Former Students Return to Share Their Stories

Jolene Brink '09

The first annual CSB/SJU English department alumni/alumnae reading took place on October 12th in the St. John's Quadrangle.  In attendance were John Coy ('80), author of six children's books, who read excerpts from his most recent book Crackback; Sandy Longhorn ('93), who teaches at Pulaski Technical College and recently published her first volume of poetry, Blood Almanac; and Yuko Taniguchi ('98) who read from her first volume of poetry Foreign Wife Elegy, and also shared excerpts from her forthcoming novel The Ocean in the Closet. The following is an interview with the authors and their advice for aspiring student writers. 



JB:  What lasting memories do you have of your experience at the College of Saint Benedict / Saint John's University? 

John:  My Uncle John Kulas is a monk at St. John's and I was able to spend time with him when I was a student.  Each Sunday we would drive up to Albany to have dinner with my Grandmother.  Spending time with the two of them was one of the best aspects of being a student.  As a senior, a friend and I wrote a satirical column for the Record.  It was excellent training in meeting deadline, writing clearly and taking criticism.  I worked for Jane Opitz in the writing center as a tutor and it was very valuable to learn about my writing by helping others with their writing.  I spent a lot of time walking in the woods and still feel a deep connection to the place based on that.

Sandy:  I have more memories than I can recount.  What stands out the most in my mind is the incredible support I found at CSB/SJU.  It's here that I began to explore who I wanted to be as a mature adult.  CSB/SJU gave me a safe place to try out many different paths.  When I settled on writing, everyone was encouraging.  I was fortunate to have amazing teachers who knew when to let me experiment and when to rein me in. 

YukoWhen I first arrived at CSB, I had trouble getting used to the life of a small town. I was lonely and homesick. But I made myself go for a walk everyday, which actually helped me get in touch with the community and the beautiful nature offered by the area. I learned to make peace with the vast mid-western land, appreciate each season, and understand the way mid-westerners live. Walking was much more than just an exercise; it was a great way to really touch the place that I lived.

JB:  Concerning your college experience, would you do anything differently?

John:  Many things.  I would take more art classes.  I would study abroad.  I would worry less about grades. 

Sandy:  I might have tried to take more advantage of the extracurricular activities offered to me.

YukoI would pick a different topic for my senior thesis. Back then, I researched on what I thought I should do, not what I wanted to do.

JB:  Did your experiences here have any influence on your writing?

John:  Definitely.  I had some excellent writing teachers.  Freshman year I had colloquium with Brother Louie and I had to write a paper every week and he went over it with me for an hour.  Sophomore year I had advanced composition with Eila Perlmutter and she was a terrific writing instructor.  I also think the quiet and the isolation of the place was conducive to thinking about writing.

Sandy:  Yes - one blessing about writing is that your education never stops.  The advice and guidance I received from the English faculty and others continue to resonate and return to me years later. 

Yuko: I learned how to write at CSB/SJU. By working with wonderful professors like Sister Mara and Sister Eva who challenged, encouraged and inspired students, I learned to embrace the long process of writing and rewriting, which requires patience and hard work. They also taught the importance of reading; reading is as important as (if not, more important than) writing.

JB: What has been the biggest influence on your writing?  

John:  The books I would have liked to read when I was younger.

Sandy:  The biggest influence on my writing is the reading that I do.  I read widely and not exclusively in poetry. 

YukoI read all kinds of books, especially works in translation.  This is how I travel the world.  I try to get involved in my community, which reminds me of the importance of empathy.  I also I studied piano through college. I am always amazed by he power of music. Music always seeps into our hearts and makes us feel before we
know why.

JB:  What did you do and where did you go after college?

John:  I did all kinds of different things.  I traveled.  I worked all kinds of different jobs.  I did a variety of different things before I wrote my first story.

Sandy:  After CSB/SJU, I went home for a year and lived with my parents.  I scrounged around for odd jobs and tried to decide if I wanted to go to graduate school.  Ultimately, I moved to Colorado and worked at an independent bookstore for 2 years, trying to write.  Then, I moved to Boston and worked for a scientific publisher for 2 years, trying to write.  After that, I went back to bookstores, working in Columbia, MO, where my cousin was living.  Eventually, I knew I needed more guidance to become the writer I wanted to be, and I applied to graduate schools for an MFA in Creative Writing.  In the fall of 1999, I entered the MFA program at the University of Arkansas Fayetteville and graduated in May of 2003.  Since then, I've worked as an English Instructor, first at the University of Arkansas Monticello, and now at Pulaski Technical College in North Little Rock, AR.

YukoMFA Creative Writing Program at The University of Minnesota

JB:  What is your biggest reward as a writer? Your biggest challenge?

John:  People who love a book I wrote letting me know about it.  The blank page.

Sandy:  The biggest reward for me is the daily attempt to find the right words to put on the page.  When I make a line that really sings, I am satisfied.  The biggest challenge is to keep believing that there will be another poem after the current poem winds its way to closure.

YukoThe biggest reward and challenge are the same.  Writing is about touching the truth, something that is very real about our lives; this isn't easy to accomplish, but when I come close to it, I realize why I am writing.

JB:  What advice do you have for student writers interested in pursuing a career similar to you own?

John:  Read all kinds of writers.  To be a writer you must be a reader.  Write and rewrite and write and stick with it.  Being a writer is much more like running a marathon than a sprint.

Sandy:  Read, read, read.  Read everything and anything from the traditional classics to the marginalized and colonized to the renegade outsiders.  Write, write, write.  Write out of your obsessions and be diligent about your writing practice.

YukoGo for a walk, read as much as you can, listen, be open and willing.

JB: What was it like returning to campus for the Alumni reading in October?

John:  Excellent.  I so enjoyed discussing ideas about writing with students and it was an honor to read with Sandy and Yuko.

Sandy:  It was wonderful.  The first time I visited CSB as a high school junior, I was amazed at the welcome I received.  It's encouraging to know that the welcome has not worn out.  The campus has changed a lot in the intervening years, but the people continue to exude warmth and the giving nature I remember.

YukoI love meeting current students. CSB/SJU students are very special and warm. They reflect the community which supports young people's growth.

JB: In one sentence can you describe or explain what you accomplish through writing?

John:  I learn about myself and I learn about the world.

Sandy:  I try to give voice to all of the swirling, almost unsayable, emotions swimming inside me in an attempt to share my experiences with the world. 

Yuko:  Wislawa Szymborska calls compassion "heart's imagination"; through writing, I promote imagination, which serves as a bridge to relate to others' lives, and a willingness to be aware of the truth and to relate to others' pain, perhaps bring us closer to desire for compassion and peace (this is also from "Author's statement" for my book The Ocean in the Closet).