- Janet Pelz
Kathleen Flenniken turned my perception of poetry upside down when she offered the attribute of convenience. “You have time to write poems when you have small children. You have little bits of time and poems feel like they’re a better match for that,” she described, reflecting back on how her pursuit of this craft fit within the daily chaos of young motherhood.
When I was at that stage, I would have had “take a shower”, or “clean away the minefield of plastic toys” filling that bit of time. Poetry -- not the reading of and certainly not the writing of it -- would not have seemed like something to wedge between diaper changes and playground excursions. I always harbored the idea that poems required ponderous hours of contemplation by the reader; which by extension would require thousands more for the writer. But Kathleen, enrolled as she was in an evening poetry writing course and with young children at home, grabbed the space to spin bursts of inspiration into analogies and metaphors and put them to paper.
Before the birth of her second child, Kathleen spent her working hours as a civil engineer. Stationed at the Hanford Nuclear site, the archeology of this nation’s race to atomic weaponry, she monitored groundwater for radioactive contamination. Her job was the natural outgrowth of a BA in Engineering from Washington State University, followed by an MA in the same field from UW.
The Hanford Site is a mostly decommissioned nuclear production complex on the Columbia River in Eastern Washington. Established in 1943 as part of the Manhattan Project, the site was home to the first full-scale plutonium production reactor in the world. Plutonium manufactured at the site was used in the first nuclear bomb, and in Fat Man, the bomb detonated over Nagasaki Japan. - Wikipedia
The B Reactor at Hanford from The Seattle Times
That she would find herself working at Hanford was also a natural fit, having grown up in nearby Richland, Washington, where the nuclear site has been the town’s major industry. Her father was a PhD scientist working at Hanford during its heyday. Looking back she admits, “Engineering was never a really great match for me. I think I went into it in part because I wanted to please my dad, and I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I wanted to do architecture for a while, but didn’t have the guts to follow through. I was very worried about being rejected in those days.”
When her childcare provider moved away, Kathleen had a reason to put her engineering practice aside. Looking for something to balance her newfound stay-at-home-mother status she perused the Experimental College course catalog. After trying classes in handwriting analysis and jazz improvisation, she chose an evening poetry writing class.
“From my very first class I took it seriously. It didn’t feel like just a night class. I thought, ‘wow! I really want to do this!’ Right away, I was trying to be conscientious and working on it as hard as I could.”
After finishing that class, she took it again. And again. She developed a peer group of poets and found a mentor in her teacher. And more and more of those bursts of time got filled with writing.
“I don’t know, I think our passions find us in some way. It just kind of hit me on the head when I was ready for it. Growing up I played piano, but I never wanted to practice. I don’t mind practicing at poetry. Everything about it is something I enjoy. I love the drafts, I love the revisions, I love reading it, I love talking about it. I don’t even mind sending work out. I don’t love being rejected – maybe that’s one thing. But there was never that feeling of, ugh, I don’t want to practice.”
This was back in the days when Washington State did not have a Poet Laureate, not that Kathleen would have given it much thought. It would be several years before she knew that such a position could exist, her first awareness coming much later, when she learned that Rita Dove was the Poet Laureate of the United States.
Fast forward through two published volumes of works and decades of practice later, Kathleen Flenniken became Washington State’s Poet Laureate in 2012, having been chosen for the work she had already produced and for the agenda of poetry literacy she proposed to bring to people throughout this state.
From engineer to poet, it was a transition that this mother of three embraces as perfectly natural. If natural sums up Kathleen’s life path it also describes her personality. Cuddling a cup of tea at my dining room table, words and laughter spill from her without restraint. If poets are supposed to be pompous and pedantic, Kathleen did not get the memo. The character she evinces before me is evident in her poems. Straightforward, accessible, and, well, natural.
“The curtain lifts on Bryant Elementary School’s Spring Recorder Recital. Ninety third-graders fumble with their instruments, take a breath
and blow. Their parents, braced, breathe too as “Hot Crossed Buns” emerges, a little scattershot -- the Normal Distribution brought to life.”
