How about a thumbnail?
Ok, I am the author of five books of poetry, the most recent of which, Said Not Said, was published by Graywolf Press in May 2017. Graywolf also published my collections Full Moon Boat (2000) and The Looking House (2009). My first book, Tipping Point, won the 1993 Washington Prize from the Word Works. In 2002 Dedalus Press of Dublin Ireland brought out House on Water, House in Air, a new and selected poems.
I edited and provided an introduction to Another World Instead: The Early Poems of William Stafford, 1937-1947, published by Graywolf in 2008. In addition, I have co-translated (with Nguyen Ba Chung) two books of Vietnamese poetry, From a Corner of My Yard by Tran Dang Khoa, and Con Dao Prison Songs, by Vo Que. I have published poems, reviews, and essays in literary journals in this country, in Ireland and the U.K., and in Vietnam.
For over thirty years I taught at Suffolk University in Boston, and am now an Emeritus Professor of English and the founding co-director of the Suffolk University Poetry Center. I continue to teach writing workshops in a number of other venues, including the Colrain Poetry Manuscript Conference, the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, the Hudson Valley Writers’ Center in Sleepy Hollow, NY, and the SF Bay Area Veteran Writing Group.
I have been awarded residencies at Ucross, Yaddo, the McDowell Colony, and the Heinrich Boll Cottage. Over the years I have served on the Executive Board of PEN New England and the Advisory Board of the Poets’ Theatre in Cambridge MA. In 2009, the New England Poetry Club conferred upon me the May Sarton Award, an award given to a poet whose work has been an inspiration to other poets.
Where do you come from?
I grew up on the corner of Camp and Locust Streets in Providence, RI, a block away from Holy Name Church and School. This was long ago and in an emotional sense now very far away. When I hear people praise Providence for its civic beauty, its restaurants and the like, I think they must be talking about some other city. My Providence was red-brick factory, packing houses, the Jenny Oil Company gas station my father owned over in South Providence. That was on Broad Street, near Prairie Avenue. Two bays, two pumps, and lots of banners and signs, not exactly the regular neighborhood for poetry, though there was poetry in that neighborhood.
Where did you go to school?
I went, in succession, to the Holy Name Grammar School, Lasalle Academy, back then a boys-only Catholic high school, and a feeder school for Providence College, which is where I started to read, love, and write poetry. I transferred to Brown University and spent most of the next three years studying, loving, and writing poetry. A while later I went to the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought, an interdisciplinary program that I thought at the time was as close as I would ever get to Plato’s Academy. I read texts that ranged from the Gita to Moby Dick, from Marx to Freud, dwelt within Aeschylus, Herodotus, and Homer. Eventually I earned a Ph.D. from the Committee, writing my dissertation on Frost, Williams, and Stevens in their early years and poems. I titled it Getting Started, and when I finished writing it, well it was time for me to get started, albeit a bit later in life than lots of other poets.
You mentioned a break between Brown and Chicago?
Yes, let me jump back time before the Committee. I graduated from Brown in 1968, and enlisted in the Officers Candidate Program of the USMC. This was the result of a fundamentally callow and non-ideological decision. I wanted to go to the war of my time, and write about its moral emptiness from within. A little over a year later, while on Okinawa, I woke one morning to news of the massacre at My Lai, and knew then I would not any longer participate in the efforts of the Vietnam War. Six months later I applied for conscientious objector status, and in September of 1970 I was given an honorable discharge, one of the first Marine officers to be honorably discharged as a CO.
What was happening with your poetry at that time?
Not very much. When I began graduate work at Chicago, I had so much to learn, so much to catch up on, but I had great teachers, including Saul Bellow and the classicist David Grene, as well as the anthropologist Victor Turner, and the great linguist/poet A. K. Ramanujan. I had one course with Hannah Arendt and another with Harold Rosenberg shortly before each of these towering figures passed away. I also had an external reader for thesis, the poet/translator Edwin Honig, my mentor when I was at Brown. While I finished the thesis, I lucked out and landed a full time teaching job at Suffolk University in Boston, where Stefi, my then girlfriend (and now wife), was going to school at Harvard. At the time, the rueful fact was I only wrote enough poetry to keep the idea of writing poetry alive within me.
What happened after your first few years of teaching at Suffolk?
I recognized that I needed to find a way to center my life more on the writing of poetry than I had. So I walked away from my tenure-track job at Suffolk. I taught for a while in Harvard’s Expository Writing Program and was a Lecturer in the History and Literature Program at Harvard. Those two positions helped in a variety of ways to bring the writing of poetry to the center of my life’s work. There were lots of helping hands in the Boston/Cambridge literary community, more than I can thank in this quick snapshot. Suffice it to say I did not and could not have done it without the help and friendship of writers such as Richard Marius, Kathleen Spivack, Stratis Haviaras, Askold Melnyczuk, and Seamus Heaney. I also began going to summer workshops in different parts of the country, and they too felt life-saving, especially the ones with William Stafford, Robert Pinsky, and the astonishing Squaw Valley Community of Writers, wherein I worked with Galway Kinnell, Sharon Olds, Cornelius Eady, Toi Derricotte, and Robert Hass. In 1993, when I was forty-five years old, the Word Works Press awarded my first book manuscript the Washington Prize.
