Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Blast Furnace Special Edition: The Writers & Writing of Words Without Walls

Beginning in 2012, Blast Furnace will feature multi-genre writing in an annual special edition of the journal. For its first special edition, Blast Furnace is pleased to present fiction, nonfiction and poetry written by Words Without Walls (WWW) students.

A creative collaboration between Chatham University’s Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in Creative Writing program and the city’s Allegheny County Jail (ACJ) that began in 2010, WWW fosters and supports creative expression and personal growth by providing men and women at the jail with exposure to literature and visiting authors—such as Mary Karr, Toi Derricotte and Terrance Hayes, among others—as well as the opportunity for the students to publish their work. WWW grew from a residency program started by artist Sandra Gould-Ford. Because of the program’s reach, Chatham University committed to continuing its creative writing classes at ACJ in June 2010. WWW's innovative approach to learning and teaching has resulted in support from the A.W. Mellon Education and Charitable Trust Fund of The Pittsburgh Foundation, and the Advancing Black Arts in Pittsburgh Fund, a partnership of The Heinz Endowments and The Pittsburgh Foundation.

This past summer, Blast Furnace interviewed one of the WWW writing workshop leaders, Sarah Shotland; a playwright with a theater background who was also enrolled in Chatham's MFA program. In years past, Sarah worked in Austin, Texas at a charter school for adults who hadn’t completed high school, or who’d been in recovery and were returning to school.

The nine-week, multi-genre (fiction, creative nonfiction and poetry) WWW program at ACJ consists of classes instructed and moderated by teachers and volunteers, like Sarah, where students review literary excerpts by such writers as Jimmy Santiago Baca (who learned how to read in prison), John Edgar Wideman, Adrienne Rich, Lucille Clifton, Etheridge Knight, and others who Sarah describes as “a range of genres and voices.” Every Thursday afternoon during those nine weeks, the female students meet for class, while every Friday, it’s the male students. Currently, the program has a waiting list of 100 people. Volunteers in the program must first be cleared to participate. Clearance involves a background check, including a review of criminal history over ten years, security training at the jail where they are taught the rules, and adherence to a strict dress code.

Classes are rooted in theme rather than writing craft; for example, “The Black Mirror” focuses on reflection in writing. Some of the prompts to spur ideas: Write about a scar on your body. Start a piece with “No one ever asks me…” What the students often discover, Sarah says, is that their own experiences are mirrored back, and they see what they have in common with one another.

WWW students are provided a journal and pencil. Outside of class, they are asked to write every day, discuss an element of writing, read a literature piece that relates to that element, and are given one hour to take something from their journals and transfer it to computer. Additionally, students are permitted to submit to a literary journal, and to Pen American—the oldest literature foundation in the Country with a prison writing contest that reviews poetry, scriptwriting, and fiction. One class in each nine-week session is dedicated to publishing and having the students write a query letter to a publisher, and one class is dedicated to performance, or presentation of student work by the students. The course’s submission focus has even resulted in Pen American awarding a second place prize in its annual competition for “Sabrina,” a story written by WWW student Lynne Agnew.

As another means to gain exposure for its students, WWW has published the winner of the Sandra Gould-Ford Prize in chapbook-length format. Students are nominated for the Gould-Ford Prize—an annual honor given to one student who shows an outstanding passion for and commitment to writing—by WWW instructors. In 2011, WWW also published Look Here: an anthology of writing from Words Without Walls (featuring 14 pieces of poetry, nonfiction by various students), and the chapbook Flying Squirrel & Other Stories, by Lynne Agnew, winner of the Gould-Ford Prize. Recently, it was decided that WWW will publish an anthology that includes a special insert section for the 2012 Gould-Ford Prize winner, slated for release this Spring.

In addition to the nine-week course session and publishing efforts, WWW extends invitations to “Voice Catch”—weekend workshops that occur from 10 AM to Noon, on the second and fourth Saturday of each month. The Voice Catch workshops are headed by a network of instructors and moderators who lead discussion and provide participating attendees with a prompt in each workshop session.

Student feedback tells a story of how WWW is making a difference. Some of the comments Sarah and others involved with the program have heard:

“I look forward to this all week.”

“This is the only time this week I got to be myself.”

“I never felt smart before this.”

“[WWW] gave me a pencil and gave me a life.”

Editor'sNote: Chatham University’s MFA in Creative Writing is presenting the WWW Black Writers Reading Series. Funding for the project is provided by the Advancing Black Arts in Pittsburgh Fund of The Pittsburgh Foundation. The grant supports the visits of five black writers to Pittsburgh throughout the next several months. Each writer will present his/her work at the ACJ to students studying creative writing through the WWW initiative. The writers will also present their work to the public.

The first writer in the series was Faith Adiele, who presented her work at the University in November. The next public reading is Tyehimba Jess, author of leadbelly, a 2004 National poetry Series winner, at Chatham on February 24 at 8 PM.

Additionally, WWW was recently chosen as the beneficiary of Party for a Purpose Pittsburgh's next fundraising event. The party will be held at brillobox on March 23, from 9 PM to 2AM, and will include a poetry slam featuring Tim Siebles, WWW visiting writer, and faculty and students from the University of Pittsburgh and Chatham. Admission is $10 at the door. All proceeds benefit Words Without Walls.
WWW accepts monetary donations. For more details about the program, visit http://www.wordswithoutwalls.com/, or send your questions and feedback to info@wordswithoutwalls.com

Hotdogs & Beans

I remember when I was seven or eight years old, when I went to Crescent Elementary School and at lunch time we had hotdogs and beans. I decided to be the class clown, to put the hotdog in my pants between my zipper and walk back to class with it all hanging out. The students got a laugh out of it, but my teacher didn’t. The school sent me home for three days; suspended me. I remember a leather belt hanging from my bedroom door knob. I was so nervous. I knew what was next: the biggest ass whooping of the century! But by the time my dad came in the room and took the belt off the door, I passed out. I remember waking up to bright lights, to my mother and father standing over me. I had a seizure. Lying there, I remember my father whispering in my ear: “as soon as you get home, that ass is mine.” I remember he forgot this.

William Upshaw

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Country Blues

I’m crying inside stuck behind the hands of time, feeling like I’m dying inside knowing that the man’s going to demand my time. Momma told me there’d be days like this but who’d have thought I’d be stuck in country reds doing a bid like this once again. Here I am, a top bunk victim, another probate detainee caught up in this system. The world outside keeps on spinnin’ while we’re stuck in a void caught up in this whirlwind. I got a soup for that chicken I’m tired of going to bed hungry, sittin’ up all night tossin’ and turnin’ cause my stomach’s grumbling and my heart is lonely. Breakfast comes too early and dinner isn’t enough to sate the hunger in lil’ children. I’m missin’ meals to make a meal and if the offer is right I’m a take the deal. I’m not talkin’ bout coppin’ pleas. I gotta nice size cake for that bread and beans. How ‘bout the next two desserts for them potatoes? Today sir I got no money on my books, no pick or comb to neaten up my looks.

