Bruce Weigl Interview, with John Hoppenthaler
In a 2002 interview in Memorious, you declare, “I’ve never really minded being categorized as a ‘Vietnam War poet,’ it’s just that I wanted people to realize that more of my poems are about other things than they are about the war and its social consequences. Like so many, it was your Vietnam poems that I first read and later taught, especially the work in Song Of Napalm. As I moved into the world of Pobiz, I heard a number of times something along the lines of this: “Weigl is good, but, poor guy, he’s always going to be pigeon-holed as a Vietnam poet. He should write some other sorts of poems.” It’s funny; folks don’t say that about too many other poets who have a particular compelling subject matter they continue to explore. I mean, one doesn’t much hear, “Oh, Natasha Trethewey, not another book about race and identity,” and of course, you DO write other sorts of poems. Does this sense that many seem to have that all you write about is the Vietnam War bother you?
No, not at all. War is many times the subject of my poems; war and its social consequences, but that has more to do with the fact that we’re always fighting one war or another than it has to do with my experience in Viet Nam forty-five years ago as a soldier. If a reader cares enough about my work to pursue reading it, he or she will quickly discover that war is among many topics I find appropriate for poetry. At this point in my life I don’t spend too much time worrying about what other people may think of my work; that’s one of the few benefits of getting older I think. I spent my youth giving old people a hard time, and now I’m spending my old age giving kids a hard time.
In the poem “The Hanoi Winds Bringing Winter to the Old World Elegy,” when you write, “don’t make me tell you what happened there, the bare / branches are enough in their trembling like a shiver / to say all that needs to be said,” is that, in fact, a statement of reticence to keep telling these stories? And, if so, is that a conscious decision? I mean, I asked Brian Turner a similar question, and he responded, “The word you use is the right one: “insist.” The poems in Phantom Noise insisted they be written . . . I was writing a book of love poems at the time . . . [b]ut the poems insisted they be written. I think we have to listen to what calls up from within and from without.” Is there a point where you can/must tell insistence no more?
It has more to do with an idea that I’ve carried around in my head for a long time. The notion that ultimately words fail, that no matter how careful one is or how hard one works, the word can actually never be the thing. The recognition of that failure I believe is where we should start as writers. In that poem I was trying to express that notion and the fact that even in the face of that failure of language there is still the possibility of saying a thing straight.
Speaking of Turner, we now have a new generation of those we might call “war poets,” those who are writing of their experiences in our more recent military operations. I’m thinking of Brian, Kevin Powers, Hugh Martin, and others. Do you read these poets? If so, what effect does reading these poets have on you?
Yes, I’ve known Brian’s work since his poems first starting appearing in magazines, and I had the opportunity to read Hugh’s most recent collection closely when I was asked to write some words for the cover. The effect this work has one me is paradoxical. On one hand I hate the fact that we still need war poems to tell us a particular kind of truth about war and its consequences and that makes me sad. On the other hand, I’m glad that “telling” is in the hands of such capable writers, and that we will have their version of events put down in poetry.
Like you, I grew up working-class, attended my local community college, and later taught there. These days, many of the jobs those with newly minted degrees in creative writing are finding are at the community college level. You’ve been back at Lorain Community College in Ohio for a number of years now, and you’ve said of the school, “This is a paradise for writing teachers because the students have real things to write about . . .” I’ve done my best to champion community colleges as a great place for writers, and we’re both cases in point that this is so, but I certainly recall the large work load required of teachers at CCs and that there aren’t the support mechanisms in place that many of us at the university level enjoy. You’ve taught at both sorts of schools. How do you find time to write poems, give readings, and still manage the workload? Are there ways CCs can better support faculty writers and still fulfill their educational mission?
I’m really fortunate to have a special position at the community college where I’ve taught for the past sixteen years. I, and one other faculty member, this one in music, are what are called “Distinguished Professors.” What that means is a greatly reduced teaching load so that we have time to continue our professional work, and a significantly enhanced salary. But I do believe that community colleges would greatly benefit from hiring more creative writing majors for the energy they bring to the task at hand and because the best teachers of writing at any level are writers. Period.
The poem “Small Song for the Immigrants” seems to me a poem one of your literary heroes, James Wright, would have liked. Your Ohio, like Wright’s, is working-class, a place where immigrants from abroad—as well as those who came from within via the black diaspora—pitched in together to create a fabric, a place that matters. Where does this poem come from?
