"There’s a serendipity and a set of sources that are really surprising and eye-opening for me… I haven’t seen another tool quite like Trapit."
Photo credit: Stuart McEvoy. Original Source: The Australian.
User: Tom Healy, MFA
Location: New York, NY
Current Occupation: Poet, Professor, and Chairman of the Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board
Websites: tomhealy.us, Tumblr, Huffington Post
Favorite Featured Traps: Education Reform and Climate Science
Q: Tell us, if you don’t mind, what it is that you’re most passionate about.
The thing that I’m probably most passionate about is the mystery of creativity. What is it? How do we nurture it? We’re often taught to learn things by memory, to follow the paths other people have figured out and followed.
But I think the best way to learn — the best way for people to have interesting lives and careers — is to figure things out for yourself, to take risks, to be willing to fail, to be willing to be weird and different. It’s always been a great pleasure for me to be around creative people, and to learn from how they think and work.
Q: You’ve had some amazing success as a poet. Your recent poetry book, “What the Right Hand Knows,” has been described as asymmetrical. How does asymmetry play into your thoughts about expression?
How cool that you picked up on that! Being off balance is in my nature. I was born with auditory nerve disorder, which means I can only hear out of one ear. When you can’t hear the world in stereo, you forever wonder how you’re different, what you’re missing - and what you’re hearing that others aren’t because you’re trying harder.
I think poetry is perfect for expressing that struggle. Poetry is as much about how you present - and represent - words as it is about the words themselves. It’s about spacing and separation about creating order and chaos on the page about figuring out what to do with the whitespace on the page. And that’s so different from the way prose just marches across the page without worrying about how it looks or where it leaves its footprints.
Q: You have a new book, “Animal Spirits,” that will be coming out shortly. Can you tell us a bit about what we can expect to find inside?
It’s a collaboration with the tattoo artist Duke Riley that explores our animal instincts. I grew up on a farm. And I’ve gone all over the world looking at animals from trekking gorillas in the Congo to looking for the snow leopard in Nepal, so I’m fascinated by the behavior of animals, and of humans as animals. I’m fascinated by how we represent animals in art, and how we anthropomorphize them. And the artist Duke Riley has similar obsessions.
I’m finishing the book and I’m very excited about it. The whole notion of what a “book” is has been called into question because of e-Books and all the new ways of obtaining information. I’m not one of those writers panicked by the supposed end of reading and the worry that books are going to disappear. But I do think that if you’re going to make a physical book — something you can hold and touch and smell and see — then you should make an effort to make them beautiful. To make them surprising to look at and more unusual, so that having them and reading them will be a very different experience from what you get online or on your Kindle or iPad. And it’s so much fun collaborating with an artist to make something like this. Keep your fingers crossed. I hope it’s something people will like!
Q: So this asymmetrical way of thinking goes far beyond right/left or city/country, and extends into many different aspects of life?
Being a little off-balance isn’t bad whatever we do. Stepping a little closer to the edge, away from where we’re comfortable, what’s familiar, and into situations or into contact with people where we don’t know what can happen, that’s where creativity thrives.
And whether you have a disability — like I do — or you’re nudged into seeing or feeling things differently than you’re used to, I think that’s where creativity comes from.
Q: Speaking of people in new situations, you were appointed as the Chairman of the Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board by President Obama just last year. For the unfamiliar, what is Fulbright?
Talk about pushing people beyond their comfort zones. That’s what Fulbright is all about - on a grand scale. It’s an amazing program of international exchange started back in 1946 by Sen. J. William Fulbright just after WWII to help create peace and mutual understanding by sending American students and scholars around the world to study and teach and bringing students and scholars from all over the world to the US. More than 8,000 people from 160 countries and all 50 states participate every year. It’s the largest public diplomacy in the world. And it’s remarkable all the talent. People who go on to win Pulitzers and Nobel prizes, people who become prime ministers and presidents, teachers, artists, environmentalists, scientists - you name it.
The world is very different from when the program started 65 years ago - we’re more interconnected. But do we understand one another any better? Do we know how to work together to solve the huge and pressing problems the world faces? Fulbright faces that question head-on. And I can tell you, whenever you get discouraged about poverty, violence, climate change, if you go out and meet people like the ones involved in Fulbright, things get far more hopeful. Smart people doing good things to make the world a better place. I’m really humbled by the opportunity to be a part of it.
Q: The world is a lot more interconnected than it used to be; I know this has affected you both personally and professionally. How are things changing, from your perspective?
Well, just take Fulbright. In its 65 years, there have been about 300,000 Fulbright scholars across the globe. But before the internet , those people found themselves in fairly small communities of friendship and expertise. There wasn’t any practical way to connect them to one another. Now, though, we’re in this extraordinary time of possibility, of linking stories and ideas and experience across time and space in an instant. A farming village in Nepal can learn from a farming village in Peru. Cancer specialists in Cairo can talk to cancer specialists in Mexico City. Poets in Vancouver can teach with poets in Jakarta. People studying hip-hop in Mongolia can talk with people studying hip hop in the Bronx. Social media are transforming the connectedness between former Fulbright scholars and current ones share histories and ideas. We have this opportunity now to take all these individual points — all these stars in the sky maybe — and connect them into constellations that bring the world together.
