Reviews of Voices in Wartime
The film opened on April 8, 2004 in Landmark Theaters in 12 major cities across the US, and was reviewed by over 30 newspapers, magazines, radio and TV stations. Reviews were largely positive or a bit mixed, but consistently evinced awe that anyone was courageous or foolish enough to commit such energy, focus, and talent to make a film about…poetry…and its presumed capacity to make a difference in a world of by-lines, bottom lines, and casualty counts.
The reviews on this page were all published in 2004, as the film opened in successive cities, theaters, and film festivals.
New York Times
Poetry From the Battlefields
By ANITA GATES
Rick King’s stirring documentary “Voices in Wartime” is not, as you might guess from the title, a compilation of soldiers’ battlefield letters to their families back home. This intense little film is about poetry, and not just Homer’s “Iliad” (“Hurling down to the house of death so many sturdy souls”) and Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade.”
Contemporary poets have a lot to say about war, which the first lady, Laura Bush, learned a little over two years ago when she invited a number of them to a White House symposium on Walt Whitman, Langston Hughes and Emily Dickinson. Sam Hamill, co-founder of Poets Against the War, received his invitation and promptly organized his fellow writers to submit antiwar work in response. (The event was promptly canceled.)
“It’s a stupid, naïve, virtually illiterate way of thinking,” Mr. Hamill says of the belief that the event would have nothing to do with politics. The poets being honored were, in fact, extremely political. One Hughes poem begins:
We will take you and kill you,
We will fill you full of lead,
Side by side, images of American conflicts from the Civil War to the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the words of poets about those events make an elegant statement not only about the devastation of war but also about poetry’s power to amaze.
The writers whose work is read include Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Randall Jarrell, Sherman Pearl, Marilyn Nelson, Sinan Antoon, Chris Abani and Cameron Penny, a 12-year-old boy from Michigan.
The little boy wrote about soldiers on a battlefield who see, instead of the enemy, reflections of themselves as children.
At an event at Lincoln Center, Marie Howe, who teaches at Sarah Lawrence College, read his poem, “If You Are Lucky in This Life,” which ends:
And they stop fighting
And go home and go to sleep.
When they wake up,
The land is well again.
Some living poets recite their own work in the film. Sampurna Chattarji, from India, speaks her words with particular feeling:
A country burns.
The death-dealers deserve to die, you say.
Death is easy to pronounce.
It’s the smell of burning children that’s hard.
Chronicle of Philanthropy
Waging Peace Through Film and Poetry
By Brad Wolverton
Like five generations of men in his family, Andrew Himes was expected to become a Baptist preacher. But that plan changed when he was in eighth grade and a race riot broke out in his school in rural Tennessee. As he watched his classmates scream obscenities at two black children bused in from across town, he saw something deeply wrong with the world and vowed to play a part in changing it.
Mr. Himes, 55, has been fighting for social justice ever since, and his latest effort is as executive producer of a new documentary film called Voices in Wartime that makes its debut in New York City on April 8 and in theaters in other cities across the country a week later.
Mr. Himes describes the movie, which comes on the heels of the second anniversary of the war in Iraq, as a meditation on war — a reflection of war’s costs and lasting trauma, observed in part through the words of famous poets. Unlike several other documentaries that have captured the American public’s attention in the past year, including Fahrenheit 9/11, Michael Moore’s examination of the Bush administration’s actions after the events of September 11, 2001, Mr. Himes says his film is not politically motivated, and that he deliberately put his focus on suffering, not military force. A nonprofit organization Mr. Himes has set up here, the Voices in Wartime Network, will use proceeds from the movie and other fund-raising efforts to support veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, a psychological ailment that has affected many U.S. soldiers returning from Iraq. The online network will also give people a place to share poems, essays, and other things they have written about the pain of war.
This is the first movie Mr. Himes has produced, but he believes his experiences working to create social change have prepared him for his new role.
Tall and thin, with a long, serious face, Mr. Himes has been hardened by years of protesting wars. He dropped out of college to voice his opposition to the Vietnam War, and during one demonstration in Washington got eight teeth knocked out by a police billy club. He returned to the rural South for most of his 20s and 30s, where he worked as a civil-rights organizer.
By the 1980s, Mr. Himes realized that to reach more people with his ideas, he would need to expand his skills. Fascinated by technology, he set out to learn how he could use it to give people the tools they needed to improve their lives. He became an expert in writing computer code long before the Internet came into prominence, and he spent six years at Microsoft heading a unit that produced the software company’s first Web pages. Mr. Himes left Microsoft with enough money to do whatever he wanted, and he started pouring some of his cash into nonprofit efforts, including Project Alchemy, a venture he established to provide technology tools to hundreds of grass-roots social-justice organizations.