From Kathleen’s poem, “The Beauty of the Curve”, excerpted from Famous (University of Nebraska Press, 2006)
“I think my style as a write is quite pared down. I don’t write ornate sentences or anything of that sort; it’s a kind of clean, lined style. Probably influenced by the science writing that I did for many years.”
More than a decade after her first poetry class, Kathleen embarked on a project that returned her to her roots. Armed with distance and knowledge, she turned her craft on the dark secrets of the Hanford Nuclear site and the culture it engendered in her home town. In an interview with Dick Gordon for The Story, on American Public Media, Kathleen talks about facing -- and embracing -- the truths that touched every aspect of her childhood. (Listen to the full interview here. You’ll hear Kathleen’s wonderful voice talking of her experience growing up in Richland and reading some of her poems aloud).
Kathleen Flenniken at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, Photo credit Alexander Flenniken
Her second volume of poetry, Plume, (University of Washington Press, 2012), is “a whole book of poems about Hanford. I wanted to write about a subject. And for me that’s the most dangerous, most difficult writing I can do. Writing towards a subject is difficult to come off as a real poem because It often comes off as an assignment or a little mini essay. It doesn’t always have the right kind of turn that I’m looking for in a poem. I wrote a lot of those poems that did not go into the book.”
During the Cold War, the Hanford Nuclear Reservation was expanded to include nine nuclear reactors and five large plutonium processing complexes, which produced plutonium for most of the 60,000 weapons in the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Many of the early safety procedures and waste disposal practices were inadequate, and government documents have since confirmed that Hanford’s operations released significant amounts of radioactive materials into the air and the Columbia River, which still threaten the health of residents and ecosystems.
The Hanford site represents two-thirds of the nation’s high-level radioactive waste by volume. Today, Hanford is the most contaminated nuclear site in the United States and is the focus of the nation’s largest environmental cleanup. - Wikipedia
By its reviews, Plume succeeded. It has been hailed as: "Not only an education about Washington State and its role in the Nuclear Age but of an awakening in the American public as well as the poet herself to the peculiar dangers of invisible poisons and of trusting too much the authorities of science and government." (Jeannine Hall Gailey, The Rumpus, May 2012)
Included in this volume are pieces coming to terms with the death of her good friend Carolyn’s father, who was given a diagnosis when he was in his 50‘s of “a chromosomal deviation consistent with people in Hiroshima. But doctors in Hanford attributed his illness to farm chemicals.” Unlike Kathleen’s father, Carolyn’s dad was among those who did the plant’s physical work, which put them in close proximity to radioactive elements.
“at the same time inside your marrow
blood cells began to err one moment efficient the next
a few gone wrong stunned by exposure to radiation
as you milled uranium into slugs or swabbed down
train cars or reported to B Reactor for a quick run-in
Excerpted from “To Carolyn’s Father”, Plume, (University of Washington Press, 2012)
“Some people think that poetry shouldn’t be helpful. Some think poems should be art for art sake -- and I do believe they need to be artful to work, but I also think they can be more than that. I think they can ask hard questions. Not necessarily provide answers, but I think they can be a stepping off place for a conversation, for thinking.”
I ask her to talk about one of her poems that she thinks might describe this aspect of helpfulness, but she demurs. “That makes me feel somewhat uncomfortable. Because, if it falls short for someone, I wouldn’t want to be saying, oh, this is such a great poem I wrote.” But after some prodding, she relents.
“There’s a a poem in Plume called Rattlesnake Mountain. On its surface it’s a description of a landmark mountain on the outskirts of Richland, on the perimeter of the Hanford Nuclear site. The poem is about the mountain, but it’s also about how we got there; Richland, the history, the Manhattan Project. How we saw this place as empty and ugly, which allowed us to savage it. When I grew up I used to think it was ugly too. I thought we lived in an ugly landscape. And now, when I look at it I see it’s very beautiful. I can finally see how it’s a sacred place that we have fouled. I’ve had people tell me that the poem matters to them. Because they both love the place but they feel shame about the environmental calamity there, and the poem reflects both.”
roll with stars, soft April greens, and lupine,
belying missile silos hidden in catacombs
and the waste of 50 years of atomic bombs.
Our families all came from elsewhere,
and regarded the desert as empty,
and ugly, which gave us permission
to savage the land. The Mountain,
figure in repose, looked on
as we buried what we buried at its hem.”
