Winged: New Writing on Bees reminds us of the importance of art as social change and the act of art as communication. The anthology begins with Editor Melissa Reeser Poulin’s story about the origins of the project: how she moved from anger about the plight of bees to action and the value she finds in sharing her story. A teacher, Poulin writes of her students,
“Art, we told them—story, song, performance, imagery, physical intervention—can diffuse all kinds of destructive energy. It can act as catalyst or catharsis. It can facilitate ritual, foster relationship, and nurture reconciliation.”
Winged is a testament to this idea. This anthology offers a variety of voices in conversation with one another about the environment and our future. The stories range in form from lyric poetry to personal essay, flash prose to multimedia. As readers, we are led from an imagining of Shakespeare’s Juliet’s childhood to an ultrasound of a chest to a science fiction world in which a whole planet is an apiary. Bees are the connective tissue between all of these stories.
Winged: New Writing on Bees is successful in its effort to highlight the pervasiveness of bees and the importance of these little insects to both our history and our contemporary lives. Editor Jill McKenna’s “At the Site” begins this way:
In theory, we might dig up honey.
Excavate an unbroken jar
from our Heracleion
This poem serves to remind us that bees are ancient, and in the scope of their history, our destruction of them is recent. There is an echo of this sentiment in Sarah Marshall’s “Blindness and Boulders: A Worker’s Manifesto.” In this complicated essay, Marshall explores interaction between humans and nature, describing how we often “assume the position of submissive, or of dominator” so that we can easily fall into roles, although the current situation of climate change is much more complicated than that. She reaffirms this anthology’s conviction that “it’s hard to think of a smaller or more influential casualty of climate change than the honeybee,” forcing the reader to reconsider the importance of these insects.
Readers familiar with bee keeping will find familiarity while curious newbies are given enough information to learn. Marina Callahan’s essay “Disorder” is a veritable crash course on bees as its sections are broken up with quotes ranging from Leo Tolstoy to Abraham Lincoln to The Big Book of Beekeeping. Like this particular piece, Winged as a whole casts a wide net, including longer narrative forms like “Disorder” as well as more metaphorical pieces, like Lynn Otto’s “Promised Land,” which recounts the speaker’s childhood with a bee keeper father and closes with the speaker becoming a swarm:
I study the map tacked over my desk,
its pastel countries, the scattered puzzle of the continents,
the oceans between and the rivers that feed them.
or maybe there.
As a whole, Winged serves to remind us how interconnected we are with bees. The voices collected here introduce and riff off of the simple yet astounding facts we know about these insects: that one bee makes half a teaspoon of honey in its lifetime. That without bees, we wouldn’t have food, unless we pollinated whole orchards on our own. In addition to the literature within its pages, Winged includes a link to CAConrad’s short film “The Cherry Blossom Pollinators of Marfa, Texas (March, 2014)” along with the poem it inspired, “The Authority of Flowers.”
At the heart of this anthology is the idea of inspiration. We see how one bug can inspire writers in different ways, and how one art form can inspire another. Winged could easily be incorporated into a classroom or writing group as a text for imitation or collaboration. The amazing conversational quality of this anthology does what good literature should do: create dialogue between pieces, and yet still allow the reader to feel like we’re free to enter this conversation with our own voices, no matter how tangential our stories may seem.
Melissa Reeser Poulin teaches English and creative writing in many settings, working with the elderly, high school students, and adult English language learners. Her poems have appeared in numerous journals, and she was a 2014 Pushcart nominee. She lives with her husband, a metal artist and blacksmith, in Portland, Oregon.
Jill McKenna Reed is a poet, writing instructor, and beekeeper in Portland, Oregon. She is co-owner of Bee Thinking, a beekeeping supplier specializing in foundationless hives. When she is not writing or teaching, she can be found catching swarms or helping new beekeepers around the Portland area. Jill earned her MFA in Creative Writing—Poetry, at Portland State University.