Friday, February 27, 2009

The Embedded Poet

[See updated note at bottom.]

Canada has embedded a poet in the war zone of Afghanistan.

Canadian poet Suzanne Steele is one of five artists nationwide to participate as a "war artist" in the 2008-2009 Canadian Forces Artist Program (CFAP). She is the first poet to be chosen for the program, which examines and records, through text, audio, images, video and contributions by Canada’s military personnel, the contemporary Canadian war experience. She will be going on exercise with the infantry several times in the next year.[1]

A reader writing in to her War Poet blog asks how a poet embed differs from reporting, "like press war correspondents would do."

"War Poetry? Does it give some positiveness, some beauty, to the war that wouldn’t exist otherwise? Or can Poetry exist on the 'dark' side and be used to sub[limate] the nightmare?"

Suzanne Steele replies:

Poets have always lived amongst us, they have at different times been our collective memory, our futurists, our seers, our record of what it means to be human, and sometimes, they speculate on what it means to be godly.

As for war as a subject of poetry… the historian Will Durant calculated that “in the last 3,421 years of recorded history only 268 have seen no war”… and since recorded history, we have had songs, poems, visual art, sculpture, dance, that describe war. Some incites, some glorifies, some records, some rewrites, some has been public, other, private, some commissioned, some propaganda etc…

Here is a short list of poets* (eurocentric, predominantly English, male) who have taken war as their subject: the ancient ones who wrote the old and new testament; Homer; Virgil; Horace; Aneirin (6th c); Rihaku (8th c Chinese); the Norse sagas; Chaucer; Donne; Milton; Dryden; Defoe; Coleridge; Wordsworth; Hugo; Hardy; Byron; Tennyson; Emerson; Whitman; Melville; Dickinson; Rilke; Rimbaud; Kipling; MacDiarmid; Frost; Apollinaire; Yeats; Graves; Hughes; Larkin; Orwell; Pound; Auden… and some of the great WWI war poets… Sassoon; Owen; Thomas; MacRae; Rosenberg; West…

I would say that there are as many visions of what poetry might bring/take to and from war as a subject, as there are poets… each has an individual set of lenses through which they view war… personally, I look for the humanity, the light, in the darkest of places… does this give a false impression of the gravity, the inhumanity of war? I’m not the one to say… all I know is that I’ve been yelled at for even attempting this task… [2]

I’m trying to imagine being embedded somewhere, in an unfamiliar place, under harsh physical conditions, in a war zone, with the task of – writing poems about it. Not just daily diary entries describing the situation and my personal reaction to it—but "poems".

As a guest at the inner sanctum of the Officers’ Mess Dinner, this woman war poet feels humbled. What’s a poet doing on this military mission? she seems to be wondering: "Certainly I am nothing, as a writer, a poet. "

I cringed when I read that. That’s like an orange walking into a huge warehouse full of crates and crates of apples. The mighty Apples stare down from their ranks at the out-of-place newcomer. “I’m just an … an orange,” the little orange says. Okay, in the REAL world, oranges don’t “walk”—nor are apples exactly intimidating. Poets are not sent to the front to fight. Soldiers are not trained to write verses. Why should one party feel as “nothing” compared to the other? One's an apple, one's an orange. They come from different fruit bins. What does that have to do with one's worth as an orange? :)

She writes that she’s here to witness, “to record, not judge. I am not the story. I am the conduit…”

The idea of writing as a conduit--I've felt that to be more the case with fiction, than poetry. Poets as conduits--to say, in poems, what a journalist might want to write but can’t (because he or she is not authorized to speak). Not just to self-express then, but to convey through the eyes of another. Her quest for the project: “That at least a few of my writings will have a shelf-life of more than a few minutes (all writers want this), and that maybe I’ll give a voice to the speechless.” Witnessing, and voicing what others can't--or won't say. Creating awareness poetically. That's a real challenge.

Doing poetry as part of a selected program, structured assignment or scheduled exposition--I find myself less interested in the project aspect of it than with its eventual product, though. Nowadays it seems, it’s all about the Process; so much attention is given to the Process, the How, Where, and Why of a poem, and the Who of the poet. Criticism of the Process, analysis of the Process, endless discussions arguing to which school or movement or niche the poetry belongs—in Ms. Steele’s case, she’s been described as "the" Canadian War Poet, a title she disputes.

Where do you fall in the label department? Are you a Post-Modernist poet? Avant garde poet? Neo-formalist poet? A Black poet? Gay poet? Elderly female poet? Street poet? Hi, my name is X, I’m a War Poet. What exactly is a War Poet? Does one have to physically embed with the troops or be associated with writing about war to be considered a war poet? If you happen to hate war, and write some poems about it, will you be labeled an "activist" or your writings "anti-war" poetry? Just curious: Do we read—or avoid reading—certain poets primarily because of their perceived identifying label? Or refrain from looking at poems written in a particular style because we don't care much for the style?

