Dan O’Brien is an award-winning Los Angeles playwright and poet whose poetry appeared in ZYZZYVA No. 95 (Fall 2012). His most recently published work, War Reporter (Hanging Loose Press; 132 pages), is a collection of poems focusing on the Pulitzer Prize-winning Canadian reporter and author Paul Watson. We talked to Dan O’Brien via email about his work focusing on the life and career of Watson, a subject, he says, that “has helped me find a way to write both intimately and politically at the same time.”
ZYZZYVA: Before working on these poems, you wrote a play, directed by Bill Rauch, focusing on Paul Watson called “The Body of an American” (2012). Could you tell us more about your choice to address this material through poetry, since (I think?) you might describe yourself first as a playwright, and drama was your initial approach to the material?
Dan O’Brien: I’ve always been fairly fuzzy about genre. Though yes it’s fair to say I’ve spent much of my career writing plays. I got an MFA from Brown University in Playwriting and Fiction (and I continue to write and publish stories and essays from time to time). The truth is that I’ve been writing poems as long as I’ve been writing, but I’ve kept it private, largely. Partly it was working with Paul that gave me the courage and the drive to get these poems in print. Writing about Paul Watson has helped me find a way to write both intimately and politically at the same time, and it’s felt like a revelation.
But back to genre: the play was written first, yes, but it had to be so focused in terms of its dramatic action (relatively focused—it’s certainly a nontraditional play), that I found I had so much of Paul’s life “left over,” as it were. And I wanted a freer structure to explore more. Therefore the narrative of War Reporter, such as it is, is more elastic.
As I worked on the poems I found I could go much deeper into my Paul’s consciousness and memory, that the voices could be even more intimate and internal than the play can be.
And lastly, at least for me, poetry is the most naked and intimate of written forms. I want readers to feel that uncanny closeness that I feel to Paul’s experience.
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Z: Can you tell us about choosing particular moments from your life and Watson’s life to illustrate in poetry? So many of the poems crystallize fairly specific, self-contained events (as, for example, the two poems “The War Reporter Paul Watson on Guilt” and “The War Reporter Paul Watson Attends a Stoning” in ZYZZYVA).
DO: I’m still writing about events from Paul’s life—and experiences, conversations, communications I’m having with him—simply because this is what moves me the most. I try not to analyze or justify too much. I simply want to “translate” Paul’s life into something that feels like my life. The story of War Reporter is essentially that of a love story, of a peculiar friendship in modern times. I think of it as a deeply humanistic work probably, and not necessarily very political at all, at least in terms of advocating for specific policies. It attempts to witness the experience of one man, who just so happens to find himself enmeshed in the large geopolitical events of the last twenty-five years.
Z: Could we hear a little bit about the process of writing this work? Did the poems come naturally after having completed the play? Some moments seem particularly suited to verse—especially in the poems where Paul Watson is reciting a litany of horror, where the line breaks are these moments of suspense and escalation (here’s an example that particularly struck me as powerful, from “The War Reporter Paul Watson on Suicide”: “…A pregnant friend/slit open and her fetus extruded/like a docile calf.”) But the material is also so emotionally difficult—I admit I had to read the book in pieces.
DO: The play, poems, and opera continue to develop naturally—as I get to know Paul better, as our lives change, as our friendship deepens. There’s never been a great deal of conceptualizing involved. I’ve simply wanted to tell Paul’s story, and to a smaller degree my story through his. We both conceive of our calling as one of telling people about things that they probably don’t want to hear. And I’m not sanctimonious about this impulse to hide from ugliness—when I first read Paul’s memoir, [Where War Lives], I, too, had to read it in small doses. And I still do. There’s room in life for distraction. But too much denial of reality drives me crazy. My childhood was full of lies, some of the lies inseparable from delusion, and it was a disaster for all involved.
Paul took his famous Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph because the Pentagon was denying that dead U.S. soldiers had already been desecrated in the streets of Mogadishu in the weeks previous. He believes that without that institutional denial, military policy would have been revised earlier, thus avoiding the Battle of Mogadishu, the Black Hawk Down disaster, the killing and desecration of Staff Sgt. William David Cleveland, and by extension Paul’s own haunting. (Paul even thinks the story of Al-Qaeda and the last twelve years would be quite different, and less lethal, but that’s a longer story.) I believe strongly, on levels political as well as personal, that denial almost always leads to destruction of one form or another, and that facing one’s reality, no matter how disturbing or ugly, brings with it the potential for peace, grace, even beauty.
Z: I’m also interested in your decision to examine a war reporter, as opposed to a soldier or other combatant (that is, someone who directly participates in war). Obviously there’s a link between The Reporter Paul Watson and The Poet, who is also a “war reporter,” if one of a different bent.
DO: I wrote about Paul because I identified with him so deeply. At first because of his almost tragic sense of being haunted, of being cursed. That he happened to be a writer-photographer and not a soldier was secondary. But of course you’re right, there’s a great deal of similarity between what journalists and literary writers do. We’re both often observers rather than active participants. We both chase the high-stakes story, for moral reasons, for aesthetic reasons, for possible career reward. And yes, sometimes we’re tempted to be more active, to do more than just record and witness. It can be both a privilege and a trap to witness.
