Conversations, Bradley Paul with Richard Jackson, 28 October 2011

Technique & Content: Simic, screenwriting, and soldiers in Afghanistan


Jackson asks Bradley Paul to discuss the shift in his poetry from an emphasis on technique to an emphasis on content, the influences on his work of Charles Simic, grwoing up in Baltimore, and writing screenplays, and the effects on his teaching, particularly online with American soldiers in Afghanistan.

Paul: There's a line in a Wordsworth poem in which he's looking at a painting . . admiring the technique of it. Wordsworth's brother died drowning, and it's a painting of the ocean and how wild it is, and for many years he had seen it and loved the technique . . . but now . . . he can't look at it the same way. . . . He says, "A great distress hath humanized my soul," and I don't want to make it sound too grand, but I think that's . . . what happened [to me]. I think it's true for a lot of people in undergrad and grad school in the first years after getting out, they are really interested in technique and cleverness and cuteness. Especially, when you are in your twenties, you see yourself as this cute, clever person, and get rewarded from it. Then . . . my mother and my grandmother die fairly close to one another. One day, you're just like, "I'm done fooling around." The cute stuff, the clever stuff, it just doesn't work any more. The interesting thing, you go back and look at some of the people that you had read for a long time--for example, Charles Simic, whom I've read for a long time--and the things that appealed to you when you were 24 like the cleverness and the word play--which there's a lot of in Simic--that stuff starts to recede. You start seeing past that. You see the content behind it. Here's a guy who saw so much war when he was a little kid, so much death, and it's not just irony. It's this whole other world view.

. . . I tend to look at things at a remove, and sometimes--I don't want to say that I'm cold-hearted--but there have been times when I have been on the street, and I've seen something happen that, whereas some people might gasp, [I] chuckle at it. Part of this might also come from growing up in Baltimore where you see absurd things or profane things happen on the street on a daily basis. On one hand, I feel this great loyalty and sense of obligation that I should be living in Baltimore, working in Baltimore, . . . but then there is . . . a desire to get out and see other places, live other places, and I wound up in Los Angeles.

[Screenwriting is] a really different process from writing poetry. . . . [E]ven though it's art, and you're putting a lot of yourself into it, it's an industrial product. . . . [Y]ou start showing it to producers and managers, . . . have meetings, . . . taking notes, and they're not notes, critical marks, in the sense that you would get in a poem, like "Do this to make the poem better." They're more like "Do this to make the screenplay more marketable." And they will come down, a lot of times, to "We need a girl," or "The girl needs to do this," or "The main character"--and this is, I think, even if you write novels, . . . unpleasant to hear, but ". . . needs to be more sympathetic." . . . {M]aybe you need a few more pages torturing the bad guy and fewer pages of wisecracks from the bad guy. And . . . they're all just trying to guess, and chasing the market, and that can become incredibly frustrating, especially when you write something that you think is fun, or interesting, or funny. . . . I was writing a horror movie--it was a slasher type thing--and I showed it to a producer, and he said, "Oh, I really love this. Do you think you could make it a heist movie, where, instead of torturing the people, they rob a bank?" And, they just say that as though you just do a search and replace in Microsoft®, and I said, "No, that's a different thing altogether." It's sort of like showing someone a sonnet and them saying, "Oh, this is great. Can you make it The Odyssey?"

Jackson: Have you found that that experience has affected your own poems?

Paul: Yes, . . . maybe unintentionally, but I sometimes find myself thinking, "Well, what's this poem about? What's the concept of it?" and it does help clarify. I think my poems have become more clear, and . . . I think that's another reason why they're more about something because you can't get too arty in a screenplay because the people you work with are philistines, and if you throw in something too arty, they're not going to object to it on an aesthetic basis. They're going to object to it on the basis of, well, nobody wants to buy this. I also had a job in grad school writing press releases. Every Friday--this was actually one of the best workshopping experiences or critical experiences--I had a meeting with my boss who didn't have any creative background, . . . and I would show him the press releases, and this guy would go over every sentence with, literally, a red pen, saying "No, you can't say this." "This makes no sense." "Why is this sentence so long?" and chopped everything down so it could be very journalistic, and it stuck with me, especially, because a lot of what he was doing was the same stuff George Orwell talks about . . . [I]f you can get rid of this, and it doesn't change anything , then get rid of it. . . . In my poems, I've chopped away a lot of the excess and a lot of the ornamentation. Sometimes there will be a line that you write, and you love it just because of the way it sounds, and it's metrically interesting, but it's just not very clear, and I used to hold on to those lines a lot longer. Now I'm a lot less patient with them.

Jackson: I assume that's also affected some of your teaching, too. You were talking coming over here about teaching online soldiers in Afghanistan.

Paul: It's interesting teaching people who are active military. For one, they go out--it's not fought the same way as in Vietnam where you sit in the jungle for 72 hours. They go out from this hour to this hour, and then they come back to base where someone else takes over for them. So they'll go out, and they'll fight a war in the daytime, and they'll come back and log on to do their poetry homework. So, it's sort of surreal. A lot of what they're writing about --they're surrounded by chaos a lot of the time, or even more than chaos, just not knowing. There'll be a huge expanse of mountains out there, and, you know, is it calm, or are there people sitting a mile away watching? [W]hen students] are writing about that kind of thing, they start to find ways to . . . find structures for all of this chaos. One poem that we read in your classes a lot when I was an undergrad here was "Picture Postcards" by Miklós Radnóti in which he's on a forced march, in the midst of war, and he organizes it by the first poem [starting] very far away and abstract and then each poem . . . [or] little stanza . . . gets progressively more close to this speaker til eventually it's the speaker himself, "I fell next to him," and . . . the soldier students [do] similar things when you show them work like that. . . .[H]ere's a guy whose job is to put out fires all day from roadside explosions. How can you show him Wallace Stevens? But so much about Wallace Stevens is organizing the chaos, putting a jar down and watching the woods spring up around it. They really respond to that. . . . And, then, of course, things like Tim O'Brien. They love him.

For more information about Bradley Paul, see his bio page.

© 2011, Chattanooga State, Bradley Paul, and Richard Jackson. Used by permission.
Producer: Meacham Writers' Workshop
Director/Editor: Charles Parks, Media Services, Chattanooga State Community College.


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