Musings on Kenya

Posted on 26 July 2012

The Southampton Review (TSR) is as thick as a verbose novel, and in its bound pages readers can find everything from poetry and photography,  to lectures and fiction. Now in its sixth year, the literary anthology tied to Stony Brook Southampton’s Writers Conference and its fast-growing MFA program will celebrate the newest edition this Friday at Stony Brook Southampton’s Avram Theatre.
This issue of The Southampton Review includes a 75-page homage to last winter’s Kenya Writers Conference, during which about 15 students and faculty traveled to the Turkana Basin Institute in northern Kenya to study poetry with Julie Sheehan.
“The Turkana Basin is the cradle of language,” says Lou Ann Walker, editor-in-chief of The Southampton Review, “and what’s important to us is indeed celebrating language and art. That’s what they found there with the poetry workshop, with the lectures by Richard Leaky. What a wonderful chance to get Richard Leaky into TSR talking about language and paleo-anthropology in a way that writers and readers can really respond to.”
The Turkana Basin Institute was founded as a collaboration between the Leaky family and Stony Brook University, and as Stony Brook Southampton expands its programming, Kenya offered an exciting leap. First, the MFA program opened a campus in Manhattan, then it began a conference in Florence, Italy and this past year, brought writers to Kenya.
Julie Sheehan, who led the poetry workshop in Kenya, found a common thread between the writers’ contributions to the anthology that went beyond the subject matter and the place.
“I guess it’s what you would call in theater, breaking the fourth wall,” says Sheehan. “It’s when reality can’t be contained by the box. So if you open the Turkana section, you look at the words and see a lot of sprawl. There’s an expansiveness. A lot of our contributors usually write tight little poems, and these are uncontainable.”
The new Southampton Review is 260 pages, and of those pages, about 75 are devoted to the Kenya Writers Conference.
“Elsewhere in the magazine, you’ll see the kind of white space that you’d expect when you encounter a poem,” says Sheehan. “In Kenya, you’ll see the page is filled and probably started before the page and continues long after. There’s a sense of bursting out. And you look at the images and see the landscape. That sense of space that you rise to meet and fill.”
Like any intense experience, the writers’ response to Kenya was anything but simple. Christian McLean, director of the Kenya and Florence Writers Conferences, contributed several photographs and a personal essay to The Southampton Review. He explores the struggle he felt in photographing in Kenya.
“The piece deals with the difficulty in photographing people without feeling like you’re intruding on  their lives,” says McLean. “The dilemma is that with every 12 or 15 or 30 people we bring there, every action will change the Turkana culture slightly. The more they see iPhones, it will change, and I can’t say it’s for better or worse, but it will change their lifestyle and their perspective of the world.”
Other pieces in the magazine also depict the exchange between cultures, from an image of a Southampton student and a Turkana resident sharing a doum palm date to a piece by Adrienne Unger about the two groups singing to one another.
“There’s a lot of lyricism in those sections,” says Walker. “It was a chance for the people who were there to muse on language. To hear their own language in a foreign place. You think more about each word as you’re processing the language, and writing about fresh experiences that are so different from what you’re writing back home.”
McLean notes Stony Brook Southampton values the relationship between travel and writing, which is why the program abroad presence continues to grow.
“We’re planning on going back to Turkana in a few years,” says McLean, “but first we’ll be taking our students to Florence this year, and hopefully to Cuba in January of 2014.”
The general public is invited to hear readings and see images from The Southampton Review this Friday, July 27 at the Avram Theatre. The afternoon will be devoted to the Kenya Writers from 2:30 to 4:30 p.m. That evening, Poet Billy Collins and Essayist Roger Rosenblatt, who have both been included in every issue of The Southampton Review to date, will read.
“Roger will be reading from his new memoir,” says Walker, “a work in progress called ‘The Wanderer. ‘It’s a delightful tour of his childhood in Manhattan. His work is always so full of humor, and so thoughtful. Billy Collins as well is incredibly fun to listen to: following his thought processes in the poems, thinking about the use of language.”
The Southampton Review is an undertaking. Walker notes that every year, hundreds of pages of work by established and emerging artists and writers are edited, printed, and bound. But feeling the volume in hand is a priority.
“We really feel that it’s important to have books as objects,” says Walker, “and we really care about the design of it, that it be a book that is worthy of the art that’s in it …  I like the idea that people can physically connect with these writers and these works of art.”
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