Monday, March 18, 2019

Warrior Writers in Action

Sarah N. Mess and Jan Barry at Wild Project, NYC
 (photo/Omar Columbus)

It was a reunion of sorts. Veterans of various wars getting together and catching up. Instead of a bar, in this case the reunion was on a stage in New York City. Many of the vets have been getting together for years in Warrior Writers writing workshops, Combat Paper art workshops, theater workshops, stage performances. In many ways, it was like jazz musicians getting together to jam in a public place.

“Veteran Voices 2019” at the Wild Project theater in the East Village also included newcomers attracted to this eclectic bootstrap-art collective. The theme of a weekend of performances by five diverse groups was “Resilience.” The March 16 gathering of veterans provided just enough time for a rehearsal that blended into the 3 pm performance and an after-party in a fusion cuisine Chinese restaurant.

Produced and hosted by Jeremy Karafin of Poetic Theater Productions, the event was co-curated by J.A. Moad II and Jenny Pacanowski.  Moad, a former Air Force pilot, created the Veterans’ Voices Initiative in Minnesota. He performed his play “Outside Paduch—The Wars at Home” as part of “Veteran Voices 2017” at the Wild Project.  Pacanowski, a former Army combat medic, founded and is the Director of Women Veterans Empowered & Thriving and directs plays and poetry performances in Pennsylvania and New York.

On Saturday, men and women in street clothes stepped out of the audience in seemingly random sequence. Abruptly, in ones and twos, they delivered dramatic commentaries, poems, songs and a radio play, conveying stories ranging from World War One to Vietnam to Somalia to current battlefields that filled what had been a virtually bare stage.

Omar Columbus performed a poem, “White Marker,” about writing messages on bombs to be dropped on Baghdad. With photos of himself when he was a grinning Airman posing beside hand-marked bombs flashing on the wall behind him, Columbus recalled being haunted that his mother’s name was on a bomb that obliterated a palace building used as a military barracks and who knew what else.

Donna Zepherine quietly reeled off a litany of adversities in her life, including two Army tours in Iraq, the husband who left, and a baby who died on Veterans Day. Then she listed the veterans’ groups, college advisors, writing and theater groups who helped her regroup and build a career in social work.

“She’s Gone” is the title of a performance by Monique Arrucci on the experience of coming home from war in Iraq and being told by family members that the happy-go-lucky girl who joined the Army after 9/11 didn’t come home. Arrucci spun that stunning story into a song that tried to piece together her missing old self.

In “Veterans Highway,” a poem I collaborated with Sarah Mess on, Sarah did a rap on vets’ home front experiences, weaving in her interactions with other vets forming informal support networks:

No Yellow Ribbon Brigade on the 9th floor East Orange VA cancer ward
No Star Spangled red, white and football field blue cheers
For a little boy of 19 contaminated by war for almost 50 years
Lonely old vet rotting in a VA hospital…
Pick line feeding tube, chemo on drip…
Final days spent alone in an abandonment haze…

my mind on mefloquine
mefloquine on my mind
left behind…left behind…no veteran left behind…
the flags flying in Uncle Sam’s yard can’t cover
up the lies
steaming with burn pits, depleted uranium, agent orange,
toxic degreaser dirty water, lariam poisoning, anthrax shots…
where are the forget me nots for
vets losing body and mind…
called crazy to cover the lies…
old vet motto is “deny till we die”
support the troops but leave the vets behind

I read selections from my new poetry collection, Earth Songs II: Poems of Love, Loss and Life. One poem had particular significance for me to read at that location. It was about memories of a fellow member of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, Jeff Sharlet, who died young, not long after the last time I saw him when I lived in an East Village apartment near this theater.

Invisible Wounds

For Jeff Sharlet, 1942-1969
Editor, Vietnam GI

I still see
You striding, urgently
Looking for me that day,
Pushing through the
Crowd on East Seventh Street
Milling at the park full of hippies
And squads of cops—
My first instinct was to duck
And escape your intensity,
I was already burning out
Protesting that damn war
We fought in—what more
Did you want of me—
What more could I say
About that sucker?

Was that the last time
I saw you? Spring 1968?
Cancer took you not long after,
At age 27,
I read in a daze
Far from the clashing crowds
Of hippies, cops and war protesters,
Trying yet again to make a new life—
I had no idea, Jeff,
The war was literally burning
You up inside.

The wrap up piece was an ensemble presentation of segments of a play titled “Porch Sessions: The Girls of Iraq,” written by Jenny Pacanowski, spoken with descriptive stage directions as though on the radio. It conveys the thoughts of a young woman, a war-whiplashed Army medic, who goes to a fancy salon and has flashbacks to events in Iraq, including convoy duty where she was the driver of a medical vehicle and, with other female soldiers and an inexperienced male captain, a frontline fighter when the convey came under attack.

Over the years, I’ve interacted with many of the veterans who staged this memorable event in various writing, art and theater workshops and previous performances. The creativity and camaraderie are always amazing. Their resilience is inspiring.

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