An Interview with Bruce Weigl

Bruce Wiegl is the author of nine books of poetry, most recently The Unraveling Strangeness (2002, Grove/Atlantic). Weigl was born in Lorain, Ohio on January 27, 1949, and served in the Army during the Vietnam War, earning a Bronze Star. His first chapbook, Executioner, came out in 1976 when he was 27 years old. In addition to poetry, Weigl has written a memoir, The Circle of Hanh, as well as critical work on his former instructors, Charles Simic and Dave Smith. A selection of his poetry was translated into Vietnamese and included along with seven other poets in a collection entitled Khoang Thoi Gian Khong Ngu. Weigl’s awards include a Yaddo Foundation Fellowship (1976), the Academy of American Poets Prize (1978), the Breadloaf Fellowship in Poetry (1982), and the Pushcart Prize, which he was awarded twice. He currently lives in Oberlin, Ohio.

The following interview was conducted via e-mail in the autumn of 2002.

Brandon Dameshek: I was first introduced to your poetry during a freshman writing class at Carnegie Mellon University. The instructor played an audio recording of “Song of Napalm,” and I was instantly hooked. Years later I read an interview in which you said that a number of your poems never happened. Even though I knew better than to assume the writer and the speaker are one and the same, I was still crushed. How do you decide which “actual” events warrant the writing of a poem?

Bruce Weigl: I think what I meant by saying that some of the poems “never happened” was that although I might use an autobiographical experience as the stepping off point for a poem or, to use Dick Hugo’s term, as a “trigger,” I’ve always been careful not to cling too rigorously to any kind of reality or any kind of original intention. If you do that, you undercut the power of the imagination to have its say in the process. I want the poems to sound as if those things really happened, but to do the best, I have to lie, which is to say, I have to use my imagination in the retelling of those stories.

BD: I’ve come across a number of poems, or even a line or two—sometimes based on the sensibility of the speaker, sometimes on the loose vernacular or power of the image—that I wish I’d written. I’m thinking of Hass’s “Heroic Simile,” or the young girl in your poem “Song of Napalm,” whose “crackling / muscles draw her up / into that final position / burning bodies so perfectly assume.” What poem (or poems) do you wish you had written?

BW: There are far too many to list here I think. But I would say that I believe that wishing you had written a poem that somebody else has written is a good thing for a poet. It means you’re open to other takes on the world, other styles, voices, sensibilities. It’s also the highest form of compliment, I think. There are so many, from so many different eras I could never begin to list them all.

BD: I imagine you’d list Charles Simic and Dave Smith among them, seeing as how you’ve had the opportunity to study under both of these wonderful poets.

BW: I have been blessed with great and caring teachers. Fortunately, I’ve now come to understand, they both had such distinctive voices of their own, that there was never really any danger of me trying to copy them or imitate them in any way. They both forced me to do it on my own. I would also have to add that a good teacher not only means someone who helps you develop as a writer, but someone who helps you grow and develop as a person, as well. Charlie and Dave did that for me, too. With regard to Charlie, I would have to say that he taught me more than any other poet to trust my own instinct about things, my own language, and to have faith in the otherworldliness of things. Dave was a strict disciplinarian, and he taught me the power of hard work and dedication to the craft and to the study of poetry.

BD: You’ve cited James Wright as a major influence, as well.

BW: James Wright is my father confessor. He was, as you know, an Ohio poet, so we had that in common, and he was someone who came from one tradition (the accentual/syllabic one) to another (the free verse one) in his lifetime. Because of that he was the master of the free verse line. More than anything else, I think I learned from Jim, and still learn, that when you write free verse, you have to spend just as much time thinking about the line as you do when you write a metered poem.

BD: There seem to be several recurring motifs that run throughout your poetry: animals (birds, particularly) wings, booze, war, and, in many respects, a need to confess—a definite address to Truth.

BW: Of course you’re not the first close reader of my work to point those recurring images and themes out to me, and of course, you’re right about that stuff being there. I wish I could say it was all highly conscious and all a part of a scheme or plan I may have had when I wrote the poems, but I can’t. I don’t really know why those images recur, or even what they mean fully. Frankly, this is a very instinctive process for me. I love words and I love the sounds of words and that’s the level on which I typically engage the poem. I think I’m also a bit superstitious about trying too hard to analyze my own imagery. I’m not sure I really want to know what it all means.

BD: Your response brings Hugo’s The Triggering Town to mind, which, personally, has been one of the most influential books on poetry I’ve ever read. Hugo talks about his repetition of the word “stone” in his third book, how it appeared more than thirty times. He goes on to write, “If I didn’t use [words like ‘stone,’ ‘wind,’ and ‘gray’] that often I’d be lying about my feelings, and I consider that unforgivable.”

