01 April 2015

For the Poet-Sherpa, April is the Coolest Month

April, in addition to being both cruel and full of showers, is National Poetry Month.

When I started the Red Bull Rising blog in late 2009, a more-established mil-blogger contacted me, gave me some blogging tips, and also shared that she was also a journalist by day, and also a poet. Then serving as a citizen-soldier, I'm not sure which part of that mix sounded more alien to me at the time. Blogger? Journalist? Poet?

Now, however, I find myself routinely pointing people toward opportunities to document, explore, illuminate their military experiences through expressive arts. And that includes poetry, as well as fiction and non-fiction writing. I'm also a fan of visual, theatrical, and performing arts, although I'm not usually a direct participant.

Evoking Sherpatude No. 26 ("Humor is a combat multiplier …"), most of my poetry goes for the joke, rather than the jugular. I write goofy haiku. I write light verse about the light infantry.

I don't consider myself a "war poet," any sooner than I'd call myself a "combat correspondent" for having once briefly travelled to Afghanistan. And the term "warrior-poet" suggests someone like actor George C. Scott's stanza-spouting character in the movie "Patton" (1968):
As if through a glass, and darkly
The age-old strife I see —
Where I fought in many guises, many names —
but always me.

"Do you know who the poet was?" [George S. Patton asks Omar Bradley]

On a good day, I might call myself a "soldier-poet." Or a "mil-poet."

And, for me, April 2015 is full of good days.

In November 2011, during a "Writing My Way Back Home" veterans writing workshop in Iowa City, Iowa, facilitator Emma Rainey offered a prompt following a session that featured readings of poems written from conflicts ranging from World War II to the Iraq War. While I've forgotten what the prompt was exactly, I haven't forgotten that a poem sprang to my notebook nearly fully formed. It had been generated by a fragment of memory, a half-anecdote of something that had happened upon my arrival as a civilian reporter to Afghanistan. My travel was there was relatively fresh—I'd embedded with my former military unit in May-June 2011. I hadn't yet figured out what this particular story meant, and it wasn't big enough for a even a blog-post. It generated a poem, however. And no one was more surprised about that than I.

More on that poem in a minute.

As I've mentioned elsewhere, 2014 was an extremely productive year for me, in terms of writing and publishing. It just wasn't in ways that I'd have been able to predict back in 2009. Editors at a number of literary journals and publications chose to publish my work. I am humbled and grateful and thrilled.

Recently, for example, the Veterans Writing Project's literary journal "O-Dark-Thirty" published a poem that I'd originally written for a love-themed book store poetry contest in 2014. Earlier, I'd become infatuated with a library find: "77 Love Sonnets" penned by Garrison Keillor.

If you live in Minnesota—a.k.a. 34th Inf. "Red Bull" Division territory—you know Keillor's work on the radio staple "Prairie Home Companion." Also, his daily poetic reflections on the nationally syndicated "Writers Almanac." (True-believer Red Bull Rising readers might even remember my serendipitiously encountering the latter while visiting Iowa's 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 34th Inf. Div. at Camp Shelby, Minn. in 2010.)

So, when Keillor's own Common Good Books, St. Paul, Minn., announced a 2014 contest for love poems—to be directed at nearly any person, place, or thing—I was inspired to write about the time Uncle Sam took away troops' World War II-era M1 helmets ("steel pots"), and gave us the heavy, Kevlar helmets that were part of the "Personnel Armor System for Ground Troops" (PSAGT, pronounced "paz-get"). The new "K-pot" headgear had some decided advantages. For example, they could actually stop a bullet. But they lacked some of the utilities of their predecessors—like being to cook, bathe, and carry spent brass in them. They also gave me headaches.
Your greater weight now floats on donut foam,
and creases lines across my forehead bared—
with leathered sweatband held in place like Rome
once clipped a crown of thorns, my skull is snared.
My poem didn't win, but, in contest notes, my "love sonnet to a new K-pot" was quoted by Keillor himself:
But, fragile shell that’s spun from Kevlar thread,
you have one purpose: Save my pounding head.
You can now read the whole work in its entirety (although some language may not be suitable for work) here. Enjoy!

April 2015 will also see the publication of my military-themed poetry in Midwestern Gothic No. 17. (Available in print or Amazon Kindle here.) The work fuses experiences of growing up listening to farm reports on the early morning radio; catching up on community happenings at a small town diner; and reading perennial news items about the start of "fighting seasons" downrange in Afghanistan. In war, baseball, and farming, hope springs eternal.

And, finally, about that poem that I'd originally penned in that 2011 weekend writing workshop: It will soon see "print" via my favorite military science-fiction writer and artist Howard Tayler. The creator of "Schlock Mercenary" and the 70 Maxims of Maximally Effective Mercenaries promises to release "The Unofficial Anecdotal History of Challenge Coins" as a free PDF on or before April 14! (Per comments section here.)

The anthology was a bonus project from Tayler's 2013 use of Kickstarter to crowd-fund "Schlock" challenge coins. He's about to launch another Kickstarter project—this one for a role playing game—but his personal code of ethics won't let him move on until all aspects of his earlier project are final. Rather than submit a challenge coin anecdote, I sent a poem.

As always, I'll keep you posted as to when it hits the Internet. And yet more of my work is forthcoming this summer and fall: the Water Wood Press war poetry anthology "No, Achilles"; the Corn Belt Almanac from The Head & The Hands Press; and the U.S. Air Force Academy's literary journal "War, Literature and the Arts," to name just a few!

Will all this poetry and nonsense change the war or change the world? Probably not. But it's fun, and I'm learning new things. And maybe, I'll be able to teach a thing or two as well.

Happy National Poetry Month! The Red Bull says: "Attack! Attack! Attack!"

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