28 September 2018

Notes from a War, Literature & the Arts Conference

Author, actor, and former U.S. Marine Benjamin Busch signs a copy of his 2012 memoir "Dust to Dust" at the 2018 War, Literature & the Arts conference conducted September 20 and 21 at the U.S. Air Force Academy. Photo: Jesse Goolsby
Editor's note: This blog post has been cross-posted from The Aiming Circle, where we cover news and tips regarding military-themed writing.

More than 600 academics, students, creators, and others attended the 2018 War, Literature & the Arts conference September 20 and 21 on the campus of the U.S. Air Force Academy, Colorado Springs, Colo. This year's event coincided with the 30th anniversary of the War, Literature & the Arts Journal, an annual multidisciplinary publication curated by the institution's English faculty, students, and alumni.

While an annual lecture series regularly brings literary talent to campus, the full conference tends to appear with the regularity of Brigadoon. The last such conference, for example, was apparently conducted in 2010.

The schedule was jam-packed, with three keynote speakers, and four seminar and performance blocks each day. (Two in the morning, and two in the afternoon.) Hosted in the over-21 cadet lounge, a social hour with cash bar was conducted Thursday afternoon. Lunches were "on the economy"—the cadet student union features a small food court, with sandwich, salad, and pizza options.

While it was impossible to do and see everything and everyone, I hope to illustrate the depth and breadth of the event by re-posting here some observations from my notebook and Twitter account:

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Julie Saffel, presenting on “Milblogs & Blooks”: “The first wave of war writing is often the most glutinous ...” (Also: author Colby Buzzell is “the Blogfather.”) Later told her my Red Bull Rising blog was probably a “Third Wave” mil-blog. Not a first-adopter, but not one of the last, either.

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Melissa Parrish, presenting on the work of Sebastian Junger (including "War"): “Junger usefully blurs the line between participant & spectator [slipping between “we” & “I”]—combatant & non-combatant—to usefully interrogate civil-military interactions.”

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One personal highlight of the conference: Getting a chance to use Q&A time to thank USAF Vietnam War veteran Dr. Dean F. Echenberg for including the works of 21st century soldier-poets (including my own) in his collection, which he recently donated to Harry Ransom Center! Here's a list of such 21st century war poetry.

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Much to my shock, Echenberg's fellow panelist, Lisa Silvestri of Gonzaga University's "Telling War" project, then reflected some love back, telling the audience her students really enjoyed my book! ("Welcome to FOB Haiku: War Stories from Inside the Wire.") That exemplified the vibe at the conference–lots of inspiring, affirming energy!

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More quotes from the WLA conference: Oliver Jones on “Weaponized Poetics: The Avant-Gardes of the Revolution in Military Affairs": “Design Thinking has become so indoctrinated [in mil-planning], it seems now to be doing the very things that it was intended to disrupt.”

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Not going to share all the WLA18 barroom hilarity & wisdom, but I still think this quote from Colin D. Halloran deserves its own T-shirt: “Whenever I feel down, I read ‘Ozymandias.’” Buy his books here and here.

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Lightning-bolt insight that came to me via Toby Herzog’s WLA18 talk, “The Thing He Carried & the Story He Told”: Tim O’Brien was an Radio-Telephone Operator "R.T.O.")—a battalion radio guy, who helped maintain commo logs. A privileged position of blended participation/observation within an organization!

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Speaking of Tim O’Brien at WLA18, Rolf Yngve took us on wonderfully nuanced journey, connecting the Magical Realism of O’Brien’s “Going After Cacciato” with the presenter’s real-world work of helping homeless veterans write resum├ęs.

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Elsewhere, in the same presentation regarding “Maps, Charts, Cartography, and Memory in the Battlespace of Fiction, Poetry & Memoir” WLA18 , Elizabeth T. Gray Jr. and Mark D. Larabee each explored how graphical & textual descriptions of terrain both affect & effect memory ...

