Recently I attended a reading by a veteran writer, and having completed her brilliant short story about a fractured friendship, disease, and the WNBA, she took a few questions. Near the end of the Q&A a man stood and said, “I really enjoyed your story, but that could happen to anyone. My question is, what does that have to do with war?”
Her answer, “Nothing at all.”
“Oh,” he said, seemingly unsatisfied, and sat back down.
Later, just the writer and me at a nearby bar, we discussed basketball, some experiences in the military, a shared affinity for Alice Munro and Robert Olen Butler. Near the end I told her she handled the man’s question at the reading really well, and that I appreciated her directness
“People can’t fathom that we’re more than war,” she said. “And they expect all our stories to be about fucked-up combat heroes with PTSD.”
This should not surprise you: our Nation’s most recent and on-going wars, like the conflicts before them, have provided the touchstone for compelling literature across all genres, with actively-serving and veteran artists contributing their distinguished and wide-ranging voices. It certainly feels like a renaissance for veteran art. Alongside books (to name-drop a few) Redeployment, Here, Bullet, Love My Rifle More Than You, Green on Blue, and The Yellow Birds, many more works from veterans that showcase stunning power and yearning appear each month in the form of books, plays, art installations, etc., not to mention the individual pieces found throughout our finest literary journals and magazines. But what are our expectations of veteran artists and their work? How do they navigate their creative identities in and out of uniform as well as publishing opportunities oftentimes centered on—or interested in— war trauma? How or should their personal military histories be used as a pathway into their art?
Brandon Courtney, Teresa Fazio, Matthew Komatsu, and Seth Brady Tucker are in a unique position to consider these questions: as talented writers and veterans with wide-ranging creative and military backgrounds, all of them are publishing groundbreaking work across various genres. Recently, I reached out to each of them to get their answers to these important questions and more. What follows is our group correspondence, conducted via e-mail, during the spring of 2016.
BRANDON COURTNEY is a poet and memoirist born and raised in Iowa. His full-length collections are The Grief Muscles (Sheep Meadow Press) and Rooms for Rent in the Burning City (SparkWheel Press), and a chapbook, Inadequate Grave (YesYes Books). He served in the US Navy during Operation ENDURING FREEDOM and is a graduate of the MFA program at Hollins University.
TERESA FAZIO is an author and former Marine officer who served in Iraq. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming from The New York Times, Consequence Magazine, Penthouse, the Chariton Review, and Task and Purpose. Her memoir Unbecoming was a finalist in the 2015 Autumn House Press Nonfiction Contest. She has read her writing at the Kennedy Center, completed a residency at Yaddo, and is an MFA candidate at the Bennington Writing Seminars.
MATTHEW KOMATSU is an author and currently serving Air Force officer and veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. His essays and long form journalism have appeared or are forthcoming in The New York Times; War, Literature and the Arts; Brevity; Southeast Review; VICE Motherboard and The Normal School. His interview responses do not represent official policy.
SETH BRADY TUCKER is a poet and fiction writer originally from Lander, Wyoming. His first book won the 2011 Elixir Press Editor’s Poetry Prize (Mormon Boy, 2012), and was a finalist for the 2013 Colorado Book Award. His second book won the Gival Press Poetry Award (We Deserve the Gods We Ask For, 2014) and went on to win the Eric Hoffer Book Award in 2015. Seth is also the founder and co-director of the Seaside Writers’ Conference. He was a paratrooper with the US Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, and served in the Persian Gulf War.
JESSE GOOLSBY is the author of the novel I’d Walk with My Friends If I Could Find Them (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), winner of the Florida Book Award and long-listed for the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize. He serves as Fiction Editor at War, Literature & the Arts and Nonfiction Editor at the Southeast Review. An active-duty Air Force officer, he earned his PhD in English from Florida State University.
Please tell us about your entry into writing. How and when did the initial impulse arrive to explore war through your work?
