Power of poetry present at veterans summit

Contact Reporterhbridges@vagazette.com

A poem is more.

More than rhyme, more than meter, more than word choice.

"A poem is a doorway through words to something mysterious and uncanny and almost otherworldly," said Sofia Starnes, former poet laureate of Virginia.

"It connects you to something that prose would not, that mere information would not."

That something was tangible in the College of William and Mary's Campus Center, as 13 poets stepped up to a podium. The reading completed a two-day veterans poetry summit presented this month by the Armed Services Arts Partnership.

For that hour-and-a-half, a group of people already connected by military experience connected, through poetry, to something more.

"Something else is going on that can only be accomplished through poetry," Starnes said. "It is the closest thing to music in writing."

Founded and directed by William and Mary graduate Sam Pressler, the Armed Services Arts Partnership empowers veterans, service members and military family members through the arts. Currently, the nonprofit organization offers comedy, music, writing and visual arts classes.

The summit was the first intensive poetry workshop offered by the partnership, a workshop led by Starnes and Joseph Bathanti, former poet laureate of North Carolina.

From a 14-year-old military kid to a 94-year-old World War II veteran, 16 participants spent the two days writing, discussing, re-writing. In everything, there was conviction of craft.

"These are writers who happen to be veterans," Starnes said.

Becoming poet

"Poetry is something I fought for a very long time," said Scott Price, who traveled from Harrisonburg to participate in the summit. "But it kept coming back."

From 1986 to 2011, Price served as an infantryman in the Army National Guard in Virginia, deployed twice during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

He could never quite reconcile poet with soldier.

"Because it wasn't part of the image," he said. "The soldier image, leader image."

But a few years ago, Price said he stopped fighting poetry. He's working to become a better poet, building the courage to seek publication.

"This has been a birthing process," he said.

Niki Reed, an Army veteran from Hampton, remembers writing poems as early as middle school. Her interest in poetry renewed during her deployment to Iraq in 2008, but she kept her poems private.

During a deployment to Afghanistan, Reed was medevaced out. Through the Wounded Warrior Project, she later took her first poetry class.

For Reed, poetry is another way to express herself.

But unlike singing and dancing, other forms of art familiar to Reed, "(poetry) is on paper," she said. "It's something that lasts."

She's working on a "Psalm of Niki," a collection of poems about her military career, about her family, about things going on in the world, things she's prayed about.

"I'm putting it all down on paper," she said.

The power of story

That process of putting it down on paper is freeing, Bathanti said.

As writer-in-residence at the Charles George Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Asheville, N.C., Bathanti interacts with many Vietnam veterans. As poet laureate, his signature project involved working with veterans to gather their stories.

Often, the stories veterans carry are "profoundly weighted objects," Bathanti said, "those stories that have just been deviling them all their lives."

"Those same stories are the stories that have kind of set them free in a lot of ways, too. That have allowed them to then wrestle with those demons," he continued.

Josh Barnett happened upon creative writing in a college class. He found "that gave me a way to express things I didn't know how to express."

He later took a creative poetry class.

"I like that there's not really any rules," said Barnett, who writes free verse. "I can just kind of put my thoughts on paper."

Barnett's poetry gravitates toward his experiences in Iraq — he's served in the Army National Guard for almost 10 years, and deployed in 2009 to Iraq. There's an "emotional charge" associated with his time overseas, he said.

His poem "Blackjack," about that experience, will soon be published in the "War, Literature and the Arts" journal.

"They begin to see those stories as something they own that's very powerful, and not something that is a curse," Bathanti said.

"It's the power of story, the power of the words, the power of language, the power of community, that I think does have that healing effect on people."

In this together

Pressler said the Armed Services Arts Partnership impact involves the idea of homecoming: "What does homecoming mean? What does reintegration mean? And what does the transition mean?"

On one hand, the arts partnership provides direct service through classes and workshops, Pressler said.

Developing skills and honing craft, finding voice and expressing self, experiencing camaraderie, that's all part of the process.

"We believe those things are helping veterans more effectively transition into the community," Pressler said.

But the community has to respond.

Performances, readings and publications are a way to invite the community in, Pressler said, and to foster conversation about the military experience.

"We're not two communities," Starnes said. "We're all connected. We're all in this together."

Poems presented at the reading often revealed military experiences, but even more prevalent was the human experience.

"This is a place for them as complete human beings and writers," Starnes said.

Army veteran Tasha Hill took to the podium to read "Black B," her poetic response to a racial attack she and her daughter experienced.

The poem, she said, is about self love and self respect.

Hill has written poetry since she was young, and she largely writes spoken word poetry.

"This is a way for me to share who I am for people who may make pre-perceived notions," she said.

Hill's daughter, Shiyenn Hill-Scott, 14, a budding poet who also participated in the summit, said she hopes to follow in her mother's footsteps.

Becoming creator

"Whatever your experiences," Starnes said, "when you write a poem, you take it out of yourself, and you create something that is outside of yourself."

"At that point, you are the creator," she said. "So much of life, you don't create … You feel like you're being pushed, and you just react."

An Army veteran who served in Vietnam, as well as a teacher and writer for several years, Mike Lancaster described the anger that lies within him.

"It became anger at the world that you can't affect no matter how hard you try," he said.

Lancaster's poetry is his way of escaping that anger.

As his wife recently told him: "Your poetry is your prayer."

Lancaster's home in Hampton overlooks Salt Ponds waterway. He's completed the manuscript for a book of 50 poems following the ponds through the seasons.

Lancaster finds peace in poetry. It connects him to nature, to something more.

"That world out there is tuned to powers way above and beyond us," he said.

Bridges can be reached by phone at 757-345-2342.

Armed Services Arts Partnership

To donate, volunteer or participate, visit asapasap.org. To contact the organization, call 973-896-1117.

Veterans Chapbook

ASAP recently released its first publication from the organization's writing programs, "A Common Bond: A Veterans Chapbook." Featuring poetry and memoir, the chapbook is $25, available at asapasap.org/storefront. Below is a poem from the chapbook.

"Feel of Cool: Hot Reminiscence"

By Mike Lancaster

Flew Cobra gun ship helicopters in
Vietnam, 101st Airborne.
Vietnam's tropic climate stifles,
perhaps like none other.
Endless humidity and heat
bathed our skin leaving a salty
residue. In the mornings, there
was little time or thought for fear.

Dawn pre-flights, mission briefs,
climbing in, fire-resistant flight
suits getting sweat up with the sun.
We took off in twos toward the
South China Sea, turning sharply
west toward the jungle covered
mountains of the A Shau Valley,
or north west to Khe Sanh, then the
Ho Chi Minh trail deep into Laos, or
straight up to the border between
North and South Vietnam.

We cruised to mission altitude,
as a new sense wrapped around us;
like mist in the mountains, real mist,
cold air blasted from air conditioners
in the cockpit, spitting ice chunks
against our hard plastic visors,
stinging cheeks, drifting down, melting
into clothes under our flight suits,
turning warm salty sweat to a
tall cool drink of water. Mountain
air was cold, but nothing spelled relief as
those wonderful air conditioners did.

We flew back empty of arms and
fuel; the aircraft, free from the
weight it carried outbound, chirped and
accelerated blasts of iced
refrigerator air into the cockpit.
We were cold returning to base.
Landing to rearm and refuel,
we saw our visors turn opaque
as cold air greeted the rush of
hot Nam. Bless the crew chief there with
an ice cold, six-pack of Coca Cola.
In minutes, we were outbound, cool …

(Poem courtesy of Mike Lancaster)

Copyright © 2019, The Virginia Gazette