Editor's Note: For this week's paper, freelance writer Keenan Walsh interviewed St. Michael's College anthropology professor Adrie Kusserow in conjunction with his review of her new book of poems, titled Refuge.
The review appears in "State of the Arts," but space did not permit including this Q&A, in which Kusserow talks about "ethnographic poetry," her humanitarian work in South Sudan and why she wants mosquito nets for her birthday.
SEVEN DAYS: How does poetry fit into your work as an anthropologist?
ADRIE KUSSEROW: Poetry is at the very core of my work as an anthropologist and humanitarian. Anthropologists are supposed to be good at what Clifford Geertz called “thick description.” We don’t just sit in libraries and surf the internet for data; we live and participate in the very muddy, messy lives of those we want to understand. Hence, our writing should reflect that depth of involvement and insight, ethically and epistemologically. Many of my poems have intentionally viscous titles (“Mud,” “Milk,” “Yolk”) because I refuse the spurious distancing from the world portrayed and assumed by so much academic writing, where subjects are often frozen in time, sporting one coherent and unified culture through pretty rituals and writing that doesn’t attempt to unhinge the reader.
I fell in love with writing poetry because it helped me investigate and honor a whole landscape of deep emotion, unspoken inequalities and conceptual complexity that I wasn’t seeing or feeling in conventional academic writing. Far from documenting a neat life, a poem, in its very nomadic vagrancy and line length, rhythm and unsettling metaphor, can depict the borderlands, the liminal places of confusion of a refugee, their internal tug of war.
SD: How does ethnographic poetry fit into the “poetic tradition,” for lack of a better word?
AK: Recently I was part of an anthology … [The Strangest of Theatres: Poets Writing Across Borders, ed. Jared Hawkley, Susan Rich and Brian Turner, published jointly by the Poetry Foundation and McSweeney’s Publishing, 2013], and like one of the editors, I believe (as Brian Turner says), “This is a time in which a deep, sustained and global interaction is necessary to reinvigorate the poetic landscape at home.” Many poets go from one MFA to another, without much sustained and meaningful interaction with the world beyond our borders. Travel and the experience of being on someone else’s ground can unsettle, unhinge, crack the writer open in astounding ways.
SD: As an academic who writes poetry, do you see “critical” and “creative” as mutually exclusive, overlapping or false categories?
AK: I see them not as separate categories, but in more of a dialogue. That said, I’m not wild about either term, insofar as it excludes the other!
SD: Who are some of your favorite poets? Who do you consider to be poetic influences?
AK: One of my biggest poetic influences is Bruce Weigl, a Buddhist and Vietnam War veteran and poet. I write to him almost every other day asking him question upon question, showing him my poems. My husband, Robert Lair, is one of my best editors. Also huge poetic influences are the experiences I’ve had in Nepal, India, Bhutan, Uganda, South Sudan and the Vermont land I am lucky enough to live on. Carolyn Forché is a poetic hero of mine — her life as poet and activist were a great inspiration for me in grad school. Other contemporary poets I love to read besides Bruce Weigl are Mark Doty, Galway Kinnell, Yusef Komunyakaa, early Mary Oliver, Li-Young Lee, early Sharon Olds, Charles Simic, Louise Gluck and Jane Kenyon.
SD: Tell me about your recent humanitarian work.
AK: I work with Africa Education and Leadership Initiative, the nonprofit my husband and some of the Lost Boys of Sudan resettled in Vermont started some years ago. My focus is primarily on girls’ education there. The Nuba Mountains are the new Darfur, creating a second wave of Lost Boys and Girls into the very south of Sudan. I’m headed there next month, mostly to see how the Nuba refugee youth are that we support with school tuition, and to continue to try and get them into the schools we started or support in Yei.
Malaria is a problem for these refugees, who have fled the bombings and have hitched rides with military convoys looking for school. Most of them don’t know if their parents are alive. Most Nuba are surviving on bugs and leaves while they hide in the caves. No humanitarian aid is allowed into the Nuba Mountains. The few girls that get out alive have also left Yida refugee camp because of the high incidence of rape and the likelihood of being sold into early marriage. Last time I was there, I met girls living with 17 other boys in a “room” sharing one mosquito net between them all. So for my birthday, I’m having everyone give me $8.50, the cost of a mosquito net in South Sudan.