Friday, May 27, 2016

Colette Stemple: Art Teacher Extraordinaire!

Ms. Stemple was my IB Photography teacher at Coral Reef, and she ignited in me a love for darkroom photography. My father was a photographer in the Belgian Army and I’ll never forget his excitement when I brought him into our darkroom at school. Even though it had been 30 years since he’d developed photographs, the smells of the different chemicals brought back many fond memories for him, and we made many of our own memories working side by side in the darkroom. That was the kind of teacher she was—opening up the darkroom in the evenings, staying late after school, letting us spend our lunch hour in her classroom. She was constantly pushing us to enter competitions and get our work out into the world. I’ll never forget her infectious enthusiasm towards her students and our creative pursuits—and that enthusiasm continues to this day. 

 Over the years, Ms. Stemple and I have kept in touch. After retiring from the Florida public schools, where she started three different art programs (the commercial art program at the International Fine Arts College, and the magnet art programs at Southwood Middle School and Coral Reef High School), she moved to Austin, Texas to be near her children and grandchildren. Around this time, several of my good friends also moved to Austin, so I’ve been lucky enough to visit this liberal Texas oasis several times over the years. I always make a point to spend a few days with Ms. Stemple, catching up with my friend, and each time, I am more and more amazed by this woman. To me, she was just my photo teacher, but to the rest of the world, she was a great artist.

During this last visit, I learned that she received an Olympic medal for creating glass windows that were showcased during the 1980 Olympic games in Lake, Placid, NY. She also created a book of photography with her students after Hurricane Andrew called “The Eye of the Storm through the Eye of the Child”, which was presented to President Clinton. I found out that she won many scholarships to study art abroad, including at the Villa Schiffanoia in Florence, and she was the VP of an art company. I took this opportunity to ask her a few questions about her mentors and her work as an art educator. Here’s a peek into our conversation…

Olympic medal!

Ms. Stemple meeting President Clinton

Original Abstract by Ms. Stemple!
How did you get interested in art?

In grade school, the art teacher came and the regular teacher left. She used to draw something on the board and whoever copied it best got the best grade. But I just started drawing everything in sight. And this teacher let me do whatever I wanted to do, which gave me a lot of confidence. She could have squelched me, but she encouraged my creativity instead. That’s the best thing a teacher can do. Creativity is what makes a person unique.

Who are some of your favorite teachers?

Ranulph Bye (transparent watercolor), Dolya Goutman (oil painting, drawing), Leonard Nelson (printmaking, drawing), Hoffman (photography), John Hanlen (painting, drawing), George Sklar (heavy-duty drawing). In Florence, Sister Giotto Moots was very encouraging. Steven Posen from Yale said all my abstracts were ugly, but I knew they were true. If they were ugly, that was the way he perceived it. Does anyone really do ugly on purpose? When he found out I was married and going to have babies, he wouldn’t talk to me. He said I wasn’t an artist anymore.
Portrait of Ms. Stemple by fellow artist

What mediums have you taught?

I’ve taught photography, sculpture, encaustic wax emulsion, ink drawing, oil, watercolor, drawing, furniture design. It’s hard to say what I haven’t taught. I don’t care what you give me. Put me on the beach and I’ll play with the sand.

You’ve taught at colleges and art schools. You designed the curriculum for the art programs at both Southwood Middle and Coral Reef High School, and you taught at each for 15 years. How do you feel about your work as an educator?

I never took an education course in my life by choice. I never wanted to be a teacher. I never had a garden, never wanted to grow anything. Teaching was planting a seed and watching it grow. What a heady experience. I got hooked. I’d been written up on interior design in NY Magazine. I’d done art for commissions. I had plans to run my own business. But the joy of watching my students far exceeded any joy I ever experienced marketing my own work. I found out I loved teaching. I really believed—if you can’t do it, teach it. Then I found out there’s a vocation called teaching. I fell in love with my students. My greatest joy are my kids – my own and my students.