... which led me to remember: In U.S. Army operations orders, we brief weather and terrain under “Situation, Enemy.” At some level, that almost suggests that we grant the terrain agency. That “even the ground is out to get us.”

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Bonus from Mark D. Larabee’s talk: World War I was a “Golden Age of Cartography,” with many technologies coming together: trigonometric survey, multicolor lithography, etc. British teams produced 34+ million maps—365,000 per (linear?) battlefront mile!

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Bonus from poet Elizabeth T. Gray Jr.: A quadranted taxonomy of terrain as either “real”/“imaginary” (think “Ypres” vs. “Mordor”) and “background”/“agented” (bet the latter includes Fangom Forest?). She also mentioned how some Tibetan Buddhists believe that evil spirits can inhabit the ground. Based on that, I later shared with her this poem: "leaving empty."

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More Sherpa notes and personal high points from WLA18. Discovering a mutual interest in serious regard for military humor apparent in Lydia Wilkes‘ “Laughing about War with [David Abrams'] ‘Fobbit’”!

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Lydia Wilkes quoted U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley in her WLA18 presentation on military humor: “It's not ‘Forever War.’ It’s ‘Forever Train-and-Advise.’” I was reminded of Sherpatude No. 26: "Humor is a combat multiplier …"

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Sherpa’s takeaway from Lt. Gen. (USAF, Ret.) Christopher Miller’s (U.S. Air Force Academy Class of 1980) WLA18 talk “Yesterday at War with Tomorrow: Language as a Strategic Variable”: As a military (and society?), we need to reconcile with “strategic value” as greater or equal to “battlefield valor.”

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Sherpa’s takeaway from David Eisler's WLA18 talk “Influence of the Shift to an All-Volunteer Force on American War Fiction”: As quantifiably compared to Vietnam War novels, OIF/OEF novels may be increasingly generated by non-veterans!

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Sherpa’s takeaway from Caleb Cage‘s WLA18 talk “The All-Volunteer Force and the Civil-Military Divide”: There are 4 binary “master narratives” at play in every OIF/OEF story/debate:
1. “War of Choice”
2. “The Prez is a Cowboy”
3. “What’s Phase 4?”/“No Plan”
4. “The Surge”
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Sherpa’s takeaway from combat medic (& future physician assistant) John Howell Jr.’s WLA18 talk “Building Resilience through a [pre-deployment!] Literature-based Discussion Program”: Try talking about movies, rather than books! Also: “Logan” (2017) may resonate with troops.

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A full conference schedule is available as a PDF here.

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08 August 2018

Red Bull Poet Wins Iowa State Lit-Journal Award

Editors of "Flyway: The Journal of Writing & Environment" have announced that poet Randy Brown is the winner of their 2018 "Untold Stories" contest. The annual competition focuses on amplifying voices from marginalized populations.

This year's competition called for poetry, creative non-fiction, fiction, and hybrid forms produced by past and present military service members and family. Brown receives a prize of $250 for two new poems, "Better Hooches and Gardens" and "a chaplain's assistant writes haiku."

A former magazine editor and 20-year retired veteran of the Iowa Army National Guard, Brown embedded as civilian media with his former unit in Afghanistan, May-June 2011. He is author of the 2015 poetry collection "Welcome to FOB Haiku: War Poems from Inside the Wire."

Writer and U.S. Navy veteran Travis Klempan received an honorable mention for his short story "No Mere Storm."

You can read Brown's winning poems here, and more of his poetry work here. You can also access the Flyway Journal via Twitter here and Facebook here.

Based at Iowa State UniversityAmes, Iowa, Flyway's mission is to "explore the many complicated facets of the word 'environment'—whether rural, urban, or suburban; whether built or wild—and all its social and political implications."

"Contests like ['Untold Stories'] and our 'Notes from the Field' contest in December-January help us find new voices that keep our journal filled with interesting and diverse stories, while defraying some of the costs that come with running a non-profit literary journal," the editors write in their announcement e-mail. "[…] The editorial staff was overwhelmed with the breadth and quality of this year's submissions and enjoyed reading contributions from each author."

