Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Long time coming: Thoughts on anti-racism protests at Mizzou

I watched the full video of the Concerned Student 1950 protest that took place at the homecoming parade of my alma mater. The video makes me feel a lot of things, but one of them is a sense of admiration for their commitment to advancing discussion and policies. These students took their grievances about institutionalized racism to the top and made themselves be heard by banding together (literally linking arms).

Their grievances are serious.

This morning, USA Today reported a story about threats of violence directed at black students in the wake of the protest movement that led to the resignation of the university's president.

The repercussions of these racist acts (past and present) are also serious.

While I was a student-reporter at Mizzou, I remember a discussion I had with a woman working at a mall in St. Louis. When I told her I was reporting a story for the Columbia Missourian (the J-School's community newspaper), she told me that she used to go there. She said one of the reasons she left was that she didn't want to deal with the racist culture. She recalled being a student during the vandalism incident that took place at the Black Culture Center in 2010. Two men were arrested in connection with littering the center's front lawn with cotton balls.

I know that my sister, Claire Stigliani, heard from her black students about the routine use of racial slurs around Mizzou's campus. I know that she was troubled by the incidents that were reported to her.

Today, I am moved by watching what these students have accomplished. I know that much more work has to be done.

I also wonder if that woman I met at the mall has seen this video and if she ever found a way to complete her college degree.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Following Bernie, falling for Iowa

I felt proud and impressed after three days reporting on Bernie Sanders’ first campaign trip to Iowa.

I’m aware that I just typed a four-letter F word in my lede. A journalist referring to how she “felt” stinks of bias — another dirty word in most J-schools and newsrooms. But this admission comes without reservation because my feelings are for the people of Iowa rather than the 73-year-old Vermont senator.

Iowa corn field somewhere between
Kensett and Cedar Falls on May 30, 2015. 
Though Sanders was the focus of my coverage, it was the Iowans, themselves, that captured my interest. My history with Iowa goes back to the fourth grade when my family moved more than 1,000 miles from Massena, New York, to Cedar Falls. It was January when I first saw Iowa’s snow-covered fields spiked with the remnants of the previous summer’s corn stalks. At school, I stuck out as an olive-skinned East Coaster among my blond, athletic classmates whose names sounded Germanic and Scandinavian.

With time, the snow melted and bright green corn stalks grew again. It took several more seasons for Iowa to become my home and for my classmates and neighbors to become my community. Somehow they did. And I realized while covering Sanders’ campaign that Iowans are still very much my kind of people.

With my grandmother, Christine, outside her home
in Cedar Falls, Iowa, on June 1, 2015.
Though I now live in Vermont, my Iowa roots remain intact through my parents and my 100-year-old grandmother, who moved there to be near her daughter, my mother. They were the whole reason I went to Iowa in the first place. Sanders’ presidential bid provided a fortuitous convergence of my past and present.

In my regular work life, I’m an editor who spends most of my days in the Burlington Free Press newsroom. I’m familiar with politics only to the extent that I read and edit political stories on an almost daily basis.

My stint on the Sanders beat was the result of a friend and fellow journalist’s encouragement of my interest in reporting and writing. The idea was to cover Sanders early in the campaign before many major news outlets began paying attention. It was also a story that I knew would have interest in Burlington, where Bernie — as he is known — is a household name.

After clearing the idea with my boss, I bought my own ticket to Iowa and began contacting Sanders’ campaign organizers along with Iowa Democrats. Two short weeks later, my mother and I waited for Sanders’ delayed plane to land in the nearly empty arrival area of the Quad City International Airport. A camera crew of two from Vice News killed time playing arcade games. They, too, said their purpose was to capitalize on access to Sanders.

When Sanders and his wife Jane finally walked through security, I welcomed them to the state and told them that they’d be seeing a lot of me over the next few days. Then we all jumped in our respective vehicles and sped to the first event at an already packed auditorium in Davenport.

As I waded through the crowd, I realized it would be impossible to find the venue contact that was supposed to provide me with a private Internet password and camera stand. I asked the first person that looked important if he knew the password. Though he didn’t, he said he would find out and disappeared. I jumped into action and began setting up my equipment to video stream Sanders’ speech.

Bernie Sanders speaks and I shoot video in
Davenport on May 28, 2015.
(Photo credit goes to mom, Marie Stigliani)
Ten minutes later, my impromptu helper returned with the password scrawled on scrap of paper and a stand to steady my camera. When I thanked him for his kindness, he replied, “I’m always happy to help a working journalist.”

I smiled. His generosity reminded me of other Iowans who had gone above and beyond so many times over the 20 years since my family settled in Cedar Falls. I thought of the acquaintances (with a truck) that spent an entire day helping my family haul heavy furniture the last time we moved houses. Of the friends and neighbors who will spend hours searching for my parents’ husky-vizsla mutt when he runs away. And of all the people who stop by the house to welcome me home when I visit my parents.

