‘Wintering’ and ‘The Gunnywolf’

Megan Snyder-Camp’s forthcoming book Wintering began with her discovery of a curious gap in the history of Lewis and Clark’s voyage across America. The explorers’ study and collection of Native American languages on their journey is well documented, but what happened to that collection has remained shrouded in mystery. 

In 2009, Snyder-Camp received a 4Culture grant to travel to the place where the explorers finally met the Pacific—the tip of the Long Beach Peninsula. She stayed two winters there, researching and writing. One of these was spent surrounded by scientists—palpable in the work—at the HJ Andrews Experimental forest. The third November, she traveled east to pore over archival documents in museums and libraries and was surprised how many of the translations collected by Lewis, Clark and other amateur linguist-explorers were gahtering dust. Many documents assumed to be lost were simply ignored.

Snyder-Camp’s research led her to search for a lost trunk belonging to Thomas Jefferson, which contained a significant portion of the Native American “vocabularies” (as their collectors described them) found during Lewis and Clark’s travels. On pieces of cardstock Jefferson had recorded a variety of Native American words and their English equivalents, hoping to prove they had English or Asian origins. According to every historical account Snyder-Camp unearthed, the trunk was stolen by a slave who, upon discovering it was not full of gold, threw it into a river.

During her first winter on the Peninsula, Snyder-Camp read Lewis and Clark’s journals alongside Narrow Road to the Interior by Matsuo Basho. She adopted for Wintering Basho’s haibun form, a mixture of prose and poetry, which she found an effective method for representing both the internal and external experiences of her research. Her lyrical, lineated pieces provide evocative snapshots of her surroundings and emotional state; the prose details the progress of her research and findings, as well as the narrative of her pregnancy at the time.

Wintering is an elegant attempt to restore humanity to a moment in history stripped of it by racism and colonialism. It’s unlike any book of poems or historical document I’ve read: formally eclectic, incorporating erasure pieces in addition to haibun, and concluding with what is essentially a brief academic paper, entitled “No General Use Can Ever Be Made of the Wrecks of My Loss.” The poems in Wintering could be enjoyed out of context for their beauty and they do have individual through-lines—moments with her children, crystalline observations of the natural world. The prose provides the reader an invaluable contextual handrail.

“I’ve come to see this project as about—and against—distance,” Snyder-Camp writes in the introduction. “I think of the gaps in our stories as distances.” Wintering resists distance by incorporating forms of writing that convey as many facets of her experience on the Peninsula as possible, as well as in its literal attempt to fill in gaps in history.

“Loosed from the record, the vocabularies are everywhere by now, in the river, in an attic, in the air. They have colored the water,” Snyder-Camp writes. “Vowels cracked open, licked free of names and loves.” Perhaps the greatest distance the book attempts to close is between these fragments of language and the humanity of the Native people who spoke them. That humanity is entirely absent from the records made by white explorers, and the lineated poems in Wintering point at that absence. The physical world of a people trampled by colonialism is described in lonely, lush detail.

“‘So your poems,’ said the British Geologist, ‘there are no people in them?’” reads one memorable line. There are, in fact, lots of people in them. What he senses is likely the absence of the Native people the poems are actually about.

Reading Winering, which comes out Aug. 1 from Tupelo Press, one may wonder what Snyder-Camp’s connection is to the struggles of an oppressed population of which she is not a member. Is it okay to tell a story that isn’t yours?

“I have tried to be careful and respectful of what is not mine, while at the same time not remaining silent when I stumbled across a toxic area of scholarly erasure,” she writes in the forward.

In a second forthcoming book, The Gunnywolf, Snyder-Camp returns to many of the same themes she explores in Wintering. But whereas Wintering zeroes in with the microscopic precision of a research-based document, Gunnywolf makes a more personal and expansive gesture. “Much of the book was about interrupting the pleasant veneer of my privilege,” Snyder-Camp told me.

The Gunnywolf is a creature from an old African-American folktale in which a young girl ventures into the woods to pick flowers against her mother’s advice. (Cue the music from that scene in every horror movie ever that makes the audience yell “DON’T GO IN THERE!”) When the Gunnywolf inevitably captures her, he says, “Little girl, sing that good sweet song to me.” She repeats a verse of the song she’s been singing, putting the creature instantly to sleep, but as soon as she begins creeping toward home, he wakes up and demands music again. After several of these exchanges, the girl sings an entire song, providing enough time to flee.

Composed mainly of work commissioned for a Parent Trap-themed edition of the Hugo House Literature series, The Gunnywolf’s overarching theme is motherhood, focusing specifically on the dangers the speaker’s children will likely face. Some of these dangers involve the destruction of the environment—from a poem called “The Plan:”

I won’t have children, says the glaciologist in Harper’s,
I’ll move up north. Me, I’m wandering Walmart, pregnant.

A Seattle resident native to Baltimore whose father was a folklorist, Snyder-Camp wrote Gunnywolf in 2015, during the riots following the death of Freddie Gray. The work, which comes out in September via Bear Star Press, is full of concern about racism in America and what it means to have children in an era when a civil rights issues are at a boiling point.

“This is poetry of purpose as well as song,” wrote Erin Malone for the book’s back-cover blurb, “leading us to ask the most important question: Who is the Gunnywolf?”

As the Gunnywolf of folklore is a villain, we expect this from Snyder-Camp’s Gunnywolf, who continuously changes roles, even manifesting himself as the speaker in one piece. But the mythical Gunnywolf is such an odd villain—his objectives are unclear, to say the least, and ultimately he’s harmless. This relative ambiguity, like a perfect amount of seasoning, makes him an effective vessel for the complex and subtle elements of Snyder-Camp’s poetry.

“He was the hole in the bottom of the bag, letting stuff out as you walked,” Snyder-Camp said to me of the Gunnywolf of lore. “He wasn’t a pillager or a colonialist, mostly. He was more of a dismantler. How the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house—my favorite Audre Lorde quote—he was an attempt to leave the house, to break it down, to encourage the fire.”

Snyder-Camp will celebrate the release of both books with a reading at Hugo House (the new First Hill location) on Sept. 1 at 7 p.m.