Bruce Weigl: The other side of the knife

Poet Bruce Weigl talks about the trauma of war and the stories it produces.

bruce weiglBruce Weigl’s Song of Napalm is known to many of the Iraq and Afghanistan veterans in his writing trauma master classes. The book of Vietnam poems, a knife with many edges to its redemptive blade, is also known to the Vietnamese who have heard Weigl read in Hanoi. The poems catch the moment war threatens to break free from language, the moment the poet comes closest to being broken by war. Consider this excerpt from “Monkey.”

I dropped to the bottom of a well.
I have a knife.
I cut someone with it.
Oh, I have the petrified eyebrows
of my Vietnam monkey.

Most of Weigl’s teaching these days is done at the Lorain Community College in Ohio, where he is the veteran coordinator. Lorain is the mill town where Weigl, 66, was born and raised, and which is, with Vietnam and the war in Vietnam, the subject of many of his poems. Every June, he teaches a two-week course at The William Joyner Institute for the Study of War and Social Consequences at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, where he began reaching out to Vietnam veterans through poetry 20 years ago

“Early on, in every class I teach, I make it clear that poetry is not therapy,” Weigl says. “I don’t think this is understood initially because of the veterans’ experience with therapy. They have been told that it’s therapeutic to write about their experiences. The problem with that approach is that it disqualifies the imagination. The focus has to be on writing as a literary art, not something that’s going to free you from your trauma. That doesn’t work. One of the things we are learning about PTSD is that it doesn’t go away. There is no cure. There is no magic therapy that’s going to do it. The brain is actually rewired. There is no undoing that. You just have to acknowledge, this is who I am.”

Weigl is down to earth and fierce about his craft, as only one to whom writing has come as a gift from the flames can be. The poet never read a book cover to cover until he went to war and landed in sickbay, and a Red Cross worker threw Crime and Punishment at him and said, “Here, read this.”

“I emphasize to my students, once you have the narrative down on the printed page, the only thing that’s important is that it’s the best piece of writing possible,” he says. “It’s not important whether it makes us feel better, or whether it makes me feel like a better person. What’s important is that in this story, or this poem, we allow our imagination to shape work that is powerful and accessible, so that others can understand this part of who we are.”

A 2013 Pulitzer Prize finalist for his volume The Abundance of Nothing, Weigl began having PTSD symptoms in 1974, while studying with the poet Charles Simic at the University of Hampshire. That’s where “Monkey” was written. The experience of writing his war poetry was akin to letting in sinister blasts from the underworld. It was unrelentingly difficult.

“I remember the poem coming to me almost as a hallucination,” he says. “It was a struggle to get it down as it came to me. That version was much longer than this. I showed it to Charlie [Simic]. He slashed through it, cut it down to the core that it is now basically. That’s the way he taught. You don’t waste a word. That’s the way he writes.”

As a working class Midwesterner, Weigl was drawn to the poems of James Wright, fellow Ohioan of mill town origins, and Philip Levine, the Detroit radical. “I saw how they made a kind of beauty out of the wreckage of the industrial city,” he says. “Wright’s poems taught me that you didn’t have to grow up in the Shenandoah Valley to write about where you grew up. If it was the steel mills or the slag heaps, that was your landscape.”

Had he not gone to war when he was 17, he might best be known for his Lorain poems rather than for his war poetry. Here are verses from “The Here and the There.”

As one house moved nearer death
(though the corn was high and tasseled)
the other grew more fierce in its living.

Forgive us, Ruth,
the ache that came in waves.
We had a certain hunger to go back,
but Sunday no breeze came to the willow,
no ringing in the empty house.

Weigl recalls with dismay returning home from the war and starting to write about the war.

“I was discouraged from writing about the war,” he says. “People said, ‘It’s been done. Denise Levertov has written about it. Robert Bly has written about it. No one wants to hear about the war anymore.’”

But the poet Thomas Lux did. He was teaching at Oberlin, and he was the first person to ask Weigl, then his student, to write about the war. Weigl was walking past his office one night, saw the light on, and went in.

Weigl smiles broadly and gathers energy as he tells the story he loves telling. He sees himself coming out of the storytelling tradition of Lorain, and when he gets going, you forget his PTSD, his brain surgeries, the scorched earth of his early and even later poetry.

Lux had a bottle of whiskey in his drawer. He took out a couple of cups, and asked Weigl to tell him a story about Vietnam. So he told a story about being on a Listening Post, a drop-off spot where you sit all night and report on what you hear.

“I saw a tank,” says Weigl. “I reported, ‘There is a tank here.’ They said, ‘There is no tank there.’ I said, ‘I am looking at a tank. Is it ours or theirs?’ They said, ‘No, there is no tank.’” Lux pushed a legal pad toward Weigl and told him to write down what he had just said, just as he had said it. That was his first story about Vietnam.