At the podium, Sanders told the audience that he and Jane were celebrating their 27th wedding anniversary that night. Jane sat beside the stage listening to her husband and scanning the crowd. I wondered what she was thinking.

Over the next days, I went everywhere Sanders went. He proved a surprisingly cooperative photo subject. In order to get good images, I tried to put myself directly in his path as he entered full auditoriums. On at least one occasion, he did me the favor of walking almost directly into my camera with a big grin on his face. I got my photo and he veered off before we collided.

Bernie and Jane Sanders head to a meeting with Democrats in
Muscatine, Iowa, on May 29, 2015.
I also got the chance to speak with Jane on their final morning in Iowa. Her husband, now raspy voiced, was speaking to an over-capacity gymnasium in Iowa City. I was taking a photograph of people who were barred from entering due to fire code. A crowd was standing just outside the glass doors listening to Sanders over loudspeakers. Jane came over with her iPhone to take a picture of them too. (Related article: Sanders packs gym, stairwells in Iowa City)

“We have the same idea,” she said to me.

I began to ask her about the campaign. Was it her first time in Iowa? Yes. What did she think of the people? They were warm and generous, like Vermonters. Was she tired? No, energized.

Then she looked out over the crowd and tears came to her eyes. She said that watching her husband campaign in Iowa made her feel the way she did when they first fell in love.

“It’s great to feel proud and impressed by a person you've lived with for 27 years,” she said.

I nodded with understanding. I feel the same way about Iowans.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Outtakes from an interview with Philip Levine

When I called the home of Pulitzer-winning poet and Vermont-resident Galway Kinnell in July, I expected a brief conversation with the 87-year-old. I left a message that I was writing a story about the upcoming celebration of his work.

I heard back not from Kinnell but from his wife, Bobbie. She told me that he had difficulty with words and conversation. “That’s why we’re doing the event now.” (Kinnell died Oct. 28th.)

I asked if there was some one else I might speak with to get a sense of who Kinnell was and what was important to him. I expected to speak with family members. Instead, Bobbie suggested that she could put me in touch with some of his friends, but she would have to check with them first.

I said, “Great! Let me know.”

Never could I have predicted whom she had in mind. Within a few days she provided contact information and I lined up phone interviews with three Pulitzer Prize winners — C.K. Williams, Donald Hall and Philip Levine. The latter two also served as U.S. poet laureates.

I feared making an ass of myself and spent several evenings leading up to the interviews reading the poet’s biographies online and a book Bobbie sent me of transcribed interviews with a younger Kinnell.

Levine, 86 at the time, was up first. In my research, I read that Levine was known for blunt criticism in poetry workshops. I steeled myself for a prickly interview, but that was unnecessary.

I liked Levine immediately. He was self deprecating, warm and generous with his time. We spoke for a solid half hour about Kinnell and their friendship. About playing tennis and the Vietnam War.

“We were both really anti-war,” Levine said in our July 25th interview. “Especially Vietnam. Our students and former students were being drafted to die for corporate America. That was what sort of sealed the friendship. Anti-war and protests.”

We talked about Levine and Kinnell teaching together at New York University and at Squaw Valley writing workshops in California. Levine readily acknowledged the reputation that preceded him.

“Galway was a far more gentle teacher than I,” Levine said. “I told him, ‘When you tear their poems to shreds they laugh.’ He had a solemn approach. ‘If I’m tough on their poems, I make them cry.’”

We also talked about his studies at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. His Iowa connection turned up in my research, and I told him that I too had lived in there. He told me about showing up to start his studies a year late. By that time, his scholarship was gone. He ended up attending classes unofficially. He didn’t pay tuition. Just showed up. I guess that he was talented enough to get away with that.

Levine shared another story of finding success despite turning his back on convention. When he was named U.S. poet laureate in 2011, he remembered that Kinnell said he was surprised. Levine asked why?

“Because of your politics. You're on record as an anarchist,” Levine remembered Kinnell telling him.

When we finally hung up, I felt some relief but mostly gratitude. 

Levine died of pancreatic cancer on Valentine’s Day, according to a Detroit newspaper. I learned of his death on Monday night, nearly a month late. It was mentioned during a writer’s group I attended. Everyone else seemed to already know. My eyes must have grown big because there was a moment of silence.

“I just talked to him for a story,” I said.

He was so alive. Pieces of our conversation have returned to me in flashes.

Today, I sifted through my work files to pull up the notes I had taken during our interview (which I’ve quoted throughout). I wanted to remember it all. And to share the wisdom that Levine spoke. Toward the end of our conversation I asked Levine about aging. He said:

“Some people can do it gracefully and some people can’t…I’m aware that I’m not very good looking anymore. The best looking women are not going to sit next to me. It doesn’t bother me at all.

“I’m happy in my life, and I’ve had a good life. I’ve had more success than I ever would have dreamed of.”

And here are a few final words that I think the world should read:

“When you’re writing, you’re just trying to get the words to be happy together.”