By Hannah Eubanks | email@example.com
SUNDAYS are always best spent chatting with community members in the comfort of Milagros Coffee House. Jean Alger, a writer and teacher, joined the Citizen for a hot specialty latte to answer questions about their life as a creative in the Valley.
How did your passion for writing develop?
I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t writing, I mean obviously before I learned how as a child, but I think as soon as I knew my alphabet I was making up stories. I’ve just always written and I’ve always loved making up stories and engaging with that. Writing has always been a constant part of my life. When I was little we were encouraged to keep journals, so I would write about my day, but I would also write little poems. Terrible silly little kid poems, there was this one about a black cat and everything rhymes with ‘cat.’ It was cute for its age, but a terrible poem. I suppose it changed over time. When I started college I didn’t think I was the creative type – I thought I was the thinking type – so everything switched to academic papers and analysis. I sort of left off with the creative aspects of it. Then I got into writing poetry one year when a friend said, “Do national poetry month with me.” It’s a poem a day for the month of April and then I started going to open mics and doing poetry. That tapped me back into the more creative side of it.
What made you decide to teach writing?
Wanting to be a writing teacher came about my freshman year of college because I had the coolest English professors. Before that I was homeschooled so I didn’t have that interaction with other people, and interestingly enough I thought I was bad at English. In my independent study courses I never did well on the poetry quizzes. I couldn’t interpret poetry apparently. I had a really cool freshman composition professor, her name was Pearl Klein. I won’t say she awakened my creativity, but she helped me see there was more than one way to look at things. I wanted to be that person. They (the professors) were so passionate about their teaching and I feel like they saw me. I haven’t really felt seen or acknowledged before. I had that connection and it was really meaningful, so I wanted to do the same thing.
Most of the time people are so insecure that they don’t trust their voices, but they’re not vulnerable (enough) to say “I don’t trust my voice,” so they dig in. Teaching for me was life-changing to be exposed to all of these different ideas and to see the world that way. I wanted to be that person for students.
Why does teaching continue to be important to you?
I had the opportunity to start teaching in the Second Chance Pell Program that Trinidad State does. It’s a federal program that was off of a grant to see if having access to Pell Grants would help incarcerated people reduce their recidivism rate when they got out. Amazingly enough, having an education actually helps people do better when they get out of prison. I got to be a part of that. I had a little bit of an idea that “oh I’m going to be helping these students,” and I am but it’s one of those things where teaching saves and helps me.
I’m still doing the prison classes, and I’m starting to offer writing workshops in the community for those skills that I teach to college students that maybe people want without having to take a college class. I knew when I left college and decided to leave higher ed that I wanted to teach and still had to teach. In my life, no matter what is going on, teaching is the grounding thing. Offering those workshops and teaching yoga at Sweet Grass (Therapeutics) that still keeps me in that teaching mode so I’m not totally lost.
What is your favorite thing to write about?
I like to write about the reality of the world, as grim as it is. I’m always seeing intersections between things. I’m writing a piece right now that’s connecting reproductive rights, body positivity movement, misogyny/patriarchy, with capitalism. I’m looking at how we reduce everything to the functions of our bodies. With poetry I like to dig into nature or deep visceral emotion. I guess I like to write about unhappy things, but I do nature poetry so that’s happier … until the global warming sneaks in and then it’s grim again. I lean more toward creative nonfiction and poetry.
How has living in the Valley influenced your writing?
I think the way the influence is most obvious is in my poetry. When I was going to open mic nights and reading my poetry I was mostly writing about dating and romances and hookups and the horror of dating apps. Since I moved here my poetry has been much more landscape focused, the intersection between humans and landscapes. My subject matter has shifted, partly because my lifestyle shifted. Here I’d say that I’ve had space to heal and I think my writing reflects that. I’m less “look at the problem,” but “let’s look at the problems and the solutions.” Living in the Valley has encouraged me to get more outside of the box than I was. Much more nature focused, much more environment focused, and writing from a place of healing gives a different vibe to what I’m doing.
Walking in the dry riverbed feet crunch on gravel
sound eaten by white rocky expanse
Follow the wash and the stone
grows nearer and nearer
caverns looming overhead.
Imagine when water covered the desert:
What lived there?
Monstrous fish lurking, or mermaids
hiding among weeds?
Over centuries the water shaped the rocks
formed canyons, pathways.
I follow them now
They close around me
Until I find a small trickle
A shallow puddle visited only
by dragonflies and wasps.
I marvel that the soft laugher of water,
the once roaring force that shaped this valley,
is the only sound the stone doesn’t swallow.
Sinking in wet sand
while water flows over skin
Nothing roots me
soothes me like this moment.
I wake and find myself in desert
Storm clouds over mountains
the promise of rain.
Wind kicks up dust instead.
Grit on my teeth and tongue.
I drown for lack of water.