17 May 2017

Know the Signs: Is Your Mom (or Dad) a Veteran?

Sgt. 1st Class David Franklin buckles up his 4-year-old son, David Jr., after being picked up from a Fort Lee, Va. daycare facility. April 2017 photo by Lesley Atkinson, Fort Lee Public Affairs
With Mother's Day earlier this week, and Father's Day soon approaching, here's a list of signs your mom or dad might be a military veteran:
  • Uses "wheels up" or "S.P." (Army talk for "Start Time") to describe when carpool is leaving, with or without you.
  • Refers to school drop-off area as the "L.Z."
  • Refers to stops along vacation route as "rest halts."
  • Introduces household announcements with phrases such as "attention on deck" or "now hear this."
  • Requests you clean your room using language such as "police call" or "sweepers, sweepers, man your brooms."
  • Issues 5-point contingency ("GOTWA") plan to babysitters and/or your older siblings, prior to leaving house.
  • Authorizes professional medical attention only for playground injuries that cross threshold of "threat to life, limb, or eyesight."
  • Prescribes for all other injuries and illnesses "2 tabs of Motrin and drink water."

10 May 2017

Is Midwestern Military Writing Officially a Thing?

Whether you call it "war writing," or "military writing," or "writing about military experience," the literary terrain of the American Middle West is an increasingly fertile frontier in which to grow civil-military discourse.

Although I was born on the West Coast into an active-duty Air Force family, I claim Iowa as a home state. I graduated from high school here. I'm raising a family here. In journalism jargon, I'm a bit of a booster. I write poetry and edit books about Midwesterners in the military. I've even, with a little help from friends and colleagues, presented a panel discussion in Washington, D.C. about how "flyover country" responds to war. Unnumbered Sherpatude: "In writing about war, everyone grinds their own axe." Mine is the American Middle West, and how good people who serve our country are often overlooked by cultural and political power centers.

There are many, many different ways to describe and conscribe the Middle West as a region. If you want to start a quasi-religious debate, just ask what states other people include in "Midwest." My personal blend includes all the area between the Ohio and Missouri Rivers, and even the southern states whose territories were acquired in the Louisiana Purchase. I further note with pride that, of the many conflicting maps that are available of the Midwest, the inclusion of Iowa is never questioned.

Still, the old journalist in me adheres to the even-older rule: A single example could just be wishful thinking. Two examples could be coincidence. Three examples, however, equals a trend.

I am writing today to declare that Midwestern military writing is officially a thing.

Example No. 1: Now in its sixth cycle of production, the "Proud to Be: Writing by American Warriors" series from Southeast Missouri State University Press, with the support of the Missouri Humanities Council, is the established flagship anthology of military writing. While there have been and will be other anthology projects, none has yet achieved the consistent quality and quantity of the "Proud to Be" series.

(There's still time to submit fiction, non-fiction, poetry, photography, and more before the "Proud to Be, Vol. 6" deadline of June 1, 2017. Click here for details.)

Example No. 2: The Chicago-based on-line literary journal Line of Advance recently announced the results of its 2nd Annual Darron L. Wright military writing award. Underwritten by the Blake and Bailey Foundation, the contest serves as a living memorial for a fallen soldier, by incubating fresh words and stories on war.

Example No. 3: The Deadly Writers Patrol, headquartered in Madison, Wis. has successfully evolved from a community of Vietnam War-era writers into an engaged, inclusive community that stretches to 21st century veterans. The group has published 11 editions of its print journal since 2006. With its just-released issue No. 12, the annual publication will increase production frequency to twice a year. There is also a new website design, and submissions to the publications are now made via Submittable.

(Order the latest Deadly Writers Patrol issue here!)

There are other, supporting indicators of a growing population and presence of military-writing voices from the Midwest. In 2015, the second Military Experience & the Arts Symposium was hosted in Lawton, Okla. Based at the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point, David Chrisinger ("See Me for Who I Am") incorporates writing workshops in his programming efforts both on campus and via non-profits such as Team RWB and The War Horse.

And, because some literary critics focus solely on book-length work and nothing else, there are palletsful of Midwestern war books. Matthew Hefti's "Hard and Heavy Thing" has its heart in Wisconsin. Susanne Aspley's "Granola, MN" is full of the quirky humor of the region. Journalist Whitney Terrell, based in Kansas City, Mo., gave us "The Good Lieutenant." And genre-jumper M.L. Doyle, who grew up in Minnesota, has delivered a number of titles—mystery, urban fantasy, and more—each infused with war themes.

