Poet and Vietnam Veteran Bruce Weigl Visits Eastern, Inspires Students

By Jordan Corey

Eastern Connecticut State University welcomed distinguished poet Bruce Weigl to campus on Oct. 3 for “University Hour,” a series of events that features guest lecturers and artists. Weigl, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, conducted a poetry workshop with students and later gave a reading of his own work.

At age 18, Weigl enlisted in the United States Army and served in the Vietnam War from December 1967 to December 1968. Many of his poems address his experience during and following the war. In “The Circle of Hanh,” a memoir, he writes, “The war took away my life and gave me poetry in return… the fate the world has given me is to struggle to write powerfully enough to draw others into the horror.” His first full-length poetry collection was published in 1979.

The workshop brought with it an open energy and positive space for constructive critique. Weigl covered a range of topics, from the significance of rhythm to useful revision techniques. “Move your lips when you read. Think, ‘how does this make my mouth feel?’” he advised.

“Narrative doesn’t mean non-metrical. It means story,” Weigl continued. “Without music, it’s not poetry.” He emphasized finding the right “voice” for a poem within its form, and called attention to the delicate relationship between narrator and reader. A piece needs to hold the reader in a specific moment, he argued. More tips included using clear, specific details and avoiding clichés. “Hearts are always racing. Make it do something else.”

At the reading, Weigl began with war poems “Song of Napalm” and “Snowy Egret.” The latter stemmed from a dream he had about a boy burying a bird in his backyard. In fact, Weigl did not realize it was truly about the Vietnam War until somebody else had referred to it as a war poem.

He transitioned into sharing poems from his upcoming publication, “On the Shores of Welcome Home.” He compared the new collection to “being seven years old and getting closer to the front of the line” — a transition period right before everything is about to change. Poems read included “A Late Corrupted Flash,” “Earring” and “Clinical Notes #92.”

He explained that for some poems in this collection, the attention to meter helps contain his loaded experiences. Typically, it takes him three to four months to complete a poem. “I revise it into nothing. If it can’t survive the rigors of revision, then it’s got to go.” Then, he told the audience, it may end up in a scrap journal where he can revisit it and potentially reuse the idea.

Weigl’s final advice to writers was to keep challenging their abilities within their work. “You reach certain plateaus, and it’s very seductive to stay there. Always make it harder.”

Weigl has been awarded a Yaddo Foundation Fellowship, the Academy of American Poets Prize, the Breadloaf Fellowship in Poetry and the Pushcart Prize. In addition to writing poetry, he has also translated poems of North Vietnamese and Viet Cong soldiers captured during war with Thanh T. Nguten of the Joiner Research Center.