Interviewer: Stephen Sossaman
Randy Brown is a poet, journalist, and editor, and a leading figure in the veterans’ writing movement. He is the author of the award-winning poetry collection Welcome to FOB Haiku (Middle West Press, 2015); editor of a 2016 book-length collection of citizen-soldier journalism; poetry editor of the on-line literary journal As You Were; and a blogger on military experience, culture, and writing. In 2011, Brown was embedded as a civilian journalist with the 34th Infantry “Red Bull” Division, the Iowa National Guard unit with which he served before retiring in 2010.
Stephen Sossaman: Every war is different, and so too is the generation that fights it and writes about it. From your readings in contemporary war poetry, what about Afghanistan and Iraq — and military personnel today—seems different?
Randy Brown: I’d like to think that there’s a growing appreciation for different voices, for different perspectives on the battlefield. A variety of voices now seems more easily available to us. Is that a function of how poetry is published and propagated today? Or answer to a growing call for narrative diversity? Either way, war poetry today isn’t as easily triaged into simple categories. It’s no longer just soldiers or aviators, enemies abroad or families waiting by the fires at home. Our war chorus has grown more complicated, more cacophonous.
SS: So how much of this diversity do you think is due to cultural change, and how much to the vast opportunities of online publishing, ebooks, and self-publishing?
RB: There’s a shift toward recognizing that every communicated experience of war is valid: Grunts and pogues, soldiers and civilians, male and female, gay and straight. I’m talking in binaries right now, but I’m thinking in spectra.
SS: The poet Julian Symons, who served in the British army in WWII after his application as a conscientious objector was declined, wrote that “I don’t believe that the ‘war poet’ exists. All poets are war poets, and peace poets, too.” Do you agree that war is just another human experience among many that a poet can consider, or are there writers who would not write poetry if it were not for their extraordinary experience of war?
RB: I agree with Symons’ construction. Anyone can articulate an opinion or perspective on war, because we are all participants. War isn’t just combat. War isn’t just sending care packages and tying yellow ribbons. War is everything our society does and does not do, in our collective use of military force.
I was slow to apply the “war poetry” label to my work. The term came up during discussions of my collection’s subtitle. I think our first attempt was “Poems and other acts of insurgency.” We ended up with “War poems from inside the wire.” I think the final version connotes the two ways of conceptualizing “war poetry” — writing from war, writing about war. I did the former, but I do not dismiss the latter.
SS: That phrase “inside the wire” wonderfully shows the humor and modesty of your war poems, which are free of the posturing that marked many veterans’ poems from my war, Vietnam. Your irony and self-effacing humor recall WWII poetry. Are those typical attributes of veterans’ poetry from Iraq and Afghanistan? If not, what does in general characterize their poems?
RB: When I scan my shelves for my favorite poems from the war in Vietnam, I gravitate toward the ones that focus on the cold absurdity of finding yourself and your friends at war. Perhaps there’s a difference in agency? Many of that generation were drafted, conscripted. In Vietnam-era work, it seem to me that war is a grind, something that must be endured, and survived as much by luck as anything else. The absurdity and grind of war still exist in today’s “All-Volunteer Force,” of course, but we ultimately have no one but ourselves to blame.
SS: You have written that “today’s military — and I include families in that label — live in a constantly constructed, hyperactive, self-mediated. . . Environment? Culture?”
RB: Everything a soldier does is under constant surveillance — and is potentially shareable, instant and unfiltered, to the world. Our on-line reality has implications on the battlefield: pictures from Abu Grahib, of U.S. Army reservists abusing prisoners. videos of U.S. Marines urinating on the corpses of Taliban fighters.
My observation is that, for the first time, the level of mediation exists predominantly with the individual soldier or family member.
SS: That ability to share instantly from or to a combat zone (email, videos, Skype, Twitter, etc.) seems to me likely to encourage ephemeral, spontaneous, unedited, facetious and unstructured expression — not the hallmarks of earlier war poetry. Is your own practice of carefully crafted poems in a variety of traditional forms atypical of writing about Iraq and Afghanistan?
RB: Journal editors who have published my “traditional” poems seem to appreciate my insurgent intentions — that I’m trying to follow rules in order to either break them later, or to make the act of reading them feel somewhat transgressive. I don’t feel entirely alone in those techniques. In stand-up comedy and social media memes, “surprise” is the atomic nucleus of humor. In poetry, surprise is the volta. In U.S. Army doctrine, surprise is one of the nine principles of war.
