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.
“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.”

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Monday, July 21, 2014

Warrior Writers Reading in Newark

A literary patrol of Warrior Writers poets will be performing Thursday, July 24, at Noon on the green in Military Park, Newark, NJ. The free public event is part of Lunchtime Poems in Military Park, showcasing a selection of poets scheduled to read in the 2014 Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in October. Military Park is off Broad Street and Park Place in downtown Newark.

Warrior Writers poets reading on Thursday are Jan Barry, Kevin Basl, Sarah Mess, Walt Nygard, Eli Wright and James Yee. Selections of their work are included in a new anthology, Warrior Writers: A Collection of Writing and Artwork by Veterans, published by Warrior Writers, a nonprofit arts organization based in Philadelphia, PA.

Jan Barry, of Teaneck, is a poet and writer who served with the Army in Vietnam, 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.

Kevin Basl, an Army veteran of Iraq, is a workshop facilitator with Warrior Writers and Combat Paper NJ, based at the Printmaking Center of New Jersey in Branchburg, NJ

Sarah N. Mess, of Branchburg, served in an Army medical unit in Somalia.

Walt Nygard, of Teaneck, served with the Marines in Vietnam. Author of The Summer Joe Joined the Army (Post Traumatic Press), he is a writer, artist and paper/print-maker with Combat Paper NJ.

Eli Wright served as a combat medic in Iraq. He 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.

James Yee is a former Army Chaplain for the military prison at Guantanamo Bay. Author of For God and Country: Faith and Patriotism Under Fire, he is a facilitator with Combat Paper NJ. 

For more information:

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Fighting for Peace

One way to study social movements is to do a lot of research and interviews. Lisa Leitz took a big step beyond standardized scholarship and joined the movement she wanted to study. That movement consisted of local to national actions of Military Families Speak Out, which she joined as the wife of an active duty Navy aviator, Gold Star Families for Peace, who lost sons and daughters in war, Veterans For Peace, Iraq Veterans Against the War and allied organizations.

Her hands-on approach resulted in Fighting for Peace: Veterans and Military Families in the Anti-Iraq War Movement, recently published by the University of Minnesota Press as part of its series on social movements. During the time she worked on this book she taught sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara and then at Hendrix College in Arkansas and “commuted” to war protests around the country.

I first met Lisa Leitz at an antiwar rally by Military Families Speak Out and Veterans For Peace in front of the White House right after Barack Obama was inaugurated president. She showed up at war protests in all sorts of places and took notes, exchanged phone numbers and email addresses and “became a part of my wider family,” she wrote. “I took late-night calls from stressed out parents and spouses ... I sat through the night with veterans traumatized by the war and with their families who worried about them… I shared activists’ fear, guilt, anger, pride, and joy.”  

The focus of her book is both to record an historic outburst of war protests by military veterans and family members outraged by the invasion and military destruction of Iraq with the loss of thousands of US soldiers, and to challenge sociologists to look deeper into the web of grassroots actions that create cultural shifts.  “We need to go beyond traditional protest to examine how change happens,” she writes.

Consider some of the shifts she discovered:

  • “While trying to change public opinion, the activists changed themselves,” she noted. “Activists found others who were sympathetic to their traumatizing experiences and the problems that developed from them, and these tactics channeled activists’ anger about those experiences toward the war.”
  • “One day, a middle-aged man with a military style buzz cut who said he was a senior officer grabbed my hand [at the Arlington West memorial to the Iraq War dead set up by Vets For Peace and military families in Santa Barbara, California], shook it, and said, ‘Thank you for what you are doing. People need to see this.’”
  • “the second time an Arlington-style memorial was set up outside Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton in Southern California, two flatbed military trucks filled with Marines drove off base … [and] helped to set up the memorial and memorialized hundreds of their friends who died in battle. A three-star general visiting Pendleton told the activists, ‘You guys are doing it right.’”

In the course of working on this book, while her husband served four deployments in war areas, Leitz experienced the intense stress on military families that is another of the hidden wounds of war.  

“While many people think of post-traumatic stress as a military servicemember’s problem, recent research finds that military spouses’ rates of psychological problems are similar to those in uniform,” she wrote in a recent University of Minnesota Press blog. “With lengthy and deadly deployments common in our lives since 2001, spouses’ rates of stress-induced illness have increased, along with depression.”

