A Muse’s Art

February 14th, 2012

By Jan Barry

Lovella Calica (Warrior Writers photo)Poets and artists since ancient times have fervently cited or called upon a female Muse for inspiration. Seldom did the Muse speak for herself. This thought arose as I read and reread a privately printed chapbook of poetry by Lovella Calica, the founder and director of Warrior Writers, a notably inspiring creative project that has encouraged and enabled dozens of veterans of the Global War on Terrorism to create art, poetry and other creative writing out of numbing, sometimes nightmarish experiences.

Much of that work has been showcased in three anthologies edited by Calica, drawn from workshops she’s conducted around the US and presented to diverse audiences in readings she organized. The most recent anthology, After Action Review, published in December, presents art, poetry and other writings by more than 60 men and women who served in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or other military missions and are now trying to recreate happier civilian lives.

“I used to write before I went to Iraq, but when I got over there, I wasn’t able to write,” Eli Wright, a former Army combat medic, noted in After Action Review of his military mindset before encountering Calica’s nurturing approach to changing one’s life through art. “So through Warrior Writers I have been able to slowly begin to find my words again and share my experiences and what happened over there. It’s been a healing experience,” added Wright, who now helps coordinate an arts program in New Jersey for veterans.

Lovella Calica’s gift for healing arts has enriched my life as well. I’ve felt encouraged as a writer and an old fogey Vietnam vet, participating in writing workshops and readings she organized, writing the introduction for the second Warrior Writers anthology and helping with copy editing of the latest book. I admire her teaching skills and editing instincts.

Like many other anguished veterans, Wright met Calica through Iraq Veterans Against the War, a small but vocal antiwar organization that marshals poetry, street theater and vividly stated personal witness as integral parts of its protests against a war its members participated in or served in support of.  Calica got a job in the IVAW office in Philadelphia, PA several years ago, after attending college in Michigan, and decided to stay in Philly when the group moved to New York and transform an informal discussion of poetry into a national arts project.

Calica has an astute appreciation for drawing lessons from life’s dramas, large and small. Her new collection of her own poems, Huwag Matakot/Do Not Be Afraid, pays homage to a chant shouted at protest rallies in the Philippines, where she delightedly discovered her Filipino heritage on a visit to once-distant relatives. Her other heritage is that of an American Midwestern girl full of “get up and go” and what used to be called “grit.” This combination of heritages has given her compassion for people smacked hard by harsh experiences and iron resolve that people can make changes to make a better world.

I’ve been rereading Huwag Matakot to get reoriented after the shock of hernia surgery and depressing complications. I like Lovella Calica’s tough and savvy, pushing-through-pain-and-loss way of reaching out and creating new, supportive communities of survivors seeking better days.

One of her mentors is Maxine Hong Kingston, author of The Woman Warrior, among other books, and creator of a long-running series of writing workshops for military veterans in California. Kingston praises Calica’s selfless sharing of her literary gifts, in a blurb on the back cover of Huwag Matakot:

Lovella Calica’s poetry sings out in compassion
for the city dweller, the traveler,
the homeless, the friendless, the non-white
people, the white people, the artist,
and the artless.

Do not be afraid.
I am with you.

In a poem called “Platform Prayers,” Calica notes an old woman searching payphones for lost coins on a subway platform, muttering thanks and prayers in a Russian accent to young people who hand her a little money. “I hand her a biscuit in a plastic bag,” Calica says.

You deserve a story
and a poem
some warm boots
a hot meal
clean hands
laughter and a bed to sleep in, with a pillow…

she adds, upset with herself that she only offered a biscuit. When she encountered alienated young military veterans wandering America seeking to redeem lost dreams, she dug deeper—beyond her own fears of being homeless, friendless, lost in depression—and shared a passion for teaching how to tell one’s own story.

“Each one of us, and our stories, are worthwhile and valuable,” she writes in the introduction to her poetry collection, which has sections titled “Traveling Poems,” “Homeless Poems” and “Meat and Bones of Me.” This is her muse-like mantra: “…we must tell our stories. We must not trap ourselves in silence and isolation. When we use our words, our art, to communicate with each other, we are building bridges of community.”

This is the theme of the collections of art and poetry, letters and journals she has coaxed from dozens of war veterans, skittish of crowds, explosive memories and wounding words.

“I never envisioned myself working with veterans,” she wrote in her editor’s notes for the first Warrior Writers anthology, Move, Shoot and Communicate, published in 2007, “but I cannot imagine my life without their influence…. It is the most challenging, emotionally draining, seemingly endless, overwhelming work I have been involved in. It is also the most rewarding, humorous, inspiring and powerful work I have been blessed to take part in.”

In shepherding creative works by numerous veterans from workshops to readings to fund-raising events to books—the second anthology, Re-Making Sense, was published in 2008—she shared little in these works about herself. While continuously writing poetry posted on a blog, some of which is gathered in Huwag Matakot, she has shared little in the Warrior Writers works about her own great loves and losses, pride and pain, “guilt and shame,” which she briefly reveals in Huwag Matakot. Instead, her focus has been on assisting others to improve their lives through creative energy, much of it generated by her enthusiasm, literary examples and what she calls “writing prompts.”

So when writing workshop taskmaster Lovella Calica confesses to being lost and confused—in a poem titled “What now?”—a reader can see her visibly will herself to overcome depression:

I used to glitter and shine
now I’m hardened and hurt

I want to run away
I want to build bridges
I want to tell stories
I want to help the helpful
I want to heal myself
I want to have hope

And so, yet again, she mobilized a diverse assortment of veterans, friends and allies and compiled, edited and raised the money to publish a new Warrior Writers anthology last fall. In the editor’s notes for After Action Review, she asks readers to reach out to veterans they may know and tell them of this creative work. And she speaks directly to the armies of men and women who served in Afghanistan and Iraq and may still be struggling to feel “back home” emotionally.

“Come forth, sit at the table with us and write yourself alive, write to connect yourselves to one another, to a new lineage, a literary history, the creative construction of a way forward,” she offers.

In a warm personal and professional appreciation of Lovella Calica’s work, a former Air Force pilot and Air Force Academy professor disillusioned by the war in Iraq, Lt. Col. James A. Moad II, wrote in the afterword for After Action Review: “The Warrior Writers are all about using creative energy to help Vets confront the trauma of war through artistic expression…. By having them write, draw, or mold their experiences into art, the pain and anger boxed up within them loses part of its destructive character. They can, like all artists, give themselves over to the power of imagination—an effort which both frees and creates a new way of seeing and engaging their own experiences.”

I look forward to seeing her future work, both in Warrior Writers and in her own poetry’s explorations of life in these tough times.

For more information:

Warrior Writers

(This article was also posted at EarthAirWater.)

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One Response to “A Muse’s Art”

  1. Tom Carter |

    Interesting. I didn’t know that Lovella Calica founded Warrior Writers and was its director. I read a bit more about her on the internet. Sounds like a pretty dynamic person. Maybe she should turn to politics and run for office!

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