This year, the final judge for the "Untold Stories" effort was poet, memoirist, and anthologist Brian Turner, author of Here, Bullet; Phantom Noise; and My Life as a Foreign Country. The director of the low-residency MFA program at Sierra Nevada College, Turner also recently released an album of ambient music and poetry as part of the Interplanetary Acoustic Team.

06 June 2018

Notes from a Civil-Military Writing Conference

Duluth-based author and U.S. Air Force veteran Eric Chandler signs a book after a Q&A discussion at the Spirit of the North Theater, Duluth, Minn., June 2.  The free public event was part of a weekend "Bridging the Gap" workshop for military veterans, families, and others who are exploring military topics and themes in their writing. Photo by Andria Williams.
Waves crashed against black rocks on a cold and blustery weekend in Duluth, Minn., while a small group of military writers remained cozy and dry in the Fitger's Brewery complex, located along the Lake Superior shore. More than 12 military family and veterans from Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Iowa participated in a 2-day workshop last weekend, June 2-3, 2018, exchanging ideas and insights on how to explore stories of change and resilience.

The "Bridging the Gap" workshop was made possible through a grant from the Arrowhead Regional Arts Council, thanks to legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund. Organizer Eric Chander, a Duluth-based author, commercial pilot, and U.S. Air Force veteran, says the inspiration for the event came from a 2016 query from colleagues at Lake Superior Writers.

"There are various regional efforts that regularly bring writers of memoir, poetry, and fiction together," Chandler says. "Given that we've been nearly two decades at war, why wouldn't there be a resource to help people document and discuss military themes?"

Participants included women and men who are veterans of the U.S. Navy, Air Force, Army, and Marines, as well as those who have had friends, family, and co-workers in uniformed service. One woman had previously served in a U.S. Navy Amphibious Construction Battalion—the "Seabees." Another participant described carving time for writing despite taking care of her five children, while the family awaits the return of her husband, who is currently deployed with a Duluth-based Air National Guard unit. Yet another woman veteran told stories of working as a maintainer on U.S. Air Force F-4 "Phantom II" fighters and B-1 "Lancer" bombers.

In short, the stories told were far from the testosterone- and adrenalin-fueled military stereotypes that are so often depicted in popular media. One writer noted she was specifically motivated by the "bridging the gap" theme, not only in terms of civil-military frameworks, but in bringing together other communities, audiences, and "tribes."

In contrast to the foggy and rainy weather outside, the workshop environment was quietly electric. Throughout the weekend, the group took full advantage of the Fitger's Brewery complex—a space that includes conference, hotel, catering, performance, and boutique shopping. Breakfasts and lunches were catered on-site, and discussions of writing and publishing techniques weaved seamlessly between formal classes and lunchtime conversations. Experiences of those present ranged from those who were just starting to explore writing—or who were interested in learning about new forms of writing—to those who were already seeking publication in journals, anthologies, and other venues.

In a free public event conducted in Fitger's Spirit of the North Theatre on Saturday evening, June 2, four authors of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry read selections from their works, and engaged audience questions about bridging gaps in empathy and understanding that seem to occur between civil and military communities.

Featured were authors Mary L. Doyle ("The Master Sergeant Lauren Harper" mystery series and others) and Andria Williams ("The Longest Night"), as well as workshop instructors David Chrisinger ("See Me for Who I Am") and Randy Brown ("Welcome to FOB Haiku: War Poems from Inside the Wire.")

"I've seen all sorts of workshop models—everything from 1-day one-shots, to weekly or monthly meetings, to 5-day national conferences," says Brown. "I can honestly say that the inaugural 'Bridging the Gap' event hit a sweet spot—it provided real 'bang for the buck,' with a lot of information and networking in a short period of time. I saw even seasoned practitioners walk away with new tools to try out, and new writers who were charged up and empowered to get started on their own stories. I'd do it again in a heartbeat!"