Z: Could you tell us more about your artistic decision to write using personae—if that’s the term you’d use to describe, for example, “The War Reporter Paul Watson,” “the Poet,” and “the Ghost”/”the Voice,” which speaks to both the Poet and Paul Watson?
DO: An uncanny sense of both sameness and difference with Paul Watson has been fundamental to the entire, ongoing endeavor. So the use of “personae” wasn’t so much a choice as something natural, seemingly obvious, a passionate form of curiosity. I was also just following my fear. Writing about Paul, and through him the life and death he’s witnessed, has at times been every bit as upsetting and overwhelming as it might be to readers. And yet that fear also propels me. It gives me, probably, some small spurt of what the “adrenalin junky” breed of a war reporter must receive in torrents. Long before this project, however, I’ve always felt an almost compulsive desire to examine things that frighten me. To try to own them, frame them, by putting words to them. An ancient impulse. It was there when I first started trying to write poems as an adolescent.
As a playwright, also, it’s natural for me to write in the voice of others. And I should say that writing in the voice of “the Poet” is just as much a fiction, the creation of a character. Though for the most part I promise you I’m trying to be honest.
Z: Could you tell us more about the moments of almost-respite where the Poet and Paul Watson are in the Canadian High Arctic “try[ing] to have fun”? It’s such a departure from the war zones so present in the rest of the poems.
DO: I’m glad that you’re picking up on the “respite” nature of the Arctic poems (derived from a trip Paul and I took to Ulukhaktok in the Northwest Territories in 2010, on the banks of the mostly now-navigable Northwest Passage). Some of it’s meant to be ironic, because of course Paul’s ghosts followed him there. Just as anyone’s ghosts follow anyone anywhere. Mine followed me there, too.
Another irony is that the War Reporter and the Poet (and the Reader) discover that the “peaceful” world of the Arctic has a lot in common with life in warzones—poverty, misogyny, imperialism, racism. But yes, I wanted the reader to feel what I felt then, the relief of the very slight comedy of our trip. And I’d like you to feel some of the disappointment, too, because I wanted to explore, exploit, satirize the romantic notion many of us have: that the Arctic is some kind of blank, bleak canvas for redemption. I even wanted to satirize—with empathy—the very human belief that redemption of all kinds of trauma is possible. It’s not, in my opinion. Trauma marks you and changes you. But once changed, something creative may at times be possible.
Z: In the introduction to your poetry collection, you tell us that having discovered Paul Watson’s work around the same time that your birth family disintegrated “wasn’t a coincidence.” I’d love to hear more about this serendipity, and how it ties in with your decision to bring the Poet into this work.
DO: It’s felt profound to have found Paul’s work when I did. A great deal of the collection is about just that. It’s changed me as a writer and as a person, and in more mystical moods I feel like something ineffable is going on. I’m much more “engaged” with life, in general. Less fatalistic. More prone to write about events that I don’t understand or can’t control, much more interested in responding to life, rather than rendering some kind of aesthetic verdict. It’s freeing. Above all I want to use my writing to connect more deeply with others. As a younger writer I’d use my writing to protect myself from life, as an escape, which is common, of course, if not necessary. But this type of writing with Paul has become a deliverance from isolation, from loneliness, a road of connection with people, which is after all more important than writing.
And my work with Paul has brought me a greater sense of connection with the geopolitical world, too (for lack of a better phrase). Years ago I would have felt too inadequate and insecure to even attempt some sort of creative response to [the recent] gas attack outside Damascus, for instance. But via the voice of Paul I’ve been able to try to write about it. And now this type of writing feels personal, I feel responsible. Responsibility doesn’t have to mean guilt—it can also mean there’s an opportunity to respond. To take action, in whatever way my talents and energies allow.
The character of the Poet has to be here in these poems. I’m not interested in simply illustrating “Paul Watson’s” life. What’s at stake for the artist in such an arrangement?
Z: The closing lines of the collection’s final poem (“The War Reporter Paul Watson Invites the Poet”)—”I promise to keep you as safe/as I can. Though of course nobody knows/what will happen out here”—are utterly chilling in light of what precedes them. Did you find it difficult to conclude a work that has no clear resolution and no clear solution either? Or did the reality of Watson’s situation (and the world’s situation at large) make the ending inevitable?
DO: This ending felt inevitable to me. My experience with Paul is ongoing, and while I would have liked to have found a “cure” for his haunting—or for my lesser haunting, for that matter—the truth is of course never so simple. In the end the voice that Paul heard, the voice he believes was Sgt. Cleveland, “If you do this, I will own you forever”—this can be understood as a call to greater responsibility, the responsibility of the witness. And some measure of that sense of responsibility has been communicated to me by writing about him, and perhaps to the reader in reading about us.