AUGUST 15, 2016
CAN WE MAKE ART from terror, torture, and war? Is there an ethical way to aestheticize violence? What are the politics of war literature? These are questions Roy Scranton and Phil Metres have been struggling with and discussing for years, as critics, scholars, and writers, and the publication of Roy Scranton’s novel War Porn this year by Soho Press gave them the opportunity to talk at length, via email, about these questions and how they inform their work.
Roy Scranton is the author of the novel War Porn (Soho, 2016) and the book Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization (City Lights, 2015). He also co-edited Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War (Da Capo, 2013). His writing has appeared widely in national newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, The Nation, Rolling Stone, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. In fall 2016, he will join the Department of English at the University of Notre Dame.
Philip Metres has published several books of poetry, translation, and scholarship, including Behind the Lines: War Resistance Poetry on the American Homefront Since 1941 (University of Iowa, 2007), To See the Earth (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2008), Sand Opera (Alice James, 2015), and, most recently, Pictures at an Exhibition (Akron Poetry Series, 2016). He also co-edited Come Together: Imagine Peace: An Anthology of Peace Poems (Bottom Dog Press, 2008). He’s won numerous awards, grants, and honors for his work, including the 2015 George W. Hunt, S.J., Prize for Excellence in Journalism, Arts & Letters, for Sand Opera. He is a professor of English and creative writing at John Carroll University. He was born on the Fourth of July.
PHILIP METRES: When we read together at NYU last year, Roy, you shared “Red Steel India,” your story from the anthology Fire and Forget. At the time, I was surprised, since it seemed to fit very comfortably in the frame of modern war stories like Catch-22 and Jarhead — there is a lot of detail about the comically unsavory grit and boredom of soldiers’ lives alongside degraded and dehumanized portrayals of the “natives” (routinely called “hadjis”) — and I found myself resisting the claims of this narrative. While it is no doubt a fairly realistic depiction of grunt life in occupied Iraq, that grunt’s eye view, with its attendant sexism and racism, vexes me. Much has been written about the political implications of this sort of war story, in which the soldier’s humanity and pain trumps those who actually live in this place, which to the soldier is just “Indian Country.”
Yet that same piece appears as an episode in your novel War Porn, and because of what happens before and after, the narrative takes on different meanings. The formal achievement of War Porn, it seems to me, is its cagey and deft shifting of frames, its roving imagination. You have scenes from the “home front,” scenes from soldiers’ lives, and you make a deliberate effort to tell the stories of ordinary Iraqis as well — all of these internal and external geographies separated by a sort of babble of language in mini-sections called “Babylon.” I wonder if you could talk about “Red Steel India” and how it fit into the telling of this larger, expansively dialogic novel.
ROY SCRANTON: “Red Steel India” was always a part of War Porn, which I drafted in 2007 and which I’d already been trying to get published for years by the time Fire and Forget came out. War Porn had been planned, from the beginning, to be something more than what I saw as the conventional “I went to war and war is hell” kind of soldier’s story. I wanted to portray the American occupation of Iraq from the point of view of the occupier, yes, but also from the point of view of the occupied, and also from the point of view of the people back home in whose name the war was waged.
Comparing the two versions — the standalone story in “Red Steel India” versus those same scenes in War Porn — helps accentuate, as you point out, the issues and complicities involved in sympathizing, as readers, with the agents of American military power. I mean, the book is called War Porn for a reason.
I like how these scenes show Wilson, for all his intellectual pretensions, reduced to being the tool of an idiotic machine. I think of Wilson and Reading as Beavis and Butthead in uniform, which isn’t far from what the army was really like. But for all their powerlessness and stupidity and racism, and despite the language barrier between the Iraqis and the Americans, there’s still this effort to connect: through pop culture, through crude sexual jokes, through whatever simple discussion they can manage. Yet that desire to connect is still stymied by a very real imperialist hierarchy, Americans up here, Iraqis down here, and problems of cultural translation that can’t even be articulated in the language they have available.