TUCKER: I had a great high school English teacher who was almost universally loathed because of the rigor of his class and his high expectations for us. But I loved him. He was the first person to ask me to be better than what was expected by my pedigree. One class period, he demanded a poem from us, and I remember being terrified by the prospect, but I was also one of the few students to take on the challenge seriously. What came of the assignment: a poem entitled, “Futility,” that was every bit as capricious and narcissistic and poorly rhymed and egocentric as you might expect—and it had all the navel-gazing stupidity a teen could generate. He told me he loved it even though I knew deep down that it sucked, and then he told me I should keep at it.
I did not keep at it, though—I didn’t write again until I put pencil to pad in a Ranger grave on the border of Saudi and Iraq, when I began to first investigate my history and situation through journals. These too, were pretty self-righteous and most sections involved literal descriptions of my day (November 20, 1991. Took a huge crap, ate Chicken A La King MRE, stole Stokes chocolate bar, saw a lizard today.) that simply related exactly what I ate and how many flies I killed and how bad the tent smelled and then might sometimes also sum up how lonely and sober I was, or how many times Gingles had jacked it that day. One journal was just a list of what was being placed in “The Cup O’ Grossness” next to Battles ruck. It was probably the best journal entry I ever wrote. These journals, of course, will never see the light of day, by anyone. But it got me writing, and I started thinking more clearly about writing as a hobby.
FAZIO: I’ve written since I was a little kid. But in high school, I stopped— went to college for physics, did ROTC, and was unwilling to go into the emotional spaces necessary for good writing. The urge didn’t surface again until after I got out of the military, finished a PhD in materials science, and was working my first real job. I had a bunch of memories I finally felt like I could write down, and everything came pouring back.
At first, I just wrote about snippets from the war; I was envisioning a book of flash nonfiction, though I didn’t know any sort of name for it. But the plot lines and descriptions kept circling one thing: my illicit relationship with the mortuary affairs officer on our base. And I thought, “Oh no, I can’t possibly write about that. No one can ever find out about that.” But my truest writing was the memoir-type stuff surrounding that story, shameful as it was. Soon it became all I could write about. And then the short pieces I’ve written were published in the New York Times and by Words After War— which has been liberating, terrifying, and humbling.
KOMATSU: The first time I went to war, I realized that I could probably write something besides lousy poetry and tortured journal entries bemoaning my lack of a girlfriend. But the idea had to simmer for a decade. I started a screenplay, which I thankfully abandoned. I started a memoir that I unfortunately lost. And I read everything on war that I could get my hands on. But after my deployment in 2012 to Afghanistan (my fourth combat deployment), I finally got off my ass. I wrote an essay to completion and experienced the intoxicating sensation of seeing my words in print for the first time. And I wanted more.
COURTNEY: The initial impulse to explore war began on November 18th, 2001, when my friends and fellow shipmates, Ben Johnson and Vincent Parker, died during Operation ENDURING FREEDOM, boarding the M/V Samra on the Persian Gulf while conducting Visit, Board, Search, and Seizure/Maritime Interdiction Operations. Essentially, I have been writing everyday since the tragedy, trying to find the truth. What happened on board that ship? Who is responsible? Was there anything I could have done? After five days of being lost-at-sea, and after the KIA announcement, Ben’s body was discovered by USS Peterson’s sister ship, USS Leyte Gulf during a routine refueling mission-at-sea. Vincent Parker’s body was never recovered.
Over the course of several months, I escorted Ben’s remains from the Persian Gulf to Buffalo, traveling from Bahrain to Dubai, Germany to Italy, until entering the states in Dover, Delaware, where all soldiers, sailors, and airman killed in action are processed. In Buffalo, New York, Ben received a full military burial. Although I never wrote a single word while escorting Ben’s remains, a part of me knew I would have to process this experience through writing or storytelling.
Six years later, after I was honorably discharged, I took my first creative class. Much of my previous work deals indirectly with deploying overseas, familial military stories and experiences, escorting human remains, and post- and pre-enlistment successes and struggles. Importantly, at least to my work, is my family history, which is one of service to this country: my grandfathers fought in WWII and the Korean War, respectively; my father fought in Vietnam; my oldest brother fought in the Persian Gulf; my step-brother was deployed to the Middle East with the Air Force; and my sister and cousin were Marines, both deployed overseas.
