Thursday, May 16, 2024

How to Be a War Poet – Part 2

In a new series of 12 monthly essays, poet, journalist, and U.S. Army veteran Randy “Sherpa” Brown explores 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. 

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How to Be a War Poet — Part 2
“War Poetry Saved My Life”
As a grade-school member of an active-duty U.S. Air Force family in the 1970s—years before Marie Kondo and Swedish Death Cleaning were popular pastimes—I learned to cull toy boxes and declutter closets every 3 to 4 years, at the whims and orders of Uncle Sam. Moving vans and shipping containers, after all, can only carry so many boxes of stuff.

The constant churn of military life may be one reason that service members, veterans, and family members are often quick to judge things on the basis of utility: Is it multi-purpose? Does it take up much space? Do I have to hand-carry it? Do I have more than one? Do I need more than three? How many can I fit onto a C-130? Is it air-droppable? What does it DO? 

I am not an Ivory Tower poet. I don’t have an M.F.A.  Most of all, I don’t sit around thinking Big Thoughts about red flowers and pink unicorns. I want to use my poetry to make people laugh, question, and think. I accidentally rediscovered poetry as a practice partly because I saw a potential way to entertain my Army buddies, none of whom would ever admit to reading or even understanding poetry. 

Of course, in the military, poetry is hidden everywhere in plain sight. For example, in basic training, soldiers are often taught in sing-song cadences and rhyming chants. Remember “This is my rifle, this is my gun ...”? To me, that’s poetry.

So I started out with haiku, because everybody from Second Grade on up knows how—or thinks they know how—to write a haiku. Not every haiku I write is great haiku—the kind that reveal imperceptible, universal truths when frogs hop into ponds—but I can regularly deliver serviceable haiku. Useful haiku. Haiku that highlight what it can be like to serve and sacrifice while wearing the uniform of one’s country. If someone learns or perceives something new, that’s what I’m after. If I can make people laugh, that’s gravy.

I don’t get hung up on syllable counts, although I choose to adhere to that American grade-school rule of “5-7-5” and a total of 17. I often group my haiku together in titled sequences of five, written from the perspectives of poet-characters who are not necessarily autobiographical. And, yes, I’ve done enough poetry-book-learning to know that haiku about human nature are technically labelled as “senryu.” I choose these impure haiku techniques because they help me find readers—the type of readers I want to reach. The ones “who don’t read poetry,” like my old Army buddies. The ones who don’t even know what the acronym “M.F.A.” stands for, but joke that the first two letters must rhyme with “Other-Trucker.”

Luckily for me, if you write enough haiku—if you kiss enough pond-jumping frogs—every so often, you end up writing something profound. To illustrate, I’d like to offer this one, part of a series titled “a Radio-Telephone Operator writes haiku”:

Last-calling station
I read you Lima-Charlie.
Welcome to my World.

Beyond triggering obsessive-compulsive syllable-counters, what does the radio-operator haiku poem DO? As the writer, I hope first that it captures attention long enough to amuse or entertain. I hope that it invites questions and conversations—what does “Lima-Charlie” mean, Sherpa? How is it pronounced? (Glad you asked, as it provides this bonus teachable moment: It’s pronounced “LEE-ma-CHAR-lee,” which is the way that radio operators would phonetically spell out the letters “L” and “C.”) I even hope that it sparks in some readers—perhaps those with experiences with radios, whether on military or civilian wavelengths—recall similar moments of connection through silences and voids.

To those readers in particular, the poem’s encoded purpose delivers “Lima-Charlie”—radio-operator-speak for “Loud-and-Clear.”

To those readers in particular, it may seem as if we are temporarily connected—the reader and poet—despite our distances in time and space.

To further illuminate what a poem does, here is my 2021 poem “break, break, break”:

any poem is a communications tool;
the instructions are embedded as code

punctuation and line breaks 
encrypt and specify

how it must be read
but not (necessarily) what it means

think of it
as “Push-To-Talk”

like a radio
for the mind

I remember my very first training sessions on Vietnam-era push-to-talk FM tactical radios. (This was in the 1990s, so the technology was already more than 20 years old at the time.) To make our language more efficient, we learned procedure-words (“pro-words”) such as “over,” “out,” “roger,” and “wilco.” We were taught to break our messages into 3-second phrases. Any longer than that would risk detection-finding by the enemy. The enemy—whoever it was, Soviet Russians probably—was always out there, listening, ready to lob artillery rounds at our antennas. 

Our FM radios operated in the Very High Frequency (V.H.F.) spectrum. In those same days, however, I was reading military thrillers written by Tom Clancy, and about the military’s use of Extremely Low Frequency (E.L.F.) radio transmissions. By dangling miles of wire antenna from planes orbiting overhead, operators could slowly transmit extremely brief and simple messages—think three-letter codes, such as “QZB”—to distant submarines, even when the latter were operating under the water’s surface.

I now think about those three-letter codes and 3-second conversations every time archeologists piece together text-fragments of ancient poems.

