In her literary debut, Katie Speicher invites readers to join her in Senegal with her poems on beauty, strength, questioning, nostalgia, heartbreak, and contentment. Her poems have sprung from her Peace Corps service and from reaching deep into memory.
Here Katie tells about herself and her writing.
Katie — where and when did you serve in the Peace Corps?
What was your Peace Corp project assignment?
Tell us about where you lived and worked.
I lived in Koumbidia Soce, a Mandinka village of about 700 people in the Kaffrine region of Senegal.
What were your living conditions?
I lived with a host family. I had my own hut within a family compound. At the time I was there we had no electricity, and water was pulled everyday from a well. During my service electricity went up in the village, but my family did not opt into the grid. There was a water tower in the process of being built with the hopes of installing running water, but to my knowledge that has not yet happened.
What kind of work did you do?
My primary assignment was to work one-on-one with smallholder farmers on designing and implementing agroforestry techniques. I also worked with community groups on gardening training, worked on gender equality projects, and worked with school-aged girls on empowerment projects.
Looking at Koumbidia Soce on the Google map the area appears to be quite arid — how was the farming there?
Koumbidia Soce is considered a savannah, just bordering the Sahel desert. The farming was seasonal and completely rain fed. The rainy season began around July and lasted through October, and during those months people grew enough subsitance crops (millet, sorghum, corn, peanuts, beans) to last the whole year. The vegetable gardens operated year round and were watered by hand with well water. The rainy season used to last for 6 months but this area has been drastically changed by desertification and climate change.
What is your educational background?
I have a B.S. in Environmental Resource Management from Penn State.
Fight on State!
Did you college education help you as a PCV?
What have you done since the Peace Corps?
I’ve been farming in the US since completing service.
What are you doing now?
I am currently the farm manager at Common Ground Farm in Beacon, NY. We are a non-profit with a mission of food access and food education. We grow vegetables on about 4 acres.
How would you describe your book The Giant Tangerine Sunball in one sentence?
My poetry exposes the multiplicity of emotion one experiences through Peace Corps service.
What prompted you to write the book?
Writing the poetry was how I processed the emotion service left me with. Publishing it felt like an accessible way for others to learn about the Peace Corps experience.
How long did take for you to write your book?
Some of the poems were written during service, before I ever intended to publish them into a book. The ones I’ve written since took me about a year to write.
Tell about your writing process. (When, how long each day, what time, hand-written vs computer, in your pj’s or clothes, etc.
Often a very minor detail of my day would spark a memory I had of Senegal and inspire a poem from there. When I needed to sit and write it out I would often go for a walk through a pasture or woodland, find a nice log or fence post to sit on, and allow it to come to me. I wrote every poem by hand in my journal before typing them out.
During the process did you belong to a writers group and share reading and critiquing, or have any other way of bouncing off you writing and thinking?
What are you doing to promote your book?
I’ve mostly been self promoting via social media but am interested in pursuing other marketing outlets.
Now that you have published your first book of poetry, will you continue to write poetry with an eye to publishing more?
I am largely inspired by nature (Mary Oliver is one of my favorite poets), and I’d love to publish some nature poetry.
Thank you, Katie — and best of luck with your writing — we will watch for it.
The Giant Tangerine Sunball: Poems from a Peace Corps Volunteer
Katie Speicher (Senegal 2016-2018)
Peace Corps Writers