Talking with . . .

Sandra Meek
an interview by John Coyne (Ethiopia 1962–64)

    SANDRA MEEK LIVES IN Rome, Georgia, with her dog Duende, and teaches writing and literature at Berry College where she is an associate professor, and co-editor of Ninebark Press. Sandy was a PCV in Botswana from 1989 to 1991.
         Her first collection of poems was a chapbook, The Circumference of Arrival, published by Elixir Press in 2001. In 2002 Elixir Press published Nomadic Foundations that won the 2003 Poetry Prize from Peace Corps Writers. In 2005, Elixir published Burn. Recently she won the $10,000 Dorset Prize, the largest book-publication prize for poetry in the United States, for her third collection of poems, Biogeography. This collection will be released by Tupelo Press in the spring of 2008.
         I spoke to Sandra recently about her Peace Corps experience and her writing.

    Sandra, where are you from and what is your academic background?
    I was born in El Paso, Texas, but we moved to Fort Collins, Colorado when I was four, and that’s where I grew up.
         I have a BA in English and an MFA in Creative Writing from Colorado State University (1986, 1989), and a Ph.D. in English/Creative Writing, from the University of Denver (1995).

    Why did you join the Peace Corps?
    I wanted to feel like I was doing something worthwhile, and something exciting — the Peace Corps seemed both.

    Tell us a bit about your Peace Corps service in Botswana.
    I was an English teacher and Head of the English Department at a new Community Junior Secondary School, Boswelakgosi CJSS, in Manyana, Botswana.

    Were you able to travel much when you were overseas?
    A few countries. I went to South Africa, Swaziland, Lesotho, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Malawi and Kenya.

    Lets talk about today. You have just completed editing an anthology of poems. The book is entitled Deep Travel: Contemporary American Poets Abroad. How did that book come about?
    I’ve been very interested in poetry that comes out of international, cross-cultural experiences ever since I was in the Peace Corps. About three and a half years ago I decided that, since I thought there really should be an anthology of this work, I would compile it; the experience gave me the opportunity to go even deeper in this reading, and to put together some of this very powerful poetry. It was a three-year process of reading, selecting.

    You have 34 poets in the anthology. How many individual poems are there? Roughly how many poems did you read to get to that number? How do you pick one poem over another? For example, do you need to read the whole poem?
    There are three poems from each of thirty-four poets. I read many, many poems to get to that number.
         I researched widely to get as comprehensive of a list as possible of living American poets who had traveled or lived abroad, and who had written from their experience. I then went through all of these poets’ books, reading closely all poems with an international connection.
         From those I selected the authors. Then I picked three poems for each, and contacted them and their publisher(s) to request permission to include their work in the anthology; it was important to have the author’s support from the beginning because I asked each author to write a short prose piece on what international travel has meant to his or her life and work. These prose pieces, which range from a paragraph to several pages each, appear along with the poet’s brief biography as an introduction to the poet’s work.
         I was simply looking for the best poetry which evidenced the qualities of what I name and discuss in the introduction to the collection as “the poetry of deep travel”; that is, poetry that doesn’t merely skate the surface of the “other” culture or nature, poetry that instead approaches both self and other not from a space of authority and mastery, but rather from uncertainty, from a humble and generative openness to discovery.

    Who are the RPCV writers in this collection?
    Derick Burleson (Rwanda 1991–93), John Isles (Estonia 1992–94), Susan Rich (Niger 1984–86) and Margaret Szumowski (Zaire 1973–74, Ethiopia 1974–75).

    At what age did you decide that you wanted to be a poet?
    Well, I began writing “seriously,” in my estimation at the time, in junior high.

    Do you think of yourself as a poet or a professor?
    Both, really. But you have the order right.

    What gives you more joy . . . to finish a poem? to give a lecture?
    Finishing a poem, definitely, or rather, writing when it feels like something’s happening. And when it’s not happening, pulling weeds to avoid thinking of how it’s not happening.

    Would you take one of your poems and describe how you developed it — do you begin with an image, an idea, or feeling, and how does one line lead to another?

