by dana guthrie martin
Kathleen Flenniken, a resident of Seattle, Washington, is currently serving a two-year term as Poet Laureate for the state of Washington. Her two poetry collections are Famous and Plume. Plume deals with her experiences growing up in Richland, Washington, and working as an engineer at the Hanford site, as contextualized by research and time, and the perspective both afford. The collection centers on her relationship with her childhood friend Carolyn, whose father died from radiation illness. The book was seven years in the making.
The main interview took place in August 2012 near Flenniken’s home, with a follow-up conversation by way of email.
DGM: Tell me how you came to write this collection. What was your process? How did you know the time was right for this undertaking?
KF: In 1988 when we were in our late twenties, my childhood friend Carolyn lost her father to a radiation illness. That was well before I began writing. (I started writing poetry in my 30s, about five years later.) His death was a huge challenge to my understanding of the site and perhaps the first chink in my solid Richland identity.
Writing the poems came many years later, after my parents were gone. That is, I couldn’t even have conceived of writing them while they were still living. My loyalty to my parents and their generation of friends who gave their careers and lives to Hanford was too inhibiting. And I had to attain a certain skill as a poet. When I was first writing poems, I wasn’t good enough to take on the subject matter of Hanford.
My first Hanford poem, “Bedroom Community,” was written (mostly) in 2005. I was casting about looking for new subjects. (I felt I was rewriting the same poems I’d written in Famous and I remembered the old adage, “Write the poems you’re afraid to write.”) So, those first few were memoir poems and poems to my friend Carolyn. Then I started reading about and researching the site, which led to poems based on my research. At that point I thought I was done. It took me a couple of years and misfires to recognize that I needed to write a few more poems in first person, set in the present. That last dozen or so changed the tone of the collection and deepened it.
DGM: How difficult was it to add those first-person poems to the collection? Or did they come easily once you knew you needed to bring the present and the present perspective into the work?
KF: It was all I could manage. I had to figure out what I thought about all of it. There needed to be some kind of shift in understanding, and therefore I ought to be wise about the whole thing. Except I couldn’t just be wise. I wrote a number of angry poems, taking my cue from lots of people who asked me, “Aren’t you angry?” and after looking at poems by Bill Witherup who had written so passionately and angrily about Hanford for decades. But I ended up taking those poems out. It was borrowed anger. In the end, what I felt was deep sadness and confusion. Confusion doesn’t really feel like it should be a terminal emotion—I’m not even sure it is an emotion. Nevertheless, I belonged to both sides and neither side and so I invited that confusion in. And I allowed myself to feel protective of my community while still trying to be factual. The last three poems were the museum poems (“Museum of Doubt” and “Museum of a Lost America”) and the final poem in the collection, “If You Can Read This.” They’re as dispassionate as I knew how to make them—imagining myself confronting my past as though I were in a museum (which actually happened to me, at the Smithsonian Museum of American History) or reading a sign at the site, 10,000 years in the future.
DGM: The personal and scientific come together here in a very strong way. Did you feel those elements were working together in the creation of the poems for this collection, or was one or the other ever an impediment or hindrance?
KF: The science came in when I started writing poems based in research—which was completely new for me. A poem about testing the water at Richland Dock, for example, or retelling the details of The Green Run. My engineering training and Hanford indoctrination kicked in, and I knew my poems must never exaggerate or play fast and loose with facts. “Lies that tell the truth” is all well and good in art, but in this particular circumstance, the truth had to be scientifically and historically accurate. I used a variety of poetic forms throughout and I suppose I thought of scientific accuracy as part of the “form” I had chosen to follow. So I never saw it as an impediment. It was a constraint.
DGM: Tell me about the redactions in the book and why you presented them the way you did.
KF: I lifted three powerful quotations, two from the Atomic Energy Commission and one from J. Robert Oppenheimer, out of Michele Gerber’s amazing environmental history of the Hanford Site, On the Home Front. All three were warnings that Hanford was too secretive about their operations, that their closed communication actually compromised good science. I was thinking about the way Hanford management so often heard what they wanted to hear or twisted information to align it with their beliefs. It came to me suddenly that Hanford obsessively controlled the message by censoring it. What better way to control criticism than redact the parts you don’t like? So I redacted the quotations so that they said something very different—in one case that “fear could end a critical scientific program”—that is, that free access to information would result in panic and would endanger their mission and our country’s safety.
DGM: Did you ever feel afraid about writing the collection, as if you were divulging things you shouldn’t make public?
