Yemassee Interview: 7 Questions with Taneum Bambrick
1. How would you describe your journey as a poet?
I started writing poetry as a reaction to being raised in a rural place. We had little entertainment. My friends and I filled our time with games like jumping on the plank of wood that acted as a bridge until one of us fell into the irrigation ditch. While it holds its unique frustrations for me, I love the cracked, basalt coated desert of Eastern Washington, and I started writing in attempts to describe it. That isolated environment also provided my work with social direction. I’ve written poems since I could write, but the first that felt finished stemmed from my time working on a maintenance crew around the reservoirs of two, massive dams. I used to write jokes and phrases my co-workers said on napkins and later organize them into poems. My work relies on those memories of conversations I was a witness to but was never a real or significant part of. Both the space of the dam and the characters in Reservoir are fictionalized and extended to address the overall hypermasculinity and lack of environmental awareness I noted all throughout my childhood. I have always been fascinated by the contradictions of beauty and devastation along especially the Columbia Basin, and I think my poetry works to sort out how that fascination is politically and emotionally complicated.
2. What kind of poems/poets are you most drawn to?
I am drawn to surprising structures, imagery, and writers who can embed a range of emotions in a single poem. Sherwin Bitsui’s collection Flood Song, for example, is one I return to almost every time I sit down to write. Each poem begins with an image that collapses and reshapes—“I carve this apple into a dove / wrap it in a nest of boiling water”—and the resulting effect is like looking through multiple scopes at a single concept.
3. Has there been a particular something (idea/image/phrase/quote/obsession) knocking around in your head lately?
When I started writing this chapbook I was fascinated with white sturgeon because of their strange, prehistoric looking bodies, and the fact they are an anadromous species that has become locked in place by dams. I have a poem I’ve been trying to write based on a story my dad told me about when he worked on a dam in college and had to go down into its base pools to rescue trapped sturgeon. Because they often grow to be 10 feet long, the sturgeon had to be wrestled onto human stretchers in order to be carried out to the reservoir through the narrow hallways of the dam. I am obsessed with this image but unsure still how I want to write about it.
4. Can you talk about your chapbook Reservoir and how it came to be?
Reservoir is a fictionalized account of my real experiences working as the only woman on a six-person garbage crew around the reservoirs of two, massive dams. I started writing poems in order to document the forms of violence I witnessed towards the people and the environment of the Columbia River. While working there I found that reservoirs foster a uniquely complex community—from fish biologists to folks who own luxury summer homes—and I became interested in the issues and tensions between the people of that place. The idea of power, literal and metaphoric, was present in every action and encounter we had with our bosses and the people using the river for its utilities. Even among the crew, as we lifted bags of garbage out of park sites, we suffered from dimensions of control dealing with masculinity and class. As a 19-year-old my presence irritated my co-workers in their fifties who’d logged, built houses, and had to suffer various forms of class discrimination their entire lives. Similarly, they initially objected to my inability to carry as much weight. I found throughout this experience that our issues, while not the same, were inherently connected to the suffering of landscape. How could we, for example, identify proudly with scooping a mess of swollen diapers and decaying farm animals out of the water all day? We felt like garbage. We resisted our status. We abused each other in order to emotionally survive.
4. What’s strangest about your writing process?
I am not very self-aware when I write, so I asked one of my closest friends what my writing process looks like. She noted that I don’t write very often, which is true. I have tried setting aside time to write every day, or forcing myself to go on a camping trip alone to see if I can generate work in that space, but I never write poems worth saving when I force myself to write. Most of the time ideas for poems come to me when I’m grading my student’s papers and feel inspired by something one of them said, or when I’m on a hike with other people and we’re at the point of exhaustion where we’ve stopped trying to make conversation with each other. I have to be distracted and engaged in some other activity to want to write.
5. If you could share one piece of advice with your fellow poets, what would it be?
I think the best advice I’ve ever heard about writing poetry came from the poet Jane Miller when she said that the best thing you can do for your writing is to have a life outside of it. For me, having friends who hate poetry or don’t know anything about poetry has been essential. Similarly, engaging myself in activities where I am not thinking about writing—backpacking, other forms of art, music—really helps. My students and I were talking recently about how social media pushes people to do things/go places only so that they can take those experiences and make them public. Sometimes, with writing, I get into a mental state where I am listening to conversations and viewing the landscape around me through the lens of how I can bend what I am experiencing into a poem. I can worry so much about generating work that I stop being a witness to what’s happening around me. My friends who climb, make pottery, paint, teach English as a second language, love film, work in hospitals, at bars, etc., challenge me to pay attention to other, interesting things, which eventually informs my work. My best writing usually comes after I haven’t written for days.
7. How does it feel that poet Ocean Vuong chose Reservoir as the winner of the 2017 Poetry Chapbook Prize?
I still re-read the acceptance email every day because it feels surreal. The blurb he wrote in response to Reservoir made my project make sense to me. I can’t express how grateful and shocked I continue to feel. To have someone who you’ve admired for years read your work, let alone select it for publication, is a huge honor.
Taneum Bambrick holds an MFA from the University of Arizona where she received the Academy of American Poets Prize. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Hobart, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Timber, Cutbank Online, The Nashville Review, New Delta Review, and elsewhere. She teaches English at Central Washington University.