It comes from more than one place where I’ve lived or spent time and then observed the lives of some immigrants. In the town where I live now I have the opportunity to get to know some of them, but it always strikes me the way they seem to disappear into the fabric of the working world here so that they sometimes seem invisible. Still, always in the back of my mind is the fact that my family on both sides started here in America as immigrants; it was something they were proud of and it’s something that I’m proud of as well. It’s a heritage that’s meaningful to me for the values it taught: hard work, honesty, and caring for your family as well as for strangers in need. We are of course a country of immigrants; more than any other factor it’s what defines us so it’s ridiculous to hear those who want to close our borders down now.
Okay, here’s another place where you and I come together. I worked, for nine years, as Toni Morrison’s personal assistant. Of course, Toni, like you, was born and raised in Lorain, Ohio. Your thoughts on being one of the two notable authors from Lorain?
I read Ms. Morrison’s first two novels with the strange and wonderful feeling of deep recognition; this was a neighborhood I knew well and had grown up in partially. Therefore, in addition to the beautiful prose of Ms. Morrison, I also had the advantage of knowing the place well. ReadingSula, particularly, opened my eyes. I could hear the voice of the writer very clearly and I wanted to be like her. I wanted to tell those kinds of hard stories about who were really were. I have followed her career since those early books and I think she is clearly one of our most important and enduring story-tellers. That we’re both from Lorain, South Lorain really, is an accident of history of course but I would always be pleased to have my name mentioned in the same discussion as Toni Morrison’s name.
In your poem for Charles Simic, “For Night,” you write, “I don’t think it’s my place to say any fucking howdy-do / to anyone in this polite asylum of a world, not any more, / not after everything that’s happened to you and to me.” Is this a right of age, to refuse to participate in the surface games, the polite expectations that act as cheap veneer to what’s really going on, that human pain just below the surface? If so, maybe the antidote to this pain is something more authentic? In my head, anyway, that poem works wonderfully with “The Clock on the Tower in Ha Noi,” a poem in which the speaker seems to share a meaningful human encounter: “our eyes on the other’s eyes / took us somewhere for moment.”
I like your reading of this poem very much because it gets right to the heart of what I wanted to do there, and remarkably, I do think of it as a right of age: to be able to speak about the world in a stripped down and fundamental way, and to be able to use language in a way that I may not have gotten away with as a younger, less accomplished writer. We hope that we change and learn things along the way. Phil Levine told me “always make it hard” when I was an undergraduate student and I took that to heart and still do. Those moments, like the one you describe in the Ha Noi Tower poem, is where I specifically try to find my poetry now, and then to bring them to you as carefully as I can, without breaking any of the eggs in the basket.
A third confluence. I came to know your work as an MFA student at VCU. Dave Smith was a mentor to both of us, and I think he brought you to VCU to read. Anyway, one thing Dave might say, after we had read our poem in workshop, a thing that was pretty damn devastating at the time, was, “So what?” After most every poem I draft, somewhere in the revision process, that voice elbows its way in, “So what?” I’m grateful for that voice now, but not so much back then. And I have other voices that have their say, too—it can get rather cacophonous at times! Is there some voice that keeps talking at you in your revision process?
Dave was the most rigorous workshop teacher I had in school and I’ll always be grateful for that rigor and for the fact that he taught me more about the forms of English poetry than anyone else. For my Master’s degree I had the opportunity to work with Charlie Simic and I could write a book about what he taught me, and not only about poetry writing but about how to be a man as well, and how to stay loyal to my investigation of the metaphysical! I also had very good teachers as an undergraduate at Oberlin, Stuart Friebert, David Young and Thomas Lux, so perhaps if I thought that way I could also have that cacophony of voices in my head too. But I’m older now you know—I’ll be sixty-seven in January—so I’m finally more set in my ways when it comes to what I want the poems to do and how I want that to happen. I got to the point a number of years ago when I realized that I was the one who knew what to do to make the poems better and to make a collection more than random. After a while we have to leave our teachers alone in peace anyway. We can’t keep going back to them for help and reassurance. The voice I hear most clearly is Hemingway’s saying that I have to “get the words right.”
You’ve said that your goal for your poetry is to achieve “the beauty of a thing said straight.” Does this fly in the fact of what many of us have been taught? That is, to quote Dickinson: “Tell all the truth but tell it slant —“Do poets need to be more direct than, perhaps, many of us are in our work? That’s always something I think about in my own poems, how direct should I/must I be here? For me it’s sort of like Hugo’s take on the line between sentiment and sentimentality: “If you don’t risk sentimentality, you’re not in the ballpark.”
