Reading War: Bruce Weigl’s SONG OF NAPALM

41AVQN9F4ZL._SX312_BO1,204,203,200_I’m comfortable telling you that I’ve never quite gotten into poetry.  Which isn’t to say that I don’t enjoy it, but I don’t crave it like some do. I envy the type – you know who I’m talking about – clutching a slim collection of poetry like it’s a brick of gold, nose buried in the folds, and the look of bliss. They’re always pausing to put the book down, and stare, glassy-eyes, off into the distance, at some fleeting memory of the Elysium they’ve just witnessed in a handful of pretty words.

As a writer, I’m not supposed to say things like this. In fact, I should be able to serve up flaming hot lines of poetry a propos to any situation. The more obscure, the better.

Unfortunately, I am the troglodytic writer who ums and ahs his way through interviews and is thoroughly unprepared to dish literary, let alone poetical, references at a moment’s notice. Only just now have I realized that it is National Poetry Month.

I know, I know…I’m hopeless.

By way of apology, however, I will recommend Bruce Weigl’s terrifyingly-named poetry collection, Song of Napalm, which could be considered a kind of memoir in verse. I’ve written about other Vietnam veteran memoirs, to include Tim O’Brien’s and Tobias Wolff’s (which reminds me that I still need to cover Phil Caputo.) And of course, there’s always Michael Herr to consider. But this was the first bit of Vietnam poetry I’d read in quite some time, maybe even since the Academy.

I had this epiphany during one of my MFA Residencies when I attended a poetry workshop, when I realized how much of what poetry exhibits translates to prose. Linguistic economy. Visual form and structure. Tight narrative. It was like someone smacked me upside the head, which is embarrassing to admit. For crying out loud, it took someone pointing out to me that my short essay “When We Played” was a prose poem under the right light.

Like I said, I’m not that bright.

Song of Napalm had much to teach me about writing short pieces, which is where I think there is a direct craft lesson for prose writers looking for poetic inspiration. To wit: if you want to write flash nonfiction, you’d be smart to spend some time reading narrative poetry. Count the number of words, if you really want to be impressed. Hell, even if you’re not inspired to bash your head against Brevity‘s 750-word limit, you would do well to study poetry’s refusal to let a single word go to waste. Aspire to a collection of linked essays? How about a collection of linked poems?

Weigl’s collection is devastating. It’s all there: the strange country we find ourselves inhabiting, the violence, and the difficult return. The wounds, unseen, that never heal. The knowledge that we have been forever changed. Song of Napalm nails it all, and it’s the type of collection that will rip your heart out. Repeatedly. And it’s that last bit that makes me think about emotion in memoir, or at least the way a memoirist chooses to convey their narrator. Weigl talks about some things in his poetry that are uncomfortable — things that polite society chooses to relegate to second-class narrative. I don’t know if it’s the fact that you get so little in the way of word count, but receive so much in the way of emotional impact, but Song of Napalm seemed the most personal and visceral piece of Vietnam writing – fiction or nonfiction – I encountered to date. So, perhaps the last thing the poetry collection has to say to memoir is, have the courage to write the uncomfortable things.


Reading War: Brian Turner’s MY LIFE AS A FOREIGN COUNTRY


It’s weird, but for a guy who read nothing but chronological nonfiction for decades, you’d think my writing style would be more linear. It’s as if all that reading was mere foundation, but what I exposed myself to during my MFA has turned into the real reading that has whittled my writing style into some kind of form.

I was pretty happy when the news of this book hit the wire, especially after having read Turner’s book of poetry, Here, BulletAnd not because I enjoyed Here, Bullet so much (I did) as much as the advanced reviews were already talking about the radical fragmentation of My Life. Imagine me: looking for fragmented narratives and finding not just a fragmented memoir, but one written by a fellow veteran.

[insert sound of blown mind]

The book began as an essay of the same name for Virginia Quarterly Review (I know that thanks to an awesome Dinty Moore interview with Turner on the Brevity blog.) If you haven’t read the book, but want to take it for a spin first, read the essay. It’ll have you running for the “buy this book” link below.

The idea of breaking apart a narrative in memoir is a relatively recent phenomenon, especially in war memoir. Only Herr’s Dispatches fits the mold; the riskiest form anyone else reaches would be memoir-in-essay (Wolff, and he didn’t do it until the 90s.) The Forever War has produced far more traditional memoir structures than it has open forms. So, it’s hard to overstate the importance of an example of something you’re trying to do, by a writer who kind of looks like you, related to an experience you both share to a certain degree. Which isn’t to say that I want to write books that look just like Busch’s, Castner’s, or Turner’s. I don’t, but it’s also helpful to see what works/what doesn’t.

