Joan Hanna: We were so happy to have your poem “The Uncropped Photograph— Nick Ut’s Vietnam, June 8, 1972” as part of our July/Asia issue. I love that this poem narrates the story for the reader. Can you share your inspiration for this poem?
Gary Dop: When I came across Nick Ut’s iconic Vietnam War photograph a while back, I felt compelled to find more information about the photo. I’d seen the photograph several times, but in this new search I turned up a wealth of information, and I came across several versions of the picture, including one that appeared to be the full, un-cropped photograph. This “other” version felt important. I felt like I was seeing more of something, and this, for me, is the ground on which poetry is born. Poetry springs up when we see what we could not see in our normal, hypnotized existence. I found myself wondering what else mattered in the photo, and there was so much happening in it that begged to be uncovered.
JH: You have so intently filled in the details of this image for your audience. Why are you drawn to this style of poetry? What other types of poetry are you fascinated with?
GD: I’ve long been drawn to ekphrastic poems. My first and greatest encounter with ekphrasis was William Carlos Williams “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus”, a poem that still moves me with its simplicity. The ekphrastic poem is fascinating in the way it succeeds only when it serves two masters—the newly created poem and the old work, which in WCW case is Bruegel’s painting. Most ekphrastic poems, mine included, end up unable to reach the height of the original work, which is fine, but the great ones, like Williams’ often exceed the original.
I don’t write a lot of ekphrastic poetry. I tend to write original narrative or persona poems, but I’m fascinated by about anything—except language poetry, which just confuses me and leaves me feeling lost (I know it’s likely some sort of genetic inferiority on my part). I want a poem that helps me open my eyes, helps keep me awake, and helps me stave off the waking sleep that flesh is heir to.
JH: Your final two stanzas are so chilling in their simplicity. Why did you choose these /images as the ending of the poem?
GD: For me, the poem had to come to the little boy. Every time I look, really look, at the photograph, I’m drawn to him. There’s so much more going on in the photograph—the intensity of the faces, the background, the naked young girl, the seemingly calm soldiers—but the boy is the only one of the children looking back, he’s the closest to the town, and everything about his movement seems hesitant. And behind him, behind the cloud, members of the childrens’ families have died. The photograph has so much movement, and it’s all away from Trang Bang. It’s a photograph consumed with place, even though place is disrupted so much by the simple “Vietnam” tag as we try to look at the picture today.
I like the way the end of the poem speaks of the boy’s gaze not being taken by time, as though all the others, those who look in the direction of the camera, including Phan Thi Kim Phuc, have been captured and revisited again and again by several generations now. The boy is alone, his gaze safe in the past.
JH: Please share links to your website, publications and book links with our readers.
GD: You can link to more of my work at www.garydop.com
JH: Thank you again for sharing your fine poem with our readers. Just one final question: what does recovery mean to you?
GD: The most formative years of my adolescence were spent in West Germany in the 1980s, soaking in a culture consumed with recovering from WWII and later the Cold War. Somewhere in my experiences in Bavaria, I came to understand life as nothing more than change, growth, and recovery–perhaps it was the day I realized the kind, old German men and women in our neighborhood would all have been in the prime of their lives during Hitler’s tyranny or perhaps it was the night I flipped the channel to see Berlin wall being demolished. Rilke, the great German-language poet begins one of his sonnets with the phrase that loosely translates as “Crave Change.” The reason we must crave changing is because we cannot remain as we were, scarred by our pasts—we must move forward. We are perpetually recovering.