Monday, 8 July 2013

CBe 2013 6 / Dan O'Brien, War Reporter

A year ago, on my first day in at Betterton Street as a guest editor of Poetry Review, I opened an envelope among the submissions pile with a US postmark. (With a US envelope, always a tiny thrill: a different shape, the US letter paper size being wider and shorter than A4, and it having travelled, this frail thing, so far.) I took two of Dan O’Brien’s poems and placed them first in the issue I was editing. I emailed him. CBe’s publishing of War Reporter is a result of this. (In the US it’s being published by Hanging Loose Press.)

I really do not rate books according to their subject matter – I’ll take Hampstead adultery or deprived northern childhoods or even office politics, as long as the writing is good – but there’s stuff going on in the world, in most of the world, that is beyond the experience of us first-world readers, and us first-world writers too, though not beyond our attention, and taking account of this is a thing that writing is for.

I felt that O’Brien’s poems had stumbled upon an honest and difficult way of doing this. (There are very few soldier-poets, these days; Brian Turner, whose work is published in the UK by Bloodaxe, is an exception.) O’Brien, a playwright, at some hard time in his own life made contact with a war reporter, Paul Watson, whose photograph of a dead American being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu had won a Pulitzer prize. They emailed, they talked, in ways perhaps eased by their distance. They met – weirdly, in the Canadian High Arctic, where Watson was taking time out from the war zones. Before going back: the Balkans, Rwanda, Iraq, Afghanistan and now, as I write and you read and people flee or die and often both, Syria.

The poems derive from the correspondence between O’Brien and Watson and from transcripts, recordings and Watson’s own published memoir. What’s in these poems is what you don’t see on TV. Shit happens, again and again and again, the kind of shit that war is: oh-so-casual killings, by both sides and by the so-called peace-keepers too, and worse. There is also engagement with some very brave people – doctors, teachers, translators, women asking for basic rights, other war reporters – and with the family of the dead soldier whose photograph the reporter has professionally profited by. The poem titles formalise the distinct roles of the two people involved in the making of this book (‘The War Reporter’, ‘The Poet’); the ‘I’ of the poems themselves migrates between the two.

Dan O’Brien’s play The Body of an American, derived from the same material, was joint winner earlier this year of the inaugural ($100,000) Edward Kennedy Drama Award in the US, and a London production is scheduled for early next year. Meanwhile, War Reporter. It is shortlisted for the Forward First Collection Prize 2013. It comes with endorsements from Fergal Keane and Andrew Motion and others, and at £8.99 (free postage) for 134 pages, in a format larger than most of the CBe books, it’s a steal.

CBe doesn’t do author photos, certainly not on the books, but here’s Dan O’Brien in a pub garden in London on 14 June:

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