So now I’m walkin’ around with my face and hair nappy, wearin’ my feelings on my sleeves, lookin’ for a reason to smile or be happy. Then I look at these lame niggas surroudnin’ me. Claustrophobic now cuz it feels like these four walls is closing in around me. I got to stay focused. Keep my mind right ‘cause if I lose sight of the light then the situation’s hopeless. I’m tired of hurtin’, tired of feelin’ these pent up emotions, tired of feelin’ like a bitch going through the motions, tired of seein’ the same faces and red shifts, tired of seeing niggas happy and comfy like they sittin’ at home. Fucked up thing is some them feel like this is where they belong, this is where they fit in, and the streets is where they put their bid in. That just goes to show how fucked up their head is. The sad thing is, I’m no different.

William Arrington, nominee, 2011 Sandra Gould-Ford Prize

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Shellac on a Hand

High five my fleshy hand. Hit me up for all the work I’ve put in. Give me props. Don’t I deserve some fuckin’ respect? Not according to society and the police. Hell no! “I’m a danger to myself and others.” Lock me up, cage me in, let me wither away. Smack me down. Hit me hard in the face. Just when I think I got it right, the wheels of justice come my way and pull the E brake before I crash and burn. I’m scarred. A hole is etched in my soul. I’m hardened and calloused. I’ve changed. Who Am I? Wouldn’t you like to know?

Nikki Clelland

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Who am I?

He is I and I am power.
You see me on the corner
or filling up your local jails, but
I still remain royalty from a cell.

I am the child of Abraham and David
made in the image of the Creator.
I am he who split the sea and saved
the people from danger.

I invented the stoplight, blueprinted
the pyramids. I fought for civil rights.

I have been crucified, hanged
by a noose and still survived.
I am Earth, Wind and Fire combined.

Long ago I mastered science,
constructed mathematics but now
my homelands are famished
and most of my brothers are addicts.

Do you know who I am?
The lost King of Judah,
the producer of Tuskegee
airmen and paratroopers.
I am who I am but to them
I am a Blackman.

Tyrone Leach

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That was the Day I Followed the Kings Rules*

There was a day once when pigs flew through the snowy skies of a frozen hell. On this day there was liberty & justice for all. I got reparations that day and the words that proceeded from the kings mouth were true and not lies. That was the same day that I walked across the sun barefoot until I found shade, sat down and enjoyed an ice cold glass of lemonade. I did many things that day. I hiked the floors of the oceans and cooked fish over underwater campfires followed by endless Newports until bedtime. I had snowball fights in the Sahara and man, that day, accepted that he was indeed not God. Mass human warehousing & slavery ended that day. I stared at a girl on television and got her pregnant. Airplanes flew the sewers and tunnels and casinos had all lost money that day. I had even seen a griffin do battle with a sphinx while a Pegasus courted a unicorn. With all that happening, I nearly missed the cow jumping over the moon. It was also a very good day for a friend of mine-Humpty Dumpty. The king’s horses & men finally put him back together again. Turns out they could’ve done it all along. They could’ve also released the cure for the bio-engineered H.I.Virus which the king ordered done that day. The quiet war -fought with the silent weapons- that the government had waged on its own blindly loyal citizens ceased this day. O, it was a day for the history books. The clock struck 13…not the military clock either. That clock struck 2500 hrs on that 367th day of the year. Money doesn’t grow on trees… Says who? I planted money trees this day. They grew & bore bills almost instantly. Sowing pennies brought forth a harvest of 1 dollar-bill trees, nickels-5 dollars, dimes-$10, quarters-$20, 50 cent pieces got you $50 trees and of course, silver dollars got you 100 dollar bill trees. That day the king’s tyrannical heart was given over to compassion and righteousness. He became the servant that a king is meant to be. A leader, who no longer preyed on his own subjects, but loved them and gave himself for them. The day the sun rose in the west and the earth orbited the moon…when pigs flew through the frosty skies of a hell frozen over…That was the day I followed the king’s rules.

* First line taken from the poem “That Day” by Anne Sexton

Joe Garfield, winner, 2012 Sandra Gould-Ford Prize

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12 and 8…Do those numbers mean anything to you?

They do to me…12 is the age of my beautiful daughter

And 8 is the age of my gorgeous son.

What about the numbers 11-2-09?…Those numbers are a date for me…it’s the last time I seen my beautiful children.

How about the number 65…That is the number of days I was a patient in Torrance State Hospital.

What about 174…that is the number of days I’ve been in ACJ.

239 is the sum total of being away from not just my children, but all my family and friends.

1000 is the number of pieces my hearts been torn into.

The numbers 8-9-10 is another date…this is my scheduled court date.

48…that number is my favorite number…no clue why...It just is.

Did you know that 7 is God’s perfect number

And 6 is man’s perfect number.

27 is the first cell I was in on 5MD.

219 is my current cell number on 4E.

2 are the number of sisters I have and 5 is the total number of nieces and nephew I’ve been blessed with.

12:21…. I’ll bet you don’t know what those numbers mean to me; those numbers are from the book of Romans, which happens to be my favorite scripture in the Bible. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

These numbers might not mean much to you, but these numbers help remind me of the life I’ve lived, mostly this past year. I’m sure they’ll be more numbers to come of importance to me, but for now I can look back at these numbers and realize that the ones that relate to the ACJ, are the ones I want to avoid in my future.

The very last number I will add is the number 1…and that is the number I am fighting for now…which is myself. I’ve come to realize that I’ll never get better unless I look out for myself first and foremost.

Terra Lynn, first runner-up, 2012 Sarah Gould-Ford Prize

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James Reeses

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I hear you and Mom screaming,
So I hide.
Thinking it will never end.
When it stops I hear your footsteps coming up the stairs,
Coming toward my room.
So I slow my breathing down,
Thinking you won’t see me in my bed,
But you do.
Start to pull me by my hair down the hall and stairs.
I cry.
And all you do is hit me.
Fuck me.
Say, Shut the fuck up, bitch, the neighbors will hear you.
So I bite down on my lip.
I taste the metallic.
So afraid when you’re done I don’t move.
You walked away from the mess you did to me,
All bloody, my naked body lying on the floor.
Never again, I say to myself.
But you know that’s not true,
Right, Dad?

Samantha Woods, 3rd place, 2012 Sandra Gould-Ford Prize

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Good morning ladies and gentlemen,

My name is August “Gus” DiRenna and I’m at your service. As odd as that might sound, those are the exact words I’ve been dreaming of saying from behind a podium in front of a group of people who generally care and are actually paying attention to what I might say. This means, in the reality of this moment, for all intents and purposes, you people have all inadvertently witnessed and more importantly participated in a dream come true. With that magic still in the air I would also like to present a miracle in the making. That miracle is the fact that I can stand here before you today and honestly say that I am mentally clear, alert, and sober, physically I am healthy, fit and able. Spiritually I am happy, hopeful, and eager to participate in any and all positive activities to benefit the community. Needless to say, this has not always been the case.

My story is called “Intersecting Prayers” and I would like to share it with you now.

Intersecting Prayers

On March 16, 2010, my mother’s birthday, I’m lying unconscious in the front seat of the treatment center’s van. The rear door slams, jarring me enough to start fumbling around for the match to relight the stubborn cigarette that keeps going out during my drug nod. Just before I slip back under, the sadistic van driver slams his door and throws a “just banged the neighbor’s cat” type grin at me, asking the most absurd question any fat little black man with white-girl glasses has ever asked, “Are you okay?”

