Saturday, February 20, 2016

Warrior Writers: Evolving, Involving Way of Addressing War Experiences

I’ve taught journalism to scores of college students over the past several years as an adjunct professor. It’s hard to say what impact my sharing reporting tips from a decades-long journalism career has had. The newspaper business as a place for writers to work and grow took a tremendous hit in the 2007 recession and from advertising migrating to the Internet. My volunteer work since retiring from the newsroom in 2008, especially my interaction with Warrior Writers and Combat Paper, has been far more satisfying, as I see many participants grow.

Warrior Writers workshops that I help facilitate in New Jersey welcome veterans and military family members. This combination has enriched the discussions at these gatherings. Vets trying to deal with combat experiences and dismay after coming home hear mothers reveal their anguish over a child serving in a war. Parents hear about things in military life that they had no inkling of.

Everyone at these workshops--designed to provide a safe haven for sharing hard to discuss experiences—has witnessed a combat vet choke up while trying to describe something that happened long ago. 

For more than a year, Warrior Writers NJ has held writing workshops in veterans’ homes, informal gatherings that have attracted about a dozen vets and family members to monthly Sunday afternoon get-togethers. The format has also provided a support system for helping to organize poetry readings and art shows in conjunction with Combat Paper NJ, an art group for veterans that works with Warrior Writers on public events.

Since September, Warrior Writers NJ has also provided evening writing workshops once a month at the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation in Morristown, NJ. This arrangement grew out of Warrior Writers poets being invited to read at the Dodge Poetry Festival in October 2014 at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, NJ.

Another evolution in Warrior Writers, which started in Philadelphia, PA in 2007 with a focus on assisting veterans of the War on Terrorism, is that the workshops have also attracted many other veterans who served prior to the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

“Warrior Writers saved my life,” says Sarah Mess, a New Jersey mother of two who served in a US Army field hospital in the war in Somalia in 1993. She was thrilled by an emotional meeting with another Somalia vet at a recent Warrior Writers workshop. At the same get-together were five Vietnam vets, a Gulf War I vet and the mother of a Marine who served in Iraq.

“The closest I have come to coming home has been in this community,” Sarah Mess said in a video, The Fog of War: Combat Paper and Warrior Writers, produced last year by State of the Arts NJ and shown on NJTV and other educational stations.

Under the direction of Warrior Writers founder Lovella Calica, the group has published four anthologies of writing and art by veterans who participated in workshops. The most recent is Warrior Writers: A Collection of Writing and Artwork by Veterans, published in 2014. The anthology includes the work of more than 70 veterans who served in Vietnam, Gulf War I, Somalia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq and other nations on military missions.

In a poem titled "Back to Iraq," in the Warrior Writers collection, Army veteran Nathan Lewis describes the process in Warrior Writers workshops of writing about troublesome thoughts. In the last stanza, he writes:

Take the route and go back
Back for one minute
Back for one second
Just for a thought
Just for a memory
The rubble, the smoke, the man with the shovel
I visit them in memory so they don't visit me in sleep

Finding a Creative Community

Kevin Basl, an Army vet who served in Iraq and coedited the Warrior Writers collection, wrote about learning about the program while studying for an MFA in fiction writing at Temple University: “I discovered what I had been lacking: a genuine, face-to-face community where I could share my stories honestly, a place where I could understand my new identity. I found myself surrounded by friends to encourage me both in my art and in processing my war experience, to help rekindle a sense of purpose. This was something essential that no MFA program could provide.”

The Warrior Writers workshop approach has spread across the country, with sessions hosted by art centers, colleges, VA hospitals and military bases. The workshops are run by veterans and supporters under the guidance of Lovella Calica, who periodically offers training workshops in Philadelphia and other locations.

Upcoming Warrior Writers events are scheduled in Boston, New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Chicago, Los Angeles, and other locations. Combined workshops will be held with Combat Paper NJ at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and other locations in the Washington, DC area.

“A lot of the Combat Paper workshops include a writing element based on Warrior Writers’ free writing style. It really is an immediate way to get thoughts and feelings and expression out from your head,” David Keefe, director of Combat Paper NJ and a Marine vet of Iraq, said in The Fog of War video.

Seema Reza, a poet who runs writing workshops for active duty soldiers at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, wrote an appreciation for the Warrior Writers program as an afterword in the 2014 anthology: “I have used the work from Warrior Writers anthologies in writing groups … and every single time, I witness change and a greater sense of clarity—both in myself and in participants.”

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Friday, February 12, 2016

Dust Devils

Dust devil off Route 50 in Nevada, June 2015  (photo: Jan Barry)
Route 50 across Nevada,
“Loneliest highway in America,”
They say. No cars or trucks in sight
As I pull to the side for a pit stop.
A dust devil is rising to the north
Way out over Willow Creek Ranch,
As I pee on a  sage bush
Near the sign at the cattle gate.
By my feet, a rusted tin can,
Broken remains of a beer bottle,
Cigarette butts crushed in the sand.

How many times I’ve been
On some road, traveling alone.
I enjoy the silence,
The views, the timelessness,
Communing with Nature.
Soon enough I’ll be back
Amid friends and family,
The whirl of daily life.

 Water spouts swirl to the south.
A ring of magnificent mountains
Embraces the desert basin.
Generations of travelers
Have trekked through here,
Seeking something else.
I’m on the road again,
Looking for the meaning of life.

A dust devil dances
Across the desert
And across the highway,
A whirling dervish
Swirling in front of the car,
Suddenly a bronze-gray ghost
I drive through.
--Jan Barry