Walter E. Washington Convention Center | February 10, 2017
(Daniel Slager, Dan Beachy-Quick, Deni Ellis Bechard, and Lee Ann Roripaugh) These outstanding writers of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry showcase the range, depth, and uniqueness of the Milkweed Editions publishing list - from the personal to the political, imperial misadventure to ecological destruction, the sacred to the unspeakable. Introduced by Milkweed Editions publisher and CEO Daniel Slager, each writer will read from his work.
Published Date: March 29, 2017
Welcome to the AWP Podcast Series. This event was recorded at the 2017 AWP Conference in Washington, DC. The recording features Deni Ellis Béchard, Rebecca Dunham, Dan Beachy-Quick, and Lee Ann Roripaugh. You will now hear Daniel Slager provide introductions.
Hello. So we are going to begin promptly at 1:30. Thanks very much for coming out today. My name is Daniel Slager. I’m the publisher at Milkweed Editions—have been for about a decade now—and I want to just say a few things about Milkweed Editions before introducing our writers. We were founded in 1980 in Minneapolis. Our mission as an organization is to identify, nurture, and publish transformative literature and build an engaged community around it, and we think of every book we publish as a work of art. Roughly evenly divided between poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. We’ve had on our nonfiction list a kind of emphasis—the way we put it is ‘books that expand ecological consciousness,’ which we interpret broadly. And occasionally—as happens I think some among our writers on our panel today—this point of emphasis for us on Milkweed finds its way into poetry and fiction as well. We have four writers here today. We asked them...we kind of wanted to display the range and variety as well as the excellence of our list with these writers. So I’ll introduce them all now and then they’ll come up and read in turn and then we’ll have a little time for questions following the readings. First up will be Deni Béchard—Deni Ellis Béchard, who is the author of five remarkably various books. His first book was a novel, Vandal Love, which won the Commonwealth Prize for Best First Book in the Commonwealth in 2006. We published that novel simultaneously with his second book, a memoir titled Cures for Hunger. His third book was a work of reportage really, titled Of Bonobos and Men, largely about—it’s about more than this—but it’s about primarily a conservation group working to save bonobo great apes in Central Africa, what we can learn, and what we need to learn, both from this conservation group and from bonobos, as human beings. And then Deni’s fourth book, a novel, Into the Sun, we published this past October. This novel is set in Kabul, Afghanistan a decade after 9/11 in the expatriate scene.—fascinating piece of work. We just had a lovely reception. Deni’s sixth book, a novel titled White, is on our list for next year. So we’re in pretty deep with Deni.
Our second writer reading this evening—this afternoon—is Rebecca Dunham, who is the author currently of Cold Pastoral, which book has just been published in the last few weeks. I want to just take a moment because it’s such a beautiful statement, such a wonder...a far better description of the book than I could come up with from Juliana Spahr. One of the blurbs for the book, so I’d like to read it. I think it describes the book beautifully.
“One way to understand the power of this book is that it revises the pastoral tradition so as to make it meaningful in the time of Deepwater Horizon, and Flint, and other environmental disasters. Another way to understand it is as a meaningful and moving series of poems that explore how contemporary landscape, with their human-made dystopias, stress and mangle relations between humans. And that it does all of this without giving up on the lyric, the form that was made to explore the intimacies between humans that we call love, is a sign of its timely power.”
I could not agree more. Rebecca is also the author of three previous collections of poems. Her last book before this, Glass Armonica, was also published by Milkweed.
Our third author this afternoon is Dan Beachy-Quick. Dan is the author of six collections of poems, and two highly unusual works of nonfiction, both published by Milkweed Editions, A Whaler’s Dictionary and Wonderful Investigations. Dan is currently working on—I’m sure among other things—his third work of nonfiction, titled A Quiet Book and scheduled for publication this fall. And I believe Dan will be reading from A Quiet Book, which I’m very excited about.
And then again, Lee, thank you so much for stepping in for Chris Dombrowski. Lee Ann Roripaugh’s most recent book is Dandarians. And here too, I’d like to draw on a more eloquent voice than mine for a description of the book, which contextualizes it beautifully. That is Srikanth Reddy:
“Roripaugh mobilizes the Japanese haibun to investigate the dialectic of trauma and care that gives rise to a particularly luminous poetic sensibility. There is the culture shock of the mixed-ethnicity child who inherits her Asian mother's mispronunciation of ‘dandelions.’
—thus the title.
“There is also the trauma of abuse, of a woman forced 'to repeat the things that were done to me that I have no names for yet.' And yet the compound fractures of history are continuously mended by the grace of this writer's wit...and her openness to the shocks of beauty that surround us...Dandarians is a work of beauty and resilience...”
Lee’s next collection of poems, tsunami vs. the fukushima 50, is scheduled for publication with Milkweed Editions in 2018. And Lee will follow Dan to the microphone. I should add also that Deni is coming to us from Havana and just flew in this morning?
Béchard: Uh, no, I’ve been stuck in airports for two days.