But his love for that project faded as President Bush was preparing to invade Iraq. Mr. Himes, who keeps a sign in his front yard that says “wage peace,” believed more important work called.
Protesting this war would be different. Not only did Mr. Himes have new tools with which to wage his battle, but he was eager to try a different approach than he had before. Instead of participating in public demonstrations alongside people who shared his deep distaste for war, he wanted to find a way to reach out to people who did not necessarily oppose war. He just needed a subtle way to get their attention.
“I wanted to get at what it is that really unites us as Americans and human beings — what are the core beliefs and values we all share, and how can we have a conversation that’s really deep and genuine based on our common shared values, and not based on disagreements we have about specific government policies,” Mr. Himes says. “If we only talk about government policy or a specific war, that just turns into an argument.”
The idea to do a movie came shortly before the war began, as the first lady, Laura Bush, invited a group of acclaimed American poets, including Sam Hamill, to attend a White House poetry symposium. With war in Iraq on the horizon, Mr. Hamill planned to turn the event into a demonstration against the use of military force. He put out a call for antiwar poems, gathering thousands of them on a makeshift Web site. Mrs. Bush abruptly canceled her event, saying she did not want it to turn into a political forum, but the idea of using poems to voice opposition to the war stuck.
Part of Mr. Himes’s movie [directed by Rick King and produced by Rick King and Jonathan King – note added by Voices in Wartime editor] chronicles the efforts of Mr. Hamill and other poets opposed to the invasion of Iraq, but the film takes a much more broad and objective look at the role poetry can play in times of war by documenting the views not only of people opposed to war, but also of people inside the military and at its highest levels. The movie uses nearly three dozen examples of poetry to give voice to the consequences of military conflict, and it shows how poetry can quiet the demons that soldiers often encounter upon their return to civilian life.
Using words from poets, soldiers, and war correspondents — and images from thousands of years of conflict — the 75-minute movie captures the sounds and looks and smells of war that only come from firsthand experience. Some of the images in the film — like the one showing an American soldier in the Korean War consoling a comrade — are remarkably tender. Others are as gruesome as the acts they depict: three dead soldiers, their hands bound behind their backs, floating face down in a pool of water.
Poetry from Homer, Emily Dickinson, and Walt Whitman comes to life in the documentary, as their words are blended with images from wars from each poet’s time. Whitman, who was a nurse in the Civil War, writes of soldiers wishing for a merciful end to their lives. A line from his poem “The Wound-Dresser” is read slowly, evoking a long, somber moment:
Come, sweet death! be persuaded,
O beautiful death!
In mercy come quickly.
Langston Hughes, one of the poets Mrs. Bush had planned to celebrate in her symposium, was a longtime activist for peace and social justice. Listening to his poem “Expendable,” as a field of white crosses in a military cemetery appears on screen, it is hard not to wonder how the poem would have sounded echoing through the White House in the days leading up to war:
We will take you and kill you,
We will fill you full of lead,
And when you’re dead
In the nice cold ground,
We’ll put your name
Above your head —
If your head
Can be found.
To give the documentary an immediacy, [Director Rick King and Producer Jonathan King] film several lesser-known modern poets walking through their neighborhoods reciting their work. David Connolly, a Vietnam veteran from South Boston who still has nightmares about his time in Southeast Asia, is the most memorable. Walking beside a chain-link fence, he reads from his poem “Why I Can’t,” with the rapid, angry cadence of a rapper:
Ratshit and the Weasel and I
are behind this paddy dike, see,
and Victor Charlie’s
he’s giving us what for.
And Ratshit, he lifts his head,
just a little, but just enough
for the round
to go in one brown eye,
and I swear to Christ,
out the other.
And he starts thrashing,
and bleeding, and screaming,
and trying to get
the top of his head
to stay on,
but we have to keep shooting.
Because a majority of people in the film have witnessed combat, their voices give the documentary an authenticity it would otherwise lack if it merely captured the words of angry liberals opposed to war. Craig White, a television cameraman, describes footage he shoots that never makes it on network news: “In modern warfare, as I saw in Iraq, people don’t die like they do in television or the movies. You don’t see people get hit with a weapon, have a big red spot, and fall down. Arms come off. Heads come off. Torsos are severed. People just explode.”
[The filmmakers] find an unlikely star in Lt. Gen. William Lennox Jr., the superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Mr. Lennox trains the officers who lead U.S. troops in war, and he wrote his dissertation on war poetry. Numerous times in the film, Mr. Lennox extols poetry’s importance in helping soldiers and innocent civilians deal with loss. His appearance balances the film’s underlying antiwar message with one of compassion, as he portrays soldiers as victims.