Memoirist Anglea Ricketts ("No Man's War") speaks with plain-spoken insight and humor of Indiana, while Iraq War veteran Kayla Williams ("Love My Rifle More than You" and "Plenty of Time When We Get Home") and does the same from her Ohio origins. And, while Andria Williams set her first novel "The Longest Night") in Idaho for historical reasons, I'd argue the work illuminates and radiates a particular familiarity with the archetypical Midwesterner's emotional landscape. She got her MFA in creative writing at the University of Minnesota, you know.

Finally, writer Roy Scranton ("War Porn") is now faculty at the University of Notre Dame, South Bend, Ind. He grew up in Oregon, but, like many people, perhaps he's decided the Middle West is as good a place as any to wait out the Anthropocene.

The bottom line, for right now? Midwestern military writing is a thing. And, with all this Midwestern sense and sensibility brought to bear, I'm certain that we'll soon have this whole Forever War thing figured out in a jiffy. You'll find that we're full of practical, polite solutions and highly accomplished at barely suppressing timeless reservoirs of rage and aspiration. We have been since "The Great Gatsby."

In the meantime, please enjoy this pending new Sherpatude: "War may be hell, but we'll bring hotdish."

*****

Full disclosure: The writer of the Red Bull Rising blog was a poetry finalist in this year's Darron L. Wright writing awards, administered by Line of Advance. He been previously published in the Deadly Writers Patrol journal, and in the "Proud to Be" anthology series.

04 May 2017

What They Don't Teach at Journalism School

A mortar explodes in non-combat Afghan National Army training incident, Laghman Province, July 2, 2013, killing four and injuring 11 others. Photo by: U.S. Army Spc. Hilda I. Clayton
There's a short video posted by Kurdish fighters that went viral earlier this year, in which one of their members swaggers through a field with a cigarette in one hand and a small pioneer tool in the other, casually harvesting land mines as easily as if they were clumps of potatoes. He swings his pick downward into the soft and sandy soil, and skewers thick, plastic-wrapped mines the size of dinner plates. Then, after he pulls them out of the ground, he follows wires to other mines interconnected to the first.

I'm not an combat engineer, but I've hung out with enough to assume he's poking and prodding anti-tank mines—weapons designed for use against vehicles, rather than personnel. Still, the soldier's practice and technique seem dangerously ill-advised. I know the engineer job often boils down to "poke it with a stick," but I wouldn't touch those explosive rocks with a 10-foot pole.

*****

"Sappers … with balls of steel." says DoctrineMan!!, posting the Peshmerga video on his Facebook page March 27.

Some guy called Charlie Sherpa comments: "Camera guy not following at max focal distance is no slouch, either."

*****

It is the early 1990s, and I am a reporter at The Osceola (Iowa) Sentinel-Tribune, circulation 5,000. Located in south central Iowa—just down the road from the place with all the covered bridges—Clarke County is home to my first journalism job out of college, delayed by a stint of six months of Army communications school at Fort Gordon, Ga. The latter was all about radios and telephones. Journalism school, on the other hand, was all about writing under deadline in sub-optimal living conditions, and paying more in annual tuition than a newspaper reporter's starting salary for the privilege of doing so.

What they don't teach you at journalism school: Blue blazer and khaki pants make a good work uniform. Add a clipboard and blaze-orange hat while visiting any crash or crime scene, and people will assume you know what you're doing. You're either Crime Scene Investigation or a municipal official, or maybe you're with an insurance company. Also, keep a pair of boots in the trunk, because you never know when a story will literally take you into the muck. Finally, if you're chasing a fire truck out in the country and can't see smoke in the distance, your best bet is to follow the dusty road.

*****

The newspaper's owners and publishers were a married couple, Frank and Sally Morlan. I'd spent more than four years in school learning how to write and edit news copy, and the first thing they did was issue me a 35mm camera big attached flash. I was expected to shoot photos well enough to illustrate my words in print, not because that old cliche about a picture being worth a thousand words, but because the right pictures can help sell newspapers.

Photographs of state-fair-sized vegetables went over big with readers. So did jackpot harvests of morel mushrooms—just don't ask where the people had found them, because it's impolite to ask such secrets. Visiting celebrities and small-town-boys-and-girls-made-good made for decent coffee talk fodder. The best way to bump newspaper sales, however, was to put a picture of fire in progress on the front page, above the fold.