One of the funny problems that comparing these two versions brings out is the problem of what kind of story people want to hear. In the years when I was trying to get War Porn published, agents and editors told me over and over again to cut everything but the American soldier sections. They just wanted the soldier’s story. It took me ages to find somebody willing to publish the more expansive, polyphonic novel, and I’m super thankful to Mark Doten at Soho for doing just that.
PM: Your anecdote about the publishing industry’s fetishization of the soldier narrative corroborates something that I’d gleaned from watching which books get promoted and praised. Still I’d only heard about such pressures and, given my small fishbowl of poetry, haven’t directly experienced them. Could you go into greater detail about the sorts of editorial pressures?
From the “other side,” if you will, Arab-American friends working on novels have talked about agents and publishers actively disagreeing with their Arab characters, trying to explain to their Arab authors what an Arab character might do. It seems incredible to me that these things still happen. It relates to my despair that I constantly find myself in contexts where one has to explain so much. The privilege of empire seems as much about an ahistorical state of blithe unconcern, where power is invisible or considered as blessed with good intention.
RS: That sounds sadly typical. The thing is, we’re all forced to negotiate with the systems we find ourselves thrown into. The editors and agents who reject complex work because it’s too complex, or “whitesplain” Arab characters to Arab writers, or reject narratives with “difficult” female protagonists, are not acting consciously to kill literature by making it boring, stereotypical, racist, and sexist, though this often winds up being the result. They’re worried about selling literature to the marketing department, to distributors, to booksellers, libraries, and reviewers. They’re worried about a marketplace replete with books and a media economy where a few publications get an inordinate amount of attention and most get none. They’re worried about being able to explain the book in one catchy sentence — better, a phrase — which means making sure the book can be explained in terms of what “everybody” already knows and thinks and sees. It’s the “Big Other” problem of ideology, where people behave a certain way because they think that’s what other people want. “I like complexity and Arab characters who go against stereotype,” they might think, “but I have to sell this book to people who aren’t as sophisticated as I am. So I have to turn this complex thing into something simpler, more easily digestible. Not because I want to, but because that’s what readers want.”
Anyone in a position of power, whether it’s an editor, teacher, journalist, soldier, agent, writer, or what have you, makes deals every day with power. Do we go with the flow? Do we make the choice “they” want us to make, whatever that might be? Or do we resist? Do we find ways to capitulate? Or do we find ways to interrupt?
This actually relates pretty directly to some of the questions you explore in Sand Opera and have considered in your literary scholarship. One of the things that I really appreciate about Sand Opera especially is that while you don’t take up a position of transcendental moral condemnation, there is a real ethical commitment in your work. You’re not willing to give any of the easy answers, either by damning the individual perpetrators or by excusing them, but you don’t relativize either. I’d be very interested to hear you talk about why and how you made the choice to sympathize with Charles Graner and Lynndie England enough to make poetry out of their crimes.
PM: Perhaps one of the secret gifts of writing poetry is that the pressures to conform to the whims of an imagined audience are imaginary — in the sense that they are largely in our heads. I don’t want to be misunderstood; it appears to me that poetry has become increasingly commodified, and poets increasingly professionalized, and the poetry book business increasingly about selling personages. “Poetry never stood a chance / of standing outside history,” as Adrienne Rich once said, could be expanded to say “or outside the networks of power, whether political, economic, or social.” If I have felt a slight push from the outside, ironically, it’s been toward political poetry.
