Friday, April 19, 2019

"FOB Haiku" featured on "Accept Your Gifts" Podcast

In recognition of National Poetry Month, author, speaker, and U.S. Marine Corps veteran Tracy Crow recently featured the work of fellow veterans and other poets on two installments of her 22-minute, twice-weekly podcast on writing and creating, "Accept Your Gifts."

Crow is the author of numerous works of non-fiction, memoir, and fiction, including the how-to text "On Point: A Guide to Writing the Military Story." She is the president of the non-profit MilSpeak Foundation, Inc., and recently announced her services as a literary agent. The podcast is available via Crow's website, as well as the Podbean application.
Featured poets include U.S. Army veteran Randy Brown ("Welcome to FOB Haiku"), Air Force veteran Eric Chandler ("Hugging This Rock"), and Army veteran Michael Lancaster.

In Part 1 of this week's podcast (No. 26 in the series), former F-16 fighter pilot Chandler delivers readings of three poems: "Slipping the Surlies," a parody of John Gillespie Magee Jr.'s "High Flight"; "Maybe I Should've Lied"; and "The Path Through Security."

In Part 2 of the podcast (episode No. 27), Brown reads three poems, "night vision"; "your squad leader writes haiku"; and "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot."

Later, in the same episode, Lancaster reads two poems, "Salt Ponds (Winter)" and "Hush."

Monday, April 1, 2019

Listen Up, Maggots! It's National Poetry Month!

PHOTO BY: U.S. Army Sgt. Ken Scar
This post, written by the author of "FOB Haiku: War Poems from Inside the Wire," originally appeared on the Red Bull Rising blog April 6, 2016.

When packing for one of my first training experiences with the U.S. Army, back in the late 1980s, I knew that free time and footlocker space would be at a premium. I could live without luxuries like my Walkman cassette player for a few months. I also wanted to avoid avoid too much gruff from drill sergeants. So I stuffed a paperback copy of Shakespeare's "Henry V" into my left cargo pocket, wrapped in a plastic sandwich bag, as my sole entertainment.

If nothing else, I thought, I'd work on my memorization skills. ("Oh, for a muse of fire-guard duty …") Little did I realize that so much of my brain would already be filled, starting those summer months at Fort Knox, Ky., with the nursery rhymes of Uncle Sam. Training was full of poetry. Sometimes, it was profane. "This is my rifle, this is my gun!" Sometimes, it was pedagogical. "I will turn the tourniquet / to stop the flow / of the bright red blood." There were even times that it was nearly pathological. "What is the spirit of the bayonet?! / Kill! Kill! Kill!"

These basic phrases connected us new recruits to the yellow footprints of those who had stood here before, marched in our boots, squared the same corners, weathered the same abuses. Every time we moved, we were serenaded by sergeants. Counting cadence, calling cadence, bemoaning that Jody was back home, dating our women, drinking our beer. We learned our lines, our ranks, our patches, our places as much by tribal story-telling than by reading the effing field manual. Even our soldier humor was hand-me-down wisdom, tossed off like singsong hand grenades. Phrases like, "Don't call me 'sir' / I work for a living!" and "You were bet-ter off when you left! / You're right!"

Nobody's quite sure why April got the nod as National Poetry Month. I like to think that it's because of that line from T.S. Eliot's "The Wasteland": "April is the cruelest month." Because that sounds like the Army. Besides, in springtime, the thoughts of every warrior-poet lightly turns to baseball; showers that bring flowers ("If it ain't raining / it ain't training!"); and the start of fighting season in Afghanistan.

Poetry, I recognize, isn't every soldier's three cups of tea. Ever since I entertained my platoon mates with Prince Harry's inspiring St. Crispin's Day speech, however, I've enjoyed sneaking poetry into the conversation. Perhaps more soldiers would appreciate poetry, were they to realize the inherent poetics of military life:

Every time you go to war, you are engaged in a battle for narrative. Every deployment—individually as a soldier, or collectively as an Army or nation—is a story. Every story has a beginning, middle, and end. Every story is subject to vision, and revision. History isn't always written by the victors, but it is re-written by poets. Treat them well. Otherwise, they will cut you.

Every time you eat soup with a knife, you are wielding a metaphor. Every "boots on the ground," every "line in the sand," every Hollywood-style named operation ("Desert Shield"! "Desert Storm"! "Enduring Freedom"!) is a metaphor that shapes our understanding of a war and its objectives. If you don't understand the dangerous end of a metaphor, you shouldn't be issued one.

(There's also a corollary, and a warning: As missions change, so do metaphors. In other words, when a politician trots out a new metaphor for war, better check your six.)

Every poem is a fragment of intelligence, a piece in the puzzle. A poem can slow down time, describe a moment in lush and flushed detail. It can transport the reader to a different time, a different battlefield. Most importantly, a poem can describe the experience of military life and death through someone else's eyes—a spouse, a villager, a soldier, a journalist. Poetry, in short, is a training opportunity for empathy.