From the poem “Rattlesnake Mountain”, Plume, (University of Washington Press, 2012)
Writing about Hanford, Kathleen saw her poems help tell a story that was important to many people, which has provoked her to keep moving in that direction. Today, she says, “I find myself writing about America; my confusion about where we are as a country. I’m writing those poems because I need to do it for myself, but I think if I’m successful they will be helpful for other people. The more I write the more ambitious I get for my writing.”
Getting to the point of success in poetry Kathleen enjoys now was a long process with much work and many sacrifices along the way. One of those being her well-paying engineering career. She admits, that decision wasn’t without its burdens. “Oh yes, there was a lot of guilt. I remember one of my advisors in my engineering Masters program sitting me down and asking, ‘you’re not one of those women who get a Masters who gives it up to have babies and never uses it?’ And I was like, ‘oh no!’ I can’t tell you how many times that conversation came up in my mind when I was in that shifting period.”
I reminded her of conversations we had many years back in the days I was coaching our daughters’ basketball team, my initial introduction to Kathleen and her family. That was when Kathleen was knitting together small writing contracts. I asked her about her transition from night class student to professional poet.
“Now, that’s the really hard part. Taking your work seriously is one thing and really applying yourself is one thing; saying in public that you’re a poet, now that’s a really difficult thing to do. And for me it came in stages, through getting paid, which means teaching. I found my way as a teaching artist, first through Washington State Arts Commission, their artists roster, and then Writers in the Schools, and then through organizations like Jack Straw. I feel conventional in that sense that I had to get paid to do the work to be able to call myself a writer. Once I did have checks coming in, small checks, really small checks, it was easier for me to call myself a poet.”
And then, with new focus, Kathleen sits up straight to make a point. “I should mention too my husband, who is very supportive through all of this. My husband is quite remarkable. He’s very open to letting me be who I want to be, and he always has been. When we first met I was a bit frustrated because it seemed that he wasn’t hands-on enough. I had some kernel of old-fashioned ideas about what a relationship should be, and thank God, he wasn’t like that. He’s the kind who hangs on loosely. So, that’s really been helpful, to allow me to find my way.”
When I ask Kathleen to define that phrase, “hangs on loosely”, she seems pleased and surprised that the phrase escaped her lips. “It’s from some old pop song -- horrible old pop song. I don’t even remember it.”
Interesting, I point out, that she would draw from song lyrics, which are a form of poetry. “Well, that’s why we have poems in our society! They fulfill a purpose. They are there when you need them. When I say, ‘hanging on loosely’ -- I mean, his ego and his happiness are not tied up in what I do, they are tied up the way we care for each other and our family. I let go of a fairly lucrative career choice for one that is much less so, but he was fine with that because I was happier.”
As well as her husband, Kathleen’s children have also been very supportive of her pursuit.
“I know that they are proud of me. This is something they have had to sacrifice for because I am away a lot. My daughter, especially. I bought ballet tickets for us and I haven’t been able to go to a single ballet. She’s gone with friends, twice with her dad. He sort of got dragged along but it turns out he’s enjoying it! It’s nice for them that they have this, but that wasn’t the intention. I was supposed to go with her. I know she’s disappointed that I didn’t go to any of them, but she’s a good sport about it. And my family knows it’s not forever. So I’m lucky. Having said that, they can only tolerate so much poetry talk before they glaze over. Yeah, they keep me humble.”
As someone who reads mountains but almost never poetry, I asked Kathleen to put on her Poet Laureate hat and advise me on becoming a poetry reader. “I think a great way to find voices that speak to you is to check out anthologies. A collection with of a lot of voices. It’s guaranteed there will be many poems there that you will not like, but just turn the page and keep reading. And try something else. Even if you’re just reading half a poem, keep at it. If you find one just one poet who speaks to you, find a book of that poet’s work and read the book. And maybe you’ll find that poet leads you to another poet. And that’s what takes you in the door.
“Poetry is like music. You’ll not like at least as many poems as you do, probably more. You just need to give yourself a chance to find the ones that speak to you. It’s not as easy as dialing the radio around. You have to be more proactive about it.”
