I’ll be on two panels at the upcoming Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference this week in Philadelphia.
I’m moderating one panel titled “Veterans Writing Online: A Field Guide for Negotiating the Digital Writing Sphere.” Here’s the program blurb:
Iraq and Afghanistan military-and-veteran writers have enthusiastically embraced the internet to amplify their voices and build audiences through blogging, online publishing, remote workshopping, and social media promotion, and as a bridge to traditional print publication. The members of the panel, all accomplished authors, online journal editors, and teachers in the veteran-writing field, offer a range of perspectives regarding best online publishing practices, lessons learned, and future possibilities.
And a little more:
The vibrant veterans online writing realm emphasizes its commitment to new voices, diverse and radical perspectives, post-trauma growth, building communities, and bridging the civil-military divide. The panel explores how online writing supplements and serves as an alternative to traditional print publication by encouraging literary expression by new authors, women, non-binary, minority, and dissident veterans, as well as concerned-citizen writers, family members, and non-combatants.
After a little jockeying, the panel line-up has solidified in exciting ways: Ron Capps, Teresa Fazio, Kara Krauze, and Jennifer Orth-Veillon.
Showtime is Saturday, March 26, 10:35-11:50am in Room 124 in the Pennsylvania Convention Center.
I’m also participating on a panel sponsored by Jennifer Orth-Veillon titled “Family Heritage, Violent History: WWI’s Lost Transversality in War Poetry Today.” I’m honored for the chance to talk about World War I poet Aline Kilmer’s relevance to the current war-writing scene alongside panelists Seth Tucker, Connie Ruzich, and Drew Pham. Here’s the blurb:
WWI’s Centennial offered chances for today’s war writers to reflect upon literary debts owed to 1914-1918 poets in blogs, articles, and new work. This panel fuses history, literary analysis, and creative writing to explore this phenomenon. Members include veteran poets addressing issues of religion, family, sexuality, gender, and PTSD through WWI’s lens. WWI poetry and contemporary war literature experts propose insight into the intersections of personal experience, history, and literary craft.
WWI represents one of the first times in history poetry was responsible for exposing the new complexity of war wounds to the public. WWI elicited responses from diverse voices on the home front and battlefield that opened artistic spaces expressing war’s horrors in innovative ways. This panel reaches far beyond the traditional WWI canon and explores how these poets not only shaped civilian responses or crafted legacy but how they also set precedents for writers confronting today’s conflicts.
We’re meeting on Thursday, March 24 from 1:45 to 3:00pm in Room 121A in the Pennsylvania Convention Center.
Looking forward to it all, and join us please if you will be at AWP. I’m not seeing any other panels on the program that directly address contemporary war-writing, which has me thinking. The conference used to be an important locus for the GWOT war-writing community, with many panels each year on war-and-vet writing and much socializing. That luster was beginning to fade even before Covid, and nothing I know of has replaced it (everything’s online!), but I’m hoping we can rekindle the spirt a little.
In recent months, much writing by veterans has reckoned with America’s long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Veterans Day, for example, elicited a larger number of vet-authored essays and opinion pieces than I remember from years past. The veterans’ ruminations described what might blandly be called “the human cost of war,” along with discussion of those human costs’ connections to national strategy and policy failures. Countering simplistic celebrations of veterans’ service and sacrifice, the pieces described lingering guilt, loss, pain, regret, and disappointment. A few days later, President Trump’s pardoning of war criminals Edward Gallagher, Mathew Golstyen, and Clint Lorance inspired another round of articles, the general gist of which expressed outrage at the men, their actions, and the pardons. Shortly thereafter, came the release of the Washington Post’s “The Afghanistan Papers,” which accused the nation’s civilian and military leadership of lying about how badly things have gone in Afghanistan the past two decades. The series subsequently generated more public opining by veteran-writers, me included. The responses in this case tempered outrage with proclamations of “duh” and “I told you so.”
I tracked the many Veterans Day, Presidential pardons, and Afghanistan Papers commentaries and agreed with much or most of what was written there-in. As always, though, my main interest has not been public sphere debate, but the parallel world of artistic expression. Not that the realm of art is “better” than political discourse, but I Iike it more, and, at the least, art is the province of the imagination, a quality that seems to be lacking in the thinking about how to bring America’s long wars to a close. It’s not that art offers specific solutions to specific problems (or rarely does), but that the art-realm serves as a constant imperative to think and live creatively and empathetically. Recent months have brought much to contemplate in this regard, too.
