Thursday, October 30, 2014

Another Kind of Poetry


Imagine a poetry opera: seventeen poets presenting an array of poems that wove a tapestry of battle-battered, yet persistent themes on war, accompanied by a jazz band and a trio of singers whose wistful harmonies were bell-ringing clear and eerie as funeral hymns.

That’s the program the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival presented at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, NJ, last Saturday night. Thrust into the daunting role of presenting the first poem in the 90-minute production, titled “Another Kind of Courage,” I nearly choked up when the band played a thunderous grand entrance fanfare, as I shuffled across the stage in NJPAC’s enormous concert hall. It was the startling opening of an evening of startling stories by war veterans and military family members drawn from the depths of nightmares and momentous, life-long memories.

Based on the thunderclaps of applause from the audience, this audacious opera conceived by Dodge Poetry Director Martin Farawell worked spectacularly. Among the interwoven themes were love and loss among soldiers, pride and prejudice in the military, and of course death, grief and mourning, with a recurring, raw-edged, still stunned emphasis on suicide.

The set list of poems included established pieces by acclaimed masters of modern poetry and emerging work by young veterans whose powerful poetry and performances were developed in workshops conducted by Warrior Writers and Combat Paper, the veteran-oriented arts programs that encourage plumbing the depths of “unspeakable” memories.

The eclectic cast included Dodge Poetry Festival featured poets Jehanne Dubrow, Elyse Fenton, Charles H. Johnson, Yusef Komunyakaa, Gardner McFall, Marilyn Nelson, Brian Turner plus—from Warrior Writers/Combat Paper—Jan Barry, Kevin Basl, Chantelle Bateman, Jeremy Stainthorp Berggren, Lovella Calica, Hugh Martin, Jennifer Pacanowski,  Carlos Sirah, Jon Turner and Eli Wright.

Music was provided by the Tomas Doncker Band, which played pieces composed for poems by Komunyakaa and Jennifer Pacanowski, and the Parkington Sisters, who sang with the band, did a solo, breath-taking rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “If It Be Your Will,” and closed the show with a haunting melody they wrote, “In the Garden,” sung to their own violin and guitar accompaniment.

Another presence on stage was Jacob George, an Afghanistan war vet and folk singer who killed himself last month. His poem “Support the Troops,” published in a Warrior Writers anthology, was read by Chantelle Bateman, who served with the Marines in Iraq and with Jacob in peace actions calling for ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Other spectral presences evoked on stage included Gardner McFall’s father, who died on a Navy bombing mission in Vietnam; Marilyn Nelson’s father, who survived World War II and thrived in a military career but couldn’t quite shake the insults of racism at home; and Private Miller, a member of Brian Turner’s Army unit in Iraq who shot himself one morning—and, as Turner said in his poem “Eulogy”… “for this moment the earth is stilled.”

My contributions to this theme included a new poem, meant to evoke a lost army of missing soldiers and veterans.

Singing Out

How big would the war
Memorial wall be
If it listed all the names
Of soldiers who died of suicide—
Adam, Baker, Charlie…
Jacob David George
Three tours in Afghanistan
Jeffrey Lucey
Marine vet of Iraq invasion
Theodore S. Westhusing
Col., US Army
Who wrote in Iraq
“Death before being dishonored”

I couldn’t write about
The first Vietnam vet I knew
Who killed himself—
I couldn’t write about him
I couldn’t write his obit
Because newspaper policy prohibited
Reporting suicides

I didn’t know what to do
With that—that—that—muzzling

The second vet I knew
Who killed himself
Was found with a copy
Of one of my writings
In his wallet—
We cannot protect our buddies
We cannot protect our friends
With words alone

We need to change
Our apocalyptic, hellacious
Hell-bent, death-dealing culture—
Our flag flapping, sword saluting
Sworn to secrecy
Stiff upper lip, suck it up
He-man, iron man military mindset

We need to transform
The “death before dishonor”
Code seeded in our souls—
To singing out for life,
For a lifetime
Singing out
To challenge, to change
Our dancing with death

--Jan Barry


Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Warrior Writers Reading at Dodge Poetry Festival

Warrior Writers poet Jennifer Pacanowski


A literary troop from Warrior Writers and Combat Paper will take the stage Saturday, October 25, at the 2014 Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, NJ.

