The SMOKING POET

Talking to Olga Bonfiglio

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Olga Bonfiglio

Olga Bonfiglio began her freelance writing career with the Kalamazoo Gazette in 2002 with articles on religion, social justice and local news. She also published articles in the Christian Science Monitor, America, Z Magazine, Planning, National Catholic Reporter, Presbyterians Today, Christian Camps & Conferences. Her work has also appeared in previous issues of The Smoking Poet.

 

She began researching her first book, Heroes of a Different Stripe, by attending the national peace march held on January 18, 2003, in Washington, D.C., and then by interviewing the Kalamazoo Nonviolent Opponents to War (KNOW) and the Bush supporters.

 

The Sisters of St. Joseph first brought Olga to Kalamazoo in 1976 where as a nun for nine years she worked in public relations for Nazareth College and Borgess Medical Center and became involved as a professional and as a volunteer with numerous institutions, community boards and organizations in town. She received a W.K. Kellogg National Leadership Fellowship in 1984 where she studied intercultural communication and traveled to four continents. The three-year fellowship subsequently led her to pursue a doctorate in international education at Michigan State University.

 

In the late 1990s she produced and hosted “Public Voice,” a community access television talk show that featured local and national personalities on the subjects of politics, urban redevelopment, economic development and social justice. In 1999-2000 she served as chair for the Kalamazoo County Democrats and ran for county treasurer.

 

As an academic, she has taught business communication at Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo Valley Community College and social studies education at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, five miles from her hometown of Melvindale in downriver Detroit. Olga is currently a professor in education at Kalamazoo College. She lives with her husband/writer, Kurt Cobb, and Tucker the Cat, in Kalamazoo.
 
Our nonfiction editor, Paula Lemar, talks to Olga Bonfiglio about her work and her activisim for the causes that matter most to her.

 

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Paula Lemar, TSP Nonfiction Editor: Many of the articles you write are devoted to peace. What are your views on the current peace movement?

 

OLGA BONFIGLIO: The people who are involved in the peace movement are the most tenacious people for the cause of peace that I know.  They never quit trying to change the world from a violent place to a peaceful place.  Alas, there is too much money involved to keep the world a violent place. 

 

I respect and support the peace movement, especially when there is a specific project or anniversary to acknowledge.  Iraqi Health Now is a prime example of a very worthwhile and successful project that is providing medical supplies, toys, and now water treatment equipment to Iraqis in the Basra region.  This is peacemaking even though the war continues.  I think a lot of people are helping veterans with their health.  This is peacemaking.  Attending the demonstration against nuclear weapons on August 6, the day the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, is another example of standing for peace.  Remembering the death and destruction of that day is important to reflect on especially when we consider that the USA has 10,000 nuclear weapons, Russia has about the same number and several other countries are also members of the nuclear club. 

 

We, as a country, are so unconscious of how much war making we support with our dollars and our hearts, and I think the peace movement has assumed the role of trying to bring that to our consciousness.  The national media, however, are unconcerned about peace because it doesn't make for news.  They largely refuse to cover the peacemakers today.  News about demonstrations against continuing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is old news and readers don't want to hear about it.  After all, during the 2008 presidential election, debate about the wars was hardly mentioned by the candidates!

 

TSP: Is peace achievable in an age where wars are more and more commonplace?

 

OLGA: I used to think so, but now that the war in Afghanistan has gone on more than 9 years and the war in Iraq is over 7 years old—with no end in sight for either of them, and after we have spent $1 trillion, killed thousands of people, and destroyed unrecorded losses of property and caused scores of environmental catastrophes, sadly, I've changed my mind.  That is the reason I have joined the food movement and gotten into gardening and farming.  I have some control over what I eat and where I get my food—and I found I love working with animals.  Now that is one sort of peacemaking!

 

TSP: Do you believe violence in the media encourages youth to behave violently?

 

OLGA: I'm not an expert on this subject and I can't quote the research, but as a child I remember imitating things I saw on TV like the Three Stooges.  When my mother caught me slapping and poking my little sister, she didn't allow either of us to watch the stooges anymore. 

 

TSP: You mention in your article, "Adopting the Warrior Archetype," that warriors are often portrayed as heroes, but that the word warrior usually brings up a negative image in our minds. Do you think the idea of warriors for peace will change the current connotation of "warrior"?

 

OLGA: In that article I tried using a more classical definition of warrior, which has to do with honor, courage, discipline, restraint, and devotion to protect the innocent.  I can really get into that sort of thing.  Maybe I was a Samurai in a past life!  I featured Cindy Sheehan as an example of these qualities even though she had been trashed by the media and Bush's war supporters and super-patriots.  I think the warrior archetype also applied to the many peace advocates I met—and have read about—even though the right-wing media usually portrays them as traitors, hippies, crazies.  The left-wing media pretty much ignores them now.  In my book I called the peace advocates "heroes," another military term, but that didn't fly either and I'm not sure the peace advocates would agree with me in using either of these terms.  It was an interesting thought experiment anyway.   That's what professors do!

