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INTERVIEW WITH JOHN BRADLEY

John Bradley

Write a bio.

I was born in Brooklyn, and grew up all over the place--Germany (though I was only two and can't recall it), Framingham, Massachusetts; Lincoln and Omaha, Nebraska; Massapequa and Lynbrook, New York; Wayzata, Minnesota. My father was a travelling salesman, so our family was always on the move. One constant in my life was a love of books. Rock music came along, and my interest in song lyrics (Beatles, Doors, Jefferson Airplane, etc.) made me want to try writing poetry. I've attended poetry workshops with some great teachers over the years--James Moore, Kate Green, Michael Dennis Browne, Tom McGrath, Bill Tremblay, Howard McCord. And I've been blessed with some dear friends who've taught me more about poetry than I can ever say. My wife, Jana, is also a great reader, and a tough critic.

Describe the room you write in.

I write at a wooden table by a second-story window looking out over the backyard. There's a huge maple tree there, and in spring and summer, all you see is a swaying wall of green. But I'm usually staring at the computer screen--an old Mac--and playing around with words to see what might happen if I try this or that.

Who are you reading now?

I'm reading "My Tired Father," by Gellu Naum, translated from the Romanian by James Brook. The book, a series of short prose lines, was made by the author's cutting and combining sentences from many different kinds of texts. I don't think I've ever read anything quite like it. Here's an example: "Ageless women gravitated around us The heads of some of them emanated light" (There's no punctuation in the book.)

Who are some of your favorite poets?

There are so many--Cesar Vallejo, Tom McGrath, Muriel Rukeyser, Hilda Morley, Denise Levertov, Kenneth Rexroth, Martin Espada.

What are you working on now?

I'm working on a poetry manuscript about my brother, a stand-up comic who took his life in 1999. And I have a collection of poems written in the persona of a Chinese poet. The manuscript's completed but needs final editing. I've also been gathering poems for an anthology in homage to Thomas McGrath.

Talk about your book, "Terrestrial Music," just published by Curbstone Press.

There's a theme that runs throughout the collection--our connection to the earth. There are poems of place, love poems, political poems. All bring us back to where we live, how we live, and the consequences of our actions and the actions of others on us and this planet. But I'm making it sound very abstract. These poems are not. They're often quite simple and direct, with everyday experiences, such as watching salt sizzle on icy front steps.

Other books you published include "Love-In- Idleness: The Poetry of Roberto Zingarello," which won the Washington Prize, "Learning to Glow: A Nuclear Reader" (Univ. of Arizona), and you edited, "Atomic Ghosts: Poets Respond to the Nuclear Age" (Coffee House). Discuss the role your poetry has in this Nuclear age.

I think the Nuclear Age has a huge effect on all of us, whether it's the psychological fear of living with the possible destruction of the Earth, or the radiation we all carry in our bodies from nuclear tests that the US and other countries have conducted, not to mention Chernobyl. I wonder what role nuclear fallout has played in the cancer rate--something we'll probably never know. The Bomb haunts many of my poems--there's an entire section of "Terrestrial Music" dealing with the Bomb and its offspring. I think poetry offers a unique lens to see our obsession with the atom. My hope is that these poems might spark more interest in our nuclear history. Our nuclear story really needs to be brought out of the closet.

Personally, I am against all Nuclear power/technology. This has caused some debate between many of my friends and I. Do you find yourself facing the same situation.

I rarely hear debate about nuclear power. Maybe because I live in the state that has the most nuclear reactors, and Illinoisians have grown accustomed to it? A woman who was undergoing radiation therapy for cancer told me something profound. She said radiation had given her cancer, because she was living in Oak Ridge, one of our nuclear sites. And radiation, through radiation therapy, was saving her life. She showed me how complex this topic is. But I don't see how we can keep producing more nuclear waste when we don't know what to do with it. And all this waste provides a target for terrorists.

You currently teach at Northern Illinois University in Dekalb, Illinois. What do you try to teach your students about writing?

I hope I convey a love of reading and writing, the sense of discovery writing can produce, the beauty of language when crafted. I rarely bring poetry to my composition classes as so many of my students hate and fear it, though we've recently discussed some poems in a reader we're using. "Richard Cory" is still timely for my students, which surprised me.

What challenges do you face if any inside Academia?

The main challenge is getting students who've been turned off to reading and writing to enjoy these activities. And I'm always competing with the cell phone, that constant presence in the classroom, no matter how many times I ask that they be buried at the bottom of the backpack. One colleague told me that teachers need to see the cell phone as chewing gum in the classroom--an irritant you just grow to live with. I'm trying to get there, but I have a long way to go.

 


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