19 April 2017

Book Review: 'Private Perry and Mister Poe'

Book Review: 'Private Perry and Mister Poe: The West Point Poems, 1831' by William F. Hecker

Nineteenth century poet and short-story author Edgar Allan Poe is one of those Dead White Guys that keeps a dead-hand grip on the American scholastic canon. Even with increasingly diverse reading options in high school, it's unlikely that even the least Goth teenager won't encounter Poe's big 1845 hit, "The Raven," at least once or twice in English classes.

Beyond black birds squawking "Nevermore," however, few are privy to some surprising facts about Poe's early literary life:
  • In 1825, at the age of 16, Poe served as a junior militiaman in a ceremonial escort for a touring French Gen. Lafayette. In 1827, Poe enlisted in the U.S. Army as an artillery soldier, under the assumed name of "Perry."
  • Poe quickly promoted first to company clerk, then to the double-pay technical position of "artificer," a manufacturer of bombs and shells.
Poe was at West Point from 1830 to 1831, at which time he decided to return to civilian life in order to focus on his literary career. Even today at West Point, campus myths and legends surrounding Poe's short career often regard drunkenness and other infractions. In reality, he excelled in his studies, particularly mathematics and French. When he decided to leave and his estranged foster-father's permission to leave was not forthcoming, Poe systematically engineered through absences and derelictions a court martial that required his expulsion. On his way out of Army life, he crowd-funded from his fellow cadets money to publish his second book of poetry.

Some historians speculate that his buddies likely expected a volume of satirical light verse, similar to that which he'd entertained them in barracks. What they got was far more serious: A collection of 12 new and revised poems.

Along with the facsimile reproduction of that 1831 poetry collection, a 2005 book by fellow West Pointer William F. Hecker opens the crypt for new insights into Poe's life, work, and motivations. The 248-page book includes an extensive introduction, offering Hecker's insights and analysis of Poe's military career, as well as a afterward by West Point faculty Gerard A. McGowan.

Poe's poetic imagery is never more detailed than an occasional reference to battle, writes Hecker. Poe is also given to evoking martial tradition through the selective use of names, such as "Helen" "Tamerlane". As such, many write off Poe's short time in uniform as little more than an historical hiccup. For Hecker, however, Poe's Army career indicates a desire for validation and glory, and for connection to his grandfather's uniformed service during the American Revolution:
Just as an artificer's failure to construct a bomb properly always results in the failure of the round to achieve its effects and potentially results in injury to the artificer himself, failure to construct a poem well renders its effects impotent and damages the reputation of the poet. The attention to details, the appreciate for minute nuances of sound, and the modulation of rhythm that Poe built into his verse to achieve his aesthetic of beauty were reinforced by the artistic craftsmanship require to build a functional artillery bomb.
For those who celebrate oft-overlooked poetic traditions with the U.S. military, Poe's career was brief but notable. One wonders what soldierly poetry could have been brought to life, had Poe become an officer and gentleman. His favored themes of loss and death and lives cut short, after all, are constant companions to those who serve.

Sadly, William Hecker, the insightful editor of "Private Perry and Mister Poe," was killed in Iraq in 2006. Having met him only through his first and only book, I feel the loss deeply. I have no doubt he had many more words to share with the world.

13 April 2017

Review: 'Tumult & Tears,' Poetry from Women in WWI

Book review: 'Tumult & Tears: An Anthology of Women's First World War Poetry' by Vivien Newman

With the confluence of National Poetry Month and the centennial of the America's entry into World War I, readers are more likely to encounter "Great War" narratives beyond the usual touchstone horrors of trench warfare, gas attacks, and lost generations.

In the popular mind, World War I is particularly likely to also be associated with poetry. The works and names of such poets as Robert Graves, Wilfred Owen, and Siegfried Sassoon are still regularly studied and celebrated. Some of the poems speak of glory, nostalgia, and patriotism, but more are likely to contrast such sentiments with images of shocking battlefield realities.

For many, their consumption and appreciateion of war poetry ends there, in the trenches. Indeed, novice writers and reviewers too often fall back into rhetorical ditches such as "war poetry died after World War I," and "it's too bad that war poetry isn't as popular as it was during World War I." In my opinion, such themes should be retired along with other journalistic story-crutches and English 101 clichés, such as "why no one reads poetry," "why poetry is going extinct," and "poetry is dead."

(For the record, war poetry isn't dead. It isn't even wounded. See this Red Bull Rising link for a list of 21st century war poets, or this new Time Now blog link for a great round-up of individual poems available to read on-line.)

In "Tumult & Tears," social historian Vivien Newman estimates that, out of 2,000 British war poets whose work was published during World War I, nearly a quarter were women. She expands and enriches our understanding of that war, and its resulting poetic tradition, by surveying the words and experiences of those ignored by the usual canonical field pieces.

The 224-page trade paperback presents a far-flung and accessible selection of poetry, organized by themes of women's changing roles in war, religion, uniformed service, nature, and grief. Where possible, Newman includes biographical sketches of each poet cited, providing personal context in addition to the social and political.