The teaching doesn’t stop. These days, she does artwork with her grandkids and teaches painting in the community. She spent a morning teaching me a few watercolor techniques while I was in town. It was hard!!!! I have so much respect for that art form now! And I continue to feel so lucky to have such a passionate, patient, and encouraging teacher as Ms. Stemple in my life! 


Original Artwork by Colette Stemple

Monday, May 16, 2016

MFA Year Two Recap

My writing studio at the Art Farm
Hi friends. Since my last post, I’ve finished my second year of graduate school so I thought this would be a good time to recap the past year of my master’s in creative writing.

This time last year, I was heading off to my first artist residency at the Art Farm in Nebraska. In a few days, I’ll be joining some of my Art Farm friends on a farm in eastern Texas to recreate the magic! During my residency last summer, I spent delicious day after delicious day writing, the hours interrupted only by a passing bunny rabbit or thunderstorm. I breathed life into old pieces and conjured up new ones; I am happy to report that all of the writing I did at the Art Farm has found homes in various literary journals and online magazines. But I’m jumping the gun! 

When the fall semester started, I went full speed into submitting my work. This was a new world for me, but I was lucky enough to have an insider’s perspective by working as an editor at Saw Palm, USF’s Florida literature and art journal. Regardless, I dealt with months and months of nonstop rejection, but I used these “failures” as ammunition to keep going. I quickly learned that rejection is a huge part of a writer’s life, and the sooner we learn to deal with it, the better.

Eventually, I got my first acceptance in late October from The Normal School. Needless to say, I was psyched.  A few other acceptances followed, and my first pieces were officially published in early December on The Toast and Lunch Ticket.

All the while, I was enrolled in my first fiction class where I started the project that was to become my thesis. Of course, you might remember that I came into this program as a creative nonfiction writer, so this switch was a confusing but exciting decision. Regardless, I still write plenty of nonfiction, but I decided that I’d rather work on a novel for my thesis than a book-length memoir project. (At the end of October, I attended the NonfictioNOW Conference in Flagstaff and met tons of awesome writers!)

Over the course of the fall semester, I wrote a first draft of my novel and received great feedback from my professor and peers. In the winter, I turned an excerpt from the novel into a short story called “Mango Season” and sent it to a few places.

Oh, and let me not forget that I taught my first creative writing class in the fall. My students were delightful and we had a great time exploring fiction, nonfiction, and poetry together!

Okay, so I had a busy fall semester. The spring semester was no different. I went back to teaching composition, and I registered for four awesome classes: Comics (or graphic narrative), another Fiction Workshop, Craft of Creative Nonfiction (Reading the Lives of Others), and Environmental Literature.
Saw Palm's 10th Anniversary Issue!
[Also, I set some SMART goals in December to keep me on track. More on that later.]

I tried my hand at comics for the first time—and loved it. I set aside my novel and wrote a few short stories for my fiction class (and we properly inducted into the official fiction writer’s club). I read tons of amazing (and sometimes frustrating) books for my CNF and Enviro Lit class. Meanwhile, I was still sending work out like crazy, getting lots of rejections and a few more acceptances. I begin to shift my focus away from literary magazines and started sending work to more mainstream publications. I landed several freelance writing gigs for corporate and governmental organizations. I wrapped up a year-long memoir project with a private client. I gave my first reading in NYC and saw my name in print for the first time! (First in the Reader's Write section of The Sun and then in the Tahoma Literary Review). 

Towards the end of the semester, things started to pick up even more. I was awarded USF’s Anspaugh Fiction award for my story “Mango Season.” I embraced painting and made a full-length comic/children’s book. Then, I had an article published in The Washington Post that was then picked up by The Sydney Morning Herald—completely unbeknownst to me! I was driving somewhere in Alabama when I received a phone call from a strange number. It was a radio station in Sydney and they wanted to interview me on-air about my article. I had no idea what they were talking about, and they explained that my piece about not having wi-fi at my house had been featured in The Sydney Morning Herald that day. Of course, I was more than happy to talk to them about my internet-free lifestyle. J

Now, the semester is over and I’ve returned to my restless ways. I’m on a road trip around the south, visiting friends and family in Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas. In the midst of my trip, I got some super exciting news. My short story, “Mango Season,” was awarded the Charles Johnson Fiction Award by Crab Orchard Review! I am over the moon, and more than ready to get back to work on my novel—as soon as I get back home from my travels!

