Blythe Woolston Interview: “Agapostemon”

blythe-woolstonRead “Agapostemon” in Reckoning 1.

Michael: A disclaimer: I have just had a kid (three days ago as I write this) and thus am just a little sleep deprived, so I have gotten a bit of help with these questions from Johannes Punkt, who wrote “The Honeybee-Maker’s Kiss”, another heavily bee-centric piece in Reckoning 1.

Johannes suggests I ask about your personal history/connection with bees and beekeeping.

Blythe: I have never kept bees. My relationship with bees is quite ordinary and haphazard. When I was little, I played with bees just like all the other children in my school. We would catch them in jam jars, show them off to one another, and then open the lids and set them free. It felt daring. We made pictures of them: black tippies, white tippies, gobs of pollen on their knees.

My most recent encounter with a bee was a few days ago. Warm and sunny, the snow sublimating, dissolving directly into the air. I was cleaning detritus from a patch of herbs. The bee appeared, a honey bee. There was nothing for it. “It’s too early,” I said, but I’m certain the bee knew that as well as I did. I don’t know what became of it. Since then it has snowed.

Ha! This is really quite dull, but I am dull. I am certainly less interesting than a wild bee.

Michael: Can you tell me a little of how you were thinking about wild and domesticated bees when you composed “Agapostemon”?

Blythe: Domestication is the exploitation of an organism’s traits for human benefit. Honey bees offer not only honey and wax production, but a colony lifestyle that makes them easier to manage. Domestication also means that humans are more aware of threats to honeybees, like colony collapse. But, at the bottom, domestication is a tiny window on the actual economy of wild Nature. It sees only those things of human interest.

It’s that anthropocentrism that scrapes me.

I see it in my own life, and I’m not proud of it.

The poem rose from a very selfish moment. I was only thinking of future plums. Last spring, the little trees by my steps burst into bloom—it seemed—too soon. Then Agapostemon appeared shiny, tiny, and green ready for the flowers when the flowers were ready for her. The synchronicity between the bee and the tree decentered me, or, at least, it reminded me that I am not the center, not the purpose, not even able to do the work of a tiny, ground-dwelling bee.

One organism often overlooked among the domesticated is H. sapiens. Over the centuries, that sad animal has become increasingly isolated from the interactions that mark its role in Nature. I think we are being paid in “lesser sugar” too.

Michael: I’ve read a fair amount about the ecology in your part of the world, and traveled there a very little. It seems to me such a touchstone for the American cultural relationship with nature. But what we tend to hear about are the megafauna, the apex predators, and the way tourism and industry and commerce interact with them—not much about the smaller but important parts of our vast interconnected ecosystem, like bees and independent thinkers. What is it like for the bees in the Yellowstone River watershed? What’s it like for you?

Blythe: Yellowstone. The park is iconic, emblematic, and worthy of respect. I think awe comes first. Nothing like a glimpse of Scarface (Grizzly No. 211) to recalibrate the world and my puny human place in it. There are so many kinds of life there: bluebirds, mosquitos, things tough enough to live in boiling springs . . . but that diversity isn’t unnatural or extraordinary, it’s natural. It’s fundamental to life.

When Yellowstone, the river, leaves the park boundaries, it’s like a streamer of life escaping. The river, the white pelicans, the bison: none of them see the imaginary line, but, when they cross it, new rules apply. Bison are slaughtered because they are presumed to be a threat to domestic cattle. Scarface died because he met a hunter; he wasn’t legal prey, but he was a bear and the guy had a rifle. And as for the river: In 2011, a 12-inch pipeline ruptured and spilled 63,000 gallons of oil—that’s just one spill, and that’s just my river, the river that sustains my life. Clean up continues.

Engineering the world to maximize our benefit may be human nature, but it isn’t sustainable. As you wrote, it neglects the vast interconnections that are essential to life. The connections, though, remain. It is possible for human thinking to bend to a new value system, one that recognizes that interconnection. The transition may be awkward. It’s a vision of the world that flicks humans off the top rung of an imaginary ladder; that can sting. But it always was an imaginary ladder, the truth is far more complex and beautiful. Agapostemon and her attendance of the plum flowers is a part of that ecological truth. Tiny, but not insignificant.

Please, Michael, keep planting things in your garden to make the world more welcoming for bees. It changes the world. Thank you.

Michael: Thank you! I definitely will—and this was fascinating, really the farthest thing from dull.

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Agapostemon

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Blythe Woolston

She is green in the sunlight

standing at the brink of her little home

little because she is little.