Newman's scholarship often delivers cascades of insight and epiphany. Take, for example, the concept of woman as mourner: That wives, girlfriends, and mothers might grieve for lost soldiers is no surprise. Newman introduces examples of others, however, just as valid in their experiences of grief. Consider the unrequited lover, the mistress, the nurse, the nanny. These are complicated, complicating voices. Not all are polished, but each is worthy of note. Each is a potential revelation to readers. As Newman writes in her introduction:
From the outset, my guiding principle was what the piece might tell us about the reality of the War for the poet—and by extension other the women, rather than the intrinsic literary 'value' of the poem. Another, equally important aim was to give readers a sense of the sweep of the poetry, both in subject matter and also poetic 'skill'. Some of the poems included are undeniably little more than ditties—albeit heartfelt ones; a few are amongst the finest in the English language.
In considering the many ways in which women engaged themselves in war, Newman explores topics such as knitting socks for the troops, rationing foodstuffs for the family, and manufacturing munitions. Women who served in uniformed included Red Cross workers, volunteer nurses, cooks, scullery and ward maids. They included Women's Land Army, ambulance drivers, and Women's Auxiliary Army Corps ("WAAC") members. All are quoted and represented here.

Regular readers of the Red Bull Rising blog will not be surprised that the poems I found most resonant were those that offered both insight and humor. There is plenty of parody in these pages, particularly those evoking Rudyard Kipling's "If". In her poem "Some WAAC," for example, E.M. Murray writes:
If you can drive from nine o'clock till seven
     Every day of the long week and still live on;
If you can keep you temper until even,
     You deseve a putty medal nobly won!
If you can put up with each hardship,
     The weather, the passenger, you car,
And still keep bright—well all that I can say is:
     'You're a topper absolutely, nothing bar.'

03 April 2017

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

PHOTO BY: U.S. Army Sgt. Ken Scar
Blog editor's note: The post originally appeared on the Red Bull Rising blog on April 6, 2016.

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.

29 March 2017

Gold Star Museum Hosts Special WWI Events April 1

"Iowa Goes Over the Top." Illustration by Francis Webster, from "Somewhere Over There: The Letters, Diary, and Artwork of a World War I Corporal." Note mentions of the Iowa National Guard's 168th Infantry Regiment, and of the American Expeditionary Forces.
Blog editor's note: The following is based on press materials provided to the Red Bull Rising blog and other media outlets.

On Sat., April 1, volunteers and staff at the Iowa Gold Star Military Museum, located on Camp Dodge in the Des Moines-area suburb of Johnston, Iowa, will offer a series of special presentations commemorating the 100th anniversary of America's entry into World War I, The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and admission is free. All galleries are open. The Camp Dodge military installation is open to the public via the main N.W. 70th Avenue entrance. Note that photo identification at the gate is required for adults (a driver’s license is acceptable).

"This program honors the centennial of the United States entry into World War I," according to a museum news release. "WWI began with the assassination of Austrian Archduke Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, in Sarajevo, on July 28, 1914. While the U.S. was initially a neutral state, continuing German attacks on American vessels in the Atlantic Ocean led President Woodrow Wilson to declare war on Germany on April 6, 1917."

Special presentations are scheduled from 10:20 a.m. to 2:15. The schedule includes:
  • 10:20 a.m.: Welcome and introductions
  • 10:30 a.m.: Tom Clegg, living historian/re-enactor: "The Common Soldier in WWI"
  • 11:30 a.m.–12:15 p.m.: Mike Vogt, Iowa Gold Star Military Museum curator, presents "Camp Dodge during WWI"
  • 12:30–1:15 p.m.: Author/historian Darrek Orwig presents on Cpl. Francis Webster. Webster, trained as an illustrator under Des Moines Register political cartoonist Jay "Ding" Darling, captured the daily life of Iowans serving overseas in WWI with the Iowa National Guard. Webster was killed in action during the war.
More than 114,000 Iowans served in the U.S. armed forces during WWI, including 3,576 Iowans who died during the war from battle wounds, injuries, and illness. Camp Dodge became the organizational location and training site for the U.S. Army’s 88th Infantry "Cloverleaf" Division during WWI, one of 16 cantonment sites nationally. More than 111,000 Soldiers were inducted and trained at Camp Dodge during the war.

Seventeen National Guard divisions, including the 42nd Infantry "Rainbow" Division, were assigned to the American Expeditionary Forces during WWI. The 42nd Division was comprised of soldiers from many states, including the Iowa National Guard’s 168th Infantry Regiment from southwest Iowa. The 168th Infantry was commanded by Col. Ernest Bennett and later, by Col. Matthew Tinley. During U.S. participation in WWI, the 42nd Division was credited with 164 days of actual combat. While 42nd Division casualties included 2,810 killed and 11,873 wounded, the 168th Infantry suffered more than 700 Soldiers killed and 3,100 wounded.

For more information about these commemorative events, contact Mike Musel or Mike Vogt at 515.252.4531.

Established in 1985, the Iowa Gold Star Military Museum is the only federally recognized repository for military artifacts in the state of Iowa. The mission of the Iowa Gold Star Military Museum is twofold: to preserve Iowa’s military history and honor the military service of all Iowans.

The Iowa Gold Star Military Museum’s permanent exhibits tell the stories of Iowans who have served in defense of their state and nation, beginning in the early settlement of the state in the 1840s, through the Global War on Terror. An extensive exhibit honors the 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division, which holds the distinction of serving the most continuous days in combat of any division in the European Theater of Operation during World War II. The museum also contains one of the finest military small arms collections in the Midwest. Additionally, an exhibit detailing the history of the Iowa State Patrol is also on display.

22 March 2017

Anthology Seeks Tales of Military Sex, Drugs & Coping

San Diego-based storytelling non-profit So Say We All is soliciting submissions to a second non-fiction "Incoming" anthology of military tales, this one about the coping mechanisms with which writers have engaged downrange and post-deployment. The first anthology, published in December 2015, focused on themes of homecoming. A Red Bull Rising blog review here. You can buy the 190-page trade paperback at Amazon here.