BW: Yes, that’s been a very important book to me as well. I would say that that’s exactly what I had in mind. There’s a way in which not trusting your instincts leads to insincere or simply decorative poems. I hate poetry that is all about effects that happen only on the surface, like showing off that you can do a handstand or do a cartwheel. It seems almost too easy to hide behind words sometimes; what I try to do is let the words come as they will, as they want to come. There’s a juncture I imagine that exists where memory and imagination meet, and that’s where I find that language; that’s where my hunches and instincts lead me to. I don’t then try to jazz up the language because that’s not getting the words right in my mind. If that directness reveals a lack of culture or sophistication, so be it.

BD: Can you say a bit more about not wanting “to know what it all means”?

BW: I’m trying to say that poetry is something you do out of the corner of your eye, not something you do directly, so as to allow a new way of seeing and therefore a new diction and a new quality of voice. I don’t know what I don’t know, and it’s what I don’t know that’s most interesting sometimes, especially when I find myself in the realm of poetry. I don’t want to explain things away, because that seems to me to be a false kind of reassurance. What my Buddhist practice has taught me, among other things, is that I really know nothing. Once I can reach that point, real understanding and insight can happen.

BD: That’s a wonderful response. Szymborska’s Nobel acceptance speech comes to mind, where she constantly repeats the words “I don’t know,” reiterating the benefits of the question outweighing those of the answer. Your response also makes me think about Faith, specifically about how Buddhism has affected and informed your writing.

BW: I was raised a Catholic, in the Eastern European style, so the earliest of my work is full of that kind of imagery. I always loved the ritual of the church, and always felt restored by confession and communion, but I don’t think that Catholicism ever became something I devoted my life to. Once I had begun what I hope is a practice in Buddhism, my life began to change in dramatic ways. Once you begin to understand the power of a life of compassion, and the amazing rewards of that life, it’s difficult not to try to stay on that path. I resisted writing about my practice as a Buddhist for a long time. I don’t like the idea of a kind of instant Zen poem. But then gradually, it began to make its way into my work in the same way it’s become part of my life, part of who I am. In my most recent book, The Unraveling Strangeness, which is just now out from Grove Press, there are more than a few poems which I know are triggered by my practice or by something I think I’ve learned. Here’s one to give you an idea of what I’m talking about:

Immortality of Beauty

The river where Faith drowned.
The marks her desperate fingers
gouged into the muddy bank.
Her pale hair
swept back in the cold current.
The heavy vines she tangled in
she hadn’t known were there.
One sutra teaches
that beauty should never be possessed,
only encountered
so briefly
you are left with a kind of sorrow
and then let go
into nothing.

BD: When discussing a poet’s body of work, oftentimes we gloss over his biographical information in order to directly address the work itself. With your poetry, however, the biographical information seems necessary to better understand the poems themselves. Do you feel that your personal history—your childhood hometown of Lorain, your experience in Vietnam and life after the war—is imperative to better understand your poetry, or is it secondary information?

BW: I’ve always embraced the notion that the more we know about a writer’s life, the more insights we can have into his or her work. I would only temper that approach by adding that the man or woman we read in the poems is never really the real man or woman, but a fictive version. It’s the imagination that writes the poem, and although that imagination is certainly fed by autobiographical details, it’s not the same. I guess that’s a yes and a no.

BD: This seems to speak to your notion that we should be propelled and nourished by imagination, not hindered by it. Again, I’m reminded of Hugo’s statement about changing the grain silo from yellow to black—“You owe reality nothing and the truth about your feelings everything.”

BW: Right again. You lie in order to tell larger truths.

BD: It seems that for a long while, and perhaps even now, you were regarded as the foremost writer of Vietnam poetry, despite the fact that you’ve attempted to distance yourself in interviews from being categorized as such.

BW: 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.

BD: What provokes you to continuously approach the War and the associations—of human spirit and brutality—we have of it?

BW: Charlie Simic told me a long time ago that the world had given me a subject, and that I could not be a writer and turn my back on that subject. I listened to him. And, although I’ve continued to write about Vietnam, I no longer write about the war per se, but about the country, which I’ve come to love very much as a result of many visits there as a translator and visiting writer. I also have a fifteen year old daughter who was born in Vietnam, so there’s always Vietnamese music or videos or singing going on in my house almost every day. In terms of being attracted to the human spirit and brutality, as you call it, as a subject, it only seems natural to me as a poet to embrace as much of human experience as I can in my work. That means the good and the bad. I think I’m also very interested, probably because of my war experiences, in writing about ordinary people in extraordinary situations. That’s a short answer to a very good question.