I realize the artistic intention question is fraught with hazard, but I’m curious—in general— what you hope readers will experience through your writing, and are there specific issues or themes you set out to highlight?
FAZIO: It didn’t start out as a conscious thing, but what I’ve highlighted in both fiction and nonfiction is that not everyone in the military looks or acts like GI Joe. So sometimes I’ll have a character who gets her period, or who’s recalling a difficult childhood— not necessarily the typical protagonists or plot lines folks envision while watching American Sniper or Black Hawk Down.
I am now nearly ten years past active duty, and so much is changing. Combat occupational specialties are opening to women; there’s talk of women registering for the draft. Women can be aggressive and protective and strong— not a caricature of a wife or girlfriend or sister back home. I’d like readers to experience the complexity of military characters as they wrestle with their circumstances, and the choices they make about leadership styles, relationships, and families.
COURTNEY: One overarching theme I hope my readers come away with is what I might call a reckless sense of duty. What amazes me most about military personnel is their unwavering and often times destructive willingness to accomplish a task at all costs. Case in point: a Gunner’s Mate Petty Officer carried a fellow sailor on his back, literally treaded water while another grown man clung to his shoulders in ten foot seas, when the M/V Samra sank. He didn’t speak a single word to anyone about it; he just did it, no questions asked. He went about his duties, as if nothing happened at all. Since leaving the Navy, I’ve never seen anything come even remotely close to that commitment.
Perhaps the main issue in my writing concerns the transformative power of military service, whether you’re a combat veteran or administration, a sniper or cook. It’s intriguing to me that most people readily accept the transformative powers of other institutions wholesale, but often fail to recognize or afford that same power to military service. The very act of enlisting is transformative, and I would argue, unmooring, if not traumatic.
Lastly, I hope my writing addresses the oftentimes sterile and bureaucratic process of mourning, which I believe is unique to military service. It was my experience, and perhaps others have experienced this too, that one simply doesn’t have the luxury of mourning the military dead and, if they do, it serves a ceremonial purpose: burial-at-sea, 21 gun salute, etc.
KOMATSU: The idea of controlling what the reader will take away seems quixotic. Fact is, the reader will take away from the work what he/she will. I just present the tableau. But I suppose that lately the goal is to present the perspective of someone who has never walked away from war; a guy who still serves and would go back into the fight willingly.
TUCKER: I think that initially, my efforts with writing fiction and poetry were mostly aimed for that place outside of myself—an effort to laugh or cry with the reader, rather than present something political or artistic, because it all felt like a colossally bad joke at the time. Later, I started thinking about how “problem” worked in my stories, but again, I wasn’t thinking specifically about the message (nor do I really do that now—I can think of no better way to suck the art right out of a piece than to spend time obsessing over what the reader might glean from the text). In grad school I started to put it all together, and I have Jim Simmerman to thank for his advice—I was writing silly little poems then that often had deep imperfections that I was trying to pass off as “deep” mysteries. Jim told me that if I was ever going to be taken seriously, that I had to work at it like it was a foxhole. There is only one type of foxhole, after all—the kind that can save your life. So, I started writing like the work of it would save my life, and it has. As for the issues my writing highlights; I think that is more the result of the process, rather than a part of the process.
I’m sure you have encountered the claim that all literature is inherently personal and political. What do you think of that claim and how it may or may not pertain to your own work?
KOMATSU: Inherently personal, yes. The good stuff anyway. Inherently political? Depends on your perspective. Clausewitz called war “an extension of politics by other means.” From a causal perspective, it seems blindingly obvious. But the idea that in order for something to be good, that it must take a political stance; that’s an anathema to me. And hardly representative to the personal experience of war. Because once you’re there, the politics don’t mean a thing. Bullets and bombs don’t care about politics, and neither do wrenches, emails, or staff meetings. I’ve yet to meet a serviceman or woman in a combat zone who wanted to talk politics. So, why foist it upon the narrative?