The second book will be titled "Incoming: Sex, Drugs, and Copenhagen," the latter a reference to a ubiquitous brand of chewing tobacco. The editors write, "We were originally going to call it 'Sex Drugs, and Coping Mechanisms' but couldn't help paying homage to the great and horrible chaw that has kept so many service members awake on watch through the night."

Deadline for the new anthology is May 28, 2017. Non-fiction only. Submissions are open to military veterans, family members, service members, and civilian interpreters of all branches and eras. Maximum word count is 7,000. Previously published material is acceptable, with notification. Pseudonyms and simultaneous submissions are acceptable. Contributors will receive one contributor copy each.

A Submittable page is here.

The editors write:
We’re looking for non-fiction stories related to coping mechanisms, affairs, violating protocol in the name of escapism, mental health vacations, shore leave / R&R adventures, emergency sex, adopting a base cat, or other extreme actions taken to alleviate boredom and preserve sanity during one’s service or the period that followed during reintegration to the civilian world. We’re interested in any interpretation you might take on the theme, so feel free to surprise us.

We hope in choosing this topic that we’re able to offer veteran writers a chance to consider their service through humor, absurdism, and surrealism if they find it appropriate (though all takes on the theme are welcome), and provide our readers insights into the lesser-talked about inglorious aspects of service: the tricks and tales of what people have to do to endure boredom, loneliness, heartbreak, trauma, and other human traits that undermine the all-consuming need to remain "effective." Active duty writers concerned about negatively affecting their careers are welcome to submit under a pen name. We get it.
A Facebook page for the organization is here.

16 March 2017

'She Went to War' Opens at Guthrie Theatre March 17

Opening Friday, four military veterans perform a script based on their military experience in The Telling Project's "She Went to War," The 50-minute production will play Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays March 17 to April 2 in the Guthrie Theatre's Dowling Studio, Minneapolis.

Friday and Saturday performances are 7:30 p.m., while Sunday matinee performance are at 1 p.m. General admission seating opens 30 minutes before curtain. Tickets are $9 and may be reserved on-line here.

Cast members include:
Jenn Calaway, who enlisted in the Marine Corps in 2006 as public affairs specialist, and later deployed to Afghanistan. She says struggled with the constraints of a male-dominated organization (the American military) in a male-dominated country (Afghanistan) “If it was known that the American military had a female in their ranks, they would lose respect from the Afghans. They wouldn’t want to have conversations with them or do business or work with them. I had to disguise myself as a guy most of the time."
Gretchen Evans, who served in the U.S. Army from 1979 to 2006 as an intelligence analyst and paratrooper. According to press materials, Gretchen’s career put her in the crosshairs of conflict around the globe, including Grenada, Kosovo, Bosnia, Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan. In 2006, while working as a sergeant major in Afghanistan, a mortar blast threw her into a concrete bunker wall. She suffered a Traumatic Brain Injury (T.B.I.) and lost 95 percent of her hearing, ending her career in military service. "I always tell everybody I had 27 good years in the military and one really crappy day," she says. She now works as al lead veteran outreach coordinator at the Emory Healthcare Veterans Program
Tabitha Nichols, who served in the Army National Guard from 2003 to 2011. At age 19, Nichols was injured in a mortar attack in Forward Operating Base in Kalsu, Iraq, just days after her arrival there. "When I got out, it was like cutting loose a ball and chain. I’m gonna keep that ball and chain, but it’s not holding me back anymore. I just put it on a shelf, look at it sometimes, maybe polish it now and then,” she says.

Racheal Robinson
, currently serving in the U.S. Air Force, who originally enlisted in the Army National Guard as an emancipated minor at the age of 17. “The military has been my whole adult life," she says. "It’s who I am." 
Since 2008, the Austin, Texas-based non-profit Telling Project has presented nationwide more than 40 community-based performances by military veterans, service members, and family members. Each production's script is based on interviews with cast members about their military experiences.

The all-female theatrical presentation "She Went to War" is a first for The Telling Project organization.

A website for The Telling Project is here.

A public Facebook group for The Telling Project is here.

The "She Went to War" production is also part of the Guthrie Theatre's "Level Nine" series, through which the Minneapolis organization creates opportunities for community engagement and dialogue.

08 March 2017

Stone Canoe, Wrath-Bearing Tree & Three Hoarsemen

At risk of sounding like an old Hair Club for Men TV commercial, I try not only to encourage veterans, service members, and family members to share their stories of military experiences through art and writing, but to do so myself, through my own work. So I hope you'll bear with me today—I'd like to share a few publishing success stories, in hopes that you'll consider sharing your stories with others, too.

Bonus fact: It's only 20 days until U.S. National Poetry Month!

Another bonus fact: I maintain a list of veteran- and military-friendly literary and art markets here!

I was thrilled to have a poem published in this year's issue of Stone Canoe. The YMCA Downtown Writers Center in Syracuse, N.Y. is the publisher of Stone Canoe, an annual literary journal now in its eleventh year. While the journal mostly focuses on the work of upstate New York writers and artists, its editorial mission notably includes an annual call for work by U.S. military veterans, regardless of geographic location or origin.

