Saturday, May 17, 2008

Mentoring the next generation of veteran-writers

On a flight to Washington, D.C., a few weeks ago, my seatmate was a woman who works for the U.S. Army’s Wounded Warrior program. She found out that I was a writer, and asked if I knew writers in Denver or Colorado Springs who might want to serve as mentors to returning vets. She had one soldier, in particular, who’d been diagnosed with Severe Brain Injury (SBI) had written a book. He wanted help editing it and maybe trying to get it published. I thought of the vets I knew in Colorado, mostly from the Vietnam War era. I offered to look them up and see if they were interested. I also offered my humble services in Wyoming as a non-veteran fiction writer who also works with poets and writers and artists as part of my job.

Since that day, I’ve been e-mailing my Wounded Warrior contact with news about various writers and writing programs that might be helpful for her soldiers. There’s the NEA’s Operation Homecoming which just announced a new round of writing workshops around the country. Here’s an excerpt from a May 8 NEA press release:

The new phase of Operation Homecoming is the first instance in which the NEA will hold writing workshops at Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) medical centers, military hospitals, and affiliated centers in communities around the country. St. Louis VA Medical Center in Missouri and Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, DC, served as pilot sites for the new phase of the program, and both facilities will host workshops this summer.

The first batch of Operation Homecoming workshops were directed by such fine writers as Tobias Wolff, Jeff Shaara, Marilyn Nelson, Richard Bausch, Bobbie Ann Mason, Ethelbert Miller, Joe Haldeman, and Mark Bowden. Not all veterans, but writers skilled in helping writers of all kinds find their voices. Some of them, such as Barry Hannah, was never in the military but clearly imagined warfare in Airships. Kentucky’s Bobbie Ann Mason, for instance, wrote In Country, which explores the plight of returning Vietnam vets through the eyes of a young girl whose father was killed in the war. Maybe you saw the film starring Bruce Willis. Mark Bowden’s a reporter and Marilyn Nelson serves as the poet laureate of Connecticut. Tobias Wolff wrote some hair-raising stories of his Vietnam experience in his collections. Thing is, they don’t come close to the memoir of his bizarre childhood, A Boy’s Life. These workshops birthed the anthology Operation Homecoming: Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Home Front in the Words of U.S. Troops and Their Families (Random House, 2006). Some new writers have joined the program:

The Arts Endowment has added three new faculty members who served in the conflicts: playwright Ryan Kelly, poet Brian Turner, and journalist Nathaniel Fick. Matthew Eck, author of the novel The Farther Shore and an Army veteran who served in Somalia and Bosnia; Vietnam War veteran Robert Timberg, editor of the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings magazine and author of The Nightingale’s Song; and Kristin Henderson, a military spouse and author of While They’re at War, are other new faculty members.

If you haven’t yet read Brian Turner’s award-winning poetry collection, Here, Bullet, you must. He was already a knowledgeable writer and graduate of an M.F.A. program before he joined the Army and served in Bosnia and Iraq. In the midst of warfare, he found his voice, writing most of the Here, Bullet poems while in Iraq.

Vets can find other programs to nurture their writing. Prowling the web recently, I came across one in Vermont in which vets make their own paper and then build books featuring their writing about the war(s). I can’t find the link now, but I believe it was in Burlington. I’ll keep looking...

During my college marathon (1969-1976), first as a Navy ROTC midshipman and then as a civilian with a low draft number, I met a lot of Vietnam vets. They weren’t always anxious to share their stories in creative writing classes. The temper of the times weren’t exactly conducive to it. But some found on-campus mentors. At University of Florida, ex-Marine Harry Crews nurtured and kicked the asses of scores of writers, some of them veterans. Larry Heinemann (Paco’s Story) found his voice when he went to college in Chicago on his G.I. benefits. John Clark Pratt, an Air Force pilot in Vietnam, taught lots of zoomies at the AFA in Colorado Springs and later, at Colorado State University, whipped M.F.A. writers (such as myself) into shape. He also helped establish the CSU Library's excellent special collection on the Vietnam War. It contains first drafts of books by well-known writers, but also unpublished memoirs and other books by veterans.

Yusef Komunyakaa from very-rural Louisiana went to CSU after Vietnam and received some poetry mentoring from former football player and campus radical Bill Tremblay. Yusef went on to win an NEA fellowship and teach at Princeton and NYU. I guess you just never know where that help may come from. I’ve read a lot of Yusef Komunyakaa’s poems. They’re powerful and beautiful, whether based on his experiences in Vietnam, Louisiana or Colorado. His view in "Facing It" (Dien Cai Dau, Wesleyan University Press, 1988) of "The Wall" in D.C. is very personal:

I'm inside/the Vietnam Veterans Memorial/again, depending on the light/to make a difference./I go down the 58,022 names,/half-expecting to find/my own in letters like smoke.

To read the entire poem (and others), go to

There are other poets and writers who will be speaking to us like this about Iraq and Afghanistan (Iran?) 10 or 20 years from now. Some do it now on blogs or through hip-hop or via video. Others will seek out the permanence of the written page. Let’s help them find it. Forget the politics, for a few minutes anyway. This is all about humaneness.

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