Gone Awry: An Interview with Lee Ann Roripaugh by Curtis Smith

Lee Ann Roripaugh is the author of five volumes of poetry: tsunami vs. the fukushima 50 (Milkweed Editions, 2019), Dandarians (Milkweed, Editions, 2014), On the Cusp of a Dangerous Year (Southern Illinois University Press, 2009), Year of the Snake (Southern Illinois University Press, 2004), and Beyond Heart Mountain (Penguin, 1999). She was named winner of the Association of Asian American Studies Book Award in Poetry/Prose for 2004, and a 1998 winner of the National Poetry Series.  The current South Dakota State Poet Laureate, Roripaugh is a Professor of English at the University of South Dakota, where she serves as Director of Creative Writing and Editor-in-Chief of South Dakota Review.

Curtis Smith: Congratulation on your new collection. I’ve enjoyed your previous books and was excited to check this one out. Milkweed’s a great press—how did you end up working with them for them on this book?

Lee Ann Roripaugh: Thank you! tsunami vs. the fukushima 50 is my second book from Milkweed, and they’ve been an amazing press to work with. I have so much admiration and gratitude for their commitment to building a significant and diverse poetry roster, their commitment to ecocritical concerns, as well as their immensely talented and generous staff. The first volume of poetry I published with Milkweed, Dandarians, was a finalist for what was then their newly-established Lindquist & Vennum Prize for Poetry, open to poets residing in Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, North Dakota, and South Dakota, and Milkweed ultimately offered me a publication contract for the book. It was a wonderful experience, and so I was delighted that they subsequently accepted tsunami vs. the fukushima 50 for publication as well.

CS: The pieces here center around the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami and ensuing disaster at Fukushima. Was this the plan from the beginning? Or did you write a few poems, then feel some larger, connective tides that wanted to be expanded? If this is the case, what were those tides?

LAR: It was definitely my plan (or at least my hope) to create an entire book exploring the 2011 Tohoku earthquake/tsunami and subsequent Fukushima disaster. I knew from the outset that I wanted to commemorate and honor the victims and survivors of the disaster, and that I hoped to focus attention on the environmental legacies of Fukushima. I also knew that I wanted to do this through paying homage to the Godzilla movies and comics (the rise of monsters on Monster Island as an ecocritical response to the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan at the end of World War II), as well as incorporating some of the tropes of superhero comics, in which extraordinary powers are made manifest frequently through accidents with radiation. So these were the “connective tides” that I wanted to work with, conceptually, and the question, or challenge, then became how to actually weave all of these elements together and translate them into language, on the page.

CS: I found myself drawn to the balance you created between nature and man—the disasters as old as the planet and the one resulting from our most advanced science. I loved your images of a world gone awry, the wild boars roaming through a radioactive wasteland. I’m wondering which of the book’s images are rooted in actual reports you’ve seen/heard about—and what particular elements in them struck you.

LAR:  In many respects, I feel that the book draws upon certain techniques of docupoetics, in that it was heavily, intensively researched. Most of the concrete details incorporated in the poems are factually true, even though many of the characters/voices I’ve created are fictional and the comic book landscape of monsters, supervillains, and superheroes is frequently fantastic. In this sense, perhaps it’s a technique that echoes Marianne Moore’s “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.” And so the radioactively-contaminated wild boars running amok in the no go zone are factually true. They’re “real toads.” Or the various robots (that frequently couldn’t withstand the radioactivity) created to explore the condition of the melted fuel rods inside the plant, or designed to provide cleanup of radioactive materials inside the no go zone, are also factually true. In other words, the book does, in fact, detail a world gone horribly awry—a world that perhaps requires an “imaginary garden” of fantastic, comic book proportions to conceptually support the epically strange nature of the factual details of post-disaster life in the no go zone, as well as the epically strange nature of what it means for so many people to have become nuclear refugees, or members of the “nuclear diaspora.”

CS: I loved “ama, the woman of the sea,” and after reading it, I wondered where you draw the line between poetry and a prose poem and flash fiction—or whether you draw a line at all.

LAR:  This is such a great question, particularly because I’m very drawn to writing and thinking about hybrid forms. To my mind, “ama, the woman of the sea,” is a dramatic monologue, or persona poem—a form that I consider always/already hybrid, in that it draws upon conventions and techniques from theatrical monologues with respect to constructing character through voice and tone, the narrative compression/sparseness of flash fiction, while still retaining elements of symbol, image, and lyricism that tend to be more typically associated with poetry. Part of what I love about hybrid forms is the endless recombinatory possibilities of pulling in conventions and techniques from multiple genres in ways that best address the needs of a given text. I also love the ways in which hybrid forms so aptly illustrate the fluidity of genre conventions and techniques—meaning that I think it’s extremely productive for a poet, for example, to learn about and consider ways of applying point of view, a craft element that is usually reserved for fiction classes/workshops, or conversely, that it’s extremely productive for a fiction writer to consider the elements of sound and rhythm at the level of line, which are craft elements usually reserved for poetry classes/workshops, etc. But perhaps more importantly, for me, particularly as someone who is mixed-race Japanese American and pansexual, hybridity is also about identity, ideology, and power. These miscegenations of form aren’t merely aesthetic, but they also, to my mind, serve as sites of liminal transgression and fluidity against empire’s obsession with imposing strict categories—perhaps as ways of underscoring and/or policing systemic forms of oppression with respect to gender, race, orientation, and ability. In this sense, I think hybrid forms are inherently anti-capitalist and decolonial.