“For an infantryman, for those who are in combat, it’s very hard for them to articulate what they experience,” Mr. Lennox says in the opening scene of the movie, as bombs light up Baghdad. “They go through a whole series of emotions: joy, elation, horror, fear. Many have said that it’s very hard to articulate that experience, and I think that poetry is the only way that you can deliver all of those feelings simultaneously.”
Before he helped make this movie, Mr. Himes says he tended to see soldiers as trained killers — rather than victims. This movie changed him. It made him realize that however much he disagrees with the mission of soldiers, they still need support when they return from war. Mr. Himes says he was particularly moved by a scene in which Jonathan Shay, a psychiatrist for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, talks about the deep grief that soldiers experience when their closest comrades are injured or killed.
“They have trained together, they have drilled together, and they go into this terrible danger together. That bonding is a phenomenon of nature. It is incredibly intense,” Dr. Shay says. “I don’t believe that the metaphor of the brotherhood of arms is strong enough.” In combat, he says, “men become each other’s mothers.”
Mr. Himes says that making the movie has helped him mature as a professional and as a person. “When I was younger, I felt the only really important voice in the world was mine,” Mr. Himes says. “Now I realize that whatever point of view I have is not that important in the context of what’s happening in the world.
“If you want to create peace, if you want to create healthy communities and build a sustainable world, it has to be a world in which lots of people feel they have their own voices, and that they are heard when they speak,” he adds. “You can’t preach at the rest of the world and tell them what you think the solutions are.”
Poetry Personalizes War in Riveting Documentary
By Tyrone Beason
In the new documentary about war poetry and the trauma caused by armed conflict, “Voices in Wartime,” U.S. Army 1st Lt. Paul Mysliwiec recites part of Alan Seeger’s ominous World War I poem, “I Have a Rendezvous with Death,” about the sacred duty of the warrior: And I to my pledged word am true / I shall not fail that rendezvous.
But in a contrasting segment, Jonathan Shay, a psychiatrist for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, makes a remark about soldiers that resonates in a completely different way: “In combat, men become each other’s mothers.”
The warrior as nurturer, tortured soul and poet. “Voices in Wartime,” a symphony of war poems, taped interviews, graphic war footage and heartfelt analysis, clearly has an agenda, but perhaps not what one might expect.
The film sprang out of the Internet-based Poets Against the War movement of 2003, during the contentious run-up to the Iraq war.
Executive producer Andrew Himes, a former Microsoft web-page developer, wanted to make an anti-war film that capitalized on the debate sparked by that campaign, during which his friend, the poet and publisher Sam Hamill, organized writers and amateur scribes nationwide against the invasion. Himes set up the original Web site for that effort.
An avowed opponent of war who grew up in the racially polarized South and spent time there working as a civil-rights activist in the 1960s, the Internet-savvy Himes had used technology to expound on his views and encourage discussion, but he’d never contemplated making a film before this project came along.
Still, “it feels very organic and natural, because it’s so connected to what I believe in,” Himes said recently.
On Friday, more than two years after the Poets Against the War campaign and the start of the Iraq invasion, Himes’ film opens at the Guild 45th Theatre in Wallingford, where he also lives.
The rollout of the $350,000 film, financed by Himes and other investors, has snowballed into a nationwide word-of-mouth campaign.
This winter, Himes used his Web site, www.voicesinwartime.org, to call on members of the public to hold “house parties” in homes and other settings to screen the documentary and discuss it afterward. The Web site includes a dialogue forum as well as writing samples from dozens of living contributors and past literary greats like Walt Whitman (“Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field”) and Homer (“The Iliad”).
A 230-page anthology, “Voices in Wartime” (Whit Press, $16.95), including verse and interview material that couldn’t be used in the movie, is set for release May 1.
But the centerpiece is the film itself, which also premieres in cities such as Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and New York this month. The film rides a recent wave of moody, jaundiced depictions of war told through first-hand accounts, images and writing.
The recently released Iraq-war documentary “Gunner Palace,” shot with U.S. troops in Baghdad, and the newer “Occupation: Dreamland,” shot with troops near Fallujah, have both won critical acclaim for going beyond the politics of the Iraq war to the personal experience of fighting it.
“Voices in Wartime” is more of a meditation on the history of war and its emotional cost. It uses verse written through the ages to capture the nuances of war sometimes passed over in historical or journalistic accounts: What it feels like to kill, to witness the slaughter of comrades and to return home from war unable to mentally leave the battlefield.
