Interview by David Rothenberg
John Canaday has written an extraordinary series of poems in the voices of the real-life characters who were part of the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos during World War II, where the atomic bomb was developed under the direction of J. Robert Oppenheimer. The book is Critical Assembly: Poems of the Manhattan Project (University of New Mexico Press, 2017). Physicists such as Leo Szilard and Edward Teller appear, along with many other lesser known characters such as Ruth Marshak and Dorothy McKibben. Canaday had worked on this book for more than 30 years. I know this since in the early 1990s he and I put on a theatrical version of these poems at Boston University. I am one of those readers who have been waiting for decades for this book to come out, and I am so happy it’s finally here and that I tracked down Canaday, who I hadn’t seen in many years. I wondered what kind of dedication it took to work on a single poetry volume for this many years.
After studying literature and physics in college, John spent a year in England as a Watson Fellow, studying the work of American expatriate writers. He returned to the United States to pursue a Ph.D. in literature at Rutgers University, culminating in a dissertation on the intersections of literature and science. He also spent a year at Boston University as the Starbuck Fellow in Poetry and a year in Jordan tutoring the children of King Hussein and Queen Noor before returning once again to the United States to teach science, math, history, and literature. During this time, John has also written and published poetry as well as scholarly studies of literature and science. He has written essays and reviews and contributed to collections devoted to nuclear studies.
John’s poetry has appeared in Poetry, Raritan, Slate, The Paris Review, Poetry Daily, The Hudson Review, and The New Republic, among numerous other journals and anthologies. The Invisible World, a book of poems set in Jordan, won the Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets. John has also won a New Millennium Award and two fellowships from the Massachusetts Cultural Council.
David Rothenberg: People mistakenly think poetry is quick and easy to write. Is it actually true that you’ve worked on this book for so many decades, or have you come back to it after many years away? What is the history of your engagement with this project?
John Canaday: Well, I started writing these poems in 1983 when I was in London on a Watson Fellowship, and I’ve been working on them ever since, though they have taken the back seat on a number of occasions: when I was in graduate school, when I was writing The Nuclear Muse, and when I was tutoring King Hussein and Queen Noor’s kids in Jordan and writing my first poetry book, The Invisible World. But it has been my primary writing project for decades.
David Rothenberg: How does one work on poems so diligently over so many years?
John Canaday: For each individual poem there’s a good deal of specific research: into the person that it’s about, into the context to which the person is reacting, into the general history surrounding the poem. So the writing has been a mixture of doing research, letting that gestate, and then writing drafts of the poems. After I get a draft that more or less satisfies me, I move on to other poems. But inevitably I’ve gone back to revise previous poems—as any poet does, draft after draft—but also based on what emerges in later poems. Because one of the great challenges of the project is that I really want the poems to play off one another. And that has in many ways been an act of faith: that these poems would ultimately work together to create a larger whole, not just a gathering of superficially related parts.
Up until now, with only a couple of exceptions when larger selections were published, readers have only seen a few of these poems at a time in any given journal. So the poems have needed to be self-contained, but they also need to talk to one another. They need to create a larger fabric to participate in. And that has required a good deal of back and forth revision of the poems.
David Rothenberg: How did the period of turning the poems into a performance piece affect the whole composition? I remember how much fun it was to work on this back in graduate school days; I did the music and you turned these into spoken texts for actors. Derek Walcott produced the whole thing at the Boston Playwrights’ Theatre at Boston University.
John Canaday: Yes, that was in 1991. There were probably two main effects. One was that it did give me a sense that the poems were interacting with one another. And it gave me a feeling for ways in which I needed to revise how that was happening. To step back from the poems and hear them in other people’s voices was very useful: to see them come alive as characters. Because one of the dangers of a project like this is that you’re very close to it. Finding the appropriate distance is difficult but essential, because it is purporting to represent other people’s voices.
David Rothenberg: How much was Derek Walcott involved?
John Canaday: He was immensely helpful in introducing me to writing for the theater. At the time I was studying with him in BU’s poetry writing program. He invited me to join the playwriting class as well, which is not something that I had anticipated doing. But it turned out that he was a marvelous teacher of playwriting—really immensely inspiring. And then he offered to produce a play version of my poems under the title Trinity. So the whole thing wouldn’t have happened without him. But he had very little to do with the actual hands-on shaping of the piece.