The poem is titled "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot," and was based in a conversation I overheard while waiting to purchase movie tickets to the 2016 Tina Fey comedy. It's my first poem on veterans' suicide, a topic I've tended to avoid in my past literary writing. I won't go into all the reasons why, but this was a time I felt compelled to get something down on paper. And I won't spoil the conclusions of the poem here, partly because I'm still wrestling with them. This excerpt sets the scene, however, and the poem's interior battleground:
All I want is a bag of popcorn
and some getaway laughs on a Friday afternoon,
and darned if the guy in line behind me
starts chatting up the stranger behind him.
First Guy is starting O.C.S. tomorrow, he says.
Buddy of his, another Mustang, committed suicide
earlier this week, and the funeral is Sunday.
Second Guy has drill this weekend. Remembers
after he last got home from active duty, his sergeant
called a few weeks later, said that one of the platoon
had first shot his wife and then himself.

I do not turn.
I do not engage.
Even though I know the password:
the name of the deceased. Instead, I hunker down
in my green fleecy hat.
The woobie I wore in Afghanistan.
The type that sergeant major hated. […]
Submissions for the 2018 issue of Stone Canoe open March 15, and will close in July. More information and guidelines here.

If you'd like to purchase a copy of the 2017 Stone Canoe, click for information here. The direct PayPal link is here. Total cost, including shipping and handling, is $21.17). To coordinate purchase of multiple copies, e-mail: stonecanoe AT syracuseymca DOT org

Back issues of Stone Canoe are available for $10 plus shipping and handling (total of $13.50). Click here.


The Wrath-Bearing Tree blog has recently launched into poetry and fiction. Editors there are seeking work about economic, political, and other forms of violence found in society—not just work on military themes. They plan to post new poetry and fiction the first Friday of each month. I was pleased to have four of my poems recently featured on the site. The poems included a selection of aphorisms; a reflection on COP Najil; a war sonnet; and a set of three Japanese-style tanka.

The tanka is similar to haiku form. I follow the syllables-per-line pattern of 5-7-5-7-7. Here's one of those short poems, inspired by the Mother's Day send-off ceremony of a buddy's Iowa Army National Guard unit last year. With any luck, he'll soon be home so I can share it with him directly:
With ceremony,
Old Man assembles his troops.
It is Mother’s Day;
sons and daughters are leaving
in order to sustain war.
You can read them all FREE here at this link!

A submissions page is here. Or e-mail the editors at: wrathbearingtree AT gmail DOT com


Much to my delight and surprise, there was a quick shout-out to my 2015 poetry collection, "Welcome to FOB Haiku: War Poems from Inside the Wire," on the most recent episode of "The Three Hoarsemen" podcast! While the well-read gentlemen there discuss mostly science fiction, fantasy, illustrated story, and related genres, they also occasionally cast about for leavening literary fare. At the 45-minute mark, fellow military veteran Fred Kiesche briefly mentions his enjoyment of the "FOB Haiku" book!

As a bonus, a little earlier at the 39:45 mark, co-host John E.O. Stevens offers some great insights into what he affectionately calls Chinese hermit poetry. At his podcast recommendation last year, I purchased "The Collected Songs of Cold Mountain"—a recommendation he repeats in this episode—and I share his enthusiasm for Zen-Taoist poetry that features, as he describes it, "old guys complaining about sunrises."

Sounds like a first sergeant I once knew!

01 March 2017

March 30: Poet-Journalist Talks War at DMACC-Boone

Helping to raise funds for veterans charities via the "In My Boots 5K" student organization, 21st century war poet and Central Iowa journalist Randy Brown will present words, pictures, and lessons-learned from a 2010-2011 deployment to Afghanistan 7 p.m., Thurs., March 30, on the Des Moines Community College (DMACC) campus in Boone, Iowa. The public is invited.

"Des Moines Community College has a history of helping Iowans put knowledge, experience, and service together in creative ways," says Brown. "I'm hoping to share how and why our citizen-soldiers made history in Afghanistan, and how we can engage each other in conversations and stories about war."

A freewill-donation pasta supper will start at 6 p.m., with Brown's presentation to follow in the college's auditorium at 7 p.m. A number of related books will be offered as door prizes, as well as for purchase.

In 2009, Brown started blogging as a deploying citizen-soldier, writing under the pseudonym "Charlie Sherpa" about his family's experiences in preparing for war. The 2010-2011 deployment of Iowa's 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division was billed as the largest call-up of Iowa troops since World War II. The 2-34th BCT is headquartered in Boone, with battalion and company headquarters located across the state.

When he was dropped off the deployment list just days from federal mobilization in 2010, Brown retired from the military and then went to Afghanistan anyway, embedding as civilian media with his former "Red Bull" colleagues.

Brown is author of 2015's "Welcome to FOB Haiku," an award-winning collection of often-humorous war poetry; and editor of the recently published "Reporting for Duty," a 668-page collection of journalism generated by the 2-34th BCT while deployed to Afghanistan. He is also a former cast member of "Telling: Des Moines," a veterans' storytelling performance that was staged at DMACC-Ankeny campus in 2012.

The annual "In My Boots" 5K walk, run, and ruck event annually raises funds for veterans-related charities. This year, proceeds will be directed toward Paws & Effect, a Central Iowa non-profit that raises and trains psychiatric service dogs for military veterans and others. The 2017 "In My Boots" event will take place April 15 in Boone's McHose Park. On-line registration is available here.

DMACC-Boone's Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society chapter will also be holding a food drive during the race.

A Facebook page for the "In My Boots" student organization is here.

A Facebook event page for the March 30 event is here.