From the earliest war poetry written in ancient Sumer (present-day Iraq) to esoteric verse from Emily Dickinson to bitter accounts penned by Iraqi poets after the American invasion two years ago, the film traces a well-trod path leading to the same age-old truth its two most recent predecessors reach in their own way — that war is hell for the soul as well as the body.
In this film, British poet Wilfred Owen’s disillusionment over fighting in World War I rubs against the contemporary Colombian writer/activist Antonieta Villamil’s anger and grief over the “disappearance” of her brother Pedro Villamil in that country’s 50-year civil conflict.
The film, directed by Rick King, whose brother Jonathan King is a co-producer and close friend of Himes, is quietly yet assuredly anti-war, with a whole segment on the rise of Poets Against the War.
But its most transformative moments come from accounts of battlefield chaos and compassion told by those who’ve lived through it, from “shell-shocked” British soldiers during World War I to Vietnam veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder to weary soldiers fresh from the front lines in Iraq to haunted embedded journalists to the local victims of conflict.
The film cleverly employs the superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Lt. Gen. William Lennox Jr., who just happened to write his doctoral dissertation on American war poetry, to drive home the theme of poetry as the ultimate medium for chronicling war’s impact on humanity.
“We did not design it to be a political polemic,” Himes said of the film. “Instead, I wanted it to be the kind of film I could talk about with all of my Republican relatives.”
Independent Seattle film critic Warren Etheredge, founder of the online Warren Report movie site, commended “Voices in Wartime” for its nuanced, apolitical tone.
“What I appreciated about the film is the filmmakers’ dedication to finding balance on a subject that can be painfully partisan,” said Etheredge, who organized a house party screening of the film at the Seattle Art Museum last month. “It’s putting great poetic spin on what is the tragedy of any war, from either side.”
“I’ve watched so many left-leaning documentaries in the past year — and I am left-leaning — and even they can become distracting at some point,” Etheredge explained.
“This is not another anti-Bush or anti-Iraq war movie,” he added. ” ‘Voices in Wartime’ ” is as close to a ‘Ken Burns’ look at this movement as one can get, without Ken Burns.”
Producing the film shifted, rather than reinforced, Himes’ personal biases.
Before making the film, he said he didn’t feel much sympathy for the people who fight wars.
But that comment about soldiers becoming each other’s mothers, which equated the concern a soldier has for a comrade in harm’s way to that of a mother for her child, opened his eyes to the warrior’s complex point of view.
“I think for the first time in my life, I really got it,” Himes said. “That phrase altered me, reading it in the transcript. I typed those words and I started crying. It helped me get a sense of profound compassion for soldiers in combat that I don’t think I’d felt before.
“It didn’t change my stance toward war, but it changed my stance toward soldiers.”
When Himes described his transformation to a staunch anti-war activist during a house party screening organized by PoetsWest at the Penny Café in Ballard last month, the woman seemed less than impressed, even though she said she enjoyed the film on an artistic level.
But Stacy Bannerman, of Kent, whose husband, National Guard Sgt. Lorin Bannerman, just returned from Iraq where he led a mortar platoon near Baghdad, sees potential for films like “Voices in Wartime” to bridge the chasm between war opponents and troops that developed during the Vietnam era.
“That breach is being healed in a sense,” said Bannerman, an anti-war activist who attended a screening of the film at the Seattle Art Museum last month. “The warrior needs to understand the peacemaker and the peacemaker must understand the warrior. Historically, we have not had a recognition that that was possible. This film shows us that it is possible.”
“There is a grace and a beauty and an honor and a courage to people that sign up to serve this country — I didn’t see it before,” she said.
Of course, being married to a National Guardsman just home from the front has influenced Bannerman’s thinking, too.
“I’ve had the opportunity to come to see that with my husband, who is just such a good and decent human being — the best human being that I know,” Bannerman said. “The first-hand experience with my husband forced me to see if I was going to see him that way, then I have to see all of them that way.”
Himes, the executive producer, is nervously waiting to see whether a public fed a steady diet of war headlines for two years running will respond to “Voices in Wartime.”
And if they do, Himes, the activist, can only hope that they respond with the same level of engagement that people like Bannerman and Etheredge have shown, even if they don’t share the same political leanings.
“This is part of the core of who I am,” Himes said of his project, “what my life is about.”
Los Angeles Times
War’s Unlikely Partner: Poetry
The new documentary ‘Voices in Wartime’ explores the linkage of violence and verse from Homer’s Troy to Iraq.
By Robert W. Welkos
The movie begins with grainy war footage that has become all too familiar: Battleship Row belching thick, black smoke over Pearl Harbor; bombs dropping from the bellies of warplanes; American soldiers opening up on an unseen enemy in the jungles of Vietnam.