Being in a fairly good mood, I simply say, “Drive the van, fat man.” And in his sarcastic, condescending voice I would come to hate on my four- hour trip to treatment, once again this fat little sadistic jagoff asks if I will be ok. I want to tell him I am on my way to remove a crutch and execute an imaginary friend that has supported me for the last 40 years. My drug use. Only I know that he knows already, and could give a shit less. So I utter the three most unbelievable words of prophecy that any Old Testament prophet or back alley fortune teller would ever speak. I say, “I’ll be fine.”

As I look out the window along my semi-conscious trip across the wonderful state of Pennsylvania on that beautiful spring day, my suitcases of hopelessness, sorrow and despair begin to unpack themselves. At a gas station outside of Johnstown, I leave a photo album of all the pictures of myself—sad, hopeless, life-losing eyes—glaring back from the mirror that I only on occasion had the nerve to look into. Somewhere near Penn State, I threw trunks of my broken dreams and schemes into a dumpster, no one knows where. I watch as the roof rack of good intentions litters the road in the opposite direction behind me.

When I finally arrive at the treatment center, this city-slicker is a witness framed in the windshield of the beat up old treatment van. The landscape is like an exotic picture from a National Geographic magazine. I step right into it. Overwhelmed by strange sounds, smells, and odd creature’s movements, I swear there must be a Hollywood director maybe in a tree with a megaphone telling his assistant to “cue the damn deer.” That’s right, there he is, a buck, and he wants to have a staring contest with me. I’m not in the mood, so I ask the deer, “What the fuck are you looking at?” And somehow, he makes it clear, through a nod, that I am the dumbest son of a human in all of creation to be a drug addict on such a beautiful day, in such a beautiful place. I pump-fake a threat, stamping my foot, and off he goes, leaving me alone with my only bag left: a too-heavy-to carry khaki duffle bag, full of my fears of fast-approaching drug sickness and packed with anxieties of a life without them.

At the center, I do what I think we all do, except I don’t have a priest, witch doctor, rabbi, or even a voodoo luck charm. So I cross my fingers and begin to pray to a God I don’t understand. I ask for my sickness to be tolerable and to gain hope for the future. Nothing seems to happen. Across the state, on her birthday, a mother prays the same prayer for her son, to a God she knows well. I stand up, turn around, and suddenly, the world is different.

I open my eyes and see the man who, just minutes before, asking me for a cigarette, I had pegged as the second place finisher in the “Condescending, Self-Serving Asshole Contest.” Now, only a moment later, I can see all the guilt he was feeling at having left his mom and grandmother, with nothing but their grief at the curb this morning. Near the intake office, there is a girl going off with endless chatter trying to avoid her misery. On the spot, I have a whole new perspective and respect for a different pain that only a woman can cause for herself or endure. Everyone and everything suddenly appears different.

I awake the next morning I feeling better than I can ever remember. It surely cannot be. I should be so drug sick that I would need the care of the doctor. When I tell him that I feel great, and he writes it off, saying some bologna about how I must have hypnotically self-talked or how I am under the placebo effect. After two hours of defending my new belief in God, with patients and the doctor, I get fed up, and blurt out, “Doc! Look here you little pill pedaling, poppy pushing, short-order cook. Hold the mumbo-jumbo and put the placebo on the side. I believe in God.”

AugustGus DiRenna

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President Barker and Mrs. Bakerhorn

Today Jon and Rudy Sue find themselves thinking mutually exclusive thoughts as they go about their business in respective realms at The Rudy Sue Restaurant. She envisions an adding machine constantly scrolling through paper, glowing eight-figure profits. Jon, in contrast, sees himself in a beat up recliner wearing a wife-beater shirt with his legs crossed at the ankles and his head resting in the palm of his hands. A smoldering Premium King cigarette bounces from a smile on his lips.

Rudy Sue usually multitasks at The Rudy Sue Restaurant in her venture to get rich quick and retire to Nashville. But for now, she’s transfixed by the glow of the portable television perched above the back burner of the stove. The television plays “The Price is Right” reruns, her favorite game show. Today’s contestants have been particularly unsuccessful, fueling Rudy Sue’s belief in her own savvy shopping superiority.

“Damn advertisements! I wanna see what price the contestant will guess for the Maytag washer,” she yells out to the empty tables. Rudy Sue hails Bob Barker as a financier exemplar, a composite of what all successful American businessmen should be.

“Bob Barker should run for the president of America. I betcha he drives a new custom Continental,” she mumbles within earshot of Jon. Rudy Sue feels she exemplifies the contemporary, cosmopolitan and academically erudite woman. She’s completed one-and-three quarters semesters at the Smithtowne Beauty Academy. For what she lacks in fashion accessorization, she compensates with her overinflated self-image as a woman of impeccable social standing and superior intellectual caste.

She prides herself on the many culinary skills she possesses as an epicurean in the league with the chefs par excellence she studies meticulously when watching the Home Shopping Network and QVC, dressed in their starch stiff regalia, displaying the most recent inventions in kitchenware and culinary craft. For high holidays and when her son visits, Rudy Sue prepares and displays for public and personal awe, such provincial recipes as hard tack candy and peanut butter chocolate cake.

Profit fuels Rudy Sue’s every interaction with the public. After all, she rationalizes; there are bills and taxes to be paid, self and home improvements to be addressed, the new Lincoln Continental to be purchased annually.

Jon’s lack of professional prowess reverberates as a stabbing reminder of the profound loss Rudy Sue suffers as a result of not having been selected homecoming queen some thirty-five years ago. Rudy Sue is convinced that had the elections not been rigged, she would have been pursued by oil tycoons and other wealthy suitors, a fact she reminds her husband of every chance she gets.

In her blitzkrieg against Jon’s abominable nicotine habit, Rudy Sue calculates that by forcing him to abstain from smoking, she could generate sizable revenue. The smoking cessation campaign continues, so she’ll have to make do with the dividends from The Rudy Sue Restaurant. She’ll have to postpone her plans to purchase the now defunct jewelry store next door for her business expansion goals.

Jon hunts wild game in the back yard and sells funeral insurance and real estate for the afterlife. Along with the sales of grave plots, Jon is also available as minister for funeral services. He received his calling as a preacher in a night vision, and with the aid of a computer correspondence class in ministry. His business skills were honed as a natural progression of selling salvation at traveling circus pre-shows and from a booth at the county fair.

But today, as Jon reclines in a seat at The Rudy Sue Restaurant, he feels called to close a lucrative deal with one Mrs. Bakerhorn, a ninety-six year old widow shut-in. The business of death, as it turns out, is a booming industry; Jon’s been panning for gold in its stream for the last twenty years. He feels his calling comes from a power higher than Rudy Sue’s god of gastronomy.

Before entering Mrs. Bakerhorn’s residence, Jon poses his hands in a prayer position, index fingers resting against his forehead and calculates the gross-domestic-product-sized commission he’ll make as a result of today’s potential combination sale. He’s hoping to land the Deluxe Funeral Package and a contract for his exclusive services for all funeral-related activities.

