The Representability of Trauma— an Interview with Lee Ann Roripaugh
Named as one of Book Riots 50 Must-Read 2019 Poetry Collections, Lee Ann Roripaugh’s tsunami vs the fukashima 50 (Milkweed Editions, released today) interrogates the 2011 disaster with unswerving gaze. “The elemental force of Lee Ann Rorigpaugh’s latest collection will sweep readers,” Oliver de la Paz says, “into the churning waters of her vibrant poetic imagination. The collection gives voice to the colonized, the irradiated, the monstrous—seeking throughout to understand how language can endeavor representing immense trauma. We’re honored to have the chance to ask Lee Ann some questions about her writing.
How did you originally approach the task of writing about such tremendous tragedy? Did the tsunami’s voice come right away, and were there other voices that came but didn’t make it into the book?
Lee Ann Roripaugh: The tsunami and Fukushima disaster had a stunningly visceral effect on me. I didn’t initially anticipate writing about Fukushima, but long after the disaster had fallen off the major American news cycles, I continued to be sickened, troubled, haunted. And so I initially began (although I didn’t realize I was beginning, yet) by listening. Listening and reading. I read everything I could find about the disaster, and signed up for daily news alerts. About one year later, I had started thinking a lot about the Godzilla narratives emerging as an ecocritical response to the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan at the end of WWII—how radiation caused the rise of monsters on Monster Island. I began to envision the possibilities of working with similar tropes as an ecocritical and social response to the Fukushima disaster. Soon, I began dreaming of a character named Tsunami rising as a feral monstress, a supervillainess, a femme fatale, faced off by a cadre of superheroes—the “Fukushima 50”—whose superpowers were created by accidents involving radiation. I began writing poems about Tsunami around fifteen months after the disaster. When I wrote these Tsunami poems, I decided to write them in third person omniscient, as a way of creating a sense of fluid, shape-shifting power. For me, to attempt to write in Tsunami’s voice in first person seemed too limiting, and potentially much too ponderous, given that she’s larger than life, a force of nature. After drafting a couple of these poems, they began to easily click into place as third-person projections of fear, desire, and awe toward something multifaceted, multivalent, and mythic. In terms of process, I wrote all of the Tsunami poems first.
The other main thread of this project consisted of the first-person dramatic monologues in the (mostly) fictional voices of the “Fukushima 50”—victims and survivors of the disaster, who faced off against Tsunami. These poems really borrowed from the processes of docupoetics, as well as theatrical monologues, and required a lot of intensive research, in addition to building characters/voices to (hopefully) respectfully illuminate, commemorate, and honor the experiences and legacies of the nuclear diaspora.
In a previous interview, you said nature was “interesting, contradictory, feral, and surreal”—how did your view of nature change or transform in this very specific act of giving her language?
I think that I gave that interview after I’d drafted the Tsunami poems for this book, which makes sense since this sounds like some of the language I use when I talk about some of the ways in which I imagine Tsunami. That said, the process of writing about Tsunami helped to clarify some things for me, I think. As mentioned earlier, writing about Tsunami using third-person omniscient point of view seemed to make much more sense to me than attempting to personify Tsunami with a first-person voice. As a series of third-person projections, Tsunami became a sort of mirror, I feel, to reflect certain patriarchal and historical attitudes toward nature. For example, the ways in which nature (and water, for that matter) is traditionally read as feminine, or female, and—much like women’s bodies—is a contested space that is endlessly erased, silenced, controlled, legislated, and colonized. There continues to be a terrible and dangerous colonialist logic that deems nature (and also women, for that matter) as being “known,” “manageable,” and “masterable,” and this false logic is bound to have disastrous environmental and cultural effects. In this sense, I feel as if nature, particularly in her feral and damaged form, and the character of Tsunami, as her harbinger, potentially send important messages about the need for decentering, decolonizing, and (literally) dismantling the phallic nuclear core of the patriarchy.
The collection ends with a poem resembling a glossary, a limited dictionary of tsunami-related terms, many missing or “(empty)”—a vivid and clarifying struggle between tragedy and language. Can you speak more to that? With this, your fifth collection, what have you discovered about the relationship between poets and tragedy?
