It’s been a year since the Governor of Minnesota signed a bill designating October as Veterans’ Voices month, and in that time, I’ve become acquainted with more and more Veteran writers across the country. It was a good year. Not only did Phil Clay win the National Book Award in 2014 for Redeployment, but more and more Veteran Artists are finding the time, energy and courage to share their stories with the nation. With the help of some amazing organizations such as The Warrior Writers, The Telling Project, Veteran Artist Program, Words After War, and the Veterans Writing Project, just to name a few, Veterans are finding support and a place to share their own original work.
In addition to reaching out to Veteran Writers, I’ve been working alongside an amazing group of educators and Veterans at the Minnesota Humanities Center to help build curriculum for high school classrooms. Our goal is to give educators the tools necessary to connect with students and help bridge the civilian-military divide. It can sometimes feel like a daunting task to educators, after all, and we’re working to give them the flexibility and resources to be successful. It’s been a challenging and uplifting endeavor, and far more rewarding than I could have imagined. Of course, this is just the beginning, as we hope to share what we learn with other states across the country. These are the voices that need to be heard and shared, and as I’ve stated before, we owe it to our men and women in uniform to hear what they have to tell us.
Late last summer I found myself in Denver on a layover. I was just considering some of the Veteran writers I was hoping to profile, but I hadn’t reached out to any of them yet. I’d finished reading Brady Seth Tucker’s amazing collection of poetry, Mormon Boy, a few weeks before, and I realized he was teaching in Colorado. I zipped off an e-mail in his direction. It turns out that he happened to be in Denver for the Litfest at the Lighthouse Writers Workshop, and we were able to meet.
Seth is a tall, dirty blonde guy whose long hair belies his military past. We were able to chat between readings and talk about his work. Like so many Veterans, who’ve moved on in life, their military experience has helped shape their writing, but they are not defined by it. I was able to catch up with him over the winter where I discovered he was working to curate the Veterans issue for Pleiades and selected as a faculty member for the Seaside Writing Conference. I asked him several questions about his own work, literature and the contemporary war literature.
1. Please share with us where you find inspiration for your art?
My stories generally come from the simple act of daydreaming mindfully. I try to listen to the stories and ideas for poems as they come from my subconscious.
Sounds a bit dippy, I know. But, I hear my stories in the daydreaming I do. As a child, I was constantly admonished for this habit of “checking out,” and anyone who knows me well knows that I will “disappear” in the midst of a conversation. My parents thought something was wrong with me. My teachers solved this problem by allowing me to read books in the back of the classroom. I’m sure this solution was for their benefit rather than mine, but it is in those books, in the back of a classroom, or under a sheet late at night with a flashlight, that began the infatuation that is my obsession with “story” and ultimately the effort to tell my own.
The military, as you certainly must know, has a history of breaking such habits in their soldiers, but in its own way, the military also taught me where to look for the material I was slowly building into my work. This is particularly true in my poetry—my first book, “Mormon Boy” focused specifically on a hybrid-persona of myself, and chronicled the journey from Mormon ranch kid to soldier. My second book, “We Deserve the Gods We Ask For,” is almost completely written in persona, but focuses on telling the stories of “the hero,” and how we abandon our heroes (the collection goes from cartoon character to recruit to soldier alike) once we are “through” with them. In the end, I feel completely captured by certain images, and I try to keep my eyes and ears peeled for the next idea trapped in an image for my next story or poem.
