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
|photo: Keith Berr|
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?
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.
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...
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.
How did you navigate writing about the experience with the babysitter in your memoir without portraying yourself as victim?
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.
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.