David Rothenberg: In the 1980s, America had one view about the Manhattan Project and now, 35 years later, do we consider these events differently?
John Canaday: In 1983 Ronald Reagan delivered his Evil Empire speech. I was living in London at the time and just started imagining ICBMs passing by overhead. Reagan’s speech was, it seemed to me, such a drastic and dangerous use of metaphor that a response was called for, and it seemed that poetry might offer it. So I began work on these poems. But to get them right required so much research—into the history, the physics, the personalities, the settings—that they progressed slowly. And in the meantime the Soviet Union disintegrated, and things seemed to calm down. So there was a long period of time when the composition of the book was not being driven by a sense of immediate peril. But the threat was always there in the background. There was always a sense that we don’t understand these weapons very well, and that the ways we have of talking about them—the metaphors we have to hand—lead us to be dangerously cavalier.
Now things have come full circle and we have to worry about “Rocket Man” and other inflammatory rhetoric being tossed around. The book has, ironically or providentially, emerged at a moment similar to the time of its birth decades ago.
David Rothenberg: Yes, we were both in college at the time when the total obsession with nuclear annihilation was everywhere. You know Jonathan Schell’s The Fate of the Earth. Mutually Assured Destruction. It was a complete obsession. People worried that tomorrow the bombs are coming, you know, and then poof.
John Canaday: There is certainly a reawakened sense of danger now.
David Rothenberg: One of the challenges of writing in the voices of real people is that you have to deal with what they actually said. Here on page 144 is how you deal with the famous Oppenheimer line from the Bhagavad Gita, “I am become death, destroyer of worlds,” which is the quote most people remember from him. You integrate his words into a poem this way:
Some cry. I say, “It worked.” My tongue is black
with ash. These men have been my many arms.
Once Vishnu tried to teach the prince his duty.
Rising, he roared: Now I am become
Death, the destroyer of worlds.
Grant we learn
before the Red God speaks
So who is the red god you’re talking about here?
John Canaday: Shiva, the Destroyer.
David Rothenberg: Right. And you say, “these men have been my many arms.” Do you think that’s what Oppenheimer was actually thinking, that he was part of this vast spider-like organization?
John Canaday: I think so. But not spider-like in a pejorative sense. What this reworking of the quote is trying to get at is that Oppenheimer understood you could look at this project in apocalyptic terms or you could look at it in creative terms. And I think he, perhaps more than anyone else, lived the balance of those things. On the one hand he had to placate the military, had to deliver a weapon: there was never any question that’s what the focus of the project was. But at the same time, Oppenheimer and the majority of the scientists involved were part of the project for a complex set of reasons having to do with duty, of course, but also with intellectual curiosity, with a dedication to the science involved, and with a sense of excitement about the rich community they were creating there. So the “many arms” metaphor reflects both the wielding of great power and the collaboration of the community.
David Rothenberg: So how many of the characters in this book have read it? Who’s still around to read?
John Canaday: As far as I know nobody in the book is still around. But family members are, of course. I was contacted a while ago by Stephen Marshak, who wrote to say he had enjoyed the poem in his mother Ruth’s voice. I was pleased, of course, because I’ve lived in fear that family members will read these and take umbrage in some way or other. Though I’ve never written about any of these characters without feeling that I could sympathize with their perspective on the project and their reasons for being part of it.
David Rothenberg: Presumably when you started some of these people were still around and you might have talked to them?
John Canaday: Absolutely. There’s a list in the Acknowledgments. I corresponded with some of the people I write about, with Robert Serber and Edward Teller, for example, and I met others like Willy Higginbotham. But none of them got to see their poems. And, strangely, nobody asked.
John Canaday: Nobody asked. Nobody said, “You know, once you’re done send it to me.” Although I think that they would have welcomed it. But because the process of writing was so cyclical and slow, I really didn’t finish the poems until many years after I started.
David Rothenberg: Do you have any examples of maybe one or two that you’ve worked on over the years?
John Canaday: Yes, here are three versions of a poem about Einstein. The original from 1983, a previously published version from 1986, and the poem as it appears in the present book, in the form it finally settled on in 2010 (click images to view larger size):
David Rothenberg: So in the Oppenheimer poem we discussed previously, you say, “Once Vishnu tried to teach the Prince his duty.” Now didn’t you have your princely education period when you were tutoring the children of the King of Jordan? Did that experience affect your composition of this book?