Maybe what I was trying to do with Sand Opera was to be childlike and curious, not knowing the first thing. To listen. The great and complex discipline of listening is made more difficult by the noise of our own personal hurts, buzzing away like fury-blasted ears. But listening is where the opening begins. To try to understand by asking the most basic questions of these people, my fellow citizens abusing people who looked like me, in an effort to understand what seemed, on the one hand, impossible to understand, and on the other, all too understandable. By working with their words, saying them with my lips, typing them with my fingers, I had to move through their experiences and their rationalizations. What John Paul Lederach calls the moral imagination is an invitation to see everyone — even our enemies — as part of a web of connections that includes us. I cannot speak from on high about the dark operations of empire. I am inside empire. With every tax dollar I pay, I am co-signer to the legacy of the scandal of Abu Ghraib. The shameful suspension of law at Guantanamo. The network of secret black-site prisons. Targeted assassinations from drones. Secret US military operations in every corner of the globe.
So I’m thinking about allegiances, too, how they don’t end at the national border. I’d be curious if you’d like to talk more about your sense of allegiance, as a veteran, as a writer, as a human being, as a member of this planet, and how these allegiances inflect War Porn and your recent work on the environment, such as your book Learning to Die in the Anthropocene.
RS: Allegiance is an interesting question, especially with War Porn, because the book feels to me like one betrayal after another. The characters betray each other and themselves, the novel betrays the reader, and the structure of the book winds up betraying one truth to another truth to another, which, to answer your question, is finally where my sense of allegiance lies. My allegiance is to dialogue, polyphony, perspectivism, irony, and contradiction. The truth is always multiple yet, at the same time, as Hegel says, the truth is the whole. So the imperative is to try to be true to each perspective in its own perception, while also seeing enough to put them in tension with each other, to see how each truth lives in the eye of the other.
One way that War Porn and Learning to Die in the Anthropocene are similar is that in both, I’m trying to think through problems of scale. The Iraq War was one Iraqi being zip-stripped by a squad of American soldiers patrolling a neighborhood and it was 30 million Iraqis in a sovereign nation under foreign occupation, it was one mission and it was a global war, and it was 30 seconds on the nightly news about a place with a history going back as far as there is history, and it happened every single day for eight years and it’s still going on. So how do you tell that in a story? How do we shift scales, from the personal to the global, from the present to history? Learning to Die posed a similar problem, in the way that global warming is hard to comprehend on a personal level, but it’s even harder to relate to on a global scale. How do we connect the two? How do we shift from one life to the life of Homo sapiens over 200,000 years on Earth, from a cheeseburger and a plastic bag and Kelly McEvers talking about ISIS on NPR to millions of years of geological tumult?
PM: I’ve been thinking about how the problem of scale is also a problem of genre and form. You’ve touched on one of the great difficulties of literature and its relationship to social change, something that came up during my teaching of a course called Israeli and Palestinian literature this spring. We want to think of good literature as somehow able to navigate the movement between the particular and the universal. That our protagonist, character X for example, however particular, is also somehow representative in some way. Character X isn’t a symbol or allegory, but a representational representative. When teaching this literature course, I found it easier to discuss and underscore the fundamental human struggles of particular Israelis and Palestinians than explore the structural violence at play in what Jeff Halper, an Israeli human rights activist, calls Israel’s “Matrix of Control” — that system of colonial occupation which continues the dispossession of Palestinians. The novel handles characters well, but has a harder time laying bare systems and structures of oppression. Humanism articulated without regard for systems effaces power structures. If we can’t talk about structural violence, then how are we to understand individual acts of violence except as acts of irrational hate?
As I mentioned before, War Porn manages to do both by subverting the novel form and our expectations of it, moving in and out of the war story genre. First, the reader imagines it’s a story about veterans. Then, the reader thinks it’s a soldier’s story. Then, it’s a story about life at war. Each layer adds more, shifting registers and characters and places in ways that problematize (and ultimately shock) the reader into a real cognitive dissonance.
I want to ask you about your trajectory, which seems to have its own kind of cognitive dissonance — how you went from signing up to serve in the army to writing War Porn to returning to Iraq as a civilian for Rolling Stone, where you wrote:
Whether or not breaking Iraq into pieces had been the plan from the beginning, as some evidence suggests, the war had been nothing but a murderous hustle. The politicians who ran the war had shown no higher ideals than robbery and plunder, and I’d been nothing but their thug.
