Soon after he graduated from the Lowell Technological Institute in 1968, Michael Casey was drafted into the U.S. Army and served as a military policeman in Missouri and in the Quang Ngai Province in South Vietnam.
In 1772 Stanley Kunitz selected Obscenities, Casey’s poetry concerning the Vietnam War, for the celebrated Yale Younger Poet Series. Many poems about the Vietnam War had been published by 1972 but few books had appeared from inside the war zone—it seemed to arrive with urgency or authority, and with expectancies assigned to it. Obscenities sold over 200,000 copies. Publishers Weekly announced, “Readers in search of authentic gut poetry need search no further.”
But readers looking for content that would clearly substantiate their own moral position on the war would not find it in Obscenities—the poems presented situations and left readers to judge for themselves. Were some critics troubled by that in these polarized times? You could understand 1972 as a year loaded with consequence. While Richard Nixon withdrew troops under pressure to end the increasingly unpopular war, General Vo Nguyen Giap lead 200,000 North Vietnamese soldiers in the biggest offensive since Tet. North Vietnam’s leaders hoped to harm Nixon politically during this presidential election year. Nixon’s removal would disrupt American aid to South Vietnam. Without consulting Congress, Nixon retaliated with the heaviest bombing of the war. One hundred-twenty-nine B-52s bombed Hanoi and Haiphong alone. International condemnation ignited more anti-war protests.
Then South Vietnamese pilots accidentally dropped Napalm on South Vietnamese civilians, including children. You’ve seen the photo.
In June of that year five burglars were arrested inside the Watergate building in Washington while attempting to plant hidden microphones in the Democratic National Committee offices.
In July Democrats chose outspoken critic of the war, Senator George McGovern, as their presidential nominee. It was this month too that Jane Fonda, during a visit to North Vietnam, broadcast anti-war messages via Hanoi Radio.
In 1972 there was a notion in the air that the chickens had come home to roost, and in that climate Kunitz heralded the arrival of Obscenities direct from Michael Casey’s war experiences.
As a New Englander Casey admired Frost for “his conversational narrative style.” In a modern poetry course at Lowell Tech, he was influenced by William Aiken. He credits Alan Dugan and Bill Knott, who “in different ways had a powerful facility and fun with both presentation and words.” He liked Edward Field and Ted Kooser—“Wonderful finds—Ed Field’s work in the recent Library of America’s WWII Poets of WWII book is a have to read,” and he admired the fiction writers Wolfgang Borchert, Heinrich Böll, Isaac Babel, and I. B. Singer. “A book read in service at Fort Wood, Missouri was e e cummings’ The Enormous Room… a prison or internment setting and very diverse characters, and reading it, I am saying to myself, I want to do this kind of writing. The setting is around me.
“I have been very lucky. I have to say my first critic was really Stanley Kunitz, the editor of the Yale Series. What a nice man! Regarding some of the language poets, it is a different parish, I do have a New Hampshire story… there’s a political rally and a farmer arrives somewhat late for the politician’s speech and the late farmer asks a neighbor already there, what’s the speaker talking about and the neighbor replies, he don’t say.”
Carnegie-Mellon University Press reprinted Obscenities in 2002. Casey’s second book, Millrat, poems set in a textile mill in Lowell, Massachusetts, is now in its second printing. His third book, The Million Dollar Hole, was published by Orchises Press in 2001. His writing has appeared in The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times, as well as in many literary journals and anthologies.
turnrow conducted the interview that follows via e-mail correspondences in November of 2005. At that time, with the subject of torture, prisoner abuse, and extraordinary rendition in the public discourse, it seemed natural to address Michael Casey’s wartime experience in the Military Police.
Initially he confided that the War was still with him “every single day,” and was quick to add, “You understand my war service was in the rear echelon. Who am I to talk? For me the war was not the great horror of the combat arms, infantry and Marines. The combat soldiers hated us. Ask say the novelist Larry Heinemann (Close Quarters, Vintage Contemporaries) what he thinks of the military police and I don’t want to hear his reply.
