Jacqueline Lyons (Lesotho 1992-95) is the author of the poetry collection, The Way They Say Yes Here, poems about her time in Lesotho. Peace Corps Writers awarded this collection its poetry award in 2005.
Her poems and essays have been published in over 20 literary journals and she has won several writing awards, including a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship (2003), a Utah Arts Council Literary Award for Poetry and Nonfiction (2002). Jacqueline’s collection will be the poetry textbook for the forthcoming (we hope) MFA in Creative Writing for PCVs and RPCVs at National University this coming April. With that in mind, I interviewed Jacqueline recently about her career and poetry since the Peace Corps.
Where did you grow up, Jacqueline, and what college did you attend?
I grew up in eastern central Wisconsin, and graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire with two majors in English & Sociology, and a minor in Women’s Studies. After the Peace Corps I earned my MFA in Poetry at Colorado State University, and later my PhD in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Utah.
What led you to join the Peace Corps?
My experience of the world, until my 20s, had been mostly of rural and small town life. I was eager to explore, and hopeful that variety existed beyond the small radius in which I grew up, which could be oppressively homogenous. I’d traveled a couple times during undergrad and knew that I liked the physical travel, and the cultural perspective it allowed—it made the strange familiar and the familiar strange. I felt a pull away from rural Wisconsin and toward the larger world. Also the Peace Corps commercials, and the slogan “The toughest job you’ll ever love”, moved me! — first to emotion, then to action.
Where did you go and what was your assignment?
I lived in Lesotho, Southern Africa, where I taught high school English.
First, I extended my contract. A few months before my two-year contract ended, I realized I very much did not want to go, and requested an extension. When I did leave, I moved first to Portland, OR, where I took master’s level literature and writing courses, and then to Missoula, MT. During that time I applied to MFA programs, and chose to do my MFA in poetry at Colorado State University.
Have you always been interested in poetry?
For as long as I can remember, I have delighted in rhythm and sound, which I think of now as an early attraction to poetry. My surroundings did not particularly encourage the poetic, but my mother is musical, and liked language play. In undergrad I took several poetry and creative writing classes, and began to read and write poems. I received encouragement, yet it wasn’t until I returned from the Peace Corps that I decided to pursue creative writing as a career and way of being. During the Peace Corps I kept journals, which became source material for my first book of poetry.
When you were overseas where else did you travel in Africa?
I traveled around most of Southern Africa. Schools in Lesotho arrange breaks around an agrarian calendar, so my school closed for about a month every January (summer), and again for one month in June-July (winter). I traveled in Namibia, Botswana—including a week-long mekoro (dug-out canoe) trip on the Okavango Delta, several times in Zimbabwe, to Swaziland, Mozambique, and all over South Africa. I still feel amazed and grateful that I visited so many places—even within South Africa, the landscape and human communities are wildly varied.
What were the impulses that inspired the African poems? Was it the language or people or Africa itself?
All of it! I loved learning and hearing the Sesotho language, and many poems in the book explore words’ nuanced meanings, such as the five-part poem “Now, Here” which joins translation of Sesotho words with exploration of cultural sensibilities. The rhythms of the Sesotho language definitely informed the poems, and some incorporate Sesotho words, which I felt helpful in transmitting a sense of people and place. People’s names also attracted me for the way they contained information about environment, and cultural values. For example, one common girl’s name is Relebohile, which means “We are thankful”, and another Letsatsi, “sun”—Lesotho has about 300 days of sun each year. And because I taught English to hundreds of students, particular quirks of Sesotho speakers learning English were repeated to me hundreds of times, like the overuse of the present continuous tense, which became the catalyst for the poem “Talking with Toka”—one of my favorites because I think of it as a sort of an ode to my students, and to their voices, and the way our languages met in the middle and took on a life of their own.
Many of the poems reference cultural beliefs, such that one should not sweep after dark because whatever collected on the floor might protect you during the night. Some poems try to capture the energy of a particular setting, such as the camp bus rink, a busy place with many voices—so the poem is a prose poem that attempts to recreate the controlled chaos of the place by including a profusion of names and objects and actions.
I tried to write poems that my friends in Lesotho, if they could read English, would approve of—I tried to show something vital and admirable about the place, being honest about its difficulties while remaining open to its joys.
Where are you teaching today?
I am Assistant Professor of English at California Lutheran University, in southern California, where I teach creative writing and literature.
How has your Peace Corps years relate to your teaching today?
I still think about immediacy, and application of knowledge/skills. In Lesotho, my students’ lives were strongly, sometimes painfully, grounded in the physical world—at any time they and their families might be working very hard to find adequate food, water, shelter, health care. I felt that our work in the classroom had to feel relevant, or at least acknowledge everyday immediacies. I also came to understand the power of literature, the potential for transformation, and how insight from poems and stories can feed aspects of our humanity (spirit, imagination) in necessary ways, too, and support our physical struggles.
Have you been back to your site?
Yes, once. Two years after I had left Lesotho, and started my MFA, I missed Lesotho terribly, and went back to visit for one month. It was beautiful to be back, and difficult to leave a second time.
What Peace Corps books (if any) have you read?
I’ve read work by RPCVs Sandra Meek, Philip Dacey, Paul Violi, Peter Hessler, Tom Bissell, Derek Burleson, and others.
Do you encourage your students to become PCVs?
Yes—I tell my students how formative the experience was for me, and that the Peace Corps has been one of the very best things I’ve done in my life. I’m honest about the challenges, while being quick to add that some of the concerns many people have before going, such as adjusting to limited amenities, turn out to be relatively easy to acclimate to.
What is the most vivid memory that you have of your tour in Lesotho?
I have strong sensory memories of the smell of cooking fires, silhouettes of women carrying buckets of water or firewood on their heads walking by, the crow of roosters, and every weekday morning the sound of my fellow teacher Ntate Letsie riding his bicycle past my house up the gravel road to school. And I have fond and sharp memories of sitting on my stoop and watching it get dark each night—I came to know the night sky intimately (not much else to do after dark!), and knew exactly when and where to watch for moonrise. I also played games of Scrabble several times every week with a group of teachers—Basotho, Ugandan, Canadian. We must have played hundreds of (a thousand?) games of Scrabble, and drank almost as many quarts of beer while playing.
Are you in touch with anyone from your group? Or who were PCVs?
Yes—my PC group was very close, and we’ve had several reunions over the years. I’ve stayed especially close to a few women I travelled with—one friend and I, though we live in different states, see each other almost every summer. And I recently reconnected with a fellow RPCV from Lesotho when I went to a writing conference in San Francisco where he lives. We marveled at how strongly we still feel connected even though it has been 20 years since we lived in Lesotho. Not surprisingly, the Peace Corps is an incredibly bonding experience.
Thank you, Jacqueline, for your time and your poems.
Thank you, John, and Marian for your website devoted to Peace Corps Writers.