RS: It would be easier to answer your question if I could tell you a simple story about being disillusioned, about not knowing or being confused or being naïve, then learning the truth of war. But I joined the army for a lot of reasons, and none of them had to do with a belief in the nobility of our cause or in proving my own honor. I write about this at greater length in a long, five-part essay in The New York Times: about how I wanted college money and a regular paycheck, how I wanted to see what war was like, how I wanted experience and an affirmation of my masculinity (I come from a family of military men), and how I wanted to see if the clash of civilizations that people were talking about after 9/11 was as bad as they said it was, and whether maybe American power wasn’t, on the balance, worth defending. I wanted to see what American empire looked like out where it got made. I wanted to “know what it was like” firsthand.
If I’d been a different person with a different background, maybe I would have been a war reporter, but I come from poverty and was still in it then, and the only way to see the “Global War on Terror” up close and personal was to enlist. So I joined the army with a sense of suspended judgment, like: “Okay. Let’s see what it’s like.” I went to Iraq the same way.
That’s where things get complicated, which is what I’ve been piecing out in my writing ever since I got out. I hated the army, except the parts that I loved. I hated Iraqis when I was in Baghdad in 2003 to 2004, because some of them were trying to kill me, and I knew my hatred was wrong but I couldn’t help it. I could see that the war was just one ludicrous, horrific mistake after another, but I also knew most American soldiers were doing their best to be fair, tactical, and wise. I did my job and took pride in it, but I also knew I was a tool. Part of what I’m trying to do with the Wilson sections of War Porn is to capture that dissonance, and even more important, the way that the external conditions of being a soldier had more effect on who I was and what I did than any internal sense of myself. Wilson thinks of himself as a sensitive poet, he thinks he’s somehow alienated from everything around him, like he’s always distant, observing, or as he thinks when he’s shooting at actual people for the first time, “third person somehow.” But he’s not. He’s in it. He’s part of it. The things he does have effects, both on the people around him and on himself. And the things he does aren’t about who he thinks he is or wants to do, but what he’s trained to do, what his job is, what function his role serves: occupier, soldier, oppressor.
On a bigger scale, that’s all over War Porn, and it’s also very much the point I was trying to make in my 2014 Rolling Stone article about going back to Baghdad. As I wrote in that piece, “it didn’t matter what we’d intended. What mattered was what we’d done.”
From the time I got out of the army until the United States pulled out in 2011, and in the next couple of years after, I was ambivalent about my time in Baghdad but hopeful that some stability might be salvaged from the United States’s wanton violence in Iraq. During those years it felt like I was doing enough, as a veteran, to be a witness, to point to the war and remind Americans that it was happening, that it had happened. I worked with Matt Gallagher, Phil Klay, Jacob Siegel, and Perry O’Brien to put together the anthology Fire and Forget, and whatever political differences we had between ourselves were overwhelmed by our friendship, our easy sense of camaraderie, and the fact that getting our voices heard seemed to be enough.
But something changed in 2014. Part of it was us, part of it was the national political climate, part of it was ISIS, which really changed how you could think about the Iraq War. We had to come to terms with the fact that Iraq was a war we lost, even on its own terms. I remember getting breakfast in a diner in Manhattan with Matt Gallagher and Phil Klay one morning in 2014, not long after I’d come back from reporting in Baghdad. I’d just spent two weeks talking to Iraqi poets, students, soldiers, voters, activists, cops, all kinds of people, trying to get a sense of how they saw the legacy of the American occupation, and every single Iraqi I talked to said it had been a complete disaster. They told me that life been better under Saddam Hussein. They’d seen family members killed, their city destroyed, their society torn apart, their lives ruined. One Iraqi Christian showed me pictures of his children lying in their own blood after they’d been murdered by Shi’ite extremists. I interviewed a young soldier who’d been shot in the head fighting ISIS. I interviewed a feminist activist who had been in exile during the Saddam years, and thought now she might have to leave yet again. Then I’m in a diner in Chelsea a month later with Matt and Phil and suddenly we’re shouting at each other, arguing over whether or not anything could be redeemed from the Iraq War, which was the question of whether or not anything could be redeemed from our part in it. I’ve seen a lot of so-called “veteran writers” closing ranks over the last two years, growing more and more conservative, resisting any criticism of their dubious role as hallowed idols, while at the same time the drums of American jingoism are being beaten louder and louder. It’s a disturbing trend.