There’s not much of the latter in My Life as a Foreign Country. Perhaps the most postmodern of war memoirs to date, it has, as Charlie Sherpa put it in his review of the book, enough poetry, fiction, and nonfiction within its pages to satisfy a reader of any genre. And it’s that pastiche of genre that I took to be the most important craft takeaway.

I put the technique to work in an essay that I was working on when I read My Life as a Foreign Country. It’s probably not writer-cool to say, but fully half or more of my essay “Calling Jody with the Ghost Brigade” for The Normal School was inspired by Turner’s example of allowing room for imagination within a nonfiction narrative. It’s certainly not for everyone, as evidenced by the twenty-odd rejections I received before The Normal School accepted the essay. But I was happy to get it out into the world, and I think it’s a fine example of being inspired by a technique enough to try it out, and experiencing some success with it.

I have Big Opinions on the unacknowledged link between postmodernism and contemporary memoir that I hope to publish somewhere tweedy in the months to come, but that’s for another today. Today, it’s enough to say that My Life as a Foreign Country is a great book, and genre-challenging example for any writer looking to push the form. Oh, and you should totally buy the book.








Once A Runner

Once A Runner

It goes like this.

An inch of snow the consistency of a Slurpee. A 6.5 mile loop from the house. Two dogs. A running stroller loaded with thirty-three pounds of inquisitive man-cub. And the desperate need to run.

To say that I’ve logged the majority of my paltry mileage over the last few years while behind a stroller; it’s no exaggeration. Between developing chronic tendinosis in my Achilles, the pursuit of writing, and the endless flail that is trying to strike a balance between fatherhood/husband-ing/work, my fitness has fallen to the point of convenience. It shows around my middle, ten pounds tacked to my last marathon race weight. And in my temperament.

When I do get in a run, I feel an obligation to bring Finn with me for some fresh air and get the dogs exercise as well. An hour run turns into an hour and half, what with the prep of wrangling the dogs, getting Finn on the toilet, and wrestling him into clothes before restraining him in the stroller. And all this says nothing about the attempt to reach emotional buy-in from a toddler regarding his being strapped into a buggy for an hour or more.

Gone are the days of lacing up and strolling out the door maybe now, maybe later, maybe after I feel fully hydrated. Maybe when it’s warmer/colder/just right. Nope. The choice is now/never.

Huff huff.


Huff huff INHALE “Yes?” huff

“What’s that?”

Huff “What?” huff

“What’s that [insert unintelligible thing or whatever he sees but can’t describe]?”

Huff “Dada.” huff “can’t.” huff “talk.”

[pause for a few seconds]

“Dada, what’s that?”

huff huff huff

In the good old days, when he weighed seven or eight pounds, and was in perpetual oscillation between either sleeping a little or crying a lot, taking Finn for a run was a welcome reprieve for both Jen and I. Fitter then, pushing the light-as-air stroller we paid out the nose for, I could log ten, eleven miles. I’d come back crowing about how he slept the whole time I bounced along at a 7:30 pace. Jen got a break, I got a run. Win-win.

Now: see above for the work required. And that’s best-case, assuming no meltdowns, or as I discovered on a recent trip to tow him on a cross-country ski — I don’t do something boneheaded like somehow bring two left foot ski boots.

Taking Finn on a run or ski is like having the exercise partner who won’t stop talking. Except, the beauty of an adult running partner who talks for an hour straight is that they usually don’t expect a response. Finn is a toddling interrogator, and if he doesn’t get an answer, or understand it, well, he’ll just ask again. And again. And again. It would try the patience of a seasoned extrovert, let alone a self-absorbed narcissist who does best left alone (that’s me in case you’re wondering.)

I’ve been told that a big part of active parenting is lowering expectations, and in my experience, it couldn’t be more true. Maybe that six mile run needs to be just three. Maybe plan on stopping if the route passes a park. Maybe slow down so you have the breath to explain something. Maybe plan on skiing for fifteen minutes before heading inside for forty-five. Because — and here’s the kicker — if you make the kiddo hate the activity, that’s going to stick with them for the lifetime.

There is light at the end of the tunnel. Last summer, Finn asked to “run like Dada” every time we went out. I let him out near home, maybe a half mile to go, and was tickled when he managed to keep up a ten minute pace for several blocks. Of course, there were some really interesting leaves/rocks/branches/dirt/concrete/street signs/air/just about everything that simply had to be investigated at that very moment. But he was running. And this winter, I built a little snow hill off the backyard deck. Finn just learned to make it down the hill on skis without falling, and the smile on his face was worth all the hot chocolate bribery of last winter.

So, hang in there. What you once were, is still who you are. The cool part is letting that thing that made you who you were, evolve as you become who you are.