And then comes what is perhaps the most jarring image of all: the superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Lt. Gen. William J. Lennox Jr., discussing combat … and poetry.
“For an infantryman or a soldier in combat, it’s very hard for them sometimes to articulate what they experience,” says Lennox, who holds a master’s degree and doctorate in literature from Princeton University. “They go through a whole series of emotions: joy, elation, horror, fear. What literary genre allows you to portray that feeling but poetry? I don’t know.”
The Lennox interview forms part of a new documentary, “Voices in Wartime,” which features poets from around the world sharing their views and experiences of war.
On Saturday, libraries and colleges in more than 100 cities across the U.S. and Canada will screen “Voices in Wartime.” In the Los Angeles area, a screening is scheduled at 3 p.m. at the Redondo Beach Public Library. Other locations can be found on the www.poetryinwartime.org website.
The producers say they are in discussions with distributors in hopes of releasing the film theatrically later in the year.
The 74-minute documentary not only explores how poetry and war have been intertwined from the time of ancient Babylonia and Troy to today’s conflict in Iraq, but includes the words of Homer, Tennyson, Walt Whitman, Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and other poets who have written powerfully about war and its consequences.
The film also features a number of lesser-known living poets, including:
- Colombian-born Antonieta Villamil of Los Angeles, whose poem “My Name Is Pedro” is about her 27-year-old brother, who left home one day in 1990 in Bogota and vanished. She believes he was kidnapped by one of the warring factions in that troubled South American nation.
“It’s the most horrible way to lose a loved one,” Villamil said in a recent interview. “You have no place. You are left only with memories of that person. You have to create a place for mourning. There is no body. And always you have the hope that that person might come back some day.”
- Seattle poet Emily Warn, whose father was a D-day paratrooper who suffered combat trauma and numbed himself with alcohol, which led to his early death. Warn is shown on-screen reciting a poem she wrote called “California Poppy,” which recalls the fragments of cherished memories she retains of her dad and a eucalyptus grove. “Come back, moment in the grass,” the poem goes. “Come back, momentary father.”
- Sherman Pearl of Santa Monica recites his work “The Poem in the Time of War,” which he wrote with lines in mind from William Carlos Williams’ poem “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower,” which reads, in part, “It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.”
“That is what my poem tries to do,” Pearl said. “It’s not a battlefield experience. It’s an expression of how poetry responds to something as large and disturbing and painful and impacting as war.”
“This is not a film about famous poets,” said executive producer Andrew Himes. “It’s a film about Voices in Wartime and this natural, powerful, human impulse to write poetry to express your emotions, to tell a story.” The film grew out of a grass-roots protest that made headlines in early 2003, when some poets opposed to the invasion of Iraq protested First Lady Laura Bush’s invitation to some noted poets to attend a White House symposium celebrating the works of Whitman, Emily Dickinson and Langston Hughes. Mrs. Bush canceled the session.
Sam Hamill, who edits the Copper Canyon Press, an influential poetry publisher, was one of those who declined the White House invitation.
“I just said, ‘Wait a minute,’ ” Hamill recalled. “These people cannot possibly be reading the Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson and Langston Hughes that I’ve read all my life. These are three poets that would have despised this administration.”
Hamill, who lives in Port Townsend, Wash., then asked about 50 fellow poets to “reconstitute a Poets Against the War movement like the one organized to speak out against the war in Vietnam.” Within four days, 1,500 poets had responded and a website was set up to handle the influx of responses.
“Organizing poets is like herding chickens,” Hamill joked. “Every one of them is a totally independent mind and everyone wants to speak from a totally independent point of view.” An invitation to poets around the world to send in videos of their poetry readings led to the film.
“A lot of it was pretty badly shot,” Himes recalled. “I had this huge box full of videotapes and felt somebody ought to make a film about this. There’s some kind of story to be told. I couldn’t find anybody else to do it.”
Himes, who formerly worked at Microsoft as founding editor of Microsoft Developer Network and who also helped Microsoft pioneer the subscription software business, had never made a movie before. Through co-producer Jonathan King, a Web/communications consultant and writer for nonprofit organizations, Himes met King’s brother, Hollywood filmmaker Rick King, who came on board as writer and director. Rick King’s credits include numerous television documentaries and directing the feature films “Hard Choices” and “Off the Wall,” as well as co-producing and sharing story credit on the 1991 film “Point Break.”
“I’m not an expert on poetry and I’m not an expert on war,” Rick King said. “Coming at it from the outside, I felt like I usually do in making a documentary. I felt I was the audience. I asked, ‘What is the information I need and who do I go to get it?’ We wanted it to be an examination of war and poetry both.”
