(1) Who is your Muse? May we borrow or rent her/him/them/it?
For these poems, and for most of the creative writings I’ve undertaken in the last few months, the village of Safwan, Iraq, serves as inspiration. Maybe not a muse in the classical sense, for the impetus is one of grit and struggle and, quite often, misunderstanding. The entire town could be considered ‘for sale,’ so you’d have an easy enough time renting it with American dollars, or with knickknacks, bic lighters, beanie babies. Despite imperfections, hope and perseverance, small marks of beauty and humanity, the ferocity of mothers herding children away from danger, the inquisitive faces, old Baathist westernization now overlaid with war and fundamentalism, set against a backdrop of the even older cradling of civilization itself -- all those things speak. I just try to listen, I guess, and then apply some shape to the sounds I hear.
And, my wife, a more classical muse by far -- supporting me while I’m here. We’ve had some rough times and a lot of good times. She’s taught me how much love demands, as well as how much it returns. She’s not for rent. (2) Have you written something, crumpled it up and tossed it across the room, then rescued it and smoothed it out - - only to spill coffee/tea/Koolaid on it? (If so, did you write about that?)
Figuratively, yes. I raid my old writings, and rearrange the electrons quite often to form something new. I’ve even got a poem forthcoming at Action, Yes called “Excerpts from 29 Rejected Submissions.”
(3) How does your daily life affect your writing, and vice versa?
I’ve been producing an amazing amount of stuff lately -- three screenplays in three months, a novel earlier this year, a novel-length collection of stories, poems and scripts now forthcoming through PulpBits, photo-essays on Iraq, creative non-fiction pieces, poetry, another novel I’m now writing and trying to sell in serialization, and a group of children’s tales. People in writer’s groups openly wonder how I’m juggling this while fighting here in Iraq. The thing is, military activity occurs according to its own ‘hurry-up-and-wait’ timeline, periods of intense activity embedded in interminable lulls. Most guys watch movies or play video games to kill time. I’ve used the down moments to write. And, frankly, I’ve got more to say, more musings based on the dichotomies of this place, than I will probably ever have time to capture in words. That’s a good feeling, the source of the spring refilled continually. And it’s a good feeling to see the work getting noticed.
(4) How has your own writing been affected by the "rules" of poetry (whichever list you use), and by teachers, programs, seminars, etc?
I’ve had the benefit of a fairly rigorous classical education: Latin and Arabic language, study of epic and elegy, comedy and tragedy. At West Point the language classes not only drilled active voice into us, but pummeled us with work: one English class alternated daily assignments of rote Shakespeare memorization and recitation with original analyses of poems in essay format -- more than 50 essays, more than 50 memorizations in a single semester. Then, at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, I studied under some great teachers, Barry Powell for instance, who read my epic poem and told me, quite earnestly, that no one reads epic anymore, why bother? I began to seriously write poetry after reading Derek Walcott’s “Omeros” during those years of study. My long poem “Songs in the Key of Ibo” is, in a lot of ways, an imitation of Walcott’s tone/style. I’m reading William Empson’s “7 Types of Ambiguity” right now, tough stuff but really rewarding. It’s helped me quantify the ‘rules’ I’d already subliminally begun to apply, using specific words, exact imagery, to force a reader into an uncomfortably ambiguous interpretation. My parents subscribed to Harper’s since I was a child, so I grew up reading good stuff too.
(5) When did you start writing, and why?
I think I’ve always considered myself a writer. I’ve got a lot of creative energy. I’m not sure why, other than the fact that I take an immense cathartic pleasure in it..
(6) Best rumor about yourself?
God, I don’t know. Though the worst rumor is probably that I’m not married . . . we were separated for awhile, on the verge of going our own way, and somehow this deployment has brought us back together. We’ve even bought a house, a little place in the country, perfect. So, maybe that’s the best rumor? My first book of poetry (I’m shopping it around for a publisher now) used military jargon to express the two wars I was fighting simultaneously, the external one with my wife during the time of our separation, and the internal one, a personal moral conflict with the military I’ve only recently reconciled (see the essay “Eleven Nights in the Seattle Underground”). So, I guess that is another rumor, that everyone in the military has the same monothink conservative mindset. I’m surprised, actually, at the number of very liberal officers I’ve met. Even a liberal Marine or two.
(7) Where are the best and worse places you've ever been?
Here. Both best and worst. Though home sounds better and better every passing day.
AND A "BONUS EIGHT": It is difficult to avoid political slant regarding the subject of your recent poems, though you have done so magnificently, showing us *what is* on its own. Still, we wonder why you chose to submit them as portraying an imperfect Future (and why we instinctively knew they belonged), though they depict present events. If your current duty allows, can you comment on that?
Well, I can’t by law express political opinion at the same time as wearing the uniform. I think what I want to convey in these poems, more than anything, is the complexity of the situation, how there are no real winners and no real solutions, though there are plenty of heroes, Iraqis and foreigners alike, trying to rebuild something from the ruins of the former regime. The future here won’t be perfect. To expect perfection would be to impose another Western ideal on a society unprepared for such high-mindedness. As a parting shot to this question, I’d like to say that despite my own political leanings toward a more liberal philosophy, the left’s call to pull our troops from Iraq is utter folly. In my opinion as an educated observer, if we leave here now, or leave anytime before stability returns, a much more repressive, misogynistic, and illiberal anti-western government will emerge. We’ve got to see this through to the best possible, if imperfect, future.