An interview with Kevin Bowen

The interview with Kevin Bowen that follows was conducted for Curbstone Press in 2001, following 9/11. Curbstone is a literary arts organization, founded in 1975, dedicated to having readers examine social issues in order to promote a deeper understanding between cultures and to commit to promoting human rights.

Who has influenced you the most as a writer?
That's a good question.  There are so many influences. I think for the poets of World War I, poets who many who've written about Vietnam obviously have been influenced by people like Rosenberg, Owen, Sassoon, Jones, Appollinaire, Trakl, Gurney.  Also my own contemporaries, people like Bruce Weigl who was a teacher, Yusef Komunyakaa, Tim O'Brien, who everyone thinks is writing prose but is really writing poetry.  Larry Heinemann and Carolyn Forche too.  Add to them all the Chinese poets, and Williams, and Wright. I'd have to say translating has had a great influence.  Vietnamese poets like Nguyen Duy, Pham Tien Duat, Y Nghi.  Most recently I've been rereading a lot of Irish poetry, Yeats, Kavanaugh, Evan Boland, McGuckian, Nuala Ni Dhomnhail, Muldoon, Paulin, Longley, Carson.  I guess I'm constantly being influenced, constantly discovering and rediscovering the poets, each of whom somehow becomes an influence on me.

Some say that poems have the power to console, in the light of current events do you agree with this and why?
Yes, I think that's definitely true.  The day after the attack on the World Trade Center people were calling in to the radio programs reading poems. I think poetry gives meaning, context, body to experience, it can connect us to our lives and the lives of those around us in profound and startling ways. It approaches the inexpressible, which is what the tragic is, and gives it expression. When I say poetry here, I don't mean simple propaganda or sentimental verse, which tries to impose meaning on suffering, the tragic, not Rupert Brooke. I mean something else entirely.

What do you think distinguishes Vietnam poems from previous war poetry?
I think the poetry of the Vietnam War does hearken back to poetry from World War I. The themes of betrayal, of the enormity of war, of its brutality, the creation of an enormous gulf between past and present, the world before and the world after the war, they are there.  The same kind of refusal to accept the ornamental is there too, the experiments with forms, the feeling of kinship with the "enemy"—the embrace of the human.  The sense that young men and women's lives are caught in a great vortex and their power of agency is down to the most basic, the most human.  It shares, I think a kind of anger at the political and civilian worlds, worlds that go on with business-as-usual, while soldiers and civilians caught in the war are dying.  Fussell talks a bit about this sense in The Great War and Modern Memory, the great conscripted armies, the soldiers who still thought of themselves as civilians and so felt compelled to show the "homefront" or what we called "the world" the true face of the war they were being asked to fight in their name.  It's a kind of 'witnessing' that went on with Vietnam as well.

Can you tell us a little about the William Joiner Center for the Study of War and its Social Consequences at the University of Massachusetts?
The Joiner Center was formed in 1982, named after Bill Joiner, an African American Veteran and UMass Boston's first director of its Office of Veterans Affairs.  Largely staffed by veterans of the Vietnam War, the center sponsors research, courses, conferences, exhibits, workshops, and exchanges.  It also is home to an extensive archive.  Over the years we're done work on Agent Orange, PTSD, Gulf War Syndrome, and other health related issues.  We regularly sponsor an institute for high school teachers each summer on "teaching the Vietnam War."  We run a three-week study program on Vietnamese History and Culture each July at Hue University in Vietnam.  The last two weeks of June each year we host a two-week Writers Workshop bringing together writers from the U.S., Vietnam, and many other parts of the world including Latin America and Ireland.  We've sponsored numerous working trips to Vietnam working on everything from health issues, to literature, to international copyright law.  Writes and activists such as Bruce Weigl, Grace Paley, Larry Heinemann, Maxine Hong-Kingston, Fred Marchant, Bill Ehrhart, and many others have participated.  Sandy Taylor helped us working with Vietnamese editors and publishers on one of our trips. We've been involved in a number of translation projects, including most recently the new poetry series with Curbstone. While our primary focus is Vietnam, we look at conflict around the world.

What writing projects are you working on now for future publication?
Right now I'm trying to finish up a couple of projects.  Two translation projects.  One a collection of short stories by Nguyen Minh Chau; the other the finishing touches of a collection for Curbstone titled Six Vietnamese Poets.  As far as my own work is concerned I'm still working on a novel that I've been struggling with the last few years.  I'm also working on a long poem about the village where my grandmother came from in Ireland.  I guess I've found myself writing more and more about Ireland now that I go back with my family each summer.

Questions for Reflection: An interview with Kevin Bowen by Shelley Yeager

  1. Who are your favorite writers? How have they been an influence to you? Kevin Bowen names a number of writers who have been influential to him as a writer? How many of these people do you know? A number of them appear in the Voices in Wartime module, The Great War, and a few in this module. Select one or two writers. Locate some of their poetry and write a brief report on their poetry and your reaction to the poems you read.
  2. What meaning does poetry have in your life? How do you relate to what Bowen’s said about poetry giving meaning to an experience and connecting us to it? How can poetry provide comfort during difficult times? How can poems can be timeless?
  3. How might poetry be more connected to an event than other forms of writing?
  4. Why is it important to have places like the Joiner Center? How can places like the Center help to further our education?
  5. Why do you think that Bowen finds himself writing poems about Ireland? What subjects do you think poets are most attracted to? If you write poetry, what do you find yourself writing about?