He knocks on the door of Mrs. Bakerhorn’s corrugated aluminum trailer. For an interminably long period he waits. He looks around at the carnival of plastic lawn ornaments in her postage stamp sized lawn. The zoo includes deer, rabbits, pink flamingoes, squirrels, kittens and a rooster. “Isn’t there some zoning ordinance or anti-defamation law that prohibits this?” he asks rhetorically to himself.

An ancient and disheveled wreath hangs from the door of the trailer, composed of plastic, neon, yellow squirrels, pink glitter acorns and hay. A red checkered ribbon laces around the wreath. On its bottom hangs a wooden sign that reads: “Come in! We’re all nuts in here.”

Jon hears a clanking emanate from the other side of the trailer door. “Get the hell outta here,” yells a cantankerous Mrs. Bakerhorn from inside.

“It’s me, Mrs. Bakerhorn. Jon. Jon Ablower. I’ve come to visit for awhile.” His snarky grin steals the attention of his client, peeping out the door, hard of hearing and in the last stages of early onset dementia. Mrs. Bakerhorn opens the doors.

“Mrs. Bakerhorn, do you have a VCR?” Jon takes her arm and guides Mrs. Bakerhorn to a corduroy covered chair by the television. She props her can by the afghan that straddles the armrest. She reserves its utility not so much as an aid for walking, but to defend herself against home invaders, neighborhood hoodlums, and shysters shelling bibles door to door.

“How about I leave some attractive pamphlets concerning our line of caskets for your future viewing pleasure after I leave,” Jon says, knowing she could start a forest fire with the glasses she wears.

After accepting the compliments of lukewarm tea and saltine crackers, Jon feels the situation warrants the more aggressive, tactical implementation of his snap-on clerical collar that arrived in the mail with his certificate of completion for a correspondence degree in seminary science.

Confident that this will add a flare of sanctity to his sales pitch, Jon excuses himself to the restroom for a costume change. When he returns, he pulls the blinds up. Light beams like bleach from the window behind him and blinds Mrs. Bakerhorn. She mistakes him for the archangel, Gabriel. She’s in heaven now. She’ll buy anything Jon has to sell.

Jon speaks with confidence in his transformation. The collar invests him with supernatural grace and integrity, with all the smooth and artificial suggestion of industrial grade Plexiglas.

“Mrs. Bakerhorn,” (Jon begins all his sentences with the elderly client’s name, having learned at the senior citizens’ center that this technique grabs geriatric focus for just long enough to register name and nothing else) “May I interest you in some television entertainment?”

Jon pops in the VHS cassette depicting attractive grave plot decorations. He hands Mrs. Bakerhorn a corresponding catalogue with 3-D foldouts of funeral accessories, coincidently sold behind the counter of the Rudy Sue Restaurant at a six hundred percent markup.

“Mrs. Bakerhorn,” he narrates, “Your gravesite is like making your final fashion statement. You really want to pay extra attention to how you accessorize! Think of your gravesite decorations as your purse and your belt and your shoes.”

“Oh my,” Mrs. Bakerhorn giggles girlishly. “I’ll be sure to wear my teeth, if that’s what you mean.” The elderly woman looks up at him, blushing.

“Mrs. Bakerhorn,” Jon stands sanctimoniously as if he were saluting the flag. “For a woman of such impeccable taste in fashion and of such breathtaking beauty, I’d settle for nothing less than the Deluxe Standard Funeral Package on page six.”

“Well,” she blushes once again. “I don’t know that I’m beautiful, but Charlie and I used to really cut some rug. Say, did you bring Charlie with you today?”

“Mrs. Bakerhorn,” Jon kneels to pat her on the hand, “No, I didn’t bring Charlie with me. Remember, Charlie passed away ten years ago.”

“No, he didn’t,” she snaps. “He went to the grocery story,” she argues.

“Mrs. Bakerhorn,” he says as he stares deep into her eyes to command what focus he can. “There’s no reason your final resting place should be anything less than regal and befitting or your graciousness. Beautiful like you are.” His somber sales pitch has the smack and artificial appeal of a beauty contestant’s pledge to render world peace, a testament to his business leadership skills, the whiles not seen since the rule of Richard Milhous Nixon.

“What about this lovely one?” Mrs. Bakerhorn asks. She points to the more affordable, four figure Standard Funeral Package, remiss in its exclusion of such amenities as those offered in the Deluxe Standard Funeral Package: durable, high gloss paint applied to the simulated wood casket, insured to retain its brilliant luster for a period of one year.

The sales proceeds. Jon basks in the prospect of smoking not just one cigarette, but possibly blazing through an entire carton of Premium King Cigarettes as afforded by the fruits of his sales accomplishments. He abstains for now, however, from celebrating a premature victory until his conquest is complete.

Sensing the urgency to appear even more holy, Jon kneels down on one knee, so close to Mrs. Bakerhorn he can smell the onion on her breath.

“Now, Mrs. Bakerhorn, I could always throw in a complimentary homily or an epitaph to dazzle the mourners on your day of glory for your transport to the great beyond.” If he could secure the combined sale of a Deluxe Standard Funeral Package and a contract for his religious services at the gravesite ceremony, Jon might be able to afford to smoke Premium King Extra Long Cigarettes for perpetuity. The very thought emboldens him. He’s consumed with capitalistic zeal. “What pageantry and pomp this will add to your final day of departure, your final resting state.”

Mrs. Bakerhorn peers at the six-figure price tag the Combined Super-Deluxe Funeral Package carries and gawks at Jon.

“Since you’re special to me, and to the Lord, of course, I’m about to make you a once in a lifetime offer.” (Hear the drum roll.) “This will only be available for the next fifteen minutes. If you purchase the Combined Super-Deluxe Funeral Package which includes my exclusive, religious-related services.” Mrs. Bakerhorn leans even closer to Jon’s face. Her eyes pop with anticipation. Jon pauses for a few seconds to heighten the dramatic effect, then continues in a somber evangelic tone,” I could burn some floral incense in the viewing parlor, maybe play some religious music by the Oak Ridge Boys, if you’ll just purchase the Combined Super-Deluxe Funeral Package AND secure me as the exclusive minister to conduct all religious affiliated activities.” The moisture of tears spills over his lids onto his cheeks. “What a union of cosmic celebration and spiritual showcasing on your day to meet the Lord that would be.”

Four hours later, Jon emerges from the squirrel filled trailer, with a Premium King cigarette in one hand and a contract in the other. A neon yellow squirrel falls from the wreath when he slams the trailer door shut, a presage he is certain of another triumph to come.

Firing up his celebratory cigarette, he knows the many years he’s spent selling funeral insurance entitle him to a few moments of smoking pleasure and recreational respite. He’ll return to The Rudy Sue Restaurant a better man, flush with joy and nicotine on his breath. He’ll then kick up his feet on the kitchen table and guzzle a twenty –ounce bottle of Schlitz, possibly two.

Rudy Sue, meanwhile, is festering at the restaurant, and cursing Jon for being so long. She busies herself with the demanding lunch rush crowd of six. In between serving the customers, she schemes and plots the menace she’ll administer to Jon for having to socialize and serve lunch. For now, her stoic posture of hostility is offset by the AM broadcast of the Oral Roberts’ Ministry. Rudy Sue employs this ruse to drop a scrim of piety and wholesomeness between she and the customers on days like this.