I certainly agree with Dick that you have to risk sentimentality to write well, and I love his distinction between sentimentality and the evocation of sentiment in a poem. Writing simply is a very difficult thing to do that has to involve a fairly well accomplished act of choosing the correct specifics. The best of our writing in English appears to be simple but it’s a simplicity that can only be achieved through a real dedication to the art and craft of the poem. And no matter how close you imagine you can come to actuality, there will always be a “slant” on what you say for the way the imagination intervenes. This to me is critical to writing anything: finding that juncture of memory and imagination, the moment when worlds collide and new understanding emerges.
The Hanoi Winds Bringing Winter to the Old World Elegy
The soon to be bare winter branches
don’t exactly tremble—that’s a human thing—
but they move in the wind of my waiting
in what looks like the shiver that love brings
to your neurons, right down to the cells
who are happy for some company, after all.
I could sit out here all day and watch the world
leave us behind, and not have a single regret
except for not living even harder and faster
than I did, giving up to immutable green space
my body, and then later, my soul, down by the river
whose name I may not utter, please
don’t make me tell you what happened there, the bare
branches are enough in their trembling like a shiver
to say all that needs to be said. The room I’m in
is getting smaller, with every faded moment’s life,
and we know what that means. Your heart may beat
in time with the umbrella’s flapping in patio wind,
but it doesn’t mean you belong anywhere;
it doesn’t mean you’re connected to anything that could save you,
or pull you back into the flock of care we imagine beyond death. No.
Bodhisattva Blurred by Lilies in the Garden
Let me tell you how the life inside a lie feels,
the immense jungle green shattered by ambush in
the evening. Let me execute myself in
peace, dear strangers whom I love. The turning wheel
is a kind of lie too, unimaginable
photographs of disasters that shatter
into tiny pieces when you try to pick
them up, like history. The world doesn’t
end or even notice any of this lush
blue orbit flashing past, let alone my
problems, or yours, the Bodhisattva
blurred by lilies in the garden.
The Sixty-sixth Winter of my Imagining
The frozen air comes early to the year,
surprising everyone with blinding snow,
the leaves still in the trees, where ghosts appear
and rattle in the branches beyond hope.
Some birds are trapped, they don’t know how to leave
now that the landscape has completely changed;
it isn’t that they feel that they should grieve
but more that things are suddenly deranged.
How many times can we be fooled when
every year it is the same, the light
pulls back so dark can take its place, pretending
everything will be alright.
Inside the coldest night our sleep is warm,
that’s how we finally die inside the storm.
—For Charlie Simic
I don’t think it’s my place to breathe, Mr. Night.
I don’t think it’s my place to say any fucking howdy-do
to anyone in this polite asylum of a world, not any more,
not after everything that’s happened to you and to me.
There used to be a silence you could count on
like a thick rope dropped down from heaven,
but the voices have come back from the dead
even if the bodies haven’t,
and they fill my head with their last words
which are not always Goodbyes, but sometimes
a plea for more light, or for a forgiveness
impossible to give them.
I have known you more than once in foreign dark,
where you finally spoke to me, your code a shiver
through my body, showing me the way,
and you were never wrong
as long as I gave myself to you completely,
utterly, in the rarefied jungle air, oh night
who still attends me like a worried mother,
or like a lover with a cause, don’t you see.
What If I Told You
That the sky was such a perfect pale blue
of an Easter egg or of
the beginnings of a bruise
around the eyes
that it would not release me
to my worldly responsibilities. Meanwhile
the Chinese elm calls
its evening birds into their places
high in the leafy branches
where things are safe for now.
All afternoon long I wait, drowsing,
for the cardinals to return
who finally arrive together,
and make a kind of sense
that rocks you back.
But if you add it all up
it still comes to zero, forget
the billion plus stars;
when their light reaches you
they are already dead.
The Clock on the Tower in Ha Noi
It wasn’t a question of romance
but more a sudden thunder storm
with rain so heavy we were all driven
from our chairs outside the café
and then crowded together
inside the small shop, waiting
for the rain to stop. A woman
sat on the counter, and some boys
and small girls already napped on their mother’s laps.
There was no panic or agitation;
there was some talk about the weather,
and how strange it had been,
and when the rain slowed but didn’t stop
I stepped outside to see the sky.
It was a practical matter
when the woman lifted her umbrella
and stood on her toes to reach
above my head to keep me dry.
I thanked her, and asked if I could hold the umbrella
and she nodded and smiled. Oh
I held it there until the rain stopped,
and our eyes on the other’s eyes
took us somewhere for moment
drawn out like specs of dust in sunlight.
I pulled it closed and shook off the water
before I handed it back to her. In Vietnamese
I thanked her and bowed. In Vietnamese
she said I was welcome and we
both had somewhere else to go
so turned away into our only crowd, day
beating like a drum, or a clock on a tower.