For information, contact:

  • Jared Neal, president, "In My Boots" student group: jdneal AT dmacc DOT edu
  • Julie Roosa: 515.433.5215; jkroosa AT dmacc DOT edu
  • Nancy Woods: 515.433.5061; nawoods AT dmacc DOT edu
  • Sean Taylor: astaylor AT dmacc DOT edu

To make on-line monetary donations to "In My Boots," visit here.

22 February 2017

Lessons-Learned on Pitching & Producing AWP Panels

M.L. Doyle, Matthew Hefti, and Randy Brown were part of a panel titled "The Middle Americans: How Flyover Country Responds to War."
Photo by Andria Williams
I attended my first national conference of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs in Minneapolis, 2015. At that event—an annual gathering of 12,000 writers, editors, publishers, instructors, and academics—I was impressed with the number of offerings that focused on war themes. These included both panel discussions and author readings. While I skipped Los Angeles in 2016, I vowed that I'd help add to the war-writing conversation by proposing a few such events for the 2017 conference in Washington, D.C.

As I quipped at the end of this year's event, paraphrasing that ubiquitous quote attributed to Gandhi, "Be the proposer of panels that will contribute to the change you want to see in the world."

The 2018 event will be held in Tampa. The window for event proposals will open in mid-March, with final deadline of May 1, 2016. I thought I'd document and share a few lessons-learned, in hopes that other war-writers will add their voices to the mix.

There are many little rules to proposing an AWP event. It's a little like simultaneously filling out your tax forms, calling your friends on the telephone, and playing a tabletop war game. Thankfully, the association offers a detailed how-to manual and video. To give you a flavor, however:
  • Moderators/organizers can propose up to three events. A maximum of two can be accepted.
  • Prospective participants can themselves be listed on up to three event proposals, but can only be on two accepted events.
  • Of multiple proposed events, only one can be a "reading."
  • You have 500 characters—not words, characters—to describe your proposed event.
  • You have an equal number of characters to describe the qualifications of your panelists.
Acceptance rates for AWP event proposals averaged around 39 percent for years 2013-2016. In 2017, I was fortunate to have two out of two approved. At their respective links, you can read my 500-character descriptions for "Citizen-Soldier-Poet; How to use Poetry to Bridge the Civil-Military Divide" and "The Middle Americans: How Flyover Country Responds to War." That's because the words you use in your pitches are the words that show up in the conference agenda.

Here's what worked for us, both in terms of pitching and conducting AWP panels:

1. Emphasize diversity
Find panelists who represent diversity in age, gender, color, life and work experiences, and publishing experience. Strive for balance. In the war-writing context specifically, I subscribe to the notion that every citizen has an experience with the topic of war, regardless of whether or not they've ever served in uniform. Remember: "We're all in this together" and "Everybody has their own war. " In our two sessions, then, we featured both civilians and military veterans, from a variety of branches and deployments. Some were just starting out in their publishing careers. Others had multiple published book credits. I'd like to think that, in many ways, our panels demographically reflected our audiences. And we can always do better!
2. Keep your shot-groups tight
Panel math is like beer math: Keep it simple, and know your limits. Don't show up with a list of 10 in-depth, doctoral-thesis questions. Narrow it down to two three formal questions. Make sure to share those prompts with your panelists prior to the event, so they can consider their responses without over-rehearsing. 
Assuming five panelists, if each panelist responds to a given question with a 3-minute answer, three questions will eat up 45 minutes. This will leave 20-30 minutes for questions from the audience. (Depending on venue and schedule, some audience members may have to leave earlier than the official 75-minute end-time.) People like Q&A. Most likely, the people in your audience are fellow practitioners. They want to interact with your panel. Engage them in conversation.
3. Conduct a leader's recon
As moderator/organizer, I arrived to the conference a day early, on Wed., Feb. 8, to make sure there were no unforeseen obstacles. The AWP registration staff helped me run a last-minute check on whether our panelists had properly registered for the event. I also helped coordinate one panelist's last-minute request for press credentialing on behalf of a Washington, D.C.-based media contact. 
I'd told my colleagues on our Thursday morning panel that we'd meet at the Veterans Writing Project's table (seize the key terrain!) on the Bookfair floor, and walk together to the conference room. 
One panelist, however, had spent an hour Wednesday getting eyes on the target, and determined out that our Thursday morning venue wasn't as easy to find as I'd assumed. Instead of being located in the convention center, it was one-quarter mile below ground in a hotel across the street from the main venue. His early-bird information saved us from collectively showing up late and in the wrong place. 
Also, our second panel, unlike the cozy meeting space of our first, turned out to be located in a ballroom the size of a small airplane hanger. You get the space you're randomly assigned, of course, but knowing that ahead of time would have been good information to share with my fellow panelists.
4. Look for ways to make connections & continue the conversation
With only 15 minutes between events, conference schedules often get in the way of exchanging business cards at the end of panel event. Our fix was to publish a two-sided 8.5 x 11-inch hand-out for each panel, complete with author published credits, and contact information. Listing complete biographies cuts down on spending valuable discussion time on introductions. Also, offering public-facing ways of communication (e-mail, Twitter, Facebook, etc.) gives introverts an easier way to contact authors after the conference. 
(For panelists, we also published an internal list of telephone numbers and private e-mail addresses, in case of emergencies and dinner coordinations. In fact, we treated information like we would in an infantry squad: Everybody should know the plan.) 
Following our poetry panel, one of our colleagues was immediately approached by a literary journal editor, who inquired regarding a work that had been read aloud. So, having debuted at AWP, the poem will soon see print, later in 2017! It's all about helping make connections!
We published 50 hardcopy handouts per session, assuming that number would likely exceed our maximum attendance. (We had from 35 to 50 people attend each session.) Just in case, however, we also posted a link to an electronic copy of each document at the Red Bull Rising blog. Later, we posted MP3 audio files of each session. Not production-quality, but good enough for note-taking. When the original files proved too huge for his iPod, a blog reader helped us out by compressing those files for easier portability.
So, to recap, here are some takeaways and recommendations for future panel events:
  • Promote diversity in panel composition
  • Plan for 3 to 4 formal questions, tops
  • Arrive early; get eyes on your venues
  • Offer handouts with author contact info
  • Post audio recordings (But try to keep file-sizes small!)
I'm not the only one musing and reflecting on their AWP17 experiences, of course. Check out what these other war writers have been are saying about their experiences:

