Saturday, March 10, 2012

Veteran-Writers and the surprising benefits of stalking

Last week I stalked someone.

For those of you who don’t know me, I do this a lot. Don’t worry, it’s not as creepy as it sounds (at least that’s what I like to think...). I’m just being resourceful! That’s what Google is for, right?

Anyway, last week my stalking victim was Colin D. Halloran, a former Army Special Forces Infantryman, Afghanistan veteran, poet and veterans advocate. I learned that Colin and I would both be at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) Conference last weekend in Chicago, where he was signed up to lead a panel about helping veterans transition “from Combat to College” through writing programs. Because I’m in the midst of such a transition myself, and because I’m a writer, and because I get giddy when I meet other veterans, I was intrigued. So I stalked Colin. And, perhaps against his better judgment, he was receptive.

Colin and I met the first day of the conference. In the great tradition of writers (and military veterans) everywhere, we talked over drinks. We exchanged the basics: time in service, job titles, home stations and deployed locations. We discussed our respective MFA programs. I complemented Colin on his "very un-Army" blazer and bowtie. Then, for some incredible reason, he trusted me enough to bare his soul, allowing me to pick through it in the pages of his unpublished book of poetry. The fact that he opened himself up to me two hours after we met (and after I’d stalked him!) is a testament to the veteran connection.

Now, I’m first to admit that I don’t know much about the craft of poetry. I just know how it makes me feel. And reading Colin’s poetry felt like he was reaching straight into my soul. It felt like he had inserted a device into my brain that chronicled my thoughts and fears, sorted through and unscrambled them, sucked them out and fashioned them into something tangible and accessible and – against all odds – beautiful.

It was awesome! And kind of frightening. How did this unassuming guy I just met understand so much about me?

I’ve felt a similar bond with other veterans; people who “get it,” who've “been there, done that,” who can relate to all the complicatedness spinning around in my head. It’s wonderful reassurance that I’m not alone.

Meeting a veteran-writer, as it turns out, is a double-whammy. Here’s someone else who knows what it’s like to feel a piece of writing bubbling up inside you, the manifestation of an experience trapped for too long in the past. Someone who knows the wave of relief and the drain of exhaustion that comes from finally letting it out. Someone who used to deny the big hunk of his identity that’s wrapped up in his veteran status but doesn’t anymore because of his writing. Someone who understands the power writing gives him over his experiences and tries every day to harness it. Someone who writes because he has to.

Even though we’re newly acquainted, I’ll be brash and assert that Colin D. Halloran is pretty amazing. Despite suffering from PTSD and a knee injury that forced him to be medically evacuated from Afghanistan, he wants to go back to war. He wants to pick up where he left off, to complete his “unfinished business” supporting his unit and serving his country. Amazing, right? But when I told Colin that, he shrugged it off. It’s just part of the job. Such a Special Forces response.

Colin’s poetry is profound. (SPOILER ALERT: If you stick with this blog post to the end, you’ll have the distinct pleasure of reading a piece!) Beyond being a darn good writer, though, he hopes his writing will help others. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that it already has.

A former public school teacher, Colin gives readings and speaks to teachers and student populations about the unique challenges veterans face when transitioning to a school environment. He advocates writing classes in particular as a way to create a safe space where veterans can find common ground and begin to intellectualize their experiences.

In his AWP panel, Colin stressed that civilians can’t understand what soldiers have been through until soldiers understand what they’ve been through. That’s where writing comes in. Colin has been there. I've been there. We’re still there, hovering somewhere along the spectrum of healing and understanding. I imagine we’ll be hovering for a long time. Maybe forever. Hopefully moving, slowly but surely, in the right direction.

Hovering sometimes can be disconcerting. But it’s always nice to know I’m in good company.

Shout out to Colin’s fellow AWP panelists, more amazing people doing important work:
Christine Leche, a writing professor at Austin Community College, who teaches veteran writing courses. She has spent several months teaching soldiers in deployed locations and is the editor of a forthcoming anthology of veteran writing.
Charlotte Gullick, head of the creative writing department at Austin Community College, who has taught veterans.
Kelly Dalton, a Navy veteran and discourse community specialist.

Shout out to my traveling buddies Shannon and Krysta.

Shout out to AWP for supporting the wonderful world of literary dorkdom and to Chicago for being a cool town.

Now, as promised, a poem, courtesy of Colin D. Halloran:
(Watch an Colin Read an excerpt from this poem here)


Or maybe it does.

I find it hard to know just what I think these days. I cannot trust the thoughts I think I think – I think.

In war I thought it all was so uncertain, but uncertainty was guaranteed. But here, college, and of all places freshmen Psych class, where certainty should be ensured by class lists and start times, I’m uncertain once more. And this window doesn’t seem so high.

I wouldn’t think of jumping (though clearly I just did). And if I can’t trust the thoughts I think I think should I put faith in the unthinkable?

Other students are looking out the window too. This window with a perfect view of approach routes, of the roof of the buildings across the street, of the main intersection. The seventeen cars that have passed. The three that have done so twice. Are the others noticing these things too? Are they aware how high it is? Or isn’t?

My peers (though it somehow seems unfit to use that word – I never complain about the weight of my backpack), they daydream. They gaze, detached, out the window because out there is not in here and in here there is a woman talking, droning, about drinking. Alcohol.

I drink alcohol. Beer mostly, but never the cheap stuff. I was cursed with a palate. Sometimes wine. This palate is developing. But that’s out there. And out there is not in here. I cannot drink in here because in here is school and out there is not, though I learn (and maybe more). And in here, here being school, there is a woman talking about alcohol.

Some guys (boys?) have stopped looking out there and begun to pay attention to this woman. She has asked who in here drinks alcohol out there. These fellows think they’re cool. I can tell because they nudge and do the “bro-nod”. Chuckles. I indicate, more reverently, that I can be counted in this category.

She moves in.

Questioning, frowning. Why? How? Fake ID? I must be wrong. This is a class for freshmen. This is why she is here. To talk to first years about their first years and the dangers we’ve been warned of since 7th grade.

But the dangers I’ve faced did not come from college bars, from darkened street corners. The four years that separate me from those wedged into desks around me carried me to places they only see in books, on TV. No streets for corners, no college for bars. Just violence from an unknown enemy. That was always certain.

So now I sit, and think the thoughts I think or dare not to, and while those around me dream, I can’t help but notice that this window doesn’t seem so high.

Read samples and purchase his forthcoming poetry collection here
Visit his website
Follow him on Facebook
View his blog series from Copaiba Press: "Witness", "Speak", and "Heal"


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