War Writing Retreat

March 11th, 2010

By Jan Barry

Far from the televised spectacle of Olympic athletes whooping or weeping in joy or anguish in pursuit of split-second victories, some other highly dedicated young people quietly gathered to share strategies for coping with relentless physical and emotional turmoil—in this case, from participating in deliberately deadly international contests.

The gathering of edgy veterans of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan featured some whoops and weeping, amid an exchange of poetry and art works that was the centerpiece of a recent Warrior Writers’ retreat in Philadelphia, PA.

“The hard part is finding alternative methods for dealing with this,” Jon Turner, a former Marine machine-gunner, said to a standing-room-only audience during a Saturday night poetry reading at Robin’s Books, an out-of-the-way, second-floor bookstore in a downtown district booming with bars and night club-hopping.

“BOOM SMASH! That’s the sound of your Kevlar hitting the bullet proof glass… THUMP CRASH! That’s the sound of the mortar impacting in the dirt… CRASH AHHH!” Turner abruptly screamed into the microphone. “That’s the sound of your friend that now has a hole in his back…”

Release of still-unsettling emotions in poetry, short stories and memoirs was the focus of the three-day retreat, which also included many quieter discussions on the craft of balancing living and writing. Several of the vets noted how vital to their lives has been their participation in Warrior Writers and Combat Paper workshops, which offer hands-on making of artworks from military artifacts and memories.

“Warrior Writers, Combat Paper and love have saved my life,” said Turner, who drove with his partner, Kathy, and their dog, Sadie-Mae, from Vermont to share a new, self-published collection of his war and peace poetry, titled “Eat the Apple.”

Others were still exploring the idea of sharing private thoughts jotted down in a notebook or on a scrap of paper.

“I’m kind of a writer in progress,” said Maggie Martin, a former Army sergeant who traveled from a small town in Georgia with a sister veteran to see if this approach to dealing with the emotional freight of war would fly in the military bastion of the Old South. Pulling out a poem she wrote in a workshop that afternoon, Martin noted it was for an Iraqi friend, one of many people she met whose lives were upended by the US military invasion and occupation of their country. The concluding lines of her three-line haiku said: “forgive me friend/I never knew.”

Many of the roughly two dozen vets who participated in the reading or in workshops are active in Iraq Veterans Against the War and other veterans’ organizations on various issues, but the main aim of their writing is to sort out their own experiences and improve their life skills.

“I did two deployments, including a stop-loss,” said David Mann, an Army vet from Colorado, referring to a relatively new military policy that orders a soldier back into a war zone beyond the end of their enlistment period. “I found writing is such a help to me.”

Summing up the aim of the weekend gathering, Warrior Writers founder and director Lovella Calica said “I can’t tell you how many veterans I’ve seen who made art and their whole life changed.”

In stark contrast to the billion-dollar Winter Olympics games in Vancouver, Canada, Calica and a group of friends put together what she called a writing and wellness retreat on a shoe-string budget. This meant putting vets up in supporters’ homes, soliciting food donations from neighborhood stores, and offering writing workshops and Reiki, Yoga and Pilates relaxation sessions at Studio 34, a funky community arts center in a student-centric neighborhood near the University of Pennsylvania.

A Sunday meeting on how to expand the three-year-old Warrior Writers program beyond its Philadelphia base was well attended by many of the vets and civilian supporters.

“I want to take this workshop [program] back to Chicago,” said Pete Sullivan, a former GI who during the bookstore reading the night before dedicated a poem to “my dad, who is a veteran.” Sullivan’s poem included this line: “I know about the battle you’re engaged in in your head.” Martin, who led the planning discussion, said she’d like to create a writing workshop in Savannah, Georgia. Others proposed helping to organize Warrior Writers workshops in a variety of locales, from Boston to San Francisco, in the coming year.

“We didn’t have enough time,” said Jon Turner, who has attended previous Warrior Writers workshops. “It was really good,” he added. “In June, come to Vermont, when it’s warm and we could go hiking in the woods.” During a 2007 retreat in Burlington, Vermont, participants celebrated publishing a collection of their early work and inspired creation of the Combat Paper project to add hand-made artworks to the array of healing offerings.

For further information about Warrior Writers programs:  WarriorWriters.org

(This article was also posted at EarthAirWater.)

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One Response to “War Writing Retreat”

  1. Tom |

    Excellent, interesting article. Regardless of one’s opinions about war in general or a given war in particular, the fact is that war is a searing experience for those who fight. Soldiers can’t just flip a switch and turn off their feelings when they get back home. Sometimes it’s hard for them to understand themselves and nearly impossible to explain it to those who haven’t been there. In a small number of cases, those feelings are expressed in very negative kinds of behavior because there’s no outlet, no way to relieve the stress that pervades waking and sleeping hours alike. Artistic expression of these feelings is very beneficial for some combat veterans, and organizations and events like these are great ways to encourage it.

    For any who would like to read poetry in this genre, I’d strongly recommend some of Jan’s own work. His recent book, Earth Songs, is outstanding. There are also two excellent earlier books that Jan co-edited and published poems in, Winning Hearts and Minds: War Poems by Vietnam Veterans and Demilitarized Zones: Veterans After Vietnam.

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