For the long drive home, Jon hums his favorite ditty. Being eighteen inches shorter and one hundred and sixty pounds lighter than Rudy Sue makes it difficult for Jon to assert himself as the proverbial man of the house. Although he can run much faster than she, he is ill-equipped to dodge the blows of her blistering invectives. But today, he’s a man of accomplishment; he’s the king of this car; he’s the sultan of sales; he’s the baron of all businessmen! Jon is afloat in the aftermath of his victory, but experience has taught him not to indulge in over-confidence as he returns to the restaurant to confront Rudy Sue. Jon often wonders if life would have turned out to be more favorable had the vo-tech classes in high school provided some instruction on polemics. Alas, he’ll never know.

But for today, the bills are paid and Jon tosses the empty carton of Premium King Extra Long cigarettes over his shoulder into the back seat of the car.

Lynne Agnew, winner, 2011 Sandra Gould-Ford Prize

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

An Interview with Bruce Weigl

The first collection of poetry by one poet that I purchased in my life was Pulitzer Prize-nominated Song of Napalm, by Bruce Weigl. It was 1990, I was enrolled in his 'Introduction to Poetry' class, and was the first of his students to show up at the Penn State Book Store for his book signing.

Having to that point never read Bruce’s work, I don’t know what I expected. Song of Napalm was the War Veteran poet’s lure to the reader, to enter, at my own risk, the combat bunker with him. Mesmerized, I couldn’t look away. The book’s opening epigraph by James Wright says it best: “Out of the horror / There rises a musical ache / That is beautiful.” In turn, my perspective of poetry was never the same. 

What followed was my eventual investment in the rest of Bruce’s poetry collection, including his first chapbook, Executioner, published in 1976 by Ironwood Press, which was priced at that time as $2. 

Born in 1949, Bruce enlisted in the Army soon after turning 18 and served in Vietnam from 1967 to 1968. He was awarded the Bronze Star. As Bruce states in his best-selling prose memoir, The Circle of Hanh, “The paradox of my life as a writer is that the war ruined my life and in return gave me my voice.” He has become the author of more than a dozen books of poetry, several collections of critical essays, has served as translator or co-translator and published translations of Vietnamese and Romanian poetry, and has also edited or co-edited several anthologies of war poetry. His own poetry has been widely anthologized and translated into several languages and published in Vietnam, Asia, Europe, and South and Central America. 

Over the broad span of his work the reader sees through Bruce’s eyes Vietnam as a country of conflict which has now become a destination of fondness, a place he visits often to work in translation with Vietnamese writers. Frequently, his poems are meditations on place—be it Vietnam or his childhood hometown of Lorain, Ohio—always with deep investment in the line; the rhythm and music of it. Something he shares in common with many Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania natives is having grown up in a blue collar region with steel mills, slag heaps, rivers and hard-working people who sacrificed much. He writes of this as well. 

Bruce earned his BA at Oberlin College, his MA at the University of New Hampshire, and his PhD at the University of Utah. He has taught at various colleges and universities, and currently directs the Creative Writing Institute and teaches at Lorain County Community College as the school’s first Distinguished Professor. In addition to teaching, he started a student veterans group and, in 2008, founded the online journal North Coast Review. 

Bruce has won the Robert Creeley Award, the Lannan Literary Award for Poetry, the Paterson Poetry Prize, the Poet’s Prize from the Academy of American Poets, the Cleveland Arts Prize, and two Pushcart Prizes. He has also been awarded fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Yaddo Foundation. In 2006, he received the Peace Medal from the Vietnamese Writers Association. But if you ask him about all the accolades, awards and honors, Bruce would likely much rather discuss teaching writing to his current students. 

It’s this same humility and generosity that led to an invite, after some email exchanges between Bruce and me, to his home buzzing with the activity of family, exchange students, and music two autumns back to interview him; a generosity that allows him, in his free verse poetry, to “say a thing straight,” leaving the reader changed. In the classroom, Bruce emphasized this same rule of thumb: to say it straight, and his poetry and teaching is a key reason that I continue to write and attempt to refine my own poems, that I have an ongoing appreciation for poetry and poets and promote their fine work in this venue that is Blast Furnace. 

Many thanks to Bruce for being happily willing to participate in the following interview with Blast Furnace and with writing students, which centered largely on writing poetry & memoir and his perspective of the country of Vietnam during the War and now.

- R. Clever, Editor

*     *     *

You talked a lot in [your] memoir, The Circle of Hanh, about how respected writers are [in Vietnam], especially poets. Would you say thats still the case, is that still something thats prized there?

photo: Keith Berr
Yes, that’s why I want to stay there in the winter. [Laughs]. You know, I try to think of analogies that describe [it], because I’ve taken the opportunity to hang out and be friends with very well-known Vietnamese writers now. They’re just ordinary people, just like us. But [in] Vietnam, it’s like going down the street [or] going to a restaurant with Madonna [here]. A lot of the time [the restaurants] have private screens put up because people won’t leave [the writers] alone. Or walking down the street people always approach them. And these are poets, they approach them because they’re poets, because they’re writers, because they know who they are, They grew up reading their poems, and they learned math by reading [a particular Vietnamese poet's] poems, [for example]. So it’s much more part of the culture there than it is ours. They love writers there.

Do you have some more current Vietnamese poets that you suggest that have been translated into English?

After the Rain Stopped Pounding was a book that was published last year in Vietnam, two years ago, and it’s a book of mine, but it was translated by a woman named Nguyen Phan Que Mai. She’s a poet who I’ve been translating, and her poems started to appear [more and more] in English. There’s a really active literary scene there, young writers, writers. We have university, and that’s where 'academy' is. But they don’t do a university there. They have a writer’s association that’s very powerful.

About the memoir, and regarding structure: did you write it in the order that it was published, or are you more a linear writer who changes things around in revision?

There were models around that weren’t that helpful to me. So [the editor of my memoir] just did it in a weekend. He had this book, but not in [the final version's] order. He put it in that order and as soon as I read it I knew he was right. It made perfect sense to me, I didn’t make any changes to his order. I did exactly what he told me to do. It’s someone who does this for a living. We write it, but we don’t think about it in that way that a good editor does.

Do you think its harder for a poet to write sustained narratives sometimes, because its not how poets necessarily think?

How we think or how we work, yes. You have to make some adjustments. [I was] just talking about that, how you go from poetry to memoir. And two pages a day was what I always set myself up to do [with the memoir]. Sometimes that would take four hours, sometimes twenty minutes and I’d be done...But the idea of story has always been important to me as a writer. All of my grandparents were Eastern European immigrants, so there’s lots of stories about the Old Country; other-worldly kind of stories…and it’s sort of a prized thing to be able to tell stories in the family. I talk about that in the memoir. So, I’ve always had that strong narrative tendency and then I discovered the lyric. But I think it’s possible to do both.

Did you do any writing when you were in Vietnam as part of the service? Poetry or even letters home?

