Earlier this year I spent a week at a scholarly retreat center on an island off the coast of Washington State. I was there to conduct research and write poems about pollution, habitat destruction, global climate change, human-induced species eradication, and the like. I’d been compelled to turn my attention to these matters as I’d recently read Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction, and everything she’d shared about our current epoch, the Anthropecene, was ringing loudly in my ears.
I was interested in what Kolbert had shared about ocean acidification, its causes and effects, and had begun to dig deeper, but instead my haphazard online research process led me to a government document cataloging and mapping nuclear waste dumping sites.
Here’s a small taste of what a U.S. government document cataloging nuclear waste disposal looks like:
2.2.2. Types of waste and packaging
Three types of radioactive waste were disposed of at sea:
(1) Liquid waste;
(2) Solid waste; and
(3) Nuclear reactor pressure vessels, with and without fuel.
Liquid waste in two forms was disposed of at sea as follows:
(a) Unpackaged and diluted in surface waters at designated sites; and
(b) Contained, but unsolidified on to the sea bottom at designated sites.
Solid radioactive waste of two subcategories was disposed of at sea as follows:
(a) Low level waste such as paper and textiles from decontamination processes, resins and filters, etc., solidified with cement or bitumen and packaged in metal containers; and
(b) Unpackaged solid radioactive waste, mainly large parts of nuclear installations such as steam generators, main circuit pumps, lids of reactor pressure vessels, etc.
What most captured my attention was the concerted effort to blunt the sharp edges of fact—to turn the completely insane act of dumping nuclear waste by the tons into our oceans into a business-as-usual government operation, to be outlined with numbers and letters as if it was normal to dump millions of pounds of waste into our oceans. It made my head spin.
Then, two ideas popped simultaneously into my head:
(1) this is a found poem;
(2) this would be great material for epistolary persona poem in the voice of the sea, a very pissed off sea.
I mean, I was pissed, so how must the sea feel? I’d been reading quite a few letter poems, had written several unsuccessful ones, had been admiring some incredible ones, and so I began to draft a poem that began in a way that indicated it was a letter.
I continued drafting and revising this poem through the spring and summer—
modulating the tone, straightening out the music, condensing the facts, finding what felt like the right stanza length, testing all the verbs, line-breaks, etc.
Overall, I feel pleased with the shape the poem ended up taking, although I also wonder whether it would’ve been more powerful to present the raw document asserting all those leaking barrels pose a “negligible radiological impact.” I just can’t seem to resist taking what I read and crafting it. I guess I’m more like Marianne Moore than Kenneth Goldsmith, at least for now.
Read “Sincerely Yours, The Sea” in Tahoma Literary Review’s second issue, out December 31, 2014.