Where I am now is the same place I was then, which is the recognition that war’s a hustle. All war. The Iraq War especially. I don’t need to redeem the war for my own personal peace: I was part of a great and bloody wickedness, but joining the army was an act of self-preservation. I sold my soul for college money and I’m lucky I didn’t get my legs blown off. None of that makes the war or my part in it special, beautiful, courageous, redeemable, proud, or even tragic. It was a job. A shameful, shitty job in a vile and dishonorable war.
At the same time, I’m trying to make sense of this within a more comprehensive understanding of human life on Earth. I’m still trying to learn from Spinoza the practice of cultivating love of the universe as it is, what he calls the amor dei intellectualis. It’s not good enough to hate hate, or to hate violence, or to claim that I’m the good guy and Dick Cheney is the real bad guy. The effort, for me, is forging an ethical life in a world in which, as you said before, “I am inside empire.”
PM: It’s funny also that you mention Phil Klay, because just the other day I heard him and Tim O’Brien discussing Barack Obama’s visit to Vietnam on PRI’s The World. I was struck by how Tim in particular discussed the heartbreak of war but neither writer talked about how both the Vietnam War and the Iraq War were imperial adventures, elective wars conducted not for the defense of our country but for wider geopolitical aims. They were stuck in the discourse of “the tragic war.”
RS: So much discussion of American war today is trapped in a language of “tragedy,” and part of the reason for that, I think, is because as a nation we’ve long resisted any real understanding of our own capacity for evil. In the American imaginary, evil is always Other, out there, usually darker-skinned, the Comanche or Jap or Charlie or ISIS, and our tragedy, so the narrative goes, is in having to take that evil inside ourselves in order to overcome it in the world (as I wrote about recently in The New York Times). The tragedy is that we have to get our hands dirty in order to make the world a better place. And the belief in that tragedy is a self-serving lie.
Tragedy, tragedos, the goat song, the ritual sacrifice, the scapegoat: tragedy is about defining a collective identity through sacrifice, and in the story of American war as tragedy there’s a complex way (as a I argue in my essay on “The Trauma Hero” and in the book that I’m writing that expands on that argument) in which the traumatized American soldier becomes a sacrificial surrogate, one who takes the place of the real blood sacrifice, the excluded enemy other, in this case the erased Iraqi. This is why, formally, the Qasim section was so important to War Porn, and why he had to be at the center of the book — why War Porn had to cohere around the tortured body of an Iraqi, which is the real story of the Iraq War, despite the ways in which the war has been transformed into one more narrative of Americans struggling with their souls. The Iraqi is the absent center of American narratives about the war, the truth that we’ve all silently redacted. This is also part of the reason for the “Babylon” sections in War Porn, which are cut-ups of media, literary, and official language about war in general and the global war on terror in particular: they’re both the “collective unconscious,” like John Dos Passos’s “Newsreel” sections in his U.S.A. trilogy, and this formal manifestation of the missing connectivity, the absent center, the secret around which our narratives keep swerving.