BD: It seems that the majority of your work is both heavily lyrical and narrative (and even personal). I’m thinking, for instance, of poems such as “Surrounding Blues on the Way Down,” wherein the speaker is not only retelling a rather horrific event, but somehow unburdening himself: “I have no excuse for myself” rings like an apology. In some of your recent work, however, like “Meeting Mr. Death,” the “I” seems somehow detached and mysterious. What makes the first-person speaker a stronger vehicle for exploring scenarios such as the one in “Surrounding Blues” as opposed to, say, a third-person omniscient speaker? How has your use of the “I” changed in your more recent work?

BW: That’s a great question that gets to the heart of what I’ve been up to as a writer lately. First, your description of my work as being lyrical and narrative rings very true to me. I once heard Norman Dubie use the term “lyrical/narrative” to describe someone’s work. I liked the idea very much immediately for how it allowed the best of both worlds. I’ve tried, in different ways, ever since to try to achieve that. It’s not too unlike a painter trying to bring together a figurative regard for subject together with an abstract regard. In terms of the way the “I” has changed, I would have to say it must come from maturity as a poet; it must come from the fact that I’m getting more accomplished at handling the craft part of it, and not always giving in to the heart part of it. The “I” in “Meeting Mr. Death” is a great example by the way of my effort to distance myself from the speaker somewhat. I want the speaker to be larger somehow. I’m still working on that and probably will until the end.

BD: Do you mean that you want your speaker to have the opportunity to encompass more? In other words, is the intent to have your individualized “I” represent a larger, universal “I”—to act as a sort of lens?

BW: Yes, that’s it exactly. I have a desire at this point in my writing life, in my life really, to become more and more of a kind of public voice, so your notion of a more universal “I” makes perfect sense to me.

BD: I also love your comparison to painting, and the notion of “lyrical/narrative” paralleling the painter’s attempt to merge the figurative with the abstract.

BW: Painting has been especially influential because my wife is a painter (trained), and because I’ve painted (untrained) for almost as long as I’ve written, and continue to paint almost every day. I love the physical nature of the act; how it feels, and I love the layering of the surface, which to me feels very much like writing a poem. I know that when I start a painting it will look very different in the end, but I don’t do too much to direct that process, and instead let it happen. Sometimes it works and something interesting is left on the paper or canvas; sometimes it’s simply a mess that you have to clean up; it’s the same with a poem. I open all of the doors, let come what wants to come and then start scratching and tearing away at it.

BD: Your poem “The One” seems consistent with the tone of your earlier work, yet establishes quite a different foundation—a sort of foreshadowing—for Sweet Lorain than did, say, your opening poem in What Saves Us. While your work has always been concerned with the intertwining of separate realities, poems such as “The One” feel completely grounded in that moment of your childhood.

BW: I think I was making a conscious effort in those days to turn away from Vietnam as a subject and so I turned back to childhood. I was away from home, and had been for some time, and I took pleasure in remembering certain very specific moments from my childhood. I like to think about my poems as exploitations of very small and very specific moments, and that if I can obsessively detail those moments, reveal them in all of their ordinary splendor, then I might have a chance for a poem. My mother and father were not literary people; they were working class people, and although they never really knew much about what I was doing as a writer once I had begun to go to school, etc., what they did give me was unrelenting love and support all of my life. I know a lot of folks who grew up in houses filled with books but absent of that kind of love and care. I would always choose what I had over what they had.

BD: I’m particularly glad you mentioned “love,” since it’s a subject that seems to constantly resurface in your poetry. I’m thinking, for instance, of that lonely, misunderstood sort of love that arrives out of necessity in “Song for the Lost Private,” or even in “What Saves Us.” The kind of love that results from dire circumstance—that is, the bond that develops among soldiers faced with constant doom. Additionally, “The One” blurs the line between love and physical abuse. How does your definition of love impact your writing? Is it impossible to separate love from its dark counterpart?

BW: I learned my take on love from Robert Hayden’s wonderful poem “Those Winter Sundays.” He says, “What did I know. What did I know / Of love’s austere and lonely offices.” As you know, this comes in a poem in which he is remembering his father, who had expressed his love in a very quiet and practical way. I’ve always hung onto the idea that love has many “offices,” and that that must be what makes it so fucking grand. Even that quiet love is joyous from my point of view. It’s no different from Keats and Wordsworth really; I think many of us are fairly called Romantics for the way that Romanticism suggests that the ideal of beauty is not, as it is in the classical sense, the perfection of form, but the expression of humanness.

Our lives are precious because they come to an end. That’s the same reason we write poetry.

BD: If you had to choose only one thing, what would you say is the goal of poetry?

BW: I think the goal of all poetry is to change our lives. That’s what Forché means when she says that all good poetry is political; it’s political because it has a design on the reader. Personally I would hope that my poems allow my readers to relish in the sounds of words.

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