Lee Ann Roripaugh’s fifth volume of poetry, tsunami vs. the fukushima 50 (Milkweed Editions, 2019), was named a “Best Book of 2019” by the New York Public Library, selected as a poetry Finalist in the 2020 Lambda Literary Awards, cited as a Society of Midland Authors 2020 Honoree in Poetry, and was named one of the “50 Must-Read Poetry Collections in 2019” by Book Riot. She is the author of four other volumes of poetry: Dandarians (Milkweed, Editions, 2014), On the Cusp of a Dangerous Year (Southern Illinois University Press, 2009), Year of the Snake (Southern Illinois University Press, 2004), and Beyond Heart Mountain (Penguin, 1999). She was named winner of the Association of Asian American Studies Book Award in Poetry/Prose for 2004, and a 1998 winner of the National Poetry Series. The South Dakota State Poet Laureate from 2015-2019, Roripaugh is a Professor of English at the University of South Dakota, where she serves as Director of Creative Writing and Editor-in-Chief of South Dakota Review. Roripaugh served as one of the jurors for the 2021 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry, and was appointed as the Mary Rogers Field and Marion Field-McKenna Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing at DePauw University for spring 2022.
What are you working on?
I’m currently in the process of finishing up my sixth volume of poetry, a manuscript titled Kaze no Denwa / The Wind Phone. While conducting research for my prior book, tsunami vs. the fukushima 50, I learned that a man named Itaru Sasaki had placed a phone booth with a disconnected rotary-dial phone in a hilltop garden overlooking Otsuchi, Japan—a century-old town decimated by the 2011 tsunami. Sasaki originally used the phone to process his grief over the loss of a beloved family member. He described these conversations as phone calls made “on the wind.” After the tsunami, survivors who’d lost loved ones started visiting Sasaki’s phone booth from all along the Tohoku coast—making pilgrimages to speak to their dead on what became known as the kaze no denwa, or “wind phone.” Apparently, visitors would share their daily news, or express their regrets. Sometimes callers would plead with their deceased to please come back, or beseech them to look out for one another. Sometimes they’d simply say that they were lonely. In the most heartbreaking phone calls, callers would apologize for not having been able to save their dead.
Needless to say, I found these accounts of the wind phone resonant and incredibly moving. But also, because I’ve been thinking a lot lately about intersections of loss (environmental loss; personal loss; parental losses due to aging, death, and dementia; losses due to trauma; losses due to disasters such as COVID-19 or climate change), I began to ask myself what it might mean to write a “wind phone” poem. And so I began drafting direct-address elegiac poems that speak to these types of grief, putting them in conversation with one another: my father’s death, my mother’s Alzheimer’s, extinction, climate change, COVID-19, as well as psychological and emotional losses due to abuse, illness, or trauma.
These direct-address poems are interspersed with poems written in five parts that circulate associationally and linguistically around a single word, or concept. I’ve been thinking of these poems as “mappings.” I also wanted to set these mappings in dialogue with an ancient Japanese map called “Jishin-no-ben.” “Jishin-no-ben” represents an ouroboros, a dragon eating its own tail, circling around a geographical area in Japan. This map was apparently meant to serve as a visual explanation, or warning, for the earthquakes and tsunamis that had occurred there. These are poems in which I map out a larger context for the disasters creating the griefs, or losses, that are spoken on the wind. Each section also contains a hybrid prose poem/lyric flash essay “notes” piece that unpacks some of the related psychological underpinnings, or fallout, of trauma.
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