TUCKER: When I started to really work at my writing I noticed that I started to ask questions of the reader that could be seen as political. My first published piece was a story entitled “Gymnasium” that took place in Iraq but had no combat or combat scenes to speak of—it was a story that investigated the “other dangers” of deployment, by children of our poor. In this case, it was a car crash (which I have to admit, might also be inspired, now that I think of it, by Denis Johnson). Poverty and war are interchangeable—there has never been one without the other, and there has never been a warrior without deep experience with poverty, or those who were poor. To me, this is personal and political—I grew up poor even though I didn’t know it until later, and I joined the military because I was poor and poor kids don’t go to college. Much of my writing, over time and genre, has devoted itself to soldiering, but very rarely is it about the specifics of being a warrior—often, I spend more time investigating who these men and women are, why they do the things they do, how they do the things they do; and that is as political as it gets for me.
COURTNEY: By its very nature, writing is a political act. Writing as a veteran or on active duty simply amplifies and intensifies the act. What interests me, primarily, is the notion of historical actors and how personal experience becomes historically relevant. With a quick Google search, it’s easy to dissect thousands of details, photographs, and official government reports relating to some historical moment, battle, or offensive—in my case, the sinking of the M/V Samra and Eikel. These are historical events, inasmuch as they happened in the past.
What is not reported, typically, in these reports are the individual men and women who are, or were, affected by these actions. For me, it’s the difference between empirically quantifiable data and actions versus the personal narratives that emerge from this history. Both aim to document some historical event, but how that documentation is rendered—its methodology—is the difference, for me, between the political and personal. The fascinating thing is that the official narrative certainly has more political staying power than the personal. The Joint Chiefs of Staff are not reviewing poetry manuscripts or novels looking to implement strategic changes, although they ought to.
FAZIO: My intent is nearly always personal. That said, a lot of my nonfiction writing is, consciously or not, commentary on public policy. And since personal writing can inform policy, I’m willing to make passionate statements there. I was kind of terrified when I published a couple of op-eds about the Marines’ experiment to integrate women into combat arms occupational specialties, in March and December 2015. I’m conflict-averse by nature, and didn’t know how the ultimate decision for combat arms gender integration would play out. But that is, to my mind, less politics than public policy. To echo what Matthew said above, no one wants to talk politics while they’re in a combat zone. I sure as hell didn’t.
In almost every book of literature produced by veterans, regardless of genre, there seems to be a strong push to highlight the credibility/authority her or his service brings to the work. Do you think a writer’s military service history should be used as a tool of credibility in the arts?
TUCKER: Fuck no. Are we going to throw Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (one of the great war novels ever, in my opinion) out because he didn’t serve? Or, if it is credibility we are talking about, am I only able to write about white dudes who grew up Mormon who joined the military? Or do I only get to write about being a professor now?
Obviously, this is something that really bothers me, and the question is a good one, but I see the push for credibility in art as the single greatest threat to advancing that art. For literature, it represents the worst kind of insincerity, and smacks of entitlement by nature—I believe with all I am, that we create art by stretching the skin of others to fit our narratives. It is by that stretching that we learn to inhabit the “other,” and it is by that learning that we discover our stories and poems. Any other approach is artificial, or worse, dishonest.
I’ve also heard of some dingbats calling it “authenticity.” How would they know what is authentic until the author teaches them? Authenticity is what the reader knows, what they realize, what they feel, after reading great fiction or poetry—who cares who made it, or by what means?
KOMATSU: When I see “authentic” applied to a blurb or review of any work regardless of genre, I throw up a little in my mouth. It’s a twisty, turny path that has no place in judging literary merit.
FAZIO: Whether it “should” or not, I don’t think the publishing industry will ever shy away from using authors’ military credentials to help promote a military-themed book. I’m sure it’s a useful marketing tool.
In fiction, it’s not a necessity for the author to be a veteran; only the author knows what he or she experienced in the military. Good writers, with enough research, can imagine themselves in a situation and write the hell out of it. Seth brings up a great example with Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. Fountain captures junior troops’ smoking and joking incredibly well, and he never served.