2. Please share with us some of the creative process steps you take in translating inspiration to words on the page.
Early in my career, I kept a little notebook in my back pocket at all times, jotting down an idea here, an idea there. Now I tend to use my cellphone—I record actual storylines as I walk along, or outline an idea for a poem. I always then transcribe that by handwriting that material into my notebook, but I really have seen a change in my habits. I’m not sure if it is for the better. But ultimately, I believe that a writer must always be writing—this doesn’t mean that I plop myself down in front of a computer day in and day out, but it does mean that I am constantly crafting and drafting in my head. As far as BICHOK (which comes from Dan Manzaneres (I believe) at the Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver, and translates to “Butt In Chair Hands On Keyboard”), I try to give myself easy goals. I try to write 500 words a day, five days a week. This might seem to some a paltry goal, but I find that if I give myself something manageable, I am better able to hit and surpass that goal. Most of the time, I am easily able to hit my goal, and I feel I must clarify why I set a seemingly arbitrary goal—2500 words a week is a novel every year. We should all be so lucky to churn out a novel a year, right?
3. How would you assess the state of contemporary war literature and art in America?
I believe that the past three decades will come to be known as a renaissance period for War Literature. I really believe that. It started with Kommenyaka and O’Brien and all those poets and fiction writers from the 90’s, and just kept picking up momentum through Turner and Fountain in the past ten years. That doesn’t even hit on the fact that Redeployment won the NBA yesterday, and Anthony Doerr’s “All the Light We Cannot See” is one of the best novels I have read in the last twenty years. These aren’t just soldiers writing about their experiences either—these are writers creating narratives around soldiers that are authentic and rich and dire and tragic and comic and lyrical and heart-breaking. These are soldiers (in most cases) who simply put can fucking WRITE. The fact that some experienced firsthand combat is just the seasoning to the dish, not the dish itself.
4. To which work would you direct a newcomer to your art? Why this specific work?
I think to get a good idea of what I am doing, a newcomer should see both my fiction and my poetry. Personally, I am very proud of my newest poetry book, “We Deserve the Gods We Ask For,” but I am equally proud of my fiction publications in the Iowa Review, Shenandoah, and Pleiades in the past year.
5. What are you working on now?
Currently, I am about halfway through a novel (The Baptisms of Albert Shoe) about a poor Mormon kid who escapes the trappings of his life in Wyoming and into the military (with its own sense of poverty). The story has tragic underpinnings, but ultimately I hope that it is also funny and tender. I also recently finished a short story collection (“Outfit” Means Something Different Here) that I hope I can sell with my novel, which is represented by Alex Glass.
6. What three books of war literature have most influenced you and how?
I’m just going to answer without thinking, because if I do, I’ll never be able to answer (I would say there are 15 books of poetry and fiction that EVERYONE should read). Catch-22: a book that captures the terrible bureaucracy of the business of war, and does it with comedy and tenderness. The Things They Carried: this was the first book about war and the return from war that seemed to face it all headlong. Honest in a way that literature struggles with, yet lyrical and beautiful in a way that memoir struggles with. Billy Lynn’s Long Half-time Walk: allegorical and muscular and epic even though it essentially takes place during a football game. One of the great novels of the last ten years.
7. Tell us about an emerging writer that we should put on our reading list.
Besides myself? (Jokes. But seriously). I think I spend so much time trying to catch up with who is hot/what’s next, that I often don’t get to the emerging writer until they’ve already emerged. It is too late to say Brian Turner or maybe even Hugh Martin, so I’ll just list some writers who have blown me away this year: Fiction: David James Poissant, Paula Whyman, Pamela Erans, Diane Cook, James Scott, Ted Thompson. Poetry: Ann Scott, Emilia Phillips, TJ Jarrett, Mark J. Brewin, David Daniels
8. Tell us about a genre outside of war literature that you find fascinating.
I read anything, even fantasy and science fiction (everyone should read Justin Cronin’s “Passage” trilogy, by the way—literary vampire novels), but find I am drawn most to is anything literary that isn’t what I consider “Domestic” literature—basically anything that has to do with marriage and kids. I tend to get very bored by those stories, so the ones that strike me in that made-up genre need to be spectacular.
9. Tell us about an organization near where you live that supports veterans.
Wounded Warrior Project/Artists Guild of America, East (has a “Caregiver” workshop program for those family members of injured soldiers).
Until Next Time,
J.A. Moad II