You seemed to do something similar with form in Sand Opera: you use elision, redaction, fragmentation, and these beautiful vellum overlays with text and diagrams in really striking ways. Most of all, I found your use of voice, both your use of multiple voices and your use of silence, quite powerful. Critics speak, I think sometimes frivolously, about how certain wars have certain literary forms, but there’s a real question there. I wonder if you could talk more about how you see the relation between literary form and the American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan taking shape in your work. Even your title, the evocative Sand Opera, is a phrase created by eliding parts of “Standard Operation Procedure.”
PM: When I read the Babylon sections of War Porn, I first thought they resembled avant-garde poems, language at the point of fracture, language as fracture, but now I think of them, in light of our conversation, as that moment where the matrix, in The Matrix, is revealed to Neo as pure code. The first time through the book, I was doing annotations — how War Porn begins with allusions to The Iliad and Achilles’s rage, how it switches between a lyric register and a political one, etc. That code-switching, if you will, between lyric humanism and legal bureaucratese, is what sets War Porn apart in war literature, and probably why you struggled to find a publisher. You showed the matrix. I think this is in part what War Porn and Sand Opera share — not only do these works place Abu Ghraib at the center, but they also intensively engage the embodied materiality of the war in ways that unsettle and block the easy consumption of them as literature. I wanted to include multiple forms because the totality of war is beyond literary forms, just as the totality of life evades literary forms. So I used every means necessary, not only fractured sonnets, redacted villanelles, amputated sestinas, choral simultaneities, heroic couplets, etc., but also diagrams of black-site prisons drawn by a Yemeni detainee, Saddam Hussein’s fingerprints, and language from the GITMO Standard Operation Procedure manual. I wrote in order that the war not be transcended, not be transmuted from blood to beauty. I didn’t and still don’t want to be part of an alchemical process that moves from bodies to currency. To adapt the old antiwar slogan from the first Gulf War: No blood for beauty.
Like a lot of contemporary war stories, War Porn sets us up to sympathize with the psychically wounded veteran. But unlike such stories, War Porn makes no Jesus out of him. What Aaron does at the end of the novel turns our sympathy against itself, and forces us to ask difficult questions about where war comes from (the nexus of power, domination, and sex) and what war does to soldiers and civilians, here and abroad. The ending of the book is really creepy, quoting classic American road narratives as the “hero” lights out in the West. On Columbus Day.
A question at the heart of War Porn, it seems to me, is partly the question of free will and responsibility amid massive social forces. It connects to what you said earlier that you gave your body to the military for four years. But the narrative does not let anyone off the hook, really.
RS: It’s funny. I’ve never met someone who thought they were totally, completely evil. I’ve known people who thought of themselves as weak or vulnerable to temptation. I’ve known people so deep into depression or self-hatred or bitterness that they no longer cared what they did. And I’ve met people who thought they were tough, strong enough to do the hard thing and get their hands dirty. But no one who genuinely believed they were totally evil. One of my students in prison introduced himself as Lucifer, but he was just trying to intimidate me. No doubt he did some evil shit — some of my students were in for murder, armed robbery, rape, assault — but in that classroom, when they wrote about their own experience, they represented themselves as heroes. Their images of themselves in their stories were glamorous and tough, and they thought of themselves as hard-pressed men trying to live by a code in a dangerous world. They thought of themselves as good, according to the ethics of the world they lived in. Similarly, I’ve known some former special ops guys who were basically paid murderers. It was their job to sneak into villages and kill people in their sleep. One I knew might have actually been a sociopath, but even he didn’t think of himself as evil. He thought of himself as a very spiritual man, very enlightened. He meditated and studied philosophy.
One of the great opportunities that the novel offers is to think your way inside other people, to be able to activate the sympathetic imagination and begin to understand how the world might look from inside another person’s point of view. In trying to see the world from other points of view, you open yourself up to world. But you also open yourself up to evil. Aaron, for example: Is he evil? He knows he did some fucked up shit, and he feels trapped in certain behaviors. He wants to hurt someone, he wants to hurt himself, he wants to die. But is he evil?