The group will be reading in a featured event at 8:15 p.m. billed “Another Kind of Courage,” with performances by poets Yusef Komunyakaa, Charles H. Johnson, Brian Turner and others who are military veterans or military family members.

Warrior Writers and Combat Paper poets participating in the event are Jan Barry, Kevin Basl, Chantelle Bateman, Jeremy Stainthorp Berggren, Lovella Calica, Hugh Martin, Jennifer Pacanowski, Carlos Sirah, Jon Turner and Eli Wright.

Selections of their work are included in a new anthology, Warrior Writers: A Collection of Writing and Artwork by Veterans, and previous works published by Warrior Writers, a nonprofit arts organization based in Philadelphia, PA.

Martin Farawell, Dodge Poetry Director, chose the theme of “Another Kind of Courage” to honor the transformational work that many veterans and military family members have made in turning anguish into art.

“Classic war stories often evolve around finding the courage to enter battle, but there is another kind of courage required of veterans and their families as they face the impact and aftermath of war: The courage required to acknowledge trauma; to turn with love toward those transformed and wounded by war, including ourselves,” Farawell said.

Warrior Writers is a veteran-focused arts organization whose mission is to give voice to veterans’ experiences, provide a creative community for artistic expression, and bear witness to the experiences of warriors through casual, welcoming workshops held at colleges, art galleries and other sites around the nation.

Combat Paper, a program of the Printmaking Center of NJ, holds papermaking workshops in which veterans turn their uniforms, memories and experiences into art. A Combat Paper art exhibition, “Trigger Experience,” is currently on display at the Morris County Administration Building in Morristown, NJ through January 6.

Poet bios:

Jan Barry, of Teaneck, NJ, is a poet, journalist and author of Life After War & Other Poems (Combat Paper Press) and co-editor of Winning Hearts & Minds: War Poems by Vietnam Veterans, among other works. He served in the Army in Vietnam.

Kevin Basl, an Army veteran of Iraq, earned an MFA in fiction from Temple University. He is a workshop facilitator with Warrior Writers and Combat Paper NJ, based at the Printmaking Center of New Jersey in Branchburg, NJ

Jeremy Stainthorp Berggren,  a Marine veteran of the Iraq War,  is a writer, poet and visual artist. He is included in an upcoming documentary about spoken word artists in the triangle area of North Carolina

Chantelle Bateman, of Philadelphia, PA, served with the Marines in Iraq. A poet, artist and writer, her work has been featured in the film “Out of Step,” Warrior Writers anthologies and the National Veterans Art Museum.

Lovella Calica is Director of Warrior Writers, based in Philadelphia, PA. She is a poet and editor of Warrior Writers, After Action Review and other anthologies of writings and artwork by military veterans. She received three Art and Change grants from the Leeway Foundation and was honored with the Transformation Award in 2009.

Hugh Martin, an Ohio National Guard veteran of the Iraq War, is author of The Stick Soldiers and So, How Was the War? Recipient of a Wallace Stegner Fellowship, he was the inaugural winner of The Iowa Review Jeff Sharlet Award for Veterans. He is currently the Emerging Writer Lecturer at Gettysburg College.

Jennifer Pacanowski, of Allentown, PA, served in Iraq as an Army combat medic. She is a public speaker, poet, playwright and writing facilitator for Warrior Writers.

Carlos Sirah served in the Army in Iraq. He studied Performance at Fordham University and is currently pursuing an MFA in Writing for Performance at Brown University. He is a playwright and actor.

Jon Turner is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War and a humanitarian mission to Haiti. He is a poet, visual artist and director of the Center for Healthy Change in Vermont.