Frank and Sally also issued me a RadioShack-brand police-band scanner, for monitoring local emergency channels. I didn't chase ambulances as a reporter, but I did go after fire trucks.

As a backup to the scanner, during business hours, I could also keep an eye on Ed, one of the guys who ran the printing presses. He was a member of the volunteer fire department. Probably saved my life a couple of times, too.

*****

Once, a farmer's pick-up truck caught fire in the middle of field.As I angled for a good shot of a firefighter extinguishing the engine area, Ed waved me away from the vehicle's front, and called out to "watch out for the bumper." Later, he told me that the shock-absorbing compressed-gas design of some bumpers can cause them to "cook off" when hot. The resulting explosion could knee-cap a firefighter.

Another time, a vehicular accident had damaged a city utility pole. From his position doing traffic control, Ed pointed behind me, to where da owned power line drooped from overhead. Message: The blue blazer and orange safety vest were no protection from high-voltage. "You touch that wire, and I'm not going touch you with a 10-foot pole," Ed joked.

A favorite story involves a fire in a large pasture area: Knee-high flames cut a ragged edge though the grass. From atop their small brush truck, firefighters sprayed a misty cone of water, attacking the fire from one side. I knew I was getting good pictures, despite the relatively low height of the fire. There was flame, and the stark contrast of black earth and green grass would show up dramatically in black-and-white. Water droplets offered some artistic visual possibilities, as did the heat and smoke rippling off the fields.

My firefighting buddies on the truck started shouting at me, and motioned toward my feet. I looked down. Nothing there. Just grass. What's the problem?

What they don't teach you at journalism school: If you are standing on something green or brown, the flame is headed toward you. You are standing on fuel for the fire.

*****

In my foreword to "Reporting for Duty: Citizen-Soldier Journalism from the Afghan Surge, 2010-2011," I liken U.S. Army public affairs soldiers to community journalists. They cover their respective units like hometown reporters cover their beats, telling stories about regular people doing regular things. That often means writing about humdrum stuff like speeches and shuras and change-of-command ceremonies. And taking pictures of visiting important people and celebrities. Sometimes, however, there are opportunities to cover sexy, dramatic, and compelling topics. Big-ticket items that people will be sure to talk about the next day, like championship football games and three-alarm fires.

While they don't teach you in journalism school about the practical techniques, say, of covering small-town fires, but Uncle Sam makes sure you know the deal upfront: No job is without risk. You could die just as easily in civilian life, of course—death is always a car accident or gas-leak explosion away—but the Army job overtly and explicitly puts you in harm's way. Even if you don't sign up to be a trigger-puller.

*****

U.S. Army Spc. Hilda I. Clayton
On July 2, 2013, U.S. Army combat camera soldier Spc. Hilda I. Clayton, 22, of Augusta, Ga. was killed in Eastern Afghanistan's Laghman Province, when a mortar being fired by Afghan National Army soldiers during a training exercise exploded just feet away from her camera position. Clayton was attached to 4th Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, then based at Forward Operating Base Gamberi. At the time, reports indicated the blast also killed three Afghan soldiers, and injured an additional 11.

The shot Clayton was taking was released by officials earlier this week, and published in the May-June 2017 issue of Military Review. A second image, shot by the Afghan public affairs soldier she was training, was also released.

The Military Review's editors state that Clayton was the first U.S. public affairs soldier to be killed in Afghanistan. They note also that Clayton was serving shoulder-to-shoulder with her Afghan counterparts:
At the critical juncture of the war, when it was necessary for the ANA to increasingly assume responsibility for military actions, the story was not in the fighting but in the partnership that was necessary between U.S. and Afghan forces to stabilize the Afghan nation. One of the Afghan soldiers killed was a photojournalist that Clayton had partnered with to train in photojournalism. Not only did Clayton help document activities aimed at shaping and strengthening the partnership but she also shared in the risk by participating in the effort.
Finally, they note the relevance of her death to the topic of gender equality in the military. "Clayton’s death symbolizes how female soldiers are increasingly exposed to hazardous situations in training and in combat on par with their male counterparts."