I think that one of the significant challenges for poets writing about disaster and tragedy is figuring out ways of transforming language into art, into poetry, without aestheticizing the tragedy itself. Another challenge, I feel, is the risk of inadvertently being reductive and containing the tragedy into a too-neatly-wrapped, too-easily representable, too-easily consumable/commodifiable box that objectifies or minimizes the tragedy. At the same time, I don’t think poetry should be afraid to engage with large and complex subjects, to provoke significant aesthetic and/or emotional responses, to ask big questions. I like that you mention the glossary at the end of the book, which paired an actual glossary of scientific meteorological terms pertaining to tsunamis with an invented personal glossary for the character of Tsunami—particularly with respect to trauma. In the actual meteorological glossary, letters that didn’t contain entries were listed as “(empty)”, and I found something quite poignant/resonant about this that—among other things—spoke to the representability of trauma. In my conception of Tsunami, she is forged by trauma (created by the fault-line of trauma in the ocean floor that makes an earthquake), much in the same way that X-men’s Magneto was created by the trauma of the Holocaust. Of course, the survivors and victims of Fukushima are also clearly very much informed by trauma as well. It’s always impossible to wrap one’s mind entirely around trauma, and so the spaces that are listed as “(empty)”, I feel, speak to the missing pieces: that which is repressed or forgotten or misremembered, the gaps in which trauma is beyond or perhaps unrepresentable by language.
A lot of research went into the production of these poems—what was the most interesting thing you learned about the 2011 tsunami that you wish more people knew?
I would particularly like people to know that eight years later, the disaster is still happening. Although some evacuees are finally beginning to be able to return to their former homes in the nuclear exclusion zone (the “no go zone”), there are still over 50,000 displaced members of the nuclear diaspora who are still living, much like refugees, in pre-fab temporary shelters. It will take decades to figure out how to safely decommission and clear radioactive debris from the Fukushima facility. There are serious questions and concerns about radioactive water leaking into the ground soil and ocean surrounding the reactor, and significant problems with figuring out how to dispose of or store radioactive debris and waste collected from within the nuclear exclusion zone.
In terms of interesting things, I was particularly fascinated by the creation and use of robotics to explore the reactor core, or to help clean up radioactive debris, and this led to the inclusion of several robot poems in the book—inspired by a snake-like robot designed by Hitachi called the “Hitachi Snake,” and an octopus-like robot designed by Kikuchi called the “Kikuchi Octopus.)
Since you’ve been an unofficial spokeswoman for nature for a few books now, a chance to prophetize: what is going to happen to us, and what, as poets, should we be doing about it?
I think we’ve reached a crucial tipping point with respect to the environment—in fact, I believe that we’ve already passed this tipping point—and we are going to continue to see more extreme climate change, additional climate disasters, increased awareness of and increased incidents of pollution- and chemical-related disease and illnesses, serious crises involving the availability of clean water, and increased extinction of animal and plant life. As the current administration rolls back environmental protection laws, hastening the pace of this ecological unraveling, it’s impossible not to feel fury, fear, and heartbreak. At the same time, now is not the time to give up resistance and hope, and I feel that poets can contribute, in various ways, to all of these aspects of the environmental crisis: awareness, resistance, hope. I’m not hubristic enough to think that poetry can change the world, but it’s the contribution of my best self into the world. It’s what I can do. And given what we now know about mirror neurons and the ways in which language effects the human brain—firing the same neurons in listeners’ and readers’ brains as if what has been written and said was actually happening in their brains—poetry seems potentially more powerful than we all might have thought, and if nothing else, an art form that is capable of generating radical compassion. And that’s something that I think the world could use much more of right now: radical compassion.
Lee Ann Roripaigh is the author of numerous collections of poems, including Dandarians and tsunami vs. the fukushima 50. She serves as Editor-in-Chief of South Dakota Review and directs the creative writing program at the University of South Dakota. She is currently the South Dakota Poet Laureate.