Cape Town. 1990

        Two little girls, shadow-colored and shining,
        splash naked in the open sun: happy as porpoises,
        as if the waves were not white, merely water.

      Szumowski: I had a hard time choosing, but this is from “Ngorogoro”:

        In hot dust the markets wait. Flies crowd the bloody meat, the black fish.
        Hawkers and urchins pester me, beggars tear at my sleeve. The women pull me
        again. I want this world.

      Neelon:

        Out of her good heart, my neighbor
        gave me a chicken.
        I was a stranger,
        carnivorous.

      These are the opening lines of “Chicken Tied Up in a Red Handkerchief,”: a sestina I wrote using the endwords “neighbor,” “chicken,” “stranger,” “knife,” “heart” and “yard.”
           Shortly before I was scheduled to leave my post in Fatick, Senegal, a friend gave me a chicken as a going-away gift. The irony, of course, was that I had to kill it in order to appreciate it as a gift. In retrospect, I see this irony as emblematic. Africa blasted away any number of self-imposed limitations, so that afterwards, as a writer, I could begin to give myself away.

      Rich:

        By evening when she tastes
        my color coated chocolates
        shares them with her friends
        we both will recall the nomad
        the other woman
        that we each might have been.

      or

        And I searched to forego belonging
        like a Bedouin who leaves her home

        hung inside a desert tree
        knowing it does not really matter

        if the branches are bare when she returns,
        if she decides, to come back this way again.

      Meek:
      From “Gift”

        I was given a sliver
        of tongue, of the tongue that belled in that head
        roped to the tree as the blade
        narrowed. It tasted

        of river, a bed of mud, near clarity
        Stammering over stone.

    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.

    Who do you read (poets)? Any African poets?

      Brazaitis: Lately, I’ve devoured the poems of Kim Addonizio. They’re blues-y, sexual, sensitive and lovely.

      Conlon: This would be a big list, so I’ll just stick to contemporary Americans if I may (with the caveat that Philip Larkin is probably my favorite poet of all).
           I run a local poetry reading series here [in Silver Spring Maryland], so I spend an awful lot of time with local poets, those who haven’t yet burst into national prominence. But of “well-known” poets (if any poet today can be said to be "well-known"), I tend to read those who show some level of awareness of the world beyond the ends of their noses. William Heyen, author of Erika: Poems of the Holocaust and Pterodactyl Rose: Poems of Ecology, is a great favorite. I adore much of Lyn Lifshin’s work and ignore those small-minded snipes who, in their envy of her extraordinary productivity, claim she’s bad. Robert Bly has a few things I like, and Jack Gilbert is a fascinating, unique writer — his collection The Great Fires is, I think, one of the truly great books of modern poetry. Donald Hall and his wife, the late Jane Kenyon, I read.
           But, with a small handful of exceptions, I confess to pretty well ignoring most of the vast mainstream of American poetry, which I find overwhelmingly juiceless and dull. These days the interesting work is found almost entirely in small independent journals, not in the academic quarterlies. I suppose there must be people who possess MFAs and teach Creative Writing in universities who produce interesting work — I’m open to the possibility — but I haven’t found very damned many. I despise the entire tendency toward the institutionalization of poetry, which some claim keeps verse alive but which is really, on a very basic level, self-defeating, and which has turned American poetry into a cult for a tiny band of initiates.
           I’m not supposed to say any of that, I imagine, but there it is.

      Szumowski: I read lots of poets. The African poet I enjoy most is Leopold Senghor, but I’ve also read some Diop. I also love African folktales and think their imagery has influenced my poems. I like Ann Neelon’s translations of Senghor. I love Seamus Heaney, Pablo Neruda, Jane Kenyon, Marie Howe, Agah Shahid Ali — I read a wide range of poets.

      Neelon: I love so many poets — an infinite number, it seems. Cesar Vallejo, Pablo Neruda, Nazim Hikmet, Seamus Heaney, Denise Levertov, Elizabeth Bishop, Miklos Radnoti, Miguel Hernandez, Czeslaw Milosz and Wislawa Szymborska might be at the beginning of my twentieth-century list.
           As for African poets, Leopold Sedar Senghor is the one I know best. I had the amazing luck to be assigned to Senegal while he was still in power. A poet as president — talk about cognitive dissonance! It was a real trip to confront his Collected Poetry whenever I went into a Naar store to buy 50 francs worth of tomato paste. In reading and eventually translating Senghor, I came to discover and appreciate many other poets who appeared alongside him in francophone anthologies, especially Aime Cesaire of Martinique. Senghor and
      Cesaire launched the Negritude movement in Paris in the thirties, so the connections there are profound.
           I also had the good fortune, about ten years after coming back from Peace Corps, to spend a month at the Yaddo Colony with the Nigerian poet Tanure Ojaide. Under his influence, I began to appreciate the voices of anglophone Africa — Dennis Brutus, Christopher Okigbo, and John Pepper Clark.

      Rich: Elizabeth Bishop, Pablo Neruda, Adrienne Rich. African poets — Ingrid de Kok and Jeremy Cronin.

      Meek: I try to read as much poetry as possible, both by new and established poets; African poets that I read include Keorapetse Kgositsile, Christopher Okigbo, and Mongane Serote.

    When you write, do you begin with an idea, a word, phrase?

      Brazaitis: I begin with a story. Something happened. I want to tell what happened.

      Conlon: An idea, yes, or a word, or a phrase — there's no pattern. I start with anything I have and see where it takes me. Usually there is some kind of “story” in my poems — they have a strong sense of narrative, no doubt because I'm also a prose writer. So I usually have some sense of direction when I begin, but not always — and, quite often, the direction changes midway through.

      Szumowski: I usually begin working on poems by writing in a journal. Then some days later, I may find some sentences that seem to move me toward a poem. The process is mysterious to me — and when a poem is finished, I think a magician must have intervened!

      Neelon: Like everyone else, I've generated any number of poems from specific exercises. My very best poems, though, seem to grow out of existential hunches. I get the feeling that something important was lost or gained in a specific circumstance, and I struggle, often for years, to pinpoint what that something was. Usually, I come up with a constellation of images long before I get anywhere close to the actual language of a poem. The images act as talismans. If I'm lucky, the music eventually comes.

    How do you know that a poem is “finished”?

      Brazaitis: My poems are never finished. I tinker with them endlessly.

      Conlon: When someone agrees to publish it! But even then . . .  In the past few weeks I've been putting the finishing touches on a chapbook of these Peace Corps poems of mine, to be called A Stained Dawn: Poems About Africa. Most are a decade old or more, and some were published in pretty big poetry markets, like America Magazine. And yet I still mess around with them, changing a word here and there, altering a line break perhaps. Some of these adjustments are no doubt just nervous fiddling, yet some, I think, represent genuine improvements. So the work is never really finished. I imagine that at 70 I'll still be toying
      with line breaks I wrote when I was 23.

      Szumowski: Someone once said to me that a poem is never finished. I know that I'm not alone in the practice of revising poems even after they have been published. Many of the poems in I Want This World, still needed revision, even though they'd been published, and I'd looked at them over quite a period of time. Giving readings helps the poet hear whether the poem still needs work or not. Sometimes I think a poem isn't finished until it is heard by an audience.

      Neelon: I'm not somebody who revises poems for years on end. For me, a given poem is finished when I no longer feel like a fish swimming around inside it. When the poem's done, I stop being able to see underwater. I no longer have to breathe through gills while cooking dinner, answering the telephone, driving the kids to soccer, etc. There's no more slipperiness of metaphor on my arms and legs.

      Rich: As Paul Valery said, “A poem is never finished, only abandoned.”