Althea Romeo Mark is an educator and poet who grew up in the U.S. Virgin Islands. She earned a B.A. in English and Secondary Education from the University of the Virgin Islands and a M.A. in Modern American Literature from Kent State University in the U.S.A. She considers herself a citizen of the world having lived and taught in the Virgin Islands, U.S.A, Liberia, England and now currently Switzerland. She has published 5 collections of poems as well as various short stories and poems in a variety of literary magazines.
1. You are being widely published, more so, recently your poetry were seen in prestigious Journals, this milestone is indeed an accomplished one. Mainstream magazines like the New Yorker would only be glad to publish you 1a. Who/what have been your literary influences?
I have been published by two prominent Caribbean journals. First The Caribbean Writer, which just published its 29th edition, and is published by the University of the Virgin Islands. It has been publishing my poems and short stories off and on, since the 1990’s. Then there is POUI, a literary journal from the University of the West Indies, which has just put out its 16th edition. Coming from the US Virgin Islands, having one’s work published in a journal from the University of the West Indies is considered a great achievement, as they tend to focus only the work of writers from former British colonies. Being published in the New Yorker will be a major achievement. I just need to do it. 1a. I have been part of a few anthologies on Caribbean writings. The earliest is Sisters of Caliban: Contemporary Women Poets of the Caribbean: A Multi-lingual Anthology edited by MJ Fenwick, USA, 1996; Karibia Forteller, published in Norway in 2001(in Norwegian); The Hampden-Sidney Poetry Review: Poetry of the Caribbean (Virginia, USA), WomanSpeak: A Journal of Writing and Arts by Caribbean Women, Bahamas 2014. I am also blessed to be part of Seasoning for the Mortar, a special anthology on Virgin Islands Writing, published by the University of the Virgin Islands in 2004, and have just signed an agreement for the follow-up anthology of Virgin Islands Writings, First the Kata, then the Bundle, which comes out in 2016. 1a.> I haven’t been influenced by [any] one particular poet, but have learned the craft of writing, and sculpturing poetry from Maya Angelo and Allen Ginsberg. Maya Angelo mentored young poets at a poetry workshop in Liberia in the 1980s and Allen Ginsberg, one of the famous Beat Poets, mentored young poets at the University of the Virgin Islands in the early 1970s. I think my rhythm might be influenced by the rhythm and rhyme of Calypso singers and writers, and the natural sing-song of Caribbean speech patterns. I am a visual person, so I like to work with images. I started out painting and drawing in high school, and switched to painting with words when I got to university.
2. With these accomplishments, what do you hope to still achieve in this celebrated sojourn?
I hope to be an established name in the Caribbean Literature, and maybe in the world. But that requires constantly being in the limelight which I tend to shy away from. Is more important that I can inspire others to fulfill their dreams of becoming great writers.
3. Would you say your writings reflect your collective personal life experiences?
Yes they do. All writings are inspired by experience, or some seed of truth planted in the world in which you live through mediums like news headline, your immediate environment, traditions, culture, history and the world in its crazy pulse of existence.
4. As an educator, what level of teaching do you find the most rewarding. Your students must be lucky to have such a well traveled and accomplished writer.
Teaching at university is very rewarding. I miss the intellectual stimulation provided by fellow lecturers and students. As a teacher you learn from the brilliance of students. Your role is not only to impart knowledge but to also to learn from the knowledge that students share. You evolve as a teacher as a result of that experience. There are many opportunities (forums, conferences, workshops, research) for growth offered in such an environment. Teaching English to people, for whom English is not their mother-tongue, is equally rewarding. You get to witness their transformation from speakers of a few English words to people who can hold an intelligent conversation. Students are motivated because they need English for work or to travel around the world. They recognize that English is the language used on the international stage for communication. Unfortunately, I haven’t had the opportunity yet to teach Creative Writing. It requires a language competence equivalent to mother-tongue English, and most students at that level are concerned with building their careers. I have offered courses though. A course needs to have a minimum of eight students to run. I have done booklets of descriptive essays written by my students though.