All in all, it’s been a productive and exciting year with lots of "firsts". I’ve done lots of writing, reading, editing, freelancing, workshopping, submitting, pitching, published, drawing, and dreaming. I’m so grateful for the support I’ve received from my family and friends, as well as from my awesome writing community at the University of South Florida! Although I don’t want my MFA to end, I’m excited to see what this last year holds. 

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Author Spotlight: Poet Sandra Meek

A few weeks ago, we at USF had the good fortune of hosting Sandra Meek, a lovely poet who has written five collections of poetry and has taught writing at Berry College for the last two decades. My ears perked up when she said she had been a Peace Corps volunteer in Botswana. When I learned that her exploring hasn't stopped there, I knew I had met another restless writer.

She was gracious enough to answer a few of my questions regarding writing, traveling, and the responsibility of being a poet-at-large.

Many of your poems are about your travels. Do you keep a journal while you are on the road and then translate experiences into poetry, or do you compose while you're still on the road?
I do keep a journal on the road, but I mostly take notes--most of the composing takes place at home. Generally on the road, I'm so eager to get out there, I don't set aside separate time for writing. However, I do carry a notebook and jot things in it, and I do look back at it when I'm home--often beginnings of poem-ideas come from there.

How do you find the balance between teaching, writing, and traveling?
Balance is always a challenge! Because I do teach, travel typically happens in summer and winter breaks, unless I have a sabbatical. While the semesters can get quite frantic, I think it's important to show up for writing in a routine way, so I generally write for an hour or so in the morning. It doesn't always happen, but most mornings I'm there. In the summer and other breaks, when I'm not traveling, I might write an hour or several hours a day. I actually do think writing regularly is important not just as a writer, but as a teacher of writers--to model for students that writing is a daily practice, not something to put off for a mythical day when there will be more time.

Photo by Sandra Meek
Do you do outside research (ecological or historical) to bring another layer into your poems?
Yes, I do research--ecological and historical. This is especially true for the poems in my new book, An Ecology of Elsewhere, most of which begin from particular places in southern Africa and elsewhere. This process often begins with traveling, with being on the road (or locally, with walking out in the woods), with what I see, with making notes to remind myself what I want to find out more about. For instance, one long poem in An Ecology of Elsewhere is about the Welwitschia plant of the Namib Desert—a wonderfully bizarre plant that lives off fog and can live to be 1500 years old. I made a trip specifically to see them in Namibia; while I did research about them before my trip, what I saw (such as the beginning of a uranium mine in the highly fragile landscape) triggered more material, including more questions, more research.

Photo by Sandra Meek
Do you believe that your writing plays a role in terms of social justice, to bring to light some of the inequalities you may encounter on your travels?
Well, certainly some of the poems are concerned with social justice issues. Probably the best example of this is my poem “Orycteropus afer (Antbear)Kalahari” (which received the 2015 Lucille Medwick Memorial Award for humanitarian poetry from the Poetry Society of America.)

On one of four return trips during 2008-2011 that I took to southern Africa (I had been a Peace Corps volunteer in Botswana from 1989-1991) while writing An Ecology of Elsewhere, I traveled to western Botswana to a village largely populated by displaced San. The San are the indigenous people of Botswana, also known as the Bushmen—a term considered derogatory in Botswana. I stayed nearby, in the only San-owned lodge in the country, and had the opportunity to interview the members of a San family, particularly the elderly matriarch. Parts of the poem are direct quotes of what she had to say in regard to injustices she’d faced and the San are still facing. While Botswana is a model for human rights and development in so many ways, serious issues remain regarding the government’s treatment of the San, which has included forced removals from traditional lands. So, I wouldn’t say the poem brings to light injustice, as there are both San and international human rights organizations and others documenting and denouncing the situation, but it does “see” differently, because of the possibilities of the genre, including here a collage of voices.

