Interview: Melissa Reeser Poulin and Jill McKenna Reed

Poulin and ReedPortland-based poets Melissa Reeser Poulin and Jill McKenna Reed are co-editors of Winged. Poulin conceived of Winged after the loss of over 50,000 bumble bees due to pesticide usage in Wilsonville, Oregon in June 2013. Wanting to create a response to the drastic, ongoing decline of pollinators, Poulin paired with Reed, a beekeeper and co-owner of Bee Thinking in Portland.

TCJWW: In the anthology’s introduction, you discuss the triggering incident for the book: “one woman’s anger and confusion over the deaths of 50,000 bumblebees in a Target parking lot,” an image that is both mundane and surreal. Can you expand on that moment? What else happened that made you put this project into motion?

Poulin: That incident in Wilsonville in June 2013 was highly publicized here in Portland. It put the pollinator crisis on the radar for many people for whom it may have been only peripheral before. The bees died because of a so-called “illegal” application of the insecticide Safari to flowering linden trees, aimed at aphids that were leaving a sticky “honeydew” on people’s windshields. Safari is a brand name for a neonicotinoid, a new class of chemicals that are especially dangerous because of the lack of research available on long-term effects. What we do know is that these insecticides are systemic, meaning they affect the whole plant and get into soils, and they have been shown to wreak havoc on pollinators’ digestive and navigation systems, ultimately killing entire colonies because of the toxic build-up in plant, body, and hive. They’re awful, and in the U.S. we seem to be having a really hard time regulating their use, unlike in other parts of the world where they’re banned completely. Unfortunately, incidents like this continue to happen.

I don’t know why the Wilsonville incident got to me so much. Perhaps because these were innocent, wild creatures and their deaths were so all-at-once and visible. It made the violence of these chemicals so much more real to me. While I had certainly paid attention to the narrative of the growing pollinator crisis over the years, I hadn’t committed to any kind of consistent action, any kind of sustained response. I think another reason this incident pushed me to act was because I was teaching a summer camp for teen writers at the time. I was surrounded daily by young people inheriting a world we’ve made a mess of, and I was teaching them daily that their writing mattered. It was convicting. I felt convicted both by the bumblebees and by those young writers. If I cared about the health of pollinators, if I believed as I said I did that art and story have the power to transform us, then I needed to do something. I needed my life and my work to reflect those values.

TCJWW: How did you approach the process of gathering work for this anthology? What was the response like?

Poulin: We did everything we could think of, from posting actual flyers on bulletin boards in town and asking friends across the country to do the same, to posting on online forums and advertising in trade journals like Poets & Writers. We also solicited work from writers we knew could offer unique perspectives and expertise. Our contributors have been very gracious and generous. Though not everything we solicited came through, that turned out to be one of the many blessings this project received. It meant there was room for perspectives we hadn’t thought of, pieces that pushed us in good ways, which is something you can’t really plan out. Overall the response was wonderful. It was an affirming experience for me both because of the content and sheer volume of submissions, and the many encouraging personal letters we received from writers who were excited about the project.

Reed: We wanted to cast a wide net and tried to get word out in Europe and on other continents, with varying degrees of success. Since Melissa and I are both rooted in the Pacific Northwest, we knew we would draw a lot of submissions from this region, and we did. We also knew Winged would draw the attention of our writing peers and mentors, but were excited to see beekeepers take an interest, as well as bee enthusiasts.

TCJWW: We admire Winged for its range of form: lyric poems, personal essay, Shakespeare re-imagined. What was it like as an editor to move from piece to piece? What form do you predominantly write in?

Reed: I predominantly compose poetry, but also write short fiction, personal essay, and critical essays about TV.

Curating the collection was thrilling for me. A lot of pieces formed natural relationships either by topic, form, or tone. We wanted to create an organic reading sequence that had texture, but also emotional logic so that no one piece ultimately attracted more weight than others. However, we didn’t want the progression to be heavy-handed. Thus, not all poems with a main theme of death or love, for instance, are grouped together, as they would risk manifesting a monotone swamp for pages on end. We looked at images, sub-plots, and the overall intention of each piece before placing them. In section III for instance, the personal, with regard to the question, “What am I with regard to / alongside bees and how do I reflect them?” as well as the politic — “What do bees mean about us?” all magnetized, despite seemingly obvious hallmarks that would have superficially seen them placed elsewhere in the anthology.

Poulin: I agree with Jill; selecting and shaping the pieces we received into a book was exciting and creative work. Arranging them in different ways allowed different narratives and themes to come through. It was a process very much akin to the work of composing a poem, which is my main form. What’s exciting for me about writing poetry is the element of discovery, of engagement with questions, and I felt that same sense of revelation in the process of editing the book. I hope the reader experiences that as well.

The collaborative aspect was also very rewarding. Jill was generous enough to join me in bringing this project to life. I couldn’t have done it without her and I learned so much from her. We have very different backgrounds as poets, different tastes and interests, and I think this is a real strength for the book.

TCJWW: In a time when a lot of journals are being criticized for poorly representing women writers, Winged is almost completely comprised of work by women. We love that! Was it a conscious decision?

Reed: Not at all. The vast majority of the submissions we received were from women writers. We aren’t sure what to attribute this to, but we also weren’t complaining. Since roughly 90% of bees in a colony are female workers, it’s rather apropos. It also turns out that the beekeeping tradition in America is strongly rooted among women, as domestic beehives were often kept behind farmhouses and the honey and hive byproducts were harvested by women for use in cooking and candle making, as Tammy Horn notes in her book Beekeeping in America.

TCJWW: Winged sets out on a mission to both expand our understanding of bees and to give show the issue’s human side. Logos and pathos. This may be hard to assess from your end, but do you think it has been successful so far?

Reed: I certainly hope so, but I think that’s ultimately for the reader to decide. Personally, I feel like Winged is very intentionally multi-faceted in its consideration of bees, and presents many different experiences of bees, from Adrienne Flagg’s personal essay “Free Bees,” about trying to catch a swarm, to CA Conrad’s (SOMA)TIC POETRY RITUAL which resulted in the poem “The Authority of Flowers.” Where Flagg talks about her anxiety, hope, and vigilance with regard to her first beekeeping experience, Conrad bears witness to the biology of the bee and her work by fading his own ego and identity to become immersed in the pollinator’s world, functioning as a sort of wraith, and recording what the bee’s work and instinct defines about our current world.

Poulin: As a made thing, I do think it succeeds in those things. I think the writing we selected is the most diverse representation of perspectives we could assemble from what we received, using the resources available to us during a given moment in time. Is it definitive? No. But I do think it adds something important to the bookshelf. When I was apprenticing on a small farm, I checked out everything from the library on honeybees and pollinators, and there was no collection of literary writing on pollinators. So I think it succeeds as a book of new writing on bees.

There’s also a tension at work in me when it comes to the book’s success as a project. In some ways, the true test is happening now. It’s what kind of life the book will have. How can Winged be a tool for discussion, connection, further action and further projects? How can I help that happen? How does it fit within the range of things we can do, as creative beings, to respond to the pollinator crisis? Pathos is suffering and experience, and bees have suffered as a direct consequence of human action and inaction. As an action, this book falls short in so many ways. I’m happy that book sales go directly to non-profits benefitting pollinator conservation and education. I’m happy if Winged can be part, a small part, of a holistic response to the suffering of pollinators. And I need to keep growing, learning, responding in new ways.


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