by Mary Ann Gwinn
Seattle Times, April 1, 2012
In the poem "Song of Myself," Walt Whitman wrote of a writer's need to embrace apparently irreconcilable points of view:
"Do I contradict myself?" wrote Whitman. "Very well then I contradict myself (I am large, I contain multitudes)."
Kathleen Flenniken, the state's new poet laureate, has a Whitmanesque gift for absorbing contradictions, one that makes her a particularly apt candidate for reaching out to the far corners of our divided state:
• She grew up on the dry and austere east side (in Richland), but now calls green Seattle home.
• Trained as an engineer, she's now a poet.
• Raised by patriotic parents and adults who worked on the Hanford nuclear reservation, she's just published "Plume" (University of Washington Press), a collection of poems that examines the culture of secrecy that kept the effects of radiation from the very people employed at Hanford — the engineers, technicians and other workers who considered it their duty to make plutonium for the atomic bomb.
Flenniken, 51, was appointed to a two-year term as the state's poet laureate in February, succeeding Samuel Green, the first poet laureate. Her job is to build awareness and appreciation of poetry through public readings, workshops, lectures and presentations, with an emphasis on getting to all corners of the state.
The position, which carries an annual stipend of $10,000, was established in 2007 by the Washington state Legislature. State funding for the post was cut in 2009, but it's now supported by Humanities Washington and the Washington State Arts Commission, with a mix of federal and private funds.
Flenniken has already made a name as an activist poet — she's president of Floating Bridge Press, an organization dedicated to publishing Washington poets, and has taught poetry in a number of venues, including the Seattle Arts & Lectures' Writers in the Schools program (at Seattle's View Ridge Elementary).
Her published poetry has embraced opposites as well. Her first book of poetry, "Famous" (University of Nebraska Press), examined the pleasures and conundrums of private life. "Plume" uses poetry to plumb the Hanford experience — the science, the secrecy and the long-lasting effects of radiation, including illness and death. "The books are like the two sides of my brain," she says.
Flenniken, who holds engineering degrees from Washington State University and the University of Washington, worked as an engineer at Hanford for three years. Her poems in "Plume" show a technical grasp of the problems at Hanford, but also anguish, outrage and regret at their consequences. She began writing Hanford poetry when her best friend's father, who worked there, died of radiation sickness.
Growing up in Richland around scientists and engineers, she read widely, but the poetic impulse was unleashed after she left engineering to care for her children (she has three). She took night classes at the University of Washington Experimental College under poet Mike Hickey. (Hickey, a creative-writing teacher at South Seattle Community College, currently serves as Seattle's poet populist.) She moved on to a poetry workshop, then private tutoring by a well-known poet, then completion of the Masters in Fine Art writing program at Pacific Lutheran University.
"Plume" came about when poet Linda Bierds, who edits the University of Washington Press' Pacific Northwest Poetry Series, heard Flenniken read some of her Hanford poems at PLU.
Flenniken says the poems are about "growing up innocent in a contaminated land" (see her accompanying poem, "To Carolyn's Father"). She grew up in Richland in the era of bomb production (plutonium production ceased in 1987). Many of the poems wrestle with the bomb factory's legacy of environmental contamination, illness and even death from exposure to radiation. But she also wrote them to honor the people she grew up with.
"It's so easy to demonize the people there," she says. "I can't. They were moral, smart people. Citizens. Very patriotic — trying to do the best they could do."
She's worked hard to be scientifically accurate in describing the spreading footprint of the radiation left by the bomb production at Hanford. "I really don't want to sensationalize," she says. "It's not a very satisfying book if you're reading it from one side or another. It offers up what I've learned, but it doesn't tell you what to think."