*****

The "Reporting for Duty" book project was recently recognized, albeit indirectly, via an essay contest co-sponsored by the Small Wars Journal and the Military Writers Guild. The exercise assignment was to document operational lessons from tactical soldiers working at lower, tactical levels. In Army jargon, a "lesson" is knowledge gained from experience. A "lesson-learned" is knowledge gained from experience that changes subsequent behaviors.

Drawing on some Army lessons-learned training, as well as my experiences as a former small newspaper editor, I wrote an essay titled "Telling the Brigade Story: A Case Study of U.S. Army Public Affairs as an Engine of Operational Effects, Organizational History, and Strategic Narrative," which I'm pleased to report was a finalist in the contest. The essay notes how nearly every article and photo produced by public affairs soldiers deployed to Afghanistan with Iowa's 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division (2-34th BCT) was tied to one of three narratives of counterinsurgency: Clear the countryside of insurgent fighters. Hold the terrain, alongside Afghan security forces. Build infrastructure, commerce, and rule-of-law on behalf of the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIRoA).

Anything not related to "clear, hold, build" was a human-interest story. And even those stories, like that of Clayton's death, could also be arguably linked to the mission. We stand, in the words of one NATO training mission in Afghanistan, shohna ba shohna. "Shoulder-to-shoulder." We share in hardship and sacrifice. Our soldiers are just people, like you.

*****

I've got mixed feelings about the public release of the Clayton photographs. Journalism school was filled with classroom discussions about balancing the public's right to know with a subject's right to privacy. If an image only served to entertain, to titillate, to shock without moral or purpose, we taught ourselves to keep it off our pages, no matter how many magazines or newspapers it might sell.

Those were the days, of course, before the Internet. Now it seems that everything is up for grabs, regardless of good taste or facts.

I am publishing the photographs in question as part of this blog post. That's because you have to see them to understand what I'm talking about. Also, you can see them easily via the Internet. Neither of those reasons, should be an automatic indication that they're journalistically OK to publish.

Was releasing the Clayton photo the right call editorially? I don't wish to aggressively probe the ground with my own pole or pick axe, of course, but I am conflicted. As Time magazine notes, there is precedence for publishing the last images seen by war photographers. It also seems, however—that without a countervailing public need to illuminate a flaw in policy or procedure—the moment of a soldier's death might be best kept private.

Certainly, the image is not longer any sort of news flash. Released four years after a 2013 incident, its value as an artifact of current events faded long ago. Also, if value of the image is due to its representation of U.S.-Afghan security partnership, why is the name of one U.S. soldier privileged over the names of three or more Afghan soldiers, equally deceased?

Things once taught in journalism school (and, one hopes, that still are): Interrogate all messages and motivations, including your own. Make sure implied meanings match those more overtly stated. Actions speak louder than words. So do pictures.

*****

In the poem "toward a poetics of lessons-learned," which first appeared in "Proud to Be: Writing by American Warriors Vol. 5," I write generally about five lessons from military service. The poem ends with this insight:
In war, doing everything right
can still get you killed.

Try not to learn
that last one
the hard way.
*****

July 2, 2013 mortar training incident from unnamed Afghan soldier-photographer's
perspective. Photo courtesy U.S. Army
In the Afghan soldier's image, everything and nothing is happening, all at once. You can see two Afghan soldiers, identifiable mostly by the fact that their Kevlar helmets lack the cloth camouflage covers usually worn by U.S. soldiers. A ball of flame hangs between them, centered in the image like a sun. The soldiers are facing the explosion. The soldiers' faces are obscured by light, and by the hands they have raised to their ears in anticipation of the mortar round's launch. In the lower-left corner, a camera lens invades the frame.

The camera was Clayton's.

Clayton's perspective is from a lower angle, and her photo depicts only one Afghan soldier, standing, hands to ears, facing the fire. Clayton's image captures rock and shrapnel from the exploding mortar tube. It seems somewhat overexposed, desaturated like World War II combat footage, or the 1998 war movie "Saving Private Ryan."

Editorially, I'm not sure there is much to be learned from viewing these. There are no potential lessons here, other than don't stand so close to the weapon. After the world sees these images, soldiers will still conduct mortar training. Soldier-journalists will continue to take photographs. Soldiers will continue to fight in an open-ended war. The images will eventually—perhaps quickly—fade from public view and consciousness and memory. The realities of service will remain. Afghanistan will remain. No job is without risk.

Perhaps we should regard Clayton's image as an artifact of fine art. One that hangs, suspended, out of time, and invites further contemplation. Or, better yet, conversation.