I imagine, however, that certain stories come more easily if you’ve experienced or observed similar things firsthand. Take Phil Klay’s Redeployment. In the story where a young officer leaves the Marines and starts grad school, I felt as if the narrator was reading my mind. And— well, of course Klay had the details right; he’d been a Marine, too, and gone to grad school after his service. He lived it.
As for nonfiction: it’s different depending on exactly what you’re writing. If you’re writing memoir, well, of course it helps—you were there, and that’s the whole point. Reportage, though, can be nuanced. On the one hand, it can make it easier to gain credibility, not only with your audience, but in order to do the research in the first place. Perhaps my being a female former Marine put some of my female Marine interviewees at ease. I knew the same jargon and had been to several of the places they described. It cuts both ways, though— if I get something wrong, I have less of an excuse. And I can’t let my personal experiences cloud others’ stories.
COURTNEY: In January 2015, the poet Tarfia Faizullah wrote an essay for Poetry Magazine’s Harriet Blog titled “Against Explanation,” a kind of play on words from Larry Levis’ poem “Anastasia & Sandman” where he writes the line, “I refuse to explain.” In her essay, Faizullah writes, “Almost every time I read ‘100 Bells’ in front of an audience, someone asks me to explain it. I’m baffled, because, to me, it’s one of my most transparent poems. I’ve been asked if it’s The Truth. I don’t think that’s what I’m being asked, though. It’s really something else: Did you make it up? Did it happen to you?
For veteran and active duty writers, I think these are all too familiar questions and, like Faizullah, I don’t think that’s what we’re being asked, either. I believe more frequently than other writers, veterans’ work is read through the lens of the biographical fallacy—the belief that a poem or work of fiction must necessarily reflect the author’s experiences. As Faizullah so succinctly points out, the question is really: Did it happen to you?
Frankly, at this point, I’m not sure the question is even relevant; certainly, it’s not very interesting, nor does it illicit a deeper understanding or explication of the text. At worst, assuming a poem, novel, play, or work of visual art is an unequivocal and exacting transmission of one’s own experience is fallacious and marginalizing, and, seemingly, undermines the entire enterprise of diegesis.
What do you find encouraging about the state of contemporary American war literature? Of concern?
FAZIO: What’s encouraging is that there’s a lot of it, and it’s being published. This is a great time to be a veteran-writer. As the war drags on, our stories are still immediately relevant. I have felt welcomed in the spaces I’ve written. There seems to be a readiness for a national dialogue between civilians and veterans, helped along by groups like Words After War.
Of concern, though: I’d like the demographics of published military and veteran authors to more accurately reflect who’s actually serving. When it comes to memoir, white, middle/upper-middle class male combat arms officers make up the majority of authors, though there are a couple of female exceptions. At least half of my enlisted Marines were people of color—why can I only pick out a couple published veteran writers of color? So many more stories exist than media images of combat. Perhaps I should take this as my cue to stop navel-gazing and write more diverse stories, too.
COURTNEY: What I find most encouraging about contemporary war literature is the unflinching portrayal of post-enlistment life. For a long time, war literature focused on the bravado and heroism of combat without much consideration to its affects. I think, now, we’re seeing a kind of Renaissance of veterans who are confronting the realities of post-enlistment: joblessness and underemployment, pain and medication management, post-traumatic stress disorder, suicide, re-acclamation into civilian life, and self-medication as coping strategy.
What is “lacking,” or of concern in contemporary American war literature, is something I’m currently pursuing in my most recent collections: post-deployment and post-enlistment risk taking behaviors. Although it’s beginning to gain some traction, I’ve been unable to uncover much written about increasingly risky behavior exhibited by both enlisted military personnel and veterans. For many veterans, including myself, our Military Occupational Specialties or rates were high-risk, high-reward occupations, where the lives of others, or the integrity of a structure (human body, ship, aircraft, weapons system, etc.) were in our hands. Couple this with combat, or any high profile mission, and this effect is exponentially amplified. It should come as no surprise, then, that after deployment or enlistment, many veterans exhibit increasingly risky behaviors in an effort to again capture a sense of danger (promiscuity, financial recklessness, adrenaline chasing, drunk-driving, etc.).