KF: I never felt afraid, but I definitely felt I was breaking a taboo—revealing the way we truly thought about our lives and our town and our relationship to the country, the secrecy that was ingrained in our culture, the suspicious health problems and messages from the government. There’s been plenty of “Who do you think you are?” and “Who died and made you the expert?” and that’s just inside my head.
DGM: What about outside your head? Have you had any similar feedback from others who aren’t pleased about what you’ve documented and shared?
KF: Not yet. I’ve had next to no feedback from Richland, other than words from friends. Though I hear from many ex-pats living in other parts of the Northwest. I keep waiting for confrontation and am not quite sure how to interpret silence. Even the Tri-City Herald has stonewalled me. No review or mention, though several other sizeable newspapers in the Northwest have reviewed or featured the book at this point.
DGM: You’ve talk about the Richland identity, the mindset of the city in the past and in the present with regard to the Hanford site. You’ve specifically talked about people not understanding that identity and about having times that you feel angry about that lack of understanding, the complexity of the entire situation. Can you talk about that identity and your feelings around it in more detail?
KF: Richlanders have been—by and large, and for years—tone-deaf. It’s not that we aim to offend and scandalize the rest of the world by choosing an atomic bomb as our high school mascot; we just don’t see why we shouldn’t be proud of our history (and I’m using “we” because I was part of this culture, though I long ago recognized the inappropriateness of the Bomber mushroom cloud).
The Richland identity is based in pride. Richlanders still take pride in their Manhattan Project and Cold War successes. We had a job to do and we did it, not matter how dirty. We kept our country safe and “ended the war.” Whether or not you agree with the use of the bomb at Hiroshima or Nagasaki, whether or not you think we were safer for the 60,000 nuclear warheads Hanford helped fuel, it’s difficult not to admire the sheer ingenuity of the engineers and scientists and workers that kept the plants going for decades beyond their original life expectancy.
Now Hanford is embroiled in the largest environmental cleanup in the world and it’s an inglorious and stultifyingly difficult task. It’s one long exercise in shame—cost overruns and unpleasant discoveries of new contamination and technical issues too difficult to solve. So I don’t think it’s very surprising that the community—even three and four generations beyond that original Manhattan Project generation—takes refuge in “Bomber” pride, no matter how unearned.
I also think it is far too easy to demonize Hanford workers, who were after all my neighbors and friends. I know some of those original workers—they were my parents’ friends and peers and they were often remarkable, incredibly intelligent, socially responsible, ethical, often spiritual people. Over and over again they did the right thing. And yet terrible lies were perpetrated, the public was betrayed, secrets protected the institution of Hanford over the lives of its workers and the innocents downstream. I feel very protective and defensive about the people from my hometown. These were not evil people; they were good people who made tragic errors with the best intentions. This is a human story, and it’s going to happen again and in your town, though maybe not with the same long-term consequences.
DGM: Your President Obama quote at the beginning of the book is amazing, and not in a good way. Why do you think more people, including the leader of our country, don’t know about Hanford—both what went on there and the continued effort to deal with the repercussions of what went on there?
KF: The difficulties at Hanford are technical and complicated and mired in decades of cultural and political history. It’s impossible to summarize them in a sentence or two. This isn’t just a problem for poets and politicians. Hanford has a terrible time attracting young workers to take on this tragedy of highly contaminated waste sites, many of which were insufficiently documented. And anti-Hanford activists are having an equally hard time passing their work down to the next generation. Most young people are turned off by Cold War politics, and then add in radioactive waste. Is it any wonder I’m worried sick that this whole site will be written off and forgotten?
The secrecy ingrained in the Hanford community has come back to haunt them. Hanford supporters never wanted anybody talking about the site that didn’t understand it (which they thought was everybody). Now the Hanford story is rarely even taught in Washington State history—which boggles my mind. We need to educate the next generation of citizens who will, after all, be paying and paying for radioactive waste cleanup for the rest of their lives.
DGM: A poet in my writing group read Plume. She’s lived in Walla Walla for a long time. She was part of the protests of the white trains when they were coming through. She was one of the first people, perhaps one of the only people, from Walla Walla who was involved in protests and discussions about nuclear energy and nuclear waste. She was involved in hearings at Hanford and wrote for the local paper about issues related to the site. Her overriding question after reading your collection is, “How do you cope with being a poet of place, a poet of witness, and balance reality and action without falling into despair or insanity?”
KF: I’ve always approached the poems in Plume as deeply personal explorations of my story—my history, my country, my neighbors and friends. This project was autobiographical. That meant I didn’t need to be an expert that represented the whole Hanford community—which I could never be. Instead, my biggest challenge was to make Hanford interesting for a reader who might be new to the story.
