Tuesday, December 10, 2019

New 'Why We Write' Features War Poets!

Featuring more than 60 leading and emerging writers of military- and war-themed fiction, non-fiction, journalism, poetry, and more, the anthology "Why We Write: Craft Essays on Writing War" launches TODAY, Dec. 10, 2019 in both print and Kindle e-book formats!

The Middle West Press LLC project is in partnership with the Military Writers Guild. Contributors include service members past and present, as well as scholars, historians, journalists, and civilians with experiences in international relations and national security.

The book coincidentally features the musings of a number of published war poets, including but not limited to:
The anthology's title echoes Frank Capra's patriotic "Why We Fight" films of World War II, the cover by illustrator Paul Hewitt of Battlefield Design reinterprets propaganda poster images from the same era.

Response to the anthology from other war writers has been overwhelming and positive:
"Page by page, line by line, these men and women—veterans and civilians of various eras and nations—speak the truth about what it is like not just to fight, but to write," notes U.S. Army veteran Doug Bradley, author of "Who'll Stop the Rain: Respect, Remembrance, and Reconciliation in Post-Vietnam America" as well as other non-fiction and fiction about that war. "'The power of a good story is as important as the sharpest policy paper,' writes one Vietnam-veteran senator's son. As a U.S. Navy chopper pilot who himself flew in Afghanistan, he couldn't be more accurate. Read this book and discover what he means!"
U.S. Marine veteran and literary agent Tracy Crow says:
"A notable first, 'Why We Write' delivers immeasurable, experiential wisdom from an impressive range of military voices regarding the power and impact of writing—on the self, on the truth, and ultimately on the world. […] The courageous contributors within 'Why We Write' are filling a disturbing void for humanity by expressing a sense of urgency and historical reflection about the complexities of war—whether writing and reflecting on the insanely humorous, or the insanely atrocious."
Crow also serves as president of the national non-profit MilSpeak Foundation, Inc., and is the author of six military-themed fiction and non-fiction titles, including "On Point: A Guide to Writing the Military Story."

The "Why We Write" anthology comprises four sections, each loosely organized around a theme:
  • Calls to Action, Calls to Arms: Stories of how-to and inspiration toward engaging the public and/or the military profession through writing!
  • War Stories: Stories of writing success and lessons-learned!
  • Building Bridges & Platforms: Stories of how-to and inspiration toward building connections, communities, organizations, author platforms, etc.!
  • The Arts of War & Writing: Essays about writing literary fiction, genre fiction, poetry, history, and more!
Women make up approximately one-third of the anthology's contributors. Approximately two-thirds of the contributors are past or present members of their respective countries' armed forces, with the remaining one-third being "civilians"—journalists, scholars, historians, and more. Military Writers Guild members comprise approximately one-fifth of contributors.

To order the $19.99 (U.S.) print version via Amazon.com, click here!

To order the $9.99 (U.S.) Kindle e-book version, click here!

To order via an independent bookstore, contact Beaverdale Books, Des Moines, Iowa at: 515.279.5400. Phone orders only. Shipping & Handling approximately $4 (U.S.).

Anthology co-editor Randy Brown is an award-winning war poet (Welcome to FOB Haiku: War Poems from Inside the Wire) and U.S. Army veteran who embedded as civilian media in Afghanistan in 2011. A former newspaper and magazine journalist, he previously edited the book Reporting for Duty: U.S. Citizen-Soldier Journalism from the Afghan Surge, 2010-2011.

Widely published in literary journals and anthologies, Brown has also written the Red Bull Rising military blog since December 2009. He writes about military-themed writing techniques and markets at The Aiming Circle blog. He is a member of the Military Writers Guild. On Twitter, follow him at: @FOB_Haiku

Steve Leonard is a retired U.S. Army strategist, a program director in organizational leadership at the University of Kansas, Lawrence, and the creative force behind the web comic Doctrine Man!! He is published widely, including in the anthologies Strategy Strikes Back: How Star Wars Explains Modern Military Conflict, and Winning Westeros: How Game of Thrones Explains Modern Military Conflict. He is a member of the Military Writers Guild. On Twitter, follow him at: @Doctrine_Man

Established in 2017 for the purpose of promoting professional collaboration in the practice of writing, the national non-profit Military Writers Guild has grown to comprise more than 150 past and present service members, as well as civilians with experiences in international relations, national security, journalism, and intelligence.

