In Issue 1 of Bare Fiction Magazine, editor Robert Harper took a look at Dan O’Brien‘s award winning debut collection of poetry, War Reporter, and interviewed Dan about his writing journey, how it led him to discover such an engaging, visceral style of poetry and how that has had an impact on the future of his writing as a poet and a playwright.
We are extremely privileged to have two previously unpublished War Reporter poems (not from the collection) in the first issue of Bare Fiction Magazine. You can purchase a print or digital edition by clicking here.
There is a complexity of contrary feeling, an ambiguity within the, what appears at first glance to be, part free verse, part prose poetry contained in War Reporter, that is both intriguing and shocking, explicit, yet charming.
In The War Reporter Paul Watson and the Poet Try to Have Fun, Dan O’Brien portrays the experiences of everyday boisterousness, “with the usual boys of summer shooting / slapshots like rifles”; alluding to the enjoyment of play, yet including the suggestion that each shot of the game is like that of a rifle, brings an immediacy of their current predicament to the poem. Then the shocking nature of the conflict is made evident just three sentences later, “another boy’s head’s / been sliced open like an egg”, suggesting war is a feast upon which all involved, gorge themselves. In another, The War Reporter Paul Watson and the Poet Go For a Walk in the Arctic, “Paul asks for a piece / of liver.” exclaiming “My body’s / been craving raw meat”. The life of man, reporter, as scavenger, his animal instincts amplified by the spectacle of war.
Each poem is derived from correspondence with, and writings by the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Paul Watson, and every one specifically restates the link between poet and reporter, whether in the title of the poem or the parallel fights being played out within the collection as history is relayed and subverted in it’s wake. Indeed, necessarily, death is an incumbent motif, as in The War Reporter Paul Watson Prepares for His Next Trip “floating in the paddies is the body / of a child”, itself a startling image, but O’Brien immediately follows with “In pajama bottoms with / teddy bear cartoons on it”, a line which could easily be describing a character in a toddlers book, but which here increases our empathy. He continues, “The bleached skin’s / like rotting rattan”, and we’re back to the vulgar reality, a world of scorching heat where a child’s life is seemingly no more valued than a discarded tourist trinket.
This narrative collection reads like recent historical drama, filled with gritty reportage that makes one wonder if Dan O’Brien has included any fiction at all, it is real life, but all the unthinkable elements we try to avoid, “She’d easily tell you how she’d been kidnapped, raped and tortured”, a prickly statement that builds unease enough in the reader, even when disregarding the final three words of it, “more than once.”
The horrors and ramifications of war are laid out throughout with no suggestion of hiding an ounce of truth. Perhaps the most shocking example is a short entry in The War Reporter Paul Watson and the Economy of War, where the financial benefits reaped from harvesting the dead, “scavengers root through the graveyards and dumps / for human bones”, belie an irony that cannot be cleansed from one’s memory, “the bone meal / of Afghans becomes the ingredients / of hand soap”.
War Reporter is a provocative examination of a life spent recording the ugly facets of a world filled with the unnecessary annihilation of human beings. Dan O’Brien’s bold concept of using the literal in place of metaphor, without requiring regular illusory imagery is a literary revelation that continues to transport the reader into the world of Paul Watson, with brutal honesty, long after you turn the final page.
You have been primarily known for your work as a playwright, did you always intend to write for theatre when you began your degree in English & Theatre at Middlebury College?
I went to Middlebury College in Vermont because of its connection to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. My mother used to bring home the Bread Loaf Anthology: Writers on Writing from the library, and that’s how I got it in my head that Middlebury was where you went when you wanted to write. I’d been writing poems and stories since grade school, and increasingly dark and “serious” poems and stories since puberty. There was a lot of abuse in my family, and a lot of secrets, and writing, I’m certain, saved me.
I went to Middlebury also because Vermont had something of the beauty and bleakness I’ve always responded to, and reminded me of my admittedly romantic notions about Ireland, another geography I’ve always associated with my impulse to write. And indeed after college I went from Vermont to Ireland, living and traveling for a year as a “Watson Fellow,” conducting a course of independent study of Irish folklore and modern Irish theatre. Which meant mostly going to lots of pubs, and plays, and plays-in-pubs, and even acting in a few productions—David Mamet’s Sexual Perversity in Chicago at the Cork Arts Theatre, for example, and a university production of Frank McGuinness’s Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me in both Cork and Belfast.
But I’d never written a play before college. It was from acting and directing as a student that I discovered playwriting as a mostly joyous combination of several impulses. That said, I’ve never considered myself a one-genre writer. Exploring, if not testing the boundaries between genres has always been most exciting to me.
