strangers envelope me
at a veterans’ gathering
Startled, I want to say:
I’m not from here—
And the war’s been over
for over 20 years.
Instead I grin,
basking in a greeting
to Vietnam vets.
Yet “Welcome home!”
seems so strange.
Sure, it feels nice—
but where’s home?
I’m no longer there
where I was born.
The world I roam
is more my home.
I was infected in Vietnam—
by malaria, Asia’s air,
the vapors of moonbeam
I smell nuoc mam in
race cyclos down Saigon
feel the spray on fishing
sailing to the high seas.
(From Earth Songs: New & Selected Poems)
A Bit About Me
I’ve never made a living from poetry, but poetry is what has gotten me through life.
When the world seems out of whack or I with it, I jot down disjointed thoughts. Sometimes a flicker of enlightenment flares. A riff of Earth’s rhythms ripples. A poem unfolds like a flower petal. And my link with Nature’s nurturing power is restored.
Being a poet was the furthest thing on my mind growing up in rural upstate New York, working at my father’s gas station and on a farm. I wanted to go to West Point and conquer the world.
Raised on war stories and dreaming of being a famous general, I joined the Army and went to Vietnam to become a soldier. Vietnam turned me into a poet and peace activist.
Earth Songs is a tribute to the world I discovered beyond battlefields, amid a war so bitter it provoked protests even by participants. With a minimum of poetic license, these poems tell a true tale—the hardest there is to tell—of a teenage soldier growing into a world citizen.
(From the preface to Earth Songs)
Life is strange, stranger sometimes than fiction or dreams. If you don't write incredible experiences down, you wouldn't believe it. Years ago I ran into a high school classmate in a bar. "I heard you died in Vietnam," he said, amazed. I was amused. The next time I was told I was dead I was less amused: Citing a credit report in the wake of my wife's death, a telephone company operator told me that I had died. These days I glance at the obits most mornings--so far, I'm not there.
My Life and Work
I've been seeking alternatives to "that's the way it is" since resigning from the U.S. Military Academy after soldiering in Vietnam. With other disenchanted former GIs, I helped found an organization of Vietnam veterans that challenged the conventional wisdom of waging that war; coedited and published a collection of poetry by Vietnam veterans, after major book publishers rejected the project; and helped launch a self-help program to aid veterans deal with readjustment problems, which helped spark official actions recognizing and establishing programs for addressing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Those are some of the things I tried while mulling what to do in life after deciding not to pursue a military career. Later adventures in challenging "the way things are" included founding the Essex County (NJ) Office on Peace, which produced a booklet on how citizens could help prevent nuclear war, and participating in citizen exchanges of Americans and Russians that helped end the nuclear-war-threatening Cold War.
I much prefer being a writer to being an activist. But many issues can only be fully understood through the insights of participants. In what might be called advocacy-investigative journalism, I tapped my military background and contacts to help unveil government secrecy hiding war crimes in Vietnam, the Nixon administration's unlawful use of government agencies to target antiwar veterans, and health effects of Agent Orange herbicides on Vietnam veterans. Through often hectic times, the one constant was reading, writing and publishing poetry.
Winding up a nearly 30-year career as a newspaper reporter, I retired to devote more time to doing poetry, teaching, writing books and being a peace correspondent. Current projects I'm aiding include Teachers for Vietnam, Warrior Writers and Combat Paper Project.
Shortly after the Vietnam War ended, looking for a day job to support a poetry writing habit, I drifted into covering municipal council, school board, planning and zoning meetings for a daily newspaper. Amid the droning boredom, a dramatic interaction of citizens and officials would quite often erupt in face-to-face debate, which in turn would sometimes transform into a mutually respectful discussion of serious issues.
Working as a news reporter in New Jersey for nearly thirty years, with forays to the statehouse in Trenton and to scores of towns and cities in the New York metropolitan region, I attended numerous community and regional meetings and public events, recording highlights of civic campaigns focused on local, regional, national, and international issues. It was a wonderful education, one that was not provided in my college political science books.
Along the way, I developed a journalistic style of poetry, with which I've sought to convey the personal side of harsh or jarring events, ranging from the war in Vietnam and lingering aftereffects to the deaths of people close to home. I've also worked to develop a handbook style of writing on complex topics, from environmental conservation to dealing with post-traumatic stress and the threat of nuclear war. My aim in providing something useful for readers is perhaps best stated in this passage in A Citizen's Guide to Grassroots Campaigns:
"The antidote to apathy or despair is doing something positive about something that blights our life, community, or the world. This is a healing process for human bodies and the body politic...This is communion in action. This is the high of barn raising. A civic campaign in full flower is an emotionally exciting, spiritual experience. One feels good doing good with others."
Writing, to me, is like riding a bicycle. The only way I learned was by headlong launches punctuated by curse-muttered fallings and bruised ego.
By some cosmic twist of fate, I’m now teaching news writing. By dint of persistent pedaling between crashes, I’m miraculously a professional writer. But my memory banks still flare in embarrassment over many episodes of falling on my face, pen or typewriter in hand…such as the hand-lettered Valentine card to a fellow fifth-grader…the novel that self-destructed…the short stories that unraveled into lost threads of yarn…
Besides getting entangled in florid style and wayward organization, I never fully got the hang of the fearsome rules of grammar. Maybe that’s why, when I was a kid, I wanted to be a soldier: I could always shoot my way out of a linguistic jam.
But while soldiering in Vietnam, I got an itch to describe what was happening around me. It took years of cursing to figure out how to concisely convey my view of that bizarre epic. In the end, the blockbuster book I aimed to write emerged as glass shards of poetry. Along the way, however, I mastered the persnickety vehicle of writing.
A breakthrough was figuring out where and how to start telling a story—in the middle of the action? With an historical event foreshadowing the action? With a quote, or a dramatic scene?
It dawned on me that newspaper reporters wrote fascinating stories day after day. So I got a job at a newspaper to learn that discipline. That was nearly 30 years and scores of bylined articles ago. It's been one hell of a ride.
(From Newsletter No. 9)