Thursday, April 18, 2024

How to Be a War Poet – Part 1

Editor’s note: April is National Poetry Month (U.S.)! Starting this month, in a new series of 12 monthly essays, poet, journalist, and U.S. Army veteran Randy “Sherpa” Brown will explore how military service members, family members, and citizens can develop a practice of poetry toward improved mindfulness, empathy across the “civil-military divide,” and even political or social action. An earlier version of this first essay originally appeared in the April 2020 on-line edition of Consequence Forum.

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How to Be a War Poet — Part 1
by Randy “Sherpa” Brown

say you are a poet /
are you not already at war?
— the 2021 poem “how to be a war poet,” Randy Brown

No one gets into poetry for fame, glory, or money. As a “recovering journalist” (note: that’s a joke), I often quip that I’ve finally found a vocation that pays less than newspaper reporter: that of “citizen-soldier-poet.”

After years of writing and editing for newsstand consumer “how-to” magazines, concurrent with a 20-year career in the Iowa Army National Guard, I rediscovered poetry at a 2011 weekend writing workshop for military veterans. Hosted by a non-profit organization called “Writing My Way Back Home,” it was conducted on the campus of the University of Iowa, Iowa City.

After a 50-minute session reading soldierly poems—I don’t recall specific titles, so I’ll mention here Wilfred Owen’s 1917 “Dulce et Decorum Est” and Rudyard Kipling’s 1890 “Tommy” as two titles I now use in my own literary activism with veterans—we were prompted to write freely for 10 minutes: “Write about smells, sounds, and other sense-based memories you associate with your experiences with the military.”

(Here’s a quick tip for workshop organizers wishing to bridge the civil-military gaps in mutual understanding and empathy: Framing the prompt around “experiences with the military” works for “civilian” audiences as well. After all, every one of us—taxpayer, voter, citizen—has at least some connection with the culture and consequences of war.)

A few months earlier in 2011, I embedded as a freelance journalist with a brigade of Iowa citizen-soldiers deployed to Afghanistan. There, I’d again experienced the familiar tang of diesel-truck fumes, the staccato-chop of helicopters overhead, and the lulling background buzz of Uncle Sam’s electrical generators. But I had also encountered the frictions of changed contexts and perspectives.

As a member of the media, for example, I was prohibited from wearing a camouflage uniform or carrying a weapon—foreign concepts to any graduate of Army basic training. More than once during those weeks, I woke up in my bunk, sweating and panicked, hands flailing in the dark, trying to find my AWOL rifle. (You think old habits die hard? Boot camp habits die harder. I call it the “Ghost of Drill Sergeants Past.” He still visits me occasionally.)

So, at the workshop, I wrote my first war poem.

It was about a hug.

The hug had bothered me for months. It was not a big event. It was not “news.” It was a small and unworthy thing—insufficient materiel, I thought, for even a blog post or postcard back home. And yet, it irritated my brain with the persistence of grit in an oyster. When I first arrived in Afghanistan, my former brigade commander—a man I respected and still feared, and who commanded the lives of 3,000 of my fellow Iowans—had greeted me not with a handshake, nor with a salute (I was now a civilian, after all), but with a hug.

I had spent months trying to figure out what that meant.

It took a poem for me to figure it out.

Author and Iraq War veteran Jason Poudrier (“Red Fields,” 2012) once told me about how he uses the practice of writing poetry to freeze moments, and to hold them up to inspection from different angles. Poetry, he said, allows for metaphor, uncertainty, contradiction, nuance. One thing can mean many things. Memories can be acknowledged—even honored—without having to be resolved. Then, after they are written down, they can be placed on a shelf—perhaps to be forgotten, perhaps to be reflected upon again later. Perhaps, even to be published, and shared with others.

The words that resulted from 10 minutes of workshop-prompted reflection were later polished and published as “Normally, a serious man”:

Normally a serious man,
the brigade commander gives you a hug
and later a coin.

You keep turning up like a bad penny, he says.
You have followed him
across deserts and oceans.
First in uniform, now out of it.
You dress yourself these days.