And your teaching life?
By the time my first book had arrived I had been invited back to Suffolk to direct and teach in an interdisciplinary program I had, with others, created in decade before. Shortly thereafter I founded the Creative Writing Program at Suffolk University. In the years that followed I had the chance to found the Suffolk University Poetry Center, now celebrating its fourteenth year of sponsoring a readings series and a host of other poetry-based work. In addition, the poet and editor Jennifer Barber brought to our department, Salamander, the literary journal she had founded over twenty years ago. Our creative writing program, in other words, took a teaching-learning village.
And how did Graywolf Press enter the picture?
Graywolf came in at the end of the millennium! I had known Fiona McCrae when she was in the Boston area and after assuming the directorship of Graywolf in the mid-nineties, she occasionally visited Graywolf authors in the Boston area. On one of those visits she gave me an envelope with a contract for my second book, Full Moon Boat. A few years later I was privileged to consult with Kim Stafford on The Way It Is, the posthumous edition of the work of his father, William Stafford. This led me to edit Another World Instead, a selection of Stafford’s work of his early years, when he was a conscientious objector during World War II. As mentioned earlier, Stafford had been a teacher of mine, and the commitment of Graywolf to keeping his work in print was an effort in which I was honored to be a part. Then in 2009, Graywolf published my collection The Looking House, a book that Barnes and Noble Review and the San Francisco Chronicle named as one of the best 10 books of poetry that year.
We are running out of time here, so could you say a few words about your translation work?
Happy to. Back in 1994 when my first book came out, I became affiliated with The William Joiner Institute for the Study of War and Social Consequences at UMass Boston. Its director, my friend the poet and translator, Kevin Bowen had by then begun a remarkable exchange of writers between Vietnam and the United States. Kevin was himself a combat veteran of the war, and has for most of his adult life devoted himself to fostering literary and artistic exchanges between the two countries. Along with Kevin worked Nguyen Ba Chung, the Joiner’s longtime professional Vietnamese translator. Himself uprooted from Vietnam by the war, he has given unstintingly of himself to “co-translation” efforts and projects, including mine. The first of those was a small book of lyrics by Tran Dang Khoa, a child prodigy of a poet during the years of the American war. More recently Chung and I have worked on Khoa’s later poems, and the poems of a poet from Hue city, Vo Que.
How did it come about that you published a book in Ireland?
The short answer is the poet and translator John F. Deane, who taught at the Joiner for several years, is also the founding director of Dedalus Press in Dublin, and he wanted to do that. But the short answer has a background. Irish on my mother’s side, I spent several months in Donegal in the year after I left the military. It was restorative in ways that are hard to explain, but you can read about that in the poem “Ard na Mara” in The Looking House. I think John Deane may have sensed in my work that kind of inexplicably deep connection to Ireland.
And what about your work with veterans?
The first classes and workshops I ever taught were in the Marine brig on Okinawa in 1970. Over the years, especially after I became involved with the Joiner Institute, I have always managed to do a significant amount of work with veterans. Some part of me recognizes and shares their sense that writing somehow makes the more inexplicable parts of our experience a bit more approachable. As Frost said, perhaps some momentary stays of confusion might result. I don’t think of my work with veterans as therapeutic, though of course it may be. I think of it the same way I think of all my poetry workshops. We are engaged in a pretty direct way with bringing experience, imagination, language, and form into dynamic relation with one another.
In addition to working with veterans at the Joiner Institute, I also began working with the Veteran Writing Group founded by Maxine Hong Kingston in the Bay Area. I first met Maxine on a Joiner delegation to Vietnam in 1997, and was honored in 1999 to be invited by that group to come out and facilitate a workshop that focused on poetry. The meetings are structured around various meditation practices, and I am honored to return to this writing “sangha” on an annual basis. Likewise, I feel the same privilege when I work with groups such as the Boston area “Warrior Writers.”
Any closing words?
In general, I also continue to teach poetry workshops in a variety of other contexts, particularly in the Colrain Poetry Manuscript Conferences, the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, and the Hudson Valley Writers’ Center. When I think of these workshops I often think of a story my mother told me as a boy, a family legend really. My great grandfather, she said, was an active Sinn Feinian, and one of his anti-colonial activities as a “hedge-row teacher.” In an era when the education of the rural Irish poor was illegal, the British arrested him and sent him into exile. Thus began that side of my family’s migration to the United States. The image of him teaching a small group behind a row of bushes lodged in my mind as a boy. I think now he must have been teaching poetry, and if not poetry alone, whatever he was doing it came out of a belief that words themselves mattered, that what they carried within them held the key to many, many dimensions of life.
Yes, that must have been what my ancestor was up to. As a poet and a teacher, I like to think and hope that I work in that tradition.
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