Isolating Certain Words: Bethel, Alaska, 8/28/18 (a found poem)

The Poet Laureate visits Bethel, Alaska, and speaks on one side of a partitioned room.

On the other side, the State conducts a hearing on permitting a massive mine upriver.

            “Words get thrown around.” 1


“Each poem will tell you what you might ask,” the poet says.

“I use poetry to tell me what I didn’t have the wherewithal to ask in the moment


to connect this thing to other things.” 2

She reads another poet’s poem that ends with a question: “Why

do people lie to one another?”


            In the other room, representatives of the State say they are here to explain what these words mean,



            they are not soliciting comments on




            words like forever.


“I like that you’re isolating certain words.”

“I don’t think anything accidental comes to mind.

“I love that there is something outside of logic that language is doing.” 2


            Q & A (Q):

            “I hate to see young people

            without any food.”

            “For thousands of years we’ve depended on clean water.”

            “Who is going to pay? We will be left with the mess.”

            “I want to be considered.”

            “All you do is point at each other.” 3


            Q & A (A):

            “I can tell you what has been issued from my sector.” 1


“Here, I feel spoken to directly. When I find myself one way or another, in familiar territory”:2

(the Poet explains that the song “Wade in the Water” offers guidance to those escaping slavery: the river can save you. The water will protect you. She reads her own poem, by the same title.)

“I love you in the water

where they pretended to wade—”

            (the voices from the other side carry across the thin dividing wall)

“O lord—”

            (One man walks the mic from speaker to speaker, as if holding it will make the speakers feel heard. This is performance.)

“O lord—”

            (The speaker’s voice cracks. She has done this too many times.)

“O lord—”4

            “Why are they not available this evening to answer our questions?” 5

“Is this love the trouble you promised?” 4


“Pushing against the limitations of a single sentence”: 2

            Thinking about the mine, it does this to me. It brings no more words.”  6

1 Tim Pilon, Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation Water Permit Writer

2 Tracy K. Smith, Poet Laureate of the United States

3 From public testimony

4 From Smith, “Wade in the Water,” Graywolf Press, 2018

5 Danielle Craven

6 Melanie Fredericks, public testimony

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