For many veterans, the military offered the ultimate sense of accomplishment and purpose. It becomes incredibly pressing and difficult for veterans to enter the civilian job market, processing insurance claims, for example, after habituating and thriving in a high-stress environment for years. I would like to see more writers given the platform to address this issue with the same intensity and clarity with which writers address PTSD and combat experience.
KOMATSU: The fact that there’s even a discussion of “war literature” as a thing is a good thing. It means there’s an appetite for what’s being produced. But it’s a knife that cuts both ways. Niche markets are exactly that, a niche. It’s exclusionary, limiting, and small. I have to wonder if Heller and Vonnegut thought about labeling their work as such, and I tend to think not. So, while it’s an “in” if you will, the goal is really to write literature. That’s it. A great work should, and will, stand out due to its overall literary merit.
TUCKER: It is all encouraging. I “grew up” as a writer when there were really no support systems in place, when there were no expectations from the reading public for veterans to create literature. Personally, I believe we are in the war literature renaissance—how many of us here, or how many veteran writers out there, would have ever thought to even try to tell their stories without the writing support they enjoy? My sense is that most of them wouldn’t have done it without the programs and support out there now. I know it would never have happened to me but for whatever strange urge caused me to enroll in a creative writing class.
Discouraging, or of concern? Publishing a writer too early. Now that there is a push for war writing, I’ve seen some emerging writers allow their work to get published before it was ready, and there are long-term ramifications for them—too much criticism too early.
There has been a lot of discussion about the prevalence of “damaged veteran” narratives in contemporary American war literature. Voices in and out of the veteran community are pushing for more representation of veterans that focus less on debilitating scars of war and more about the many personal and professional successes of those that have served. What is your reaction?
KOMATSU: It’s about damn time. I get why it sells, especially in our current climate. But we’re not going to get anywhere by enforcing self-victimization. That’s charity work, and no one ended up on the top of the canon because people felt sorry for him or her. Which isn’t to say that if that’s your story, it has no place. It does. But it can’t be the only place for a writer to go. War is a “many-splendored thing,” with a lot of interesting things to unwrap. Trauma is just one of those areas.
FAZIO: Marketers can find an angle in anything— the true story is nuanced, like real life. Former Army Captain David Eisler wrote a great op-ed in the New York Times in 2013 about America’s perceptions of vets as either PTSD-addled victims or heroic future titans of industry. In truth, we’re nobody’s poster children; we’re three-dimensional human beings. Veterans’ lives— everyone’s lives— are made up of successes and failures and muddled, imperfect stories in between. We have a right to tell them all. Once you start turning veterans’ literature into commodities to be curated and marketed, the act of publishing them loses some authenticity.
TUCKER: Have these people ever read fiction before? Or nonfiction, for that matter? Conflict and crisis are the bread and butter of narrative. How many classical or contemporary novels are there that don’t focus on profoundly damaged characters, doing profoundly stupid things? Shit, I’m a big old hunk of ground-up broken meat, but I’ve also had a wonderful life full of great love and momentous success, yet I have no desire to write about how lucky I am. Who would read it? Instead, I want to see what that mangled chunk of gristle and bone is going to do when slapped on a hot grill. That is story. If these critics want “personal and professional success” from those who served, then they should just buy us a cup of coffee (or a glass of beer, or a handful of quaaludes), and ask us how and why we write—can you image a greater obstacle defeated, than a soldier who comes home to write?
As a veteran artist, do you experience a pressure or expectation to create art exclusively about military conflict?
FAZIO: I don’t feel a ton of external pressure, but there are more publication opportunities these days for literature about conflict. I am grateful for these opportunities, but also don’t want to be relegated to some sort of war-lit ghetto. My four years in the military won’t be the sole inspiration for the rest of my writing life. I’m pretty sure I’ll write about more of the human experience than conflict.