And what separates poetry from other literary forms? After admitting that as Poet Laureate she feels she should have a better answer to this question she responds. “Well, it does have the song quality. So distilled. And it’s so much about sound and image. Poems don’t have to be burdened by stories. They go back into our history so far -- that idea of people sitting around the fire, telling stories through poems because there’s the rhythm that helps you remember them. I think poems need to work out loud to really be poems.”
Finishing up this story, I have a couple minutes before making dinner. I think I’ll read a poem.
The poet is shown here, overlaid by her own poem, “Natural History”
PHOTO CREDIT: Hayley Young (Seattle Magazine)
Kathleen Flenniken’s Not-So-Secrets for How She Does It?
On the demands of the job of Poet Laureate:
- “Basically it’s a full time job. It’s more than I’ve ever worked since I’ve had children. It bleeds over my entire day. I’m working all day long; after dinner, I’m working in the evening.
- “There are lots of things I can’t really pursue right now. The house is a mess. Floors need to be refinished. I look forward to having some time to buy some new lights for the dining room. Some of those things that I love to do.
- Despite that, “I try to enjoy everything I do as much as I can. Part of that is knowing it’s only two years. It’s like an adventure, like a vacation. You’re accumulating experiences and you can think about them later when it’s snowing outside.
- “I’ve learned how to let go of my mistakes. I used to hang onto them. I’d wake up in the middle of the night and punish myself severely for some stupid thing I said, or a missed opportunity. I try not to do that any more. I move on to the next thing. I let go. I let go of my accidents, and try to look forward to the next opportunity.”
On the importance of friends and mentors in guiding her transition from engineer to poet:
- “It’s no accident that I had to make a new set of friends when I became a poet. You surround yourself with people who understand that world. My new friends make me feel comfortable with my choices.
- “I’ve had mentors and they’ve have mattered immensely to me. That’s been a real source of comfort and joy.
- “I have a wonderful friend who has been my mentor. When I was 4 or 5 years into my writing I decided I wanted to go to the next level, so I found a poet. I had one of her books that I loved, and I found her on-line and contacted her to see if she would take on a private student. She has been there every step of the way ever since. And even though I’m at the stage where I shouldn’t need to have someone tell me it’s ok, if there were one person I would need to say it’s ok, it’s Sharon. I ended up getting a Masters in Creative Writing from PLU and she was my thesis advisor. She said, you’re already doing the work, so why not get the degree, so I decided to do it.
On knowing whether a poem is finished:
- “One thing is sitting with it for a while. I have a fairly bad habit of thinking after I’ve finished the draft of a poem -- oh, this is fantastic! This is wonderful! Then coming back to it a few days later and realizing, this isn’t wonderful at all. So the first step is incubator, let it sit for a while.
- “Another is sending it out and see if it’s rejected. When you open the results and see it was rejected, yes you’re disappointed, but there’s that 5 minute period where you can see the poem with different eyes. And that’s often a gift. Sometimes that helps you locate the problems. Maybe helps you find a solution to the problem. Or maybe you realize, this piece isn’t as good as you thought it was.”
What has Kathleen read recently?
- “I’ve been asked to write a lot of blurbs. And of course, when you write a blurb, you have to read the book very carefully. You have to read it a couple times with great care. I’ve been reading with a lot of intentionality. Whereas it would be fun to read a fun book, like last summer I read, Financial Lives of the Poets, which was just a fun book, that made me laugh. It’s by Jess Walters. He’s a Spokane author, he’s great, he’s fantastic.”
Who Should I Interview Next?
- Executive Director of Jack Straw -- Joan Rabinowitz . She built the organization into an arts and cultural center; financially in the black; they own their own building; they do all sorts of wonderful work across lots of cultural boundaries. She is an amazing collaborator. Works with all sorts of other organizations. She’s somebody who keeps going. Really smart and fun. She’d be great. They just won a Mayor’s arts award. Very accomplished.
- Barbara Earl Thomas. I love her to pieces. She says 10 smart things every minute, she’s amazing.
- Liz Mattson -- works for Hanford Challenge, an advocacy organization. She’s taking on the work of trying to get people to know about the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.