Eli Wright, an Army veteran of Iraq, is an instructor for Combat Paper NJ, providing workshops for veterans and active duty soldiers at VA facilities, military bases, colleges and art galleries along the East Coast from Maine to Virginia.

For more information:
http://blog.grdodge.org/2014/07/03/another-kind-of-courage-dpf14/


Monday, September 22, 2014

Saving the World: Where’s the Cavalry?



U.S. Cavalry in Yellowstone Park    (photo: PBS)

In 1886, a troop of U.S. Cavalry rode into Yellowstone Park in a remote corner of Wyoming to save its stunning scenic features and array of wildlife targeted for wholesale hunting and destructive commercial development. As recounted in Ken Burns’ PBS series “National Parks: America’s Best Idea,” the U.S. Army protected Yellowstone on behalf of the public for 30 years, until the creation of the National Park Service in 1916.

With our nation now threatened by industrial pollution’s impact on the world’s environment, the question is where is today’s cavalry? Where is the modern version of General Sheridan’s campaign to save a corner of the earth from the destructive forces the U.S. Army blazed the trails for and ushered into the American West?

Where is Uncle Sam’s national security plan to protect Americans from epidemic levels of cancer and other diseases from industrial toxins; from increasingly destructive floods and droughts, hurricanes and blizzards from industrially induced climate change; and from the precarious economy built on these self-destructive forces?

In the absence of such a government commitment, a citizens’ army of several hundred thousand people trooped through New York City on Sunday to send a message to national and international leaders who are scheduled to meet this week at the United Nations. Among the wide variety of environmental, animal rights, human rights and other civic groups that sent substantial delegations to march through Times Square and other major streets in New York in the People’s Climate March was a small troop of military veterans.

“U.S. Military: Largest Consumer of Oil, Largest Emitter of CO2” read the message on a giant bomb-shaped float provided by Veterans For Peace. Other groups represented in this bloc of climate marchers were Iraq Veterans Against the War, Vietnam Veterans Against the War and Military Families Speak Out.

A banner carried by the vet contingent stated: “U.S. Military: Biggest Consumer of Fossil Fuels on Earth; Stop the War on Mother Earth.”

It wasn’t as dramatic perhaps as the U.S. Cavalry riding to the rescue of Yellowstone Park, but the People’s Climate March for saving the Earth from the destructive forces that the U.S. military is too often party to was an historic occasion.

Veterans For Peace float    (photo: Jan Barry)

Vet and military family marchers  (photo: Jan Barry)

     

Thursday, September 18, 2014

"Soldier's Heart" Jacob George, RIP




Jacob George        (photo: Healing Path Expo)

A shock wave is crashing around numerous circles of friends and acquaintances on Facebook and elsewhere. Jacob David George, an Army veteran who survived three deployments in Afghanistan, has died. The buzz among fellow vets is he died of let's say a broken heart. 

At a meeting last month in Washington of peace activist military families and veterans with White House staff members, I read a poem to convey a message many veterans would like President Obama to hear and act on. The poem, “Support the Troops,” was written by Jacob George. 

“we just Need to support the troops"
is what they tell me

well, this is from a troop
so listen carefully

what we Need are teachers who understand the history of this country
what we Need is a decent living wage, so people ain’t cold and hungry
what we Need is bicycle infrastructure spanning this beauteous nation
what we Need are more trees and less play stations
what we Need is a justice system that seeks the truth
what we Need are more books and less boots

what we Need is love

for every woman and man
from southern Louisiana
to the mountains of Afghanistan

Now, it's true
The troops need support
the support to come home
they need treatment and jobs
and love for the soul

see,
war ain't no good
for the human condition
I lost a piece of who I was
on every single mission
and I'm tellin’ you,
don't thank me for what I've done

give me a big hug
and let me know
we're not gonna let this happen again
because we support the troops
and we're gonna bring these wars to an end

Jacob’s poem appeared in After Action Review, a collection of writings by vets published by Warrior Writers in 2011. He also transformed it into a song that he traveled around the country singing to the thumping strings of a banjo. With other vets, he did cross-country bicycle rides for peace. He liked to call himself “a bicycle ridin, banjo pickin, peace rambling hillbilly from Ouachita Mountains of Arkansas.”

