Elizabeth Dreeland

(Published in 2005)

There is precision and paradox in what Liz Dreeland does. She takes aim with rifles and words with equal alacrity and rarely misses with either.

Liz (Flinn class of 2001) demonstrates precision in her marksmanship, in the skilled choreography of saber fencing, and in the word choices that make her poetry both striking and spare. But each of these endeavors embodies a paradox as well: Liz is a published poet, but she prefers not to be called one. She excels at using the most modern and the most traditional weaponry around, carbines and swords, through her fencing lessons and shooting classes. And she was the president of Arizona State University College of Liberal Arts and Sciences College Council while being a formal student of revolution, how governments are challenged and overthrown.

Tradition is important for Liz, too. She is a history major, and has an acute sense of history–not only as an academic field, but as it shapes her own roots and the lives of those she encounters in her travels.

But that is not to say Liz is content to operate within traditions–in fact, she is interested in the ways that individuals and cultures break tradition in the most dramatic form: revolution. She studied important sites of revolution in Spain while taking culture courses last year in Madrid, and spent this past summer in Cuba taking political science and history classes. She will cap off her collegiate travels with a National Security Education Program scholarship, which she won to study revolution and the Hungarian language in Budapest beginning in January 2005.

Liz sat down with us recently at a Tempe coffee shop to discuss life as a Flinn Scholar. When I got there, she was halfway through a white mocha and further through a thick paperback, which she tucked in her colorful Cuban shoulder bag as I sat down. In the shadow of ASU’s ‘A’ Mountain and over the roar of 737s coming in to land, we talked (and sometimes shouted) about Cuba, iconoclasm, and the problems with capital P Poetry.

Describe your NSEP proposal and how it evolved.

I wrote a proposal to go to Hungary for seven months to study the Magyar language and take political science and culture classes. More specifically, I’m going to look at national memory and monument: specifically studying how revolutions and revolutionaries appropriate historical heroes to legitimize themselves.

What do you consider a revolution? What “counts”?

I think that’s something that I’m still working on answering, actually. A large part of what I’m looking at is what makes a revolution successful–do its institutions have to survive? Its ideals? Or even just its memory? It’s such an amazingly complex subject because, in a lot of ways, it ends up being so subjective.

Every revolution, practically, has betrayed itself, but they usually still have some kind of huge impact–take for example Cuba, or Russia, or France. And what about the Industrial Revolution? The Technological Revolution? The Sexual Revolution?

There is so much still to be said on the subject–but everything that seems to maintain my interest has something to do with revolution. Change, and resistance to change, fascinates me.

Are you looking at both successful and failed revolutions? Do people memorialize failed ones (Che Guevara, for instance?)

Sure–just look at the Irish! I mean, my whole project really begs the question: What is a successful revolution? When we measure success, is it the product or the perception that counts?

Much of your work seems somehow concerned with precision–precision of words, precision of movement in your fencing, precision of aim in your marksmanship. Are these conscious connections for you?

I hadn’t really thought of it that way. But now that you say that, I do feel strongly about individual focus and try to avoid generalizations. The individual is so paramount, so vital.

What dimensions of yourself do you consider reflective of “Flinn-ness”? Which, if any, depart from that?

I think all Flinns are competitive to a degree, ambitious. I’m those things, too, but maybe more so. I’m certainly more aggressive than most people. In terms of departures, I guess I’d say I’m more iconoclastic than your average Flinn (though “average Flinn” is a paradox, isn’t it?)

Most remarkable experience during your Flinn tenure?

There have been so many amazing experiences But what comes to mind was a day at the end of June in Cuba. My professor and I went to the Cementerio Colon in Havana, the largest cemetery in the Western Hemisphere. It started to rain as we got there, and we decided to venture out and see the most important sites when the rain let up a little.

But we soon found out that the monsoon had not stopped at all, and when we were in the middle of the cemetery, the heavens opened up. The guides started running for shelter and told us to follow them–and we ended up taking shelter in a stuffy dark tomb, with a cracked ossorio (bone box) along one wall, the top half off and human bones poking out. The smell was intense, but the conversation was good–we discussed revolution and rock and roll while I eyed the femur in the corner and tried not to think about the more silent occupants of our shelter. It was a bizarre experience, but a good combination to friendliness, generosity, and having to adapt to what life throws at you.

Tell me about the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences–how did you get involved? What was presidency like?

I got involved by unhappy accident: whatever the opposite of serendipity is. It started as just a genial agreement with a friend to come to a meeting, and I continued to work in that system because of my stubborn belief that governance has this colossal potential for good. But over the course of two frustrating years, I learned an enormous amount–not only about leadership, but also about finding your own priorities.

Do you see your experience in government mixing with your marksmanship to perhaps yield an intelligence-related career?

I tend to be over-analytical, which seems to be conducive to the intelligence field. But I don’t really want to go on public record as saying I can make a difference in the world because I can shoot at things.

You have talked about the weight of people’s history, especially in regards to the ethnic and nationalistic tensions you encountered in Hungary and Romania: You wrote that you would rather have a young statehood and national history than be relegated to “breathing in the ghosts of my ancestors” like the Hungarians and Romanians. That is an interesting image.

History really hit me in the face as soon as we stepped off the plane in Hungary. It was palpable. And for the first week the depth of these people’s history–and their knowledge of it–seemed superior to the relatively short history of the U.S. I kept comparing them, and Hungary and Romania would come out on top.

But I began to see ugly ways in which this volume of history manifested itself: for example, the subjugation of the Roma (called “gypsies”) and all these petty resentments embedded in their past. We went to this little village, where these people lived in the same house as their grandma, and great-grandma, and great-great-great aunt. And they would tell us how long they’d been here, then point and say, “That’s why we hate our neighbors: because 800 years ago they stole our cow.” And that was disillusioning for me–suddenly, I realized that history can be as detrimental as it is valuable. And I looked at my own family in the young state of Arizona–we are a culture of immigrants, of change and flexibility. And I realized that’s a good thing, maybe a preferable thing. After the trip to Budapest and Romania, I could see the value and the burden of history at once.

Poetry–is it a populist sport? What is its purpose? Do you think poets can ever be just craftsmen, or does one become invariably tangled in theory merely by writing verse?

First off, if you become entangled in theory, you should probably stop writing.

I get so frustrated with Poets with a capital P–you know, writers with their black berets on, summoning their Muses with capital Ms.

The enemy of poetry is pretension. Poetry is one of the backbones of life, a way to make beautiful things that are of this world. A writer of poetry takes the most simple things–words–and builds all of our lives, all our ideas and passions and makes them beautiful somehow. And I think that words are like butterflies, somehow made less beautiful when pinned to a board, analyzed, dissected. I think words have to be alive.

Language is the most basic human thing, and making it elite and mystical kills it.

Poetry should touch what is most human in you.