On “New Life”: An Interview with Dan O’Brien

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To be haunted is to be compelled to acknowledge the residual. That which is haunting is that which resists forgetting. Even when we consider a haunting in the Hollywood sense–the mysterious slamming of doors, the groans of an old house–it is an insistence that what has passed is still sentient and capable and chaotic, an inescapable shove towards remembering.

Playwright and poet Dan O’Brien’s New Life–the sequel to his collection War Reporter, winner of the 2013 Fenton Aldeburgh First Collection Prize–is an account of haunting. It revisits the material of War Reporter, chronicling not only the events of that book but their consequences. Here, haunting is a currency and a contagion. Paul Watson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer and subject of New Life, is haunted by the soldier he photographed. Dan O’Brien, in turn, is haunted by Watson’s story and compelled to return to it.

One of the most exciting aspects of this collection is its form, with the poems often formatted as email exchanges between O’Brien and Watson, or at least the author’s rendering of these two figures. The style tests the idea that economical and lyrical are a dichotomy, occupying both spaces in turns that are gutting and gratifying. “On the 13th day of the sickest month / my brother threw himself out the window / of our house. So poetry,” begins “The Poet’s Annus Mirabilis,” its deflection both bitterly comical and emotionally transparent. It’s one of the many connective tissues between O’Brien and Watson, a wariness honed by pain into resilient cleverness.

This is where the poems shine most brightly, when we see not just O’Brien and O’Brien’s Watson in conversation with each other, but when their narratives directly interact. Take the poem “The War Reporter Paul Watson Recalls the Night Stalker,” which ends: “Forgive me, just understand / I don’t want to do this. No. We have to / do this. Yes. We have to do this / until we don’t.” It stresses the tautology that pervades these poems, that drives both O’Brien and O’Brien’s Watson, that they are haunting that which haunts them, that they are specters trapped in the same creaking houses that keep them up at night. Just consider the line that precedes it: “If you do this I will own you / forever.” It’s a sentiment that dangles its weight over both figures in the collection. That which you capture–in a photograph, in a poem, in any art form–also captures you.

Apropos of the email exchanges in New Life, I had the pleasure of having my own email correspondence with Dan O’Brien to discuss combat sex, letting go, and why Paul Watson doesn’t read his poems.

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You’ve worked with and written about Paul Watson before. New Life is not only the sequel to the collection War Reporter, but the play The Body of an American and the opera The War Reporter. These works, New Life included, explore the consequences–both short- and long-term, global and personal–of Watson’s 1994 Pulitzer-winning photograph of the corpse of an American soldier in Mogadishu. How did you begin working with Watson? And what made you two decide to renew this collaboration for New Life?

In 2007 I heard Paul Watson on the radio discussing the taking of his Pulitzer photo, and how he has felt literally haunted by the ghost of that soldier ever since. I felt haunted by his hauntedness. I recognized a deep—and frightening—similarity in our psychologies, amidst the more obvious differences. I suspected that I might be able to write something meaningful about him, and to some degree with him, if he were amenable, and luckily he was. We corresponded for a few years, eventually met in person in the winter of 2010 in Ulukhaktok in the Canadian High Arctic where he was writing a piece for the Toronto Star, and we’ve been friends and collaborators ever since. I now consider Paul one of my closest friends, and I prize our friendship above anything I’ve been able to write about him.

I should make clear that Paul gives me access to his photos, his videos, his notes, lets me adapt his writing, his memories, even take some poetic license here and there with his identity and his life. But he’s never read my poems or seen the play, owing to the ghosts it might stir up. So it’s a peculiar collaboration, but one that works for me.

New Life has been a natural continuation of the previous pieces, most specifically the poetry collection War Reporter. I had “finished” that book, but the poems kept coming. Paul was often in Afghanistan and Syria, my wife was pregnant with our daughter Isobel, we lost a close friend to leukemia. A central element in New Life is Paul’s desire to leave war reporting for Hollywood, and how he and I spent a good part of 2013 creating an extensive pitch for a cable TV drama about western journalists covering the war in Syria and the rise of ISIS. I have a Guggenheim Fellowship this year to write a play based on this pitch (and the pitch is itself embedded in New Life), so Paul and I continue to work together going forward.

It’s fascinating, but understandable, that Paul Watson doesn’t read these poems. Does that affect at all the way you write them?

He’s given me a degree of freedom I’m sure I wouldn’t have had with a more conventional collaboration. We’ve even discussed the degree to which my “Paul Watson” character is really me, imagining myself as him, if that makes sense, and he gets that and seems fine with it. My empathy for Paul, and Paul’s for his subjects, is central to the whole endeavor. I used to be an actor, long, long ago, and wearing this mask of “Paul Watson” has been liberating.