A selection of Jacob George’s songs, from a collection called “Soldier’s Heart,” that he performed with a country band in Arkansas in 2013, was recorded in “Support Your Troops: A Special Report”:  




Thursday, September 11, 2014

War Comes Home



"War Comes Home"    watercolor by Jan Barry

Some memory or anniversary or image triggered a nightmare awhile ago in which I was a Vietnam vet suddenly amid a swirling crowd of students at Kent State when a Ohio National Guard unit fired rifles to break up an antiwar demonstration on campus, killing four students, wounding and scarring many others.

I felt tore apart, physically and emotionally, in this nightmare—I was being shot at by soldiers wearing the same uniform I wore in Vietnam! Struggling out of bed, I felt embedded in May 1970. Back then, as news of the Kent State shootings spread while I was visiting with stunned and outraged vets at a campus demonstration that closed down classes at Syracuse University, I had a panic attack: my government was out to kill me for protesting the war I served in.

It took weeks this summer to work out the details of that nightmare in a watercolor. The veteran in the painting is based on Vietnam vets I met or read about who were students at Kent State at the time of the shooting. The other images are based on photos that appeared in news publications and now on Google.

While I was working on this artwork, a nightmarish military apparition was set upon civil rights demonstrators in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri: tank-like vehicles back from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, police units in military combat gear aiming rifles at outraged citizens, tear gas and stun grenades fired down an American city’s main street and into residential neighborhoods.

This is another of the horrendous consequences of  Uncle Sam’s virtually endless warmaking—Americans turning on each other, shredding the Bill of Rights and the rest of the Constitution in a blaze of official self-righteousness.



A Soldier's View of Vietnam




A Soldier’s View of Vietnam:
Presentation at Oradell Public Library

Poet and author Jan Barry will present a slideshow talk at the Oradell Public Library on Monday, Sept. 29 on “A Soldier’s View of Vietnam: Art, Poetry and War.” The 7 p.m. event at the library, 375 Kinderkamack Road in Oradell, NJ is free and open to the public.

Barry, a Teaneck resident, began jotting down notes as a soldier in Vietnam. It led to a career as a writer. Retired from The Record newspaper, where he was lead reporter on the “Toxic Legacy” investigative series, he teaches journalism at Ramapo College and St. Thomas Aquinas College. He is the author or editor of more than a dozen books, including A Citizen's Guide to Grassroots Campaigns, Life After War & Other Poems, and Winning Hearts & Minds: War Poems by Vietnam Veterans.

His poetry has appeared in numerous publications, including The New York Times, A People and a Nation: a History of the United States, and, most recently, Warrior Writers, an anthology of works by veterans from Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan created in writing workshops Barry is involved in. He has participated in and curated exhibitions of art by veterans at a number of galleries, including Puffin Cultural Forum in Teaneck and the Brennan Gallery in the Justice William J. Brennan Court House in Jersey City.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Learning from a Therapeutic Poet


W.D. Ehrhart is not the sort of rarified poet readers ponder in The New Yorker. He doesn’t teach at a famous university. And yet, his poetry and memoirs are so widely taught in the U.S. and abroad that a veritable emporium of essays about Ehrhart’s life and literary works has now been published.

“Bill’s writings about war and the aftermath of war spoke to me more than anything else I’d read,” Clint Van Winkle, an Iraq War vet and author, notes in The Last Time I Dreamed About the War: Essays on the Life and Writing of W.D. Ehrhart. “I’ve been a student of his since I first read a line of his work … Many veterans from my generation, including my Marine buddies who met Bill as we filmed [a documentary], are pupils of his as well …”

Edited by Jean-Jacques Malo, a professor at the Universite de Nantes in France, this eclectic collection of essays on Ehrhart was written by 20 contributors from the U.S., Europe and Asia who delve into his wide-ranging influence as a poet, memoirist and teacher. The paperback collection is published by McFarland & Company, which previously published several of Ehrhart’s books. 

