By rough count, the number of war-writing panels at the annual Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference in Washington, DC, last week were fewer than in past years. Of the panels I attended, there was not much presentation of new work, consideration of contentious current events, or anticipation of future possibilities. Last year in Los Angeles, AWP16 celebrated the diversification of veteran voices: now not just white male combat vets, but women, people-of-color, and non-combat military jobs and experiences. At AWP17, that interest was muted, not foregrounded, though curiosity about Iraqi, Afghan, and other Islamic perspectives emerged on panels on adventure-and-conflict journalism and Iraqi fiction in translation. Both panels broached important matters of ethics, aesthetics, and methodology inherent in writing about the Middle East and southwest Asia after fifteen years of nonstop fighting and intense American involvement, but their focus was on journalism and translation, not war fiction, memoir, and poetry written by Americans. Two panels asked veteran authors to reflect on teaching war writing in classrooms and workshops, a subject I care a lot about, but one a step or two removed from the current political hurly-burly or consideration of the panelists’ own craft. Only panels on using poetry to bridge the civil-military divide and on war-writing in the Midwestern “flyover states”—both led by Randy Brown, aka “Charlie Sherpa”–explored the love-hate relationship between the American public and war, the military, and militarism. The two panels began to connect the dots between individual military experience and national trends since America first went to war in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, for which I was grateful, but the small taste left me wanting more.
If the war-writing panels themselves were not particularly sharp-edged, that’s not to say that AWP17 reflected a diminution of the vitality of the contemporary war-writing field. If anything, the case was quite the opposite: collectively, the large war-writing contingent in Washington positively bubbled with conviviality, encouragement, and excitement. Veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan know the hail-fellow-well-met bonhomie that comes with arriving safely to a FOB after a long convoy. There was much the same high-five euphoria in the air in DC, as if we found ourselves surprised by finding such welcome and comfort in the midst of troubled times.
What accounts for the upward-trending spirit? Many attendees were animated by Writers Resist Trump activism, particularly as it was organized by Andrew Slater, one of the original Fire and Forget authors, who led a contingent of war writers to the Capitol to lobby on behalf of interpreters affected by the new president’s restrictions on immigration. Another sign of health was the frequent presence of veteran-authors on panels devoted to subjects other than Iraq and Afghanistan—evidence that talented scene stalwarts were now finding fresh subjects and audiences. A cohort of interesting recently-published authors, including Eric Chandler, John Renehan, Whitney Terrell, Matthew Komatsu, Matthew Hefti, and Odie Lindsey, brought energy and new thinking to ongoing discussions as they mixed with familiar AWP faces. Equally exciting was the return to the war-writing fold of many of the field’s pioneers—David Abrams, Elyse Fenton, Kevin Powers, and Helen Benedict, among them—who had not been seen at AWP recently and who now were eagerly met by old hands and newcomers alike. A related factor was anticipation of new work arriving soon by Abrams, Fenton, Powers, Benedict, Jehanne Dubrow, Brian Van Reet, and Siobhan Fallon. With second books on the way from the writers who trailblazed the contemporary war-writing surge, the genre’s enduring worth seems assured. More importantly, war authors with two books or more out, along with occasional published pieces and social media pronouncements, have begun to stake out characteristic themes and subjects, adding maturity and depth to individual bodies of work and collective conversations.
My own contribution to AWP17 consisted of moderating a panel titled From Verse to Stage and Screen: Veterans Adapt. The conceit was to explore the artistic transformation of printed words to public multi-media performance. Bringing the subject to life, panelists Jay Moad, Jenny Pacanowski, Benjamin Busch, and Brian Turner read or performed passages of their work as examples of the process. Moad, a last-minute replacement for playwright Maurice Decaul, led off with a gripping rendition of a scene from Outside Paducah, his one-man play about three generations of war-torn veterans. Pacanowski followed with a raucous spoken-word poem titled “Combat Dick”—surely an instant classic in the annals of writing by women veterans. Busch read an intriguing scene about the peeling of an orange (really!–only Busch could have pulled this off) from his movie Bright and invited us to consider how art that speaks not the name of war can be about war nonetheless. Turner concluded by leading the audience in a group “hum” (literally!) that he recorded for use as ambient noise in a future mixed-media project. He then had us repeat our hum as the backdrop for an incantatory freestyle based on a refrain from an unpublished poem.
At the end of our allotted time, I had not yet asked the panelists to connect their interest in performance with larger worldviews and issues, so I might stand guilty of the same quietist-escapist tendencies I noted above: Was our panel a retreat into the pure realm of art or the fantasy-land of entertainment? That’s not how I felt about it then, though, nor now. Rather, the marvelous performances by Moad, Pacanowksi, Busch, and Turner modeled the imagination, courage, humor, and found moments of joy that are in short supply these days and in fact seem under threat. In the Q&A, an audience member, obviously inspired by the panelists’ ability to turn a drab conference room into a magical collective performance space, wondered if they might be able to work similar transformations in public places full of unwitting, unsolicited people. The concept was hard to understand, but the question-asker seemed to have in mind a Situationist-style performance-art infusion of the mundane world with the restorative and righteous properties of interactive theater. That seemed a lot to ask of artists even as fearless and creative as Moad, Pacanowski, Busch, and Turner, who remained noncommittal while taking in the idea. The question made me think, though: what it asked for seems already to apply to the ongoing national political spectacle, as we’ve all been turned by the new president into participating members of The Trump Show. Here’s to an equal-but-opposite-and-worthier counter-assault, mounted by writers who know what it means to fight, using all available tools and energy to strengthen the artistic and intellectual might of the nation, and hence its social, cultural, and political health, too.