Kathleen Flenniken was recently named Poet Laureate of Washington State. A native of the state, she grew up the daughter of a chemist who worked at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. She went on to earn two degrees in civil engineering and herself worked eight years as an engineer and hydrologist, three of those years at Hanford. After her first job at Hanford, she married, moved to Seattle, and while raising a family of three, studied and wrote poetry. Her first book, Famous, won the Prairie Schooner Book Prize and was named an ALA Notable Book. Her second book, Plume, appeared this year in the University of Washington Press’s Pacific Northwest Poetry Series and was recently included on the Pacific NW Booksellers Association’s shortlist for the best books of 2012. The remarkably moving and thoroughly researched poems in Plume concern Flenniken’s childhood in the Tri-Cities area and the serious situation Hanford presents to this region. She is interviewed by John W. Marshall of Open Books.
JM: Plume is the result of a sort of magical confluence of your upbringing in the tri-cities, your engineering background and time spent working on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, and your singular ability to write beautifully and effectively. It’s impossible to imagine another person writing this book, which is rare to say of any book. How did you come to write it?
KF: I was winding down on what had always felt like my subject, domestic life, exploring familiar territory and not as well. Which was worrisome. I began a MFA and felt the need to test myself with new, challenging material. I can’t imagine a more intimidating, skillful, or sympathetic reader for those earliest Hanford poems than my mentor, the poet Albert Goldbarth. Albert gave me latitude to fail and keep trying.
It became immediately clear that these poems needed context. The backstory is so complicated and (unfortunately) not universally known, and without it, a reader of an isolated poem would have no sense of the stakes involved. They had to be in a group. I briefly considered mixing poetry and prose, but kept coming back to poems. I’m a purist and I loved the challenge.
JM: Do you consider Plume to be a poetry sequence or a memoir in poetry?
KF: I did start thinking of it as a memoir in poetry after I had assembled the first half-dozen poems about childhood. But the true heart of the growing collection belonged to my friend Carolyn and her family: the death of her father from a radiation illness. I asked myself, is it still memoir if I’m not at the center? I switched to thinking of it as a sequence, planned a poem for every important milestone, and arranged the parts chronologically. I wrote a number of anchoring poems based on research, but too many were not truly poems but scaffolding. I stripped the weak poems out, saw the hole in the whole, and experienced one of those rare moments of clarity. The last few poems I wrote attempted to make sense of this story in a personal way, and I ended up thinking of the whole as memoir once again.
JM: Did any poetry collections act as models?
KF: Yes. Primarily Martha Collins’s book-length poem about a lynching in Cairo, Illinois—Blue Front (Graywolf, 2006). I was so moved by this book, by the way it blended research and personal history, the way its fractured narrative spoke volumes about the weight of the tragedy. Blue Front gave me permission to mix up my narrative a bit, too.
JM: What was normal in your childhood is so uncommon–
It was still dark
as our fathers rose, dressed, and boarded
blue buses that pulled away, and men
in milk trucks came collecting bottled urine
When did you become aware how rare your childhood was?
KF: Gradually. When your high school team is (stubbornly) called the Bombers, you see yourself reflected back in magazine and newspaper articles once in awhile. I was hungry for any attention our town might get, and paid attention to those articles. By high school I had a pretty good sense of how others viewed us, but couldn’t manage any perspective myself. I just railed against those unfair and simplified portraits of our community.
JM: The braiding of your life story with the slow-moving cataclysm of Hanford is remarkably handled. How did you achieve balance, given the potential for your story to be overwhelmed by Hanford’s nearly unbelievable scope, or for your story to fill the frame and obscure Hanford’s monumental being?
KF: I think it’s the presence of Carolyn’s father that keeps the rest in balance. My personal experiences were inconsequential by comparison. And Hanford is incomprehensible and too easy to demonize without that human face. Mr. Deen was my moderating force.
I know Hanford is a giant faceless entity to most. To me it was an extension of my hometown. It was an outpost of the American government, which to a child was interchangeable with “America.” I can muster up affection for Hanford still when I think of it as my community.