I think he might be. I think Aaron was infected by something vile and has become a part of it. We can explain Aaron in clinical terms and talk about him as a widget affected by various phenomena and that’s all true. But if the idea of moral agency is to mean anything at all, then we have to account for evil, what it is, how it comes into us, how it affects us. The Iraq War, for example, was an evil war, and everyone touched by that war was infected or damaged. Some more, some less. Some only glancingly. Some deep down in their guts, where the evil twisted inside them, and the more evil they became, the more convinced they became of their own righteousness.
War Porn is my attempt to purge that evil out of me. I write to get rid of things, to free myself from things by crafting them in language. With Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, I was trying to free myself from the terror and despair that climate change inspires, and with War Porn, I’m trying to purge the evil of the Iraq War. It doesn’t make me good or moral to do so — it’s more like vomiting up a bad drug.
The quandary that puts me in is that it creates an ambiguous relationship with readers. It’s an evil book, so what good can it do? Why should anybody read it? I’m not sure. Some days, the novel feels to me to be in the vein of works like Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers, or Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian … all descendants of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, perhaps … like, “You want violence? You want trauma? Here’s some violence. Here’s some trauma.” I say this knowing that War Porn isn’t as garish as all that and not wanting to downplay the real work I did in imagining my way into the Iraqi perspective. Still, there is a similar hostility, a similar ambivalence. I’m not sure who War Porn is for, and frankly I’m glad to be rid of it. It has compelled and gripped me for a decade.
My main hope is that I’m able to put the all-too-typical American war narrative about the moral struggle of American soldiers in a bigger context, connecting the so-called home front with the occupation on the one hand, and connecting the occupiers and the occupied on the other. I worked very hard to get the Iraqi characters right, to make Qasim really live, and I hope I was at least somewhat successful — a lot of research went into that section, looking at documentary accounts such as Hayder Mousa Daffar’s film The Dreams of Sparrows and Salam Pax’s eyewitness record of the bombing and invasion in The Baghdad Blog, plus scholarship and journalism, Arab and Persian cinema and literature, Iraqi and Iraqi-American poetry from Dunya Mikhail to al-Mutanabbi, and, of course, going back to Baghdad for Rolling Stone in 2014. Getting the Iraqi characters right doesn’t recuperate or redeem the evil we unleashed on Iraq, the suffering we put that country and its people through, but at least I can foreground it, as opposed to most American stories about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which are all about Americans.
I wonder if you feel similarly or differently about Sand Opera. Are you glad you wrote it? How does the kind of work you did with Sand Opera relate to the work you do translating?
PM: As crazy as it sounds, I feel as if I didn’t write Sand Opera. Sand Opera wrote me. Of course, I was the one sitting at the desk, working with these texts, trying them in various patterns, wrestling with what was emerging, asking friends for their take on what I saw happening. But in some larger sense, I was a participant in its process of coming into being. That may sound grandiose, but it’s what I love about writing. The work, if it’s successful, is smarter than we are, contains more than our intentions for it. And yes, I feel as if I was able to let go of some of my own demons, my own griefs and grievances, in the process of its emergence; I feel less driven to do similar work, and I desire more than ever to write freely whatever I am to write. I don’t want to become “the Gulf War poet,” as a guy called me at AWP. I’m sure you feel similarly. I think about Carolyn Forché, who, after The Country Between Us, spent years in war-torn places like Beirut, but never returned to the reportorial style of that important book. I’m sure she must have felt trapped by it. I don’t want to be trapped by style or content; then we’re just performers, capitalists at the level of form. I want to keep growing, even if that means making mistakes, risking failure. There will be no Sand Opera 2. I’d much rather write about peacework, of love and its difficulties, of being a global citizen. I want to make music with words, and I want to be able to reach beyond the usual readerly suspects. That said, I am also working on a book called Shrapnel Maps that employs documentary and polyvocality in ways that I learned from Sand Opera.
