01 April 2014

Notes from the 2014 Great Plains Writers' Conference

The 2014 Great Plains Writers' Conference featured a discussion among
civil-military stakeholders on the campus of South Dakota State University. Photo: GPWC.
For three days, last week's 38th Annual Great Plains Writers' Conference in Brookings, S.D. delivered inspiring conversations around the theme of "Coming Home: War, Healing, and American Culture." The event took place on the campus of South Dakota State University.

The event was scheduled from Sunday evening, March 23 to Tuesday evening, March 25. Daytime sessions allowed students and faculty to take full advantage of visiting regional and national experts, and to present their own research and writing to the public. Session formats included panel discussions, authorial readings and how-tos, historical overviews, and more. Evenings featured longer-form readings by visiting authors. Via a blog, Facebook and Twitter, organizers posted insights and updates on-line.

My own notebook is full of takeaway tips and memorable moments:

Francis Whitebird, a Vietnam Veteran and 
son of Code Talker Noah Whitebird,
shows off pins that represent the wars
in which his family has fought. The top one
represents the Indian Wars, the last 
one Afghanistan and Iraq. Caption and photo 
Vietnam War veteran Francis Whitebird and his sons Colin and Brandon, both veterans of the Iraq War, talked about the warrior tradition in their immediate family, and in the Rosebud Sioux tribe. The elder Whitebird talked of how his community would gather and celebrate departing soldiers. "They would sing them off, and then, they would feed everybody," he said. (The practice reminded me of National Guard send-off and homecoming ceremonies.)

Upon their return from war, veterans would be honored by seating them in groups, according to the conflicts in which they served. "In Lakota Country, we have songs about every war, and we had war songs about individuals. My aunt had one of them made up for me." Returning warriors could also take part in "centering" ceremonies, which would bring peace to themselves.

His sons now participate in tribal events as warriors themselves, connecting them to a larger history and culture. Said Connor, "Dad used to wake us up by singing Army Infantry cadences. How you grow up makes a difference. We had chores before school. We made our beds with hospital corners."

"After I got shot in the chest, I decided to go back [to Iraq.]," he continued. "It was a little bit of pride, but I was also thinking about the people who went before me."


It was through a reading by Katey Schultz, author of "Flashes of War," that I came to understand the potential poetic connections of flash fiction and prose-poetry. Flash fiction is described as single-perspective stories that range in approximate length from 250 to 750 words. In her short fiction, Schultz, who has no direct connection to military service, has distilled words and observations into rounds that ring true and on target. The result is part poetry, part story-telling.

Schultz, by the way, also described her technique of generating story prompts from photos and other media. Check out a YouTube video here, which features some of the images she used as cues for short fiction.


GPWC Twitter feed during Charlie Sherpa's presentation on
"Finding and Creating Opportunities in Writing about Military Life."
Founder of the non-profit Veterans Writing Project, Washington, D.C., Ron Capps noted that his organization welcomes participation by military family members, as well as current and past military service members. "Working with Special Forces, we had a saying: 'One is none,'" he said. "There always has to be a back-up. There always has to be a wingman. When you get out, particularly if you're in the National Guard or reserves, your family becomes your wingman."


Rosalie Owens, an on-line course designer and creative-writing instructor for American Military University, noted that her class participants—many of whom currently serve in uniform overseas—recently asked that military ranks be dropped from class discussions. The implied hierarchies were getting in the way of good discussions and communications.


One particularly notable panel brought together campus veterans coordinators, university officials and faculty, and military-science instructors. In that session, presenters considered questions such as:
  • How could faculty incorporate military professional development reading lists (here's an example) into their curricula?
  • How could military cadet and/or student-veterans use their skills and experiences to document South Dakota veterans' experiences, through writing or other media?

In one evening's event, David Abrams ("Fobbit") and Patrick Hicks ("The Commandant of Lubizec") explored the surprisingly rich common ground between their respective works. Abrams' "Fobbit" (2012) is an Iraq War satire in the spirit and tone of Joseph Heller's novel "Catch 22" (1961).

Hicks' just-released historical novel is a dark and lyrical story of World War II extermination camps.

In short, one would have a hard time imagining two war-themed works more dissimilar than the Fobbit and the Commandant. The connection and comparison suggested by moderator Steven Wingate, however, was in each author's wrestling with the "euphemisms and engines of war." It was one of those magic moments that could only take place at a conference such as this, with creative and thoughtful people sitting face to face, exchanging ideas and insights.


In the conference's culminating evening event, Ron Capps warmed up the crowd gathered for poet Brian Turner (2005's "Here, Bullet" and 2010's "Phantom Noise"). With self-deprecating humor, Capps said he felt his role was similar to that of George Thorogood, who opened for The Rolling Stones in the 1980s. Capps read selections from his upcoming memoir "Seriously Not All Right: Five Wars in Ten Years."

When Turner took the stage, he asked for the house lights to be brought up in the black-box space, creating an opportunity for more conversation. The poetry reading that followed was less rock concert, and more "MTV Unplugged"—alternating blasts of word-music with thought-provoking commentary. "How many have we lost in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan," he asked during one interlude. "Now, what happens if I change the way I say that: How many have we lost in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?" The slight change in emphasis unlocked whole new layers of meaning.


Disclosure: As a presenter myself at this year's event, my lodging and some land travel was underwritten by the 2014 Great Plains Writers' Conference. The next event is scheduled for March 22-24, 2015, and will explore literary themes and intersections with agriculture, ecology, environmental design, architecture, and more.

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