Let me tell you, I got into trouble several times because [a Red Cross representative] would come and find us. If we didn’t write home our parents would complain. You’d get a call one day saying you have to go to your battalion, they need to see your battalion. So after the first couple of times I knew what was up and it was them saying 'Sit down'they had paper and pencils there'sit down right now and write a letter to your mom and dad,' because I wasn’t a very prolific letter writer at all. And no, I didn’t write about my experiences while I was there. I wasn’t that person then. If I’d gone now, then I’d start keeping a notebook the moment I arrived, but then it wasn’t my nature to do that. I was 18 years old, I just graduated from high school. I spent most of my high school time playing sports and got away with doing very little academic work because I was pretty good at it, and that was it. So, no literary background at all. No reason to become a poet at all or a writer at all. The paradox, I’ve said before, of my life is that’s what the War gave me. I wouldn’t have been a writer without the War because it forced me to go inward. And for some reason when I did, I found these stories.

Can you talk about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and how it impacted you?

I denied that I was a PTSD victim for a long, long, long time. I even felt guilty about claiming that I suffered from PTSD because I’d seen what other people suffered, really suffered. And that’s one of the things that’s part of the syndrome now. It really wasn’t until only very recently that I had an official [U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs] diagnosis, and now I have all of my medical treatment’s done by the V.A. because I have been diagnosed with chronic PTSD. I have a traumatic brain injury from the war as well.

It’s unbelievable how kind they are to us and how much they’re doing for us…When we first came back, what we were told was there was no PTSD then. What we were told was to 'Put it behind you, you have to put it behind you.' Everywhere you went, 'put it behind you, put it behind it.' You know, when you’re 19, you think, Okay, well, I’ll just put it behind me, then. But now we know for a fact: the latest science shows that what trauma does is, it actually alters your brain chemistry. It changes your brain irrevocably, and you’re never going to be the same again. You can do things to make it easier to deal with it, but it never goes away. So that was an important realization, to understand that this was not something that I was going to get over, but instead something that I needed to find a way to live with. Once you approach it that way, then it’s more manageable. You know that This is part of who I am now. You cross certain lines, things happen to you. Not just war, but other things. And neuro-chemically, you’ve changed.

That’s why cognitive therapy is not that helpful for PTSD people. I believe in cognitive therapy, I think it’s a really good way to do psychological therapy. But when you’re talking about brain chemistry being altered, then cognitive therapy does not help you with that. It’s not a matter of needing to confront the thing that happened, it’s a matter of I need to stop confronting this thing. 

Did you find that returning to Vietnam years after the War was a healing experience? Was the time of writing your memoir the first time you went back?

That’s a great question, because I’d just been talking to a couple of other people about this same subject. I was seduced into thinking that it was a healing process. There’s a man named Ed Tick who wrote a book called War and the Soul, and he talked about alternative ways of dealing with PTSD...When I came back, I had nightmares forever... Then I went to Vietnam in 1986 and I came back and I had no more nightmares. I thought Aw, shit, it’s a fucking miracle! This is amazing! I actually wrote a long letter to the State Department and sent copies to maybe fifty different people saying start sending these people back there, because you’re going to save a lot of money and a lot of trouble if you do. So, I was seduced into believing that. But what I learned eventually is that’s just a cognitive trick that the brain plays on you. It’s a temporary thing. And I realized after a while it doesn’t really change, because it’s two different realities.

I have a really close relationship with Vietnam now. With the government, with the people, with the writers. But that has nothing to do with the War. And when I’m in Vietnam and I’m working or having fun, the War is not part of that experience anymore. When I told my doctor and he asked 'What’s the difference?,' I had to go to the V.A. to explain all of this. Well, I said, number one: I’m sleeping in a hotel when I go there now. Number two: no one’s trying to kill me every day wherever I go. So, to say Vietnam the War and to say Vietnam the country—they have very little to do with each other any more in my life. I also have a Vietnamese daughter, so my house is filled with that and has been since. She’s 25, she was eight when [my wife, Jean, and I] adopted her. 

What about the role of poetry? Was that something that helped after you came back, to write a poem?

I wish I could say that. My belief is that writing is too hard to be therapeutic. I think therapy’s a lot easier than writing. [Laughs]. I do, really. I’ve done both and my experience is it’s a hard way to go if you’re looking for that out of it. It’s hard enough to do.

What it helps you do is externalize things, give a shape to it. And that’s what Denise Levertov kept telling me is that, Look, you control it now. It doesn’t control you anymore. You own it now. And it does that, yes. 

Did you have any process of keeping the Vietnamese culture alive for your adopted daughter from Chung Luong?

I was absolutely devoted to that from the first moment. I had a teacher for her all set up before she even came [to America]. She was so angry with me when she was little, because she used to have to come home from school and then go to her Vietnamese teacher. But now she’s really grateful. Last year she translated [a book] in Vietnam, her translation in Vietnamese was published in Vietnam. Her Vietnamese is excellent. She writes articles and they’re published widely there.

If you lose the language, then you lose the culture. I talked to people about this and they said 'She could lose the language in a year if you don’t something; a year, that’s all it takes.' I didn’t want that to happen. So, she’s a very bi-cultural person. still very Vietnamese. 

How were you motivated to get into translation?

Originally, it came from studying the language. Someone told me early on that if I really wanted to study Vietnamese, what I should do is learn poetry. The man I dedicated my last book to, he’s [deceased], but he was a very well-known Vietnamese poet. That’s how I started learning the language, by reading the poetry. Vietnamese is a highly contextual language which makes it, on one hand, easy; on another hand, impossible. Grammatically it’s very simple, very much like ours. There’s no verb tenses, it’s all one verb. There are indicators to indicate where you are: past, present, future.

I started [studying Vietnamese poetry], then one day someone said 'Would you help me make sense of this in English?,' a Vietnamese friend. It was a literal translation of a Vietnamese poem, and it made no sense, so we had a long conversation about it. She sang a song, she did a dance, she told me stories, and gradually this poem began to emerge. I really liked that process.

Then I became a more serious student of the language, went to Hanoi, studied and worked with translation and went from there. It’s great work for writers because it broadens your range of diction and reintroduces you to your language. It teaches you things about your own language that you didn’t know or that you otherwise wouldn’t think about, because you’re always looking for alternatives when you’re trying to solve a problem of translation. How do I say that in English to make it mean the same thing, because it doesn’t work [as-is]? I was talking about this between dictionary and dictionary…If you do that, it makes no sense at all because culture is such a powerful force in between the two languages.

When there’s any allusion in Vietnamese poems, [like] Trường Sơn Mountains—a very common allusion, the mountains that divide Vietnam, North and South—that’s the ancient division of the country. It’s also along which the Ho Chi Minh trail was built, which is a real trail, a natural trail, many trails. So, when you have that in the poem, Vietnamese readers bring all of that history into the poem. In English you read the same poem, it says Trường Sơn Mountains, and you go on. [The meaning is not there]. [Vietnamese is] so contextual-oriented.

I think probably it’s impossible to do, so we just come close to doing the best we can. We have versions. I’m sure [other Vietnam writers] would agree that if [they] were to translate their own, you can’t quite get it the same. Vietnamese was originally based on the Chinese written character...and it looks like the Chinese character. It’s a little bit different. Then, in the 18th century when Vietnam was occupied by the French, a French priest Romanized the alphabet. In any ancient character there’s the tone, and there’s meaning. What he did was, he created diacriticals—five primary accents—and those were the five primary tones. Those replaced that part of the character and the rest of the word was Romanized. With each tone, they all mean something different...So, it’s really not that difficult if you can hear the tones. After that, it’s a matter of doing the vocabulary.

