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. 

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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.

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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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