COURTNEY: I’m going to answer this question with an analogy I’ve been mulling over for some time: I consider my writing to be analogous to the formation of a pearl. The assumption that errant grains of sand embed or enter the soft tissues of mollusks to form pearls is mostly inaccurate. In fact, most pearls are formed by parasites or damage to the mollusk’s soft tissue, and pearls are formed as part of the mollusk’s defense mechanism. Although the mollusk itself produces calcium carbonate, which in turn causes further irritation, the pearl continues to protect itself by adding additional layers, which causes further irritation. In essence, each layer creates a larger problem for the mollusk.
Similarly, each poem or essay creates more conflict. My experiences in the military are the initial irritants, the damage to the soft tissue; each poem or essay or book is a reaction, a defense mechanism to the original “damage.” This, however, does not solve the problem but, in some ways, acts to further the irritation. If I feel any pressure or expectation to create narratives of conflict, it’s not because of external pressures; the mounting pressure can best be described as self-produced and self-perpetuating. Each poem only manages to generate new issues, new irritants.
TUCKER: Not really pressure, but I do experience some readers who are surprised I am writing about other things. Many readers just assume the only life we lead is as a soldier, but for me, that experience is nearly a world away from my current life. That said, I still do write about it more than I should, or more than I would like. Sometimes it feels like that is the true remnant left after serving or of being in combat—the war will always feel closer than most anything else we ever experience.
KOMATSU: Look, nobody’s banging down my door, let alone doing so while shouting for me to produce a certain kind of art. The only pressure I feel is interior, and that voice is telling me to create, without qualifiers on what to do.
Of the many literary works or art that have influenced you, please select one and tell us a little bit about why that particular work is so important to you.
COURTNEY: Like many veterans, the book that has the most profound influence on me is The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, specifically his techniques of Metafiction and Truth; truly, I think O’Brien has given veteran writers a kind of blueprint for how to write about conflict, war, and post-enlistment issues. The Things They Carried was one of the first books I read in college after the military, and a Vietnam veteran taught the class. Hands down, that book, and Rick Christman’s class, catapulted me into the writing stratosphere.
FAZIO: The work of the visual artist Alma Leiva affected me last spring. She creates striking installations, photographs, and videos about gang violence in Honduras, and seeing the depth of terror and loss in those communities was staggering. Parents want the same things for their children the world over, and it’s luck of the draw whether you’re born into a gang-riddled block, a war-torn nation, or a comfortable suburb. It made me realize the immense privilege I’ve had, and that I might not be particularly talented or special— just really lucky. The shear between these worlds has inspired some of my fiction lately.
TUCKER: Like Brandon, Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried came around at just the right time for me—I was asked to read it in a graduate school class by Ann Cummins, and she wanted me to see it for the inventive strategies O’Brien used in the title story. She knew I wrote poetry as well, so it seemed a good fit—after all, O’Brien’s story uses the tradition of the “list” poem for the narrative arc of his story. What I found there blew me away, and for better or worse, has had a great impact on how I approach narrative. The downside is that I find myself forever comparing what I do to that perfect lovely, perfectly sound, prose.
KOMATSU: Ben Busch’s Dust to Dust. Artistically, structurally, materially; it shook my paradigms about memoir by the shoulders and opened my eyes to possibility.
What are you working on now?
TUCKER: Right now, I have enough material for a third poetry collection, and I suspect that I will have it ready to publish in the coming year. But my biggest efforts are focused on a novel I have been working on for the past couple of years—the novel follows the path of a ranch kid who gets caught up some desperate shenanigans and then joins the military to escape. It is a love story, of sorts, and funny. I hope.
COURTNEY: My newest chapbook Inadequate Grave was recently published by YesYes Books. Also, I’m almost finished with my third full-length collection, scheduled for release in 2017, also with YesYes Books, which addresses enlisted and post-enlistment risk-taking behaviors and the wake of familial and personal destruction.
I’m also chipping away at a memoir, which focuses on my role as the escort for Benjamin Johnson’s human remains. The memoir examines, both lyrically and historically, military repatriation and the ceremonial process of burying our military dead.
FAZIO: Revising my memoir…again, eternally…and a bit more short fiction. Also an essay that has nothing to do with war— which is a nice break.
KOMATSU: A memoir manuscript. Aren’t we all?
Photo Credit: “Contemplation” by Leonard Till