I thought it was important for my students to read Vietnamese literature. Their parents and their grandparents had been dramatically affected by the American presence in Southeast Asia for fifteen years. Changed their country. Changed the way we thought about ourselves…It’s part of our history. There is something to remembering history, I think. So that’s what really motivated me, was to have English versions of Vietnamese poetry for my students. 

Can you talk a little bit about the way you sequenced Song of Napalm?

[It']s a different kind of book, and I think a lot about [order]. I teach manuscript workshops. This book is a little different, because I had a connection with a woman in the eighties by the name of Gloria Emerson. She wrote a book called 'Winners and Losers' that won The National Book Award for non-fiction back in the Seventies. She covered the Vietnam war…for the New York Times in the early Seventies. I posted a poem called “Song of Napalm” in TriQuarterly Magazine back then. She saw it and she wrote me a letter. She said “I’m coming to your house.” And she did…I had published a few books, some small books. She said, “I want you to take all of your Vietnam poems and put them in one book.” I did that, and I gave them to her. She took them to Grove Atlantic in New York and she said, “You must publish this book.” And they did.

So, the order, then, is basically chronological. I thought it made sense because when I read the poems chronologically, there’s a development of a kind of aesthetic of dealing with the subject that I can see changing, so that made sense. But I didn’t have a last poem for it so I went to lunch with [an] editor and she said, “You have to write a last poem...” I did write ["Elegy"] to end the book. It’s the first time in my life I wrote a poem like that where it was so specifically for something...

[The book] was published in 1988 and it’s still in print. 

When you're putting a manuscript together, do you sometimes return to older, unfinished drafts of poems and revise or complete them? What is your writing process and what are your most frequent sources of inspiration?

I do return to drafts of older and unfinished poems, yes. Often, it turns out that I look at a series of poems I've been writing or have written and note a common thread, and then begin to build a manuscript from there. Music is also a big influence in the context of poetry, such as Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. In addition to Charles Simic and James Wright, Denise Levertov was significant in her influence. More recently, my Buddhist practice has impacted my writing and revisiting Vietnam.

Did you choose the [book's] epigraphs or did the press?

[I chose], yes. The first one is actually from a letter that James Wright wrote me when I was an undergraduate. His son was a student with me when I was at Oberlin College. I had been sending my Vietnam poems around then, I’d just started writing them. At the time, my teachers told me not to write them. They said, "Nobody wants to read about this stuff," because there had been this wave of poetry that had been written about the War by established American anti-war poets: [Robert] Bly, Levertov, Galway Kinnell. Then the Veterans came home and [the teachers] said, “No, we don’t want to hear about that anymore."

So, at first it was a struggle to even write about it... In the Seventies when I came back, my start of school, the War was still going on. At campus, nobody wanted to talk about the War, nobody wanted to hear. And you learned very quickly if you were a Veteran—and there were only five of us there when I was there—you kept your mouth shut about it. It wasn’t the right place.

When these poems first started emerging, my teachers weren’t responding very well to them. Wright’s son said “send them to my dad.” I sent [James Wright] a bunch of poems and he wrote me a letter back. I’ll never forget it. In it, he said that. That made sense to me: "Out of the horror there rises a musical ache that is beautiful."

I didn’t sit down and say “I’m gonna write that way.” But after he said that about the poems, I got an idea in my head: beauty & war, beauty & horror, beauty & dying. There’s something I need to understand here, that it is possible to write about this beautifully. What are the consequences of that for me? What does it mean? 

That was a big thing for a long time with me, and then I said No more, I’m not writing about it anymore. Then I went back [to Vietnam] and things changed. I started writing about it again. It’s from a different perspective now. It’s not soldier poems. And I don’t think there are that many soldier poems in [Song of Napalm]. I had a lot more soldier-type poems that I ended up not putting in. I wasn’t interested in that version. One of the most remarkable things about war is...there’s tanks, bombs, soldiers, generals, mortars, shooting and all this stuff going on, and kids are still going to school. People are still getting up and having coffee in the morning. You still have to do your laundry. You still go to the market. You still go visit your uncle. The world somehow remarkably goes on behind this curtain almost, and that’s the version of things that I was more interested in talking about when it came to writing about the poetry; that version. 

How did you navigate writing about the experience with the babysitter in your memoir without portraying yourself as victim?

One reason is, I never saw myself as victim, I think maybe that helped. I didn’t feel victimized. The kind of rough-and-tumble that I grew up as, the thing is you keep your mouth shut about stuff like that.

But I wrote a poem called "The Impossible" that was published on the back of The American Poetry Review…I never got cards and letters like I got about that poem. It was so wonderful because I heard from all these men. About this time that I was working on the poem, we had figured out that we needed to start treating women better. Bad things happened to women that we needed to know about and we needed to talk about. But we completely forgot about the men in the Women’s Movement; that Guess what? [Molestation] happened to little boys, too; a lot of little boys. I started to hear from those little boys who said Thank you for writing that, because me, too.

...The treacherous thing about pedophilia, about child abuse, is that children are sexual beings, and you do have, when you’re a child, a response to sexual abuse, physical abuse. That’s one of the deadly things about it. It almost reminds me of Milton's idea of Satan. In Paradise Lost, the insidious nature of Satan is that he’s so reasonable. Everything he says sounds great and makes so much sense. This is how the pedophile works. It’s all reasonable stuff. 

Do you still believe what you wrote in that poem in the very end: Say it clearly and you make it beautiful, no matter what?

You know, it’s unfortunate, because really, in a way, to me, it’s a failure. The way people read it is really not how I intended it at all. It’s really an attack, it’s a challenge of our poetry. I consider what I do as New Romanticism and that’s what I call my tradition—I think it’s a New Romantic tradition. I think we have most in common with the major tenets of American poetry than any other kind of poetry in the 20th century. I think one of the flaws of this poetry is that it’s possible to do that. That it is possible to say a thing clearly and make it beautiful. I meant that as a kind of criticism of our ability to use language that way.

It’s too complicated to expect people to understand it that way, I think. There’s lots of ways to understand and think about it, but that’s what I had in mind. People saw that as a real positive thing, and I saw that as almost a confession: This isn’t good that we can do that...but is it?

Robert Stone used to talk about how there’s a certain beauty to the mushroom cloud. There’s an aesthetic of violence, that’s what he calls it. In Apocalypse Now, they try to do the same thing. [Marlon] Brando has that long speech about the Vietcong coming into that village and cutting off all the arms of the children who’d been inoculated by the Americans, and the Brando character—who is, as we know, one of [Joseph] Conrad’s characters, Kurtz, from Heart of Darkness—is admiring this gesture, and talking about the purity of this gesture, that these people who did this are not savages, they’re not animals, they love their children like we love our children. But there was such an unambiguity about the act that it was beautiful. That idea. A very dangerous idea.

I’ve been accused critically and privately for writing about the War in the past, for trading on the suffering of others—that that’s what I do as a writer. But my response is always This is the subject the world gave me, and I feel fortunate that I have subjects. It’s not that I had much of a choice what I was going to write about. 

We had a conversation when I talked to you once before about your word choice, and the conversation you had with your dad when you wrote "The Impossible."