CS: I’m always interested in form, especially in the beautiful piece that ends the collection, “origami of tsunami: a technical manual and glossary.” It’s such a great mix of voices—of science and nature and the human experience. Can you tell us a bit about the process that led to this piece?

LAR:  As part of the book project, I did extensive research on tsunamis, because I wanted to understand, meteorologically speaking, what causes them, how they happen. During this research, I came across a technical manual of tsunami-related terms and abbreviations, and so I borrowed the glossary terms/abbreviations, and then filled them in as a psychological profile of “tsunami” as a supervillainess, created by trauma (in the same way that Magneto from the X-men was created by the trauma of the Holocaust). In this case, I suppose I filled a “real garden” with “imaginary toads.” There was something hauntingly poignant, too, for me, about the alphabetical sections that had no entries, and were therefore designated as (empty), which seemed to evoke some of the destruction and erasures created by the tsunami, as well as, perhaps the ultimate impossibility of language to represent a disaster of this magnitude.

CS: In 2015, you were appointed the Poet Laureate of South Dakota—congratulations on that. Can you tell us about that experience?

LAR:  Serving as Poet Laureate of South Dakota has been such an honor, and also a marvelous experience. South Dakota is a large and gorgeous state, and so I got to do a lot of driving to various beautiful locations, where I had the opportunity to give readings and conduct workshops. The audiences I encountered along the way were incredibly generous, welcoming, and engaged, and it was a delight to be an ambassador for poetry to South Dakota during this time. As I write this, I’m in the final weeks of my four-year appointment, and will be officially passing on the laurels to Christine Stewart, who is going to be an absolutely splendid new South Dakota Poet Laureate.

CS: You’re also a professor and you run The South Dakota Review, one of the country’s longest-running literary journals. I know these pursuits take time away from your writing—but I’m also guessing they provide their own rewards. Can you talk about what you get from your work in these areas?

LAR:  Teaching and editing are, yes, extremely time-consuming but they are also labors of love, and they provide me with opportunities to think about, conceptualize, consider, and problem-solve within the literary arts from different viewpoints, or angles, which is always illuminating. Writing is my life, it’s my obsession, and so I feel very fortunate to be able to immerse myself in what I love in this way. Editing is not only a different angle into the art form, but also, I feel, a way of providing important platforms for writers and contributing necessary infrastructure to the literary community. And teaching, of course, can be so joyful and energizing, whether it’s finding ways for younger writers to discover those first sparks and flickers within their own work, or mentoring graduate students through the process of assembling and publishing their first books. I have had the opportunity to mentor so many amazing writers, and I feel extraordinarily lucky in this regard.

CS: What’s next?

LAR:  Following the 2011 tsunami and Fukushima disaster, a man named Itaru Sasaki placed a phone booth with a disconnected rotary-dial phone on a hilltop garden overlooking Otsuchi, Japan. Sasaki originally used the phone to speak to his cousin, who died in the tsunami—processing his grief by communicating to his lost family member “on the wind.” Since that time, over 10,000 people who lost loved ones in the tsunami have come from all along the Tohoku coast—essentially making pilgrimages to speak to their dead, on the kaze no denwa, the “wind phone.” Sometimes they share their daily news, or express their regrets. Sometimes they call to say please come back, to beg for a response, to implore the dead to look out for one another, or to simply say that they are lonely. In the most heartbreaking phone calls made on the kaze no denwa, the callers apologize for not having been able to save their dead.  I was so moved by this story, that I’ve been thinking about what it might mean to write kaze no denwa poems to things that are irrevocably lost and/or disappearing—poems to things lost through trauma, poems to my dead, poems to my mother whose mind is coming unraveled through dementia, poems for species that are extinct or facing extinction, poems for a dying planet. And so that’s what I’ve been working on. I’m writing poems “on the wind.”

Curtis Smith has published more than 100 stories and essays, and his work has appeared in or been cited by The Best American Short StoriesThe Best American Mystery StoriesThe Best American Spiritual WritingThe Best Short Fictions, and Norton Anthology New Microfictions. He’s worked with independent publishers to put out two chapbooks of flash fiction, three story collections, two essay collections, four novels, and a work of creative nonfiction. His latest books are Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, Bookmarked (Ig Publishing) and the novel Lovepain (Braddock Avenue Books).

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