Panel Participants: Elissa Washuta, Ander Monson, Katherine E. Standefer, Byron Aspaas, Jessica Johnson
Description: What can we learn by stepping into the mine? What does it mean that the work of writing nonfiction is so often compared to excavation? What shapes can we make of the holes and fragments left by mining? What do bodies broken in pursuit of ore have to tell us? When does the unearthing we do as writers become unsustainable? Nonfiction writers with diverse connections to mining explore the payoffs and dangers of digging into a cultural and environmental inheritance.
It is right there in the description: “Nonfiction writers with diverse connections to mining explore the payoffs and dangers of digging into a cultural and environmental inheritance.” Mining. I took it metaphorically. I didn’t expect the panelists to have connections to actual mining. However, they did and this made the panel all the more impressive. Why? They all wove a story of how their connections to mining linked to how they metaphorically mine their lives for their writing. Moderator, Jessica Johnson, in her opening remarks told us that the room we were in sat on former native american tribal grounds. She wanted to acknowledge, thank, and show respect for the population that once graced that land. Her comments set a tone for the whole panel where the past would be explored, what came before and its continued influence on the writers could not be ignored or forgotten.
Byron Aspaas spoke next. He discussed growing up on a Navajo reservation near a power plant and a coal mine. I wrote down “beautiful green mixed with reds and blues.” My memory wants to attribute this to Byron. He spoke so beautifully about his life near the coal mine that didn’t always include beautiful things. I wrote it near the sentence about him saying he lived near the power plant and coal mine. However, I also remember a woman wearing a green scarf with flowers on it. They were perhaps red and blue. I don’t remember what Aspaas described as beautiful green mixed with reds and blues. For some reason I didn’t note that information. How he spoke, how he described sometimes heartbreaking events in his life evoked with the delicate beauty of red and blue flowers. He described how he saw his father, who worked at the mine, “drunk on tiredness.” He started to cry as he spoke about his mother dying from cancer. “Cancer probably lives inside of me,” he said, his voice cracking. His tenderness, his willingness to not hide his emotions, took the panel past the standard AWP fare, which can be informative, but doesn’t usually cross into deep emotion.
Ander Monson followed Aspaas. While his tone started slightly lighter, the more he spoke, the more he discussed the dark. His presentation patterned as if traveling deeper into the ground, deeper into a mine. He discussed the “dazzling dark” and fear being surprised by things in the dark.
The panel moved out of a discussion of the dark with Katherine E. Standefer’s presentation. She told us how she has an implanted cardiac defibrillator, making sure to point out that it’s a box of metal that lives in her chest due to a medical condition that is common in her family. The device, this metal, has caused problems for her. It hasn’t saved her life. She said, “a crushed rock is full of surprises.” Excavation, she said, was important to her work and to her as a person as she had to excavate her own implications as a white person and as a North American. She always came back to a discussion of metals, saying, “We are all touching metal right now. Metal is everything.”
“I come from people who were dead as they lived,” Elissa Washuta said during her presentation. She spoke about how mines were connected to rivers for her. Mines taught her about death. Her grandfather didn’t work inside the mine, but handed out flashlights to the miners. He still developed black lung. He once ran home, his hands bloody, his thumb held in his hand. She showed a photograph of her in the kitchen of her first apartment. She doesn’t remember that apartment because her brain has blocked out her time there as protection after a sexual assault. I began to cry because I understood. My brain once blocked memories from me for the same reason, but one day, recently, my memories returned. During her final remarks, she said, “What to do when you’re wounded and want to keep on living, but you’ll never be the same.” I felt so overwhelmed by emotion that I don’t remember the sentence that immediately came before this one. I’ve looked at this quote and wondered if I’m missing part of it. However, what’s important is that I remember the part I need. Words can find us at the right time. These words found me at the right time. In fact, I feel that way about this whole panel. All of the panelists were insightful and vulnerable, which made that hour and fifteen minutes daring, moving, and impactful.
Bruce Owens Grimm (formerly known as Brian Kornell) has had essays in The Rumpus, The Kenyon Review online, Ninth Letter, The Poetry Foundation’s Harriet Blog, Older Queer Voices, and elsewhere. He currently writes Cultland, a monthly essay series for Iron Horse Literary Review He is co-editing Fat & Queer: An Anthology inspired by his Fat and Queer series for Queen Mob’s Teahouse. @briankornell