In an era plagued by a global pandemic and a slew of environmental crises, Rebecca Dunham’s poetry collection Cold Pastoral (2017) poignantly captures the need to reflect on our responsibility to both nature and our fellow humanity. Ana Pugatch sat down virtually with Dunham to discuss her work in the context of today’s strange world.
AP: My first question is about the opening poem, “Mnemosyne to the Poet”—Mnemosyne being the Greek goddess of memory. “I am not permitted/to turn, pillow to cheek,/and wait for sleep to find me./Am not permitted/to learn how not to look.” These lines sparked a lot of discussion in our ecopoetics class about the role of the poet when a community is facing the fallout of a manmade ecological disaster. What is our responsibility as poets?
RD: I feel like that was the question which in a way drove the book. In the poem, I was thinking about how difficult it can be to keep looking and yet, as a citizen and as an artist, there is this ability to put the newspaper down, or to close the browser window. You reach a point at which you have to shut off, and I felt like I was starting to do that almost far too much. Toward the end of the book, there is the poem about speaking and the lyric; I think it addresses this idea of just taking that on as a responsibility, while also understanding why people can’t look, because it is really hard. I think poetry is one of those mediums which can be good for drawing our attention to that. I had just written a book that was very interior, and I was sort of tired of that interiority, so I think the push to look outward felt even more urgent.
AP: You have this really striking photograph on the cover, and its beauty is rather ironic because it’s an oil spill. Also, your poem “Elegy, Sung in Dirt” is written in response to The New York Times image of the Deepwater Horizon rig’s collapse into the sea. Could you talk a little bit about the connection between photography and ecopoetry, and what a poem can bring to the table as an artistic medium?
RD: I like to think in terms of images. I was drawn to that image because it was so beautiful—and yet horrible! Ever since the eighteenth, nineteenth century, people have been talking about how something can seem so sublime, but awful, too. I feel like even in that photograph in The New York Times, the symmetry was there, but all these people had died, and this oil—when we first saw it, we didn’t know how bad it was going to become. But that was what initially gripped me about it: the beauty and the horror together. I originally wanted to have this project be multimedia, and so I brought a camera with me when I went to Louisiana. When people saw a camera, they wanted to talk to me. There’s a sense that the camera tells the truth—that it’s this unvarnished truth. You’re still selecting and handling the image, but there is a feeling that if you see something in a picture, it’s real. In poetry, there are a lot more questions, right?Documentary poetics grapples with that. How can you be this objective person giving the facts, and yet create art in a way that will connect with the reader? Hopefully through the journey of seeing evidence and having an emotional connection, that empathy can be what actually makes change possible or brings about a different way of thinking. I don’t think photography is any “truer” than poetry. It just uses different tools, but because it’s visual and frozen, people trust it more. In photography, you can set a scene and try to show the truth, even if it’s not exactly how it happened. That’s what poets try to do: they try to capture a truth through the way they arrange [the elements] and through their craft.
AP: Documentary poetics is really starting to take off right now. In this collection, you include interviews, court testimony, and government statistics. Can you tell us a little bit more about your research and writing process?
RD: I was working on this book well before it came out—it was forthcoming for four years. Muriel Rukeyser’s The Book of the Dead is probably my biggest model for it. I have often used research in my writing. For my first book I looked at a lot of art and paintings, and then for my second book I was obsessed with Mary Wollstonecraft—of course, our poetry oftentimes comes out of what we’re most drawn to. You learn so much from your research; if you started bringing all of that into the poem, it would become tedious for readers. You have to find the things that spark the poems without writing a nonfiction book about them, basically. The people who had been forgotten but were still enmeshed in the struggle became what I was most interested in, and of course, the way that people and environment are interconnected. I should say, too, that those were some of the hardest poems to write. There’s this connection to the people themselves; you don’t want to go off into a flight of fancy and have this super ornate poem. Normally my writing style is more compressed, and I tried to make the poems accessible. I was also teaching a class on the elegy to my grad seminar [which focused] a lot on the pastoral elegy, so there’s a lot of thinking about the history of that, and the lyric, and that all worked its way in, too. I like to weave multiple threads together.