Friends downrange frequently call attention
to your color-filled wardrobe.
You are only following the rules, you tell them.
Camouflage, according to the Army, might make you a target.
The colonel’s coins are numbered.
Two hundred and forty-nine have come before,
but you are a first:
once part of the tribe, but no longer in the fight.
You showed up like Justice,
who also jumped on the plane late.
He got killed while pinned down
trying to secure a helicopter crash.

You are here to share in stories like that.
The coin is worthless, of course,
but it will pay your way back across the water,
once you have found yourself
at war.

“Why the hug?” you ask your buddies later.
It is because you are like a puppy, they say.
You remind the Old Man of better days.
You are no longer dangerous.
You are a puppy.
You are a penny.
You are home.

In 2019, I co-edited a Military Writers Guild-sponsored anthology, “Why We Write: Craft Essays on Writing War.” Our contributors included poets and playwrights, novelists and educators, soldiers and sailors, think-tankers, historians, and more. Each was a practitioner of writing about war and national security topics, across various genres, platforms, and literary forms.

In one essay, “Recovering the Rhythm of War,” author and veteran Bill McCloud (“The Smell of the Light”) told about how he generated his 2017 collection of poems after re-reading a stack of 52 letters—words he had originally written as a U.S. soldier serving in Vietnam in the years 1968-1969. “When we first return from war, many of us choose either to not talk about it at all (for a variety of reasons), or to talk about it strictly by describing our own personal experiences. We make no attempt, early on, to fit ourselves into the big picture,” McCloud wrote. “I was ready to fit myself, the everyman, into the puzzle.”

My part-time military career was full of disappointments and joys, but it was hardly the stuff of movies and recruiting posters. I’d been an average soldier—at best, a middle-manager in uniform. I was never the smartest, strongest, or highest-ranking person in the room. My Army job involved pushing buttons, connecting wires, and delivering messages. I never fired my weapon in anger. I did sling a few sandbags at home in Iowa. And I eventually got a “combat patch” for overseas peacekeeping duty. Still, as a National Guard member, I was proud to serve my community and my country. Through my service, I had experiences and made friends I’d never have otherwise encountered.

For me, poetry has been one way to assemble those fragments of memory, to add personal and historical contexts to them, and to extract potential meaning from them.

When I read Owen’s words from 1917, denouncing the platitude he calls “the old Lie”—that it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country—I think about the betrayal some of today’s veterans feel when reflecting on the ways we left Iraq and Afghanistan.

And when I read Kipling’s words about how civil society fails its military veterans—the 19th century equivalent to a meme about “Thank You for Your Service”—I think about how my fellow citizens spent a year “building capacity” on behalf of the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, but returned to unemployment, uncertainty, and eroding civil rights at home.

And when I read McCloud’s essay and new poetry from the Vietnam War, I connect my own “everyman” military experiences to a larger societal puzzle: We are each part of a long narrative. We are each boots on the ground. We are all in this together.

Poetry makes this conversation possible. I’ve seen it during poetry readings, veterans writing workshops, and book events. I’ve also seen it during breakfast, while reading the social media feeds of my fellow poets.

Do you want to be a war poet? If you are a writer or a reader—someone who engages, on page or on stage, with the world and news and people around you—you probably already are.

Next month: Poetry can be therapeutic, but it sure as $#%@ ain’t therapy. So what good does it do?

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Randy “Sherpa” Brown is a 20-year retired veteran of the Iowa Army National Guard, and the author and named editor of more than six military-themed poetry collections, anthologies, and chapbooks of poetry and non-fiction. One recent such project is “Things We Carry Still: Poems & Micro-Stories about Military Gear,” which he co-edited with fellow war poet and military spouse Lisa Stice (“Letters in Conflict: Poems,” 2024). Since 2015, he has served as the poetry editor of As You Were, the literary journal of the non-profit organization Military Experience and the Arts. He also regularly shares tips and techniques regarding military-themed writing at The Aiming Circle, a patron-supported community of writing practice. More info:

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