For instance, the Voices from War “Stories and Conversations on Transitions” reading at the New York Historical Society on Veterans Day weekend was fantastic. Voices from War is a long-standing New York City veterans writing workshop led by Kara Krauze, a formidable teacher and organizer. At the event, I was astonished by the diversity and uniqueness of the readers’ pieces, each of which came at the subject of war and “transition” from an interesting angle. To focus on an individual reading that combined personal reminiscence with heightened artistry, Drew Pham’s prose-poem “How to Remember Your Ancestors’ Names” was particularly outstanding. Pham, a second-generation Vietnamese-American who served as an infantry lieutenant in Afghanistan with the Army’s 10th Mountain Division, is now making a go of it as a writer and teacher in New York. Taking the concept of transition to an extreme, Pham now identifies as “they” and appeared on stage wearing make-up and a dress adorned with their Army badges and decorations.
A flamboyant stage presence, no doubt, but it’s the poem Pham read that counts most. “How to Remember Your Ancestors’ Names” explores Pham’s personal, family, and ethnic/national history as it has played out over several generations and a number of imperialistic military projects dating back to World War I France and culminating in Pham’s service in Afghanistan. There are complicated authorial subject-positions, but it’s hard to imagine one more complicated than Pham’s: the son of immigrants whose family was deeply imbricated in Vietnam’s colonial and martial past, Pham fought in Afghanistan and there did the things American infantrymen are asked to do. In “How to Remember Your Ancestors’ Names,” Pham tries to make sense of it all, infused with an implicit, not explicit, wrestle with gender identity and sexual orientation. A short excerpt only begins to illustrate:
i only have this story / bits of shrapnel scattered through my family / i pieced together but never whole / the explosion that tore its way through our roots detonated so long ago / i cannot tell you whether those bits of steel i still find in my limbs belong to me / or the histories of my countrymen all so erased…
Two of the five sections of “How to Remember Your Ancestors’ Names” are available here on the World War I Centennial Commission WWrite Blog, but the poem as a whole has not yet been published. I’ve obtained a paper copy of the poem entire, read it many times, and hope it will soon be available for all to read in full. Its five sections range stylistically from traditional lyric to highly wrought narrative prose. Central to the poem is Pham’s mother, who serves as the link connecting past and present and as the fulcrum for understanding the tangled threads of the poet’s life. In this, and in overall tone and style, “How to Remember Your Ancestors’ Names” on page and read aloud made me think of “Kaddish,” Beat poet Alan Ginsberg’s great ode to his own mother. Whether the resemblance is intentional or not, I don’t know, but the poem’s striking imagery, momentous story-line, and exploratory emotional depth centered on war also reminds me of Brian Turner’s memoir My Life as a Foreign Country, while not being imitative or overly indebted to either Turner or Ginsberg.
Far to the southwest, the Austin Veterans Art Festivalbrought forth more bold expansions of war art boundaries. I wasn’t in Texas for the Festival, but the sound of distant thunder was very exciting. Not completely unconnected with the New York City scene, either; the AVAF featured new dramatic works by several artist-veterans with Big Apple credentials. New York City-based performance-poet Jenny Pacanowski, an Army vet whose poetry can be as raucous as it can be tender, authored a play titled Dionysus in America that reimagined the ancient Bacchae plays as parables for contemporary social disintegration. As its blurb states:
Dionysus in America imagines a dystopia in which women suffer endless harassment, and right-wing politics wrenches away women’s control over their own bodies; in response, American women heed the call of Dionysus, and flee to new, strange, euphoric rites in Iraq, the cradle of civilization. General Pentheus, leader of the American war machine, swears to go to the Mesopotamia, liberate the women, and drag them back to the United States. Unfortunately, he operates unaware that his uncle, a transformed and unrecognizable Dionysus, God of ritual madness, has decided to punish America’s hubris for rejecting his mother, his divinity, and his seemingly inexplicable rites of devotion.
The super-serious and somewhat staid Iraq and Afghanistan war writing and art scene has shied away from radical political critique in terms of message and from the carnivalesque and satirical in terms of aesthetics. Pacanowski, however, and to her great credit, is anything but staid, and Dionysus in America defiantly crashes and crushes barriers. One can only hope it foretells further expansions of war-story themes and styles; not all art needs to be politically outraged and theatrically over-the-top, but some of it must be.
A second play, authored and directed by Texas natives/New Jersey transplants John Myer (an Army vet) and Karen Alvarado, also did not tell a conventional story in a conventional way. Myer and Alvarado’s play Aftershock/La Réplica combined story-telling, dance, movement, drama, and music to explore the lives of Latino soldiers serving in the US military. Again, the complexity of the subject position suggests great possibility for artistic presentation: how do Hispanic-American men and women balance dual heritages and conflicting identities with military service in a contemporary national climate that makes it increasingly difficult to do so? Aftershock/La Réplica, according to its blurb, “explores new dimensions of Latinx military service, featuring soldiers and citizens who expect military service to reinforce their identity and ideas about family, patriotism, and even sexuality – but the military is often a place that mixes up the moral compass and sense of self and invents a new identity.” A video trailer here illustrates the Myer/Alvarado approach, which is never visually boring nor intellectually dull.
An aspect of Aftershock/La Réplica I like very much is that it included passages authored by former Marine Victor Inzunza. Inzunza, a poet, was the first contemporary war-writer I ever met—on the shuttle bus from the hotel to the 2011 War, Literature, and Arts conference in Colorado—and it’s been a pleasure following his work ever since and see it now incorporated within a bold theatrical endeavor by Myer and Alvarado, who are also friends.
Also performing in Austin was another New York City-based act, the wonderful Exit 12 Dance Company,about whom I’ve written about here, and Exit 12 conducted a dance workshop, as well. Finally, Veterans Writing Project founder and director Ron Capps was the featured speaker at the Veterans Health and Welfare Conference, an event affiliated with the Austin Veterans Art Festival. I also note that Capps participated in a veterans songwriting seminar near Austin that may or may not have been associated with the AVAF. It’s confusing, but I’m glad to be confused by so much creative flourishing and eager to learn more. In any case, I sympathize with Capps, a talented guitarist and singer, as he plumbs music’s power to articulate emotional nuances that can’t be expressed by cold black words on barren white pages or screens. To me, he seems much like poet Brian Turner in this turn to music, as well as a man after my own heart. But still, I like words most and Capps, like Voices from War’s Kara Krauze, is one of the long-time (mostly) unsung heroes of contemporary veteran writing. I’m especially glad to see Capps and Krauze still active as 2020 dawns and encouraging new voices, new stories, and new directions to make sense of the by now very old wars.
This post only touches a few of the interesting contemporary war-related artistic endeavors that have caught my attention the past few months. I hope to describe some others in posts to come.
With at least twelve events featuring authors who have written about deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan, the recent Association of Writers and Writing Program conference offered plenty of opportunity to assess the public face of war writing while also catching up with fellow members of the war writing community. Within an hour of arrival, for example, I was trading stories with Colby Buzzell, whom I had never met before, at a taco food truck near the Los Angeles Convention Center, the site of the conference this year. AWP, as the conference is called, was full of such moments for me, and, I suspect, many others. The panel presentations and readings were excellent, and just as rewarding were the off-stage conversations with old and new friends.
Notions of inclusion and expansion characterized the war-writing panels, as many were specifically designed to showcase authors who were not white male combat veterans writing lugubrious sagas of self. All to the good, and I’m eager now to read authors such as Qais Akbar Omar, a former Afghan interpreter who has written a memoir titled A Fort of Nine Towers; Vicki Hudson, a former MP officer whose creative and non-fiction writing begins to redress the glaring omission of LBGT voices in the war-writing field; and Mary Doyle, a former Army NCO who’s now a prolific author of military-and-deployment accented detective fiction. A panel on memoir featured Kayla Williams, maybe the first female Iraq veteran to write a memoir (she’s now written two), and Angie Ricketts, who has written about the cloistered world of infantry officer wives suffering through their husbands’ multiple deployments. Elsewhere, I was delighted to hear Mariette Kalinowski read fiction that originated in her service as a gunner on Marine convoys in Iraq; Philip Metres read poetry about Abu Ghraib from his volume Sand Opera; and ex-Marine playwright Maurice Decaul speak of his efforts to produce plays written, performed, and staged by veterans.
The war writing interest in diversity coincided somewhat uneasily with a larger AWP concern this year with matters of race. Touchstones included the furor over the removal of Vanessa Place from the AWP selection committee because of her alleged insensitivity (in the name of fighting racism) about issues important to black Americans, Claudia Rankine’skeynote speech, which targeted the literary world for its implicit racism, and a Ruth Ellen Kocher blog post documenting two demeaning incidents at AWP that reinforced her impression that even among progressive-minded white writers, her black skin signifies second-class citizenship. Everyone who serves in the heavily-integrated military is race-conscious, though most of us like to think that the armed forces are free of, or at least freer of, the racial polarization that currently characterizes much of America. Evidence exists that corroborates this somewhat smug perception, but it is hardly appropriate for white veterans to pronounce definitively that all is well. The same issues surface in the war writing scene, too, with interesting permutations. Neither Mary Doyle nor Maurice Decaul, both black, make race a central concern in their writing about service and war. At her panel, Doyle actively resisted such categorization and explained that if anyone wants to know what really drives her literary bent, they should ask about her lifelong love for Dick Francis, the English author of detective novels set in the upper-crust world of horse-racing. A sweet AWP moment for me was eavesdropping while Doyle and Brian Turner reminisced about a shared deployment to Bosnia, proof that at least sometimes the peculiarly intense experience of service in the Army green machine overwhelms preoccupation with skin color. But it’s not as easy as that, nowhere near the last words on the matter, and I would love to hear Doyle’s and Decaul’s (or anyone’s) most developed thoughts about race and the military, and race and writing about war, should they be inclined to offer them. For what it’s worth, I have written a little more about the subject on this blog in a post titled Toni Morrison’s Home: The Africanist Presence in War Literature.