While the film contains graphic images of war’s carnage, King believes the poetry gives humanity to these images. “The story we tried to tell is a challenge because it really is trying to talk about an experience more than a recitation or a series of facts.”
Himes believes the conflict in Iraq, like past wars, could see its own flowering of great poetry: “There are lots of soldiers right now writing poetry because they’ve been through experiences that they do not know how to communicate in any other way.”
Voice of America
A Film Examines Trauma of War and Healing
By Adam Phillips
War, it has often been said, is hell. Less often noted are the ways that that hell can continue for soldiers and civilians long after the guns of war have been silenced. A new documentary film, Voices in Wartime, focuses on the firsthand experience of war and its aftermath. It was produced in tandem with another short film, Beyond Wartime, designed to help communities understand and heal the traumas caused by war.
Voices in Wartime’s opening sequence shows a horrific montage of battle scenes culled from the world’s many wars. The uniforms on the soldiers and the rationale for sending them into battle differs from war to war, but the looks of fear and grief on their young faces are uncannily similar.
“These are emotions that anyone can relate to, regardless of one’s politics,” says Andrew Himes, the films’ executive producer, adding that he did not want to make a war film purely about politics. “I think all of us have had too much of politics,” Mr. Himes says. “I wanted to make a film about the core human experience; the values that we all share and we all have together.”
The producer says the film raises two crucial questions: how do we heal the trauma of war, and how do we heal the societies and the individuals who are damaged by war in order to diminish the chances of war’s reoccurring? “I think we sometimes forget that war is not a video game,” says Mr. Himes. “War involves the terrible destruction of human life and shattered dreams. How do we bring that home to people in a way that people understand?”
To judge by the film, the answer seems to be through simple truthful storytelling. Unlike traditional documentaries, there is no outside narrator in Voices in Wartime. It consists mostly of personal accounts and poetry about the horrors of war spanning the millennia from ancient Greece up to the present. Mr. Himes says he hopes soldiers and veterans and others affected by war can find in those narratives a path to healing. “If you are able to relive the story of what happened to you,” he says, “and say ‘let me tell you what happened. I was at this place. Here is what happened to me. Here is how I felt about it,’ then suddenly you are enabled to move through and past the trauma. You don’t have to just flick that switch of anger and resentment and hyper-vigilance.”
Writing poems about his wartime experiences and sharing those poems has helped David Connolly, a veteran of the Vietnam War who suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, who is featured in the movie Voices in Wartime. Here’s an excerpt from a poem he wrote that recalls a battle he and his best buddy fought in together:
He lifts his head just a little, but just enough,
for the bullet to go in one brown eye
And I swear to Christ out the other.
And he starts thrashing, bleeding and screaming
and trying to get the top of his head to stay on.
And we have to keep shooting.
That sort of battlefield carnage can be difficult for non-combatants to comprehend, and returning veterans often feel misunderstood. But the effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder are keenly perceived in the community. That is why a short companion film, Beyond Wartime, is being shown in living rooms, community centers and veterans halls nationally to promote awareness, dialog and empathy.
Eric G. Glaude, a readjustment counselor at the Harlem Vet Center in New York City, was wounded in the Korean War. He supports the film’s message. “The community I am from could benefit from knowing that there are people other than themselves that have really been affected by war,” he says. “Not only hurt — but damaged! They will be reminded of the horrors and introduced to the horrors — the smell of fear, the smell of death. When it gets in your nose, you can never get rid of it.” Mr. Glaude adds that people won’t know that without films like Voices in Wartime and Beyond Wartime.
The two films also focus on veterans’ families and friends, many of whom experienced the pain of war indirectly through its effects on their loved ones. Poet Emily Warn recalled growing up with her dad, who participated in D-Day as a U.S. paratrooper.
“He was a war hero and the rest of his life he suffered from being a war hero,” she says. “He drank a lot. He fought a lot. He was unable to hold down a job, and the marriage ended when I was quite young. He died at the age of 53 walking home from a tavern and he was found in a snowdrift the following day.”
Executive producer Andrew Himes says that ultimately, wars hurt everyone – including soldiers and those they return to. Still, he emphasizes that opening our hearts to those who fight can help heal us all. “When you hear that soldiers have the same thing inside of them that you have,’ he says, “that terrified soul, that piece of them that can be so awfully sad, so terribly desolated, you can identify with them … and you can really understand what their pain is all about. And I think that is what is required for us to have compassion for another person.”
Victoria, BC Times Colonist
Poets Do Battle for Peace
By Pat Burkette
The house of the city is blue with spilled blood, even its roof is torn away, torn and fallen on the people it should protect, the people of the house of the city, the blue people, the screaming people, the dead people.
Hold the light up while you can.
See what someone wanted.
