The intense cross cultural experience of the Peace Corps has produced in many PCVs a deep well of sentiment that has found its way, perhaps too easily, into poetry. Fortunately, this intense experience has also been a rich source of material for many fine published poets including Charlie Smith (Micronesia 1968-70); Mark Brazaitis (Guatemala 1991-93); Philip Dacey (Nigeria 1964-66); Sandra Meek (Botswana 1989-91); Ann Neelon (Senegal 1978-79); Paul Violi (Nigeria 1966); Keith Carthwright (Senegal 1983-85); Susan Rich (Niger 1984-86); Lisa Chavez (Poland 1993-95); John Flynn (Moldova 1993-95); Margaret Szumowski (Zaire 1973-74, Ethiopia 1974-75); Virginia Gilbert (Korea 1971-73); Tony Zurlo (Nigeria 1962-64), and many others.
Poets, I believe, have been best able to explain the values of the Peace Corps experience as it relates to writing. Margaret Szumowski, who served in Zaire and Ethiopia, puts it this way:
I think the poet gains a great deal. She absorbs the sounds of other languages, takes in imagery never seen before, observes the way families operate compared to her own experience, sees the struggle other peoples have to survive at all.
The visual shock and splendor of Africa is enough to keep the poet writing for the rest of her life – take as an example, the baobab. I’d never seen such a strange and magnificent tree, one that blooms at night, harbors night creatures such as lemurs, and provides food for humans from its fuzzy pods. I’d never seen donkeys in the streets of Addis Ababa, laden with their loads, or a woman dancing around our house, rags tied to her feet as she cleaned the floor. I’d never seen soldiers with their guns pointed at us, as I did in Uganda. All of these experiences gave me enough to think about and absorb for the rest of my life.
The ability to “see” that poets have is combined with what all of us gained from the experience, as Chris Conlon puts it, “perspective, maturity, a larger and, one hopes, better ‘self.'”
But it is the “gift” of language that these poets find more useful and which benefits them the most. Poet Ann Neelon sums up her experience in Senegal, with one word, “foreignness.”
Foreignness is important to a poet because it teaches humility. Humility is important because without it there is no mystical experience.
In Senegal, I gained many things useful to a poet. These included hours of direct exposure to the oral tradition via West African griots, caches of exquisite bush and desert images, and French and Wolof syllables, but none of these can compare with the opportunity to have Africa erase who I was. Only after losing myself could I find myself as a writer.
And in the Peace Corps the overwhelming opportunity to “lose oneself” makes writers of us all.