When Sandra Meek finished her fourth book of poems in 2012, she wanted to turn away from the taxing, depressive reflection that went into her writing of “Road Scatter,” which came out of the emotional upheaval of losing her mother to cancer in 2007.
“I was hoping to get to something completely different,” said the Berry College English professor of 21 years.
It’s a hope that gave rise to her fifth book, “An Ecology of Elsewhere,” and the naming of her as the Georgia Author of the Year in poetry — the third time she has won the oldest literary award in the Southeast.
But before her words ever hit the page, Meek decided to travel. She returned after 20 years to Southern Africa, where she spent three years in the Peace Corps, from 1989 to 1991, in Botswana with her then-husband.
She made four extended trips to the region, reconnecting with the environment and culture she’d initially experienced as a young volunteer looking for excitement while doing something she could feel good about.
Meek said there were many difficult things about her first time in Southern Africa, as the region was gripped by the AIDS epidemic and abject poverty, and South Africa was in the final years of apartheid. In 1990 and 1991, she was in South Africa because “we really just wanted to witness what was going on at that time.”
“We went into South Africa at one point during the state of emergency, and it was … a disturbing atmosphere,” she said. “But I think that as Americans, sometimes, we think we’re so far away from that. And there were certainly connections, as well. The signs had just been coming down, you know the ‘whites only,’ at that point.”
Meek said she was able to see the economic growth of Botswana that is for the most part credited to diamond exports. In a region known for “blood diamonds,” she continued, the country has invested much of what they earned from selling diamonds into infrastructure and has developed a stable government, pulling themselves up to the classification of a middle-income nation.
But some things haven’t changed, and it’s something Meek addresses in her poem “The Skeleton Coast.” On the shorelines of Namibia, she recalled seeing seal slaughters during her time in Peace Corps. And when she returned several years ago, the slaughters were still taking place.
In 2009, Meek and her sister also began traveling with their father, who, at the time, had recently recovered from a “health crisis” that had him in his death throes before an experimental surgery at Emory University Hospital saved his life, she said. The theme of reconnection presented itself again to Meek, as her relationship with her father had for years been sullied by the “bad memories” of growing up with the fluctuations of her parents’ marriage.
“He told us at the hospital that he had been writing his memoirs,” Meek said, adding that the near-death experience was cause for him to finish.
A few months later, Meek’s father presented the memoirs to her and her sister in this way: “He said, ‘Do you want to find out now or later how bad of a guy I was.”
The sisters chose to read the book while he was alive, sparking a dialogue on the past between a father and his daughters.
“He was really a completely different person as an older man,” Meek said.
Her father died of cancer in 2011.
Meek’s first book was published in 2002 and grew out her dissertation, which shares the insights and experiences of her Peace Corps years. And her latest book, she said “is almost closing the circle in a way.”