 

TSP: How do you go about choosing the topics on which you write?

 

OLGA: I have a talent for recognizing a good story, which I first learned to do as the public relations director for Nazareth College in Kalamazoo, Michigan.  I was able to get a lot of stories about the college into the Kalamazoo Gazette and on TV and radio.  Today, I choose topics to write about by reviewing the news, especially cultural trends, to see what burning issues are emerging, whether they are important to me, and whether I have enough knowledge to write intelligently about them.  I also try to limit myself to issues having to do with social justice, religion, food, travel, and sustainability.  Another consideration is where I might get my articles published.

 

TSP: What made you decide to write your book Heroes of a Different Stripe?

 

OLGA: I was deeply moved by the prospect of war and then attended the January 2003 peace march in Washington, D.C.  I could see that this was a big story and I wanted to write about it from the home front point of view.  There would be lots of stories from the warfront and the policy-front but I didn't have access to those stories.  I did have access to people from both sides of the issue in Kalamazoo, however.  It was my first attempt to write a large-scale writing project for publishing.  I ended up self-publishing 500 books, all of which I sold.  The book is even on Amazon.com.  One more thing.  I actually felt called by God to write the book and that nailed it for me.  I began taking notes.

 

TSP: How did you go about researching for your book?

 

OLGA: I attended downtown Kalamazoo demonstrations among the peace advocates (starting in January 2003 until June 2005) and among the Bush supporters (who appeared in front of the Federal Building downtown for seven weeks from March to April 2003).  I followed the news and made summaries of the day's events from January 2003 through June 2005.  I interviewed leaders of each group and subsequently wrote profiles on them to provide context for their group's position.  I used the Internet to provide 100 footnotes for historical, political, social and cultural context. Consequently, the book is really a chronology of events during that period when the peace movement began large demonstrations in Washington, D.C (I attended the January peace march) and New York City.  I ended the research and the book on June 30, 2005 because that's the day the USA officially handed over the country to Iraq's leaders.

 

TSP: What would you consider to be your life's philosophy?

 

OLGA: In 1984, when I first started traveling internationally, courtesy of a W.K. Kellogg National Leadership Fellowship, I developed a traveler's philosophy, which I think has become my life's philosophy:

 

a.  Make friends.

b.  Be curious and learn as much about a place and its people as you can.

c.  Be respectful of others.

d.  Be courageous.

e.  Visit people believing that the Messiah is among them, too, whether they are Christian or not.

f.   Be adventurous.

 

TSP: What, in your opinion, is the most significant stride taken in ecology over the past decade?

 

OLGA: The local food movement and the organic food movement, which are starting to dovetail into one, is by far the most significant stride going on simply because so many people are involved in it.  Recycling had this effect in the 1990s and it is still going on.  Food is something that is developing in many ways.  People are even learning to grow their own food through gardens.  This can only have a positive effect on people's health and eventually—if it's not too late—on the health of the earth. 

 

TSP: What would you say is the one thing Americans can do to make a significant ecological change?

 

OLGA: I'm going to name three things.  Grow a garden.  Reduce the use of your car by walking, biking, using public transportation.  Avoid products made of oil.

 

TSP:  How has the Gulf oil spill spurred the environmentalist in you?

 

OLGA: See above for the short answer.  The long answer is that our world is now faced with a lot of questions that I never would have imagined even 10 years ago.  For example, I am very distressed by the oil spill, especially since I visited New Orleans only a week before the spill.  I fell in love with that city because it is a place of spirit and soul.  Hurricane Katrina brought the city to its knees but people have been "re-generating, revitalizing, and re-spiriting it," as they say there.  (This is what Detroiters in the urban gardens movement are doing, too.) 

 

I am currently writing stories I gathered from the urban planners’ conference I attended when I was there because it focused a lot on what Orleanians had done to help the city recover.  Now this oil spill is threatening life in the whole Gulf region, including New Orleans.  This leads me to the horrendous question that our country (and the nations of the world) will probably need to pose:  what places are we going to save and which places will we let go due to environmental damage?  Of course, when we ask such a question, we also need to be prepared to take care of the residents of affected areas—the "environmental refugees."  We don't do so well with the political and economic refugees (i.e., immigrants—legal and illegal), so I don't know what we'll do with this new kind of refugee. 

 

TSP: Does that disaster beg the question that it's too late to turn things around?

