There are a few occasions in my reading life when I’ve felt the lightning bolt of instant recognition with a writer. The kind of experience where I look up from a book to ask out loud, “How did this person get access to my personal memories and feelings?”
Reading Taneum Bambrick’s first full-length collection, Vantage, selected by Sharon Olds for the American Poetry Review/Honickman First Book Prize and forthcoming from Copper Canyon Press on September 24, was one of those experiences. The book is steeped in the physical reality of working and living in Eastern Washington and yet, as Bambrick toured the chapbook version of this manuscript—Reservoir, selected by Ocean Vuong for the 2017 Yemassee Chapbook contest—she reported that many women approached her afterward to declare that she was writing about their hometowns. Such is the magic of Bambrick’s writing: her clear-eyed transcription of her physical world is so searingly accurate it makes the reader feel as if she’s conveying their own lived experience. As a nineteen-year-old college student, Bambrick spent the summer working on a garbage crew primarily staffed by men, cleaning up the banks of the Columbia River near Vantage, WA. From that summer, over a decade later, Bambrick has sublimated her experience into a harrowing narrative committed to telling the truth about class, violence, and rural living in America.
Currently studying as a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, Bambrick and I spoke recently over the phone about growing up in a town that prized rodeo queens over prom queens, how insidious it is to be underestimated, and being given permission to write something ugly.
The Rumpus: For people who don’t know much about Eastern Washington and Ellensburg, where you grew up, how would you describe the region?
Taneum Bambrick: Ellensburg is a very rural place. Most of the people I knew there were either studying or farming the land. It has its own unique personality. For example, school started late to accommodate hay season. We also have a famous rodeo, and we were all excited every year to learn who would win rodeo queen. When I write about Eastern Washington, I try to encapsulate both the excitement that comes from isolation—long drives through canyons that have abandoned gas stations in them, the orchards and hills where we partied—but also its constant threat of violence. Those two feelings, in my experience, were often interconnected.
Rumpus: Did you want to win rodeo queen?
Bambrick: I mean, I felt jealous that I didn’t know how to rope calves.
Rumpus: As I was reading Vantage I noticed you write viscerally about some horrific things—there are dead pit bulls, people, elk—the bodies pile up in the manuscript, to the point where I was wondering if you’re worried that people who are not from that area might accuse you of being hyperbolic.
Bambrick: Maybe that’s an issue, but when I toured the chapbook, many people, especially women, felt like I was writing about their homes. They would say, This was set in Massachusetts, wasn’t it? or, I’m sure this was in Kentucky. The only criticism I’ve consistently received, and often from cishet men, is, do you think anyone can get through this book? Where a woman is being victimized over and over again? That constant threat of homophobia, sexism, and assault, is something that a lot of people navigate on a daily basis and, from my personal experience, isn’t hyperbolic in any way.
Rumpus: People are also responding to Vantage as a meditation on climate change. Was that a subject you specifically wanted to tackle when you started writing it?
Bambrick: While writing this book, I was horrified by what I had seen, but I didn’t have an agenda. I was trying to catalogue these different forms of violence that I had witnessed because I needed to, personally. I wasn’t trying to create shock; I was trying to document experience. The reason, I think, there is such an abundance of dead animals and dead people on that land is because it’s one of the most rural places in the country. This is also why it was selected by the US government for the development of the plutonium necessary for creation of the nuclear bomb.
Of course, that isolation creates a space where people can go to dump bodies. But most natural spaces are abused and at risk, especially now. I wanted to write about a place that could feel like yours or mine. I try hard not to state that I am writing about Washington in the book.
Rumpus: What was the origin story for this book? Did you always know you were going to write about your garbage crew experience?
Bambrick: A lot of people in my life have wondered if I worked there in order to write about it. At that time, I didn’t have enough confidence in myself as a writer to even consider writing a book, let alone a book-length project about this job that I needed to get myself through college. I didn’t put myself in that dangerous position every day because I thought it was something I could write about; I did it because I was making fifteen dollars an hour, which was a lot in 2010.
