I went to the Association of Writers & Writers Programs last week in Washington, D.C. I sat in on a panel featuring Peace Corps poets. The panel was entitled, Broadening the Poet’s Vision Through the Peace Corps Experience. A small group of RPCV poets, gathered by Virginia Gilbert (Korea 1971-73), addressed a small crowd of mostly women graduate students and young academics, all would-be poets and professors. Nice people.
The published Peace Corps poets on the panel were an impressive lot, all award winners themselves: Sandra Meek (Botswana 1989-91); John Isles (Estonia 1992-94); Ann Neelon (Senegal 1978-79); Derick Burleson (Rwanda 1991-93), plus Virginia.
I had never met any of them before, though Virginia and I have a passing connections after all these years, and I know, by emails, Ann and Sandra.
The panel discussion took place in mid-afternoon in one of those endless mall meeting rooms of this huge downtown D.C. hotel. About 30 attended the session, mostly intense women carrying conference bags stuffed with books and papers and looking puzzled and perplexed as they stepped into the room, as if they had somehow left their iambic pentameter on the elevator. Everyone was nice; the panelists were nice. Each one of them said a few words about their Peace Corps experience, and attempted to show how joining the Peace Corps was the way to get new material for poems. And then they read poems.
Virginia read, perhaps, too many; Derick too few. At the end there wasn’t time for an any discussion of life in the Third World, new people were crowding into the room. New panelists were pushing to the front of the room to claim the table and microphone.
It took over an hour and a half for these five poets to read their poems. That’s a lot of poems. I watched the crowd as the poets read. Some of the young women closed their eyes to concentrate, or just to nap. I wasn’t sure. After each poet finished, a half dozen of the audience would quickly gather up their belongings and head for the door while another handful arrived. It was like a game of movable chairs.
I was most impressed by Derick Burleson. I don’t know him, or about him, but he is a serious guy, a good poet, who went to Rwanda, he told us, in the early nineties as a PCV. He went to Africa because he was in love with a woman who was joining the Peace Corps. Sounds like a plan. I liked his poems; I liked him. Ann Neelon is a sweetheart and a great supporter of our website, a reviewer, a very successful poet and editor of a magazine New Madrid which is the national journal of the low-residency MFA program at Murray State University in Kentucky.
Virginia Gilbert has been campaigning for poets as conferences like this for as long as I have known her and finally she pulled it off. She’s a trooper, and goes out of her way to help others. Sandra Meek lives in Georgia and teaches at Berry College. She is headed back to Botswana she told the audience to find new material for new poems. John Isles last collection, I think, was Inverse Sky, published by Iowa Press. Over the years he has published four books of poetry and won all sorts of prizes, including a 2005 NEA fellowship and the Ruskin Art Club Prize from The Los Angeles Review.
My point about all of this is (I guess) that we talk a lot (in these pages and elsewhere) about novelists, novels, and books of non-fiction winning prizes by RPCV writers, and we don’t say much about poets, but we have a helluva lot of great poets who have been PCVs. The trouble is, as W. H. Auden wrote years ago in a poem about the death of W.B. Yeats… “For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives/In the valley of its saying where executives/Would never want to tamper.”
Poetry don’t change the world, everyone thinks. But it does. In this giant hotel in downtown Washington the hallways were crowded with pretty, young poets and would-be poets, and real poets like Gilbert, Meek, Isles, Neelon and Burleson who years ago in the Third World filtered those days through their own unique sensibility and understood something insightful about themselves and others and wrote it down in verse and gave us all something new to think about.