Writer Sheryl St. Germain, Curator of Writers in the Garden 2012

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Sheryl St.Germain

Sheryl St.Germain, Director of Chatham University's MFA program in Creative Writing. Photo: Joseph Edgar

New Orleans native Sheryl St. Germain is a former guest reader at City of Asylum/Pittsburgh’s Writers in the Garden series and was chosen as the curator of this year’s event. Writers in the Garden, a reading event preceding the Jazz/Poetry concert, takes place from 3:30 to 5:00 p.m. Saturday, September 8th on the Mexican War Streets. Space is limited. For details and reservations: coapstaff@gmail.com

Seven years ago St. Germain came to Pittsburgh to direct Chatham University’s MFA program in Creative Writing. Under her direction, the program is flourishing and has gotten a nod from The Atlantic Monthly for being one of the most unique and innovative MFA programs in the country.

Meanwhile, St. Germain has also been publishing and gathering awards for her work. Most recently she received the William Faulkner Award for the personal essay. She has also been granted two National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship, the Dobie-Paisano Fellowship, and the Ki Davis Award from the Aspen Writers Foundation. Her oeuvre features several collections of poetry, including: The Mask of Medusa, Going Home, and Let it Be a Dark Roux: New and Selected Poems (2007). She has also published a collection of essays, entitled Swamp Songs: The Making of an Unruly Woman (2003). St. Germain’s latest, Navigating Disaster: Sixteen Essays and a Poem of Despair, published by Louisiana Literature Press, will be released on September 1.

Sampsonia Way met with St. Germain while she caught her breath on the final day of classes for the Low-Residency MFA program at Chatham. In this interview she talks about her work as a curator of Writers in the Garden, what kinds of skills she wants her students to learn, and how writing has helped her deal with more personal issues.

How did you select the poets for the Writers in the Garden event?

We pooled them from published Pittsburgh writers. What I tried to do was look for people who come from different places and represent different genres of writing. I was excited to include the poet Dilruba Ahmed, winner of the 2010 Bakeless Literary Prize. We’ve invited Sally Alexander, who has written both children’s literature and nonfiction. Her most recent book She Touched the World (2008) is about Laura Bridgman, a deaf and blind woman. Sally lost her sight when she was twenty-six. We’ve also invited Lori Jakiela, who is primarily a nonfiction writer but also writes poetry. She is quite funny. You may know her memoir about her time as a stewardess, Miss New York has Everything, A Memoir (2006). She teaches at The University of Pittsburgh, Greensburg and at Chatham. We have also invited Heather McNaugher, who often takes great risks in her writing—Toi Derricote wrote that her work “makes sheer thrilling leaps, like a daredevil rider.” We have also invited Marc Nieson, who writes fiction, nonfiction, and is also a screen writer. The feature-length screenplay The Speed of Life, for which he was a co-writer, won a special jury prize at the Venice film festival.

How will the event work on September 8th?

Each of the writers we’ve picked for Writers in the Gardens is assigned to a private garden in the Northside. Then small groups of people in a walking tour stop at each of the gardens. The writers read to the group for about seven minutes and, as that audience moves on to another garden, the writer welcomes a new group. Afterwards there’s a full reading including all the writers where they read something they haven’t yet shared with the audience.

Sheryl St Germain hands

Photo: Joseph Edgar

Let’s talk about your career as writer. Tell me about your soon-to-be-published work, due out on September 1st.

It’s called Navigating Disaster: Sixteen Essays of Love and a Poem of Despair. The title is inspired by Pablo Neruda’s Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair. There are a number of lyric pieces in it that respond to disasters such as Hurricane Katrina and the Gulf Oil Spill, but I also explore cultural disasters as well as some that are more personal. These are essays surrounding the concept of loss and disaster and how you navigate those, how you write about them. The book is a sort of follow-up to Swamp Songs: The Making of an Unruly Woman, a series of lyric essays I wrote about growing up in Louisiana.

I am very interested in what I call adventurous, or experimental forms. The last piece in the collection is a long ranging poem that moves in and out of prose and poetry. It moves all over the page, sort of how I imagine the oil spill would work its way through the water.

“…there is nothing like walking through a neighborhood and seeing cars knifed into the tops of homes; a home wiped away, just the front-step left; boats on top of one another. We went eight months after Katrina and it had not been cleaned up yet.”

You’ve taken your students to New Orleans several times. Why was it important for them to be there?

I wanted to share two aspects of Louisiana with them: New Orleans and the Cajun Atchafalaya Basin–the swamp. Both are important landscapes for me, and have inspired me as much as the culture in terms of my own writing. New Orleans is an incredibly difficult place, a paradox. It has the highest murder rate in the United States. I wanted my students to see how the passion for food and music and storytelling could live next to this violence.