I thought I’d been clever, publishing a collection that fired off salvos of senryu about war. Then, I discovered an anthology of 21st century haiku, nearly 400 pages of that form written about war, violence, and Human Rights violations. Imagine my surprise.
We are most surprised when we fool ourselves.
SS: Many people who are not really poets write poems. But when you consider the best of the contemporary war poets, do you see some common elements of style, form, subject, or tone, other than humor and irony?
RB: I’ve seen more than a few writers work creatively with military nomenclature and jargon. The best use the language of the moment, not as an obstacle — not as a shibboleth or magic lamp — but as a way to root the work in a time, a place, a branch of service, a way of thinking. As a journalist and historian, I like when poetry serves as a snapshot, a news flash, a Morse code message to the future. Where providing contextual clues gets in the way of how a poem is intended to be read aloud, I also appreciate when a writer includes more detailed explanation of an acronym, initialism, or other military term. In my own work, I try to avoid footnotes, but I pack palletsful of end notes.
SS: What are your own tastes in poetry?
RB: Not surprisingly, I suppose, given my own work, I gravitate toward consuming poetry that’s shorter in form, relatively free of rhyme and rules — my own proclivities toward 5-7-5 haiku and Elizabethan sonnets notwithstanding. I use those rules because they’re easily recognized by American readers, especially my fellow soldiers, who think they don’t know or read or like poetry. Grade School is like Boot Camp: Everybody studies haiku and sonnets.
I like poems that break lines and images to create new things and meanings and meanings of things. I like Tweetable, accessible, plain-language words, deliverable in the same 3-to-5 second bursts that I learned while talking on Army radios. William Carlos Williams, if he had been an Army medic. Mary Oliver, sending a 9-line MEDEVAC request.
The good 21st century war poems will burst-transmit a thought, an image, an experience, a language, a way of thinking. That creates empathy. If my mission is to help bridge the gaps among military veterans and civilian readers — in empathy? In understanding? In appreciation? — then it’s that engine that I’d hope to see common in others’ work as well.
SS: You have written that “today’s war poets are uniquely aware that they are writing for an immediate audience.”
RB: Back to my earlier point on self-awareness and self-mediation: I don’t always get that same feeling from the poets of the First World War—even from the ones who were publishing in magazines and newspapers back home. Then again, I also have to remember the humor of WWI trench publications like “The Wipers Times.” There’s no more immediate audience than your buddies in the next foxhole, office, or latrine.
I, too, wrote an underground newsletter, called “The Bull Sheet,” during my own 2003 deployment. I only had to print one or two copies per issue, and posted them over the latrines.
SS: Which American poets now writing about the wars are producing the best work?
RB: Modern war poets who I regularly seek out, whose work surprises and informs and occasionally makes me laugh? Paul David Adkins (“Flying Over Baghdad with Sylvia Plath”); Eric Chandler; Colin D. Halloran (“Shortly Thereafter”); Lisa Stice (“Uniform”); Jason Poudrier (“Red Fields”); Karen Skolfield (“Frost in the Low Areas”); Abby E. Murray (“Quick Draw”). The more-established writer-veterans are still engaged in the poetry fight, too. Writers like Brian Turner (“Here, Bullet”) and Benjamin Busch. We are all happy warriors, poetry ronin, leading by example as we find our own ways.
SS: Eventually, every war has a canonical poem or two, especially as taught in high schools and colleges. Several of your best poems meet all the criteria: they suggest a way of understanding this war, are apolitical, center on the individual American soldier’s experience, and are accessible without being shallow. Which of your poems do you think most likely to be widely read years from now?
RB: If you had asked me when the collection first came out, in late 2015, I probably would’ve said “night vision,” which was inspired by a 2011 helicopter-borne operation called “Operation Bull Whip.” The event involved both Afghan and coalition troops working shona ba shona — “shoulder to shoulder.” Or “fighting seasons,” which evokes times I spent in diners as a small-town newspaper reporter, eavesdropping on people’s conversations to a get a feel for what was happening in their worlds. Now, however, I’d guess it might be “here and theirs.” That one seems to capture our moment of growing suspicions, bad faith, and broken promises. And I’d like to think that it casts its light on all sides.
SS: My own guess is that your fine poem “night vision” might become the go-to poem about the war in Afghanistan, or maybe “dust bunnies and combat boots.” And for the complex feelings that most veterans experience after coming home, “Suburbistan” seems to me to be a very moving expression of disillusionment and nostalgia.
