Recently named a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, Taneum Bambrick is the author of Reservoir, which was selected by Ocean Vuong for the 2017 Yemassee Chapbook Contest. She holds an MFA from the University of Arizona where she received an Academy of American Poets University Prize. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Blackbird, Pleiades, Entropy, Passages North, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Hobart, The Nashville Review, New Delta Review, and elsewhere. She’s received scholarships from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference the Bread Loaf Environmental Writers’ Conference.
Hi Taneum! I’m so excited that we’re featuring two of your new poems in Issue 37.1. Thank you so much. Let’s first talk about your chapbook, Reservoir, winner of the 2017 Yemassee Journal Chapbook Contest, judged by Ocean Vuong. Can you talk a bit about the chapbook’s inception? What’s the backstory behind it?
Hello Dorothy! Thank you, I am thrilled to be included in the upcoming issue. The poems from this chapbook are a part of a larger collection I’ve been writing since I was 19, working on a garbage crew that operated around the reservoirs of two massive dams. The speaker in these poems is very close to me during that time. While there I would see something that shocked me—a pile of dead elk—or hear something that upset me—one of my crew members referring to a woman’s chest as a pair of bald eagles—and I would write those observations down on napkins or scraps of paper. I didn’t think of those notes as poems. I felt compelled to write because I didn’t have the capacity to contain the images on my own, and the act of writing was a way of physically shifting weight off of myself. Later, during an undergraduate poetry workshop, my professor, Bruce Beasley, asked each of us to write four words you can “sense” onto pieces of paper and drop them into a bowl. We drew words from the bowl and used them as the basis of a new poem. I drew “blue,” “garbage,” and “condom,” and from that exercise wrote the first poem of my chapbook, “Litter.” Before that, I’d never thought to write about my experiences picking up garbage, because I’d been taught an idea of poetry—especially of poetry written by women—as a something that those kinds of gruesome, vulgar, darkly humorous moments from my past wouldn’t cohere with.
I’ve always believed that good poetry is confrontational and has the possibility of making the reader uncomfortable, eliciting a strong audience reaction. When reading and re-reading Reservoir, a narrative thread I kept coming back to is gender relations and men’s perceptions of women: how the speaker is the only woman working around the reservoirs of two dams. On top of that, the speaker is much younger than the rest of the crew. There’s this key moment in “Biological control task” when one of the men shows the speaker a female “adult heron with a hole blown / out the chest,” and the speaker recounts how “When I cried it made them comfortable like I could be / a daughter, wife or something they knew how to see.”
Again, that was “something they knew how to see.” What’s apparent is how the men relate the female speaker to these set and traditional female roles, usually the daughter. And it’s a relief to them to see her cry, because otherwise they can’t “categorize” her. Can you talk more about this confrontation of gender dynamics and roles? How does this confrontation affect your writing? And in asking these questions, I’d like to emphasize that women are strong as hell and it’s so nice to get that confrontation in poetry.
Gender, sexuality, and age are three of the most “confrontational” focuses of my work in this project among others, such as class and environmental issues. “Biological control task” is a great example of a problem I encountered while writing so many of the poems from this project where I couldn’t decide which issues to place at the forefront of the piece. This poem took three years to write because I kept trying to make it do one thing, (initially it was only about salmon migration). Finally, when I really examined where the emotional crux of this memory is for me as the person who experienced it, I realized that gender, as a focus, needed to enter the poem alongside the environmental issues that were already present. Most of my editing process for this collection centered on balance, or, how to discuss two very separate concerns within the space of one poem without conflating or erasing the urgency of either subject.
When you say that for the men in this poem “it’s a relief” to see the speaker cry, I feel like you understand exactly what I was hoping someone would from reading this poem, and from the chapbook as a whole. For me, this poem is about the comfort of assignment, or categorization, and how we’re taught to feel at ease when something or someone behaves in a way we can recognize and have a set of fast responses to. In the same scene, the men on this crew can, without thinking twice, shoot down a truck bed of seagulls and laugh as the speaker cries at the sight of the carcasses after they’re revealed to her from under a plastic tarp. In this moment the lives of the seagulls are considered arbitrary or less financially important than those of the salmon they consume, and the speaker loses her role as an equal with her co-workers by exposing herself as a young woman through her emotional response. While these issues are not the same, the simultaneity of losses due to categorization here are meant to illustrate the layered nature of violent social structures.
I love Reservoir’s hidden sensuality, especially towards the end. I especially love these lines of the title poem: “I put my leg between her legs. / I could. / I didn’t want to be / a boy sliding / off her bra / with one hand.” I love the line-by-line emphasis and focus that heightens this sensuality. What do you think is the sexiest move or turn that can happen in a poem? Or perhaps a poetic technique that can heighten a poem’s sensuality and/or sexuality?