The best way to address these problems, she concludes in her book, is through civic activism to reduce our national obsession with waging wars.

“The military peace movement hoped to put a human face on war so that Americans would have to think about specific individuals rather than nameless ‘troops’ and what wars did to them. … The idea was that by personalizing the pain of war, Americans would demand that troops be sent to fight only when absolutely necessary,” she wrote.

For more information:

Thursday, July 3, 2014

In Memoriam: Walter Dean Myers

Walter Dean Myers, who wrote books for children about the brute reality of war and life as a troubled black kid in rough neighborhoods, died Tuesday at 76. I never met Myers, who lived in Jersey City, but I was drawn like a magnet to one of his books—Patrol: An American Soldier in Vietnam—that a fellow vet brought to my attention recently.

Myers’ crisp, curt prose poetry and stunning illustrations of jungle warfare by Ann Grifalconi propelled me to experiment and create water color paintings of war memories still rattling around in my head.     

In a writing career that produced more than 100 books for children and young adults, Myers kept returning to dig deeper into the patriotic mythology of war. 

“I joined the army on my seventeenth birthday, full of the romance of war after having read a lot of World War I British poetry and having seen a lot of post−World War II films. … My younger brother’s death in Vietnam was both sobering and cause for reflection. In Fallen Angels I wanted to dispel the notion of war as either romantic or simplistically heroic,” he said in an interview provided by Scholastic, one of his publishers.

“I want young people to be hesitant to glorify war and to demand of their leaders justification for the sacrifices they ask of our citizens,” Myers continued in the interview on the Scholastic website. “The young people who read Fallen Angels some twenty years ago are the same ones who are the senior officers in today’s military. I hope that reading Fallen Angels has made them prudent leaders. And when they progress to becoming decision makers, I hope that the earnest literature they have encountered, including Fallen Angels and Sunrise Over Fallujah will cause them to deliberate wisely.”

A high school dropout who joined the army seeking boyish adventure, Myers turned a yen for reading into a self-made career writing about youngsters struggling through tough times. Of his book titled Just Write, a reviewer at Booklist noted: "Walter Dean Myers offers a wealth of advice that is professional and pragmatic and often couched in the context of his own work. Feeling that books saved his life, Myers now gives his readers the same opportunity through his advice and his large-hearted example."

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Monday, June 30, 2014

From War to Peace Poet

Not many poets these days embrace being peace activists. Based on poems published in popular magazines, readers would have no clue what contemporary poets think about Americans’ addiction to waging—and continually celebrating—an endless litany of wars.
Doug Rawlings embraces being a poet and a leader of Veterans For Peace. His new book, Orion Rising: Collected Poems, is dedicated to his family and the veterans’ organization founded in 1985 by Rawlings and other former soldiers. Over time many others, including me, signed up as well.

I first encountered Doug Rawlings’ soul-shaking poetry on surviving an Army tour in Vietnam just as that war was ending. Several of his poems graced Demilitarized Zones, the anthology of angry verses by Vietnam vets that W.D. Ehrhart and I published in 1976. At the time, he was teaching high school English in Maine. Publication of those early poems, he notes in his recently self-published book, gave him a social and literary grounding.

Over the years, as his teaching path led to the University of Maine, he continued writing poetry and persistently advocating for peaceful resolutions of the far-flung wars that the United States insists on partaking in.

“As a veteran,” he writes in his book dedication, “I feel a specific obligation to bring back old memories, to rekindle anguish and despair long buried, and to speak out against this military madness that has so grotesquely distorted our past, that is tearing apart our present, and that threatens to extinguish our future.”

In his collected poems, Doug Rawlings confronts the worst of life, and celebrates the best of life, in poems that transform calcified clich├ęs into lightning bug flashes of insight, foresight and delight. His war poetry punctures the patriotic balloon that imploded amid soldiers in Vietnam. His political poetry turns home front homilies into trumpet calls for peace campaigns. And his poet’s gaze on family, friends and nature—from his corner of Maine to the star-spangled universe—is no less, quite often, breath-taking.