Middle West Press LLC is a Johnston, Iowa-based editor and publisher of non-fiction, fiction, journalism, and poetry. As an independent micro-press, it publishes one to four titles annually. “Why We Write” is the first of its projects conducted in partnership with an association, and the fifth of its titles involving war and military themes.

Monday, October 7, 2019

Poet is Finalist in Darron L. Wright Awards

Randy Brown, author of the 2015 collection "Welcome to FOB Haiku: War Poems from Inside the Wire," was recently named a poetry finalist in the 4th Annual Col. Darron L. Wright awards, for a new work that involves the Buddhist concept of desire in a war-writing context.

"I'm not a Buddhist, but I like to think I've been exposed to some of the basics, via the lives and examples of some of my fellow military veterans," says Brown. "I use this poem to remind me to be mindful and humble, to practice my craft daily and to not want too much. Basically, to take joy in small things—including our shared, flawed humanity."

Administered by the Chicago-based on-line literary journal "Line of Advance," and underwritten by the Blake and Bailey Foundation, the awards commemorate a U.S. Army leader who was killed in a September 2013 parachute training accident.

Brown's poem, "Robert Olen Butler wants nachos" explores the Buddhist concept of desire, through a light-hearted anecdote from the War, Literature & the Arts conference in September 2018. The event took place at the U.S. Air Force Academy, Colorado Springs, Colo. The poem invokes the name of Vietnam War veteran Robert Olen Butler, who is author of 12 novels and six short-story collections, and was one of the event's keynote speakers.

You can read the poem in its entirety here.

In the announcement, editors at "Line of Advance" wrote: "[All of this year's submissions exhibited] care and effort and honesty. We received many prose submissions. Some were from regular contributors and some from new voices. The same goes for the poetry submissions."

In addition to Brown's third-place poem, other poetry recognized included:
Prose recognitions—a combined category comprising fiction, non-fiction, and hybrid forms—included:
Now in its fourth year, the writing contest is named after U.S. Army Col. Darron L. Wright. The contest is regarded by many as one of three proven, top-quality recurring competitions involving writing by military service members, veterans, families and others. In addition to other assignments, Wright served as battalion operations officer for 1st Battalion, 8th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade, 4th Infantry Division, Fort Carson, Colo., with whom he deployed to Iraq from 2003 to 2004.

Wright was next assigned as brigade executive officer with 4th Brigade, 4th Inf. Div., Fort Hood, Texas, with whom he deployed to Iraq from 2005 to 2006. He commanded the 1st Battalion, 509th Parachute Inf. Reg. at the Joint Readiness Training Center, Fort Polk, La. in 2007. From 2009 to 2013, Wright was assigned as deputy brigade commander for the 4th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Inf. Div., with whom he deployed to Iraq from 2009 to 2010.

A graduate of the U.S. Naval War College, Wright authored "Iraq Full Circle: From Shock and Awe to the Last Combat Patrol in Baghdad and Beyond." in 2012.

Wright's full biography appears here.

"Darron L. Wright was a larger than life Soldier’s Soldier. He was a physically imposing, direct, and skilled warrior," the Line of Advance editors wrote when the award was first launched.
He was also witty, hilarious, generous, kind, and wholly consumed with love for his family. He will certainly be missed but he will never be forgotten. His intellectual curiosity, boundless optimism, and untiring work ethic, allowed him to reach heights he could only dream of as a young boy growing up in Mesquite, Texas. It is in this spirit that the Darron L. Wright Award was created, to inspire fellow military writers and poets to aspire to become better and more accomplished at their craft and at telling their story.

Friday, September 6, 2019

Poetry Book Review: 'Hail and Farewell'

Poetry Book Review: "Hail and Farewell" by Abby E. Murray

If poet Abby E. Murray were to describe in social media terms her relationship with the U.S. Army, it would probably be "it's complicated." She might love the Army, but only because her husband loves it. She doesn't always feel welcomed by it. And she definitely doesn't trust it.