The mortar blast images show everything, and nothing. They should not have been released. They are essential for understanding the war. We are still in Afghanistan. Discuss.

02 May 2017

Pedestal Mag Seeks Poetry on War, Deadline is May 21

In preparation for their June 2017 issue, editors of Pedestal Magazine, a bimonthly on-line literary journal based in Charlotte, N.C., have opened a brief window (ends May 21) for poetry submissions related to themes of war. They write:
For the June 2017 issue, Pedestal editors will be accepting poetry on the theme of 'war.' We welcome work from both veterans and non-veterans, and would like to see a variety of responses—literal, confessional, figurative, and metaphoric. Send up to 5 poems (no restrictions on genre or length). Please include all work in a single file. Payment: $40 per accepted poem.
Editors seek new work only. Simultaneous submissions OK. For more information, click here. Submittable page is here.

A Facebook page for the magazine is here.

Pedestal Magazine was launched by John Amen in December 2000, and currently features poetry, fiction, visual art, interviews, and reviews. Each issue features from 15 to 20 works. The most recent issue, No. 79, focused on the genre of speculative poetry.

Regarding war themes, Issue No. 78 notably featured a poem titled "Underwater Detonation of a World War II Bomb," by John Davies.

Read more about Pedestal's editorial staff here.

For other markets seeking writing from and about military service members, veterans, and families, check out the regularly updated Red Bull Rising list here.

26 April 2017

Book Review: Kamesan's Haiku Anthology on War

Book Review: "Kamesan's World Haiku Anthology on War, Violence and Human Rights violation" compiled by Dimitar Anakiev
haiku about war?
collected bits of shrapnel—
wish I'd thought of that
One of the reasons I like using haiku to share military perspectives and experiences is that it's such a recognizable and friendly form of communication. It's an easy recipe, for those who wish to follow it: Five syllables plus seven syllables plus another five. Put a little nature in there, a quick shift in focus or action, and stir. Season to taste.

My kids first learned to read and write haiku in second grade, which is about the same age as I did. Haiku is basic, and complex, and as addictive as eating potato chips. Even people who say they don't like poetry will stop to read a short poem, particularly if you pepper it with a little snark.

That's why many of the poems in my 2015 collection "Welcome to FOB Haiku"—indeed, as the title of the book itself suggests—are haiku.

There's little new under the poetry sun, of course, and I was hardly the first to marry modern warfare and short-format poetry. Still, imagine my delight in discovering a published collection of approximately 900 haiku poems by 435 poets collected and translated from 35 global languages, all on the subject of war.

Originally underwritten by a 2012 crowd-funding campaign, and compiled by Slovenian poet and filmmaker Dimitar Anakiev (a.k.a. "Kamesan"), the 396-page ""World Haiku Anthology on War, Violence and Human Rights violation" includes a few 15th century examples from haiku masters, as well as poems dating from World War I. Most of the poems are later 20th century and 21st century works, however, and are rooted in many different geographies of conflict and suffering, including Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan, Korea, even Columbine, Colo. These poems are shards of regret, sadness, and loss, but the overall mood seems reflective and contemplative, without being funerary.

Adding some visual wit, the book is punctuated and illuminated by occasional drawings by Kuniharu Shimizu. Shimizu also designed the book's cover.

Here's a quick sampling of some of my favorite poems in the collection. I have taken the liberty of including the place number of each, so that interested readers might locate the poems in the book itself.
4.
After the war
a man with one leg
is he a hero?

—Karunush Kumar Agrawal, India

*****


37.
some new weaponry
now eco-friendly
kills with green bullets

—Winona Baker, Canada

*****


45.
wolf moon
another battalion
ships out

—Francine Banwarth, United States

*****


75.
having picnic by
the old command headquarters—
forgotten battles

—Rick Black, United States

*****


177.
only pale moonlight
Baghdad is powerless
on a winter night

—Anne Connolly, Ireland

*****


237.
war crimes
he puts a gun to his head
and kills them all

—Garry Eaton, Canada
A far more expert and informed analysis of some of the haiku in this collection can be found at Chen-ou Liu's NeverEnding Story blog here. Indeed, it is Chen-ou Liu's analysis that first called to my attention the existence of this monumental collection. This is a must-read for any haiku enthusiast or practitioner—particularly those who may have once worn a uniform.

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 clich├ęs, 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: