27 April 2016

Iowa Review's Final Veterans-Lit Contest Opens May 1

Jeff Sharlet during service in Vietnam
The submissions window for a third and reportedly final Jeff Sharlet Memorial Award for Veterans writing contest opens Sun., May 1, 2016 and closes June 15. The contest is open to any service member or veteran writing in any genre, about any subject matter. (Current students, faculty, or staff of the University of Iowa, however, are not eligible to enter the contest.)

The contest is hosted by The Iowa Review and made possible by the family of Jeff Sharlet (1942–1969), a Vietnam veteran and anti-war writer and activist. The 2016 contest is underwritten by an Art Works Grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

In past iterations of the contest, entry fee has been $15, with a limited number of fee-waivers available for entrants with financial need. Current website information regarding the 2016 contest, however, does not mention entry fees.

Prizes may also have changed: This year, first place is $1,000 plus publication in the Spring 2017 issue of The Iowa Review. Second place is $750. Finally, three runners-up will receive $500 each.

Entrants should submit an original double-spaced manuscript in any genre (poetry, fiction, creative non-fiction) of up to 20 pages. Simultaneous submissions are acceptable, although the editors request timely notification if the work is later accepted elsewhere.

Submissions may be made either on-line or via postal mail. Full contest rules and details here.

A Submittable page for on-line submissions is here.

The contest and publication have previously been mentioned on the Red Bull Rising blog here and here.

Finalists will be selected by the editors of The Iowa Review. A winner will be selected by the guest judge. This year's guest judge is Phil Klay (rhymes with "fly"), a former U.S. Marine officer and recipient of the National Book Award for fiction in 2014.

A Facebook page for The Iowa Review is here.

20 April 2016

Women Veterans are Focus of New 'O-Dark-Thirty'

COVER: "Twoface," photo by
U.S. Marine veteran Magdalena Green
Always a good source for intelligence and trends in today's military writing, editors of the literary journal "O-Dark-Thirty" focused on the contributions of women veterans in their Winter 2016 issue.

The resulting 180-page issue surveys new non-fiction, fiction, poetry, and interviews written by women veterans. The print edition is available for a $40 yearly subscription, or $12 single-copy. The journal, published quarterly by the Washington, D.C.-based non-profit Veterans Writing Project, is also available to read FREE on-line as a PDF here.

In her introduction to the issue, Managing Editor Jerri Bell writes:
We weren't sure what kind of submissions we'd get, or how many. Since we began publishing, we'd only received a few submissions from women veterans. I could count then my digits and have a couple of toes left over. But the response was overwhelming. Not only did we have several times the usual number of submissions to consider, the variety and quality were unusually high. We decided to accept as many pieces as we could possibly print and run online in the month of February, and we still had to decline a great deal of excellent work.
Despite the exclusive theme, the journal delivers its usual high quality and wide variety of voices. Stand-outs are by personal preference—readers will no doubt find one or two particularly resonant, but I will leave that selection to each reader's own tastes. I will, however, share a couple that have stuck with me. One favorite, for example, is the poetry of Anna Weaver. A former U.S. Army parachute rigger, Weaver pulls the cord on some particularly punchy lines in "jokes with civilians":
[…] Our stories have sound effects—engine, rotor, shockwave,
unfolding canopy,
the soft exhale before firing.

Our memories have cadence and caliber, sector and arc,
drill and ceremony.
We cannot sanitize or explain.

Our jargon has no synonyms. Our alphabet
isn't made of letters. There is no signal
to tell you when it's safe to laugh. […]
In her non-fiction story "Wind and Waves," former U.S. Coast Guard officer and diver Tenley Lozano bookends a bracing story of sea duty aboard the sailing barque Eagle with quiet reflections of time spent hiking the Pacific Crest Trail with her husky mix, Elu. Under the surface lies more than a reflection on waves and hills, however. Instead, Lozano expertly tethers her tale to symbolism and tradition and technical details, providing readers not only with scenes, but lessons-learned. For example, she writes regarding a 2005 incident that caused injury to five cadets aboard Eagle:
[I]f the lifeline had been made of half-inch thick double-braid nylon rope and attached with a bowline knot to the bolt, the knot would have been able to withstand the stress of those cadets falling and simultaneously pulling on the rope. The point of failure was the metal clip, but the officers in charge of Eagle had forgotten their background as sailors and relied on metal clips and cables rather than rope or knots.
That is a wonderfully intricate paragraph to loosen, much less to untie. I have come back to it often.

