18 November 2015

How Sherpa Wrote a Book: 'Welcome to FOB Haiku'

First of all, before you call out the Poetry Samurai (they're like the Grammar Ninja, but more figurative), let me say that, yes, I'm aware of the difference between haiku and senryu. Haiku is a three-line, 5-7-5-syllable Japanese-inspired poetic form regarding a moment in nature. Senryu is similarly structured—three lines, 5-7-5—but focuses on human foibles.

I write about the military. That roots me firmly in the human terrain. (In the U.S. Army, we brief all other forms of nature under "enemy situation.") So, technically, it would be more correct to say that I write senryu. I still call it "haiku," however, because I also know my audience. You don't need an M.F.A. to know what "haiku" is. Even the @#$%ing Infantry knows haiku.

Back in the day, we learned haiku in grade school. We also learned Robert Frost in junior high, and Shakespearian sonnets in high school. Fast-forward to today, and my Fifth-grade warrior-princess and Third-grade video game technician are both accomplished haiku practitioners. They also learned it in school. "All this has happened before, and all this has happened again."

Because people of all ages and abilities recognize the haiku form, it makes it both accessible and (pun intended) versatile. The best haiku deliver a surprise, a shift in the action or focus. Sometimes, it can be enough to surprise readers with the fact that they just read a poem—or that they learned something in grade school that's still useful.

Given the restrictions of haiku, I personally enjoy the technical challenge of finding just the right words and punctuation, to make my poetic shot-group as tight as possible. As a writer, I don't aspire to lyrical greatness—I want my language to be understandable. I want to entertain someone, and maybe get them to think about things in a different way.

I write for my buddies who don't read poetry, after all—guys who sometimes barely read the instructions to complicated things. That doesn't mean they're not open to new ideas, however, or to seeing old things in new light.

For example, I'm pretty sure that a couple of them will find this haiku, written about emplacing an anti-personnel Claymore, to be both familiar and fresh:
Point *this* side at Them.
Spool yourself away from harm.
Click three times and ... Boom.
After a couple of decades away from the practice—during which I wrote daily newspaper and how-to magazine and Army lessons-learned articles—I started writing poetry again in 2011. I was at a free weekend writing workshop on the campus of the University of Iowa, run by Emma Rainey and the non-profit Writing My Way Back Home.

The prompt had something to do about capturing a moment of wonder. I had been stewing for months, having earlier that year embedded with my former Army colleagues deployed to Afghanistan, about an interaction I'd had with my former commander while downrange. I kept wondering what it meant. Rainey gave us a few minutes to write, mental brakes off, with some soothing music playing in the background. I started writing about my first meeting downrange with Ryder-6. Ten minutes later, I had the start of a book.

I didn't realize that then, of course. It took years to admit I might be a poet. In the meantime, I still considered myself a just-the-facts non-fiction guy. Over the years, my journey was shaped and influenced by meeting many fellow travelers, such as poet Jason Poudrier ("Red Fields") at the first (and later, the second) Military Experience & the Arts Symposium.

I also met poet Suzanne Rancourt there—she of the sharp wit and long knives—who led by example and humor, and later convinced me to take over for her as the poetry editor for the group's literary journal, "As You Were." (FREE PDF of the latest issue here!)

At the 2012 Sangria Summit for writers of military fiction and non-fiction, held in Denver, Colo., I learned about independent and electronic publishing as methods to overcome obstacles to market—barriers such as having too narrowly focused a niche. Little did I realize how much of that information would factor into my actions in 2015. More on that in a minute.

I learned to use poetry to dig at the moments and memories that didn't quite make sense, or that didn't immediately seem to support a larger narrative. Sometimes, in my explorations, I found myself at the bottom of an intellectual hole. Sometimes, I found myself at the crest of a hill. Perhaps most importantly, I learned to accept the risks of sharing my work with others.

I started to get poems published in veteran-friendly venues, such as "The Pass in Review," "Line of Advance," the Veterans Writing Project's "O-Dark-Thirty," and the annual anthology series "Proud to Be: Writing by American Warriors" from Southeast Missouri State University Press, Cape Girardeau, Mo.

Later, I began to get traction in non-military but Midwestern-themed outlets, such as the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library's "So It Goes" literary journal, and "Midwestern Gothic." Each of the above titles represents an editorial staff that is open to exploring ways to bridge the gap between civil and military experiences. We need more such bridge-builders.

Earlier this year, I found I had enough poems—published and unpublished—to produce a chapbook. I started to submit manuscripts to chapbook contests and publishers, recognizing that "light-hearted verse about the light infantry" is more of a rabbit- than a fox-hole—a niche within a niche within a niche. (I joke that I've finally discovered a vocation that pays less than newspaper journalist—that of "military poet.") Meanwhile, I added pages. The manuscript grew to book-length.

I began to realize that my poems, collected and curated, roughly reflected the narrative arc of my Army career, from Boot Camp to Bagram and back home again. The sum might be greater than its parts.

Having set a personal 2015 deadline for getting at least one major writing project off my desk, I published this month via Middle West Press LLC, Johnston, Iowa. This was the same entity that had, in 2011, endorsed my freelance media credentials when I applied to embed for a few weeks in Afghanistan. The result is a 90-page trade paperback, which is also available in various e-book formats, including the Amazon Kindle, and others via Smashwords.

The cover design of "Welcome to FOB Haiku" mimics the hardcopy Army doctrine and technical manuals we once shlepped to the field by the truckload: Matte finish. Subdued colors. Comforting and camouflaged. Theoretically fits in a cargo pocket, just like the brigade TACSOP.

The cover image is a pencil drawing by Aaron Provost, the original of which I proudly display in my undisclosed writing location. Long-time readers of the Red Bull Rising blog may remember my crush on the Mine-Resistant, Ambush-Protected ("M-RAP") trucks that epitomized so much of our country's thinking and tactics during Operation Enduring Freedom. I'm pleased to put that love on display. Even wrote a sonnet about it.

I continue to write haiku, while also working on my non-fiction muscles. A couple of pals from the Military Writers Guild and I are mutually resolved to make 2016 the year of non-fiction. On the Chinese Zodiac, it's also the year of the Monkey. That seems appropriate.

So stay tuned. And thanks for your continued readership. As always, I look forward to your questions, comments, insights, and now ... reader reviews?

Like the Red Bull says: "Attack! Attack! Attack!"


You can buy "Welcome to FOB Haiku: War Poems from Inside the Wire" in print here and here. ($9.99 U.S.)

You can buy the e-book on Kindle here, or in a variety of e-book formats via Smashwords here. ($5.99 U.S.) More vendors to be listed soon!

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