You asked about translation as well. For me, I began translating as a way of trying to understand the Russian poets that I was reading and interviewing, back 20-plus years ago when I lived in Russia, as part of a Watson fellowship project called “Contemporary Russian Poetry and Its Relationship to Historical Change.” Almost immediately when reading poetry in another language, one confronts the irreducibility of language, the impossibility of translation. That’s eros. That is enormously exciting, to see these gaps, these aporia, and to dream up ways of trying to bridge them. In that very basic sense, translation is peacework. Of course, the danger of translation is that it provides the monolingual reader the illusion of transparency, of total knowledge of the other, erasing difference, erasing otherness. But the act of translation itself is one of hope.
How do you see the work of War Porn and Learning to Die as part of some larger project of your writing? What’s next for you?
RS: I have one big project I’m working on, and some others planned. I’m about three-quarters done with a book of literary criticism and history about World War II and American literature, specifically the problem of the hero and the politics of trauma. I wanted to know why the story that people wanted to hear about the Iraq War was the story of individual American soldiers traumatized by their encounter with violence. How did “war” come to mean “trauma,” and what does that to do the politics of how we understand war? Understanding war as a kind of spiritual revelation — a traumatic revelation — has a longer history going back to the Napoleonic Wars, but for American culture that understanding didn’t really take over until the 1960s and 1970s, as World War II was reinterpreted during Vietnam. I look closely at a bunch of stuff, from the poetry of Wallace Stevens and Randall Jarrell and Kenneth Koch to the novels of James Jones and John Oliver Killens and Joseph Heller. Beyond that, I have some other ideas — I think the next project after the trauma hero book will be about free will and determinism, climate change and agency. I’ve long been haunted by something Nietzsche wrote, and would like to spend a few years thinking hard about it: “To breed an animal with the right to make promises — is not this the paradoxical task that nature has set itself in the case of man?”
What about you?
PM: The main thing occupying my writerly imagination these days is The Flaming Hair of Fate and Other Russian Tales. It’s a memoir that braids two narratives: the story of my year living in Russia and studying Russian poetry during its most tumultuous year transitioning to a capitalist economy; and the story of traveling in the United States on a reading tour with Sergey Gandlevsky, a celebrated Russian poet who speaks no English, and who once used my visit to his dacha as the basis for the visit of a fictional American son described in his novel [Unintel.]. It’s been exciting and scary to be writing in long-form prose, something utterly new to me. Serious beginner’s mind.
As a result of writing prose, I’ve been trying to rethink what poems can do. I love lyric more than ever. But the immediate project has been bigger than that. Shrapnel Maps investigates and dramatizes the political, personal, and historical wounds at the core of the conflict in the so-called Holy Land, in Israel/Palestine.
Right now, my daughter Leila (age 10) is next to me doing her math. We’re homeschooling together, as we do twice a week. She’s estimating, doing word problems. I’m in midlife, estimating what numbers I have left, what words I have left. It’s a strange feeling, feeling as if time were more precious than ever. I want to be intentional about everything now, trying to pare back the unnecessary. During our homeschool “Medieval Day,” I played the Venerable Bede, wearing my doctoral robes and acting grandly silly, à la Monty Python. But I did share with them this quote from Bede, and it seems a good way to end our conversation:
The present life of man upon earth […] [is] like to the swift flight of a sparrow through the house wherein you sit at supper in winter, with your ealdormen and thegns, while the fire blazes in the midst, and the hall is warmed, but the wintry storms of rain or snow are raging abroad. The sparrow, flying in at one door and immediately out at another, whilst he is within, is safe from the wintry tempest; but after a short space of fair weather, he immediately vanishes out of your sight, passing from winter into winter again. So this life of man appears for a little while, but of what is to follow or what went before we know nothing at all.
Roy Scranton is the author of War Porn (Soho Press, 2016) and Learning to Die in the Anthropocene (City Lights, 2015), and co-editor of Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War (Da Capo, 2013).