In her short fictional story "How to make Bosnian chicken salad," former Army public affairs soldier Susanne Aspley offers a primer in what can only be described as lemonade journalism. Out of the mouth of a character lieutenant, Aspley offers the following editorial advice, and captures the reality of the job to a T-and-dotted-I:
Let's say you have to do a story on, well, a promotion ceremony, or, say, a bunch of guys pulling guard duty and all they're doing is complaining and moping around and they don't want to be photographed. No problem. Find a story. Everyone has a story. Even the pimply E2 with buck teeth who only joined for the free dental care. You don't have to be a combat vet with PTSD to have a story. They all do. We all do. So get them to talk, and find out what the story is.
The issue ends with a Q&A-style interview between editor Bell and Tracy Crow, the latter a former Marine officer and author of memoir, genre fiction, and non-fiction books. The 11-page conversation feels like eavesdropping on two writer friends having coffee, and is full of inspiring and insightful observations about writing. One example, from Crow:
I'm encouraged by the workshops I lead from time to time that so many women veterans are willing and eager to write about their experiences. Some are turning their experiences into short stories and novels, and that's fine. Others such as Kayla Williams, Miyoko Hikiji, and Jane Blair have produced what I consider to be important memoirs. Some critics, however, will philosophize that all the stories that could have been told have already been told. For example, how many war stories do we need?

As many as can artfully and authentically rendered, I'd say. Because every writer's voice is unique and reveals through the writer's choice of conflicts for her characters to her sentence variations to the formatting of her paragraphs. Every writer approaches a story through a personal lens of perception that's unique to that writer and based on that writer's life experiences.

13 April 2016

One Last Shot on Patton and Poetry ... and Humor

U.S. Army Maj. George S. Patton during World War I
Blog-editor's note: It's still National Poetry Month, and Patton wrote poetry! Posted at Foreign Policy magazine's "Best Defense" blog yesterday, April 12, 2016, was an essay written by the author of the Red Bull Rising blog, titled "What Patton's Poems Tell Us about Today." (As a bonus, "Best Defense" journalist and mil-blogger Tom Ricks also posted a poem he wrote about the Iraq War: "Baghdad, April 2004.")

Offered below is an additional anecdote regarding Gen. George S. Patton's poetic life.


According to biographer Carlo D'Este ("Patton: A Genius for War", 1996) Patton was a dedicated practitioner of poetry, starting in his first years at Virginia Military Institute and West Point […]

One final war story: As a practical matter, Patton thought the memorization of poetry to be a brain exercise, and paid his daughters Beatrice and Ruth Ellen to memorize a poem per week. Ruth Ellen even once memorized one of Patton's own poems on reincarnation, and recited it at school. The poem "Mercenary's Song (A.D. 1600)" reads, in part:
In wantonness of appetite,
In women, wine and war,
In fire and blood and rapine
In these my pleasures are. […]

Then here's to blood and blasphemy!
And here's to whores and drink!
In life you know you're living
In death we only stink.
When the scandalized school teacher and headmaster sent his daughter home with a note, Beatrice observed to Patton that other parents were not quite so permissive as he.

Patton, writes biographer D'Este, thought it was hilarious.

Read "What Patton's Poems Tell Us about Today."

06 April 2016

Listen up, Maggots! It's National Poetry Month!

PHOTO BY: U.S. Army Sgt. Ken Scar
When packing for one of my first training experiences with the U.S. Army, back in the late 1980s, I knew that free time and footlocker space would be at a premium. I could live without luxuries like my Walkman cassette player for a few months. I also wanted to avoid avoid too much gruff from drill sergeants. So I stuffed a paperback copy of Shakespeare's "Henry V" into my left cargo pocket, wrapped in a plastic sandwich bag, as my sole entertainment.

If nothing else, I thought, I'd work on my memorization skills. ("Oh, for a muse of fire-guard duty …") Little did I realize that so much of my brain would already be filled, starting those summer months at Fort Knox, Ky., with the nursery rhymes of Uncle Sam. Training was full of poetry. Sometimes, it was profane. "This is my rifle, this is my gun!" Sometimes, it was pedagogical. "I will turn the tourniquet / to stop the flow / of the bright red blood." There were even times that it was nearly pathological. "What is the spirit of the bayonet?! / Kill! Kill! Kill!"

These basic phrases connected us new recruits to the yellow footprints of those who had stood here before, marched in our boots, squared the same corners, weathered the same abuses. Every time we moved, we were serenaded by sergeants. Counting cadence, calling cadence, bemoaning that Jody was back home, dating our women, drinking our beer. We learned our lines, our ranks, our patches, our places as much by tribal story-telling than by reading the effing field manual. Even our soldier humor was hand-me-down wisdom, tossed off like singsong hand grenades. Phrases like, "Don't call me 'sir' / I work for a living!" and "You were better off when you left! / You're right!"