Because, ultimately, the Army's job is to break things and hurt people. And who wants that?

Murray's first book, the recently published and prize-winning "Hail and Farewell," is a collection of quirky, sometimes snarky, but always genuine explorations of Murray's relations to the Army and its cultural traditions, and with her active-duty soldier husband. It also notably interrogates struggles with pregnancy and parenthood. Some of the latter take place in the context of military family life, but one need not limit oneself to war to talk about conflict.

Like a cat, Murray chooses carefully when to engage a topic directly. Sometimes, she toys with it. Other times, she swats it off the table. Perhaps for reasons. Perhaps just to see what your reaction might be.

The collection's title evokes the tradition of sending-off soldiers to new assignments and locations with a small, informal ceremony. In many units, this is combined with a welcome of incoming personnel. In any form, such events are bittersweet milestones in the lives of individuals, but also of an organization. People come, people go, but the Army goes marching along.

In Murray's poems, such moments can variously take on the mythic tones of Catullus' "I salute you … now good-bye," to absurdism more in character with Groucho Marx's Captain Spaulding: "Hello, I must be going." For the most part, however, she aims at center-mass: good-humored, but unsentimental.

For example, Murray sets the stage for one ceremony in the collection's titular poem. Note the low-key commentaries present in "plastic tube" and "pub food," and in the commander's use of names, as well as the double-edged brilliance of "as if we are family":
Each time you are issued new orders
your current duty station hosts a Hail and Farewell:
the ceremony during which you receive a plaque
and I am given a rose in a plastic tube.
You make a short speech, your commander calls me
by your last name and rank, then we eat pub food
for the last time with the battalion as if we are family.
Every year, my colleagues ask what this means,
my friends whose jobs hail them by issuing paychecks
and say goodbye by letting them leave. […]
Exposing more bite, she muses on a similar event in the separate poem "Hail and Farewell as a Junkyard Dog":
The colonel and his wife
are being sent to Fort Hood.
At their Hail and Farewell
I sit in the corner, a junkyard dog
on the overstuffed armchair.
The captain's wife asks me
if by going back to school
I will become a real doctor
or just the kind that writes.
Because I am a dog, I growl.
I do unladylike things:
show my teeth when I smile,
answer to my own whistle. […]
Murray elevates this mix of awkwardness and affection to the sublime, when the "junkyard dog" pivots to again consider her husband. She is not there to be contrary, or to knock over punch bowls. She is there for reasons. And those reasons have little to do with the military.
[…] I sit next to my husband
who is not a junkyard dog,
who smiles like he means it.
He places one finger
on the soft spot behind my ear
and I can hear his skin
telling me I've been so good.
Such a blend of mutual love and quiet regard seems worthy of its own ancient Greek nomenclature. Or perhaps there is an untranslatable German word, for something like "clear-eyed romance."

Padding about on cat's paws throughout her collection, Murray similarly navigates a number of hard-fraught cultural practices in today's modern military. How married couples fretfully meet-up halfway around the world, for example, in the middle of a spouse's combat deployment. And the stuff-and-sputter of homecoming ceremonies. And "reintegration" seminars. Marriage-resilience workshops. Formal-dress Army birthday celebrations.

Murray's is a unique and wonderfully nuanced voice, in a growing klatch of unique and wonderfully nuanced voices: poets who happen to be related to war by marriage.

(For this reviewer, those voices include Jehanne Dubrow and Amalie Flynn, who write from their family experiences with the U.S. Navy; Lisa Stice, who writes from family experiences with the U.S. Marine Corps; and Elyse Fenton, who writes from family experiences with the U.S. Army. To this list add Lynn Marie Huston, who has published poetry about a relationship with a deployed soldier; and Charlie Bondhus, who has written about a relationship with a U.S. Marine. For a list of poetry written about 21st century wars involving the United States, visit here.)