What happened with that APR poem was, that’s when the [National Endowment for the Arts] NEA was going to make people—if you were going to get the grant—sign [an] obscenity clause. APR wouldn’t sign it, and they sent a letter to the NEA saying We’re not signing this, we don’t want the grant, and this is one reason we’re not signing it, and they sent them the poem... And [APR] published [The Impossible] on the outside back cover and made it even more apparent.

My father’s not a poetry reader, and this was probably paranoia on my part, but I didn’t want him to see it before I told him about it, or someone to tell him about it. The poem uses the word 'cock' in a line of it. So, I showed him the poem and he read it. My father didn’t graduate from high school, he’s a very smart guy but he shook his head and he said, "Yeah, I only have one problem with it." I said, "What’s that?" He said, "Do you have to use that word?" I knew what word he was talking about. I said, "Yeah, I think I have to, Dad." He said, "Why? Why can’t you say 'penis'?" I thought about it for a minute, and I said, "Well, he didn’t make me suck his penis. He made me suck his cock. You see how it’s different?" And he understood. I said, "It’s important to call it that, in that context, see? If it was the doctor, I would say, 'The doctor examined my penis,' not 'The doctor examined my cock.'"

He was shocked that it had happened because I didn’t tell him at that time. He said, "Why didn’t you tell me?" I said, "Because you would’ve beaten my ass for letting it happen," and he knows he would have, too. That would’ve been his response, Why did you let someone do this to you?

How did you get to the point where you were going to speak up about these things? You talk about how writing helped you externalize things, but how do you get to the point where you have to tell people about the babysitter [in Circle of Hanh, for example], where you have to push the issue?

I don’t know, it’s never been a problem. I really feel my life’s an open book... I think I’m a real writer. I’ll sacrifice [my privacy] to get a poem, especially if it’s going to be a poem that touches people.

It’s really hard if you’re a writer and you have literary parents. Us working class folks are lucky because our parents never read our work. I remember the first time I gave a reading in Lorain years and years ago and people from our neighborhood came. I wrote [a] poem about [a] girl who drowned back then. As I started reading someone in the audience said ‘You weren’t there, Butchy!’ That was my nickname when I was a kid. And she was right, I wasn’t there. But I loved that response.

How do you avoid sounding like youre wanting to educate people in your work? Are there passages that you take out [before publication] because theyre too academic?

No, that’s just who I am. It’s harder for me to be the academic one. It’s much easier for me to be the working class person. I feel that’s who I really am.

In The Circle of Hahn, many find the repetition very resonant. Is that something from your poetry that carried over naturally into writing memoir?

‘Hahn’ means virtue, by the way… Yes. Definitely… Norman Dubie came up with this phrase and he wrote a review in APR. One of the people he talked about was Dave Smith, and he called him the lyrical narrative poet. Basically, he explained that what a lot of contemporary poets were doing is they were taking the best of the narrative. What do we like about narrative? Well, we like stories. People love stories, love tell stories, love to hear stories. What do you like about the lyric? Well, I love the music. How can we bring those things together? I spend a long time doing that as a writer, trying to find a way to bring those two things together, because I love the English tradition, I love good metrical poetry. I love the sound of it...when it’s done so well. I grew up in a free-verse tradition.

[In] The book I’m just publishing [The Abundance of Nothing, Triquarterly, publisher] in March, there [are] a lot of accentual-syllabic poems in [there]. Pretty regularly accentual-syllabic poems. It just came out that way. Charles Simic taught me that prosody was a range of musical options, and that at one end you have the most wild, open experimental free verse and at the other end you have most rigorous metrical form. But then there’s all of this, see. So depending on the poem, he always said you have to find a writing form for that experience.

All of my students write formal poems and they hate it when they have to do it. But it’s like playing jazz piano. You don’t go to the teacher and say, 'I want to learn jazz piano.' The teacher says 'Go learn the piano and then we’ll come back and then we’ll study jazz piano...' That’s the way I think about it. Learn the English line, then make your own minds up. Then you’re not writing this kind of free verse that’s prose arbitrarily broken at the lines, but you’re really writing lines. You understand what lines are.

A bad thing happened when free verse became a predominant form in poetry. A lot of people assumed that because nothing was being constantly repeated, then therefore it didn’t matter where you broke it. What developed is what I call the California school of line breaks. [Laughs]. You broke it because it felt like you should break it. The problem is the reader gets it and is not feeling the same thing. So they’re confused. A lot of bad free verse got written because of that reason, I think. But on the other hand, bring any free-verse anthology into this room right now on the 20th Century and it will take me two minutes to find you several accentual poems, because that’s the predominant form in contemporary poetry is accentual verse, not free verse. It looks like free verse but most people are counting something, if not every line, some line. The best writers, anyway, understand that the line in poetry is not a syntactical unit, it’s a musical unit, a conceptual unit.

I harp on the beginnings of poetry being musical. We’ve replaced that instrument with meter, and the musical part of it I think is so important. 

In Song of Napalm, there is often an absence of description of place. It was very human-driven. There was repetition of jungle and green but there were only the two words you used to describe them. Was that conscious?

We didn’t know where we were. We were even in Cambodia and we didn’t know we were in Cambodia. The Central Highlands is where I spent most of my time and it’s mountainous, jungle, beach. But we never knew where we were and the names [have] all changed. They didn’t want us to know, for one thing, because they didn’t want us writing home about where we were. As a matter of fact, they’d go over our letters to our parents and redact references to place. During one [return] trip I went to one place where I’d served in the War. I’d never did that before and I wasn’t interested in doing that, but we were kind of close by and I was with another Veteran who had served at that same place, so we said, 'Let’s go.' All the names [of places] were changed, because the French changed the names of a lot of roads and places after the Liberation, for instance, and then the Americans came in ...and the South Vietnamese regime changed a lot of names. Finally, after the Liberation, it changed back to the original Vietnamese.

So, it’s really difficult to ask directions to places, but what we realized was we were driving down this highway that goes North and South through the whole country, Highway Number 1 ([back during the War] it was a two-lane dirt road). As we’re driving along, it’s dusk, and the driver keeps saying we have to hurry up and find it because we can’t go here at night we have to go home. Then we recognized the landscape—landing zones [were] little hills in the landscape—and we said, 'Oh my God, look, it’s Jane,' and I said, 'Oh, there’s Betty over there.' But that’s what it was, your space was this big. [In] the movie Saving Private Ryan, there’s an incredible opening scene… What [Steven Spielberg] did was, he interviewed as many people as he could find who could still talk about it who were actually there on Normandy Beach that day. What he asked them to do was to describe what was happening right around them as they hit the beach, just right around them. He had sixty of those [descriptions], and that opening scene is all of those together.

Can you more readily write about place when you are in that place, more immediately and tangibly attached to it, or do you find that you write more effectively about it with distance from it?

When I returned to Lorain after many years of not living there, it conjured up memories which led to much of the poetry in The Unraveling Strangeness. The industry that was once there has left and it greatly affected the town.

Which of your books did you find the most challenging to write?

After the Others, which was written after I re-read Dante's Inferno. After the Others is also my favorite 'overlooked' book among my published works.

In your many books, are there specific poems of yours to which you have always felt a special closeness?

Song of Napalm. It seems to be requested the most, especially by war veterans, when I do public readings.