 

OLGA: I'm not an expert, but it seems to me that the Gulf is now a dead zone.  What a terrible shame and what a shameful thing that has been done to the Gulf, the animals, birds, fishing and tourist industries, and of course, the people living there.  Their homes are ruined!  Forty percent of the U.S. seafood industry was provided by the Gulf area.  Would you want to eat seafood that came from there?  I wouldn't.  It's a question whether the cities affected by the spill will be able to survive or if they will be abandoned.  I'd like to make one more trip to New Orleans.

 

TSP: Now to switch gears a little, Olga, and talk to you about being a writer. What inspires you as a writer?

 

OLGA: What inspires me:

         Going into Barnes & Noble and being in the midst of all that written material, creativity, and the smell of coffee.

         Attending a professional conference in a new city where I haven't been before on subjects that interest me and give me good contacts and data.

         Spending time with David Small and Sarah Stewart (see Summer 2010 Issue of The Smoking Poet) encouraged me by their kind words and stunning example.

         Travel

         Spending time at the Stratford Theatre in Ontario.

         Getting encouragement from people I don't know, like an old nun at Nazareth College who I'd never met but who somehow knew me as "Olga, the writer." 

         Opportunities to be encouraged like this interview.

 

TSP:  Who has had the biggest influence on your writing?

 

OLGA: In 2001, I went through a year-long discernment over my next step in life, which turned out to be starting my writing career.  I began by taking a spiritual autobiography course at the Portage Public Library (Portage, Michigan).  I also met with a counselor who helped me take the bold step of daring to call myself a writer—and then to follow up with it.  I took Maris Soule's "get yourself published" class at Kalamazoo Valley Community College, and she told me I was a writer after I handed in a two-page story.  I stumbled on Paul Theroux, a travel writer, discovered that genre, and realized that travel was what I was most passionate about and I wanted to write about my own travels.  Chris Meahan at the Kalamazoo Gazette allowed me to write a lot of religion stories for him—and he didn't make a lot of changes!

 

TSP: How has blogging changed or shaped your writing?

 

OLGA: It is a discipline that keeps me writing for two reasons.  First, I live for that byline that gives me so much satisfaction seeing my name in print.  Second, I post articles on my blog and once it's published, on my Web site.  I always try to get articles published on a high traffic Web site like Common Dreams, Energy Bulletin, Civil Eats, OpEdNews.  However, blogging takes up a lot of time, and I go over and over an article before I let it go public. 

 

TSP:  Is there a vast difference between writing a blog post and writing a book?

 

OLGA: The difficulty of coming up with a good idea and expanding on it is the same for me.  I look for an inspiration or listen to a whispering voice that gets the article started.  Lately, that hasn't been coming in very clearly.  I think it is because I'm moving from writing numerous articles to concentrating on writing a book.  I still feel guilty when a day goes by and I've avoided the number one way to get my writing done:  "ass in the chair."

 

TSP: How much research do you put into your blog posts and your book?

 

OLGA: Thank God for the Internet!  It is a great source for researching my blog posts, especially since I try to expand on an idea with historical, geographical, political, sociological, cultural, or other explanatory background for purposes of context.  For my Heroes book, I had over 100 footnotes doing just that.  This was, perhaps, a bit overboard, but I found it interesting and hoped readers would, too. 

 

TSP: Do you have another book in the making?

 

OLGA: I have so many ideas for books that my head sometimes spins!  However, I am trying to focus on one about the small, organic, non-commercial farm in Texas Corners, just outside of Kalamazoo, that I have been working on for over a year.  I have been keeping notes and will compile a collection of essays about my experiences of learning how to garden, taking care of goats and water buffalo, and striving to live a sustainable life.  It has been a spiritual journey and a great opportunity to connect to Nature in a more profound way, which is one of my goals in life.  I'm not sure when it will be completed but I am posting journal notes on my blog:  http://olgabonfiglio.blogspot.com/

 

TSP: As a writer, what makes Kalamazoo, Michigan so appealing?

 

OLGA: Well, I have a job here at Kalamazoo College as a professor and I have lived here since July 2, 1976.  The moment I arrived, I fell in love with Kalamazoo.  There's something about connecting to a place that makes a difference in your life.  Kalamazoo is my place and with it come many friends.  Finally, there's something comforting about having familiar territory around me when I'm in the maelstrom of the creative mode. 

 

TSP: And finally, do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

 

OLGA: My advice:

         Think about what your passion is and then get your "ass in the chair" to write about it.

         Don't start your article from the top, just start it wherever you can. Editing is the place where writing happens anyway and you can always move the pieces of your article around very easily—especially with a computer.

         Journalism is a great entry for your writing career.  It supplies you with a discipline to keep writing, the ability to tell a story, and the byline to see your name in print and thirst for more of it.

Feedback, submissions, ideas? Email thesmokingpoet@gmail.com.