Follow by Email

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

Friday, April 1, 2016

Writers: Everyday We Hustling

I see this MFA as an apprenticeship, a time when I completely immerse myself in all things writing-related. Besides attending my classes and learning from my peers, I listen to interviews with successful writers to hear about their process and the trajectory of their career. I read articles written by editors to learn about what they’re looking for on the page.  I scour blogs for writing advice and sign up for newsletter updates to find out about the latest competitions and submission deadlines. Every single day, I learn something new.

The other day, while listening to yet another interview with a badass writer, I had an epiphany. Writers are hustlers. We have to be. No one’s going to give us a raise because we’re putting in extra hours. No one cares if we wrote today, or sent out a pitch, or revised a story. We’ve got to make our own fire.

That’s what being a writer means in the 21st century. We can’t let the grass grow beneath our feet. The publishing industry is changing fast. Major publishing houses are merging, and baby indie presses are being born every day. With the internet as a platform for telling stories on an epic scale, the way we read as a society is transforming before our very eyes.

Writers have to juggle lots of bowling balls. Creating, networking, revising, reading, editing, submitting, mentoring, teaching, re-submitting, reading more, researching—and somewhere in there, sleeping.

Also, writers are sorta like lone wolves. No two writers are doing the same thing. We love commiserating and communicating with other writers. We join writing workshops and online support groups. But the truth of the matter is that we’re each on this journey alone—the lone hustler. In a way, we have to fly solo in order to do the work that only WE can do.

Part of being a writer is the solitary act of sitting at the writer’s desk. But without the other part, the engaged hustler, our work might never reach an audience. It’s a complicated balance between connecting with our creative self, which requires deep listening and intuition, and engaging in a meaningful way with the world around us.

There’s no slowing down in this business of writing. There’s always more to read, more to write, and more to revise. Some days, I’m overwhelmed by the abundance of great writing I want to read, magazines I want to pitch stories to, competitions I want to enter. My mind is a constant ticker-tape of topics I want to write about, residencies I’d like to attend, workshops I want to teach, and stories I wish to tell.

Mankind has been writing stories for a very long time (and telling them for even longer!). And yet, no matter how ancient the art of storytelling may be, there is nothing static about this craft. The way we tell stories is constantly expanding as we share with one another and learn new ways to create meaning from words. So, writers, get out there and ---