I used to feel intimidated submitting poems to some journals after reading the mini-bios of the chosen contributors: MFA at this university, attended Iowa Workshop, published in X, Y and Z magazines, recipient of this or that prize, nominated 11 times for the Pushcart, now teaches creative writing at X college …. but some of the poems were ... undigestible. Subjectivity chips aside, I once read a truly wonderful poem--absolutely the best in the entire collection of this particular publication of otherwise very pedestrian spoutings—from a poet whose bio simply said: “Janitor at the college.” Now if someone were to approach you and ask if you’d like to read a poem written by a janitor, what prejudgments might already be in place as to its probable worth? Be honest.

Steele claims to be a “hands-on rather than an intellectual poet,” needing to taste, feel and smell the environment. That is not to say that "intellectual" poets can’t imagine the taste, feel or smell of a particular environment—in this case, Afghanistan--or is it? Does one actually have to be physically present somewhere to write a meaningful poem about it? It helps, of course, to have experienced--or at least observed--something similar, I suppose, to pull a memory out of your head rather than have to create one from scratch.

Two things struck me about the War Poet project mentioned above. One: That out of five artists selected, a poet gets chosen first. And second: The Canadian Government actually allowing a poet to embed with the troops to write poems, uncensored, about its military presence in Afghanistan.

Here's a poem begun in 2006 by Suzanne Steele for an elegy at the funeral of a fallen soldier:

August Widow

from across the road, with church and soldiers in their scope,
story is veins and arteries, soft tissue to these black coats

this murder of shiny microphones, video cams
they beak, they claw, they pick at mourner carrion;

gray day, gray day, a brother buried half a world away
from bullet and pomegranate, on this his prairie

where wild flax blues and blooms,
and yellow canola swathed,

where love uncorked longing, the plate of grapes, the bottle of wine,
where love listened all night to thunder calling,

where love knows more than ever - as brothers right left right
down his country lane, hearse wheels on wet road, the march

to foot him to his grave, just one week out from Panjwaii-
that grasshoppers will hiss at skins of summer

that a kiss will last forever, that she leans into him
her hair falls fragrant, fills him one last time

while cameras' shutters the shudder of his world
click open, close, the rain breaking August's umbrella

and the bugler nails notes to grimaced stone
and the brothers shoulder, kneel to lay him gentle home.

-- smsteele

[Vancouver Sun, Nov. 11, 2008]

Hear an audio podcast of the poet reading "August Widow" here.

Update: March 1, 2009

I stand corrected. smsteele contacted me yesterday to correct a misperception regarding one of her quotes, namely: "I am certainly nothing, as a writer, a poet."
What she meant by that was that: "I am a nobody in CanLit. I am nothing. an unknown. published modestly and totally amazed to be chosen for such an opportunity." I had mis-read it as a self-denigration based on a comparison of roles (poet vs. warfighter) when in fact she was referring to a status among CanLit writing peers. [Note to self: Pay attention when you post something. Do your research first!!]

She has kindly asked me to correct the formatting of "August Widow", which was published incorrectly and without permission by the newspaper chain where I first saw her poem. It was originally written in couplets, "meant to reflect the slow two-step of the soldiers carrying his coffin down the road" and their casual disregard for spacing, seemed equivalent to "hang[ing] a painting upside down." (I myself lapsed in not first asking permission to repost her poem on my blog, something I normally always do. ) As to my little apple/orange analogy--"The apples actually never look down on me," she told me. "If anything, I have to remind them not to put me on a pedestal, not to elevate me." I stand corrected. :)

An amusing juxtapose suddenly sweeps across my imaginary visual landscape: a group of swarthy ancient mariners spitting and cursing at a woman on board as the ultimate bad luck; a military base full of modern warriers appreciative of the presence of someone who reminds them of the world 'back home'. [And yes, for the word police out there, I KNOW juxtapose is a verb and not a noun, ha ha. Its incorrect usage was intentional. ]

I include this updated note to again acknowledge that the words that writers write ... are extremely important. Sometimes, in blogging, one gets wrapped up in one's own writerly coccoon and makes assumptions based on first impressions that may not exactly gell with the facts. I also wrote that I was struck by the Canadian government allowing a poet to embed with the troops. I've since discovered that some readers find this an appalling practice, and there's a certain amount of "yelling" about it. But I for one am interested in hearing more about "the guys who surive, walk shadowy the rest of their lives, the long slow insurgent step into brainfold when an RPG evaporates the guy up front" ... because they are everywhere among us, these soldiers who come back from Iraq and Afghanistan, the invisible walking dead who cannot--because it's still too close, too painful, too ingrained--tell us what war does to them. And if a poet can convey that, embedded or otherwise, so much the better. We need to hear their voices.

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