Assistant professor of poetry John Casteen has been awarded a $2,000 Mednick Fellowship by the Virginia Foundation for Independent Colleges. He will use the grant for a multimedia project in Peru next January.
“It’s a great opportunity, and I feel very lucky,” said Casteen, who was selected by Sweet Briar College as its only nominee to compete against proposals from other VFIC faculty. It is also, he was told, the first creative project funded by the fellowship — and it comes at a perfect time.
“The Mednick Fellowship will let me build on what was probably the most important project of my career so far,” he said.
Eighteen months ago, Casteen traveled to China on a faculty grant to document his experiences in a country that had undergone rapid cultural, economic and climatic changes. He wanted to get to know the people and explore how these developments had influenced their lives.
The project included essays, poems and photographs, all of which Casteen brought back to Sweet Briar to present at the 2014 Creative Writing Conference and in an Honors Colloquium. He is currently adapting his talk into a print article.
The only problem with China was that Casteen doesn’t speak Mandarin or Cantonese, which made it difficult for him to communicate with locals. This time, he wanted to make sure there was no language barrier.
“I wanted to go to a Spanish-speaking country because I speak Spanish,” he said.
But he also wanted to go to a place that had gone through similar societal and tectonic changes.
Peru seemed like the perfect choice.
“It’s deeply multicultural, and it’s experienced a lot of change,” Casteen said. “It’s also trying to develop, define and maintain its identity.”
For two weeks, Casteen will be touring the country writing poems and essays, as well as photographing and filming what he encounters. He wants it to be a true multimedia project that is slated to “live on the web” from the get-go.
Casteen said he had no idea what to expect from Peru — or how it would shape his artistic documentation and interpretation. But that’s the point.
“I could just go to all the places Pablo Neruda has been to and write about them, but that would be too easy,” he said.
Instead, it’ll be his own words and his own images, inspired by whatever it is he finds in the moment. Whether and how the result will feed into his classes remains to be seen, although he’s fairly certain the project will feature in his talk at the 2016 Creative Writing Conference.
One thing he knows for sure is that he’ll need to do lots of research before embarking on this new adventure. The rest will be a surprise.