Notably, Murray is the editor of Collateral journal, the mission of which is to draw attention to "the impact of violent conflict and military service by exploring experiences that surround the combat zone." She is more than a believer in poetry, she puts words into action. She teaches rhetorical writing techniques to Army officers, and poetry workshops to children held in detention centers.

It is no surprise then, that Murray hopes that her words and example will inspire others to take up pen and action. She dedicates her 99-page collection to other military spouses, "who see what happens during and after war, especially those still searching for their way to speak." In the back of the book, she notes, "My husband's experiences in the military and in combat have influenced my career as a poet and teacher. He operates in a culture that doesn't truly see me, and he has struggled, mostly with success, to question that."

Empathetic to both sides in the civil-military conversation, Murray keeps her observational barbs sharp, but cheery—she's like a Mary Poppins in combat boots. More often than not, her poems suggest a collaborative or confidential tone, rather than one of confrontation. For example, as she breezily starts her poem "International Women's Day":
The world observes my sex
on the same day America
celebrates the pancake,
and who doesn't love a good pancake?
And this, from "How to Comfort a Small Child," a list of found and received advice on how best to act as a military parent:
[...] Make friends with women
who understand, women
with children and spouses
who haven't called in days.
When your daughter
flushes her plastic fox
down the toilet
and says he went to Afghanistan,
don't read into it.
Call a plumber.
Where Murray stands out, above, and apart, however—where she "exceeds the standard," if you will—is in the way she tempers comparatively overt critiques of military culture and militarism, without tamping down her senses of humor, patriotism, or Storge (... und Drang?). In her longer poem "Happy Birthday, Army," she writes, for example:
[…] a woman's voice whispers
from beneath the howitzer,
the rented microphone
on fire with song:
Happy birrrthday, dear arrrmy
a la Marilyn Monroe,
and we are all a bunch of JFKs,
in our lace and heels
and cummerbunds and cords.
We watch a five-tiered cake
piped in black and gold buttercream
being pulled between our tables
by a silver robot
and shrug into the silk of knowing
we could end all this
with the flick of a finger
if we wanted.
Murray's depictions and images are intimate, her stories memorable, and her emotions immediate and accessible. With a feline grace, Murray reveals herself in glimpses, until you are comfortable with her work, and it is comfortable with you.

When you achieve a certain level of mutual regard, it may curl up with you and purr. Other times, it may still scratch.

Because it is complicated.

Friday, August 30, 2019

Poetry Book Review: 'Battle Dress'

Book Review: "Battle Dress" by Karen Skolfield

War poet Karen Skolfield is a U.S. Army veteran, an instructor of writing at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst; and, among other recognitions and prizes, a past runner-up in The Iowa Review's Jeff Sharlet Memorial Award for Veterans.

Skolfield's first poetry collection, 2013's "Frost in the Low Areas," contains precious few mentions of life in uniform. Notable samples from that work are the plain-spoken perspective of "Backblast Area Clear" and the hilarious "Army SMART Book: On Getting Lost." In her recently published second collection "Battle Dress," however, Skolfield fires-for-effect regarding her experiences with the military, fully and explicitly delivering on the rounds she first registered in "Frost in the Low Areas." The effort pays off for readers of both military and civilian backgrounds, accessibly and creatively exploring what it means to be soldier, and to be a woman at war.

Like the enlisted public affairs troop she once was, Skolfield takes aim at war with a photographer's eye for detail, a wicked sense of wordplay, and a soldierly love of others—even our younger selves—that can only be found in having shared the same foxhole. Her voice ranges from the mythic to the pastoral, from uncoded plain-text to battle-buddy confidential.

The 82-page book comprises 46 poems, presented across four untitled sections. Those who closely watch the "veterans-lit" space should recognize her byline: Skolfield has published widely; 41 of the poems have first appeared in literary journals.

The cover is a dusky, charcoal-and-buff vignette of clouds and dunes, which elegantly evokes one of Skolfield's longer works within, a dreamy mini-collection titled "Soldier Rendered as All Five Types of Sand Dunes." Rather than dwell long in such ethereal terrain, however, Skolfield is at her most sublime when she gets down and dirty.