A second theme emerging out of the alchemy of public and private remarks was a sense that war-writing has matured as a publishing genre, which is to say that it is a much more commercial affair now than previously. Where once war writers were just happy to make it into print, many now are savvy practitioners of the business side of writing, where book deals are made and real money is on the line in the way of advances, foreign sales, next-book contracts, movie options, and ancillary speaking-and-writing gigs. As Jesse Goolsby noted, “The ‘off-page’ stuff can be as important as what’s on the page.” In separate events, Goolsby, Brian Castner, and Kayla Williams each spoke candidly and at-length about publishing—together the three might make a great panel at next year’s AWP titled “The Business of War Writing” (hint, hint). The two themes of diversification and professionalization intersected in frequent discussions about publishers’ receptivity to nontraditional war narratives. From my vantage point, publishing houses seem reasonably open to diverse perspectives, especially when rendered with a smidgeon of literary talent and verve. Things could always be better, of course, but the evidence so far suggests that it is readers, general readers, not the literary-minded ones, who perpetuate the popularity of books by and about young men who have performed bravely in combat, with best-selling titles such as American Sniper and Outlaw Platoon being the proof.
My contribution to AWP this year was to help organize two panels for which I also served as moderator. The first, Iraq Veteran-Writers Ten Years Later: Words After Words After War, featured four writers who all served in Iraq prior to 2005 and subsequently commenced lives largely organized around writing. Two authors, the aforementioned Colby Buzzell and Kayla Williams, were among the first veterans into print after 2003, while two others, Ron Capps and Maurice Decaul, have taken longer to find their writing voices and appreciative audiences. My intent here was to allow these interesting authors to take us back to their deployment days and then help us follow them forward as their thoughts about their service in Iraq coalesced and matured and their lives as writers evolved. Each had insightful ideas and anecdotes to speak of–why aren’t all AWP panels taped and archived? It’s impossible to reduce their common concerns to a sentence, but I sensed that Decaul and Williams are now exploring writing and life possibilities still deeply informed by early experience in Iraq, while Capps and Buzzell are more ready to move on, as if their deployment memories have now (perhaps thankfully) reached a half-life state of dissolve. Whatever these four authors do next, we’ll all be watching—it’s not just that they are “leaders” per se within the war-writing community, though they are, but that they now bring so much hard-earned gravitas to bear on any subject they choose to examine. More simply put, they’ve lived through more of life and life’s writing experiences than most of the rest of us.
Speaking of which–life–participants on the memoir panels spoke often about the problems of “life-writing,” which involves carefully modulating impulses toward self-promotion, self-disclosure, self-deception, self-deprecation, and even self-laceration. It took the panels featuring fiction to illustrate the insidiousness of this dynamic by portraying scenes too touchy to confess to in memoir. The aim of my second panel, New Directions in Contemporary War Literature, was to bring forth authors of novels about the military and war written within the last two years and see what reverberations their readings generated. I couldn’t have been happier with the result, the exact shape of which I didn’t see coming and which truth to tell was somewhat scary, though all the better for that.
Jesse Goolsby, the author of I’d Walk With My Friends If I Could Find Them, went first, choosing a passage from near the end of the novel in which one of the characters, Wintric Ellis, long after the war, sits in his car trying to work up the courage to kill the soldier who sexually assaulted him in Afghanistan. Early in the novel, Wintric participates in a shoot-or-don’t-shoot scenario in Afghanistan when he and his buddies are faced by a suicide bomber; now at the end of the novel it emerges that what has wrecked Wintric’s life was not enemy on the battlefield, but one nominally on his own side, and he must once more decide whether to kill someone or not. It’s a wrenching scene, similar in its way to Siobhan Fallon’s great short story “Leave,” and was beautifully read by Goolsby.