— Shirley Graham from The Roof
A famous ex-librarian unintentionally revived a poetic anti-war movement last January. But the former librarian, American First Lady Laura Bush, probably never imagined that Poets Against the War would march on her symbolic turf in 2004, proclaiming Sept. 11 an International Day of Poetry, when Voices in Wartime, a 75-minute documentary film, will be shown in libraries and meeting rooms across North America. The film, which looks at war through the images and words of poets, can be ordered online (poetryinwartime.org) by anyone who wants to organize a screening.
“We didn’t set out to make a protest film at all,” says Seattle-based producer Jonathan King of Two Careys Productions. “It is our hope that in the film, the poetry helps illuminate the reality of war and the imagery of war can help us gain insight into the poetry.”
In the midst of trauma, violence and death, the film makers contend on their poetryinwartime Web site, poets help us make sense of the senseless.
Perhaps that’s what American poet Sam Hamill was trying to do when Laura Bush sent him a January 2003 invitation to Poetry and the American Voice, a discussion of the work of poets Langston Hughes, Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman.
Hamill, fresh from reading about U.S. President Bush’s proposed “shock and awe” attack on Iraq, responded by sending other poets an e-mail that said: “I believe the only legitimate response to such a morally bankrupt and unconscionable idea is to reconstitute a Poets Against the War movement like the one organized to speak out against the war in Vietnam.” Hamill also asked for anti-war poems.
A Web site, poetsagainstthewar.org was set up within four days to handle poems from more than 1,500 poets. By March 1, 2003, more than 13,000 poems, from well-known and unknown poets, were posted on the site. Canada’s poet laureate George Bowering contributed Good Prospects, originally written in 1963 about the Moscow Test Ban Treaty. An impressive 16,403 poems have been posted to date, and a print anthology has been issued by Nation Books. Hamill was not alone in meting out poetic justice.
Canadian poet Todd Swift, who lives in London, England, produced a downloadable e-book called 100 Poets Against the War, featuring British and Canadian anti-war poems, at his online poetry magazine site, www.nthposition.com. On March 25, 2003, Poets for Peace, who want to fill the universe with poems of peace to counter thoughts of war, presented then prime minister Jean Chretien with 13,000 poems.
Bush cancelled her symposium, saying, “It would be inappropriate to turn a literary event into a political forum.” But if poetry and war have been linked since Homer wrote The Iliad, so too have the mighty pen and politics long been brothers in arms. In the 19th century, Percy Bysshe Shelley’s In Defence of Poetry said poets were “unacknowledged legislators.”
In the 1930s, writers such as Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck took sides against Franco in Spain, putting together Writers Take Sides: Letters About the War in Spain From 418 American Authors.
Proving deja vu is no illusion, President Lyndon Baines Johnson invited poets and writers to his White House Festival of the Arts in 1965. Robert Lowell declined, as a protest against the Vietnam War. Poet Robert Bly set up American Writers Against the War, which organized protests and teach-ins.
Poet Peter Levitt, born in the United States, but now a Canadian landed immigrant and resident of Saltspring Island, along with wife, poet Shirley Graham, and son Tai, is a life long anti-war activist who scoffs at any attempt to separate poetics and politics. He received Hamill’s original e-mail and appears in Voices in Wartime.
“It is simple minded to believe that any word spoken in the public arena does not have a political aspect,” says Levitt, who goes on to quote Wilfred Owen: “Above all I am not concerned with Poetry. My subject is war and the pity of war.”
In fact, like Owen, the three poets Bush chose for her symposium have all written poems on the subject of war. A look at their poems and those of colleagues appearing in the film, raises the question: Should “war poetry” actually be called “anti-war poetry”?
Emily Dickinson, who lived through the Civil War era, wrote My Portion is Defeat.
Poet and Civil War nurse Walt Whitman’s The Wound Dresser, read by Garrison Keillor in the film, graphically describes battle wounds.
Poet and essayist Langston Hughes’s Expendable talks about the sacrifice of human life to accomplish a military objective.
Besides Bush’s three, American poet Randall Jarrell was a soldier and control tower operator who documented the fears and moral struggles of young soldiers in the Second World War. Canada’s own John McCrae’s In Flanders Fields is an eloquent plea to remember those who have died in battle. And Wilfred Owen, Britain’s soldier poet, wrote I Saw His Round Mouth’s Crimson, before he was killed in action a week before the 1918 Armistice.
Of 27 contemporary poets in the film, Chris Abani, now Middleton Fellow at the University of Southern California, was imprisoned in Nigeria’s Kalakuta, a death row cell for political prisoners. His poem Jacob’s Ladder is about a prisoner of war’s day of release. Boston poet David Connolly is a Vietnam veteran whose poems, such as Thoughts on a Monday Morning, speak fiercely of the changes visited on those who go to war. Hasham Shafiq is an Iraqi poet living in Baghdad, who’s written a poem about “the killer of Baghdad, Saddam Hussein.”
