New Essay up at Tracksmith: Some Thoughts

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“Sakura”: Lydia Komatsu, 2017

Anyone who follows me on Twitter knows that I love to bemoan the state of running-related writing. Ever since the demise of Running Times, anyone who enjoys good writing about our sport must necessarily put up with pages of puffery from the usual rags. 100 words on the season’s best jock straps. 1000 words on how to train for a marathon on less than 5 miles a week. 200 words on yet another stretching article. Sometimes I wonder if whether writers like Alan Sillitoe (“The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner“) or George Sheehan would have much luck trying to place a piece in today’s general fitness mags.

I’ve written previously about my admiration for Tracksmith’s Meter magazine, which considers itself a literary review for runners. And I’ve been lucky enough to place two pieces there (one online, one in print) in the past couple of years, and now a third. Sure, Tracksmith is an apparel company. But they appear to be a company interested not only in profiting from the sport, but also in furthering the art of running, in all its forms.

“Sakura/Boston 2011” is partly a reflection on what it was like to watch Desiree Linden (then Davila) nearly win the 2011 Boston Marathon from my room on Yokota Air Base, Japan; I was deployed there for the tsunami relief after losing my Japanese grandmother. But for the longest time, I wondered about what it was like for Linden that day, on the other side of the globe.  And this year, over the course of a few interviews with the two-time Olympian herself, I was able to piece it together.

It was a challenging piece to write because of how I chose to build a braided narrative: mine and Linden’s. I didn’t feel like I could write a straight-ahead piece of reportage – my connection to the experience, what it was like, was a driving factor to write the piece in the first place. Early drafts were rough: there’s simply nothing quite so narcissistic as memoirist appropriating someone else’s experience. There was a significant risk of the piece turning into a “here’s how experience X made me feel Y,” which wasn’t my goal. So I did my best to use my experience as more of a lens to view what it was like for Linden during her electrifying performance.

But don’t take my word for it: check out “Sakura/Boston 2011” for yourself. I’ll let you be the judge of whether I was successful if not. The good news is that even if you hate what I wrote, you can enjoy more of my sister’s incredible artwork, which she created specifically for the piece itself.

 

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.

 

Writing War: The Veteran Writer Box

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“Soldier Antlers” by Lydia Komatsu

Identity has been on my mind the past few months. Some of it has to do with writing a memoir, and the surprising turns this second draft has taken. Some of it has to do with what’s going on politically, and the debate in this country over the efficacy of identity politics. And then some of it has to do with attending AWP, and seeing the writing industry’s approach to identity. I know. That’s a lot of “identity”s for just a few sentences.

As a writer, I have identified myself as a veteran writer. It’s in all my bios — hell, it’s right there on my “About” page on this website.  And there was a time when I thought this was useful, that it might help me stand out in a crowd, keep things cold for my snowball’s chance at publication. But lately, I’ve wondered. On one hand, there appears — and this is purely a non-scientific observation — to be a desire across the reading public for the veterans of The Forever War to represent their experiences. But on the other, the last thing any writer wants is to be pegged as The Writer Who Writes One Thing. Especially if the one thing turns out to be something that doesn’t sell all that well.

During one of my MFA Residencies, a friend said, “You only write about war.” I reacted predictably, which is to say, I was a self-righteous jerk about it. Truth is, if you expand the war category to include general purpose military experience, I’m pretty much in a box of my own making.

Of course, I’m not alone in this. In fact, the company is fine, and as I discussed in my post on AWP, it’s an honor to work alongside all of them. We support each other the best we can, whether through introductions to agents and editors, manuscript reads, and encouragement through whatever means at our disposal. This, of course, is the happy upside. We do not, in my experience, view each other as competition. It’s a strong bond, one of the things that makes us unique.

Smarter folks than me have already weighed in on this subject. Matt Gallagher wrote a great op-ed for The Boston Globe that considered the issue of veteran identity following WWII versus today. And while he doesn’t address veteran writing specifically, his final words seem to imply that he believes it’s best not to make an enduring thing of it. Luckily, the irksome sense of entitlement that has begun to accompany what some call “professional veterans” has not shown up in the writing crowd, to my knowledge anyway. Quite the opposite, as a matter of fact. To a person, everyone I’ve interacted with has been humble and thankful.

I think so long as we all understand that our writing is what matters, that no label an an author bio can elevate a story that is not well-crafted, we’re going to be just fine. For the time being, many of us are just writing what we know, which is always good foundational advice. If this is the box we find ourself in, I’m pretty sure it’s got great big, airy windows and doors that open both ways.