Dan O'Brien is a playwright, poet, and librettist. His play, The Body of an American, will receive an off-Broadway premiere at Primary Stages, in a co-production with Hartford Stage, in 2016. O'Brien's third collection of poetry, New Life, will be published by CB Editions in London in 2015, and by Hanging Loose Press in Brooklyn in 2016. His second collection, Scarsdale, was published by CB Editions in 2014, and in the US by Measure Press in 2015. War Reporter, his debut collection, was published in 2013 by CB Editions, and by Hanging Loose Press in the US. War Reporter received the 2013 Fenton Aldeburgh First Collection Prize and was shortlisted for the 2013 Forward Foundation's Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection, both in the UK.
DS: Why do you write poetry?
DO: I simply always have written them. At least since I was twelve or so. Life almost always feels overwhelming, in terms of the sadness, occasionally the joy, the randomness and incomprehensibility of everything. There’s little else to do with these feelings than to make something of it, at least that’s how it seems to me, and for whatever reason writing is how I like to make things.
I write plays and prose too, but poetry is what I return to when the emotions are most intense, and usually the most private. My first poem was about my brother’s suicide attempt, and now almost thirty years later I’m still essentially writing that poem over and over again. The longer you last, of course, the more traumas you have to live through. So there’s no shortage of material. Clearly I’m a gloomy sort.
DS: What do you hope to find in poems written by other people?
DO: I hope to find honesty and intimacy. I want to feel honored by what the poet has revealed to me, even if it’s not a so-called narrative or confessional poem, even if I don’t “understand” it. In fact I don’t really want to understand it. I want to feel moved by the poem. I want to feel I know the poet now.
DS: Describe your work in progress.
DO: I’m publishing my second collection of poetry derived from the work of my friend, war reporter Paul Watson, entitled New Life—what I’m describing lately as “poems of Syria and Hollywood,” as the book deals with Paul’s time covering the war in Syria, and our concurrent, tragicomic attempts to sell an American cable TV drama about journalists covering Syria. I’ve received a Guggenheim Fellowship this year to write a play for Center Theatre Group here in Los Angeles that will be, in many ways, an adaptation of New Life.
I’m also writing a new play for Oregon Shakespeare Festival and the Public Theater in NYC on the history of guns in America, and a new play for Portland Center Stage that may or may not be about Sasquatch, and may or may not involve music and song. My play about Paul Watson, The Body of an American, opens at Hartford Stage this winter before running off-Broadway with Primary Stages at the Cherry Lane Theater. There are separate productions of this play next spring in Chicago and Washington, DC. And I’ve been chipping away at a short memoir of childhood in Scarsdale, New York.
DS: What are your hopes for the future of poetry?
DO: I don’t know that I have any hopes. I like poetry just as it is, and I trust that people will always write poetry because they have to, and they enjoy it, and that people will read poetry for the same reasons. I don’t care about styles or fashions, what poetry “is” or “should” be.
Perhaps I do have one selfish hope: that what I’ve written, and still might write, can be a comfort to people the way I’ve been comforted by other people’s poems.