What we know of the ancient Greek poet Sappho, after all, is assembled from scraps—only one complete poem written by her remains. More recently, researchers successfully used medical-imaging CT scans and machine-learning algorithms to virtually unwrap and read parts of a 2,000-year-old Roman scroll found carbonized in the ash from Mount Vesuvius. What they found were elements of the Hebrew bible. Bottom line: Poetry can last a long time. Journalism may be the first draft of history, but poetry is a cockroach. Poetry will outlast us all.

Or, put more poetically: Every poem is a message in a bottle. Every poem is a time-capsule. Every poem is a paper lantern. Every poem is a letter home.

What we put into these messages is up to us. Even when we feel powerless to effect change, we can bear witness to the world around us, and to our reactions to it. (If you’d like to learn more, the phrase “Poetry of Witness” was coined by Carolyn Forché, and describes a poetic practice responding to and generating from topics of trauma, war, genocide, occupation, and violence.) We can also use poems to commemorate the people, places, and times that have meaning to us. We can use poems to celebrate moments of joy and creation. We can use poems to provide ourselves moments of mindfulness—focus, reflection, and clarity. We can use poems to create connection, inspire conversation and discussion, and achieve empathy with others.

All of this sounds a bit magical and Mary Poppins, I know. And I promised you that I wouldn’t promise you rose gardens and pink unicorns. So let me put on my Uncle-Sam-Wants-Your-Poetry hat, and point to what poetry can do for you. I can’t promise you that poetry can save your life. But I can tell you that it probably saved mine.

Here, I’m going to avoid giving voice to the mistaken logic that poetry is expressive writing, and that expressive writing about traumatic experiences can help people avoid thoughts of suicide and despair. Just as I am not a poetry academic, I am not a healthcare professional. Too many well-intentioned MFA-qualified workshop organizers—oblivious to the harmful “all veterans are broken” stereotype underlaying their efforts—forget this point. I have often said and written that “writing about war can be therapeutic, but it sure as #$%& ain’t therapy.” If you are having intrusive thoughts about self-harm, I remember enough of my mental-health first-aid battle drills to know this: I will stay with you as a buddy, and help transport you to a professional place of healing. That is all I am qualified to do.

But I am going to tell you that poetry saved my life. Although I am no saint, I am a better, happier, more-tolerant and -accepting person because of poetry. Through poetry, I’ve found community, camaraderie, and comfort—it is something I can daily talk and laugh about, regardless of the latest dumpster fires on social media, or horror stories in the news. Poetry has supplemented and buttressed my Christian faith, my connections to friends and family, my empathy for others.

The past decade hasn’t been easy—not just because I retired from my part-time career in uniform, and began unraveling my self-image as a citizen-soldier. Many of the patriotic assumptions with which I grew up, and subsequently committed much of my professional lives—both as a journalist and as a part-time soldier—now taste of ash in my mouth. The revealed fragility of our Constitutional and social institutions against racists, thugs, fabulists, and grifters, has often left me disillusioned and without voice—or even an idea of what I’d try to say or do, if I had any idea of what to say or do. 

To hack my attention-rattled brain, I’ve often sought refuge in media comfort-food, including old war movies, Buddhist comic books (you laugh; I’m serious), and writing minimalist war poetry. (An aphorism: “You know you’re in trouble, when you write war poetry as an escape.”) In hunting the good stuff, I’ve begun to realize that poetry can not only create clarity, but it can also create a kind of constructive confusion. After all, poetry can make the familiar unfamiliar, and the unfamiliar familiar. (Want to learn more? Check out the Russian Formalists!) It can help us find common terrain, depolarize conversations, and explore grey areas. 

In short, poetry can create space. Space to include and meet others. Space to think and feel. Space to breathe.

At the February 2024 national convention of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (A.W.P.), I was fortunate to experience excerpts of a new poem by Philip Metres, in which he addresses the senseless and systematic killing of innocent people in Gaza. (Metres’ poem, “Dispatches from a Country of Erasure during a Genocide,” has now been published at the LitHub on-line journal.) In the silence that followed, fellow panelist and war poet Paisley Rekdal helped the stunned audience navigate through the moment:

“Poetry doesn’t do anything to make things happen, beyond activating a response from the reader. And, in that way, the reader becomes an extension of the poem,” Rekdal said, before continuing: “Of course, the poem activates nothing without the reader’s consent. The danger is that the reader will say, ‘OK, I’ve felt something. My part of the transaction is complete.’”

In order to do anything, a poem must be activated. In us. In what we do.

Poetry isn’t the only tool in the artist’s tool kit, of course, There are those who might choose to write or read fiction. There are those who might choose to act in plays on stage, or to express themselves through dance. Any creative act is an opportunity to create space, to explore possibility, to prompt empathy and change—in one’s self, and in one’s communities.

Read a poem. Write a poem. Take a breath. If and when you are ready and able, take action.

What does a poem do? It connects you to others. It ain’t therapy. But it might save your life.

Or maybe even your soul.

Next month: The Naming of Parts – How to field-strip a poem.

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If you or someone you know is experiencing thoughts of suicide or self-harm, contact the National Veterans Crisis Line:

Dial “988” and then press “1”

Or text: 838255

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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: