War poet Dan O'Brien: 'I want to move the reader. Empathy is the goal'

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It began when American playwright and poet Dan O’Brien heard an interview with Pulitzer prize-winning photojournalist Paul Watson, in which Watson said he felt haunted by the ghost of the dead US soldier he photographed in Mogadishu in 1993. It led to a unique collaboration between O’Brien, pictured second from right, and Watson, far right, producing a play, an opera, and a prize-winning collection of poems, with another collection on the way. In an interview with Write Out Loud, Dan O’Brien talks to Greg Freeman about the term “docu-poetry”; about how his “averagely fucked-up childhood” helped prepare him for writing about war; about the “modern epidemic” of post-traumatic stress disorder; and the special affection he feels for the poetry festival at Aldeburgh.  


The poems of War Reporter contain unimaginable horrors, told in a matter-of-fact voice. The great majority of the poem titles begin with the words “The War Reporter Paul Watson …” They read as a series of observations, straight from a reporter’s notebook, akin to the style of Hemingway. They also come in long chunks, with no separate stanzas. Does all this add up to what you would define as “docu-poetry”?

I understand why people — including myself, at times — might call this “docu-poetry.” But I don’t usually think of it that way. Despite the fact that many of these poems are derived from recorded conversations with Paul, from audio and video recordings he’s made in war zones, and from his own writing, to me they’re just poems.

Their form, such as it is, has been clear to me since the beginning of my collaboration with Paul. It began intuitively, as these things probably should. But as people have asked me about it I’ve grown to think that yes, the titles might suggest a reporter’s notebook, and the poems themselves look like blocks of newsprint. I doggedly insert his name in most every title because it’s important to me that people know that he is in many ways my co-writer.

But the form of these poems also suggests, at least to me, the compacted, enjambed confines of “Paul Watson” ’s haunted, hunted psyche. I put his name in quotes because these poems are my interpretation of him, of course. I trained as an actor before I started writing plays, and there’s something essentially theatrical about this entire endeavour with Paul. The column of text reminds me of the look and feel of classical, dramatic monologue as well. But that’s probably where the comparison should end.

How the titles read like TV episodes, or chapters in some 19th century serialised novel, is also something that simply happened because it felt right. But the repetition might mean something because war is repetitive, depressingly so, perhaps compulsively too, as is cruelty and abuse in more domestic spheres, which is what I’ve always written about anyway.


In another interview you have said: “I think of poetry in a very fundamental way. I want people to read them [poems] and connect emotionally. I’m not interested in elitist poetry. I’m more interested in narrative and voice and connecting with the reader.” It seems to me that war poetry is often written in direct language.  Do you feel this is important?

It’s been important for me. But artists have to be faithful to their own experience and tastes, of course. War poetry should just be poetry, and therefore multifarious.

Now that I’m thinking about it — to think of “war poetry” as its own sub-genre is to deny how common it is in human experience. War is life for more people than we care to admit, including those of us who think we enjoy lives untouched by war, though we suffer for it and benefit from it in all kinds of ways we may not be entirely aware of. So there’s that.

But no matter what I’m trying to write I try to be direct, in the sense of the poetry (or the play) not being a mainly intellectual experience for the reader, a cypher of symbol and metaphor. Grace and joy come from discovering symbol and metaphor in life, I think, so maybe that leads me along a more direct route artistically — Pound’s “direct treatment of the ‘thing,’ ” I suppose. Overall I want to connect and move the reader. Empathy is the goal.


You have said that your Paul Watson play, The Body of an American, which was shortlisted for an Evening Standard drama award, “is closer to poetry, because we’re often in Paul’s consciousness”. Another of your quotes is: “I’m a playwright moonlighting as a poet.”  Have you been surprised to find how much the two forms can overlap? Are you more of a poet than a playwright these days?

I haven’t been surprised by the overlap, in that I’ve always written this way. Genre distinctions are practical but often fantastical. Life is messier, more complicated, at least for me, and I’ve always been drawn to writers who not only write across genre but often seem to blur them.

I regret the “moonlighting as a poet” comment only slightly, because in the last several years I’ve been writing poems as much as plays. But I’ve been seeing those plays produced for almost 20 years now, whereas publishing my poetry has been a much more recent development, maybe the last five years or so.

It can be daunting from a career perspective (though it’s probably silly to speak of a “career”, as a poet or a playwright). Just when I was getting some attention writing plays I felt compelled to write poems. I didn’t know if I’d be any good at it, or if people would care. And I still don’t know. But I’ve been deeply grateful and indeed inspired by the support for these War Reporter poems, especially from the UK.


You second collection of poetry, Scarsdale, is on the surface about something completely different – your own family. In the introduction to War Reporter, you say: “Several years ago my birth family disintegrated for bewildering, mysterious reasons.” Is Scarsdale your attempt to work out what happened? Is it fanciful to describe it as a kind of war poetry, too  - an experience that prepared you, perhaps toughened you, for what was to come with Paul Watson?  At Aldeburgh you said: “If you had a stressful childhood, as I did, you do have a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder.”