When did you get your first play produced and at what point did you realise that you were going to be able to make some kind of living out of writing for the stage?
My first professional gig was for something I wrote in graduate school, when I was at Brown University, entitled Lamarck, a sort of Kushner-Stoppard hybrid about the 18th Century French evolutionary theorist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. Oskar Eustis at Trinity Repertory Company (now the Artistic Director of the Public Theater in NYC) was very supportive of the play’s potential, and I’m sure he helped get the play produced by Perishable Theatre in Providence, Rhode Island.
As for making a living as a writer, that, of course, always seems precarious. It’s a constant juggling of commissions, royalties, residencies, fellowships, and teaching — and, when I first started writing, various day- and night-jobs. Many perhaps smarter playwrights turn to film and TV for a paycheck, but I haven’t been savvy or desperate or prolific enough to venture very far down that road.
2014 sees the UK premiere of The Body of an American at the Gate Theatre, London; a play which had its premiere back in 2012 at Portland Center Stage and for which you’ve already won 3 awards. Is this the first play of yours to transfer to the UK?
Yes, this is my first UK production, and it came about, as these things often seem to, mysteriously.
I think it was the publisher of the poems, Charles Boyle of CB editions, who handed the play off to an acquaintance (a neighbor?) of his at the National Theatre, who passed it along to Chris Haydon at the Gate. Sometime before that, James Dacre, who’ll be directing the play at the Gate in co-production with Royal & Derngate in Northampton, where James is the newly anointed Artistic Director, had gotten hold of the script — maybe from my agent? — and he’d been pushing the play at various theaters in the UK. Then it turned out that James and Chris were colleagues and admirers of each other’s, and things began to click.
I’m sure there were many other factors involved, such as the Gate’s decision to do a season of three political American plays.
I mentioned your awards as a playwright, of which there have been numerous others and a number of residencies of course, but now too your debut poetry collection War Reporter was not only shortlisted for the UK’s Forward Prize for Best First Collection, but it recently won the Fenton Aldeburgh First Collection Prize. How does it feel to win one and be shortlisted for two UK poetry awards?
Frankly I’ve been shocked. Gratified too, of course. I’m about as insecure as the next writer — maybe more — so when you hear that what you’ve been attempting for years is getting across to people — it’s a rare event, and cause for celebration. I don’t know if I’ll ever be this lucky, professionally, again. So I’ve been simply feeling grateful and trying not to think about it too much.
Though I will add that I’m happy that this notice may help the book get read by (and sold to) more people, as I owe a debt of gratitude to CB editions, and Hanging Loose Press in the US, for taking a risk on a new collection by an unpublished poet.
Many writers straddle various mediums for their work and I know you have had many poems published in literary journals. With such an initial inertia behind your playwriting, did you have a long standing desire to have a poetry collection published?
I’ve always written poems, but for many years, out of grad school and immersed in the “emerging” playwright’s scene in New York, a poetry collection just never came into focus. For a long time I kept the poems private—like a safety valve, a creative respite from the marketplace mentality of theatre. (An anemic marketplace, to be sure, but a market nonetheless.)
It was only after moving to Los Angeles in 2007, around the time that I was having some major personal upheaval (the dissolution of my birth family, dealt with to some degree in War Reporter), that the poetry began demanding more of my attention. It was an entirely natural shift in focus. I’ve continued to write plays, and a few libretti, simultaneously.
Paul has read very few of the poems, and he’s never read or seen the play. (Together we saw the opera premiere at Stanford University in April, and he seemed moved, if a little freaked out by it.) So while he freely shares his material with me, Paul never edits or actively collaborates with what I write. It’s a strange and unique relationship. Partly he trusts me, I think, and partly it’s Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder that makes it difficult for him to revisit these episodes when he doesn’t have to.
Both War Reporter and The Body of an American tackle the difficult subject matter of the hidden horrors of war and are based on your discussions with Paul Watson and his own writings. How did your interaction with Paul come about and what led you to create both pieces of work?
I simply sent Paul an email after hearing him interviewed on National Public Radio. I felt an intense identification with him, his psychology, and I was perplexed if not disturbed by this identification. (And if something disturbs me I usually know I’ll write about it.) Specifically it was Paul’s description of his haunting that moved me the most — how, when he was about to take his Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of a US soldier desecrated by a mob in the streets of Mogadishu in 1993, he heard the voice of that dead soldier warn him: “If you do this, I will own you forever.” And of course he took the picture, and he believes he’s been literally haunted by this ghost every day since.