“The army service …just took two years from me, when, just like Dick Cheney, I had other priorities. When males my age tell me of how they avoided military service, it is often strangely presented in a boast… the power plays they pulled and sure, they would‘ve gone if it was a real war. I really love to hear that. I reply how the draft boards had to drag me out of my house. Hahaha. The nature of this war aside … the echo of better educated citizens’ avoiding military service is disturbing. Leslie Fieldler in The Spectrum, the SUNY Buffalo newspaper, wrote the Vietnam War was fought by our servants. I understand now the Fiedler remark was baiting an educated reader then but it grated. It is samesame.”
We asked if war in Iraq had reawakened emotional residue from his war experiences.
Michael Casey: The victories at this war’s beginning and the 1990 Gulf War did not bother me. The lingering continuation of the current war … soldiers tensely awaiting overseas levy… some soldiers more than once…the nature of the war of occupation, mines and road patrols, that upsets me. Before my arrival in country Vietnam, my company had lost four men in two jeeps to mines, and in response we had four sandbags on the floors of our jeeps for armor. Does our being a target of a foreign highway win any heart and mind? I kindly doubt it. I believe the situation worse for the MP’s now than for me then. I am fortunate that my active service is over, and I hope the people there now return home soon.
turnrow: As a former military policeman in a prisoner of war camp, do you think that the reported abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and at Guantánamo Bay is a phenomenon of this generation of soldier, as some analysts have asserted?
MC: Tragic that the Iraqi prisoners were abused. I hope that it was only sadistic acts of a few guards involved. It does show a lack of discipline and lack of control that is amazing. Why are not the officers in charge punished for lack of supervision? A question begged. A letter of admonishment does not really make it… take away the pensions. I am not joking in that.
It seems to me the caliber of the enlisted ranks is so much higher now in education, motivation, maturity, and training than in my years. The American army in my time treated the Vietnamese horribly and the Americans deserved to be kicked out of VN. I never saw a military policeman abuse a prisoner and I am not disingenuous; I am aware that being a prisoner is not a great experience. I was told by instructors at the military police school that the then test criteria (the GT score for intellect) for the military police was higher than that for the officer candidate school. Is that still the case? God help us.
turnrow: What challenges does the present political situation present to you?
MC: It horrifies me, and I am happy my children are over draft age. For that matter, I am happy I am not draft age. If any of the current patriots who avoided active duty in the Vietnam War want to carry a rifle in Iraq… I want to say I wish them well. I understand they would be too old to be in the combat arms now …so I would suggest they do a rear echelon type job… like… road patrols.
turnrow: Years ago in The Nation, discussing some of your work that seem to position the poem as a kind of reportage, Charles Molesworth frets over “a sort of moral numbness in the face of crisis.” He uses the term scenarist to describe your position and condemned what he understood as a repudiation of moral responsibility to the horrors of war.
MC: The Charles Molesworth comment is appropriate. To capture a scene was … is my intent and then I would like the reader to judge. I am responsible for what scenes I presented or amended but I did have a goal of writing an anti-Vietnam war, not exactly anti-Army, book. The typical persona’s reaction is a preservation tactic. This shit don’t bother me. The persona will walk on tippytoes for his one year tour in Nam and when he’s back in the world, he’ll say it was nothin. It is a self deception. If a reader does not see that, I should have done a better job. This is not saying I was or am enamored with the US Army …instance case… an embedded British journalist recently was shocked so few Americans soldiers could speak Arabic in Iraq. Have they learned nothing?
turnrow: You must be pleased by the recent re-issue of Obscenities with the Carnegie-Mellon Classic Contemporaries Series. Stanley Kunitz selected the book for the Yale Series of Younger Poets in 1972 when you were twenty-five. Do you find that the interest in these poems about your experience in Vietnam is increasing over time? I wonder too if you have reason to suspect that the war in Iraq has rekindled an interest in the book.
MC: No. It is a new war and, of course, situations have changed. There is no conscription yet. However, if Americans look like an occupying army, I do not think there is any win possible. And tragically…significantly, there is no quick way out.
turnrow: We like quite a bit the bent toward the antipoetic and the demotic in the poems featured in this issue of turnrow. How important are these two elements in your work? The shine of hard work seems to have been rubbed off them, yet we can’t imagine them written in another way. Could you address the craft of their composition? Could you talk about your attraction to persona?