While Wintric deliberates, he fields a call from his wife, who wonders what he is up to. Wintric lies to her about his intentions, and it turns out that he has lied to her about other aspects of his deployment, too, more out of shame than meanness. Such deceit and cowardliness is hard to own up to in memoir, but the very stuff that fiction is good at portraying. Mendacity (to reference Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) also figures in Andria Williams’ The Longest Night, which dramatizes a real-life nuclear catastrophe that took place on an Army base in Idaho during the Cold War, while also offering startling astute portraits of the men who worked on the base and their families. Williams read an early scene foreshadowing the reactor meltdown and another longer one describing the mediocre career and desultory marriage of Master Sergeant Richards, a pompous senior NCO in charge of the reactor. The passage, told from the NCO’s wife’s point-of-view, is simultaneously devastating and funny-as-hell, and Williams’ reading, as did Goolsby’s, captivated the audience. The bigger import, alas, also had much in common with Goolsby’s: a military whose self-image is very badly out of sorts with its reality. Where there should be heroism, there’s folly; where leadership, selfishness; competency, dysfunction; loyalty, deceit; trust, contempt; camaraderie, betrayal; and faithfulness, infidelity.
If anything, the discrepancy between reality and appearance was heightened in the passage that Gallagher read from his novel Youngblood, one line of which went, “We were what we pretended to be.” The scene portrayed Youngblood hero Lieutenant Jack Porter as he makes a “blood money” reparations payment to the family of an Iraqi noncombatant they have killed. Porter finds himself adrift in a moral wasteland that puts him at odds not just with Iraqi values and customs, but also with the expectations of his men and his chain-of-command. Not trusting himself or anyone else, but performing, so to speak, on stage with all eyes on him, Lieutenant Porter must depend upon his wits to decode the swirl of ambiguous clues to determine what he should do and how he should feel. Many literary roads lead back to Melville, and as Gallagher read of Porter’s confusion I was reminded of Benito Cereno’s Amasa Delano, the Yankee ship captain who boards a slave ship on which the slaves have rebelled and taken control. As the slaves force the slave ship captain to pretend he is still in charge, Delano struggles to understand that the appearance of normality that the slaves have constructed for him is a fraud, as his powers of discernment, undermined by arrogance and false assumptions, prove far too weak to help him figure out the complicated situation he finds himself in. Critics have noted many references to the pretend world of theater in Benito Cereno, and much the same occurs in Youngblood, where really-real reality is continuously destabilized by Gallagher’s references to the stories, lies, myths, delusions, pretense, and other means of distortion and manipulation that purport to describe it.
The three readings, taken together, portrayed the complicated and often perverse flux of identity and play of truth inherent to life in uniform, with the authors in superb control of their material. If the message and tone were ominous, perhaps I’m making too much of it. Novels are imagined projections about how things might be, after all, not official pronouncements about the way things are. In any case, though, the story-writing talent on display set a high bar for the next round of novels about military and war. Two audience members, neither veterans, but the authors of many novels between them, told me the reading was the best event they attended at AWP. I was glad to hear that, but not too surprised, because I was pretty sure beforehand that it, like AWP itself, was going to be good.
Many thanks to all who made AWP so enjoyable this year. In addition to everyone named above I’ll mention Lauren and Colin Halloran, Jerri Bell, Benjamin Busch, Adrian Bonenberger, Jay Moad, Brandon Lingle, Carole Florman, Susan Derwin and Steven Venz, Tom Helscher, Justin Hudnall, Sylvia Ankenman Bowersox, Olivia Kate Cerrone, Julian Zabalbeascoa and his wife Kate, Lisa Sanchez, David Chrisinger, Christopher Robinson, Danuta Hinc, Christopher Meeks, all friends, family members, and fellow travelers, everyone I’ve forgotten, and last but not least Roxana Robinson for hanging out with us for a while and then saying such nice things on social media.
O-Dark-Thirty is a literary journal and website associated with the Veterans Writing Project. The VWP is a non-profit based in Washington, DC that provides no-cost writing seminars and workshops for veterans, active and reserve service members, and military family members. Its founder is Ron Capps, an Afghanistan veteran who has published widely. He’s passionate about bringing as many veteran writers into print and publication as possible.
More power to him.
Volume 1 Number 2, the winter 2013 edition, of O-Dark-Thirty is out now. It features non-fiction, fiction, poetry, and art by and about veterans from World War II onward. Of special interest is Capps’ profile of William Zinsser, a U.S. Army sergeant in WWII and the author of On Writing Well, a best-selling and authoritative guide to writing non-fiction. Zinsser is 84 and still teaching at New York’s New University. Clearly, he has been inspirational to Capps, and why not?
Forums dedicated to war writing by vets are cool. Forums that bring together veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan with those of earlier wars are cooler still.