The Oppenheimer Project: An Interview with Kelly Cherry

by Caitlin McCann

Kelly Cherry’s collection of poems, Quartet for J. Robert Oppenheimer: A Poem (LSU Press 2017), gives readers a closer look into Oppenheimer the man, as opposed to Oppenheimer the father of the atomic bomb. Through lyrical lines, allusions to ancient heroes, and musical movements and interludes, Cherry crafts a well-rounded, sympathetic portrait of the ethos of a man who had to make a difficult decision in a difficult situation.

CAITLIN McCANN: What initially drew you to write a collection of poetry about J. Robert Oppenheimer? What made you take Oppenheimer’s narrative beyond your original 2012 chapbook, Vectors: J. Robert Oppenheimer: The Years before the Bomb?

KELLY CHERRY: My brother had given me a copy of one of Oppenheimer’s books when I was fourteen, and the photograph on the cover seemed to speak to me. I conceived the idea of a poem about him when I was 35, but I had no funding, so I needed to wait until I retired. Parallel Press at UW-Madison asked me for a chapbook so I wrote one, knowing it would grow into a book.

CM: Why did you decide to write Oppenheimer’s story as poems, as opposed to prose?

KC: He’s been written in prose many times, but poetry always gets closer to a character than prose.

CM: How long did it take you to research and then write this collection?

KC: Nine years. Nine! A great deal of research was required. Happily, the research was riveting.

CM: What advice would you give to other poets who are interested in researching and writing collections about real individuals and/or events?

KC: Poets have long done this, just not to the extent I did it. Rita Dove has a poetry book about a black pianist. Some poets have written at length about their families. A good many poetry books include sections or sequences about this character or that.

CM: What strategies did you use in writing these poems? Meaning, how did you maintain the lyrical qualities of these poems without slipping into a rhythm that is more commonly associated with prose?

KC: First off, most of it is iambic pentameter; I changed from that only when I thought it necessary, either because the poem demanded it or because I wanted to shake things up a bit. Iambic pentameter is what one wants to write when the subject is classical. Oppenheimer deserved a classical rendition.

CM: What was your thought process when it came to arranging these poems? How did you decide where to begin and end each section of the quartet?

KC: This was pretty easy. There is the beginning, then his development, with other scientists, of the atomic bomb, followed by the kangaroo trial, and finally a mosaic of information, including deaths. The tricky part was moving from Part One to Part Two, but fortunately I figured it out.

CM: Did you take any creative liberties with Oppenheimer’s autobiographical narrative?

KC: I took one. I’ll never tell which one.

CM: I found the musical jargon in poems like “Introduction to Art,” “At the New York Mineralogical Institute,” and “Poetry in 1922” to be interesting movements in these poems. What made you decide to utilize this jargon? How does it serve Oppenheimer’s narrative and the overall narrative arc of this collection?

KC: I thought of those pieces as moments of sanity. They simply state what would otherwise have been so long the reader would have lost interest. Sometimes there was info I needed to channel to the reader. Also, the book is called Quartet. Not just because there are four movements, but also to allow the reader to catch his breath or to extend his (or her) knowledge. I’ll also say I didn’t think of these headings as jargon; my parents were string quartet violinists and these musical motifs were familiar to me.

CM: I also found the inclusion of the story of Aeneas from Aeneid in poems like “Hero’s Return” and “Dido Released to the Winds” to be intriguing interludes in the poems about Oppenheimer’s narrative. What made you decide to include these poems about Aeneas? Were you drawing parallels between the narratives of Aeneas and Oppenheimer?

KC: I was indeed. Both were heroes, and, as heroes, flawed. In a much earlier century, Oppenheimer might have been something close to a god in the way that Greek and Roman gods were envisioned (i.e., those gods were very human).

CM: And finally, do you have any forthcoming works or any projects that you are currently working on?

KC: Oh, I have several. My book Beholder’s Eye: Poems came out this past summer, my fiction book Temporium (flash fiction from before the world to after the world) comes out in October, and I have completed more manuscripts, mostly poetry, trusting they will find homes.