We are an odd direction life took

because life takes all odd directions

the little ground-dwelling bees,

they carried pollen when plum trees and apples

bloomed early,

a direction odd to honeybees and bumblebees.

I have a chickadee in my plum tree;

plums by the grace

of the ground-dwelling bees:

those solitary little green sisters

who live with one another

in their tiny tunnels,

but aren’t of one mind.

They are independent thinkers,

the ground-dwelling bees.

I guess that’s why they could read the weather

and rise up to meet the plum blossoms early.

Later, all the bees gathered

in the herbs and roses—

all the bees

even honeybees

who had probably arrived by truck.

I have sympathy for those bees.

the honey bees;

they do hard work

and get paid lesser sugar.

I have sympathy for them

making a middle passage

chained in the dark,

hidden from the stars

and the the angle of the sun.

Do you remember that wreck of the bees

somewhere on the Interstate highways?

The horrific loss of life

hives spilled open

like a rural schoolbus wreck

or when the logging truck hit a herd of ponies.

The acceptable losses

escaping through the nets

left behind like ghosts

drowning in the traffic currents.

Read an interview with Blythe Woolston.

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Johannes Punkt Interview: “The Bumblebee-Maker’s Kiss”

johannes-punktThis interview, per Johannes’s preference, shall be in epistolary format. Note: contains some gentle spoilers.

Read “The Bumblebee-Maker’s Kiss” in Reckoning 1.

Michael:

Johannes,

Here is some rambly gushing about your story with questions wedged in between. Please don’t feel like you have to answer all of them, if there are some that hold your interest more than others.

This story does a lot of beautiful things at once, quite deftly, I think, but the thing that made me fall in love with it was what it seems to me to be saying about bees. I love that it moves past the current crisis of bee dieoffs and colony collapse disorder and replaces it with something that is human-made, functional and beautiful. I also love that it moves past the current crisis without ignoring its impact on people–not just in terms of questions about who’s going to pollinate our food, but how we’re going to grieve this loss. The bumblebee-maker is employed making beautiful things to replace the beautiful things we destroyed; what’s more, we get the emotional impact of that loss, but indirectly, transmuted, in the form of Tilda’s unrequited love.

That’s how I think of it, anyway. I’d love to know how you think of it. Am I getting it right?

How does the bee crisis look from Sweden? I’m very familiar with how it looks in the US—some of us (me, for example) are desperately seeking solutions, running around guerilla-planting native flowers in vacant lots, transforming our lawns into pollinator gardens, studying up on beekeeping, while others continue un-noticing; the media keeps referring to the dieoffs as a mystery, as if they couldn’t rattle off a litany of causes. But media in the US is isolating, particularly these days, and part of why I started Reckoning was as a way to learn new perspectives. What’s your experience of bees? What do they mean to you?

How do you find writing in the second person? I know many readers who claim to be put off by it, but I find there’s a certain vaguely dissociative, dreamlike tone for which it’s perfect. Is it a familiar mode for you, or was this an experiment?

Your prose and narrative description are beautiful, and to me, very distinctive. Are there particular authors you’d cite as influences?

I know you work in translation. Do you write in English? How do you negotiate that plurilingual space when you’re thinking about composing fiction?

I’m still a fan of Astrid Lindgren’s writing, and I do think some of her work touches on environmental justice, but I don’t know much Swedish literature otherwise. Are there authors you’d recommend? Anyone in particular you think I should solicit for Reckoning—from Sweden or anywhere else?

Thank you very much!

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Johannes:

Dear Michael,

Thank you for these questions. I don’t know how to structure this like an interview; I’m a letter-writer so I’m going to write you a letter. I think that answers one of your questions, actually—you ask how I find [myself?] writing in the second person. More than story-teller, translator and poet, I’m a letter-writer. These days I do much more of the letter-writing than any other literary endeavour. I’m at home in the second person, it’s intimate and it’s weird and it’s out of place. When you read someone else’s intimate correspondence—especially when the story seems to be, perhaps, something internal—there’s an otherworldly vulnerability to it. It feels wrong but it feels close. At least, that’s one of the responses I hope for. This feeling you get when you’re in a museum and watching through the glass cage the ink spilled by no-one you’ve heard of. An original letter by Verlaine’s wife. I don’t know if there is such a museum with that specific letter, but I recently read a letter from Tove Jansson to her mother in the ’30s, through glass, so that’s what I’m thinking about now.

I babble, I’m afraid. Does that answer the question?

I think you are right about what I’m trying to communicate with that aspect of the story, and it’s always a relief to know a communication has actually worked. Maybe the beauty isn’t the point, but we humans tend to think it is don’t we? Everyone in the story thinks so.

