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2005 Writers Forum
Jeanne Morel ~ with curator John Mifsud

Jeanne Morel lives in Seattle and teaches writing at Bellevue Community College. She has an MA in Adult Education from Antioch Seattle and an MA in Southeast Asian Studies from the University of London. She writes poems and short prose pieces. She is currently working on a poetry manuscript entitled Big Guns Big Elephants that reflects her experience living in Cambodia, and on a series of essays and stories that reflect her experience working with prisoners in this country. Her poetry has been published in Cranky, Chrysanthemum, The Texas Observer, and Washington English Journal. Jeanne Morel photo
Jump to excerpts from this conversation:
Personal Background Influences Outreach
(2,3)
Place
(2)
Future Work Writing Habits Why Write
photo credit:
dean wong
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JM



I'd like to welcome our listening audience to the Jack Straw Writers Program. My name is John Mifsud and I'm sitting here with Jeanne Morel. Jeanne, would you tell us a little bit about your own background?
Jeanne



Well, I grew up in Seattle, since I was four. That makes me sort of a native. For most of my adult life I worked with refugees in Seattle, in one capacity or another. Teaching, job-finding, et cetera.
JM


A lot of the writing that you're doing is about refugees, and I'm wondering if there's a connection, how does that resonate for you personally?
Jeanne








Well, I started doing refugee work when I was a young adult, and I suppose at that time it resonated with my experience in my family. My mother was a mathematician, and most of her friends, her colleagues, were from other countries. Her family was Jewish and her mother was born in Romania, so there's always seemed a connection between that part of my family history and the social history of my parents growing up, and the work that I was drawn to.
JM


A lot of the works that you submitted for this series have centered around Cambodia, and Cambodian refugees. Tell us more about that. What is it about that country?
Jeanne











I lived in Cambodia for a little more than two years, and going there was sort of a natural extension of my work in Seattle. So that's an easy answer about how I got to Cambodia…But, I find the answer you're looking for much harder to articulate, and perhaps that's why I do it through poetry or essays. There's a famous journalist who interviewed Pol Pot, and I was at a bar, the same bar with him one night, in Phnom Penh, and someone asked him "Why Cambodia?" and he said very simply, "I don't have an answer for that. People ask me all the time, but I don't have an answer for that." So, I put it in my poetry, and it's up to people to make whatever determinations they like.
Place

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JM

Well, would you share one of your pieces with us here, so we have a sampling?
Jeanne
Sure. This piece is "Sestina Like Musings."
<reading>
JM

What was going on in Cambodia the two years that you lived there?
Jeanne








Well, I was there almost ten years ago now, and it was two years after the United Nations had gone in and sponsored the election. At that time it was the largest peacekeeping mission of the United Nations to date. So it seemed a time of optimism and renewal. It was also a confusing time of people solidifying power, and different mixes of old and new, and people who had stayed and people who were returning. But it seemed very vibrant to me to be living there as a foreigner.
Place

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JM And how did people respond to you there as an American?
Jeanne








Well, I always felt that I was taken care of, and that people would protect me, in a sense. In general, foreigners were treated with some deference, sort of like white gods who had dropped from the sky. When the UN went in they were making enormous sums of money in a very impoverished country. And then there's the mix and the trouble you see all over the world with people who've lived in America returning, seemingly wealthy, so there're all those issues going on.
JM And what encouraged you to go there?
Jeanne






Well, the country was opening up and there was opportunity to go there, whereas it had been closed for a very long time. It seemed a natural progression from my work with Cambodians in Seattle. I had also visited many refugee camps in Thailand throughout the years, so it seemed a natural progression to move to Cambodia when that was an option.
JM

And did you have a goal for being there, did you have a mission, a job?
Jeanne





The first year I was there I actually went with an organization that was modeled after the Peace Corps, and it was intended primarily to send Cambodian Americans back to rebuild the country. But, I spoke some Khmer, so I was accepted to that program. And the second year I had a fellowship and I worked at the university.
JM And what did you do there?
Jeanne



I worked with a group of Khmer English language teachers, who had formerly been Russian language teachers. And I did some English teaching and English training with them. And I also worked a bit with students.
JM Will you read another piece for us?
Jeanne Sure. This piece is called "Post Office."
<reading>
JM








You know, when I was reviewing the many, many writers that submitted work this year, I was taken by the visual image-I'm a visual person, so you're writing really appealed to me-aside from the fact that it was about a country that I have some interest in as well. So, I guess I'm wondering how what you experienced has come to play in your writing. Or is there some sort of conjuring, did it have to do with your being there? Was this writing before you went or after? How did the experience of seeing life there feed you?
Jeanne






That last poem that I read, I wrote actually when I was taking a workshop at Richard Hugo House. Sometimes start lines of poems come to me and I go with them, other times it works for me to be in a class, or pick up an assignment that has nothing to do with the content, and the content just fills it out. So that's what happened with that particular poem.
JM


I'm wondering if there's another body of work that's calling you, or what the future might look like for your writing-do you know?
Jeanne




I also have a smaller body of work related to my volunteer work in prisons, and that's more essay and not poetry. I guess that's the only other work that would qualify as a 'body of work,' but I have different things that go in different directions.
JM Tell us about your work in the prisons.
Jeanne









I started volunteering in the prisons about four years ago. I was called to come in by a man named Ari Adaka, who has since passed away, but he was the first Buddhist chaplain in Washington State Prisons. And he called me one day and he said, "You know, I go out to Clallam Bay, and there's this group of five Cambodian guys who are always there, and, why don't you come and talk to them?" So, that's how I got into prison work. And prisons are fascinating microcosms of society. So, I've continued to go off and on through the years.
Outreach

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JM What have you learned from going in, the inside?
Jeanne




















I guess part of my answer is I don't know, and that's why I write about it. Sort of the same-sometimes I don't like to talk about Cambodia and my experience in Cambodia, but I put it on paper and people are welcome to make their interpretations. I guess a simple answer would be that going on the inside is not any different from going anywhere else. And the people you meet, present very similarly to people you meet in classrooms or other situations. So it's very familiar, and that's one reason I'm drawn to it. It has a lot of echoes to me. The first time I went out to Clallam Bay… it's a beautiful drive, it takes a long time, you go by the Sound, the mountains. You go into this very regimented place where you don't know anything about the people, except how they're presenting at that very moment. And it reminded me of the first time that I went to a refugee camp on the Thai-Cambodia border. It was a beautiful drive, you know, it's sort of a lark. And you're meeting with these people who are having a completely different experience. So there are a lot of resonances for me, in the prison work. And that's what keeps me going back and writing down some words on the paper.
I don't often talk about my writing. I have a sister-in-law who's a painter, and she says, "I've learned not to tell people what I was thinking when I made these paintings, because they're always really disappointed." And I have a certain resonance with that. And another thing about my writing is that, I may not be the one to talk about it, or not in the present. Sometimes my writing takes on completely different meanings to me, after a number of years or after events happen, that shed a whole new light on what I wrote. I've had some cases where something seemed very prophetic, and if someone read the poem they would think they knew exactly what in my life I was referring to, and I actually wrote the poem a year before that event happened. And, the same with this poem, "Catastrophe" that I just read a little bit ago. Something happened this summer that can be read into this poem. So, I prefer just to put it out there, and see what happens.
Why Write

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