The first time I wrote a poem about that experience, though, was when I wrote “Litter.” My professor in undergrad, Bruce Beasley, said afterward that he there was enough content in it for a whole book. It wasn’t a beautiful poem—or it didn’t have whatever I thought should be in a poem. The poem came out of an exercise where he had the whole class write down words that you could sense in some way (see/touch/feel/taste) and then put them in a bowl. I drew the words “garbage,” “blue,” and “condom.” I immediately thought of the garbage crew, where I so often had used condoms thrown at me as we cleaned campsites. That’s how the whole book started, with somebody else’s words. To write this I think I needed a teacher to tell me that it was okay, as a woman especially, to write about something ugly.
Rumpus: There is all of this horror and death and environmental catastrophe in the book, but I found parts of this book to be deeply funny. I’m thinking specifically of “Elk Splat.”
Bambrick: Oh yeah, I think and hope that “Elk Splat” is funny, but I also think it is very sad.
Rumpus: All of these elk, flying off the cliff like lemmings, in response to a boat backfiring, spooked by what sounds like a gunshot. And where the locals are like, “We’re calling that elk splat.” To deal with the horror you have use humor, right? Do you think your book is funny?
Bambrick: I think that parts of these poems are funny. I think “Elk Splat” is funny. I think “Litter” is funny. One way I survived the experience of working on the garbage crew was by texting messages to my coworkers like, “Well, I had to pick up a couple of garbage bags worth of a dead cow this morning. What did you do?” There’s no way that I would have stayed in that place, despite the job paying me more than I had ever made before, without humor. I think the poems, if they weren’t a little funny, wouldn’t be true.
Most people don’t think they are funny, though. I did have one woman at a reading in Tucson, who actually worked mowing the lawn at a cemetery, who was cracking up while I read. No one had laughed during one of my readings before and it was the first time I realized that my poems could be funny to an audience of people who maybe have similar experiences.
Rumpus: Another poem in this book that struck me was “Invitation”—there’s a line where a young woman says to you, “You could be really stunning if you lived in a city.” To me that’s another element of the book’s horror/humor. You do such a deft job observing yourself through other people’s observations of you. Now that you’ve moved away from a rural home how do you see yourself changing in a city environment?
Bambrick: When you grow up in a rural place you can develop a really strange style because you don’t have anything reflected back at you; you don’t have examples. Now that I am living in Oakland, I’ve had a hard time adapting because it’s the first time I’ve lived in a big city. I have felt confused about how to navigate all of the access that a city offers, how to compose myself in an urban space.
Rumpus: That really resonates with me—when I moved from Walla Walla to Chicago it was the first time I saw female masculinity represented in a positive way. And it forced me to completely rethink how I wanted to walk through the world. It was terrifying and exhilarating.
Bambrick: For sure. It’s difficult to understand yourself, not only in terms of what you like to wear and what you might like to eat, but also your sexual and gender identity, when you live in isolation. I started realizing I was queer when I was working that job on the river and the only people around me were straight older men. I was going through that experience feeling really alone.
Rumpus: The way you present your sexual identity in this book is compelling because you don’t compromise any complexity: you fall in love with women; you date men. You document sexual trauma and how that is often, unfairly, linked to a person’s sexual orientation. How did you intended to address sexuality in this book?
Bambrick: I wrote about my own sexuality in a way that was as true as possible for my experience. Of course it’s hard to talk about because it’s one of the most complicated parts of who I am. In “Sturgeon” there is a small section where I disclose that when I was seventeen I was assaulted by someone who was older, who I was in love with. I have never felt a connection between being assaulted and being queer, but a lot of my partners have wondered if that was the case.
I hope that the poems about sexuality convey, first of all, that linking sexuality and trauma is problematic, and that our sexual discovery processes can be really difficult when people try to interfere with that discovery. The whole book has an atmosphere of sexual threat, which is how I experience the world, which is how a lot of us are forced to exist.
Rumpus: And yet, the speaker also implicates herself in some power dynamics. Was that important to you?
