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Translating my experiences into poetry


War guilt caused writer's block
WD Snodgrass Poet
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One night I missed one of the calls and didn't get there till a half hour. That means that in the long run I called them one time less than I was supposed to that night. The next day we… we were… as I say, we took them out and then worked them very hard all day long. There was a guy that I was particularly fond of, he was a great big black guy, his last name was Humbert, and he was so big he was… he was called Heavy all the time — Heavy Humbert — and I had worked with him on the KP line for a while and… and he was big and you know, there was a big solidity about him. And I must say, you know, guys like me who don't feel particularly tough sometimes tend to attach themselves to big sturdy guys like him. He came up to me and he was just furious. Well… well first of all I knew that it… it wasn't just that he was there at all. He had been in a... he had been on an aircraft carrier, got in a fight over a poker game, hit the guy that he was in… in the fight with and assumed the fight was over and walked away. The guy picked up an… a fire axe and hit him in the back with it. So he'd been in the hospital for some… quite a long time. He now was… had no business to be in the brig, he'd been sent to us to travel to where they were trying the other guy. He was just a witness, but that's the Navy. They… they threw him in the brig. He didn't belong there at all. Anyhow, he came up to me and he was furious. He said you call… you called us once too often last night. And… and I tried to explain, 'No, I called you once too… once too few', but they had… they had people on the outside who were telling them all the time what was happening. They had con… continual contacts with sailors on the outside. I don't know how. I… I mean I always had my suspicions about who it was, but what I did at that point was to see to it that another guard came over. I didn't care to be there by myself being challenged by this great enormous black guy who, you know, could have smashed me on the wall. But I must say it has always tormented me that he… that he would think I was deliberately adding to his torments at that… well anyway, having been a brig guard is one of those things that you cannot be very proud of, and… well in… all right, let me interrupt all that and come forward back to myself back at school.

My marriage was going to hell. I hadn't been able to write anything for two years, I… I had this block, and a lot of the writers there at Iowa were blocked that way. They… they would give you help with your poems, they were very generous about this, and… and wonderfully bright guys. I've never been so surrounded by bright people, bright writers anyway. And I mean it was things… there were a number of things like this… I went into treatment and… and I… I went to the psychiatric hospital to see if I could do any… get any of this straightened out and get myself writing again. I was surprised to find that the doctors didn't say, 'Oh, you… you've got to get out of… of writing poetry, that's no job for a man', you know, 'do something that will make you some money, become an accountant like your father'. And… but no, they… they actually said, 'Well, what can… what can make it better?' They said… well first of all, I mean it became clear that you have to write about the things that you really care about, and that above all I mean… some of that had to do with the war and about feeling guilty about having, you know, having done those things, although I didn't… I didn't kill anybody myself. I helped other people kill people.

American poet WD Snodgrass, entered the world of poetry with a bang winning several awards, including the Pulitzer Prize, for his first collection of poetry, Heart's Needle. A backlash followed his controversial fifth anthology “The Fuehrer Bunker”, but in recent years these poems have been reassessed and their importance recognised.

Listeners: William B. Patrick

William B. Patrick is a writer and poet who lives in Troy, New York. Among his work are the poetry volumes "We Didn't Come Here for This" and "These Upraised Hands", the novel "Roxa: Voices of the Culver Family" and the plays "Rescue" and "Rachel's Dinner". His most recent work is the non-fiction book "Saving Troy", based on the year he spent following the Troy Fire Department.

Mr. Patrick has been Writer-in-Residence at the New York State Writers Institute and has taught at Old Dominion University, Onondaga Community College, and Salem State College, and workshops in Screenwriting and Playwriting at the Blue Ridge Writers Conference in Roanoke, Virginia. He has received grants from the Academy of American Poets, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Massachusetts Artists Foundation, and the Virginia Commission for the Arts.

Tags: United States Navy, Iowa

Duration: 4 minutes, 45 seconds

Date story recorded: August 2004

Date story went live: 24 January 2008