A New Collection Explores the Relationship Between Human and Honeybee
hrough poetry, fiction, and essay, Winged: New Writing on Bees explores the imperiled relationship between human and honeybee. “I wanted to start a conversation about pollinator decline that didn’t end in cynicism or despair,” says Melissa Reeser Poulin, the Portland writer who developed the project. “I wanted to invite people into the conversation who may not have thought about pollinator health. And I wanted to do it through art.” The finished book collects a wide range of modern writing from thirty-six new and established writers, including Philadelphia Poet Laureate Frank Sherlock, Oregon Poet Laureate Emerita Paulann Petersen, poet and activist CA Conrad, Portland State University’s John Beer and Michele Glazer, and Portland novelist Lois Leveen. —Evan P. Schneider
Propeller: I’d like to begin by congratulating you on the release of Winged. It’s an important, compelling collection and I’m really quite fond of the story behind your decision to make it. It’s no small feat building a book from the ground up. Tell us about that process. What led you to spearhead a book about bees?
Melissa Reeser Poulin: Thanks for the congratulations! I want to share them with the many people who have helped along the way. This has become a community project, which feels appropriate for a book about honeybees—the ultimate symbol for community.
The book started in June 2013, after the mass deaths of over 50,000 bumblebees in a Wilsonville, Oregon, Target parking lot. The bees were killed in a matter of days by an illegal application of dinotefuran, a type of insecticide from a class called neonicotinoids. These are nasty chemicals that communities elsewhere in the world have banned. Studies continue to show their connection to pollinator death and decline, and the EPA needs to ban their use in the U.S immediately.
I had been following the story of CCD and pollinator decline to some extent, but when I heard about this incident so close to home, it broke my heart. Imagine a tree in bloom, humming with spring. Imagine these innocent, drowsy creatures doing the thing they were made to do—to sip nectar and pollinate flowers. Then imagine they are instantly poisoned, thousands of bees littering the asphalt—all because of human ignorance and error. It was absolutely senseless for them to die—the application was prompted by Target customers’ complaints about honeydew aphids, active during the same time and leaving a sticky "dew" on their car windshields. I felt so disgusted.
Maybe my reaction was somewhat selfish—I needed to feel useful. I felt really sad, and I wanted to do something. Bees pollinate flowers. The thing I’m made to do is to write poems, so I decided I would write a short series of poems about bees, print up a bunch at the Independent Publishing Resource Center and sell them to raise funds for pollinator conservation.
What happened instead was a series of fruitful conversations with other writers and artists who were excited about the project, and encouraged me to think bigger. I realized there needed to be more voices involved, and that’s how the idea for an anthology developed.
Propeller: Reading Winged I was reminded of State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America (2009) in which editors Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey asked fifty-one different writers—from Jonathan Franzen and Louise Erdrich, to S.E. Hinton and Dave Eggers—to remark artistically on their home states (including the District of Columbia). Weiland and Wilsey were inspired by the Depression-era WPA guides and wanted to create a written collage that celebrated America through the eyes of some of its best writers. In that vein, did you look to any other anthologies as a model for the Winged collection? What would you hope, in the end, Winged moves readers to do, or perhaps not do?
MRP: We didn’t really have a model for Winged. From 2008 to 2009, I had spent a year apprenticing and working on small farms, and I remember checking out every book on beekeeping at the library. I loved Sue Hubbell’s narrative accounts of beekeeping, but I remember longing for more poems, stories, and personal essays about beekeeping and the magic of honeybees. Writers have been inspired by bees for centuries, and there are beautiful pieces tucked into anthologies and single author volumes of poetry all up and down the library shelves. But there was no anthology of literary writing about honeybees.
Another piece of the story is that following the Wilsonville kill, I started talking to everyone I could about pollinator health and human responsibility. I often felt frustrated with conversations that seemed to end in cynicism—"people will never learn, we’re too disconnected from nature, we’re going to lose bees." While I shared the same fears, I also felt like the conversation needed to be bigger than that. I wanted help stoking the collective memory of human history with bees and pollinators. When people tell stories, they become softer, more creative beings. We’re just better able to connect and relate to each other through story. I hope that Winged can help spark conversations that lead to greater pollinator health. It might be a lofty goal, but it’s been at the heart of this whole project for Jill and me. Jill has been a huge gift in my life, as a co-editor and active beekeeper and poet and friend. We have totally different tastes in literature, which was challenging at first. We really fought each other on a lot of pieces. But I hope that that tension has translated into a collection with texture and interest for a wide range of readers.