In “Low Intensity Warfare,” for instance, he contrasts the atmosphere in North America—“Up here/ fall is in the air/ the mornings are crisp and clear”—to that in parts of Central America torn by civil wars stirred by US military and economic exploitation: “Down there/ young peasants/ are slipping into puddles/ of mangled skin…Down there/ the morning air/ smells of burning flesh…”

Doug Rawlings’ alternative way of life, embraced by many war veterans, is conveyed in his poem “Flower Song”:

Live your life
like a flower

Blossoming every hour

Reaching for the sun

Growing with the rain

Living every moment
like it’ll never come again

Orion Rising, which includes artwork by neighbors and friends Carol Scribner and Rob Shetterly, can be ordered through, the online publisher.


Monday, June 9, 2014

Medicine Garden

Planting Sweet Grass in Torne Valley

A stone’s throw from the Ramapo River, a cheerful crowd of Native Americans and local supporters gathered Sunday to plant a medicine garden on a patch of cleared ground in Torne Valley where Ford Motor Company recently removed tons of toxic paint sludge.

The traffic roar on the nearby New York State Thruway evaporated as Native American drums and songs arose as though from the distant past to accompany garden dedication ceremonies, including sharing pinches of tobacco sprinkled into a fire and the planting of plugs of Sweet Grass. The roughly half-acre site in a former sand and gravel quarry is laid out for growing Sweet Grass and Sage, used for basketry and smudging, as well as “healing herbs beneficial for cancer patients,” according to the invitation.

Two turkey vultures circled overhead, looking for road kill along the highway and railroad corridor that cuts through the once bucolic gap in the Ramapo Mountains. One speaker noted with a chuckle that vultures are symbols of recycling.    

The Healing of the Earth Ceremony marked a long-haul, grassroots effort by local residents and environmental activists to get Ford to remove the lead and chemical solvents-tainted waste, which was trucked from Ford’s Mahwah assembly plant and dumped along riverbanks in the 1960s. The buried debris in this field was next to a well that provides drinking water to much of the area around Suffern, NY. Further downstream are wells serving Mahwah and other towns in New Jersey.     

Cleanup area in Ramapo well field     (photos by Jan Barry)

“Today, with this healing ceremony, it’s a tipping point” toward protecting the environment in the bistate Ramapo River watershed, said Christopher St. Lawrence, the Town of Ramapo Supervisor, whose municipal government successfully pressed for clean up work that New York state officials let slide for decades despite repeated calls from area officials.

“This was ground zero for the buried lead paint,” said Chuck Stead, a Ramapo College adjunct professor and an environmental educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Rockland County. As a result of work that he and his students did over several years in mapping buried debris locations and filing reports with local and state agencies, Ford contractors last year removed 42,000 tons of tainted soil and hazardous waste from the Ramapo River well field parcel.

Stead lauded the Detroit-based auto company for eventually taking that action, planting dozens of native trees on the well field tract and paying for a sturdy deer-resistant fence around the medicine garden plot. But each of these steps, he noted, required persistent discussions and negotiations.    

New York State Department of Environmental Conservation officials are now overseeing a similar remediation plan for Ford to excavate and remove more toxic waste along Torne Brook, a nearby tributary of the Ramapo River.

Dwaine Perry, chief of the Ramapough-Lenape Nation, who lives in the adjacent village of Hillburn, NY, thanked a number of the people at the ceremony for their combined efforts. “The one message that comes through is persistence, persistence, persistence pays off,” said Perry. He added that Ford’s work on this site “hopefully is the beginning of corporate decency” on environmental issues nationally.

“Be proud that you live in a town that supports you,” said Vivian Milligan, a leader of the Ramapough community in Ringwood, NJ, where another Ford dump site is partially cleaned up. “Hopefully, some day we will have a garden in Ringwood.”

St. Lawrence, whose sprawling Rockland County town stretches along the border with New Jersey within miles of Ringwood, added in his remarks: “We need to all come together and work on Ringwood.”

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Fishing Story

"Fishing"       Jan Barry water color

Stopping by a favorite haunt one day, an egret spied a fisherman. The cell phone camera couldn’t do justice to the wily fisher silently stalking the unaware fisherman. So I set my hand to telling this tale in water colors.