Nobody's quite sure why April got the nod as National Poetry Month. I like to think that it's because of that line from T.S. Eliot's "The Wasteland": "April is the cruelest month." Because that sounds like the Army. Besides, in springtime, the thoughts of every warrior-poet lightly turns to baseball; showers that bring flowers ("If it ain't raining / it ain't training!"); and the start of fighting season in Afghanistan.

Poetry, I recognize, isn't every soldier's three cups of tea. Ever since I entertained my platoon mates with Prince Harry's inspiring St. Crispin's Day speech, however, I've enjoyed sneaking poetry into the conversation. Perhaps more soldiers would appreciate poetry, were they to realize the inherent poetics of military life:

Every time you go to war, you are engaged in a battle for narrative. Every deployment—individually as a soldier, or collectively as an Army or nation—is a story. Every story has a beginning, middle, and end. Every story is subject to vision, and revision. History isn't always written by the victors, but it is re-written by poets. Treat them well. Otherwise, they will cut you.

Every time you eat soup with a knife, you are wielding a metaphor. Every "boots on the ground," every "line in the sand," every Hollywood-style named operation ("Desert Shield"! "Desert Storm"! "Enduring Freedom"!) is a metaphor that shapes our understanding of a war and its objectives. If you don't understand the dangerous end of a metaphor, you shouldn't be issued one.

(There's also a corollary, and a warning: As missions change, so do metaphors. In other words, when a politician trots out a new metaphor for war, better check your six.)

Every poem is a fragment of intelligence, a piece in the puzzle. A poem can slow down time, describe a moment in lush and flushed detail. It can transport the reader to a different time, a different battlefield. Most importantly, a poem can describe the experience of military life and death through someone else's eyes—a spouse, a villager, a soldier, a journalist. Poetry, in short, is a training opportunity for empathy.

Soldiers like to say that the enemy gets a vote, so it's worth noting that the enemy writes poetry, too. Like reading doctrine and monitoring propaganda, reading an enemy's verse reveals motivations and values. Sun Tzu writes:
If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.
Every time you quote a master, from Sun Tzu to Schwarzkopf, you are delivering aphorism. I liken the aphorism—a quotable-quote or maxim—to be akin to concise forms of poetry, such as haiku. In fact, in my expansive view, I think aphorisms should count as poetry. In the world of word craft, it can take as much effort to hone an effective aphorism than it does to write a 1,000-word essay. Aphorisms are laser-guided missiles, rather than carpet bombs. We should all spend our words more wisely.

Reading a few lines connects us to the thin red line of soldiers past, present, and future. Poetry puts us in the boots of those who have served before, hooks our chutes to a larger history and experience of war. The likes of Shakespeare's "band of brothers" speech, John McRae's "In Flanders Fields," and Rudyard Kipling's poem "Tommy" continue to speak to the experiences and sentiments of modern soldiers.

I am happy to report that more-contemporary war poets have continued the march.

Here's a quick list to probe the front lines of modern war poetry: From World War II, seek out Henry Reed's "The Naming of Parts." For a jolt of Vietnam Era parody, read Alan Farrell's "The Blaming of Parts." From the Iraq War, Brian Turner's "Here, Bullet." In this tight shot group, modern soldiers will no doubt recognize themselves, their tools, and their times. Here is industrial-grade boredom, an assembly line of war, punctuated with humor and grit, gunpowder and lead.

Want more? Check out print and on-line literary offerings from Veterans Writing Project's "O-Dark-Thirty" quarterly literary journal; Military Experience & the Arts' twice-annual "As You Were"; the "Line of Advance" journal; and Southeast Missouri State University's "Proud to Be: Writing by American Warriors" annual anthology series.

Finally, you can buy an pocket anthology of poetry, such as the Everyman's Library Pocket Poets edition of "War Poems" from Knopf, or Ebury's "Heroes: 100 Poems from the New Generation of War Poets." Stuff it in your left cargo pocket. Read a page a day as a secular devotional, a meditation on war. Or, pick a favorite poem, print it out, and post it on the wall of your fighting position or office cube. Read the same poem, over and over again, during the course of a few weeks. See how it changes. See how it changes in you.

Remember: It's National Poetry Month. And every time you read a war poem, an angel gets its Airborne wings.


Randy Brown embedded with his former Iowa Army National Guard unit as a civilian journalist in Afghanistan, May-June 2011. He authored the poetry collection Welcome to FOB Haiku: War Poems from Inside the Wire (Middle West Press, 2015). He is the current poetry editor of Military Experience and the Arts' "As You Were" literary journal, and a member of the Military Writers Guild. As "Charlie Sherpa," he blogs about military culture at: www.redbullrising.com.