I really love this question. I’ll respond to it directly first and then talk about how I’ve thought about sexuality or sexiness in my collection. I think the sexiness of poetry is in the unexpected turns in sound, image, and content—when the ideas or the movement go where you don’t anticipate, and you feel physically carried from one emotional space to the next. I love when a poem breaks its own patterns and returns to them later, when there’s an obedience to form that is cast out momentarily to allow the sensuality of the sound and thinking to take control. I don’t think shock is sexy, but I do think that when a poem does the subtle work of preparing you for a shift towards strangeness or something startling, those are the kinds of poems that people remember.
I’ve never thought of my work as sexy, although I try to use moves or turns in my own work to allow each moment the space it needs to be fully realized and experienced by the reader. Initially, I placed all of the sexy poems or poems about the speaker coming to terms with her sexuality towards the end of Reservoir because that was the sequence of how the events played out in reality. Throughout the editing process I kept those poems there because I think the placement works to highlight the fear of understanding yourself sexually in a world that utilizes sexuality as a means of stripping people of their power. For example, the speaker moves from picking up dead animals and used condoms with a group of mostly sexist men to meeting a girl who worked at a park site and the speaker discovers, through that relationship, a moment of relief from a space that had otherwise been overwhelmingly stressful. The reader has to understand this relationship through the lens of the poems before it, which works to highlight how our romantic partnerships are always influenced by the political pressures and issues around us.
I’d like to talk more about inspiration. What are some of your current obsessions (they don’t have to be literary-related)?
Currently I live in a little town in southern Spain where I work as a language assistant at a bilingual secondary school. My job here is to work with teachers helping them explain concepts and practice English conversation in their subjects. It’s so incredible to sit in on world history lessons being taught in Europe—learning about the first and second world war here is a completely different experience—sometimes I read the textbooks to myself at night. Also, I love learning Spanish expressions and phrases. For example, a few days ago I learned that in Spain people say, “the sky of your mouth” instead of “the roof.” Also, there’s an Andalusian expression for when you’re embarrassed that translates to “I’ve been given a cut.”
And building off the previous question, I know that you’re currently living in Spain. I don’t want to sound “touristy,” but what’s something beautiful you’ve seen or done in Spain that might inspire your future poems?
You don’t sound touristy at all! That’s my main concern, too. I’ve been resisting travel writing because I don’t know how to do it successfully. Mostly, I’m writing image-based non-narrative poems. This is a very new style for me, which I think stems from being in a place that’s so loudly stunning and complex. Maybe my favorite image that I’ve been working with comes from the province of Cadiz where these enormous, orange, free-range bulls graze near the ocean and sometimes lay—exactly like a person tanning—in the sand. Coming here from the United States, it’s really strange and wonderful to see an animal watch the water and relax like that.
So I’m a big fan of the Proust Questionnaire. You can check it out on Vanity Fair. Taneum, we need to complete this questionnaire together sometime soon. I’m going to ask you questions 28 and 30 right now. 28: “Who is your hero of fiction?” and 30: “Who are your heroes in real life?”
Dorothy, I would love nothing more. My fiction hero right now is Justin Torres because of his book We the Animals. I am also obsessed with the short stories of an emerging writer, Benjamin Schaefer, especially his story “Lizard Baby” that was just selected for the Best American Nonrequired Reading. One of my real-life heroes is an artist named Renee Adams who lives in a middle-of-nowhere town near Ellensburg Washington and creates sculptures that layer plants with machines and human-made objects. Her work is delicate without being subtle in its attempts to call into question major issues—most recently, gun control—and I always think of her approach and style when I write.
Finally, can you name your favorite chapbooks right now? What about your top five favorite poetry collections right now?
Right now my favorite chapbooks are Love and a Loaded Gun by Emily Rose Cole, Mercy Songs by Anders and Kai Carlson-Wee, and Yesterday, the Bees by Maya Jewell Zeller. My favorite poetry collections are Look by Solmaz Sharif, Blackacre by Monica Youn, Deepstep Come Shining by C.D. Wright, I Know Your Kind by Will Brewer, and Unaccompanied by Javier Zamora.
Dorothy Chan is the author of Attack of the Fifty-Foot Centerfold (Spork Press, April 2018) and the chapbook Chinatown Sonnets (New Delta Review, 2017). She was a 2014 finalist for the Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowship. Chan is the Assistant Editor of The Southeast Review. Visit her website at dorothypoetry.com.