“Perceptions of War: English professor reminisces on his childhood during the Vietnam War and travels in Russia”: Profile by Megan King (2004)

“Perceptions of War: English professor reminisces on his childhood during the Vietnam War and travels in Russia”

By Megan King
The Carroll News
May 6, 2004

In the mid-1970s, after 58,000 U.S. soldiers died fighting the “Communist aggression” of North Vietnam, Philip Metres’ parents sponsored a family of Vietnamese refugees. They welcomed strangers into their San Diego home to help them start a better life in the United States.

In the 1980s, when President Ronald Reagan told the nation to write off the Soviet Union as an “Evil Empire,” he asked, “How can a whole people be evil?”

In 2002 when President George W. Bush declared war on an “Axis of Evil,” Metres taught John Carroll students about how perceptions of war are affected by literature and popular culture.

Metres speaks in long sentences filled with metaphor and imagery, as if from a poem. One recurring theme is evident – when Americans retreated inward out of fear or ignorance in the face of an international crisis, he has reached out and attempted to connect to a foreign people through poetry and writing. This pattern has defined the life of this poet, translator, scholar and teacher.

Metres, a 33 year-old English professor, sits in his office at John Carroll University and reflects on his life experiences surrounded by the trappings of a poet’s life. A fake front page of “The Carroll News” that is based entirely on poetry hangs on the door. A picture of George W. and Laura Bush from a campaign letter smiles down from a bulletin board (though he admits is just a conversation piece). He is surrounded by a plethora of books and a bike he is often seen riding around University Heights.

Born on July 4, 1970 in San Diego, Metres and his family moved to suburban Chicago when he was six. His translations of Russian poetry have been published in various journals. His recent translations have been published in Sergey Gandlevsky’s “A Kindred Orphanhood.” His chapbook of poetry from his experience in Russia, “Primer for Non-Native Speakers,” was published in 2004. His translation, “Catalogue of Comedic Novelties: Selected Poems of Lev Rubinstein,” was published on May 1.

His father, a naval officer during the Vietnam War, volunteered at a Vietnamese orphanage during the war, and upon returning from his service, the family decided to “sponsor” a refugee family. Although Metres was a small child at the time, he recounts that the experience affected his early perceptions of the effect of how people treat the enemy in an international conflict. “My mother recounted to me that I was very interested and confused. I’d say, ‘Where’s their home?’” he said. “I think that meeting them, and in some ways, growing up with them for those six months opened me up to some of the tragedies of the world and differences, and that we’re not all the same and we come from very different places and our houses will smell different, and the foods taste different, but those are things that are interesting, they’re not to be feared.”

Living with the Vietnamese family also opened his eyes to the effects of war. For him, war is not just about the American soldier in the movies, but also about civilians, protestors, conscientious objectors and enemy soldiers.

“I think that it was partly as a result of meeting them [the Vietnamese family] and partly absorbing my dad’s sense of psychic woundedness over the war and my mom’s inherent pacifism that it was clear to me that war has a reverberating effect,” Metres said. “When you throw the proverbial pebble into the lake, you don’t just get one plop, you get all those radiating circles emanating outwards, and in a sense, everyone who gets touched by those experiences of war, it affects them and those are felt in all kinds of ways,” he said. “Maybe that helps to explain why I find it so important to teach a class on war and literature that isn’t just about the soldiers because war is something that permeates society and is authorized by every single person in a society, or in a democratic society, should be authorized by some kind of mass agreement.”

After graduating from College of the Holy Cross in 1992, Metres was awarded the Thomas J. Watson Fellowship to study poetry in Russia. While he could have proposed to travel to any part of the world, he proposed to research poetry in Russia. “Maybe it’s my contrarian attitude about things because I couldn’t believe a whole people could be evil,” he said of his reasons for choosing Russia. “What I found out very quickly was that they’re not. Beneath the rhetoric and beneath that war was a struggling people with a rich culture.”

He researched “Contemporary Russian Poetry and its Response to Historical Change.” Traveling to Russia in 1992 gave him a unique perspective on the Russian experience – a time that he calls a “Wild West scenario” in which the country reeled from the collapse of communism and struggled to make the transition to economic liberalization. He did not have formal schooling in Russia; rather, he “just met people” and wrote raw, real-life poetry about the people he met. “So part of me was like, ‘Why am I here in Russia when I could be in Italy drinking red wine and eating pasta?’ and part of me was drawn to this culture and its tragic realness,” Metres said. “One thing I felt was despite how hard it was to deal with it, it was life for a lot of people. And I was put in a position to witness that, and that’s what I felt responsible to do. The poems came out of allowing people a little bit into that world.”

Metres had been acutely aware of the situation in the Middle East before Sept. 11, 2001, and the terror attacks caused him to reevaluate his perceptions and to reflect on the “unjust” Middle East policy of the United States, including sanctions against Iraq. Previously involved in anti-sanctions campaigns, he concluded that the United States is treating Iraq as an example in the war against terrorism.

He read a poem at John Carroll’s Sept. 11 memorial service and taught a section on war literature in “Making Sense of Sept. 11,” a one-credit course in the College of Arts and Sciences in which various faculty members presented perspectives in understanding the terrorist attacks.

His experience with presenting the war literature in that course led to the development of the English department’s course “War and Literature” which was offered for the first time in the fall of 2003. “I think we, as a group, [the class] had enough distance from it to put it in context,” he said of discussing the events of Sept. 11 fit into the course.

Metres said that an important part of his development as a writer was learning to translate Russian poetry. “Translation forces you to inhabit other people’s craft – their language. It helps you figure out how someone builds a work, builds a poem, builds an entire body of work,” he said. His translations began to be published at 23 in part because “people are interested in these other perspectives,” but in his poetry he is “still learning.”

His serious brown eyes that had been peering seriously and contemplatively through small, brown glasses for more than an hour lit up, and he became visibly relaxed when the conversation steered toward his wife, fellow poet Amy Breau, and their 19-month-old daughter Adele. “She just blows us away all the time,” he said of Adele. “She’s fun; she’s exhausting. She has so much energy.” And perhaps poised to follow in the footsteps of her parents someday, little Adele has already learned several poems, including William Blake’s “The Tiger.”

He is pragmatic about his experiences as a writer and what he hopes to accomplish in the future. “I think some American writers get narcissistically focused on themselves and forget that we’re responsible to the culture and to the world and not to make writing a practice of self-scrutiny or self-adoration or self-promotion, but somehow to speak to the world in a larger sense.”

As once again the United States deals with foreign peoples and cultures whose world views contrast sharply with the United States, Metres’ poetry with a world view shows no signs of retreating inward.