Reporters' Picks: Interview with Poet Jack Gilbert

As the year draws to a close, we asked a few NPR reporters to reflect on their favorite pieces of tape from 2006. Debbie Elliott kicks it off with a look back at her interview with the poet Jack Gilbert.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, Host:

As the year draws to a close, we thought we'd ask some of our reporters to recall the voices that meant the most to them during 2006. We'll travel from New Orleans all the way to Sierra Leone. But first, I'd like to start with one of my own interviews, with the 81-year-old poet Jack Gilbert. Gilbert has lived on the fringes of fame. He hung out with the Beats in San Francisco and in the '60s was nominated for a Pulitzer. But he told me that in the end, he was not interested in being a famous poet; he just wanted to be true to himself.

JACK GILBERT: I know that I got my intentions when I set out to live my life. Not somebody else's life, and not some life that has been given for me. I lived my life.

ELLIOTT: Jack Gilbert is still enjoying life. He's working on new poems. And just a few months ago, he was in D.C. to read his work at the Library of Congress.

Now to my colleague, NPR's John Ydstie.

JOHN YDSTIE: I spent a lot of time covering New Orleans during the past year. And one of the most profound and meaningful pieces of tape for me comes from an interview with Gerry Williams(ph), a resident of New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward. And we met Gerry Williams in his home. He'd made a little bit of progress. There was sheetrock on the wall, fresh sheetrock where there had been 6 feet of water, but he was exhausted. And his finances were exhausted. He had spent $9,000 in insurance and FEMA money and still had a lot to do. And this is what he said as he sat on the table in his ruined home.

GERRY WILLIAMS: I just paid for my home. It's my - mine now. It took me years and years of paying, you know. So I don't have much choice. Do you think I have much choice? Do you know somewhere else I can go?

YDSTIE: Could you sell this place?

WILLIAMS: Do you want to sell your place? No, I don't. I have been here for 23 years. This is my home. I hope that penetrates to everybody in America. You live where you live, I live where I live. You love where you love, I love where I love. I love New Orleans, have always loved New Orleans. And I don't want to go anywhere else. I'm sorry.

YDSTIE: We saw a lot of that raw emotion among Katrina's victims when we were there on the first anniversary. The good news, though, that comes out of this story is that a couple of months after that story aired on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, we got an e-mail from a listener who told us that he had heard the piece, and two months later, he just couldn't get Gerry Williams's voice out of his head. But he said he had the time, the money and the skill to help, and he wanted to contact Gerry and see if he could get a crew down there to help him rebuild his house. And I'm happy to say that I talked to Gerry just recently, and he said there was a plan for a crew to come down in January to help repair his home.

DANIEL ZWERDLING: Hi. I'm Daniel Zwerdling. One of the most powerful moments for me out of all the interviews I've done over the past year is what you're going to hear in a moment from a conversation I had with a sergeant in the Army named Nathan Towsley(ph), and it has to do with a very troubling problem. And that is that soldiers are coming back from Iraq, many of them have serious mental health problems, depression, substance abuse, post traumatic stress disorder.

So I decided to look at one Army base, Fort Carson in Colorado Springs, Colorado, to ask the question, what kinds of help are these soldiers getting when they come back from Iraq? So I met one man named Nathan Towsley. He had actually just left the Army as a sergeant. He had been in Iraq recently. And we talked about a soldier of his named Alex Orum(ph). Alex Orum came back from Iraq. He was diagnosed with PTSD. He started falling apart. And Nathan Towsley and others kicked Alex Orum out of the Army. So I asked Nathan Towsley, why were you so hard on Alex Orum? And here's what he said.

NATHAN TOWSLEY: I'll be plainly honest. I think some people are just weak. You know, you just have to buck up and be a man and face it.

ZWERDLING: So would we ever find you going to therapy and saying, I'm depressed, I have nightmares?

TOWSLEY: No, absolutely not. You know, actually, my girlfriend wants me to. And she says I have anger problems. She thinks that I have, you know, a severe case of PTSD. But I don't see it. You know, like I said, I just - I don't like people who are weak-minded. Don't come complaining to me and crying to me about your problems because everybody has problems. When I'm dealing with Alex Orum's personal problems on a daily basis, I don't have time to train soldiers to fight in Iraq. I have to get rid of them because he's a detriment to the rest of the soldiers.

ZWERDLING: But now, want to hear the kicker? A few weeks ago, I called him to double-check some facts. And he said, you know what? After our interview, I started thinking and I realized I'm in trouble, I need help. Towsley said he's been depressed. He can't control his anger. And he said that I could share with all our listeners that he has just started going to therapy.

OFEIBEA QUIST: Hi. This is Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, one of NPR's Africa correspondents. Back at base, in the Senegalese capital, Dakar, which I haven't seen very much this year because I've been traveling all over the continent covering conflicts and covering joyful stories as well. Like this one in Sierra Leone in West Africa. This country is emerging from a brutal, 11-year civil war. And one of the most vicious things that the rebels and the armed factions engaged in was what they called amputation. They would chop off the limbs of civilians: children, men, women. You've got thousands of people without arms, without legs.

Now, one of them that I met was 20-something-year-old called Maxwell Forrah. When I first spoke to him he was weeping, recounting his story of how his high school career had been amputated, so to speak, when he was shot by rebels in the leg. And then a couple of days later, he invited us to the white sandy beaches of Freetown with coconut palms swaying.

And there they were playing one-legged soccer with crutches and using crutches as musical instruments. I mean, it was incredible to see the transformation in this young man. He was racing up and down the beaches of Freetown, Sierra Leone, with crutches, an incredible athlete on one foot. And then they burst into song, calling for peace and praying for peace. Listen.

Unidentified Man: This song that we are singing, it shows peace in our country. Although, we are so far out of 11 years war, now we have peace.

(SOUNDBITE OF SINGING)

QUIST: There you go. How's that for positive spirit? Happy New Year.

(SOUNDBITE OF SINGING)

Man: Thank you.

ELLIOTT: And if in the New Year you have resolved to diet, you may be counting calories. Ever wonder how food companies calculate the caloric content of candied yams? Stay tuned. The answer may blow you away, just ahead on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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