In "Grenade: Origin, OFr. pomme-grenate," for example, Skolfield builds toward an epic momentum and a distinctively female view of the battlefield. As such, in this reviewer's opinion, it more than deserves to be read alongside Brian Turner's seminal 21st century war poem, "Here, Bullet."
Not as counterpoint, but as companion. One can imagine generating whole workshops from comparing and contrasting the two.

Turner's celebrated poem, after all, is full of the expected viscera and violence of combat, expertly placed in the body and mind of a soldier. The brutality is penetrative. Skolfield's poem likewise carves for readers a resonant space within which to experience a soldier's body and mind. Where Turner starts with a bullet, Skolfield throws a grenade. The results are no less explosive, or devastating.
[…] In mythology, every seed a month
of hell for the mother, the daughter,
her daughter's daughters
along the generations. In every war,
the same recognizable hunger.
Fruit of the dead, from living to not living,
also fruit of fertility, from one to many,
the names of the dead ripening.
How the arm extends, the palm opens,
the red pulp within, the perfect arc.
What is sown cannot be called back.
We say bearing fruit and it is borne.
Skolfield's "Grenade" is further enriched by an adjacent poem "The Throwing Gap". Winner of a 2016 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors' Prize from The Missouri Review, the poem illuminates Basic Training gender politics in a more journalistic mode. Skolfield writes:
/ […] We willed
our arms to be boys, our shoulders
brutal and male, we thought of torsos
and hands that had beaten or punched
or strangled or slapped or headlocked
women that were us or looked
like us and we wanted that strength.[…]

[…] Let us throw these grenades so far
that the drill sergeant says
God, seeing hand grenades thrown
like that gives me a hard-on

and we who are now male will laugh
at the rightness of it and we will say Me too.
Skolfield unpacks words like a rucksack, extra-large, one each. One of her techniques is to title poems after dictionary entries, or to reveal words as etymological sub-munitions within poems; "grenade," "enlist", "war," and "discharge" are a few examples. Another is the practice of quoting the Army SMART Book—a predecessor to the U.S. Army's Soldier's Manual of Common Tasks. In the latter, the prompts read as fragments from a religious text, or aphorisms from some tactically proficient spiritual guru. Some favorites? "Army SMART Book: Small-arms fire may sound like mosquitos" and "Army SMART book: This Page Left Blank Intentionally."

Skolfield occasionally also engages in controlled bursts of word-creation and -association, resulting in rapid-fire images and language. These moments not only serve as opportunities for her to contextualize military experience and jargon, but to help readers understand and inhabit those concepts emotionally. In "Private, PV2, Private First Class," for example, Skolfield begins …
From the Latin privare: to deprive,
fullsleep and showers, homethoughts,
other gender except that one dance
stomping in bivvie and combat boots
most of us decked Birth Control Glasses
woooo those things worked.


Camo paint gumming up our pores,
jungle palette: vineknot, humus, treetangle.
Pvt. Morales painting cheekbones
like Escher drawings.
If viewed one way were were women;
in another darkbirds winging into light. […]
Note how effortlessly Skolfield blends military nomenclature and slang, with punchy references to pop art and cosmetics. Seemingly just as easily, she often generates poems prompted by the day's minor headlines. Instead of focusing on above-the-fold items, she teases the timeless out of smaller stories—the one that veterans would talk about. Examples include the poems "Soldiers 'Fun' Photo with Flag-Draped Coffin Sparks Outrage"; "CNN Report: Rise in Sexual Assaults, Reprisals in the Military (2016)"; and "CNN Report: Symptoms of PTSD Mimic Lyme Disease." From the latter:
/ […] Stop moping, get out more,

all in your head, you're home now,
you're safe, family to consider;
the meds, the weight gain,

the loss, the breathless, the rasp of it.
No magic bullet: tell me about it.
Sometimes a rash like a target
so loved by marksmen.
Despite everything, breath goes out
and is pulled back in.
How easy and wonderful and terrifying is Skofield's medical safety brief! In the field, soldiers are trained to watch out for ticks, which can carry disease, and to report and document any bites. Less understood and appreciated is Post-Traumatic Stress. Both Lyme disease and PTSD can be silent killers, years after the inciting exposure. Lesser hands would let the facts fall flat. Skolfield's inspired act is to not only report the connection, but to re-create it as metaphor, and to make the metaphor available to help educate others: Lyme Disease is like PTSD; PTSD is like Lyme Disease.

