From the Editor, 13 Thoughts on War and Failure

28 Mar

1. I’ve been talking to my poetry students about war. More precisely, I’ve been talking to my students about writing about war. The truth is, I’ve been talking to my students about the ways we write shitty poems about war, and how war demands our attention, not our gratuitous illustration. What I’m trying to do is talk to my students about the way we want to write about war and fail and how in failing, we fail to do anything about war and perhaps, most importantly, this is why we should write about war. I have to tell my students that whatever we write we cannot do anything about war but still, we should write about war.

2. I tell my students sex is sex, but sex in a poem is not sex. Everything around sex, about sex, in a poem is about sex. And happiness is not happiness in a poem but everything that spies on happiness is happiness in a poem. I tell my students that pain in a poem is not a writer’s pain, not a reader’s pain. Pain in a poem is the vase that reminds us of pain.

3. I’ve been talking to my students about how war in a poem is not pain, nor sex, nor war. Something that reminds us of war and makes something in our spine go blank — that is a poem about war before the poem is written and also after the poem is written. I’ve been trying to understand with my students why we should write about war.

4. I have asked my students to wonder about war and how war is part of breakfast and walking. I want my students to understand that war wakes up with them and that war is not a gun but the way they cannot imagine or have been forced to imagine a gun, or how they have wanted to imagine a gun, or how they know a gun, and how they do not know a gun.

5. My students have been trying to understand war and so ask questions so that they do not write the shitty war poems that have nothing to do with war. What is a shitty war poem, they want to ask, but don’t, because we have already also discussed how there are really no shitty poems and yet, of course, we decide, all poems are shitty and perhaps a war poem can only be shitty since it is a poem about war.

6. They ask me if a poem about war should be given away and if to give it away means to discard the poem, and so discard, also, war. A poem discarded,  I tell my students, a poem no one wants to return to, a poem that lives in the dark that comes after first reading, a poem that never finds its way into the mouth again, the ear again — this poem discarded and not given, this poem has made nothing dependent on how it says what it has failed saying and so is a poem discarded, not a poem about war.

7. My students read poems, all sorts of poems, and wonder, What am I to the poem? My students wonder, What can I offer to a poem in the way this poem offers something to me? They ask me, What is your relationship to this poem? They ask other poets, What is your relationship to war?

8. A poet who is asked, What is your relationship to war, might say, Well … That poet might not know what to say. I would say I cannot help but imagine a boy in a blue, striped shirt, swallowed by a flash. I wonder if I should ask them about his relationship with war.

9. A poet asks a poet, What is your relationship to war and to the poem you’ve written about war, to the poem I want to write about war, to war — a poet might answer, We all have a relationship with war. My student might go home and find war sleeping in her bed. She might say, War, go home. War might say, Home is everywhere.

10. I have been trying to tell my students that everyone must write about war. War is a parade. War is a love poem, and also an ode, and of course and elegy and so war is a lyric of which we cannot write enough.

11. I have been telling my students that war is a death you must write about so that death is not a final utterance of war. I have found it very difficult to name war since war has many names and many hands. War is full of eyes and teeth. War has many shoes and photos in frames that become all that is left of the many shoes and hands and names. Photos in frames are all we have of the eyes and teeth of war. Photos are all we have of the names that belong to war.

12. My students try sincerely to find the names of war. They close their eyes and find Joshua. They find Kelton, Huynh Thanh, Shafiq, Mildred, Elton, Kiva, Patrick, Evelyn, Ian, Mohammed. They cannot stop finding the names of war. They understand, of course, there are no real shitty poems about war, because war is a shitty poem.

13. My students tell me war belongs to everyone and of course, war belongs to no one. My students might ask a poet who has come to them and who reads about war, What is your relationship to war? The poet cannot help but wonder, without saying so out loud, Why, why do you ask about me

Ruth Ellen Kocher ‘s work has been published in Torch, Diode, The Medulla Review, Anti-, Callaloo, The Cartier Review, Blackbird, The Superstition Review, Square One, ditch, the Denver Quarterly, and Drunken Boat, Cimarron Review, Ploughshares, African American Review,The Gettysburg Review, The Missouri Review, Washington Square Journal, Crab Orchard Review, and ninth letter, among other print journals. Her poems have been translated into Persian in the Iranian literary magazine She’r and have appeared or are forthcoming in various anthologies including Black Nature, From the Fishouse: An Anthology of Poems that Sing, Rhyme, Resound, Syncopate, Alliterate, and Just Plain Sound Great, An Anthology for Creative Writers: The Garden of Forking Paths, Angles of Ascent: A Norton Anthology of Contemporary African American Poets, IOU: New Writing On Money, New Bones: Contemporary Black Writing in America . Her first book of poetry, Desdemona’s Fire, won the Naomi Long Madget Award for African American Poets and was published by Lotus Press in 1999. Her second book, When the Moon Knows You’re Wandering, won the Green Rose Prose and was published by Western Michigan and New Issues Poetry and Prose in 2001, who also published third third book, One Girl Babylon, 2003. She has been awarded fellowships from the Cave Canem Workshop, the Bucknell Seminar, and Yaddo. She teaches in the MFA program at the University of Colorado-Boulder, and has also taught poetry writing for the University of Missouri, Southern Illinois University, the New England College Low Residency MFA program, the Indiana Summer Writer’s workshop, and Washington University’s Summer Writing program. She edits the online blog publication for writers, ABOUTAWORD.

Her thoughts on poetry and war were first inspired by Bruce Weigl, the author of 12 collections of poetry, most recently Declension in the Village of Chung Luong which created “an eloquent spokesman for an entire generation of Americans whose lives were broken by the war and a country whose moral confusion desperately needed addressing.” His memoir, The Circle of Hahn, tells of his childhood in Ohio; his induction into the U.S. Army in 1967, and year in Vietnam that led to his passion for that country’s poetry and culture; and of a redemptive meeting in 1996 with his daughter-to-be at an orphanage outside Hanoi. He also has three collections of essays as well as translating and publishing books of Vietnamese poetry. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Harpers, and many other publications. In 2006 he was awarded a Lannan Literary Award for Poetry.

His awards include the Paterson Poetry Prize, Fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Yaddo Foundation, two Pushcart Prizes, and the Poet’s Prize from the Academy of American Poets. His poetry titles include The Monkey Wars (University of Georgia, 1985); The Song of Napalm (Grove, 1988); What Saves Us (Triquarterly, 1992); Sweet Lorain (Triquarterly, 1996); Archaeology of the Circle (Grove, 1999); After the Others (Triquarterly, 1999); The Unraveling Strangeness (Grove, 2002); Declension in the Village of Chung Luong (Ausable, 2006).

After teaching for many years at Penn State, he returned in 1998 to Lorain, Ohio where he holds the position of Distinguished Visiting Writer at Lorain County Community College.