I met Bruce Weigl in 1997. I was in a writing workshop that followed the class he taught, and he used to sit with our group for a few minutes before the professor showed up and talk about anything from Bob Dylan to writing to baseball. Later, as a student in one of his poetry workshops, I came to admire his approach and ability in working with a room full of novice writers. Today, Bruce is a Distinguished Professor of Arts and Humanities at Lorain County Community College in Ohio. He was very gracious in agreeing to this interview, which we conducted through email. We discussed poems from his most recent book,Declension in the Village of Chung Luong.
DJ: Bruce, I’m moved by your willingness to peel back layers of your psyche as a means of self discovery while also serving as a mirror for the reader. Rather than making peace with the past, in “Declension” you seem to have negotiated an uneasy ceasefire where the occasional midnight shot still rings out. At the same time, the poems force the reader to examine a very unsettling present reality and future vision.
I’d like to frame my questions around a few of the pieces within “Declension” if you don’t mind.
The first poem I read was, “The Stakes as Hands”. I was struck by the following:
“Yet it’s only snow. The stakes are stakes, not hands that reach/ to strangers who may pass my house or not.”
This seems to be a comment on the nature of metaphor in our lives. Have you, or we, for that matter, gotten to the point where metaphor no longer serves us, or can be seen as providing too much of a blanket under which we hide from the truth just on the other side of the veil?
BW: I like to fight for the literal in poetry, at the very least as a starting point for the reader and for the writer, but it’s a literal in my mind that’s layered and that offers up deeper and more abiding meaning the more you lean on it. Metaphor is beautiful of course and we couldn’t live without them, but at the same time, it becomes too easy sometimes to hide behind the ambiguity of metaphor. I wanted to bring into those poems the beauty of a thing said straight if I could.
DJ: What is the place of metaphor, especially as we attempt to dig deeper toward the absolute truth of things (assuming an “absolute truth” exists)?
BW: I’m not sure poetry is capable of “absolute truth,” if there is such a thing. The only absolute truth I have any faith in is from the dharma and that’s called “ultimate truth,” although more faithful Buddhists would say that any talk of the dharma is simply another kind of conventional truth, like the truth about the names of things. It also has to do with a regard for emptiness (non-nature) as a reality that’s ultimately incapable of being narrowly defined by concepts. Metaphor is a useful and sometimes powerful figure of speech but like anything else in poetry, it needs to emerge naturally from the drama of the poem, whatever kind of poem it may happen to be.
DJ: In the poem, “In Love with Easeful Death”, you distill the scene down to this tragically beautiful image of the white rabbit hopping through your midnight vision:
“I don’t ask anymore what’s real, and I told no one/ about the absolutely white rabbit/…I told no one,/ but I caught myself wondering,/ and then I stopped.”
Here you seem to be asking your readers to choose between the truth of a vision and the metaphor behind it. I’m curious of your thoughts on this.
BW: That’s an interesting take on those lines, and thank you for asking me about this poem. English, largely because of our Anglo-Saxon roots, is an inherently metaphorical language. It’s practically impossible to say something in English without it also being a metaphor for something else. This is not always a good thing. ometimes when you write “shite,” you want it to mean “shit,” and so on and so forth. It’s not true that I don’t see metaphors at work regarding the white rabbit, how could I not, and I welcomed them, but for me the choices had to do more with the literal sound and sense of the poem. Of course what’s behind all of this is the fact that anything examined closely reveals more and more about itself.
DJ: Staying with this theme, there’s the following line in “The Head of the Company”:
“I still had faith in those days that the truth mattered…”
What do you see is our ultimate relation to truth, and what is the poet’s role in opening truth up for us?
BW: It’s a slippery slope until all parties agree upon terms, but for me, truth in poetry has to do with a particular quality of voice – which may or may not be entirely artifice – but which has the power to draw me into itself and force me to see the world as I should have seen it all along; it’s that, and the sense too that when you read the poem, you feel the weight of a whole life there, projected back into time from that single sustained moment of the poem.
DJ: I recall you once said that a poet should never ask questions in a poem. (You said this a decade ago during an undergrad lecture.) As much as I wonder if you still feel this way, or adhere to this “rule” yourself, how does this notion relay back to the poet’s role in guiding us closer to truth?
BW: I’m sure I said that, and I’m also sure that there are countless examples of the appropriate use of questions in poetry (Homer comes to mind), but when I teach writing poetry, and when I write poetry myself, I want all of the questions to be answered by the writer; I want the writer to take responsibility for answering any questions that may come up, otherwise who else is there to answer them. It’s that simple for me.
DJ: Finally, I’d like to talk just a moment about two poems, “This No Where” and “Portal”.
“This No Where” opens with the following: “This is just a picture that we live inside,/ white house, black shutters/ frozen snow on the roof and on the ground./ This is just a movie we imagine is our lives…”
Balance this opening against the opening of “Portal”:
“In our hallucination, the children are instructed/ in the ways of finding shelter/ when the rain of our bombs comes down/ on their small villages and schools.”
In both cases, it seems as if one could apply words such as “wishful thinking” to replace an uncomfortable or unfortunate reality, whether the notion that there’s nothing more to strive for than three bedrooms and a two-car garage, or that children are safe in the war zones we create. Or, as you say toward the end of “Portal”:
“We try to possess beauty with our lying eyes/ and think we know what beauty is or does/”
These lines seem to have been written by someone who, upon digging to what he felt was as far down as he could go, (or climbing to the top, if you will), discovered that he’d merely worked his way to the start of an entirely new layer, “With miles to go” as Frost put it. I’d like to get your feelings about this. And, in serving as a mirror, what are these lines reflecting back to the person for whom wishful thinking has replaced the grimmer reality that’s waiting to be exposed and expressed?
BW: That’s difficult, especially since I’ve just spent two years finishing another book and haven’t thought about this one very much in awhile, but I’m certain that what you’re reacting to there is the idea that I tried to build the book around: the image and the landscape, and the language of literal and figurative decline. These are images for me of what could be the end of days, or at the very least, images of an enormous moral collapse. “Portal” is about what it says it’s about: openings between this world and other worlds, which sounds outrageous to talk about literally but which have deep meaning for many people. It comes from my Stephen Hawkins/George Jetson theories about time travel. In terms of the lines being “reflected back” as you say, I think that works too because the words are meant to be like incantations in those poems; like testimony that the speaker has to be accountable for, has to stand up for when the time comes.