Personally, I hope Winged continues to push me outside of my own comfort zone. I had no idea what I was doing when I began the project, and I’ve been blessed along the way by help and input from so many people. It taught me that there’s more potential for creative discussion than we realize. I’d like to be part of more conversations between activists and artists and landscapers and business owners and policy-makers and conservationists. I’d like to be part of community storytelling that gets things done for pollinators.
Propeller: I recently finished reading a book called Greenhorns: 50 Dispatches from the New Farmers’ Movement. One of the best essays in the collection was by Vince Booth called “Coming Full Circle: The Conservatism of the Agrarian Left.” His essential argument is that the newest, youngest crop of American farmers usually self-identify as being very liberal, but that their deeply held tenets, when looked at carefully, closely resemble conservative viewpoints. “Even though,” Booth writes, “we might dress like liberals, have been educated like liberals, create products generally bought by liberals, or come from liberal families or communities, at heart and in deed we are quite conservative.” He continues, “I do not want to attempt a takeover of conservative ideals, but…once we recognize that we have the same goals, we can unify our means.” I suppose what I’m driving at is that this description sounds awfully similar to your idea of the “potential for creative discussion.” Many important discussions get shut down before they can actually happen because the parties involved are unable or unwilling to momentarily step out from the safety of their relative camps. I don’t mean to turn this into a political interview, but I am wondering what it might look like if this collection indeed succeeds in pushing you “outside your comfort zone”? Has editing Winged changed the way you approach writing poetry, for example? Have your own philosophies about pollinators, or art for that matter, changed at all?
MRP: It hasn’t changed the way I approach writing poetry—that’s something I feel I have very little control over, at least when it comes to the mystery of the creative process. My apprenticeship as a poet has been about craft—the part I can control to some extent—meaning I have tried to improve and learn more about the possibilities for shaping what I feel I have been given to write. But I’ve never been a political poet, or someone driven to the page with an agenda. It just doesn’t work for me.
What Winged has changed is the way I think about the role of art. I think art has an important place in any movement to create change. It’s one part of many different spheres we need to activate and cultivate as a community trying to achieve what are probably the same goals—health, safety, interdependence, growth, justice—wrapped in different language. (I agree with you on that, and the book you read sounds great!) Stories, paintings, music, performance—these things can help us connect in spite of our staunch differences, and hopefully help us find ways to harness the value in the interplay of those differences.
That said, artistic approaches like Winged form just one part of a movement. Policy forms another part. The way we finance and subsidize agriculture. Practical personal actions. I would be a big hypocrite if I just made a book and then went out in my yard and sprayed Roundup everywhere, stopped paying attention to policies that affect land use and the health of pollinators, and made no attempt to grow my consciousness about the food I buy. In our pursuit of a balanced, well-rounded planet, we learn to become well-rounded people. I think that means making friends with our "enemies," finding out their stories, learning from each other. It means looking for different ways to help, participating in and supporting others’ projects.
As we’ve worked on Winged, I’ve been constantly struck by the mirroring of these issues in the natural world. Our issues are mirrored by the earth. Bees need well-rounded forage to have healthy immune systems. When they’re overworked and overfed a single crop, they suffer and weaken. It’s the same for us. So I think we need a well-balanced "diet" of approaches to conservation in order to be strong.
Propeller: Any inclination to edit another book soon? Or begin keeping bees?
MRP: I’d like to do both! I’ve been working on a collection of my own poems for the past three years or so, and I’m in the editing stage at this point. The day after the book launch, I’m heading to New Mexico to attend a weekend workshop focused on finishing a book of poems. I can’t wait. It has been wonderful to spend this last year immersed in others’ writing and coordinating project logistics, and now it’s refreshing to have time again for my own poems.
