Poet and professor Joni Wallace
What occurred in Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project has never faded from history or from our minds. It’s a period of time that poet and University of Arizona Poetry Center Professor Joni Wallace always wanted to write about and she achieved her wish with “Kingdom Come Radio Show.”
The Los Alamos Historical Society will feature Wallace during its lecture series, “Mesas and Particles: Los Alamos as Literary Muse,” at 7 p.m., Feb. 14 at Fuller Lodge.
To Wallace, Los Alamos is more than just a location of a significant historical event, it is her hometown. When she came across videos made by Hugh Bradford, a physicist who worked in the Manhattan Project, she was inspired to write her book.
She said, “I grew up in Los Alamos; I think the Manhattan Project, and its ghosts, are a piece of American history that lives in your gut. In his classic book, ’Art as Experience,’ John Dewey said that ‘all art is metabolized through experience and our immediate environment, not externally but in the most intimate way.’ I believe that. For me, the Manhattan Project is intertwined with the landscape, part of the collective unconscious of people and the natural world.”
She added, “I’d wanted to write about the Project, Los Alamos, and the atomic age for a long time, but I hadn’t found a way that felt adequate until I stumbled across some ‘unofficial’ videos made by Hugh Bradford …Kitty and Robert Oppenheimer make appearances in those films, and of course, the whole landscape, the Jemez mountain range, is captured in them … Those films got me thinking about how we record history, family, the natural world, how we document officially as a society, and unofficially as humans. What would the poetic document about the Project look like? That was really interesting to me. And that’s what started the book and is the project of the book.”
Wallace utilized different storytelling forms for her book; it is part documentary poetry, part memoir, part lyric exploration of the place, history and ghosts of the Manhattan Project.
She explained, “The book is in part a lyric account of the Manhattan Project. I write mostly in the tradition of lyric poetry (versus narrative poetry), which is most like song, a tradition originally recited to the playing the lyre … The Manhattan Project is the story behind these poems, a sort of background radio station which comes in and out in voices and fragments….the book is a hybrid, and includes images (both historical and personal) and sound pieces (by URL link).”
Wallace said, “The hybrid text felt adequate to the task, documenting place, time, event.”
The Manhattan Project occurred about 70 years ago but Wallace said there are still lessons to be learned from this moment of history.
“I think one lesson is about the power of science and the scientific community to bring diverse communities together and accomplish what seems impossible in a shockingly
brief period of time,” she said. “The need to outpace Hitler, who was also trying to develop a bomb, was urgent. Project scientists took the idea that a bomb could harness the power of fission from concept to delivery in six years. The result, however, the making of the first weapon of mass destruction, is paradox. Some argue it put an end of possibility of world wars; others argue it put into into human hands the means of total world annihilation.”
She herself continuously gains things from her book.
“The meaning of my own project keeps revealing itself to me. Dana Levin says a book of poetry has to be in the world breathing for a while before it reveals its true nature, and I believe that. But I think that living imaginatively inside ‘Kingdom Come Radio Show’ while writing it has shown me how a landscape, an animal chorus, the very sky over Los Alamos, is inextricably intertwined with the Project and the science happening there then and now,” Wallace said.
Wallace added she is eager to share her book and insights with Los Alamos. “I’m really excited to come back to Los Alamos and read, and so grateful to the Historical Society for having me. I’m planning to bring my 13-year old daughter with me, who hasn’t been to Los Alamos before, which brings another level of excitement. To be able to read in the beautiful, historic Fuller Lodge is a dream: I remember going to concerts there as a girl.”
She added, “It’s also lovely to bring the book to the place that inspired me to write in the first place. I need to thank Mrs. Sharp, who taught me impeccable grammar in middle school, and Mrs. Campbell, who taught me to love literature and then held my feet to the fire in high school. Because of them, I’m going to be very careful with my grammar; I’m going to be very clear about my thesis.
Los Alamos may be Wallace’s hometown but it is always where she discovered and fell in love with poetry.
“Some say poets are born, not made. I was always drawn to poetry, and I remember reciting a double sonnet at Pinon Elementary School for the school speech contest in third or fourth grade, and writing my first poem at sunset in White Rock canyon at 9 or 10 years old … But also my love for poetry came from my mother reading it to me as a child. And poetry had a musical component; another love of mine. And poetry feels witchy, and I always wanted to be a witch just like Samantha on the television show ‘Bewitched!’ Writing poems really like casting spells to illuminate what’s invisible,” Wallace said.