30 July 2014

Mil-Poetry Review: 'Bangalore' by Kerry James Evans

'Bangalore' by Kerry James Evans

In addition to writing some military-themed poetry of my own (here and there), I've recently begun buying and borrowing whole collections of the stuff. The practice is similar, I suppose, to my consumption of comic books. Comics are short, fun to read, but often wrestle provocatively with matters of mythologies, both personal and political.

Consuming poetry is similarly easy and quick, but it also sticks to your ribs.

Poetry is also forgiving. I'm not an expert reader, and you don't have to be, either. To borrow part of a quote from Justice Learned Hand, poetry is kind of like obscenity—I know it when I see it. I like poetry that is accessible, insightful, sometimes humorous in tone. I like to learn something from a poem: new ways of looking at things or nature or people, and new words or images to describe them all.

I discovered Kerry James Evans' 2013 collection of poetry, "Bangalore," via David Abrams' blog "The Quivering Pen." Abrams is an Army veteran himself, and author of the 2012 satirical novel "Fobbit."

Evans' writing is full of junkyards, abusive parents, and poverty. In addition to his academic credentials, Evans was a National Guard soldier for six years, during which he trained as a combat engineer and deployed stateside during Operation Noble Eagle. That he was a citizen-soldier who did not "go to war" overseas, while friends and family did, makes for a rich and rocky emotional landscape for Evans to explore. It also gives him a boot in both camps, as both citizen and soldier.

A bangalore torpedo—from which the collection takes its title—is an explosive device designed to quickly clear a footpath through barbed wire, land mines, and other battlefield obstacles. Notably, it is in a poem titled "Operation Noble Eagle" in which Evans mentions such a weapon. In it, he nods toward war stories of a different sort:
[...] Do not think I have not buried my fair share
of Hummers up to the doors in mud.

I bulldozed mountains to mounds
stuffed C-4 in a picket, secured

makeshift bangalore with duct tape;
do not think that in training I did not blow

a Missouri forest to an Afghanistan cave.
More often than not, I miss basic training,

a private with Tourette's blaspheming
drill sergeants [...]
I recognize myself in that passage, and many of my buddies as well.

Of the 30-something poems here, more than a third seem to involve or evoke military terms or experiences. Sometimes, that's evident in the title of a work: The poem "Blanket Party" is one such example, a slang term involving violent acts of peer pressure conducted in military barracks. "Volcano" is another—a name for a type of artillery-delivered munition. In the latter poem, Evans probes his own experiences to interrogate the realities of a war on television:
[...] I've seem the different phases of training—crawl,
walk, run—and I've see the failure of battalions

at each phase. I've cleared a path, myself,
and marked, with flags, the safe zone;

and I've walked through such a minefield.
I've witnessed the Volcano, a machine, scatter

960 antitank mines
over one kilometer of sand, but never have I

seen the battle, or the desert, or those mines, or TOC
calling a precision-bombing air strike across the line.

I've dismantled many mines, winnowed Russian mines
from French mines, but I've never seen the mines

on television; I've known soldiers who have seen
those mines; soldiers caught under fire, blasting cap

clenched in the mouth, jaw gone missing;
and that must be what it means to see the desert; [...]
It is the poem "For the Popped Collar" that I found most resonant, however. In it, Evans connects the cavalry sport of polo to preppy fashion, while probing the minefields of class war and authenticity as a veteran:
[...] I'm wearing at this VFW hall on a Friday
night, a polo with a popped color, stiff
with starch, a tuxedo-folded tip, with me
failing to mention the use of a popping a collar.

It keeps the sun off my neck, I tell my beer.
But now I'm explaining fashion/style?
to the bartender, who is the son of a veteran.
We explore the structures of class [...]
The poem ends as Evans' conversation with the bartender is interrupted, or, at least, put on pause. Evans' deployed father is attempting to connect a phone call from an overseas hilltop:
[...] Then I see
my father, camouflaged collar weighed down
by a maple leaf. He's trying to call from Kosovo.
He's found the highest mountain. He's looking

down at the village. He sounds out the words
for village—Ovo sehlo—but this is a language
he keeps failing to pronounce. My cell phone
is ringing in his ear, and he's standing

in the Balkans, waiting for me to pick up.
He's leaving my name to the wind.
There are, obviously, a lot of moving parts to such a poem. To Evans' credit, he successfully wires everything together just right, before he lights the fuze. Just like the Army taught him.

For a Q&A style interview with Kerry James Evans, check out this New York Times arts blog post.

More of his poetry can be read at Narrative magazine here (free log-in may be required).

23 July 2014

Another 100K Views, and a Sitrep on Mil-blogging Ops

The Red Bull Rising blogodometer recently turned over another 100,000 views, and, while I don't normally celebrate such arbitrary milestones, it seems like a good opportunity to take a breather—and to reflect on the current state of the greater mil-blogosphere.

Here's the quick historical context: Early in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, "war-blogs" (later "mil-blogs") started as an exercise in citizen journalism for people in uniform, enabled by the popular technology of the time. Mil-blogs offered readers first-person perspectives on life in the military, whether on the front lines or the home front. As the trend matured, many blogs were collected into anthologies or reworked into books. After troops returned or retired from service, many blogs evolved into commentary on current events.

