Jeanie Thompson is an award-winning writer, editor, literary arts educator, and arts advocate in her home state of Alabama. Her poetry collections include The Myth of Water: Poems from the Life of Helen Keller, The Seasons Bear Us; White for Harvest: New and Selected Poems, Witness, and How to Enter the River. With Jay Lamar, Jeanie edited The Remembered Gate: Memoirs of Alabama Writers.
She holds an MFA from the University of Alabama, where she was founding editor of the literary journal Black Warrior Review. She has been awarded Individual Artist fellowships from the Louisiana State Arts Council and the Alabama State Council on the Arts. In 2003, the University of Alabama College of Arts and Sciences awarded her the Distinguished Alumni Artist of the Year.
Since 1993, she has directed the Alabama Writers' Forum, a statewide literary arts organization in Montgomery whose literary arts education program, Writing Our Stories, has provided creative writing instruction for at-risk youth since 1997. She consults with other educators on literary arts education opportunities in Alabama, and she is a state arts advocate, helping arts educators and elected officials learn more about opportunities in Alabama. Jeanie teaches in the Spalding University low-residency MFA Writing Program in Louisville, Kentucky.
Joyce Brown: Your poems in The Myth of Water are brilliantly written. What helped you imagine Helen Keller’s voice and her perception of the world? In what ways do you feel connected to her?
Jeanie Thompson: When I became interested in Helen Keller, I knew immediately that this could be done in persona, but because the material was so potent to me, I wanted it to be a play, or a screenplay or something like that. Finally, I decided to go ahead and write persona poems to tell the story I wanted to tell, and it turned out to be the right way to go.
It was easy for me to feel connected to Helen’s story. She was from Alabama of course, and she was always somebody that people looked up to and is an icon of sorts. She was born in Tuscumbia, Alabama, which is in the northwest part of the state, and I was from Decatur, which is in the north-central part of the state. The Tennessee River flows through both of these towns, so that's where the river imagery in the book comes from because I had lived on the same river.
Then as I was reading Helen’s biography that was published in 1999 by Dorothy Herman, I discovered that her sister Mildred Keller Tyson once had a home in Montgomery. As it turned out, Mildred's house was only a few blocks from where I was living at the time. What I learned that kickstarted the whole thing was that Helen had fallen in love with a man named Peter Fagan. When Annie Sullivan was ill and couldn't be Helen’s teacher and companion any longer, Peter, Annie’s estranged husband, became Helen’s attendant. Helen's mother didn't want her to marry Peter and brought her back to Montgomery. Helen and Peter made plans to elope, but he didn't show up to meet her the night they were supposed to do it.
This story was very sad, and it all happened on the front porch of her sister's house. As it turned out the house that I thought she had tried to elope from is not the house that I knew that was close to me. It was a different house that no longer existed, but I was so moved by that story because I could literally see where it happened and picture what it was all like.
I researched Helen through her biographies, letters, and books that she wrote. As I did all this research, I felt like I was getting to know her, and getting inside her head, and what she thought, and how she felt. She became a real dimensional character to me. I would research a particular time in her life, like when she went to Japan, and I'd immerse myself in it. After two or three hours of that, I would begin to get an idea for a poem and work on it. It was an odd process, but not that odd for a writer.
The first poem in The Myth of Water was written in 2006. Not the first notes, and not the first ideas, but the first poem. I didn't have a lot of time to write, so it took a long time. The book was probably in manuscript by about 2011, and then it got some more edits before it went to the final version that was published by the University of Alabama Press in 2016.
Joyce: I read that you were pleased that the book launched the same day Hillary Clinton accepted the nomination for president. Why was that especially significant to you?
Jeanie: The book is dedicated to my mother who died the day before it was announced that my book was coming out. My mother was deeply involved in Alabama politics, and she shaped my vision of how the world could be a better place. When we did the launch, a lot of my mother's friends who were also involved with politics were there. I thought it was serendipitous that we were launching the book, and it was dedicated to my mother, and Hilary was accepting the nomination. It all felt really wonderful at that moment.
Joyce: From reading about you and your work, it seems that you have a deep connection and affection for your home state of Alabama; is that a fair statement?
Jeanie: I was born in Alabama, and was educated first grade through graduate school in Alabama. It’s a problematic state because it has such a checkered past and a complicated history. It also has tremendously talented people in the arts, and in education, and some people in the state who are passionate fighters for justice. Those are all things that are important to me. But I'm not blindly dedicated to Alabama because it's my home state. We're so talented here, and yet we get tripped up in all of these issues that we have, but I don't think that Alabama's really that different from a lot of places.
Joyce: Tell me about the Alabama Writers' Forum and its arts education program, Writing Our Stories. What prompted you to offer writing instruction for at-risk youth?
Jeanie: I was introduced informally to the program through somebody who was a state legislator, who wanted to do something charitable for the youth at this particular campus, and he wanted to do it in person rather than just sending presents or something. I went out there with him, and we had a Christmas program informally. He wanted me to talk to the students about writing. My book Witness had come out about a year before, so I read a few memory poems to them from the book. I thought they might connect with those.