Remember to check your buddies.

Ideally, Skolfield's presence on the literary battlefield will help illuminate for editors, publishers, and other veterans the potential for more diverse collections of 21st century war poetry. In the meantime, her must-read "Battle Dress" delivers a keenly observed, hard-fought, and accessible perspective on military service, and making peace with oneself in a time of war. Most importantly, it provides useful images and tools with which to promote discussions between both "military" and "civilian" audiences.

Share it far and wide. Then wait for the fireworks. Because what is sown cannot be called back.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Poetry Book Review: 'murmurs at the gate'

Poetry Book Review: "murmurs at the gate" by Suzanne S. Rancourt

Poet Suzanne S. Rancourt is a multi-modal artist who lives and works in the American Northeast. She is a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps and U.S. Army, with periods of active-duty and reserve service both prior to the first Gulf War and following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Some of her ancestors are Abenaki and Huron. Others are European. In her poetry, she honors both.

Rancourt is a practitioner of Aikido, a martial art that leverages an opponent's momentum against one's foes. She has experiences and certifications in various techniques of healing and recovery. In addition to a Master of Fine Arts in poetry, she holds a graduate degree in educational psychology.

In person, Rancourt is sly and stubborn, independent but quick to offer trust. In stories, she is celebrated for wearing red Chucks under her ceremonial garb. She carries a metaphorical long knife against inauthenticities and inequalities, which she readily draws with a slow grin. She is the embodiment of your favorite, rebellious aunt—the one person you should always seek out at a party, or in times of crisis.

One of her favorite forms of communication is a jab of insight or advice, delivered just under a rumble of conversation elsewhere in the room. Examples, taken from my own acquaintance: “Make sure to talk to him. He is an Elder.” “Never piss off a Lakota woman.” “It is time for you to take over for me as poetry editor.”

Each time, a smile at the surprised reaction she’d provoked.

Rancourt's second collection of poetry, “murmurs at the gate” (Unsolicited Press, 2019), explores themes of survivorship, as well as service to country, family, and community. (Her first collection was 2004's “Billboards in the Clouds,” Curbstone Books.) The 200-page book comprises 136 poems, presented across four untitled sections.

Her favored images are culturally broad, taken from the poet's life experiences and travels, family history and heritage. They include such disparate elements as backbones and bears, trains and tea, Buddhas and Babylon. The “gate” evoked by the collection's title can variously be read as a window to the ancient world, an opening in the veil between life and death, and the threshold to perception. While some of her topics are gritty and plain-spoken—particularly those regarding violence and women—Rancourt keeps focus on learning and healing, and singing songs of resilience.

In short, from her life and travels, Rancourt has successfully woven a rich and accessible mythology. In each poem, she variously shares a hit of wisdom, an insight to Otherness, or a potentially useful parable. As she writes in one poem (“Mish’ala”), “[…] My story is a poppyseed of delicacy, a peppercorn of truth, / an onion flake of— / salt”.