Soldiers like to say that the enemy gets a vote, so it's worth noting that the enemy writes poetry, too. Like reading doctrine and monitoring propaganda, reading an enemy's verse reveals motivations and values. Sun Tzu writes:
If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.
Every time you quote a master, from Sun Tzu to Schwarzkopf, you are delivering aphorism. I liken the aphorism—a quotable-quote or maxim—to be akin to concise forms of poetry, such as haiku. In fact, in my expansive view, I think aphorisms should count as poetry. In the world of word craft, it can take as much effort to hone an effective aphorism than it does to write a 1,000-word essay. Aphorisms are laser-guided missiles, rather than carpet bombs. We should all spend our words more wisely.

Reading a few lines connects us to the thin red line of soldiers past, present, and future. Poetry puts us in the boots of those who have served before, hooks our chutes to a larger history and experience of war. The likes of Shakespeare's "band of brothers" speech, John McRae's "In Flanders Fields," and Rudyard Kipling's poem "Tommy" continue to speak to the experiences and sentiments of modern soldiers.

I am happy to report that more-contemporary war poets have continued the march.

Here's a quick list to probe the front lines of modern war poetry: From World War II, seek out Henry Reed's "The Naming of Parts." For a jolt of Vietnam Era parody, read Alan Farrell's "The Blaming of Parts." From the Iraq War, Brian Turner's "Here, Bullet." In this tight shot group, modern soldiers will no doubt recognize themselves, their tools, and their times. Here is industrial-grade boredom, an assembly line of war, punctuated with humor and grit, gunpowder and lead.

Want more? Check out print and on-line literary offerings from Veterans Writing Project's "O-Dark-Thirty" quarterly literary journal; Military Experience & the Arts' twice-annual "As You Were"; the "Line of Advance" journal; and Southeast Missouri State University's "Proud to Be: Writing by American Warriors" annual anthology series.

Finally, you can buy an pocket anthology of poetry, such as the Everyman's Library Pocket Poets edition of "War Poems" from Knopf, or Ebury's "Heroes: 100 Poems from the New Generation of War Poets." Stuff it in your left cargo pocket. Read a page a day as a secular devotional, a meditation on war. Or, pick a favorite poem, print it out, and post it on the wall of your fighting position or office cube. Read the same poem, over and over again, during the course of a few weeks. See how it changes. See how it changes in you.

Remember: It's National Poetry Month. And every time you read a war poem, an angel gets its Airborne wings.

*****

Randy Brown embedded with his former Iowa Army National Guard unit as a civilian journalist in Afghanistan, May-June 2011. He authored the poetry collection Welcome to FOB Haiku: War Poems from Inside the Wire (Middle West Press, 2015). He is the current poetry editor of Military Experience and the Arts' "As You Were" literary journal, and a member of the Military Writers Guild. As "Charlie Sherpa," he blogs about military culture at www.redbullrising.com and military writing at www.aimingcircle.com.

Monday, December 10, 2018

'So It Goes' reprints 'Whiskey Tango Foxtrot'

The author of the war poetry collection "Welcome to FOB Haiku" has work recently reprinted in the 2018 edition of the Kurt Vonnegut Museum & Library's literary journal "So It Goes." The 2018 edition focuses on a theme of "Lonesome No More," and issues of mental health and social well-being.

Randy Brown's poem "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot" previously appeared in Stone Canoe No. 11 (2017). Evoking movies respectively featuring Tina Fey and Deadpool, the poem relates a chance encounter following the death by suicide of a fellow Iowa citizen-soldier. It memorably ends with the line "everyone has their own war," an echo of a line often misattributed to the ancient Greek philosophers Philo or Plato. The original "Be pitiful, for every man is fighting a hard battle," was penned by the 19th century Scottish theologian John Watson, who wrote under the pseudonym Ian McClaren.

The "Lonesome No More" theme is inspired by Vonnegut's satirical 1976 science-fiction novel "Slapstick," in which American policy makers establish a social-support system that arbitrarily assigns people to extended "families." The museum and library recently concluded a year of "Lonesome No More"-themed programming, which included community-awareness events on mental health. The non-profit organization's "Lonesome No More" messages often featured a "Lonesome No More" campaign button drawn by Vonnegut himself.

Museum and library officials put the "Lonesome No More" effort into further context here:
We understand that you can’t get rid of loneliness just by getting rid of ‘aloneness.’ Kurt Vonnegut knew this; as a World War II veteran who was captured by the Nazis and survived the Allied firebombing of Dresden, Germany, he suffered from [Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder] and depression. He carried more than his share of loneliness throughout his lifetime, but that intense loneliness isn’t unique to people with PTSD or depression. It also affects people with other mental health concerns: anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or even just sadness when being bullied or feeling like people just don’t understand.
Past themes featured by the "So It Goes" literary journal include war and peace (2012); humor (2013); and social justice (2015). Brown's poetry has previously appeared in issues dedicated to creativity (2014); Indiana Bicentennial (2016); and "a little more common decency" (2017). Current and back issues of the journal can be ordered via the library's on-line store here.

More than 50 percent of the content of each year's issue of "So It Goes" is generated by military veterans and families. Born on November 11--a date variously celebrated as Veterans Day, Remembrance Day, and Armistice Day--Vonnegut was an intelligence scout in the 106th Infantry "Golden Lion" Division. He was captured during the Battle of the Bulge, and his experiences as a prisoner of war (P.O.W.) informed his first novel, "Slaughterhouse Five." The book was published in 1969.