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An Interview with Van Garrett
For the past four years, Writers in the Schools has sent writers abroad in a program sponsored by the U.S. Department of State to promote the joy of creative writing to young people. Recently Van Garrett, a poet, artist, and teacher at Lanier Middle School, served as a writer-in-residence in the Baltic region of Latvia. While there he performed poetry at the Urban Arts Festival in Riga and led workshops for high school students at the American Corner. What follows is an interview between Garrett and WITS Communications Manager Jennifer Watson.
JW: Only a few writers are nominated for the Cultural Envoy Fellowship. What did you think when WITS notified you?
VG: When I found out that I was nominated, my mind raced with racecar momentum. I was curious about how and why I was selected, but more so curious about where Latvia is located and how I would interact with people that I had no prior knowledge about.
JW: Latvia is almost 6,000 miles away. How did you navigate through the cultural differences?
VG: Sharing with local artists and writers was fruitful and very educational. I became familiar with trends in writing in Europe and I addressed questions about some of the trends in writing in the States. Additionally, I saw how language is a tool that is used in very powerful ways throughout the world. A respect for my Latvian peers was immediately established and reciprocated.
JW: What was it like to workshop with creative writing students at the Totaldobze Art Center?
VG: My students were bright. Some of them are authors, professional musicians and actors, which made the six-hour workshop exciting and very engaging. We “workshopped with a metaphor” and we allowed fruit to provide inspiration as we uncovered levels of meaning in our writing, wrapping up the evening with student performances.
JW: A lot of your poetry infuses hip-hop, jazz, and blues. How did these genres translate to your audience abroad?
VG: Some of the students surprised me by bringing in a drum set and I was invited to play. That night I read and performed my poetry with two of Latvia’s well-accomplished jazz musicians and the performance was the precursor to an album that we are currently working on. I had a “jam session” / mini-concert with a member of the music faculty and became a part of a jazz combo consisting of a student saxophonist and a student pianist. Our arrangement of Herbie Hancock’s “Chameleon” inspired the audience, which erupted with applause. The unexpected performance, which mirrored many of the unexpected things that I experienced during my fellowship, was the exclamation mark to a productive and enjoyable time in Latvia.
JW: Did you have a chance to write during your travels?
VG: This is a poem from the collection that I wrote:
the rain even has her way
not too much talking
pressing gentle as snowflakes
visible as leaf flutters
barely noticeable sound
like the top hat of an umbrella
dragged across a lobby’s floor
or the knuckles of a trees branches
composing an afternoon’s lullaby
JW: You teach at Lanier Middle School. What experiences about your fellowship have you shared with your students?
VG: I have incorporated my findings into my reading and writing classes, as well as my cultural literacy class. I have used my newfound knowledge to teach my students about Latvia in interdisciplinary ways. My cultural envoy experience helped me to better understand the International Baccalaureate Program’s aim of being an internationally minded person, who recognizes common humanity, in order to create a better and more peaceful world.
You can see more photos and a TV documentary of Van’s tour on his website.