Levitt says that poets treat the subject of war as they do any subject. Poets, first and foremost, serve lady truth.
“Poets can’t be bought because nobody wants us — that makes us free. We don’t have the sponsors. We’re not trying to sell things. We are in service to the truth beyond any subject truths. If there’s no truth, there’s no poetry.”
Does being in service to the truth mean that war poetry is really anti-war poetry because what poets write about when they write about war is death, a word and concept to which it’s very hard to give a positive spin?
Chris Abani, by e-mail from his home in Los Angeles, says: “The question of facing death is essentially what all art, philosophy and social contract is about. I think that poets against the war, which is no different than students or housewives or drycleaners against the war, is merely an articulation of our greatest human right — the right to choose how we die. Isn’t this why we have such debates over abortion, euthanasia etc.? Because we want to choose that? But war, which is not a moral vehicle or a just one, but a political and economic one, removes the right to choose. More often than not, the victims of war are not warmongers, or even soldiers, but innocent civilians, mostly children. Any enterprise that denies its citizenry agency, not to mention the lives of innocents, wouldn’t be condoned outside the myth of war and the bigger myth of its honor and heroism.”
Abani doesn’t know where, as a poet against the war, he’ll go from here. “Not to be bleak, but I am not sure that protesting the war will stop war. But not to protest is to die silently, or to live in silent acquiescence. Wole Soyinka, Nigeria’s Nobel Laureate (1986), in his prison memoir The Man Died, says that every time we are silent in the face of tyranny, that which is human in us dies. So, like Dylan Thomas, I rage against the dying of the light. What else is there?”
Levitt speaks of light too. He says his wife, poet and psychologist Shirley Graham, is talking about the purpose of poetry in The Roof, her anti-war poem about a bombed out city, when she writes “hold the light up while you can/see what someone wanted.”
And Levitt is raging about the dying of the light, evidenced by young people going to war. “These kids are the age of our children and grandchildren. We did not let them take us. Do you think we’re going to let them take our children?”
by Tim Appelo
An Original War Movie
When it’s good, it’s very, very good, and when it’s bad, it’s incoherent. But Rick King’s documentary is one of the most original war movies ever made. It’s replete with alternately ghastly and galvanizing combat footage, benefiting from the paradox Truffaut defined: It’s impossible to make an antiwar movie, because war is such an exciting cinematic subject. It also riskily focuses on words as much as images. Much of the film consists of interviews about poetry and recitations of masterpieces (and so-so pieces) by everybody from Homer to Auden to the startlingly eloquent 12-year-old Michigan poet Cameron Penny.
The project is Northwest-made. Executive producer Andrew Himes’ background as a poet and a Microsoft Internet pioneer positions him to put his literary education to social use; his wife and co-producer, Alex Wilber, is a Seattle novelist (and was my erstwhile Amazon.com colleague). The project originated, ironically, with that archenemy of the American mind, Laura Bush, who summoned poets to the White House for a January 2003 symposium honoring Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and Langston Hughes. Irascible Port Angeles invitee Sam Hamill launched a poets’ revolt to turn the evening into an Iraq-bashing antiwar extravaganza. So Laura canceled the fete; Hamill et al. triumphantly relocated the event to New York, and enlisted Whitman, Hughes, and lots of living poets in the fight against Bush warmongering.
King and editor Daniel Loewenthal whip the footage documenting this satisfying fracas into pretty good shape. Far better is the film’s extended treatment of World War I shell-shock poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. The superimposition of war scenes and Owen’s handwritten death poem “The Last Laugh,” complete with scribbled revisions, is literary explication on a par with Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory.
There are other high points, but nothing else in the movie approaches the structural integrity of the Bush vs. Hamilland WWI passages. The narrative hops from poet to poet and war to war almost at random; the nice joining of the segues can’t conceal the lack of logic. Much ofthe verse is movingly intoned, especially Garrison Keillor’s profound and basso profundo reading of Whitman’s CivilWar dirges. But a sympathetic cause and an inspiring subject, such as Seattle poet Emily Warn, do not always spell aesthetic success. Warn’s touching story of her D-Day hero dad’s tragic end does not prevent her poem about him from sounding like warmed-over Wordsworth.
Despite such longueurs and hiccupping rhythms, Voices is well worth seeing. And if the truncated versions of the poems vex you, you can check out their entireties on the Web at www.voicesinwartime.org. Men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there. (NR)