How does poetry connect you to the world at large? Do you think being a poet allows you to be a global citizen?
I think as a writer, as a poet, whatever deeply engages, whatever awakens a person is going to be part of the writing, along with the various joys and tragedies of daily life. For me, travel, especially international travel, is one of things I love most, so the integration of that and my writing is a natural thing. I don't think "writer" is a segregated part of the self--the self as observer, as breathing being, as writer, as reader, is all interconnected. 

Photo by Sandra Meek
Where would you like to explore next? And how do you choose whether to go someplace new or go back to a place you've been to in the past?

This summer I'm going to the Galapagos, which I am really looking forward to. When the opportunity to travel comes up, I generally take it, whether I've been to the place before or not. As long as I'm able, I hope to go to at least one new place a year--there's nothing like that sense of discovery, of wonder, at the new. And yet, there's an equal power to having an enduring relationship with a place besides the one in which you live. For me, southern Africa is my enduring relationship. I plan to return again in 2017. Southern Africa is an incredibly rich place--culturally, ecologically--and though I remain an outsider, it is a place I deeply love.  

Many thanks to Sandy for taking the time to answer my questions! You can learn more about Sandra and her work on her website, and feel free to purchase her latest collection, An Ecology of ElsewhereShe is also a great photographer, and you can see more photos from her travels here.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Comics Class: A Love Story Told in Images

At the beginning of the Spring semester, I was nervous to be in my first "art class." 

"I don't know how to drawing ANYTHING," I told my professor, Jarod Rosello.
Photo Credit
Jarod was reassuring. "That's okay! You don't have to draw a single thing all semester."

So I started off making some line drawings.

Then I made some stick figures.

(I'm not sure why these are upside down?)

I read some comics made by REAL artists.
And frankly, I was hella intimidated.

Meanwhile, I made a mediocre four-panel comic.

I experimented a bit with color, and my results were... questionable.

I made a comic strip! But stuck to black and white.

which challenged and widened my idea of what constitutes an image.


I started experimenting with color (pencils)

I practiced drawing things that I didn't think I could draw.
(again, not sure why this is upside down!)

I sketched ideas for future projects.

And turned them into actual things.

All this time, the big scary FINAL PROJECT loomed ahead of us.
Photo Credit
I "thumb-nailed" my comic book, 
which for some people looks like images but, for me, looks like this--

I decided to revive a story I've been trying to tell for years -- the story of my father traveling from Belgium to Africa on a cargo ship when he was a little boy.
Since the story was a sailing/ocean story, it seemed only fitting to tell it using watercolors.

I spent a rainy day laboring over my paintings,

waiting for each layer to dry in order to put the next one down.

Once I had them all done and dried,

I scanned them and fixed them up on Photoshop -- 
with the help of my professor and my Photoshop literate classmates!

On Photoshop, I cleaned up the paintings and added text.

And here we are, folks! The finished project is printed and bound!

So I may not have actually made a comic book in the end, but this project reminded me how much I love children's books 
(which are still examples of sequential art, right??). 
This process also taught me that I can make images that look like something recognizable, even if they are bare bones. It's been a process of simplifying the images and the story until it became something I could handle, but I am super happy with the final product, and excited to make more!

Please let me know if you'd like your own copy of Little Boy Big Ship
I'd be happy to send one your way.

Have a great weekend! Do something that scares you!

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Who’s Allowed To Write About What?

Photo Credit
You’ve probably heard the old adage, “Write what you know.” Well, what happens when writers write about what they don’t know?

If your Facebook feed is dominated by writers, like mine is, then you have certainly heard about the new Calvin Trillin poem, “Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?” Trillin’s poem was recently published in The New Yorker, and the literary community is in an uproar.

Now, why are people incensed by this poem? If it had been published in The Onion, or in the humor section of The New Yorker, it would have been received very differently. Instead, what we have is an 80 year old white male publishing a poem in a “serious” magazine in which he complains about there being too many kinds of Chinese foods. Yes, seriously. Read it for yourself. (And read this hilarious book report summarizing the poem.)