RB: “Suburbistan” still makes me laugh, every time my family hears helicopters overhead or small arms fire on Range Day. We don’t live in what you’d think of as a “military community.” I grew up in an active-duty Air Force family, and I’m familiar with the all-pervasive presence of a large military installation. Shopping at the commissary. Traffic signs flashing “low-flying aircraft.” Here, there’s just a small National Guard post nearby. You’d think we’d be insulated here, in the middle of the middle class in middle America, and yet we encounter reminders of war on a nearly daily basis. Not just reminders, but realities. Conex boxes staged at Starbucks. Convoys of ground vehicles delivering troops for training, or equipment for fixing. If people say they don’t know what’s going on in the world, they’re not looking very hard.
SS: Have you ever been surprised by which of your poems resonate with readers or editors?
RB: Continually! Always! I’ve even had experiences in which readers have suggested new ways to see and hear my own words. That’s humbling and gratifying, to find that the work might have exceeded one’s own expectations or intentions. Recently, I happened to meet up with a member of the 34th Infantry Division’s alumni association—an older gentleman, not someone with whom I’d directly served—and he surprised me by spontaneously reciting to a mutual friend a couple of my haiku. He was a former field artilleryman, and my series “a Forward Observer writes haiku” both amused and moved him. It was the first time, I told him, that I’d ever heard my words quoted back to me. The joy of that moment! An arc between generations! Joking around as if we were old barracks buddies. It was a small and glorious thing. A blessing. A gift.
SS: You seem to have clearly enjoyed and learned from writing poetry in a variety of forms and with a variety of tones. What sort of poems or techniques are you most interested in writing in the immediate future?
RB: The application of humor is a two-edged sword. The tools I use in order to make my work accessible to non-poetry audiences might also obscure my serious intentions. I also worry, however, those techniques might also lose punch if overused. I still execute haiku in themed groups of three, five, or 10, but want to avoid that being a nucleus in future collections. I’ve been playing with tanka, mostly in context of illuminating suburban scenes that evoke military memories. Those storage boxes staged outside the local Starbucks, for example. Or helicopters operating on high-voltage lines right outside my bedroom window.
I’m also potentially developing an unnamed form of free verse, one that involves a couple of stanzas that juxtapose two historical snapshots, followed by a single-line summation that serves as volta. It’s a little like writing photo cutlines, with an opportunity for editorial comment. I’m not claiming to have invented anything new and never have — like I’ve said, even “war haiku” isn’t a new concept — but I’m enjoying the tinkering, and hoping for duplicable results beyond the occasional good poem.
SS: The concluding line of your emerging three-part form seems to make explicit the synthesis that a haiku usually leaves to the reader, after juxtaposing two images. Does this provide a more controlled sense of conclusion and closure than does the more open-ended haiku form?
RB: The reporter in me delights in packing as much detail, observed and historical, into the scene descriptions. The “kicker,” as it’d probably be called in newspaper copy, ideally helps the reader make an intellectual connection between the images — a connection that likely would not have otherwise been realized without learned experience or knowledge — but also invites the reader to further contemplate the meaning of that connection. So, yes, it’s more guided. But I think still sufficiently open-ended, that it might achieve something beyond reportage.
I’ve had two examples of the form published, coincidentally by the same publication: The Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library’s journal “So It Goes.” Perhaps my experiments seek to mimic what I love about Vonnegut? Specifically, his capacity to spin seemingly matter-of-fact observations into magical illuminations? The logic of: “There’s This, and This, and they are connected by This. What do you think about That?”
SS: Do you agree with Ezra Pound that poetry and other literature “is news that stays news”?
RB: As a newspaper guy, I once thought everything that happens within quotation marks was concrete and unchangeable. Then I wrote a poem that quoted Mark Twain: “History doesn’t repeat itself but it rhymes.” Turns out, he really didn’t say that. It was distilled down to that in the 1970s by Canadian poet and quotationist John Robert Columbo.
I often quote an Army buddy of mine, who was quoting a favorite science-fiction TV show at the time, and maybe a little Buddhist philosophy as well: “All this has happened before, and all this will happen again.” The Eternal Return. And I paraphrase Carl von Clausewitz: “The nature of war doesn’t change; only the character of it.” So yes, I think poets are in the business of printing and speaking the news that stays news. The words and media and even quotes may change, with every iteration and generation. But the meanings and messages, I hope, are immutable.
Stephen Sossaman is a writer, speaker, teacher, and teacher-trainer. He is Professor Emeritus of English on the faculty of Westfield State University in Massachusetts, where he taught creative writing and literature for many years.