Beekeeping is something I have been a part of in the past. Both of the small farms I worked on had hives, but I wasn’t their main caretaker. Maybe this will be the year we set up a hive. Otherwise, I am really happy to hang out in my garden and watch the wide range of pollinators that come to visit. We have some huge stands of hyssop that seem to attract a ton of bees. Lots of honeybees, many different bumblebees, tiny green and blue bees that I think might be mason bees, and a handful of others I haven’t been able to identify.
This project has definitely gotten me interested in learning more about native pollinators, and the Xerces Society is a fantastic resource for that. I hope to get more involved with their work.
Propeller: It’s a nice creative balance to strike if you can, writing for long stretches and then switching to the role of editor and orchestrator for another spell. I’ve found it works different muscles in my brain—writing and then editing, editing and then writing—as if I’m sort of constantly zooming in and out and around the writing act, which works to shift my perspective so that I’m not stationary for too long in one creative mindset. I’m excited that you are returning to poetry and am looking a great deal forward to A Garden Opposite This, your first book-length collection. At the workshop you’ll be working with poet Mark Doty, whom you’ve long admired. Who are some other contemporary poets you find yourself drawn to?
MRP: I love everything by Denise Levertov and Eavan Boland. Margaret Gibson and Mark Jarman have done beautiful narrative work that I admire so much. Derek Walcott. Robert Hass, Claudia Emerson, Jane Kenyon. Rita Dove. Mary Ruefle, Alice Oswald, Tomas Transtromer. Ingrid Jonker, Gabeba Baderoon. And Christian Wiman.
Propeller: A number of very talented and prominent writers are featured in Winged (Paulann Peterson, John Beer, George Venn, Leni Zumas, Lois Leveen, Sarah Marshall, Michelle Glazer—just to name a few). What it was like working with these authors and poets? Were you at all surprised by their interest (artistic and otherwise) in bees and pollinators?
MRP: It was really gratifying to receive their work and their encouragement. All of the Winged writers have been so enthusiastic about the project, so gracious and patient. Their kind words kept me going when the weeks got long and I was losing sleep. I know these writers contributed to the book because of their love for pollinators, and that’s a good feeling. That’s what we wanted.
Even writers whose work we had to turn down have continued to be active with the project because of their passion for pollinator health. We’ve been honored to feature a lot of their work on the blog—many fine pieces that just didn’t fit into the book for one reason or another. From the beginning, we knew we wanted the book to be smaller—something you could put in your purse or backpack and take with you. Something you could savor. We wanted to both shape the book and allow it to shape itself, and in that way it was a little like composing a poem.
It also meant writing difficult response letters. No matter how long you’ve been writing, I think it hurts to receive a “no” letter, and I have to say, I think it’s even harder to be the one to say “no.” We’ve been grateful for the positive feedback. We’re lucky to have such a large and vocal community of Winged writers.
Propeller: What prompted you to reach out for government support for this project?
MRP: I met Laura Moulton, an inspiring writer and activist here in Portland, when we were teaching at a summer camp in 2013. She encouraged me to apply for a Regional Arts & Culture Council grant, which had helped her launch her amazing Street Books project. I had to scramble to get my proposal together for the August deadline, but I did it, and we found out we had received funding in December.
The grant enabled us to pay contributing writers, visual artists, and a text designer, in addition to basic administrative costs like an online submissions manager, postage and mailing costs, event supplies, and advertising. The biggest expense has been the cost of printing, which is daunting for a small project with no budget. In the beginning, Jill and I were funding everything out of pocket, so RACC made it possible for us to actually print the book.
The focus, in our minds, was always on creating a lasting work of art that could start conversations about pollinator health. We wanted to create something sustainable that could lend itself to future events and inter-disciplinary school curriculum. We wanted Winged to be a vehicle to create change. From the very beginning it was a project for humankind and pollinators alike, and we set out to do it from the heart.
Designed and printed in Portland in a limited edition, Winged is currently available for purchase at wingedbook.com. Copies will also be available at the book launch and public reading at 7:00 p.m. on Thursday, October 30 at Literary Arts (925 SW Washington Street in Portland). A dozen writers will read from the book, and a local conservation expert will speak to the current state of pollinator health.