An Interview with Bruce Weigl
Photo: Keith Berr
Took from blastfurnacepress.com/
The first collection of poetry by one poet that I purchased in my life was Pulitzer Prize-nominated Song of Napalm 1, 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 2 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 withBlast 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 that’s still the case, is that still something that’s prized there?
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 it’s harder for a poet to write sustained narratives sometimes, because it’s 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 thatThis 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 thoughtAw, 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.
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 you’re wanting to educate people in your work? Are there passages that you take out [before publication] because they’re 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.
orld, has even coined a new word—entheogen—to “free the topic from the pejorative connotations for words like drug or hallucinogen,” according to his website. The new word is rooted in Greek and means something like “God-manifesting substance.”
Through research in linguistics, history and written sources of classical languages, Ruck also came to a conclusion that the primary spiritual ritual of ancient Greece, the Mysteries of Eleusis that were celebrated for more than a thousand years in that small town outside Athens, were initiated through the consumption of an entheogen, perhaps derived from barley fungus. Along with Albert Hofmann, the chemist who discovered LSD, and R. Gordon Wasson, a former J.P. Morgan investment banker whose study of ethnomycology led to a pioneering 1957 Life magazine article on the religious use of psychoactive mushrooms by the Mazatec people of Mexico, Ruck co-authored The Road to Eleusis: Unveiling the Secret of the Mysteries.
That book contains a 2nd-century quote from Aristides the Rhetor which, although the Mysteries were kept secret, offers a glimpse behind the veil:
Eleusis is a shrine common to the whole earth, and of all the divine things which exist among men, it is both the most awesome and the most luminous. (Wasson, Hofmann & Ruck, 27)
Ruck is honoring these words in helping promote the Gaia Project an initiative to enhance the neglected archaeological site of Eleusis by adding it to the World Heritage List of UNESCO and building a new museum. The project’s website notes Cicero credited “the ancient Mystery enacted at Eleusis as the essential impetus for the evolution of humankind’s rise from savagery to civilized modes of life.”
Ruck concurs. “The evidence is quite clear,” he said. “It makes you live with more hope and die a better death. The motif is that you die and are then reborn.” This, in keeping with the myth of Persephone’s return from Hades and the resurrection of life in spring. “As a psychological event it was an ego death.” What happens, he said, is that “you see a deity face-to-face.”
The source of the mysteries is what Ruck refers to as the empyrean, “a deity beyond deity, it is the reservoir of every life that has ever been lived, the home of all souls that ever were incarnated, and if you believe in incarnation, the fire descends from the empyrean into the individual entrapment of matter and then when you die it goes back to that reservoir.” It is similar to the unio mystica referred to by Hofmann in their book, (ibid, 147) in which the individual finds a “healing experience of totality.”
Hofmann also noted that while Christian liturgy worships a god enthroned in heaven, at Eleusis the emphasis was on a transformation of the individual, “a visionary experience of the ground of being” that converted the subjects into mystical initiates. (ibid, 148)
In the 4th century, after Christianity had been adopted by Constantine as the religion of the Roman Empire, the sanctuaries at Eleusis were decreed closed by Emperor Theodosius I. “There could be only one deity,” Ruck said, “If you’re going to have an empire, it is very beneficial to have one deity, and that one deity empowers the one emperor, so it was largely political.”
During this period, Christians often desecrated the older sanctuaries, implanting churches atop the sacred places and “incorporating bits of the old buildings into the new structures,” Ruck said. He added that the Eleusinian Mysteries were also antithetical to Christianity in that it was a patriarchal religion, while the shrine at Eleusis was “devoted to the female,” the mother of the earth.
Lost in this shuffle of state religions was the direct connection with the divine, the empyrean, the unio mystica or the collective unconscious--call it what you will--that for millennia had been enabled by shaman, priests and initiates of mystery rites throughout the ancient world, Eleusis being the most famous and notable.
Today, that connection may have begun reestablishing itself as major universities carry out sanctioned research on entheogens in treating end-of-life anxieties and post-traumatic stress. Some religious organizations, including the Native American Church and Santo Daime--transplanted to Oregon from Brazilian rainforests--have won legal decisions allowing them to use entheogens to bring their ceremonies to life. This organization, ERIE has been granted official non-profit status in its mission of Entheogenic Research, Integration and Education. “It’s great,” Ruck said. “From the very beginning, Hofmann thought LSD would be useful in psychotherapy and to ease the trauma of the final transition into death.”
The entheogenic experience is still rare. “We’re very busy in our world and we live without it,” Ruck said, “but in psychotherapy it offers a quicker way into the structure of the psyche.” He’s also worked with the people “who’ve established churches that are aware entheogens are a pathway to spiritual development.”
Still, it is strong medicine, deserving of the utmost respect because “some people can’t handle the experience, and it’s also dangerous because people want to know what the experience means, and if we provide them with a scenario we’re apt to be setting up a religion,” Ruck said. Pitfalls remain, as the chaos of the ‘60s illustrated.
“The psychedelic revolution coincided with a disastrous period politically. We were involved in the Vietnam War, which was a great mistake, and it allowed people to realize that maybe their government was doing something wrong, so it was seen as counter-cultural” and even harmful to the structures of society, Ruck said, adding that it doesn’t have to be that way. As we see in antiquity, “In a society where the entheogen has its proper role, it doesn’t destroy the establishment, it reinforces confidence in it.” As they were used in the ancient world, at Eleusis, entheogens “reaffirmed what the society thought about the spiritual dimension.”
It may be helpful to consider the possibilities evoked by Hofmann’s final words from The Road to Eleusis:
“Eleusis can be a model for today. Eleusis-like centers could unite and
strengthen the many spiritual currents of our time, all of which have
the same goal—the goal of creating, by transforming consciousness in
individual people, the conditions for a better world, a world without
war and without environmental damage, a world of happy people.”
Published on February 14, 2012
Published on January 30th, 2016