Stuck in airports for two days, so, Havana via Boston. Rebecca’s coming to us from, I believe, Milwaukee, and lives in Madison. Lee lives in South Dakota. So we also have geographical range, not just formal range, and ranges of sensibilities. Lee teaches at the University of South Dakota and comes to us from Vermillion, South Dakota, and Dan came to us from Denver and teaches at CSU in Fort Collins. So without further ado, Deni I hope you have some voice.
Thank you Daniel. Can you guys hear me at all okay? About twice a year I lose my voice, which is a problem that, considering the current presidential administration cabinet, I wouldn’t mind having if I shared it with other people of my demographic profile, but as the case may be they can still speak.
I am going to read briefly from Into the Sun. Into the Sun is a book that I began working on in 2009 when I first went to Kabul, Afghanistan as a volunteer teacher and then later as a journalist. And what struck me when I went there, was this sense of sort of a frontier energy.—sort of a frenzied energy of people who were seeing a boomtown. So imagine Kabul when America invaded in 2001, the population was approximately half a million. Today it’s between five and six million. In ten years it’s the fifth fastest growing city in the world, and as the West and the US has dumped billions of dollars into this city, this class of people who sort of float from international disaster to international disaster have gone there to soak a lot of it up. And I was sort of, I was fascinated by this boomtown culture which reminded me of my childhood reading of frontier narratives. You have somebody strike gold, a town is built and all the sudden you have your mercenaries show up. You have your society builders, who want to build a company, they want to build a business, they want to educate people, and your colonial people who want to build schools, build churches, tame the culture. You started having all these people flood in, and there’s a lot of myth-making going on. These are all people who see themselves the founders of this new world. And I was sort of fascinated by that, by the degree to which a lot of the people I met in Kabul at that time spoke that way, with this sort of grandiose sense of their mission and with very little self-awareness of how truly colonial their discourse was. And so this book is an exploration of that, and it circles around four people who disappear in a car bomb, and it goes into their stories and tries to understand the meaning of victimhood to a certain degree and the meaning of agency in a place like this. I’ll read the opening two pages then I’ll jump to another scene.
(Reads from Into the Sun)
I’m going to skip ahead to an ex-pat party, where they have an indoor greenhouse and they’re exploring some old furniture. In Afghanistan there are a lot of weapons lying around. It’s not that unusual to be cleaning a house and to find a grenade or an old Kalashnikov, or some bullets. This is a scene where they’re looking at some old furniture and people get very dramatic. You know some of this ex-pat life isn’t actually as exciting as it seems...it’s supposed to be, so they all get dramatic and make a big deal of this. Let me pause, occasionally to explain the characters as we go. So we’re looking at a bunch of old furniture. Can you hear me okay by the way? Okay.
(Reads from Into the Sun)
Hi. Thank you all from coming. This is so...okay? Alright. It’s exciting to be here. It’s the first time that I’m gonna be reading from the new collection so it’s fun. So, in working on this collection it was different than a lot of what I had written before and I wanted, after having worked on a book that focused very much on the body and women’s bodies, I wanted to try focusing outward because it’s something that I’ve always been interested in doing in my writing but I hadn’t done a sustained project in it, and so around the time I was thinking of doing this, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill happened in the Gulf. And like a lot of us I was just drawn to all of that, you know, the spill-cam and seeing the actual rig when it was on fire, so I started working on it in the same way that I had often written which is researching things from books, because I’m a poet and that makes me comfortable. But, after a while I felt like, well, I need to talk to people. I need to go there and see it, and I was lucky enough to get some grants that allowed me to travel to Louisiana and the Gulf and I interviewed people, spoke with people, visited, just saw what had happened to the landscape there, so the book developed in a way that was very different than I had—just anything I’d done before. So, in the course of the collection, it’s almost like the poet became a character to a certain extent, so I’m gonna read some of the poems that connect to that and to my visit to the Gulf area.
The first poem is “Mnemosyne to the Poet” and Mnemosyne is the goddess of memory.
“Elegy, Sung in Dirt,” after the New York Times’s image of the Deepwater Horizon’s collapse into the sea.
The next poem is a scene in Grand Isle, Louisiana, in 2010, shortly after the spill. Even a year later when I would go to the beach there were just tar balls and things closed, but what was weird was that there were still kids and tourists playing in the water, so...
One of the people I spoke to a year after the spill was this man named Wilbert Collins, and he owned an oyster company and they had been really well known. They supplied oysters to all sorts of fancy restaurants, but now, not just the spill, but they tried releasing a bunch of fresh water to get rid of the oil and in the process the fresh water killed the oyster beds so it’s a combination of two things that happened and so there’s three poems that are all connected about this visit with him.
“Field Note 2011.”
One of the interesting things when I was down there was that I brought a camera because at one point I was creating a sort of digital presentation which used photography, photographs and stuff in it and the camera made such a difference. You know his son pulled over and told me to go talk to him in part because with the camera there was this sense of like, ‘Oh, this is gonna be seen and documented.’ So it was an interesting experience.
The last poem is again, it’s in sections, but part of it comes from this visit I made to Tiger Pass Seafood which is...was another big seafood provider—shrimp in that case.
“Elegy, Written in Oil.”
