Poet or a traveller? Neither are professions or skills that receive grave nods of recognition at cocktail parties. But they are the two prongs of my plug-in to the world. One is all about language and the other often requires a leap over the head of language into mime. Their electric current has charged the writings and readings listed below but lead also to other illuminations.
As a member of PEN America in my frequent visits to Asia I met with the Indonesian writer, Pramoedya Ananta Toer then still under house arrest in Jakarta, worked for the release of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, also under house arrest at that time in Yangon as well as other Burmese writers, attempted unsuccessfully to locate a writer in a Laotian re-education camp, and found myself sneaker to cowboy boot toes with the extremely hostile Director of North American Affairs from the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry when I tried to find out which Vietnamese writers were still in prison in that country. I was able to get into Cambodia before it was legally open and interviewed one of the three writers who had survived Pol Pot’s terror. I met with the Board of Human Rights Watch concerning my time in Vietnam and Cambodia as well as reporting to the Freedom to Write Committee of PEN.
I was able through the IRC and UNBRO to visit the Cambodian camps around Aranyaprathet in 1991—Khao I Dang, Site II and Site VIII, the Khmer Rouge Camp. A few years later I also, unofficially and illegally was able to get to the Burmese refugee camps on the Thai-Burmese border.
After my trips to Tibet I have usually reported to PEN on the situation there.
In 1998 I spent a month working at Mother Teresa’s Home for the dying Destitute in Calcutta.
I don’t know that these forays into dictatorships have ever resulted in benefits to those in prison but they have certainly educated me about systematic evil and the unquenchableness of the human desire for freedom. Making me, perhaps, a better poet and a better traveler.