I told Paul in that first email that I wanted to write about him, but that I didn’t know what form the writing would take. And frankly, for a while, I was overwhelmed by the subject matter — the violence and the darkness, but also the so-called “political” aspects here. I’d written about personally dark matters my entire career — and many ghost stories, of one form or another — but the political had always seemed somehow beyond me, potentially artificial and fraudulent, considering my relatively privileged life. I sensed that writing “through” Paul, to some degree as Paul, would be a way to connect the personal and the political, for the personal to be political.
We emailed on-and-off for about two years, and had yet to speak to each other until we met in the Canadian High Arctic, in a hamlet called Ulukhaktok, on the shores of the now-navigable Northwest Passage. Paul was trying to transition from war reporting to covering the Arctic for the Toronto Star (he’s still covering the Arctic, but also the Middle East, mostly Afghanistan and Syria). It was early February, with sunlight just returning. That week became the second act of the play and many poems in the collection.
There’s something about the episodic nature of Paul’s work that’s more suited to an ongoing sequence of poems than the (relatively) tight structure of a play. And while the play delves quite deeply into Paul’s memory, I found that the poems could go even deeper, freed from the constraints of externalized action on stage. So poems kept occurring to me, and they still do.
The play, I should note, also informed the poems—the story structure of the play no doubt shaped the structure of the collection. For a poetry collection, there’s a good deal of narrative coherence, I think.
War Reporter feels, when read aloud, like it is written in a part prose/part free verse style, with a candid simplicity of language and syllabics that makes the subject matter even more shocking. Did you consciously set out to write the poems in this way?
I don’t think I’ve ever made any conscious decision regarding style or form here. The ten-syllable line was an intuitive choice, but I think it might better “contain” the journalistic and conversational nature of much of this. If anything, my background as a playwright had the greatest influence on the style, as my focus is primarily on voice and character throughout.
It’s such an intensely personal view of a skewed and horrific side of human behavior, how freely were you able to interpret Paul’s memoirs and writings in creating this narrative collection?
Paul has given me complete freedom. Some of these poems are extremely close to what he’s written in his memoir, Where War Lives, and in his journalism. But from the start I’ve had a feeling that a poetic “edit,” if you will, almost like a musical setting, could distill and transform his fairly objective journalism into something highly subjective, something personal and naked like a poem.
Other poems in War Reporter come from audio recordings of our conversations, and I’ve taken more poetic license here. Still others are memories of things Paul told me, and I’m sure I’ve misremembered details there. In these “memory poems” I’ve been somewhat interested in how I misremember them, what that reveals about me.
Fundamental to the project is the notion that someone like me — someone who has not had direct experience of war, someone not unlike most readers — is attempting to imagine himself at the center of Paul’s memories, Paul’s consciousness. Precisely that attempt at imaginative empathy, if that’s not a redundant phrase, is probably what’s most political about the project.
Your literary journey into the depravity of violent conflict must have had a considerable effect on you personally over the last few years. It must have taken enormous courage to tackle the subject matter. Will you be searching for lighter source material for your next collection of poetry and further plays and perhaps free your psyche from the trauma of war?
There’s no doubt that it’s changed me, personally and as a writer. I’m much more interested in documentary stories, in finding my stories (and by stories I mean poems, plays, any and all writing) in the lives of others — others who are still alive, by the way, as opposed to the book-bound, historical lives I used to write about. I’m much more excited by, and trusting in collaboration. Geopolitical conflict feels more local to me, more personal, and I have a greater sense of responsibility, a stronger faith that I can take some kind of action, in whatever way my gifts will allow.
But writing War Reporter hasn’t made me long for lighter subject matter. On the contrary, it’s desensitized me somewhat to the subject of war. It’s made writing about sunsets and blue jays a lot more difficult.
What further writing do you currently have planned for 2014?
I’ve been writing more poems about Paul Watson. Some part of me has felt like, now that War Reporter is done, I “should” be done writing about Paul, but that’s not how things have been going. The new poems deal with his trips to Syria, and our recent attempt — a tragicomic affair, I suspect — to transmute his work into an American cable TV drama. In this same period my wife and I lost a friend to leukaemia, and, as of last week, we welcomed a daughter, our first child, into the world. So all of that’s in the mix of these new “War Reporter” poems.
There’s an experimental chamber opera based on War Reporter and The Body of an American called Visitations that will have its New York premiere in January. I wrote the libretto, and the music’s composed by Jonathan Berger. A newer play, a “speculative memoir” about the secrets in my family, entitled The House in Scarsdale, has been having a few workshop presentations here and there, and it’s hopefully moving towards a premiere.
And lastly I’m writing a new play commissioned by Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles, about economic justice, and specifically about Chicano activist and anarchist Roberto Flores. Roberto’s son, Quetzal Flores, a recent Grammy winner with his band Quetzal, is writing music for what will either be a play-with-music or a musical.