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Practical Poetry

July 12, 2005

Another author recently asked for some comments on effects of war resistance poetry. Of course, I can't think of a single war that was stopped by a volley of antiwar poems. Yet poetry still has very practical uses, even in the midst of war.

I started writing poetry in the late 1960s, after I got out of the army and after frustrating attempts at writing short stories, a novel and essays that didn’t adequately capture the bizarre core of the war in Vietnam. But poetry did not play much of a role in my life until I got involved in putting together an anthology of poetry by Vietnam vets.

Larry Rottmann, who also served in the army in Vietnam, came to New York in 1971 with a bulging manuscript of various writings by Vietnam vets and asked if I could help find a publisher. After rejection by numerous book editors, I suggested we publish these works ourselves. Larry and I and Basil Paquet founded 1st Casualty Press and edited and published Winning Hearts & Minds: War Poems by Vietnam Veterans,. A short story collection, Free Fire Zone, was also published. Bill Ehrhart enthusiastically joined the poetry project. He and I edited and published a sequel, Demilitarized Zones.

The aim of Winning Hearts & Minds was stated in a note to the reader in the back of the book, in which we urged people to make use of these poems in all sorts of ways. Many people did. And I discovered in doing readings from the book that all sorts of people really listened to poetry that recreated soldiers’ inner turmoil in the midst of war.

As a founder of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, I was involved in numerous peace demonstrations in which famous folk singers and poets played leading roles. I didn’t feel I had any creative talent, so I stuck to talking about why veterans were protesting the war. But I think some of what Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Daniel Berrigan, Thich Nhat Hanh and others were singing and saying in their poetry rubbed off on me. When we published Winning Hearts & Minds, many reviewers said it was incredible that soldiers could write such compelling poetry. Poems from that collection were reprinted in newspapers across the country. A staged version that my wife created was featured in the NY Daily News. We read poems on radio programs. The book was reviewed in major publications and in a Pentagon publication, which urged its high-ranking readers to take a serious look at what these dissident vets had to say about the war.

WHAM and its sequel, and a third anthology I edited, Peace Is Our Profession, helped several vets (myself included) launch literary careers that mixed a dissident attitude and thoroughly prepared craftsmanship. I collected every anthology I could find of dissident poetry, looking for ideas and inspiration for doing more such work that combined poetry and activism. I found my writing voice in working on Winning Hearts & Minds. One reviewer noted that my poems were jotted like journalism. I took that as a compliment and became a journalist.

While juggling newspaper work, I’ve tried to write poetry that conveys in vivid detail the news of what it’s like to be a Vietnam veteran engaged in trying to help make a more peaceful world. That included becoming an organizer of a citizen exchange outreach program to the Soviet Union, writing poems about that experience and reading some of those poems to Russians and Americans. I believe that sort of creative activism played a part in helping to end the Cold War.

More recently, my habit of jotting down lines and ideas for poems saved my life after my wife died. I couldn’t sleep, so I got up and wrote poems and created a collection, Earth Songs, which includes a wide selection of my poetry on Vietnam and post-war experiences. Those experiences include hidden impacts of the war that intrude in all sorts of unexpected ways. Writing poetry, I found, has been a very practical way of coping with post-traumatic stress, as well as protesting the heart-and-mindlessness of war.

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