5. You quote that “I write because I have to,” could you please elaborate further?
For me, writing is like breathing and eating, things that are necessary, things you need to do to stay alive. You don’t think much about it. You just do it. The environment provides the stimulation. Sometimes when I see a blank page, I just have this urge to fill it with meaningful, communicative, transcending words. Fulfilling this desire can be very successful most times; there are times when the words are not ripe, and you cannot force them.
6. Are you working on another collection of poems to be published in the near future?
6a. Any advice to young writers and especially Liberian/Caribbean writers?
I have had a collection ready since 2014-2015, but I have written and published so many poems since then, I need to do a revision. Then, there is the nagging question of whether to self-publish or to send the manuscript to a Caribbean publisher. I do not teach at university, so I do not have contact with university presses. This is why I send my work out to various publications. One has to build a resume in the publishing world, so people can recognize your name when they see it. You need to publish several times a year to be taken seriously. 6a. If you love writing and want to establish yourself as a writer, you have to write, be open to others critiquing your work. You have to get the opinion of someone who can look at your work with an objective eye. Join a writers’ group. I have been a member of a writers’ group wherever I have lived (USA, Liberia and Switzerland). Writers’ groups help to stimulate the individual growth of writers. Do not be daunted by rejection letters. Sometimes you look back at work you sent out and realize that it was “crap” and your work was correctly rejected. I started writing as university student in the 70s and haven’t stopped. You have to be willing to learn from others, have determination and believe in your dream. You never stop learning as a writer. Take advantage of all opportunities for publishing that come up whether big or small. Remember: You are building that resume and preparing for the big break.
7. You are well traveled and have lived in many places, what was your favourite location to reside? 7a.You recently travelled to Africa as a guest poet, commendable indeed.
Liberia was the country in which I grew as a person the most. I arrived at a naïve age twenty-six. I became an adult there. I met my husband, married, had three children, survived several political upheavals, and had to declare myself a refugee upon arriving in England and decided to start over. I was forty then and had spent the prime of my life with beautiful, expressive people. I also learned about my Caribbean past because I heard some of the folktales my father told again in Liberia. One makes that connection and embraces one’s West African roots. 7a. I wanted to visit the African continent again and the Kisii International Poetry Festival provided that opportunity. It felt great to be back on the African continent, this time East Africa, to be among humble people with big hearts. The people in the villages were very welcoming. I missed that very much.
8. What would you like your writing to be most remembered for?
It is my hope that my poems carry a message about the strengths and weakness of human nature, whether it be the message of love, betrayal, the frailties of man or the continuity of traditions. It is my hope that they make some kind of impact.
9. Besides writing, what do you like to do in your leisure time?
I like to travel, if I can and learn about other cultures. Otherwise, I go to the gym and try to prolong my life by exercising. I need to do more of that unfortunately.
10. With all the places you have been, how many languages do you speak? Which is the hardest?
I speak only two languages: English and German. I understand Swiss-German. It is a medieval version of German, which I find difficult to express.
11. Thank you for your time Ms. Romeo-Mark, do you have any final thoughts?
As a writer, as long as you live, there is always something to write about. The world is fascinating, sometimes a disappointing place, filled with human beings exercising their will, not always in our favor or theirs, but we try to find the good in all the craziness that we live through. Life gives you so much food for thought…we learn as we go a long…
Warm summer night.
Windows flung open,
are dressed in curtains of light.
Old Mr. Sanderson across the way,
kneads his wife’s plump arms,
rubs her hands and swollen feet.
The scent of eucalyptus,
wafting into the air,
subdues the smells
of frying oils and salsa,
and settles in our noses.
The fragrant ointment
glistens on Mrs. Sanderson’s
thick, veined hands
and fleshy fudge-brown arms.
Her face, tense with the
hurdles of aging, slackens.
Evening ritual done,
Mr. Sanderson nestles
next to her and reads
from a well-read book
she had dedicated to him.
and made famous long ago.
It is then we shut out distractions,
shush those in mid sentences,
strain our ears to hear elegiac words
that speak and sing for a
voice now stilled by stroke.
In baritone, Mr. Sanderson reads
about seductive flesh and
love in spring shifting into summer.
There is no autumn or winter.
It is a love superior.
Republished with permission by Althea Romeo-Mark, from Moko Magazine, November 2014 issue (www.mokomagazine.org).