JM: In Plume you express a profound longing for an unquestionable good, as in these lines from “Museum of a Lost America”–
I will not stop.
I’ll cling to any shred of America remaining,
like a monkey
taken from her mother
and clinging to a mother made of cloth.
To what extent is that longing still with you? How does it manifest itself now or has something replaced it?
KF: Albert called it my “troubled love affair with America.” And I still suffer from waves of nostalgia for an earlier time in our country, or maybe more accurately, the time when my love of country was uncomplicated. That longing is very strong and verges on embarrassing. And it’s still feeding my poems: In my next collection I hope to blend poems about long love and marriage with poems about American culture and patriotism. Though even the word “patriotism” is so freighted, it’s arguably unusable. I’m hitting a lot of walls.
JM: There are three instances in Plume of your redacting pieces from the public record, two from the Atomic Energy Commission and one from J. Robert Oppenheimer, creating poems from the language not blacked out. How did it occur to you to seek out poems inside these texts?
KF: The secrecy at the site has been a major stumbling block for me. I was shocked to learn from Michele Gerber’s book, On the Home Front: The Cold War Legacy of the Hanford Nuclear Site, that Hanford secrecy came from within, and that the Atomic Energy Commission prodded Hanford officials to open up! Gerber had highlighted these three quotations. I wanted to convey that deliberate misinterpretation of AEC directives and had recently been playing with blackout poems in another context. It came together suddenly. And I knew what secret messages to look for.
JM: Ending Plume with two paragraphs from a flatly delivered, concisely detailed government description, “Today, under the direction of the U.S. Department of Energy, Hanford is engaged in the world’s largest environmental cleanup project . . .” caused me right away to want to re-read the book. What an interesting and intelligent way to end the piece! How did it occur to you to end with language other than your own?
KF: At one point those two paragraphs started the book. I wanted to include them for readers who had no idea of Hanford’s history, but they were too leading. I didn’t want to remove them entirely as they succinctly described the size of the environmental cleanup. So that left moving them to the end. And I liked them there. The book begins with candidate Obama admitting he doesn’t know what Hanford is, and ends with a government paragraph that summarizes the mind-bending volumes of waste on site. I think of the poems between as a lesson about Hanford, and America—one I first had to learn myself.
JM: Thanks, Kathleen.
I’d like to close this interview with a portion of the text that ends the book, followed by a poem from Plume.
“Physical challenges at the Hanford Site include more than 50 million gallons of high-level waste in 177 underground storage tanks, 2,300 tons (2,100 metric tons) of spent nuclear fuel, 12 tons (11 metric tons) of plutonium in various forms, about 25 million cubic feet (750,000 cubic meters) of buried or stored solid waste, and about 270 billion gallons (a trillion liters) of groundwater contaminated above drinking water standards, spread out over about 80 square miles (208 square kilometers), more than 1,700 waste sites, and about 500 contaminated facilities”
— U.S. Department of Energy
Richland Dock, 1956
Someone launched a boat into the current,
caught and delivered fish to the lab
and someone tested for beta and P-32.
Someone with flasks and test tubes tested
and re-tested to double check the rising values.
And someone drove to the public dock
with a clipboard and tallied species and weight.
Chatting with his neighbors, Which fish
are you keeping? How many do you eat?
And someone with a slide rule in a pool of light
figured and refigured the radionuclide
dose. Too high. Experimented frying up
hot whitefish. No. No. Then someone decided
all the numbers were wrong. Someone
from our home town. Is that why we
were never told? While someone fishing–
that little boy; the teacher on Cedar Street–
caught his limit and never knew.
John W. Marshall, along with Christine Deavel, co-owns and operates Open Books: A Poem Emporium, the seventeen-year-old poetry-only bookstore in Seattle. He publishes poetry under the name J.W. Marshall because the late, lamented Seattle Post Intelligencer had, as its book editor, a John Marshall whom this John Marshall was not. He won the 2007 Field Poetry Prize, and his first book, Meaning a Cloud, was published in 2008 by Oberlin College Press.