“The writer who first made the Vietnam War ‘real’ to me, validating my trauma and cementing my fellowship with a community of veterans, was W.D. Ehrhart,” writes Edward F. Palm, a college professor who served with the Marines in Vietnam. “In my opinion, Ehrhart remains the best, and certainly the most accessible, chronicler of this process of individual and collective disillusionment” experienced by the Vietnam War generation.

Ehrhart is perhaps best known as the author of Vietnam-Perkasie: a Combat Marine Memoir. He is also the author or editor of a bookshelf-ful of poetry collections, including Carrying the Darkness: Poetry of the Vietnam War, two additional memoirs, and three collections of essays. Bill and I collaborated on an early anthology, Demilitarized Zones: Veterans After Vietnam. I wrote an essay that’s in this new work, an appreciation of what I learned in interacting with Bill for more than three decades, titled “Ehrhart Effect.” 

“For students, a visit by Bill Ehrhart is an enlightening and electrifying experience,” attests Martin Novelli, a college professor in New Jersey and Philadelphia. In the wake of Ehrhart’s presentation, Novelli gives his students “a writing assignment to describe their reaction to Bill’s visit. The papers, without exception, for the past couple of decades indicate the enormous impact that Bill’s visit has on them.”

As Malo, the editor, notes: “Many high school teachers and college professors use Ehrhart’s writings to teach the Vietnam War, and he has been invited numerous times to talk to classes in many parts of the U.S. This activity is also a significant aspect of Ehrhart’s oeuvre: he does not remain in his ivory tower. He interacts with people, he argues, he debates as to open minds and get people thinking.”

When not writing and traveling to speak in numerous places, Ehrhart has been teaching high school English and history at various schools, notably The Haverford School, a private prep school in Pennsylvania, since 2001. He was recruited for that job because the headmaster, Joseph Cox, recalled an Ehrhart visit to a class Cox previously taught at the U.S Military Academy at West Point.
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“I believed W.D. Ehrhart was the best Vietnam veteran poet,” wrote Cox, who served in Vietnam as an Army officer. “During his visit to West Point, I also could see that the poet W.D. Ehrhart was also an incredible teacher who connected authentically with the cadets. He had an enormous capacity for empathy and never talked down to students. … they respected his perspectives on war even if Bill’s opinions were not politically compatible with the majority of service academy students.”

Ehrhart’s impact on readers and audiences of all sorts is attested to by several other contributors, including several other war veterans, the director of creative writing at the U.S. Air Force Academy, and professors in England, Netherlands, India and Japan.

His impact on other writers is also remarkable. “I didn’t think anybody would want to read, much less publish any of my writings. I was emboldened by Bill’s writing and advice,” notes Van Winkle, who was encouraged by Ehrhart to write about the experience of fighting in Iraq, in a book titled Soft Spots: A Marine’s Memoir of Combat and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

In an interview recorded by Malo, Ehrhart says “I dislike the notion of poetry as therapy.” Yet, he adds, “in retrospect I have to recognize that writing about the war was indeed very therapeutic for me … writing was a way of making sense of what had happened.”

Here’s a recollection I included in my essay about Ehrhart’s effect on a fellow poet:

“A couple of winters ago, I was in my usual cold weather funk, exacerbated that season by my wife dying during the Christmas holidays ten years before. When I get blue beyond the soothing realms of jazz, I reach for poetry. The rhythmic kick of well-placed words works better for me than pills or booze. So it was that I grabbed from a pile of books near my desk a copy of Ehrhart’s latest poetry collection, The Bodies Beneath the Table. Through that dark night, I read each poem aloud, awash in thunderstorms of emotions set in motion by Bill’s poems and my life, and got up refreshed.”

For more information:
www.mcfarlandpub.com/book-2.php?id=978-0-7864-7699-2