10 February 2017

AWP2017: How Flyover Country Responds to War

"Middle Americans" and writers, from left to right: Mary Doyle; Matthew Hefti; Randy "Sherpa" Brown; Kayla Williams; Angela Ricketts. Photo by Andria Williams
(Blog editor's note: Updated February 14 to include photo of panelists and MP3 audio file link.)

Today is Fri., Feb. 10, 2017. I'm pleased to be moderating the following session at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs convention in Washington, D.C. As previously noted on the Red Bull Rising blog, this is one of many AWP2017 sessions related to war-writing.
Session F110: "The Middle Americans: How Flyover Country Responds to War"
Marquis Salon 6, Marriott Marquis, Meeting Level Two
Fri., Feb. 10, 2017: 9 a.m. to 10:15 a.m.
By various measures, rural Americans are more likely to enlist in the US armed forces. Despite isolation from traditional centers of publishing and military power, voices with Midwestern roots have sprung forth like dragon's teeth to deliver clear-eyed, plainspoken views of war, service, and sacrifice. The civilians and veterans of this stereotype-busting panel of published writers offer their insights regarding themes, trends, and markets in fiction, nonfiction, and poetry.
A downloadable PDF listing of panelists, including biographies and contact information, is here.

(Posted February 14: A downloadable MP3 audio file of the session, good enough for note-taking, is here. Smaller file here.)

Panelists include:






09 February 2017

AWP2017: Using Poetry to Bridge the Civil-Military Gap

Panelists and poets, from left to right: Eric "Shmo" Chandler; Randy "Sherpa" Brown; Frances Richey; Tessa Poppe; Susanne Aspley. Photo by Joy Riggs

(Blog editor's note: Updated February 14 to include photo of panelists and MP3 audio file link.)

Today is Thurs., Feb. 9, 2017. I'm pleased to be moderating the following session at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs convention in Washington, D.C. As previously noted on the Red Bull Rising blog, this is one of many AWP2017 sessions related to war-writing.
AWP 2017 Session R144:
"Citizen-Soldier-Poet: Using Poetry to Bridge the Civil-Military Gap"
Supreme Court, Marriott Marquis, Meeting Level Four
Thurs., Feb. 9, 2017, 10:30 to 11:45 a.m.

With a boot on each side of the civil-military divide, America's citizen-soldiers and their families are uniquely positioned to bridge the gaps between our armed forces and the society they serve. Five civilian and military-veteran writers of poetry, memoir, and fiction read from their works and discuss how they have specifically used poetry in published, practical ways to promote peace, respect, understanding, and empathy.
A downloadable PDF listing of panelists, including full biographies and contact information, is here.

(Posted February 14: A downloadable MP3 audio file of the session, good enough for note-taking, is here. Smaller file here.)

Panelists include:








07 February 2017

Re-posted: War-Writing Events at AWP2017

Blog-editor's note: Much of this post first appeared on the Red Bull Rising blog Nov. 2, 2016.

The annual Association of Writers & Writing Programs (A.W.P.) national conference is this week, from Feb. 8 to 11, 2017. It will be the 50th anniversary of the event. This year, it's being held in Washington, D.C.

The annual event brings together approximately 12,000 writers, educators, students, editors, and publishers, and travels to different cities each year. A concurrent bookfair showcases more than 800 exhibitors.

A searchable, on-line schedule for the event appears here.

At his Time Now blog, military-lit critic and U.S. Army veteran Peter Molin has posted After Action Reports from earlier AWP conferences. He often comments about a growing cohort of "war writers," who leverage the AWP as something of a moveable feast. Here are some of his reports:
While the motivational value of networking with fellow travelers and cocktails with friends should never be discounted, much of the intellectual energy of the conference is to be found in panel discussions and presentations. Good topics challenge our perspectives and presumptions, and it is particularly notable that AWP2017 includes potential conversations about transnational, multimedia, gendered/queer, poetic, regional, and "imperial" interpretations and applications of conflict, both past and present.

In the spirit of Sherpatudes Nos. 1 and 15, here's what we know so far about "war writing" panels, presentations, and readings at AWP2017. After a quick-and-dirty Internet search, some of the authors below are linked book listings at Amazon. I have also annotated Military Writers Guild memberships in brackets. I look forward to filling in more biographical information in the weeks to come—each of the panelists, I believe, are worthy of seeking out, regardless of an easy hyperlink. Also note this list does not include off-site events, which can be expected to grow in number and intensity in the months to come.

One final caveat: The writer of the Red Bull Rising blog is participating in two of the following panels.

Please direct corrections and suggested edits/additions to: sherpa AT redbullrising.com.

***** THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 9 *****

Thursday, Feb. 9, 2017: 9:00 to 10:15 a.m.
Archives, Marriott Marquis, Meeting Level Four 
R121. Writing in a Time of Terror and Environmental Collapse.
(Imad Rahman, Jacob Shoes-Arguello, William Wenthe, Anne Sanow, Jacqueline Kolosov) How do writers give shape to the experiences of war, terrorism, and the disregard for life endemic on this planet? Muriel Rukeyser believed that denying the responsiveness to the world could bring forth "the weakness that leads to mechanical aggression... turning us inward to devour our own humanity, and outward to sell and kill nature and each other." Given global terrorism and the spoliation of the planet, the stakes in being able to respond are terribly high. Writers working in poetry, prose, and hybrid forms, will discuss their ways of meeting this challenge in their works past and present, including the difficulties they face and the sources from which they take inspiration.

Thursday, Feb. 9, 2017: 9:00 to 10:15 am
Room 101, Washington Convention Center, Level One
R122. What Journalists Can Teach Literary Writers. (Yi Shun Lai, Valerie Boyd, Steven Levingston, William Gray, Moni Basu)
In nonfiction, is it ever okay to fudge facts, timing, or quotes? For journalists, the answer is no, but literary authors can struggle with the balance of craft and facts. Nonfiction storytelling is an increasingly hybrid form, yet few creative writing students learn the journalism basics—how to interview people, attribute sources, or successfully incorporate research. This panel of print and broadcast journalists emphasizes the magic combination of accurate reporting and literary technique.

Thurs., Feb. 9, 2017: 10:30 to 11:45 a.m.
Supreme Court, Marriott Marquis, Meeting Level Four

R144. Citizen-Soldier-Poet: Using Poetry to Bridge the Civil-Military Gap. (Randy Brown, Tessa Poppe, Frances Richey, Susanne Aspley, Eric Chandler [MWG member])
With a boot on each side of the civil-military divide, America's citizen-soldiers and their families are uniquely positioned to bridge the gaps between our armed forces and the society they serve. Five civilian and military-veteran writers of poetry, memoir, and fiction read from their works and discuss how they have specifically used poetry in published, practical ways to promote peace, respect, understanding, and empathy.

Thurs., Feb. 9, 2017: 1:30 to 2:45 p.m.
Monument, Marriott Marquis, Meeting Level Four

R209. From Verse to Stage and Screen, Veterans Adapt. (Brian Turner, Benjamin Busch, Maurice Decaul, Jenny Pacanowski, Peter Molin [MWG member])
This panel features four war writers who are adapting verse and memoir into more public modes of expression: stage, screen, opera, and performance. The panelists will discuss the challenge of moving beyond the word to theatrically present the events and emotions inherent to combat and military life. Offering insight into issues of craft and collaboration, the panel explores how private modes of literary representation can be transformed into dramatic artworks produced and experienced socially.

Thurs., Feb. 9, 2017: 4:30 to 5:45 pm
Liberty Salon N, O, & P, Marriott Marquis, Meeting Level Four
R279. The Politician as Writer: The Rise of the Political Autobiography. (Rachael Hanel, Jesse Goolsby [MWG member], Keith Urbahn, Stephanie Sheu-Jing Li)
Cash donations, an advising team, focus groups—and a book? Barack Obama’s 2004 book, Dreams From My Father, started the recent trend of politicians who first hint at a national campaign by releasing an autobiography. Join the discussion as a literary agent, a novelist and former Pentagon speechwriter, and professors who study English and public relations critically examine these books from literary and marketing perspectives. Can a book be promotional and still have literary merit?

***** FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 10 *****

Fri., Feb. 10, 2017: 9 a.m. to 10:15 a.m.
Marquis Salon 6, Marriott Marquis, Meeting Level Two

F110. The Middle Americans: How Flyover Country Responds to War. (Randy Brown, M.L. Doyle, Kayla Williams, Matthew Hefti, Angela Ricketts)
By various measures, rural Americans are more likely to enlist in the US armed forces. Despite isolation from traditional centers of publishing and military power, voices with Midwestern roots have sprung forth like dragon's teeth to deliver clear-eyed, plainspoken views of war, service, and sacrifice. The civilians and veterans of this stereotype-busting panel of published writers offer their insights regarding themes, trends, and markets in fiction, nonfiction, and poetry.

Fri., Feb. 10, 2017: 10:30 to 11:45 a.m.
Capital & Congress, Marriott Marquis, Meeting Level Four

F150. Workshopping War: The Challenges of War Writing in the Classroom. (Whitney Terrell, Jayne Anne Phillips, Matt Gallagher, Teresa Fazio, Anne Kniggendorf)
Narratives about war and military life present unique challenges in workshop. How does personal trauma become a story? How can a teacher with no military experience advise a veteran? Or vice versa? Should war writers be encouraged to consider, say, the stories of Iraqis? How do gender and race enter the conversation? The panel pairs teachers of writing with students at work on narratives about war and the military. All have experience in MFA programs or veteran workshops like Words After War.

Fri., Feb. 10, 2017: 1:30 to 2:45 p.m.
Marquis Salon 12 & 13, Marriott Marquis, Meeting Level Two

F207. U.S./Pacific Poets Confronting U.S. Empire. (Collier Nogues, Brenda Shaughnessy, Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis, Lehua Taitano, Lyz Soto)
U.S. military infrastructure in the Pacific enables both global US imperialism and the militarization of local communities there and throughout the US. Join five poets with ties to Okinawa, Guåhan (Guam), Vietnam, the Philippines, and Hawai‘i as they invite the audience to collaboratively envision how writers can use language and performance in our local, national, and international literary spheres to resist the linguistic and cultural violence of military imperialism.