MC: They are work situation anecdotes. I was a security guard at a research lab and the white collar world had parallels with the factory work. In these, the speakers often only realize a part of the true story. The personas not exactly unreliable narrators but rather ill informed or ill advised or wrong headed. Their interaction ritual with others is always interesting to me. For the speaker, sometimes he realizes the irony and sometimes he doesn’t (drill sergeants are among the best actors I’ve ever seen), but his audience and I hope the reader will figure things out. A Benjamin Cheever character says the typical New Yorker story goes on and on and nothing much happens but you feel sad at the end of it. I want to avoid that kind of situation in what I write…I want to have some punch at the end. The poem as a joke. It is an idea that Howard Nemerov discussed in the essay “Bottom’s Dream” way back.
turnrow: The comfort of a centralized voice of a poet/speaker is missing in the poems, and as a result the reader finds himself in the ambiguous position of responding tonally to what these characters like Kerry and Robbin are saying. Is this a conscious strategy of removing the bardic “I” of the poet?
MC: Sure. I hope the reader will comprehend what is going on. The persona or even characters in the poems often do not know. I think of the narrator and characters of John Cheever’s “The Swimmer.” It’s famous for its unreliable narrator, but there are clues all over. The repetition of references to booze and particularly the changes in weather are very sharp. You have to believe eventually that he’s escaped from an institute more than once. Non compos mentis.
turnrow: Who are these characters? They seem at once quite familiar and yet faceless, too.
MC: Complete fictions. I worked as a security guard at a research facility after the service. As in the mills I took notes…arrogance is really such a beauteeful target.
turnrow: Largely because it’s Kerouac’s hometown, Lowell almost has a kind of personality—the industrial history of the place, the textile mills, the working-class families that worked them… All that. Do you relate in an aesthetic sense to being a working-class writer?
MC: No. I relate my writing about the mills to something of a Lowell experience. To being around different people and languages. French, Greek, Portuguese, Armenian. A mix of groups. My Grandmother (my day care) was born in Armenia and an accented English is just fine with me. Concerning Lowell, it seemed to me Jack Kerouac had friends in Lowell High in many nationalities. The ethnic groups in Lowell did not always get along and Kerouac transcended this.
turnrow: Thinking of Kerouac—I want to ask you about the years when you came of age, so to speak, and the lasting influences connected with growing up during those times—say, the impact of the folk revival, the residual affect of the Beats, maybe, the topical song phenomenon, Dylan, antiwar demonstrations, the Civil Rights Movement, the counter culture—whatever that refers to—the assassinations…. What, if anything, were the lasting impressions of the times?
MC: The times? I was aware of Howl and I thought it was very sharp. Lowell Tech Professor Charles Jarvis, a Kerouac biographer, had recommended it to me. The free speech movement and counter culture did not affect me. I have no wish to use four letter words in every day speech. I want to add I thought the movie Easy Rider lousy then and lousy now. The bad trip scene was boring and not so much disturbing as just unpleasant. Well, in one year I am guessing 1965 both Time and Newsweek had a cover picture of John Cheever. I don’t think that that has happened since for a writer…well for the songwriter for Bruce Springsteen I think … from one of the Cheever articles I learned about his journals and from that I got the idea to keep a journal as well. I still keep notebooks but not really in an organized way. I worked in mills through the summers in college and I kept a notebook. I was in an engineering school and I majored in physics. I never was involved with drugs. Drafted in fall 68, I’d worked for Eugene McCarthy in the spring in West Hartford, CT and Lowell, MA. Heard him speak at Rivier College in Nashua, New Hampshire.
“My opinion was that McCarthy was the peace candidate and I could not see why Robert Kennedy or George McGovern would not support Eugene McCarthy…he wrote poetry too and I thought he was great. He said how all the bad things the Vatican Council did away with… the Pentagon adopted… the doctrine of infallibility to the extent of Latin in PR notices. Despite my work … Robert Kennedy won the Lowell primary on a write-in campaign. Senator McCarthy said after the elections that his supporters would know what to do and I did not have a clue.”