Reflections on Poetry

By Tod Marshall, Washington State Poet Laureate and Gonzaga Professor of English

I had the good fortune of teaching Sierra Golden (’09) in several courses at Gonzaga, and I knew immediately that she had talent – lots of it. Of course, talent is only a small part of the equation when it comes to success in writing, and in the nearly 10 years that I’ve known Sierra, I’ve been impressed with her perseverance (the other part of the equation) – from her time as the only female member of a fishing boat crew (tighter quarters than the smallest of our dorms) to her years at Gonzaga studying literature and writing (where she achieved our highest honors) through graduate school in North Carolina (where she started publishing poems) to her work in Seattle with Spanish language communities, she has shown herself to be dedicated to hard work and the task at hand. I’m glad to share this small glimpse into her wonderful writing.

GRUB

Craig, AK
By Sierra Golden, (’09)

That’s my dad, he said, and I watched
the practiced pair box groceries. Only market
in town, unless you count the liquor store
across the street from the laundromat
where fishermen collect to gossip and swap
dirty magazines while smoking and soaking
scent of fish from their lucky pair of sweats.
The kid ran the register and slid milk, eggs,
whatever couldn’t keep long on the boat,
down the counter, stopped to help with boxes
when his dad fell behind trying to Sharpie
cardboard for delivery, heap of groceries piled
before him. He asked, How do you spell ‘Challenger’?
I take the word for granted. The boy must too,
though he spells it aloud for his father.
It was graceful and sad that summer, watching
salmon die in the same stream where they hatched.
Their bodies we call ghost fish might swim for days,
hollow as zombies the man and boy watch on TV at dusk.


What He Carries

An interview with Tim O’Brien by Rajah Bose

Tim O’Brien sounded like a man telling a war story – a rough, gravelly voice that shuttered when recalling how his friend was killed only few feet away. It was something familiar, the methodical pace, the calming low tone that pushed the limit of my phone’s speaker.

Suddenly the voice was interrupted as a mug clanked against a glass microwave plate. It was noon and O’Brien was rewarming a cup of coffee. He’d been up since 2 a.m., had already finished a day’s work and was preparing for the rest of this afternoon.

Between stories about trekking across Vietnam and his upcoming memoir, he told me his modus operandi. This is how he works: a 1:30 a.m. wake-up, a methodical cleaning of the kitchen while the world sleeps, allowing his mind to wander, then a seven-hour writing session until after sunrise. In that time, he may pen a few sentences or a few pages. It’s the only way, he says, he can get any writing done.

O’Brien sounds like a man telling a war story – with a rough, gravelly voice that shudders when recalling the moment a friend was killed only few feet away.

His books, a mix of fiction and memoir, are largely recollections and stories from his time serving in the Vietnam War. A few hours before we talked, I’d finished his most famous one –“The Things They Carried.” I was struck by a piece called “How To Tell A True War Story,” in which O’Brien recalls the death of a fellow soldier multiple times, with varying degrees of continuity. He tells the story from outside the usual form, remembering the moments and re-rehearsing them, changing them, and then telling them again. I told him this was my favorite part of the book. He agreed. He said the book relied on it because all the other stories were built on the same premise – the persistence of memory.

“How much do you remember of yesterday? Then flash forward, and how much will you remember eight months from now or eight years from now? The answer is damn little.” As he said this, he sounded increasingly excited about exposing what seemed an impossibility in writing, or a catch-22. “How can you write a memoir when you can’t remember 99 percent of what happened?”

It’s a question I was still considering when I heard him read at Gonzaga a few weeks later. O’Brien opened a battered copy of his book and read the same story we’d discussed on the phone, to the audience. From my seat I heard the stories as if they were new.

What was not new was his voice, steady and weathered. Suddenly I realized where I knew it from. It was the voice of who we are as the sons and daughters of war. Not all of us have been, or lost sisters or fathers to it, but we’ve heard the voice. Often it comes through stories of love, or loss, or fishing trips, or war.

As he read, O’Brien said that the way to tell a true war story is to keep telling it. “All you can do is tell it one more time, patiently, adding and subtracting, making up a few things to get at the real truth.” You want to make stories feel as if it they were real, he said.

It’s part of O’Brien’s work that some readers gather in book clubs or classes to discuss at length. If these are true stories, how are they classified as fiction? And if they are memoir, how does the writer simultaneously admit to not remembering the events as they happened?

We sat as quietly as a full ballroom could, and I thought about why many of us struggle with stories – wake up early with them, stay up into the night. I considered that this is what O’Brien was getting at. It’s why he continues to think back to that war, to wash dishes at 2 a.m., and spend hours inside of sentences.

He’s only looking for the story. He knows he won’t find it where it’s expected to be, and he cannot force it to the surface by his will alone. He understands that first he, and we, must surrender to the possibility that we can never truly know how it happened. We can only listen to the voice, and hope that it will help us remember.

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