Fri., Feb. 10, 2017: 1:30 to 2:45 p.m.
Virginia Barber Middleton Stage, Sponsored by USC, Exhibit Halls D & E, Convention Center, Level Two

F224. Voices of Main Street. (Katie Manning, Yehoshua November, Colin D. Halloran, Leslie McGrath, Charlie Bondhus)
Five winners of the Main Street Rag Poetry Book Award from 2009 to the most recent will read from their books. The reading will be moderated by Main Street Rag's publisher.

Fri., Feb. 10, 2017: 4:30 to 5:45 p.m.
Marquis Salon 3 & 4, Marriott Marquis, Meeting Level Two

F272. 90 Years and Counting: A Reading Celebrating Prairie Schooner. (Ashley Strosnider, Brian Turner, Kevin Simmonds, Safiya Sinclair)
A perfect time capsule of the diverse, experimental trends in American literary publishing, Prairie Schooner’s ninety-year legacy of uninterrupted quarterly publication charts the course of a little journal on the prairie and its path to becoming a key player among literary journals, publishing major contemporary American voices alongside an increasingly global list of contributors. Hear poets and fiction writers read work that speaks to where we’ve been and where we’re headed next.

***** SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 11 *****

Sat., Feb. 11, 2017: 9 a.m. to 10:15 a.m.
Room 202B, Washington Convention Center, Level Two

S128. I Wouldn’t Go there if I Were You: Literary Journalism and the Craft of Writing Dangerous Places. (Benjamin Busch, Jennifer Percy, Elliot Ackerman, Deni Béchard)
When writers of poetry, creative nonfiction, or fiction serve as overseas correspondents, the narratives they craft are deeply felt and unique. From travel and interpreters to notes and drafts, these writers ventured to the fringe to experience their stories. This panel explores how four writers chased curiosity into endangerment to bring back stunning portraits of war, disease, humanity, and environment in crisis and how they teach ways to write literary reportage in workshops and MFA programs.

Sat., Feb. 11, 2017: 10:30 to 11:45 a.m.
Room 102B, Washington Convention Center, Level One
S154. Translating Iraq. (Alana Levinson-LaBrosse, Neil Shea, Heather Raffo, Andrew Slater)
Since before the Iraq War began in 2003, Americans have worked to understand Iraq: a country incomprehensible to many of its own citizens. The major and minute divisions and the competing desires can overwhelm even the most conscientious observer. The participating American writers of this panel have lived and worked in Iraq. Bringing home Iraq's realities, whether through poetry, fiction, documentaries, Instagram, plays. or operas, is an act of delicate artistic and cultural translation.

Sat., Feb. 11, 2017: 1:30 to 2:45 p.m.
Marquis Salon 9 & 10, Marriott Marquis, Meeting Level Two
S206. The New Normal in Nonfiction: Diverse Voices in Nonfiction from The Normal School. (Jericho Parms, Jaclyn Moyer, Sarah Minor, Steven Church, Matthew Komatsu [MWG member]) Four nonfiction writers representing diverse backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives consider questions of race, identity, family, culture, and consciousness. Representing emerging writers, students, farmers, first-book authors, and tenured MFA program faculty, the panel members have all been published recently in the literary magazine The Normal School. They celebrate a variety nonfiction styles, from the more traditional narrative essay to lyric essays and research-driven work.

Sat., Feb. 11, 2017: 3 to 4:15 p.m.
Room 202A, Washington Convention Center, Level Two

S258. The Art of War: The Power and Role of the Writer in Times of Crisis. (Pireeni Sundaralingam, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Lidia Yuknavitch, David Shields)
As an increasing percentage of the world is plunged into conflict, our panel brings together award-winning novelists, poets, and nonfiction writers to explore how creative writing can shape, distort, and challenge the way we understand war. Drawing on examples from our own work and the work of others, we will discuss the power of the written word in relation to image and other forms of propaganda, and share our personal experiences of how our books have influenced a wider political discussion.

Sat., Feb. 11, 2017: 4:30 to 5:45 p.m.
Marquis Salon 12 & 13, Marriott Marquis, Meeting Level Two

S272. Writing War, Teaching Craft: Veterans & Cadets in the Creative Writing Classroom. (Mary Stewart Atwell, Kevin Powers, Ron Capps, Benjamin Busch, Katey Schultz)
The upsurge in literary work by veterans has sparked an interest in teaching writing to this population, but a less-noted phenomenon has been the recent increase in course offerings in creative writing at service academies and military colleges. A panel of writers and teachers who have worked with both veterans and cadets—those returning from war, and those preparing to serve—put these two groups into new and enlightening conversation.

Sat., Feb. 11, 2017: 4:30 to 5:45 p.m.
Liberty Salon N, O, & P, Marriott Marquis, Meeting Level Fou
S277. Poetry in the Age of the Drone: A Reading. (Corey Van Landingham, Solmaz Sharif, Philip Metres, Nomi Stone, Jill McDonough)
How does poetry function in the age of the drone? Can poets avoid the anesthetizing remove enacted by the drone when writing about political subjects from a safe distance? What is the role of poetry in a time of perpetual war—does it, as Auden says, make nothing happen? Five poets read work that shows the different ways poetry reacts to, and interacts with, the idea of the militarization of the drone, targeted killing, and the difficulty of writing about war from afar.