Interview with Rebecca Dunham

Rebecca Dunham is a poet an2016-author-photo-1-300x225d Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where she teaches creative writing. Her work has been described as post-confessional and concerns itself with feminist and ecological issues. Her most recent publication, Cold Pastoral, is a collection of poems based on modern ecological disasters such as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. She has published four other collections of poetry, including Fascicle, Glass Armonica, The Miniature Room, and The Flight Cage.

Q: What does Cold Pastoral mean, for you? What do you hope readers gain after reading the poems?

Personally, the book marks a point in my life when I had to take stock of my place in the world around me, as well as the function of poetry within that world. For readers, I hope that the poet-speaker’s journey will resonate with those of us who may mean well, but who have also blinded ourselves to the mounting human and environmental crises around us. I would hope that the book will encourage readers to consider their responsibility to others, as well as potential for language and literature to enact change.

Q: How did you first become involved in your research for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill? What did you learn during your research that was not alluded to in your poetry?

As is often the case with me, I found myself reading and researching the oil spill at home. The more I thought about it, the more I felt like I wanted to write about it. At the start, I imagined a book that focused purely on the environmental impact of the spill. As I worked, however, I found myself writing more and more about the human costs, and about the dangers of forgetting in the aftermath of a crisis. We have short memories, especially when it comes to things that pain us, and I wanted to counter that tendency.

Q: Many of the poems in Cold Pastoral are dedicated to specific individuals. What is their connection to the poems? How were the poems received by those they were “for”?

There are two different types of poem dedications in the book. In a poem like “Elegy for the Eleven,” for example, the poems are dedicated to those who died in the Deepwater Horizon explosion. Each section deals with the location in which that particular individual or group of individuals died.

There are three poems dedicated to Wilbert Collins of Golden Meadow, LA. I spoke with Collins when I visited Louisiana one year after the oil spill. I’ve sent him a copy of the book but I haven’t maintained a correspondence with him.

Q: “Backyard Pastoral” seems to make a statement on the less-noticed but equally-toxic environmental threats (such as Roundup). What other products do you consider to be a serious threat? How would you compare and contrast the effect of large-scale disasters (like the oil spill) to smaller-scale impacts of toxic products (like Roundup)?

Part of the reason for including poems like the one you mention is to point out the ways in which our deliberate blindness—whether to food insecurity or pipes that are leaking lead or the chemicals we use on a daily basis—can harm others. Our industrial agriculture system, for example, is a danger to us and to the environment. There is a lot of information out there about the corporation Monsanto (the makers of Roundup), for example. While GMOs have been deemed safe by scientists all over the world at this point, that has to do with the science of it. The real-world application of that science involves immense quantities of dangerous chemicals, and this is something I think about when I walk through the produce aisles at the grocery store. Likewise, in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOS) not only are the animals treated inhumanely, but the entire system also negatively impacts human health and the environment. There are choices we make every day that affect not only ourselves, but our families, our communities, and the land we live on. It is horrible that even the food we consume and the water we drink have been turned into a threat.

Q: Did politics get in the way of Cold Pastoral? What obstacles did Cold Pastoral face?

There was no point at which I felt like political issues were an obstacle. I was conscious, however, of the challenges posed by creating art that intends to illuminate social issues. I didn’t want to write poems that read like soapbox speeches. I needed to write poems that could draw out the ambiguities and emotions that surround these “political” issues.

Q: What was the publication process like for Cold Pastoral? Has it changed at all from your first publications?

I was incredibly lucky with Cold Pastoral. I published my third book with Milkweed Editions, and when I shared Cold Pastoral with Daniel Slager, the editor, he said he wanted to have Milkweed publish it. Milkweed is an amazing press—I’ve loved working with everyone there—so I couldn’t have been happier.

Q: How would you describe you approach to writing? How is poetry different from other genres, in your opinion?

One thing I love about poetry is how capacious it is. Unlike prose, in which writers find their work cordoned off into categories (mystery, memoir, science fiction, etc.), poets are free from such narrow categories. The emphasis on language at the level of word and syntax, as well as the opening of possibilities through lineation and image, and the pleasure of shaping language into both invented and received forms, delights me in a way that prose does not. I write almost every morning, when I can, with the awareness that much of it will never make its way into a book or become a polished, whole poem. It is the play with language that consumes me in a way that nothing else does.

Q: What authors inspire you? What influences your writing the most?

While writing this book, I read Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer; it is one of those extraordinary books that changed my worldview in a fundamental way and reminded me of the power of literature to impact readers at such a deep level. All of Muriel Rukeyser’s writing, but particularly her long poem The Book of the Dead,” influenced the composition of Cold Pastoral. In terms of my writing’s overall
influences, it would be hard to narrow that down to one or two things. I do know that the final lyric essay in Cold Pastoral was the result of many conversations with others about the book and the ethical questions that I asked myself as I worked on the project. I am inspired always by my peers, former teachers, and my students.




Buy a copy of Rebecca Dunham’s  Cold Pastoral here.

To learn more about Rebecca Dunham, please visit


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