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.