    Road Scatter

    A single vibration breaks the story
    to the crystal remnants

    of perfect pitch. A wheel-
    flung pebble, and sun

    pierces the windshield’s tint.
    The next days

    spider the glass. The heart
    is damage, a small pit: for wheel-

    flung pebble, substitute
    bullet, and the tire still

    rotating mid-air catches
    the last rayed light: the camera’s

    pinhole a magnet
    for angels, a needle’s eye clustered

    with crushed wings. Flight
    didn’t survive the breakage.

    What was filmed was landing.

    Published in American Letters & Commentary; reprinted on Poetry Daily

    Every poem brings its own process. Most often, I suppose, for me a poem begins with a phrase, with writing from that, around that, following the possibilities. I tell my students when you are beginning a poem, you have to be willing to write crap, and I write plenty of it. Then, hopefully, I find in that what seems to me interesting phrases, connections, juxtapositions, and the poem has begun.
         For this poem, I remember thinking about the simple visual of a pit in a windshield (having, I believe, been hit by gravel), and how multiple stories could be behind that small pit. Looking back now in my journals, I see that actually what began this poem was material for another poem, a much longer poem that was grappling with what was for me a very difficult subject; I had traveled to Suriname with a colleague, and had sat in on interviews he conducted with the primary figures of the political turmoil there in the 1980s — the former military dictator (or “revolutionary,” which he prefered) who overthrew the government; the head of the “Jungle Commando” in the civil war; journalists and relatives of those tortured and killed under the military government. From that interview with the dictator and his “ambassadors,” one thing particularly haunted me: he saw that my colleague had a certain book among his papers, one published just after the coup celebrating “the revolution,” which contained pictures of all the primary figures in the coup, including the men in that room; they started going through it as you might a high school yearbook, laughing at how they looked twenty years ago. The thing was, though, that the man who took the pictures and wrote the book was one of the men who “turned” and was tortured and killed to “send the people a message” by the men in that very room. In my notes I see a phrase from the very rough writing that led to that long poem becoming the opening to this short one; it began “A single bullet hole.” That became “A single vibration broke the story,” as my thinking about this photographer and the men laughing in that interview somehow blended with the “road scatter” image.

    When do you know when a poem is finished?
    This is always a hard question. I suppose truth is, when I don’t know what more I can do for it. Certainly there is a feeling that the work is complete, but it is difficult to say exactly what gives that feeling. I often revise a poem even after it’s been published, making changes that then appear in the version published in book form. Following a reading by poet Li-Young Lee, he asked me if he could make a change to one of the poems in the book he was signing for me, and he proceeded to make an edit — not correcting errata, but making a change in the poem, indicating his revision of the poem even after the book had been published. That felt very honest to me; there is a lot of truth in that well-known quote that poems are never finished, but are simply abandoned.

    What do you think the future is for poetry?
    I think poetry will do just fine. Poetry has so many different incarnations, so many levels and genres, so many places in our lives. People who wouldn’t call themselves “literary often say they don’t “understand poetry, and yet they will turn to poetry at significant moments in their lives — weddings, graduations, funerals; after 9/11, poetry was everywhere. While the poems that tend to show up at these events aren’t necessarily my favorites, who cares: there are audiences for all types of poetry, including the “literary.

    Would you tell us your favorite poet, and your favorite poem?
    This is really difficult! If I had to choose, if my life depended on answering this question, I would say Charles Wright. To choose one poem by him would be just as difficult. “Sitting Outside at the End of Autumn or “Spider Crystal Ascension— it would be hard to throw one of those out.

    What Peace Corps writers have you read and what books (or poems) have meant the most to you?
    I won’t think of all their names, but I have read quite a few — Melanie Sumner and Mark Brazaitis come immediately to mind, as well as — of course — the poets in Deep Travel. Norman Rush, of course, since he writes about Botswana.

    If someone “out there” in the Peace Corps world wants to write and publish poems and fashion some sort of career as a poet, how do they go about it?
    Just write, and don’t think of writing as a career! As well as you can, make a life that will include the time and space to write, and don’t expect any external rewards. The reward is, as I think every writer knows, the writing itself.

    Good advice. Thank you, Sandy, for your time and your poems.