John Canaday: I’m sure it did. Not explicitly, but being exposed to a very different way of life—being taken out of my element. Maybe this is a little grand, but I think it did give me a sense of myself as a fictional character. And that was undoubtedly helpful in writing this book. I became aware of the artificiality of my own voice in this foreign context. This helped me be able to take on the many other historical voices in this book.
One of the motivations in writing these poems was to challenge W.H. Auden, who, in his poem “In Memory of W.B. Yeats” wrote that “poetry makes nothing happen.” There are good reasons he said this in 1939, but I hope that poetry can ultimately make things happen. In particular, I think that implementing nuclear policy in non-historical ways—that is, without an awareness of the history of these weapons—is a dangerous thing to do. I think that we’ve inherited a view of nuclear weapons without questioning it that is based on a preexisting set of metaphors and narratives that were borrowed to account for this radical new technology without thinking about the effects. Einstein said in 1946, “The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking, and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.” So this book has been about exploring what those modes of thought are: Where did we get our impressions of nuclear weapons? What did the people who were there, in positions of privileged intimacy, think about these weapons? What was their experience?
How do we understand these things? Usually our understanding is based on histories that summarize and try to look at these weapons from a broad perspective, which tends to be the perspective of inherited metaphors. Whereas my hope in the book is to present the range of different responses to show that you can’t experience these weapons without the interpolation of private experiences. Each of these people came to work on nuclear weapons for different reasons, and the work had different effects on them. So the meaning of the weapons inheres in these individual experiences that coalesce into a larger historical moment. We tend to look at the larger moment and forget about the pieces, and I think it’s very important to reassess our sense of the large picture by looking at these individual fragments and how they come together to construct the larger perspectives of history.
David Rothenberg: What other poets have tried to tackle these grand technological things? Do you feel a connection with the handful of others who are interested in these things?
John Canaday: It has been a pretty isolated experience. Most of the people who have looked at these issues have been in other disciplines. The poet who comes most immediately to mind is W.D. Snodgrass in his Fuhrer Bunker poems, which he wrote in the voices of figures in the Nazi regime. I think he was trying a similar approach to history, using the resources of poetry, the technical devices of enjambment, rhyme, meter, and so forth to represent the subtleties of thought rather than soundbite versions of events, and to deconstruct the historical events and look at them as human events rather than as abstract history. Aside from that, there is Richard Kenney’s The Invention of the Zero. I think it’s a terrific book. It takes a very different approach than mine, but he’s interested in seeing what poetry can do to tackle these technological issues that are also human issues. So I certainly felt very indebted to him and learned a great deal from him.
David Rothenberg: What’s next on the horizon? Do you have another project in mind?
John Canaday: I always seem to be in the middle of something—or several somethings. As a break from the large scope of Critical Assembly, for instance, I’ve been working on a series of haiku versions of some of my favorite books, from the Odyssey to Derek Walcott’s Omeros. Apparently I like to think big even in small poems!
But my primary project is still Critical Assembly. Or rather, a companion volume. I always imagined these poems including the voices of the 509th Composite Group assigned to deliver nuclear weapons in combat, particularly the Enola Gay and Bockscar crews, as well as the voices of the hibakusha in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In fact I began the project with the hibakusha. But they are, as you can imagine, tremendously challenging, for a variety of reasons, and the project was getting too long for one book anyway. So I decided to end the first book with the Trinity test and then focus a second volume on the B-29 crews training at Wendover Air Force Base in Utah; the politicians, scientists, and military leaders debating whether (or really how) to use their new weapons; preparations for the bombing missions on Tinian island in the Pacific; the actual bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; and finally what I call the aftermath: the years following the war during which nuclear weapons became part of our cultural consciousness.
I’ve drafted the section of poems focusing on the debate in Washington, including people like Niels Bohr, Henry Stimson, and Curtis Lemay, and now I’m working on the Wendover poems. And of course I’m preparing myself to tackle the hibakusha. The work goes on…
Header photo of the 1946 colloquium on the Super at Los Alamos. Front row left to right: Norris Bradbury, John Manley, Enrico Fermi and J.M.B. Kellogg. Second row left to right: Colonel Oliver G. Haywood, unknown, Robert Oppenheimer, Richard Feynman, Phil B. Porter. Third row left to right: : Edward Teller, Gregory Breit, Arthur Hemmendinger, Arthur Schelberg. Photo courtesy Los Alamos National Laboratory and Wikipedia.