Q: So what steps have you taken to realize this tantalizing opportunity?
One thing we’ve been particularly focused on this past year has been modernizing the Fulbright program, making it more attractive to a younger, more diverse crowd of students and scholars. We even have MTV Fulbright fellowships! And, in addition to making structural changes, one thing we’ve focused on is online outreach. we’ve been using social media - Tumblr, Facebook, Linked-In, Twitter, YouTube, you name it - as tools to reach out to scholars and students and educators around the world. Not only is it cost efficient, but it allows us to have simultaneous conversations with more people in more ways to discuss how we can rethink education.
Q: And Trapit has been an instrumental tool for you as far as reaching out to the world goes; can you tell us about how you’ve been using it?
Trapit is fascinating to me because it’s a way of sharing new ideas and breaking through limits that may unintentionally be holding our creativity back. The first thing that Trapit’s done is that it broke me out of some of the usual sources I read and gather information from. It’s much too easy to get in an information bubble just relying on various sources you know already know about about through RSS feeds and other aggregators. It’s that “echo chamber” problem.
Trapit traps information I’m exploring in a cool way, but it un-traps my thought processes by broadening my searches and giving me surprises. I love that: coming upon links and stories that looked at subjects in ways I hadn’t thought about - from people all over the world I didn’t know were out there.
Q: In what ways does Trapit offer a unique value compared to some of the other applications out there?
When you go to Flipboard, or any other site, and you’re trying to choose your sources of information, you’re essentially going to choose sources you already know. There’s a serendipity with the set of sources Trapit finds that’s really surprising and eye-opening for me, and that’s why it’s an important new tool. I’m finding new blogs I’ve never even heard of, and regional sources that I wouldn’t have even known how to look for. Trapit has a way of linking communities together quickly, and I haven’t seen another tool quite like it.
Q: Can you give us an illustrative example of how Trapit has done this for you?
You can take any subject you want, and put it in there, and find, “Wow! Here’s this amazing story that I just found, and I want to share it!” If I were left to my own devices, I’m going to find sources on President Obama that agree with my political perspective. But Trapit starts including international perspectives, views from the right, and that’s really valuable. Yes, there are some you filter out, but then there are things I’m finding through Trapit from some small college in Africa or from a columnist in the Hindu Times and suddenly my access to sources has exploded. And then the people who follow me can see that I’m not just relying on information from the usual suspects.
Q: Between writing, teaching, philanthropy, and your work with Fulbright, you must be incredibly busy. What can we find you doing outside of these endeavors?
One of my greatest passions is to escape my entire schedule and go mountain climbing with friends. There are three of us who’ve gone all over the world. We just went for a month to the Himalayas in June and did six peaks over 20,000 ft. We did Kilamanjaro a few years ago.We’ve done a number of mountains in the Rockies. Last year, I did the the Inca Trail and some mountains in Peru. We try to do one major climb a year.
Q: Have you tried creating traps on following your personal interests, such as mountaineering?
I haven’t tried creating one on mountaineering yet, but I need to. There are a number of other interests that I do use Trapit to follow. One of those is drumming. I used to play the drums in high school and college, but I haven’t done it in a very long time. Trapit has been a way for me to indulge in looking at different drummers, listening in on conversations and obsessions of drummers around the world. I also use it all the time to follow developments in poetry and other forms of creative expression.
Q: Tom, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us. Is there any final advice you have for anyone interested in pursuing the creative arts?
I’m always looking for advice like that myself! I guess I’d say two things: first, find people who have faith in you and share the way you think and feel. We all need a community of friends who support us in trying new things, acting out, being different. And we need to be there for them. The second thing is to push your own boundaries. Don’t ignore the vast creative richness of the digital world; you constantly have to learn new things. In any artform and any intellectual endeavor, you have the habits of your own tradition, lab, studio, the materials you work with, whatever. But but it’s really valuable for, say, a video artist to learn how to draw by hand. Or a poet to try writing lyrics to a rock song. Mixing it up is a critical way to learn, and it’s something that’s so possible right now, to connect with people from outside of our habits and traditions. And, I guess the last thing I’d say, is don’t wait for inspiration. Just find a regular time to work - even if it’s 20 minutes - and plunge in without criticizing yourself, without making excuses. Twenty minutes a day for a lifetime? Wow. We’d all be Fulbright scholars.
You can follow Tom Healy’s website, his Tumblr, and his articles on Huffington Post. His book of poems, “What the Right Hand Knows,” was a finalist for the 2009 L.A. Times Book Prize and the Lambda Literary Award, and his next book, “Animal Spirits,” is forthcoming from Monk Books early next year.