I don’t think of myself as a poet of place or witness. I think my role is to tell a story about the place I grew up. Maybe that’s a fine line between the two, but I really think of those poems as very personal, and that’s the only way that I could write them—to think of them as personal poems.
I never tried to make a political statement. I never thought of the poems as activism. I have never sought to make change. It’s not that I’m not hungry for a changing attitude at Hanford. It’s just that I could never place that kind of pressure on the poems; it would have been deadly and I never could have completed the project. Making these poems about me relieved me of feeling responsible for fixing the situation—which would have been, absolutely, a recipe for despair.
I wrote these poems in large part to try to figure out what I thought about all of it.
DGM: And where did you land? How do you feel in the end, after writing the book, and how is that different from how you felt before? What do you think about all of it?
KF: In some ways, I feel closer to the place than I ever did. I think when you see a place, warts and all, and still feel it, it’s a very honest connection. You see how deeply connected you really are. It would be easy to push away or deny it, but on many levels, I still love my hometown; I love the people that I grew up with; and I still think they did the best they could, but it just wasn’t good enough—and I think that’s really more a story of the human condition than it is of the people there. It’s just being human, and maybe being American.
I’m not as defensive about Hanford as I used to be. I think I’m more open to some of the violent distrust and dislike. I can hear that better now than I used to be able to. In some ways, I feel more porous to the whole subject. I feel like it goes through me and I hear it but I don’t have to take it on the way I did for so long.
DGM: Did you know about the protests that were happening? The kinds of things my friend was involved in, either at the time or as you were doing your research?
KF: The white train is something I’ve heard of, but I’m not sure I know exactly when/what that was.
Here’s a window into my mind: I have always disassociated Hanford with bomb-making and bomb distribution. I know Hanford created the fuel, but somehow I have put the weapons into a separate category. Though I have always conceded that nuclear waste usually reappears at Hanford. So I’m not surprised that I’ve blocked the white trains out of my mind. It’s consistent with my coping mechanisms.
DGM: The trains aren’t specifically Hanford-related, but they did involve the transport of missile heads and waste from those missiles making their way across the country into places like Washington State. The train cars were initially painted white out of fear that they might detonate if they got too hot. They were easy to spot, so protestors could organize and stage protests as the cars moved along the tracks.
KF: So when you were talking earlier, before the interview, about the Cascadia independence movement, which pushes for Cascadia to become a separate country, I was thinking that we’ve been the dumping ground for so long, you can see why people have this desire to cast off the colonial power, right? We’ve been a colony for the East Coast for so long, you can see where that separatist movement comes from.
DGM: At the same time, we’d have to clean up the mess alone, even though we didn’t make it alone. We’ve been the victim of so many endeavors that are aspirational in nature, at least in part, but they have outcomes we don’t anticipate—so something tragic or atrocious comes out of those endeavors. As you mentioned before the interview, Hanford is an extreme example of “disastrous consequences.” It’s one thing to do something knowing the outcomes and another to stumble into those outcomes, ones we aren’t at all prepared for.
KF: And even asking for the waste. People have been so hungry for jobs there for so long, they’re in the habit of asking for anything. “Make us your waste site.” They wanted to be the waste site. It’s jobs. It’s money.
DGM: Look at Roosevelt Regional Landfill in eastern Washington, one of the largest landfills in the country, which is importing trash from other states. Or take Hermiston, Ore., where a new horse rendering plant is going to be built and slaughter 25,000 horses a year. Now we’ve got a paper mill, a horse rendering plant, a landfill, the Hanford site. What other dirty, messy industry do you want to bring to what you still seem to consider “nowhere”?
KF: Right. Where there’s “nothing.” It seems late in the game to think that way, doesn’t it? It’s time to rethink that. It’s so interesting that we have this idea that certain landscapes are more beautiful and therefore more valuable and others are less beautiful and so it doesn’t really matter what we do to them.
And yet, in that Hanford landscape, they’ve discovered all kinds of plants that are medicinal, and there’s that ecosystem that turns out to be quite well-preserved in Hanford because they haven’t done a lot to it, and it’s really an amazingly varied and interesting place for all these plants. And you think, “There are no plants there; it’s just desert.” Well, there are lots of plants; it’s just our eyes becoming more intelligent about what we are seeing. It took us a long, long time to figure that out because it’s not green doesn’t mean it’s not “pretty”; it’s just not pretty in the traditional sense.