Bambrick: The speaker of the poems is very close to me; a white cis-woman; who has a job; she has insurance. She has access to those privileges and is unintentionally violent to the people around her, too. She makes a lot of assumptions about the men around her. Even though we just talked about the threat of violence to the speaker, I think that the speaker is a force of violence in that space, too. I think my book would have been incomplete if I only wrote about times when I felt at risk, if it didn’t address things that I’d done or said that come from privilege.
Rumpus: I couldn’t help but think of the Joan Didion quotation—I’m paraphrasing here—where she says that her only advantage as a reporter was that people underestimated her, often to their detriment. I got the sense that people were underestimating you the whole time you were out on the job. In what ways do you feel people underestimate you?
Bambrick: Well, when I was nineteen, I spoke in a way that did not represent everything I understood. I was making all the money in one summer that I needed for food and utilities for the school year, but I was also writing down all of these sexist things people were saying to me. I understood that what I was experiencing was not okay. I thought there might be a day when I could report it. I also felt like writing it down was lessening the weight it had in my body. Because of the voice I have and the way I look, I have to slowly prove myself to the people around me no matter where I am. In that way, this job was not unique.
Rumpus: Sharon Olds selected this manuscript as a prize-winner and says some wonderful things about the book in its introduction. She observes that you are working in several different craft styles: prose poems, the lyric, essay poem, the stretched lyric—wait, is stretch lyric a thing?
Bambrick: I don’t know, but anything she says is a “thing” to me.
Rumpus: She defines it as a poem with a lot of space and time, and a lot of paper. Did you initially conceive of this book with so many different styles in mind?
Bambrick: I went to public school and was lucky to have good teachers, but I also didn’t spend a lot of time learning about scansion or form. I never understood what makes a poem different from an essay aside from lineation. I grew up writing in hybrid forms, and I still gravitate towards them now. Writing about the dam, the crew, and the river would have been impossible for me if I had tried to write in a traditional way—whatever that means. When I think of form in poetry, I think of how it mirrors different kinds of power structures that are imposed on us, and I hope by making hybrid or experimental work I can work to call systemic violence into question.
Rumpus: And with regard to essay, specifically? What draws you to write in that form, as a poet?
Bambrick: Sometimes there is something I find difficult to say explicitly but I don’t want to only suggest or symbolize it either. In the poem “Field Guide,” I wanted to clearly explain how it feels to be trapped in a field where there is nowhere to go to the bathroom, especially when you are a woman on her period. It’s embarrassing to talk about the problems that stem from being in a job designed only for men, but it’s also important to state those problems and to convey that emotional experience. Sometimes I am telling a story like that and it seems to require a difficult balance of exposition, rhythm, and metaphor. It can feel like all of those elements pull against each other. Of course, I don’t mean to say that poems are incapable of providing backstory or that prose can’t operate with rhyme. Most of the poems here have existed in many shapes, and as I wrote and rewrote them, I tried to listen to where the form was inhibiting the content until the best structure felt obvious.
Rumpus: The writing life is not monolithic, and what works for one person might not work for another. What advice have you been given that really connected with you?
Bambrick: I’ve had incredible teachers—Susan Briante, Daisy Fried, Bruce Beasley, Nicole Sealey, Amber Flora Thomas, Jos Charles, Farid Matuk, Ander Monson—who have given me advice that moves me further into myself and my own style, or helps me think about how I can better write towards a specific urgency. Like I said earlier, I have also received feedback that attempts to push me towards writing more pleasant, formal, or melodic work. I feel conflicted about any advice that suggests that my style and interests are flawed, because it seems to disregard or even erase my experiences. When I feel conflicted, I put that feeling into what I am writing. A lot of teachers have asked me why I worked this job and why I decided to write about it. People want to know how I justify including what they feel is disturbing content. I am lucky that I had an amazing professor who saw my project when I was in undergrad and pushed me to write about this job carefully, but not to apologize for or shy away from what I feel is important and interesting.
Photograph of Taneum Bambrick by Kris Brunelli.