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March 11, 2013

Travel writers: Eleanor Stanford

Eleanor Stanford’s memoir, Historia, Historia: Two Years in the Cape Verde Islands, is out this month from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography. Her first book, The Book of Sleep , was published in 2008 by Carnegie Mellon Press. Her poems and essays have appeared in Poetry, Ploughshares, The Harvard Review, The Massachusetts Review, and many other journals. She lives in the Philadelphia area.

How did you get started traveling?

When I graduated from college I joined the Peace Corps and was sent to Cape Verde, West Africa. While I was in the Peace Corps, I visited four of the nine islands that comprise Cape Verde, and Senegal as well. Both living and traveling as a Peace Corps volunteer gave me a clearer understanding of the sort of travel I was interested in doing: that is, not so much traveling, as living in a place long enough to have an inside view of what it was like. The next time I had such an opportunity was ten years later, when my husband and I moved to Salvador, Brazil with our three sons to work at an international school there.

How did you get started writing?

I started writing poetry when I was in college, then immediately after college I joined the Peace Corps, where I continued to write. When I returned to the States, I enrolled in an English Ph.D. program, hated it, and went to get my MFA in creative writing instead.

What do you consider your first “break” as a writer?

Having a poem accepted for publication in Poetry magazine when I was twenty-five. I remember standing on my front porch in Madison, Wisconsin, reading the letter and nearly hyperventilating. The poem later went on to win Poetry’s Union Arts and Civics award, which carried a prize of $1000, no small sum in the world of poetry publication.

As a traveler and fact/story gatherer, what is your biggest challenge on the road?

At this point in my life, with three little kids, my biggest challenge is getting out the door.

What is your biggest challenge in the research and writing process?

Finding the time, between family life and teaching obligations. Other than that, the writing itself is always a challenge, in its own frustrating, thrilling, mysterious way.

What is your biggest challenge from a business standpoint?

Finances and promotion. Especially as someone who is primarily a poet, these areas don’t come naturally to me, nor do they seem, to be honest, a natural outgrowth of or corollary to writing. I do promotion as best I can, with a lot of help from more adept friends and family.

Have you ever done other work to make ends meet?

All the time. I’ve been a Peace Corps volunteer, graduate teaching assistant, and high school guidance counselor in Brazil. Now I am an adjunct English and creative writing professor. (All of which are, sadly, only marginally more lucrative than writing.)

What travel authors or books might you recommend and/or have influenced you?

I’m inspired by journals and biographies of eighteenth and nineteenth century explorers and naturalists: Maria Sibylla Merian in Surinam, Lewis and Clark, Henry Bates in the Amazon, Darwin in Galápagos and my beloved Cape Verde. More recently, Geoff Dyer and John Jeremiah Sullivan. Also, poetry: Elizabeth Bishop in Brazil, Fernando Pessoa packing his bags for nowhere at all.

And, as a much-needed antidote to much travel writing, Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place: “You needn’t let that funny feeling you have from time to time about exploitation, oppression, domination develop into full-fledged unease, discomfort; you could ruin your holiday.”

What advice and/or warnings would you give to someone who is considering going into travel writing?

From my own experience, I would suggest writing and traveling for the joy of it, and finding another way to support oneself financially. But that’s just me — if you can find a way to make it work otherwise, more power to you.

What is the biggest reward of life as a travel writer?

The way that each experience, traveling and writing, deepens the other: traveling gives you something compelling to write about, and writing allows you to assimilate and reflect upon your travels in a more meaningful way–and hopefully to share the experience with readers as well.

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