The fall of communism left Northeast Asia roiled in political turmoil in the early 1990s.
The former Czechoslovakia, during this time of revolution, split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
And James Southerland-Smith was there to reflect it all in his poetry.
Language proved no barrier Tuesday evening as the GW English Department and the Slovakian Embassy collaborated to bring Southerland-Smith to campus. A member of the British Council, the poet teaches English all around the world, and made a stop at GW to read some of his poetry written in Slovakia.
Susan Willens, professor of English at GW, met Southerland-Smith four years ago when she spent a year teaching in Northeast Slovakia.
He was not only an English teacher, but he was also a poet, Willens said. We had a lot to talk about since I love poetry and he wrote it.
Willens said when Southerland-Smith began to talk about visiting friends in the United States, she had the idea to have him do a reading.
As the idea began to develop, I called the Slovakian Embassy, she said. The result was a political and financial cooperation between the Embassy and the GW English Department.
Members of the British Embassy were also present.
It was kind of an international evening, Willens said.
International and bilingual, at times, the sounds of Slovak echoed throughout the home of writer-in-residence Dan Barden, located on 21st Street between F and G streets.
It’s odd and interesting to have so many Slovakian voices in my house, said the host of the reading. It’s really a beautiful language.
I started like most poets as a teen, Southerland-Smith said. I’ve never been into being a professional, full-time writer.
Working as a language teacher, he traveled extensively worldwide. While working in Slovakia, Southerland-Smith said he and his wife got involved in translating Slovakian poetry to English. It was also during this time that he met Willens.
We’ve kept in contact, and she said `you can be my guest,’ he said. I needed a holiday.
The poems he read featured many subjects, some centered around the political unrest in Slovakia during the time he was there.
I read poems based on Slovakia, a couple of nature poems for my stepdaughter, Southerland-Smith said. One poem, entitled To a Slovak Lexicographer, he described as being about the feeling of freedom.
Southerland-Smith also read translations of five other Slovakian poets.
I thought the poetry was wonderful, Barden said. It must have been interesting to have been in Slovakia just when he was.
This article appeared in the March 9, 2000 issue of the Hatchet.