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The Mass Media

Alumna awarded $30,000 to write poems about Monsanto pollution

Courtesy of Danielle Jones-Pruett

Courtesy of Danielle Jones-Pruett

Danielle Jones-Pruett, who received her MFA in Poetry from University of Massachusetts Boston in 2012, has been named one of the six winners of this year’s Rona Jaffe Writer’s Award and a subsequent $30,000 prize.
This money will enable Jones-Pruett to finish her current project, a book of poetry that examines, explores, and expresses the land and people of her hometown of Anniston, Alabama; a place affected by Monsanto PCB pollution.
When she heard about the Jaffe Foundation’s decision to give her the award, Jones Pruett said, “I was absolutely stunned. I was sort of pacing around in my bedroom trying not to scream.”
The Rona Jaffe Foundation was formed in 1995 by the late Rona Jaffe, a New York Times bestselling author. The Foundation awards $30,000 every year to a handful of women writers of “exceptional talent” and “in recognition of contributions to culture and society,” according to the website.
Jones-Pruett plans to use the prize money to send her two sons to summer camp, which will free-up more time for writing. Additionally, some will go to her travel expenses when she travels to Anniston, Alabama, and researches the impact of Monsanto pollution in her hometown.
“I grew up knowing what had happened, but not really talking about it. It wasn’t until I moved away that I started reading about how Monsanto had dumped billions of pounds of PCB into our landfills and water supply.”
Solutia, a child company of Monsanto, had a chemical plant in Anniston.
Polychlorinated biphenyl, otherwise known as “PCB,” is an artificially created organic compound that found widespread use as a coolant fluid for the majority of the 20th-century, before it was discovered to be toxic and found to accumulate throughout the environment.
“A lot of people in my life have had cancer. Friends of my parents, both the husband and wife [lost their lives to it]. There are many instances like that, even kids my age. But it’s hard to prove environmental causes, because there are many variables,”
The Environmental Protection Agency website designates PCBs as “probable human carcinogens.”
“For me, what makes the story so awful is that they did know. There are documents that show that. A scientist said that five seconds after he had put a fish in the water the skin started coming off its body,” Jones-Pruett explained.
Corporate documents revealed during lawsuits made against the Monsanto in the early 2000s indicate that the company kept secret the toxic effects of PCBs and continued to dispose of it in the area.
“Doing this research has really made me want to write about it; that this could be any town.” said the Alabama native. 
Over $700 million in settlements have been paid by Monsanto to those contaminated. When asked if she thought there was still more debt to be paid, Jones-Pruett said, “I don’t know if you can put a number on it.”
James-Pruett doesn’t want her poems to hit people over the head as political manifestos.
“It’s less about trying to make things just, and more about memorializing what happened.
I want to go to my hometown and talk to the people there. I want to hear their voices in my poems.”
She intends for the poems in her upcoming book to weave a narrative with a young female speaker, whose family experiences loss on from pollution. It won’t specifically be about Anniston, but the poet’s hometown will seep through.
Jones-Pruett says that she began writing when she was 13, but it is in the last eight years that she has begun to write professionally, something she describes as “trying to publish, editing, and taking my work a little more seriously.”
Pruett-Jones said that she was drawn to the UMass Boston MFA Creative Writing program because, “Living in Alabama, I really wanted to get better and study craft, but I wanted to be around like-minded individuals.”
“[The other MFA candidates and I] were able to push each other, give each other feedback, but also be friends.”
She said that through the program she, “became more interested in books of poetry as books” while before she would focus more on individual poems.
“I started thinking about what a book of poetry looks like, how a collection works together, and how the poems speak to each other.”