Many have argued that the popularity of blogging—and mil-blogging in particular—has declined in recent years. There is, admittedly, some evidence supporting such conclusions. For example, the last official Milblogging.com conference of bloggers was conducted in 2012, although some early practitioners still gather for informal reunions. Milblogging.com is owned by Military.com, which itself is part of Monster.com. Another Military.com holding, SpouseBUZZ, appears to be thriving in its service to military families.

More recently, the Milblogging.com index of military blogs has gone silent, and the founder's Twitter feed is similarly quiet.

Finally, as noted earlier this month, Doonesbury's "The Sandbox" mil-blog digest has gone into "archive" status, and is no longer updating with new content. Perhaps the reports of mil-blogging's demise are not unexaggerated?

In a blog-post titled "A Good Blog is Hard to Find: War Lit on the Web," Army officer and educator Peter Molin offers some great suggestions regarding mil-blogs focused on writing and creating art about war. Here's his Situation paragraph:
[I]n the years since [Colby] Buzzell’s My War and [Matt] Gallagher’s Kaboom galvanized Internet reading audiences the blog format’s luster has fizzled a bit and the Internet has changed structurally. In the face of competition from faster-moving, quicker-hitting social media forms such as Twitter and Facebook, it’s hard not for blogs to smell a little musty. As big money has upped the standards for web-based mass media and created plenty of outlets for the most distinctive voices, personal websites can seem quaint or a little bland. Still, they persist, reflecting and shaping popular opinion in a quieter, but still insistent vein.
Regarding war-lit, then, it may be a case of "the blog is dead, long live the blog!" Make sure to check out Molin's recommendations. (Disclosures: Molin explicitly mentions the Red Bull Rising blog in this post; and Molin's "Time Now" blog has long been featured in my own blog-roll, at right.)

As chronicled elsewhere, I started writing blog when I was preparing myself and my family for a deployment to Afghanistan. Part of my job in uniform involved fluency in blogging, social media, and other technological tools, and I decided to learn by doing. I started writing the Red Bull Rising blog in December 2009, but under a pseudonym, in order to avoid confusing my day job and my personal time.

In other words, I only started mil-blogging long after mil-blogging was cool. It was already past its peak. But it's not dead yet.

At writing and technology conferences, I've argued that "blogging" isn't necessarily a form of writing, any more than "newspapering." Rather, publishing a regular, first-person dispatch—call it an "online journal" if you will—continues to be a vital form of journalism, whether communicated via newsprint, Blogger, Facebook, Twitter, or even Pinterest. With other practitioners, I've taken to referring to the enterprise as "on-line journaling," with some success.

On-line journaling isn't dead.

Last year, Time magazine discontinued Mark Thompson's "Battleland," but the Washington Post recently launched "The Checkpoint." And the New York Times' "At War" blog continues to publish, despite the fact that Deputy National Editor James Dau has moved on to additional duties.

There's also been a recent boomlet of blogs focusing on military culture, policy, and analysis, often featuring a set of contributors. At Foreign Policy magazine, Tom Ricks' long-established "The Best Defense" blog is one of the more inclusive in terms of guest-editorial content, although the magazine's addition of a paywall seems to have decreased some of the utility of the free-wheeling comments section.

By, through, and with the younger turks, however, are venues such as "War on the Rocks" and "War Council Blog." A couple of others, "The Bridge" and "Point of Decision," notably take advantage of the Medium.com platform and format. All are blogs of curated and contributed editorial content, what Wikipedia labels as "social journalism."

Whatever you call it, and whatever your interest—politics, policy, literature, or the latest news—it seems that the practice of on-line journaling about the military is alive and well.

The mil-blog is dead! Long live the mil-blog! And, most of all, keep reading!

16 July 2014

Lawton, Okla. is Site of 2015 Military and Arts Event

The Richmond, Ky.-based non-profit Military Experience & the Arts (M.E.A.) recently announced plans for a May 14-17, 2015 symposium of military veterans, advocates, arts practitioners, and others interested in exploring healing, history, and communication through the expressive arts. The event will take place on the campus of Cameron University, Lawton, Okla.

The organization's inaugural 3-day event, conducted July 2012 in Kentucky, comprised workshops, demonstrations, and performances by an engaged and diverse group of veterans, advocates, and artists.

Past "Red Bull Rising" blog coverage of the MEA organization and its related literary journals is collected here. A blog post reflecting on the 2012 event is here.

The MEA is currently seeking corporate and organizational sponsors for the 2015 event, as well as potential workshop presenters and facilitators. The group is also seeking volunteers to assist with activities at the event.

Starting Aug. 15, military veterans and spouses can register for a non-refundable $20 fee. Information about meals, lodging, and other accommodations is still pending.

In related news, the MEA has recently reopened submissions to its family of literary journals. Writers are encouraged to submit original fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and visual art through the organization's new Submittable portal. Simultaneous and previously published submissions are not accepted.

One caveat: Writers considering submission are strongly encouraged to review the organization's copyright and privacy statements. Because of previous licensing relationship, for example, submissions published in The Journal of Military Experience remain the intellectual property of Eastern Kentucky University following publication.