AP: The ekphrastic impulse is evident in the title of the collection. The phrase comes from Keats’ “Ode to a Grecian Urn,” which you include an excerpt from at the end: “Cold Pastoral!/When old age shall this generation waste,/Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe…” When you think about the phrase cold pastoral, what do you envision?
RD: Some people have said to me, “Cold Pastoral, I love that title!” and I say, “I know, I didn’t write it!” [Laughs.] What they’re hearing is an echo of Keats. I didn’t mean it as a direct interpretation of what Keats wrote. It does connect back to people, environment, art, time going on—that idea of the pastoral being nature and then having this coldness, this frozenness to it. I guess it was the associations I was building off of, and that idea of when we memorialize something in a work of art, even that’s sort of dead. The phrase resonated and I love that poem, so it came to mind.
AP: How did being immersed in writing about a subject like this change you fundamentally?
RD: Huge—it was huge. It changed my behavior at a personal level. A lot of people say that through the choices you make, you can have an influence, and yes, that’s true—but it really is something that needs to happen at a government level. One thing that struck me was how quickly, how dramatically everything changed this past March [due to the pandemic]. If the government really cared about the climate, we could do something! There is a way in which people can massively change their behavior. After this project, my family got a used hybrid car, I was a vegetarian for years, we did CSA [community-supported agriculture], composting—but the things that have been most useful have been when I’m writing to congresspeople, or protesting—trying to do bigger things because that’s how the change really happens, in my opinion. I was trying to have compassion in the book, and to raise awareness. We can do personal things, but it has to happen at a public level.
AP: You are one of our MFA program’s distinguished alum. Is there anything you remember fondly about living here in northern Virginia?
RD: Working with Eric Pankey, Jennifer Atkinson, and Susan Tichy. I wouldn’t be the writer I am now without [GMU’s] creative writing program. It was also the most diverse place I’ve lived—we lived in Alexandria—and I love how the museums [in D.C.] are free to the public.
AP: How is your family holding up during COVID-19?
RD: We live in a small place because we want to have a small footprint; that means having four of us at home is insane! I feel lucky though because both my husband and I have our jobs. My son is going to take a gap year—he’s a senior. It’s hard having a job and then educating your kids at home. That responsibility falls disproportionately on women, and it feels impossible to keep them on task, like teaching my daughter math, and then getting my own work done. My daughter is in fifth grade, and she’ll be going to an environmental science magnet school in the fall. She helps out at a barn with exercising the ponies, and it’s good for her to get outside. We’re just dealing with the same things as people who are healthy and have employment, and we feel very fortunate.
AP: Do you have any advice for aspiring poets?
RD: I think that writers need to follow what they’re passionate about, and to go in whatever direction it’s taking you. My projects often zig and zag; I always think I know what I’m doing, then realize after a while that oh actually, I want to do this other thing—but it still builds off of it. With project books, you have to not let the project take over the writing. While working on this one, I cared a lot about the lyric and about that emotional connection, even if there are problems talking about the “I” in relation to the larger environment. I didn’t want for the information to overwhelm the [other aspects]. It just depends on what your aesthetic is, and what you want your project to be.
has published five books of poetry, her most recent being Strike (2018). She has won the New Issues Poetry & Prose Editor’s Choice Award, the T.S. Eliot Prize, and the Lindquist and Vennum Poetry Prize. She has also been awarded fellowships from the Sustainable Arts Foundation, the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, the Vermont Studio Center, and the National Endowment for the Arts. She completed her Ph.D. at the University of Missouri-Columbia and is a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Her work can be found in publications such as AGNI, Kenyon Review, and The Antioch Review.
is an MFA candidate studying poetry at GMU, where was recently awarded the ’20-’21 Poetry Heritage Fellowship. After graduating from Skidmore College and Harvard, she taught English in Shanghai and Bangkok for several years. Her poetry has been featured in publications such as The Esthetic Apostle, PØST-, Cagibi, and Foothill Poetry Journal.