Photo Credit
Cultural appropriation seems to be the theme of my week. In my nonfiction class, we read a memoir by a woman who become the first black Buddhist nun—even though she had no connection to Buddhism before traveling to Thailand as a college undergrad. In fact, she had never even meditated before taking her vows!

I was one of the more vocal students in my class, chastising this woman for blatantly doing something for the sake of research and recognition. I think it would have been a wholly different situation if she had some connection to the culture or the religion before become ordained as a Buddhist nun (she only stayed at the monastery for a few weeks).

photo credit
Don’t get me wrong, she was only twenty years old when all of this happened. She had just taken time off from Harvard to figure herself out. I get it. I had the same sort of crisis when I was twenty. I hopped across continents and tried on different cultures. If I ever wrote a memoir of that time, it would be more of a travel narrative, and not an “inward journey” as the title of her memoir implies. I wouldn’t pretend to truly know those cultures intimately when I was merely a visitor passing through.
But she wrote her memoir about 15 years after the fact—plenty of time for her to realize that her reasons for ordaining were quite shallow. I’m not saying that she shouldn’t have written her memoir, but I am saying that she should have acknowledged her privileged place as outsider in a country where many people become ordained as monks and nuns simply in order to have a roofs over their heads.
Another book I read for this week was Indra Sinha’s Animal’s People, a novel set in a fictional town in India modeled on Bhopal, the town that was destroyed in the 1984 Union Carbide gas disaster. Sinha was born in India and, although he has spent much of his adult life living in England, he has also devoted a lot of his energy to relief efforts for the victims of Bhopal. Unlike Trillim’s poem and the Buddhist nun memoir, Sinha has a stake in this culture and this disaster is a situation that he knows intimately. For these reasons, his motives for writing the book do not feel exploitative or fraudulent, and his novel does not carry the bitter taste of cultural appropriation. 

I am not saying that writers are condemned to only writing from the perspective of their own race and gender forever and ever. But I do believe that writers should write what they know. There are many different kinds of knowledge. There’s intimate knowledge, and superficial knowledge, and I think writers have the responsibility to write from a place of deep understanding. 

Katherine Boo’s work of nonfiction, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, is an excellent example of writing responsibly outside your own culture. A white journalist writing about a slum in Mumbai is a tricky tightrope to walk, but Boo's work is deeply researched and thoughtfully executed. 

Hemingway's iceberg theory states that: A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing. There are many facts and details that might never make it into the story, but it’s important that the writer know everything about the world they are writing in order to tell a compelling story. For this reason, you’ll find that many works of fiction are highly autobiographical.

For example, I’m really interested in Native American culture, but I don’t know enough about it to write about it from a place of honest truth. I can sing a few songs and I’ve heard some of the stories, but it is not a culture that I know from deep inside my gut. If I do write about it, as fiction or nonfiction, it will be as an outsider, because that’s all I can ever truly be when it comes to Native American culture. I recognize this.

On the other hand, the novel I’m working on is set in Miami. The characters are two teenage girls growing up in a neighborhood very similar to the one I grew up in. They’re not rich but they’re not poor either, kind of like my family. Although their experiences are very different from my own teenage life, the story sits on a foundation that I know on an intimate level. I am building on the knowledge that I have, and making that base knowledge work for me. Maybe one day I’ll write a book from the perspective of a Lakota medicine man, but if I do, I promise you that it will take years of in-depth research and cultural immersion. And even if I spent years on the project, pulling it off in a way that honors and respects that culture would be very tricky.

photo credit
Readers invest a lot in a book when they read it, and I should hope that writers invest just as much when they write it. It is our responsibility as writers to write about different cultures from a place of respect and deep understanding, and if we feel that we cannot write about a culture in this way, then we shouldn’t do it. Anyway, there’ s no need to go looking elsewhere for the story. The story is right where you’re standing! Everyone’s personal experience is so unique; we all have a wealth of knowledge to write from if we mine the deep well of knowledge that we have amassed over our lifetimes.

As Flannery O'Connor said:

“Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.”

Publication Update! Check out my new piece, "Matriarchy," in the latest issue of the Tahoma Literary Review! Read it online, buy it in print, or listen to it on SoundCloud