I’m glad you’re drawing that comparison, Greg, because that’s certainly how I feel about Scarsdale. It can sound silly if not pretentious, of course, because Paul’s visiting war zones for 25 years is no doubt hugely more traumatising than anything I experienced growing up. That said, it was a pretty crazy and crazy-making family I was born into.

And yes, it’s obvious that child abuse creates lifelong symptoms similar if not identical to PTSD, and often without any clear sense of the source of that disorder for the survivors. So these adults often feel “haunted” by their symptoms. Which of course was one fundamental point of connection between me and Paul Watson: not only does Paul suffer from PTSD, but he believes he’s being haunted by the ghost of the dead American soldier he photographed in the streets of Mogadishu in 1993.

I’m sure my averagely fucked-up childhood did indeed prepare me for writing about Paul in some ways. I’ve always known that what’s so hard about living has to do with what’s repressed, hidden, lied about, and that if we could just find the words to communicate these burdens then we’d all be a lot saner, and kinder. That’s also how Paul understands his journalism.


Your poem that won the Troubadour prize back in December is one of a number of new Paul Watson poems. At Aldeburgh poetry festival the previous month you talked about a new collection of war poems that would be about Paul’s time in Syria, but also about him trying to let go of war reporting, and about “me trying to let go of him”.  Given that you’ve also written a very successful play and an opera on this subject, will this next collection of poems about Paul Watson be the last one, do you think? Or is it still too early to say?  

The new collection feels fairly finished, with lots of revision to come, I’m sure. But Paul says he’s done with war reporting now, so him walking away from war, and me walking away from him as a subject — that seems about right. Not to mention that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have “ended”. Of course they haven’t, really, and much of the new book deals with other writers and artists picking up the camera or the laptop to cover what’s happening now.

But Paul is working on two history books that we’ve discussed possibly adapting for the stage ... so you never know.


You have described Paul Watson, who I understand was born with one hand, as “someone who looks like an underdog”.  You’ve said he feels he needs to engage with the reality of war “to feel alive”, and also mentioned the curious fact that he has never looked at any of your finished work. That implies a great relationship of trust between you. How would you sum up what you feel about him?

Well, I don’t want to lionise or romanticise him. I feel like I have a pretty well-rounded idea of Paul as a complicated human being, as we all are. But I have such respect for what he’s done with his life, and maybe more importantly for what he continues to do, as he shares his experiences with others in an effort to raise awareness of this modern epidemic of PTSD.

And of course I have tremendous gratitude for how Paul has trusted me with his memories, his ghosts, if you will, not to mention with his very identity.  

I think that at the heart of it all we both admire what the other one does, how it’s something we can’t do for ourselves, and that maybe our work together is somehow better than it could be on our own.


At Aldeburgh in 2013 you won the Fenton Aldeburgh first collection prize with War Reporter, which meant you returned to the festival in 2014. I found your talk and reading on the morning of Remembrance Sunday morning at the Peter Pears Gallery in Aldeburgh, surrounded by Paul Watson’s war photographs on the walls, one of the most riveting poetry events I have attended.  Does Aldeburgh poetry have a special resonance for you – and is it possible to draw any comparisons between the UK poetry scene, and the corresponding poetry culture in the US?   Are there any significant differences?

I feel like I stumbled into Valhalla at Aldeburgh. Partly it’s the beauty of the place. And the ghosts — MR James stories have long been favourite bedtime reading.

The place is special because of the people I’ve met, the poetry I’ve heard, and the kind of poetry that Aldeburgh seems to appreciate. Communication is key. I haven’t found that anywhere else, with the possible exception of the Sewanee Writers’ Conference in Tennessee, where I often teach playwriting and can look over the shoulders of so many poets I admire, including two greats who passed away this year, Claudia Emerson and Mark Strand.

I’m too green, I think, to be able to draw any insightful comparisons between the US and the UK. I suspect the UK is more open to “political” poetry, and plays, but this is probably because I’m a sampling of one.

Regardless, I’m thankful. It’s a privilege for a poet to feel listened to. I’ve told my wife we may have to move to England. I’m working on her — we’ll see.


Picture shows, from right to left: Paul Watson, Dan O’Brien, Harry Smith (actor playing Dan O’Brien), and Ian Merrill Peakes (actor playing Paul Watson). It was taken after a recent performance of The Body of an American at the Wilma theatre in Philadelphia. Paul Watson was there to take part in talks relating to the play, which will be performed in a new production off-Broadway in 2015-16.


Background: Dan'Brien wins £5,000 Troubadour prize

Background: The haunting - Dan O'Brien talking at Aldeburgh



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