I talked with several of the students, and I learned that they wrote songs, and another one tells me that he writes poetry. I got the idea that I'd like to do a service project there. It turned out that we got an invitation to be in a contract with the Alabama Department of Youth Services to provide a creative writing class on the campus for nine months, within their schools, and that's how it started.
I had taught poetry in the schools in New Orleans years before and loved the idea of the “poet in the school” concept, where a poet goes in the classroom, teaches a lesson, and then the teacher in the classroom observes this and can do it herself or himself. I modeled it on what I had done before. We’re now in our 20th year, and we've published more than 60 books of youth poems and fiction through Writing Our Stories. I call it my heart and soul program.
Alabama's juvenile justice system has gone through a lot of changes during the time that we've been in partnership with them. They’re now a leader nationally in many aspects of juvenile justice. It’s something that people are not going to know out there in the world necessarily, but it's true. I'm really happy and proud to be a part of that. What they're trying to do, in a nutshell, is have fewer youth in an incarcerated setting, and have more of them stay close to home and be able to go to their hometown school.
Currently, the services aren’t evenly distributed around the state, but the idea is you don't bring a 14-year-old who's convicted of possession of marijuana into a setting where he's going to be around kids who have committed much worse offenses and learn worse things. You want to have a more nurturing, therapeutic environment. If they’re at these campuses, they get quite a bit of really fine care, and the schools are looking out for all of the things that they'll need to succeed. They can even work on their GED.
When these at-risk youth leave the program, they tend to be more on track when they go back home. It's interesting because this is a part of what I do at the Alabama Writer's Forum that's not very public because we have to protect the identities of these kids by law. I'm known in other theaters that are more public with the Writer's Forum, but yet this is the program that I think is the one we can't do without.
Joyce: Why is it necessary for writing students in these types of programs to express their personal life narrative?
Jeanie: First of all, I think arts should be an integrated, vital part of every school, and that all young people should have arts available to them. After years and years of being so focused on STEM, and on programs like No Child Left Behind, the arts have been pushed out. Now there's a reversal of that trend. Now we're making strides on what arts educators in Alabama are calling artistic literacy.
I believe children and youth should have arts in the schools because that's the only way you can really be a well-rounded person. I know when I was in elementary school, we had chorus, we put on plays, we made things. It's pretty shocking how little time is spent on arts in the elementary level sometimes. Your imagination is what it's all about. You're not going to be a great scientist if you don't have an imagination. Lack of imagination is the main reason that we have some of the problems we have in this country today. People can't imagine the world in a way that would be better for everybody.
Writing, especially for incarcerated youth, gives them an outlet to say things that they might not be able to say because they just don't feel comfortable, or they don't feel safe. Frequently in the writings of these young people you'll find them talking about friends or parents or relatives who have been killed. They also talk about how much they miss their parents. They express their love for their grandmothers because a lot of them are raised by a grandparent when a parent goes off the rails somehow. They express remorse for what they've done, and they have a safe way to do it. Their poetry is their territory. It's their words, and they are not going to be judged or punished, or anything because of what they say in the poem.
Also, educators in correctional settings point out that they develop a stronger sense of empathy for their fellow man and woman. If you're trying to get somebody to understand why he shouldn't commit a crime, he has to understand what he's doing to the victim. You can't understand the victim if you can't empathize with the victim. We don't press that point to them the way I just said it, but it happens organically. The counselors and therapists at the schools say they can always tell which students are in Writing Our Stories because they're so much more articulate in their therapy sessions. We hope that maybe if they write, and enjoy it, that it will help keep them on the right path. The R-I-G-H-T path, and the W-R-I-T-E path.
Joyce: How does teaching help you with your writing?
Jeanie: It helps me stay in touch with things that I already know, but I may discover something that I'd forgotten that's a technique or skill, or maybe it’s just something that's inspiring. If I can lead a student to write a poem that excites her, and excites me and excites other people, then that validates the work. Not that poetry needs validation, but it does validate it, so teaching is a way to stay in touch.
Now I have to say, the way I teach is very selective because I'm in a low-residency program where I don't have that many students a year. I'm not teaching the way I first started out which was not good for my writing at all because I was just teaching composition and grading papers. Nobody cared if I was a poet or not, so that was pretty deadening. When you can teach in a way that keeps you in touch with the thing that you're passionate about, then it stays interesting.
Joyce: What projects do you have lined up for 2017?
Jeanie: I still have a lot of traveling for The Myth of Water. I’m planning to write an essay about Writing Our Stories for an anthology that's being compiled by a visionary arts educator. I have an idea for another historical persona project about a naturalist from England who visited Alabama in the 1830s. You can't talk about things too much, or you jinx them, but that's what I want to do.
When you promote and market a book it takes a lot of your creative energy, so I'm not writing any poems right now, and I've been sad about that. But I’ll write again soon. I've been really happy with how people have responded to the book, so that encourages me. I don't have anything planned to be published in 2017, so it’s going to be more about starting new things.