In the beginnings of another, “the final round,” she spits:
i load my gatling mouth with words
i sport ammo belts of documentation, certification
and identification criteria
pyres of brass shells gather ’round my feet
commemorative paraphernalia
strung together as a story wampum […]
Rancourt's military service is ever-present—a few poems even explicitly regard narratives of service, war, and remembrance—but does not center the collection. Instead, her military experience and vocabulary are organic—a seamless part of her larger poetic palette. This is the voice of an artist-veteran who has confidently reengaged with society and her communities, rather than remain aloof and apart from them. Note, for example, how effortlessly she buries "pressure plate" into the rich, sensory descriptions of “Grampa's House”:
We would walk through the once-horse-stall-hog-pen-now-garage
into the tool shop—our shoed feet scuffed tin shavings and sawdust
under wooden work benches soaked with bar oil, pine
and cool dampness. We walked through another door
into the summer kitchen across the Andy Warhol linoleum,
through the scent of mothballs
our weight triggering like pressure plates
the pumpkin pine floorboards that rattled
the stacked tin buckets made
by Great-Great-Grampa Daniel from Scotland
and Grammy’s bottle collection from years of dump digging adventures
Even those poems that more directly relate to military service do so in ways that build bridges. In “The Reticent Veil,” for example, one need not be familiar with tribal practices or terms, in order to appreciate the universal:
[…] they all came back at Ceremony
when me and a Dance brother folded the flag
for the last time on the last day that he handed to me
in a shape that brought it all back to twenty years before
standing on the hillside, looking over Wilson Lake
dress blues, rifles, and Corfam dress shoes cracked
the unusually frigid December where a flag was folded
and handed to me in a shape
that equaled the grief of the world
which came and went as concrete and steel crushed as
the bones and dust I wake up chewing
and it all came back
when me and a sister held taught
a Grande Parade of a royal blue silk veil
maintaining reticent tension—
lovers and wives of warriors, sisters of warriors,
mothers of sons who are warriors—
we folded sharp-angled silence with the precision of lock and load
we creased with steady cadence our losses and recognized each other
not letting go
of the fabric the wind claims for a moment
and my words fluttered
“This is not a flag we are folding.”
One of Rancourt's most-notable forms, at least to this reviewer, seems her own take on haibun—a narrative or image that ends with a related haiku. Quoted here in abbreviated form, the poem "How much guilt?" provides an example:
Gold highlights in her hair beckon like the heart of Buddha.
A star—ancestral—pierced with suffering bled into a living tree
our only hope to ascend—go home—enter into, onto, a path of service. […]

Why do we continue
to search
the hearts
to bring home
our kind?

Leave no soldier behind

How long
do we search?
As long as it takes.
Rancourt's poetry questions assumptions and authorities, providing wisdom without providing answers. No matter our own life experiences, her latest collection offers gifts on every page. All we need do is to listen. To the stories. To the songs. To the voice under the voices.

For as long as it takes.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Soldier-Poet Speaks at National Arts Event

The writer of the "Welcome to FOB Haiku" blog will be presenting as part of a panel at the 2019 National Convention for Americans for the Arts, Minneapolis, Minn. "Changing and Honoring the Narrative of Military Experience" will be presented from 1:45 to 3 p.m. Sat., June 15, at the Hilton Minneapolis, 1001 Marquette Ave., Minneapolis.

Randy Brown embedded with his former Iowa Army National Guard unit as a civilian journalist in Afghanistan, May-June 2011. He authored the 2015 poetry collection "Welcome to FOB Haiku: War Poems from Inside the Wire", and edited the 2017 journalism collection "Reporting for Duty: Citizen-Soldier Journalism from the Afghan Surge, 2010-2011."

Brown's essays, journalism, and poetry have appeared widely both on-line and in print. Since 2015, he has served as the poetry editor for the national non-profit Military Experience & the Arts' literary journal "As You Were." As "Charlie Sherpa," he writes about citizen-soldier culture at: www.redbullrising.com; about military writing at: www.aimingcircle.com; and about modern war poetry at: www.fobhaiku.com.

You can follow him on Twitter: @FOB_Haiku

Other panelists participating in the Saturday event include:
The event will be facilitated by Marete Wester, senior director of policy, Americans for the Arts.

According to the description for the "Changing and Honoring the Narrative of Military Experience" discussion:
As the Forever War in Afghanistan continues, communities need to explore ways to help our returning Veterans reintegrate into their communities. The Minnesota Humanities Center empowers Veterans from all conflicts and wars to speak in their own voices through plays, discussions, literature and Veterans’ Voices. Writing Workshops are facilitated by military writers who are Veterans themselves, offering peer mentorship, instruction, and encouragement to those seeking to express the military experience through essays, poetry, and performance.
Learning objectives are:
1. See how storytelling helps in the Veterans’ healing process, reentry and reintegration into their communities.

2. Discuss how writing can help bridge the “civilian-military gap” between the military and the people they serve.

3. Explore how using the humanities can foster dialogue between military and civilian populations.

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.