Bethany Fitts, originally from Tupelo, MS, is a senior at Ole Miss majoring in English and History. She was awarded the 2018 Barksdale Award based on her plans to work with W. S. Merwin in Hawaii.
Hannah: Tell me about the Barksdale Award and what it means to be a winner.
Bethany: So the Barksdale Award is given out by the Honors College I think generally to Sophomore and Junior students, and what they do is they’ll give you up to $5,000 to pursue a project that fulfills some kind of dream that you’ve had. That’s the definition.
H: What was the process like when you were applying for it?
B: The process was really stressful. When I set out to do it, it was kind of just this far off thing that I never really thought I would get, and so to have gotten the phone call from the Chancellor over winter break was just really like, it just felt so weird, but I was really thankful. So generally you work with a faculty advisor, and mine was Dr. Stout, and he knew I liked W. S. Merwin, and so he said to check out the Merwin Conservancy and I did and thought it was really awesome, and then I started emailing the executive director. So then I had to write a proposal and propose a budget, and the process is really supposed to prepare you to apply for awards like the Fulbright or the Marshall or things like that that you have to propose big plans to committees, if that makes sense.
H: So what was your favorite part of going to Hawaii?
B: Oh, man. What’s really funny about me going to Hawaii is that I am not really a fan of the tropical environment. I hate being hot; I hate — I don’t hate the ocean but it’s not my number one travel spot, so I was kind of excited to see how that experience would turn out but I really liked the — I mean obviously Hawaii is gorgeous, so there’s that, but it’s more like the atmosphere of the island is kind of… It’s not separate from all the bad stuff that’s going on, but there’s this kind of peacefulness that is not present elsewhere that I found even in conversation. There wasn’t this antagonism that I just kind of feel all the time.
I guess my other favorite part that relates more to the project was getting to meet W. S. Merwin and kind of walk through the palm forest, which he started back in the 70s. Just planting trees to, he describes it as “coping with all of the hopelessness and the anger he feels when looking at the world,” and then just putting it into the simple act of planting a tree in his garden, and then he ended up starting this huge — he calls it a garden. It feels like you’re walking through a forest of palm trees with all these endangered species, and its just really magical actually.
H: So what exactly did you do for the project?
B: So while I was there I was writing my own collection of poems, and that was harder than I thought it would be, but it was really worthwhile to really devote the headspace to that, and then I was also helping with the conservancy as an intern because they had been going through a lot of staff changes, and so we were really low staffed, so it was really great that I turned up when I did, because I just kind of helped plan events and made sure books were packed properly and kind of behind the scenes stuff like that. I also got to help with it’s called the Merwin Creative Teaching Fellowship, which is really awesome, and it ended up being one of my favorite parts of the trip, and they brought in teachers from all over the islands, and they were trained with the poet Naomi Shihab Nye and a woman from Creative Core to kind of bring oasis and creativity back into the classroom, because you know those are traits that have kind of been filtered out intentionally, and it was really cool because you know I’m exploring my own creativity there, and I’d never seen teachers as creative people before until I did this fellowship, and it was really cool to see the growth that took place in them from the first night to the end, because the first night they all sat around the fire, outside, in Hawaii, and the question was, “What hinders your creativity- not your students, yours and what helps it grow?” and it was more about them than the students.
H: That’s awesome because I feel like teachers a lot of times never really get to focus on themselves.
H: Do you see yourself going back there after graduation?
B: I would love to go back! It’s funny last week was my midterms, and I had just repeated dreams that I was in Maui, and I just would wake up and realize where I was, and it was horrible, but I would love to go back. I think one of the scary things about the trip for me was the fact that I was going alone and didn’t know anyone. There was no one there that was going to plan it for me it was entirely up to me and the idea of being alone for that period of time was just terrifying, but I ended up befriending so many wonderful people. One of them was named Andrea. I think one of the most happy and unexpected moments for me was one of the last nights I was there she invited me into her home to meet her family that was visiting from Egypt, and they cooked for me and she played the piano. It just kind of felt like out of this world and… I don’t know it’s nice to be invited to someone’s home. It’s very special.
H: What advice would you give someone if they wanted to apply for the Barksdale Award?
B: Oh man, don’t doubt yourself — or if you doubt yourself don’t let your doubts — because you’re probably going to doubt yourself — don’t let your doubts hinder you from applying, because I know this sounds cheesy, but all you can do is apply, and don’t stop yourself from getting something before you even try to get it, because I totally thought I wasn’t going to get it, and I guess the other thing would be, oh this sounds so cheesy: dream big. Yes there’s a budget limit, but do something that just kind of makes your heart beat faster.
H: Okay one last question. Because you’re an English major here I have to ask, what’s your favorite English class you’ve taken and why?
B: Last semester I took Advanced Creative Non-fiction with Kiese Laymon. It was just seven women and him, and two of them were history professors; so it was just this really weird makeup, and I was like, “How is this going to work?” They ended up just becoming a little family to me and what I loved about it was — of course I loved writing — but it wasn’t just about writing. It was about the identity of the writers and the kind of ethical issues they were facing. For me it was about being southern.
Congratulations to Bethany Fitts for being a Barksdale winner and our Student of the Month!