During our Hollywood adventure I audio recorded all of our conversations, with his knowledge and consent. I’ve been recording our conversations for years now. In this way I’ve felt like an amateur documentarian or even a journalist. As a dramatist I’ve also been intrigued by how this relationship creates a dynamic of performance on Paul’s part (and mine I’m sure as well).

I hope Paul trusts me now. I believe he does. At first I suspect he simply felt he had to trust me, that the “curse” he feels regarding the photo he took of Staff Sgt. William David Cleveland in Mogadishu in 1993 obliges Paul somehow to share his life and story in any and all ways. One of the poems in New Life, “The War Reporter and the Poet Share a Curse,” tries to look at this idea, as I’ve felt a similar obligation in terms of my familial history.

 A lot of these poems fall into a category I’d like to dub the “email epistolary.” They mirror the correspondence you mention with Paul, but are so brief and striking that they feel more like emails than letters. How did you decide the representation of your correspondence was an important aspect to this collection, or did these sorts of poems just start to emerge on their own? 

Many of these poems do indeed derive from our emails to each other, but fewer, I think, than in my first book about Paul, War Reporter. Often the epistolary is a kind of first-draft scaffolding for me, and the poem then absorbs other sources—things Paul’s said to me in person (and things he hasn’t said), Paul’s journalism and his notes, ekphrastic takes on his photographs, and pure imagination on my part.

The fact that we’re both writers—similar in some ways, different in others—lends itself to this epistolary conversation. I want to use his words as much as I can, provided I find them to be poetically “alive,” dramatically revealing, if they sound like words I might use myself were I Paul and having his experiences. But ultimately there’s a kind of porous border between “the war reporter” and “the poet” here; we’re kind of the same person, in some fundamental way.

From the beginning I’ve been drawn to the concept of distance, emotional and physical, between Paul and me, between anyone really. Something about an email, from me in Santa Monica on my MacBook to Paul in Kandahar or Aleppo on his satellite phone—this feels at once modern and ancient to me.

There’s a safety in what he and I write to each other, the safety of the language we choose and the narratives we construct for each other. But I probably enjoy even more the tension and dynamism I feel when he and I have been able to spend time together in conversation, even, sometimes, in a certain measure of conflict—in the Arctic in War Reporter, in Hollywood in New Life, for example.

I think one of the finest things about this collection is its deft hand for managing violence. It’s an issue that comes up in the poem “The War Reporter and the Poet Fight”: “This is Hollywood so they’re expecting / Bang Bang, Combat Sex.” How do you handle balancing an authentic portrayal of war and trauma while avoiding going into combat sex/disaster porn territory?

My aim has been to look as squarely as I can, with clear eyes, at the truth of what human beings are capable of doing to each other. This is Paul’s aim too. Denial is a killer, and if we all felt the horror that so many are forced to experience I know there would be less violence in the world. This is a conviction I’ve had about life and about my writing long before I met Paul, though in the past I probably spent most of my time concentrating on stories of emotional violence, often of child abuse. It’s all the same. The weak are exploited and abused by the powerful, and silence, obfuscation, denial is a complicity that must be confronted.

Paul and I felt a certain, probably obvious pressure to push our TV pitch towards “combat sex/disaster porn” territory when pitching our nascent series to the networks—HBO, Showtime, AMC, all the possible homes for a “grown-up” drama. Paul probably felt this pressure more than I did. I was more sanguine about our chances, and I had—with his blessing—this poetry collection in my back pocket as a more comfortable artistic expression for me. But I felt it too, of course—the pull and the temptation of a popular art form.

But these poems were, again, just for me. I didn’t and don’t feel any commercial pressure (ha!). So when writing I simply focused on what felt, to me, like an honest appraisal and a poetic translation of the violence and cruelty that people like Paul witness.

Thank you for taking the time to talk to me about this collection. To wrap up, I’d love to know what the last poem you wrote for the collection was. I feel like it often says a lot about the writer’s journey through the book to see where he/she more or less “wound up.”

I know generally which poems were written near the end, but I’m not sure I can pinpoint a specific poem, especially as I tend to obsessively-compulsively (in the truly clinical sense) revise as I go. My best guess would be “The War Reporter Paul Watson Finds It Beautiful,” a poem based on something Paul told me about visiting his mother in her nursing home on his way back from one of his many visits to hell. It was and is a simple poem, purely familial if not domestic, quiet, and I hope moving. I think it takes on extra meaning and emotional power because of the poems that come before, and a few that follow. And I hope it crystalizes something of the motivating force in the composition of this book: the search for beauty in the rubble of a world of sorrow. It’s also about Paul learning to let go of his elderly mother, and maybe about me learning to let go of writing about Paul.

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New Life will be published by CB Editions on October 13, 2015. A US edition will be available from Hanging Loose Press in Spring, 2016.

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