Driving to Philadelphia for this year’s Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference, I wondered what I would find. I was on two panels, one as a speaker and one as moderator, but they were the only two panels in the program that specifically targeted vet writers and war-mil-conflict subjects. Several vet-writing mainstays I know had begged out of attending, and others I hadn’t heard from. There was little buzz on social media—especially ominous since the panel I was moderating—Veterans Online—was fueled by the proposition that much of the action these days in the vet-writing world takes place in the virtual realm. Also distressing, there was no signs-of-participation from Warrior Writers, a Philadelphia-based writing collective I think of as synonymous with Philadelphia vet writing and usually prominent players at AWP. What was up? Even the conference keynote speakers were unknown to me—another sign of that AWP was shaping up to be a curiously-diminished, minor-key affair.
Fortunately, such brooding and misgivings proved very misleading. The site of the conference, the Pennsylvania Convention Center, bustled with writers and writer wannabees of all stripes, including lots of vet-writers and fellow-travelers, old and new. Attendance at my two panels was solid, as these things go, and my fellow panelists were in fine form. Even more heartening, at the book-fair tables dedicated to war-and-vet writing the foot-traffic was steady, as far as I could tell. Every time I stopped by the table of, say, the Wrath-Bearing Tree, Collateral, or the Veterans Writing Project, I ran into a familiar face or met an “emerging” writer, as the new term for literary tyros and aspirants has it. Capitalizing on the high spirits and good cheer, we quickly organized a vet-writers social where everyone had a blast (or at least I did) and various lunches, dinners, readings, and special events channeled the same vibe.
A quick roll call of old-hand war-lit writers in attendance and/or presenting at this year’s AWP includes Adrian Bonenberger, Jerri Bell, Ron Capps, Dario Dibattista, Rebecca Evans, Teresa Fazio, Mariette Kalinowski, Kara Krauze, Abby E. Murray, Jennifer Orth-Veillon, Drew Pham, Suzanne Rancourt, Connie Ruzich, Seth Brady Tucker, Brian Turner, and Jeremy Warneke. Hugh Martin, Olivia Kate Cerrone, and Pamela Hart were also around, according to the program, but unfortunately I didn’t run into them (and apologies for anyone whose name I’ve left out).
As good as it was to hang with old friends, it was also great to meet for the first time at least six writers who were either veterans or were working on fiction featuring veterans, and I know the journal editors working the tables met many more. Good luck to them all, and I’ll mention two who are already in print and whom I highly recommend keeping an eye on:
Brian O’Hare is a former Marine whose short-story collection Surrender will come out this fall. O’Hare is the winner of the Syracuse Veterans Writing Award in 2021, read about him here:
Bettina Hindes is an Army veteran currently living in Germany. Her excellent reminiscence “Adjustment Disorder” can be found in Wrath-Bearing Tree:
The panel I moderated was titled “Veterans Writing Online: A Field Guide for Negotiating the Digital Writing Sphere.” Soldier blogs, online vet-writing journals, online vet-writing workshops, digital publishing possibilities, and social-media striving for popularity and reputation were our subjects, and to help me explore them were Ron Capps, Kara Krauze, Jennifer Orth-Veillon, and Teresa Fazio. It was a big subject and we barely got going, but Ron’s, Kara’s, Jennifer’s, and Teresa’s comments were on-point and trenchant and provocative, as I knew they would be. The online print sphere is a new structural element for writers to manage, negotiate, and exploit, and cannot be ignored even if you wanted. No doubt writing for online publication seeps into the bones of the writing itself, but exactly how? Is the medium the message? It seems to me there is a heightened level of performativity and audience awareness at play, but exactly how so remains to be worked out.
I also participated on a panel titled “Family Heritage, Violent History: WWI’s Lost Transversality in War Poetry Today,” organized by Jennifer Orth-Veillon. All of us on the panel presented versions of articles previously published on Jennifer’s fantastic WWrite Blog, selections from which will be published in book form later this year. Listening to poets Seth Brady Tucker and Drew Pham and scholar Connie Ruzich spin word-webs about their connections to World War I and its literary tradition transported me into an extremely pleasant haze of contemplation about the relation of war, words, and history as they percolate in individuals with their own unique experiences and outlooks. For my part, I spoke about poet Aline Kilmer; the highlight was being approached afterward by an audience member (an aspiring vet-writer) who told me that he thought Kilmer’s verse was very “metal.” I laughed, and he wasn’t wrong!
I have fought with stars in their courses
and dreamed I have won,
I have charged full tilt with my levelled lance
straight into the flaming sun
And because of the darkness that swallowed me I
have dreamed that the fight was done.
What to make of this rekindled energy and interest? Not sure, exactly. There was definitely an eagerness to reconnect and get back into circulation on the part of the old hands. There was definitely an eagerness on the part of younger writers to be part of something bigger than themselves. All to the good, and now the question becomes how to keep the party going in Seattle for 2023. I won’t be there, as AWPs so far from my New Jersey home are just “too much,” but there are plenty of possibilities. Two non-mil panels I attended this year seem naturals for adaptation by the vet-writing community.
“Emotional Pacing in the Trauma Narrative” explored literary techniques for framing trauma-based stories so they avoid overwhelming readers with melodramatic excess. The panelists kept it mostly at the level of craft, which was great, but just as interestingly they spoke of the difficulty of life after publication after revealing and recounting harrowing, enormously disturbing private events and thoughts. All aspects of the subject, to my mind, would be a great for exploration by a panel composed of veteran memoirists, if they dare.
“Craft Lessons from the Submission Queue: Writing and Editing Short Fiction” featured the editors of four online journals that publish literary fiction. The editors passed on guidance for successfully placing stories in their journals, while also recounting lessons learned from reading thousands of submissions they have applied to their own writing. The panelists were full of interesting tips, observations, and anecdotes and the huge audience hung on their words as if they were gospel. How cool would it be if Veterans Writing Project, Military Experience and the Arts, Wrath-Bearing Tree, Consequence, The War Horse and/or Collateral teamed up for a similar panel for the war-writing crowd (hint/hint, foot-stomp/foot-stomp)?
Special AWP shout-outs to Ron Capps and Jennifer Orth-Veillon. It was great to see Capps and the Veterans Writing Project back in action and specifically thanks to Ron for forking out the smackers to reserve a two-lane bowling alley at the war-writers social bar where we held an impromptu first-ever War-Writers Bowling Tournament. For her part, Jennifer was my stalwart ally organizing two panels that helped put vet-and-war-writing back on the map at AWP. It was a close-run thing, and victory was never assured, but we did pretty well with it, I’d say, and I don’t think either of us could have done it alone.
Now, onward to Seattle!
Coming in October 2022: Beyond Their Limits of Longing: Contemporary Writers on the Lingering Stories of World War I. Edited by Jennifer Orth-Veillon, forward by Monique Brouillet Seefried. MilSpeak Books.