I owe Daniel and Patrick and everyone at Milkweed a large debt of gratitude in part if not wholly because they are willing to publish these very idiosyncratic eccentric books of so-called criticism that I do that I think would be published truly no where else. And as I was thinking of what Daniel said at the beginning of this reading, this ecological mission for which Milkweed is rightly celebrated, that there’s an extraordinary capaciousness, a multifaceted quality to how Milkweed demonstrates that ideal, and part of that ideal includes providing ways that remind us that reading is itself a vital activity and protects these possibilities of realization that can occur in no other way, so that returning to a book such as Moby Dick, or looking at Thoreau or Dickinson, become as much an effort at preservation as any other activity might be. So I’m very grateful to be on this list and then inside that, I think truly generous and ambitious, vision. The most recent unpublishable book I’m publishing with Milkweed is called A Quiet Book, and it takes as its hope a very simple seeming thing, which is originally in my thought to one hundred times return in a simple sense to the very same concern—this idea, not simply of quiet, but of silence, of grief, of death, of the various forms of oblivion that so strangely, when properly seen, don’t simply deny meaning or language, but exist complexly within the life of language—this unspeakable thing, this inspiring point that, as we all know, when you try to grab it, has a profound habit of disappearing. That’s what I wanted to pay attention to and see what it would do to have this deliberate discipline for two, now really going on three, years of returning to the same concern—turning over and over again. Not looking away and to see what would fall onto the page.I’m gonna start by reading a poem, very tied to the short essay I’m going to read, not in A Quiet Book. So I lied to Daniel when I said that I was reading from it, or partially lied, which seemed like kind of an unspeakable thing, too.
This poem begins and ends with ellipses, and I mentioned that because in some ways I imagine it as a definition going on eternally, that the frequency of the poem catches for a little bit. So imagine that somehow we’ve caught this particular kind of signal. It takes as its inspiration a book I was reading in the dark hours of the morning by Diogenes Laertius, titled The Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, most of which aren’t any longer that eminent, oddly enough. Centuries have erased them, and not only erased our memory of those philosophers, but each little section would end with a book, sometimes sixty/seventy books that these philosophers wrote—none of which, or very few of which, have survived. And many of these books are repeated topics for philosophers over the centuries, and the one that this poem takes its title from is On the Soul.
So one of the things that’s occupied my imagination during the writing of A Quiet Book and before are the stories of eternity in which you repeat a certain aspect, an essential aspect of your life forever. I once imagined myself as in the eternal condition of clapping all the time for everything. Then something today when I was in another panel and then you hear the applause from another room I thought, ‘Oh, it might be that,’ actually. But when I was in fifth grade, it’s a embarrassing memory, I had to give an oral book report in front of all my classmates and my teacher, and I was giving the report—I had written it out, I was a diligent student, I had written it out—but the book had made me really sad and in the midst of reciting my book report I broke down in tears in front of everyone, and it could be I do that after I die over and over again, the guise of this, the frame of it is that kind of vision. The title is “Psuche,” which is the Greek word for soul from which we get our psyche.
I’m very grateful to be able to pitch hit this afternoon and grateful to Daniel and Milkweed and to be a part of this family of powerfully diverse and gorgeous voices. I also appreciate Milkweed’s mission for expanding ecological consciousness, which every passing day seems even more fiercely necessary. I’m going to read a selection that is maybe somewhat ecologically or eco-critically influenced today in honor of that mission. I’m gonna begin with a short lyric flash essay that kind of toggles between maybe some ecological concerns, its...I’ve been working on a series of essays that breaks down maybe the false binary between nature and technology. So this is called “Swarm.”
(Reads from poem)
Two. “A Wake of Turkey Vultures.”
(Reads from poem)
Three. “A Pod of Walruses.”
(Reads from poem)
Four. “A Fever of Stingrays.”
(Reads from poem)
Five. “Hive mind.”
(Reads from poem)
And I’ll finish up with one poem from tsunami vs. the fukushima 50, which is a project that’s intended to commemorate the Tohoku Tsunami and Fukushima disaster, which is still ongoing in that people from the no-go zone are still unable to return to their homes, are still living in temporary housing. I created a super-villainess named Tsunami who’s sort of like Magneto from the X-Men. I’m drawing on the trope of comics as a way of exploring or commemorating this disaster and the way that Magneto was created through the Holocaust, as a trauma that created his superpowers, Tsunami is created by the fault line as the trauma and the ocean floor causes her to rise. The tsunami poems are then juxtaposed with dramatic monologues in the voices of fictional survivors. So this is a survivor who I’m calling my Mothra, and maybe as some of you remember the Godzilla movies or comics, after the dropping of the atomic bombs in Japan at the end of the World War II, the monsters rose on Monster Island. Mothra is a giant moth and she is always summoned by a pair of tiny Japanese singing twins, and in this monologue I envision a young woman who is pregnant with twins who has been evacuated.
“Mothra Flies Again.”
Thank you all very much. I’m very...I’m humbled and proud at the same time. We have two minutes if there is a question or two. If not, onward, thanks very much again. I very much appreciate it.
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