I’ve written a lot about drug use and alcoholism and how it has affected my family. Too many people in my extended family have died from alcohol or drug-related deaths. But it’s not just my family; it’s a huge problem in New Orleans. One of the questions I asked in Swamp Songs and of my students was: “How does this kind of addiction come out of this particular culture and the landscape?”

I also wanted the students to see that the post-Katrina story being told by the national media, by CNN, wasn’t the complete story. I wanted them to see the destruction for themselves. I don’t care how many images you see on television, there is nothing like walking through a neighborhood and seeing cars knifed into the tops of homes; a home wiped away, just the front-step left; boats on top of one another. We went eight months after Katrina and it had not been cleaned up yet. I also had entrance to places the students wouldn’t have had entrance to; we even visited my mother’s home. It would have just been a tourist thing for them had I not taken them.

Race is still a problem in our country. The aftermath of Katrina is a reminder that we have a long way to go.

It’s really easy for me to love alcoholics and drug addicts. It’s harder for me to love racists. In general, my family is pretty racist. Most of them voted for David Duke, except for my mother. As a writer it has been difficult to know how to integrate that theme into a narrative that is not wholly about race. It is this thing that if it does come in, it takes over the whole story.

I have an essay in Navigating Disaster that was also published by The Iowa Review entitled “Nigger: Notes from a New Orleans Daughter.” In this essay I talk a lot of race in ways I had ignored it in Swamp Songs. I ignored it because I didn’t know what to do with it. “Notes” lays out my thoughts on the subject. Race is still a horrible problem in New Orleans as much as it is everywhere else in this country. It’s not just a problem in the South.

All of these things: Loss, Katrina, addiction, and your family factor into your work. How has poetry and writing helped you through the pain of loss? Does it lessen the grief?

I’ve kept a journal for probably forty-five years. Most of my early essays and poems came out of that journal. Since I did have an alcoholic father and a younger brother who died at a young age of a drug overdose there was a lot of loss around, a lot of craziness. The poems and the journal entries help me give a shape to that. I didn’t realize it at the time, but writing was a way of defining it—in these words, in these pages, here is what’s happening.

“I wanted to transform the detritus I was fed as a child into a gift for the reader.”

It’s a way to give order of your life?

Initially I was drawn to poetry because of metaphor. I found metaphor extremely powerful in trying to understand. I grew up three blocks from Lake Pontchartrain but during my childhood years it was polluted. There was this funky smell and you could see the fish floating on the water, but the crabs and catfish survived. They are scavengers, bottom feeders. As a child I remember thinking, “How can they have such white, sweet meat yet eat all this shit?” I became a writer because I grew up believing in the transformative power of words, of epiphany, insight. I think it’s because I knew I was going to be a bottom-feeder as a writer, just like those crabs and catfish. I wanted to transform the detritus I was fed as a child into a gift for the reader. Neruda talks about poetry being like bread. I like that. I have always wanted poetry to be nurturing.

What sort of things has being the director of the MFA program at Chatham allowed you to do as a writer?

Every year I take the students to a different country. We’ve been to Vietnam, Brazil, Costa Rica, and Ecuador. It exposes me to other cultures and enriches my own writing. I think travel is a very good thing for a writer; it makes you porous. Camus talked about being slightly afraid when you are in a new country—you are stripped of everything.

“You should always be taking risks in some way. What is the door that you’ve always been told you shouldn’t go through? What is the form you haven’t tried? What is the thing you tell yourself that you should never say or think about?”

What lessons do you want to get across to your students?

I want them to figure out their voices. When they come, they don’t know what to trust. Some of them are suspicious of reading other writers because they think that will influence them too much. So I talk about how you have a family of influences inside of your head, but how it comes out of your pen is unique. I try to help them become intimate with themselves.

I also hope that by the time they graduate they can know the difference between a written line that is weak, and a written line that is powerful.

You can write a really fine poem or essay with a lovely structure, but I don’t care a wit about it if you haven’t pushed boundaries. You should always be taking risks in some way. What is the door that you’ve always been told you shouldn’t go through? What is the form you haven’t tried? What is the thing you tell yourself that you should never say or think about? You grow as a writer by continuing to push against that.

Do you mean challenging yourself as a writer?

Yes. Kafka said, “Great literature is like an axe to break the frozen sea within us.” I don’t want to waste my time on something that is not going to change or challenge me in some fundamental way. It could be that I am less patient as I get older, but I don’t feel like wasting my time. I don’t want to teach my students to write work that is decorative, that’s pretty, and that’s going to get you published. What is the necessary thing to say? What is the thing that no one else is saying? That’s what I want them to say.

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