Thursday, April 23, 2009

Giving a Voice to the Voiceless: An Interview with Marjory Heath Wentworth

Yesterday we featured an interview with Tom Lombardo, editor of the poetry anthology After Shocks: The Poetry of Recovery for Life-Shattering Events. A number of poets in that volume will be reading at The Writer's Center on Sunday, April 26. To see the complete list of readers or to register for this free event, click here. Today's blog post is an interview with contributor Marjory Heath Wentworth, the poet laureate of South Carolina. Her poems have appeared in numerous books and magazines, and she has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize three times. Her collections of poetry include Noticing Eden (Hub City Writers Project 2003) and Despite Gravity (Ninety-Six Press 2007). Her most recent book is a children’s story called Shackles.

How did you become involved in After Shocks?

I think I first heard about After Shocks through a call for submissions on the WOMPO list serve.

Your poem, "Linthong," depicts the story of a Laotian refugee. For many years you worked in the field of refugee resettlement. Can you discuss what you did in that capacity?

In 1979 I won a fellowship to to work at UNHCR (UN HIgh Commission for Refugees) in Geneva. I was assigned to the eduction section, where I worked on developing materials for the refugee population in Somalia. The Boat People Conference was taking place at the time, and I was sent to some of these meetings for my department. This was the largest refugee crisis since World War II, and I began to learn about the genocide in Cambodia and became passionatley involved with their plight. When I returned to the US I studied the cultural assimilation problems for dispaced Laotion and Cambodian refugees and went to work in the field of refugee resettlement at The Whole World Institute in Boston and then at Church World Service in New York City. Over the years I worked with refugees from Eastern Europe, Haiti, Africa, and Latin America; as well as those from Indochina. Their stories continue to both haunt and inspire me. Sometimes a poet's job is to bear witness and give a voice to the voiceless. There's something inherantly redemptive about that process that is very rewarding.

The boy in "Linthong" is a kind of composite character. Every detail of his life is based on direct experience - from meeting incoming flights at JFK Airport to doing home visits in places like Lowell, Massachusetts. Imagine walking into an apartment where shoes were stored in the refrigerator? These kinds of specific details inspired the poem.

Water plays an integral part of "Linthong." I'd like to ask you about your creative process: Do you look for such images when you write the first draft—that is, do you know exactly what you're aiming for—or do you return to the material during rewrite and look for those images?

The role of water is important, and I am thrilled with your question. Geography plays such a pivotal role in political situations. Ports, for example, are critical places where battles are fought. Cambodian's juxtaposition to Vietnam determined its role in The Vietman War. Cambodia was neutral, but because of its location, the country was drawn into the conflict. I won't get into that particular history - the US bombing, Pol Pot, genocide - because I assume this is widely known. Water, it seemed to me, is a kind of metaphor for the global connections that exist. In "Linthong" it is the one constant element that ultimately controls his destiny.

I have always lived on the Atlantic, and I lived on a barrier island for 10 years, so it's hard to escape that imagery. With "Linthong," I wanted the water to unify the poem and reinforce the importance of geography in terms of his particular story. My poems often start with a specific image or group of sounds. This poem started with the description of shoes stored in the refrigerator and cooked food out on the cupboard, and it grew from there.

Creative writers are commonly told "write what you know." But, from your experience, what are some of the dangers of writing what you know?

The dangers of writing what you know can stifle the imagination or make novice writers worry about the facts of the poem than they should. What is actually true many not be best for the poem you are writing. The poem wants what it wants, and the poet needs to follow that thread.

You're the Poet Laureate of South Carolina. Can you tell us about your role? What exactly does a Poet Laureate do?

Right now I am in RI with Poets Laureate from all over the US. We are doing readings and teaching in schools throughout the state; as well as discussing what we each do back in our home states. There's a lot of public service involved, because our "job" is to bring poetry into people's lives in a variety of ways. There's no requirement - beyond writing poems for occasions like the governor's inauguration, the opening of a bridge I write a newspaper column on poetry that is published every other Sunday. I assume I am writing for a non-poetry audience, and I try to be informative and interesting. It seems to mean a lot of people.

I started a writing organizatin with my friend, poet Carol Ann Davis. It's called LILA, Lowcountry Iniatiative for the Literary Arts. We provide services to the writing community and the greater community. ( For example, we offer a reading series and writing workshops at the public library, poetry in the schools etc

Read Wentworth's poem "Hurrican Season" here.

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