Yes, like you were talking about, it’s a hierarchy of regions—that one is a “better” place and one is a “worse” place, and so the people here are more important and those there less important or less intelligent—it’s a mindset that can prevail and cause damage to the people and the place.
DGM: When I was driving here today from eastern Washington, I passed Richland and started thinking about your poem “Coyote.” That poem is powerful because you do physically feel a shift between eastern and western Washington as you move into and out of it along I-90. If you’ve lived on both sides of the Cascades, you feel a difference.
When you say you still think the people in Richland did the best they could, and that you’re less defensive now than you have been, that all seems to speak to both individual identity and group identity, which I think is so nicely expressed in “Coyote.” Who am I? Who have I been? How do I move between these two spaces and states?
Your book invites us to move with you between those spaces and states, to come on that journey with you and move along the same lines of inquiry. There’s a kind of dual lens at work. I don’t know if you would use the term insider-outsider, but that’s what comes to mind for me. How do you grapple with that dual identity?
KF: At heart I will always be of Eastern Washington—the friendly, easy interchanges with strangers, the less prettified, more practical and more egalitarian community, the sky. And I will always feel the landscape and weather of Western Washington in my bones, and be grateful for the open-mindedness I find in Seattle.
When I travel to Eastern Washington I feel in some very basic way like I’m among my people. Which is ironic, since I think most Eastern Washington communities disowned Richland long ago as some kind of social experiment gone wrong. But mostly what I feel is solidarity with the whole Pacific Northwest in all its forms. I am a die-hard PNWer, daughter of Oregonians—and you never, ever get that out of your blood.
But to the point of “Coyote”—being from Richland means a very strong “us” and “them” mentality—an insider/outsider frame of reference. Scoop Jackson was always part of the “us” even though he never lived in the Tri-Cities, because he was a supporter and worked hard to bring jobs and status to Hanford. Mostly though, the “us’s” have come from Richland/Hanford. I think I surrendered my “insider/us” badge when I wrote these poems.
But I don’t think about grappling with it. I’m just confused most of the time. Where do I belong? But I know I belong in this landscape. The trees and the water and the rain. I feel as if I am rooted here in some way because of that landscape. But I feel such a loyalty to the people I grew up with.
DGM: So when you say “here,” do you mean west of the Cascades?
KF: This side. Yes.
DGM: That leads to the question: Do you see Cascadia as a place, or are the two sides of the Cascades so distinct that they feel like they aren’t part of the same place?
KF: My parents preached to me about how superior Oregon was to any other place in the world. Washington was, for them, a mere shadow of Oregon. And of course then I was very protective of Washington because that’s my home. So I’ve always had this sense that I am from the Northwest and I will always be of the Northwest. I can’t ever imagine being of any other place. I feel protective of it, defensive about it, proud of it—and that includes the high desert, and it includes the ocean, and includes all the places that I think of as being “my place,” my Northwest.
DGM: So you see a conjunction then, not a disjunction between the western side of the bioregion and the eastern side?
KF: I do. I absolutely do. I see the connection, and I’ve driven through it so many times. I just love that trip over the mountains, where you can see, tree by tree, it’s changing from firs to pines and then to the shrubs and then going across the state, and then at the very end, seeing the pines coming back in Spokane. I love seeing that.
DGM: You said something earlier about this place being treated like a colony. If you look at the Oregon territory, it’s very similar to the outline of Cascadia. It’s almost like we were left as a wild place for so long because we weren’t reachable by settlers. But once settled, we’ve in some ways suffered because of our wildness. But we’ve also grown out of and around that wildness.
KF: In high school as part of a church group, we traveled up into British Columbia and got to stay in people’s homes. I remember the host in Victoria talked about how people in British Columbia so much more identified with the Pacific Northwest in the United States than with the rest of Canada. “We’re one of you” was her attitude. I thought that was really interesting. I think that goes to the landscape. I think we’re more of our landscape here than probably most places. Or maybe that’s just pride speaking.
DGM: My last question is based on your earlier response of not feeling like a poet of place or witness. What do you consider a poet of place or witness to be?
KF: I think the mantle of “poet of place” or “poet of witness” is bestowed by others. I suppose even obvious poets of witness like Carolyn Forché don’t set out to write Poems of Witness, they just write the poems they need to write. I’m responding in good measure to my own worries: What if readers think I’m claiming to be the official witness to and voice of the Hanford story? That would misrepresent my intentions and my relationship with Richland and its history. I was only writing the (very personal) poems I know how to write. If those poems are rooted in place (and they are) and if they give witness to an era and a mindset (and I think they do, though I’m not sure how universally), that’s all I can do and that has to be enough.