The origin of Weigl’s minimalist voice as war poet is to be found in combat, where every moment is broken down to what must be done to survive.

“In war, that minimalism is what you learn to live by,” he says. “You don’t let yourself go very deep. You can’t. It’s what you are forced to do. When I tried to write about that experience, I tried to find a form that represented it.”

His lines, it bears mentioning, have grown longer over the years with the lengthening of his Buddhist practice and the strengthening of his focus on empathic reflection. In a war poem such as “Him, on the Bicycle,” the reader is treated to the perfect match of subject and voice.

In a liftship near Hue
the door gunner is in a trance.
He’s that driver who falls
asleep at the wheel
between Pittsburgh and Cleveland
staring at the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

Flares fall,
where the river leaps
I go stiff,
I have to think, tropical.

The door gunner sees movement,
the pilot makes small circles:
four men running carrying rifles,
one man on a bicycle
in the middle of the jungle.

Voice is not something one veteran – or one writer – however talented, can teach another. “It’s part of the process of writing about trauma,” says Weigl. “The search for the most effective voice with which to tell your story is not necessarily limited to your own voice. There are many other voices involved. The writer’s voice is many things. It’s an attitude, a point of view, a lot of different things. In my case, it was a combination of wanting to catch the voice of the boy that was there, but also to look back on the experience from the point of view of the man. Where is the balance? How to do both of those things is the challenge.”

He gives his students a basic writing exercise. He tells them to write for 15 minutes about an event in the war the VA calls “a trigger,” a traumatic event. He first instructs them to write about the event exactly as they remember it. When they finish and have read their stories aloud, he tells them to tell the same story again, allowing themselves the luxury of imagination. Don’t feel hemmed in by the facts as you remember them. Change whatever you want. Write anything you want. Add what you want. Subtract what you want.

The second rendering is always more powerful than the first, he says: “More sensuous in its details. We talk about how it feels, and what I most commonly hear is: ‘I feel free. It’s freeing.’”

The process of remembering through writing sometimes brings with it a lacerating re-thinking. Weigl had a student who fought in Fallujah. After four American soldiers were killed one night in an ambush, the order of the day was to “Shoot anything that moves.” That included women, children, even animals.

“His whole body started shaking,” Weigl recalls. “I put my arm around him, and he jumped away. He went into the hall and started crying. I said, ‘Do you want to share with me what you wrote? Do you want to talk?’ He said, ‘No.’ He was in his 20s. Then he said to me, through his tears, ‘I thought what we were doing was right. I thought what we were doing was right. And now I know it wasn’t. I am so sorry. I am so sorry.’ That’s an extreme example, but I think it would happen a lot more if you could get soldiers to open up.”

A political chasm separates the poet, a peace activist since his days with Vietnam Veterans Against the War, from his students, “gung ho” veterans who are supporters of America’s military involvements in Iraq and Afghanistan. But it doesn’t separate them from the work they do together.

“They are volunteers, professional soldiers,” he says. “We were draftees in a time of dissent in America. When we talk politics, our differences come up, but we don’t often talk politics. Veterans respond to other veterans. My students know all about the ‘crazy Vietnam veterans.’”

He respects their path and their prose, and he is always urging them to search in the library for literary magazines that are compatible with their work, magazines in which they may be able to publish their work.

After all, there is a long and honorable tradition of writing about war from the warrior’s point of view. Stories about the nitty-gritty aspects of battle, such as the ones his students produce. “The subject is so complex,” he says. “As war is going on, there are whole other worlds, lifetimes, going on. People are having coffee, kids are going to school, lovers are making love.”

America has many talented poets, as well as many uprooted voices from remote lands. The voice of the war veteran, however, is the voice of the stranger who looks like us, but whose inner topography is in exile, rudderless amidst unchanging names, places, family stories of which they are part, from which they are apart.

In his preface to The Abundance of Nothing, Weigl offers these lines by Robert Creeley:

as all the many sides of life
whiz by,
a blast at best, a loss

“If you are lucky, the world gives you a subject,” Weigl says. “The day I saw that my experience in the war is what I had to pursue, I was elated and terrified at the same time. It was an enormous possibility, yet an enormous responsibility. It forced me to have to understand myself, ourselves, in terms of what we do and who we are. We do bad things to other people. We do bad things to ourselves. It’s part of who we are. There is no letting go of that. Especially if you are a writer.”

Robert Hirschfeld reviews books of poetry for The Jerusalem Report and has written about poetry and poets for Teachers & Writers Magazine, Sojourners and The Progressive.

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