How do we grieve the future we’re not going to have? Is it okay to feel grief about possibilities? What about inevitabilities? The bees are still here, being shipped about in big trucks all over your continent, dying, surviving, amnesiac and medicated. They’re not all going to die, really. If enough of them die, we go with them nine point nine nine times out of ten.

We don’t seem to be so affected by the dieoffs in Sweden. A British man in a used-book store the other week told me that Swedish honeybees are exported to Britain where the Mary Celeste* still has strong wind in her sails.

Swedish bees are strong, allegedly, but I’m terrified. I’m hoarding knowledge about bees and beekeeping. I have a shelf on my bookcase of just bee-books, and my friends smile at it. In the spring and the summer, I carry a bottle of sugar-water with me to help any lethargic bumblebees I see. More often I see them dead. I might still try to give them water, though. A few weeks after I’d written the opening sentences of the story—where Tilda encounters a mechanical bumblebee that some cruel kid has apparently tortured—I found a recently-dead bumblebee and all I could hope was that it was dead before some kid mutilated it, and I felt sick. The rapid temperature shifts from global weirding are awful for these slow insects.

I take it too personally.

On influences: Ursula Le Guin is a constant lightning strike. I’d also like to mention Dessa and Hélène Cixous (the latter of which I’ve read very little from, sorry) for their powers of extending metaphors. I like to read fiction in translation, and that’s what I try to sound like. Something aptly translated but foreign in origin. I do this in Swedish too. (I used to foreignize my English accent a lot more to sound pan-European when I spoke, because it was an interesting challenge to incorporate enough of other accents to mask my own.)

Oh, one other influence worth mentioning: Karin Boye, the only dead one on this list. She’s amazing. But don’t read her in translation because I’ve never seen her aptly translated. Sorry. Her story is a tragic one, and I wanted to pay some homage to her. I always do. So I’m mentioning this because it would never get excavated from my story otherwise: Karin Boye had a girlfriend named Margot Hanel, who was widely regarded as not being good enough or smart enough for Boye. When Karin killed herself after the Second World War had started in 1941, Hanel was ghosted, turned into a ghost, and people didn’t recognize her as Karin’s girlfriend. So she killed herself, a month later; what I think of as path ’41b. I can’t do anything for Margot’s ghost, obviously, but we can remember something about her. For ourselves.

And I am so out of touch with Sweden, I’m sorry, I don’t know that I can recommend anyone. I would like to hear a Sami voice on reckoning, though.

When I started writing I wrote on the internet, which pretty naturally lead to writing mostly in English, because the potential audience is so much bigger. I still write in Swedish, but it doesn’t get published (or submitted). I’m out of touch, not so much disenfranchised as just outskirted. I don’t know where to turn that’s not someone’s lofty basement mimeograph pipe dreams or dodgy steampunk and fantasy anthologies half a step away from being vanity publishing—I have a very hard time trusting anybody’s literary project. Which brings me to you: thank you for this project. You are a conscientious editor and you are creating something trustworthy, and it means a lot to me.

Do you know about “telling the bees”? When something important happens in your life, such as a death or a marriage or a newborn, you must go to the beehives on the farm and announce it to them. So says the folklore. Do you have beehives near you?

*another name for Colony Collapse Disorder, after the famous ghost ship.

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Michael:

I had not heard of “telling the bees”. That is great. As far as I know it’s not a custom in the US, but I could easily be wrong. Maybe I’ll ask Marissa Lingen if it’s a thing she’s aware of among Scandanavian-Americans.

Where I live now in Michigan, honeybees seem to be incredibly scarce. I’m lucky if I see one or two in my garden all summer. I do see bumblebees, carpenter bees and various other occasional native bees, and every time I see one it gives me hope. And I plant for them—bee balm, native asters, echinacea, sunflowers, as well as the things I would love for them to pollinate for me—apple and cherry trees and strawberries and tomatoes and peppers. I also do a fair amount to support small local honey producers. Right now I have some four gallons of homemade mead aging in my cellar. I’d keep bees if I could, but I have yet to talk my family into it.

Which is of course part of the problem. I know people who are terrified of bees. I know people who are deathly allergic to them. Humans have always had these kind of interdependencies with other species that can harm or kill them, but the advance of civilization seems to make those interdependencies more and more remote. And we fear what we don’t know. So it’s very reassuring to hear about you caring about investing empathy in individual bees you meet in the world. Thank you for doing that, thank you for sharing it.

Thank you for sharing all of this, it has been fascinating.

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