Huntsville poet describes Peace Corps influences during Washington, D.C., conference
Thursday, April 21, 2011

By Ann Marie Martin The Huntsville Times

The Peace Corps promises to give you “the toughest job you’ll ever love” helping people around the world.

When you’re a poet, the Peace Corps also gives you experiences that can inspire your art for a lifetime.

Acclaimed local poet Virginia Gilbert discussed how her time in the Peace Corps has fueled her writing during “Broadening the Poet’s Vision Through the Peace Corps Experience,” a panel presentation she led during the Association of Writers & Writing Programs’ 2011 Conference & Bookfair in Washington, D.C., in February.

Gilbert, professor emeritus of English at Alabama A&M University, is the author of the poetry collection “That Other Brightness.” Her poems also have appeared in Beloit Poetry Journal, The Seneca Review, Prairie Schooner, Poetry Now, The North American Review, Southern Poetry Review, New York Quarterly, The Poetry Society of America’s Poetry Review and many others.

Her work is included in the anthologies “Whatever Remembers Us: An Anthology of Alabama Poetry,” “Ordinary and Sacred as Blood, Alabama Women Speak,” “Claiming the Spirit Within: A Source Book of Women’s Poetry” (title poem for the section on work), “Cameos: Twelve Small Press Women Poets,” “I Hear My Sisters Saying,” “New Voices in American Poetry” and more.

“I had four other panelists,” Gilbert said via email after the conference, “and we all talked about how our Peace Corps experiences impacted us as writers.”

Gilbert served as a Peace Corps English instructor in the Korean Middle School Program from June 1971 to September 1973. She returned to South Korea in October 2009 as an honoree for the Peace Corps Reunion, hosted by Friends of Korea and the Korean government.

“I actually didn’t spend much time talking about my time in the Peace Corps in Korea (during the panel discussion),” she said. “I made a few remarks about how being in the Peace Corps has influenced everything from the way I write to the way I think about the world.

“I also mentioned that it was my Peace Corps experience that led me to teaching in Iran with a number of other former Peace Corps people and which led to my being evacuated from Iran during the Islamic Revolution.”

She was an instructor of English as a second language and test writer in Iran for the Department of Defense Sub-Contracts from July 1976 to February 1979.

Gilbert’s trove of memories is rich enough to fill several panels, much less one she was sharing with other writers, so she used visual cues to expand her message.

“To help illustrate my comment about how my Peace Corps experience has influenced everything I have done since,” she said, “I wore a blue and white Chinese gown with silver Chinese script written on it that showed I continue to be influenced by my experiences in Korea. Then I read a couple of poems that were Oriental in nature. One was a haiku and another picked up on zenlike qualities and Eastern imagery.”

Here’s Gilbert’s haiku “The Birds”:

In a far field cranes under a drape  of rain bendwhite wings, 
folding 

moons.

Gilbert also read several poems about her experiences in Iran during the Islamic Revolution. 

“Since Egypt was trying to overthrow Mubarak at the time,” she said, “I made parallels to what was going on that very day in Egypt.”

Here are stanzas from the opening of “Upon the Social Unrest in a Foreign Country”:

Because we were in a 
countryunder siege, and the roadswere closing, we could not
dream. Everywhere, the lights were
going out;the wind swept fall dust
cloudsinto the city and we could
not see.

Gilbert said the last poems she read reflected her general world view.

“One of the points I wanted to make is that the Peace Corps experience made me a better observer and created my interest in photography.”

Gilbert’s photography, in turn, feeds her poetry.

“I read a poem about photographing the ghost town of Bodie, Calif. I also read a poem about the National Atomic Museum, Hiroshima, and Custer at the Little Big Horn. These were all places I have visited.”

Gilbert recently made more travel plans. She’s attending the Iowa Writers’ Workshop’s 75th Anniversary Celebration in Iowa City from June 6-9.

“I’ll be staying in the very same building I lived in during my first semester at Iowa. I wrote a brief memoir recently about my first year in the workshop.”

So how’s the modern poet to keep up with all those inspirations and influences plus organize a busy schedule - and do a bit of research on the side?

A smartphone, of course.

Gilbert received the 2009-2010 Alabama State Council on the Arts Individual Artist Grant in Literature for poetry, and she used part of the money to buy the phone and bring her artistic pursuits fully into the 21st century.

Ann Marie Martin at annmarie.martin@ htimes.com or 256-532-4440.