5 Questions with Poet Eric Chandler

Editor's note: Here's our second installment of short, 5-question interviews with military-writing practitioners. For the first few months, we're focusing attention on 21st century war poets—practitioners who are breaking metaphors, formats, and stereotypes, while offering fresh narratives and observations.

Eric "Shmo" Chandler is an outdoor sports enthusiast, a family man, and a former F-16 fighter pilot. His first poetry collection, "Hugging This Rock: Poems of Earth & Sky, Love & War" was recently published by Middle West Press LLC. He has previously published "Outside Duluth," a non-fiction regional sports title, and "Down In It," a military-themed novella.

Chandler is a two-time poetry winner of the Col. Darron L. Wright memorial writing award administered by the literary journal Line of Advance, a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy, and a veteran of Operations Southern Watch, Iraqi Freedom, and Enduring Freedom. Now a commercial pilot, Chandler lives in Northeastern Minnesota with his wife, two kids, and a dog named Leo.

He is a member of the Military Writers Guild, the Outdoor Writers Association, and the Lake Superior Writers Association. He is the organizer of the upcoming "Bridging The Gap" civil-military weekend writers workshop, June 2-3, 2018 in Duluth, Minn.

Q1: How would you describe your poetic persona or authorial voice to someone who hasn't yet read your work?

Eric Chander: I like to be direct and plain. I try to be funny and describe things in an unusual way. I hope that my voice is one that draws the reader in to see something from a different perspective. Part of what drew me to writing poetry was my flying life and the different perspectives you get from that. Speed, distance, time, and changing viewpoints are all big factors in my flying life, now, and when I was in the military. “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe,” like Roy Batty says in "Blade Runner" (1982). I’m also old enough now to have some distance between gray-haired me and the dumber young person I used to be. I think I write a lot about viewpoints and how they change, physically and mentally. I write poems about things that are either too small or too big for me to tackle with nonfiction. I just hope that my voice is bringing up serious topics in an offbeat way.

Q2: How did you come upon poetry as a regular practice? What do you find particularly motivating, rewarding, and/or useful about the form?

Eric Chandler: I’ve been listening to a podcast called "The Writer’s Almanac" for years. In each 5-minute episode, Garrison Keillor reads a poem. Many of the poems moved me. Many seemed like pretty straightforward descriptions of a small item or event. I have memories that stick with me that I can’t shake. Images that are like mental snapshots. I thought poetry might be a better way to address things that seemed too small to tell a story about, but still had meaning for me. So, four years ago, I gave it a shot. I was surprised to get some poems published right away. Some people dedicate their whole lives to poetry, so I felt (and still sometimes feel) like a pretender. There’s so much more for me to learn. I feel a little awkward because creative nonfiction is where I feel most comfortable. But Steve Martin says you should make room in yourself for the unexpected and I do whatever Steve Martin says.

Poetry very efficiently sends a message directly to your head and your heart. That’s what I find most rewarding. I like how it can use a small item or event to make a big point quickly. I’m slowly learning that you can also use it to connect or compare topics in unusual ways. I started publishing non-fiction in 2002 and fiction in 2009. I started this poetry thing in 2013, partly because I found writing fiction to be exhausting. Susan Solomon, editor at Sleet Magazine, said I was effectively doing a self-directed M.F.A. by trying several types of writing. I honestly don’t want to be known as a poet. I want to be known as a writer who is capable of approaching something from different angles using different tools. There’s also a possibility I’m too lazy to commit to one path. More like a probability.

Q3: What role(s) does your poetry potentially play in "bridging the civil-military gap"? What does that phrase mean to you?

Eric Chandler: The key word there is what role poetry can “potentially” play. Veteran writers support each other really well, and I’m grateful. I hope veterans see truth in what I try to write. But I want my writing to get in front of civilian readers. That’s the challenge. If the public reads one of these poems on military themes, it might give somebody an insight into what military life is like. But that’s a big “if.” There are lots of venues for military writers to get stuff published. I worry sometimes that if I write something that’s overtly about combat or military flying, that it’ll get stove-piped into a "veteran" category.

I think a lot about how to sneak writing about the military into forums that will have civilian readers. Sometimes that means hiding a nugget about the military in a story that’s ostensibly about the outdoors. Or having a collection of poems about a lot of things, but including some pieces about the military. The most important way to get poetry in front of civilian readers is to write excellent poems, regardless of topic. In my case, I’m just trying not to suck.

To me, “bridging the civil-military gap" means that veterans need to tell their stories. Our country needs them to tell their stories. For two reasons: First, I think if veterans (and family members, and frankly anybody who’s willing to write about the military) get their stories into the world, it will help unify the country. As a result, I think it could help make it easier for returning veterans to reintegrate into society. Second, I think stories by veterans will help breakdown the “hero or broken” dichotomy that’s routinely depicted in popular culture. There are as many stories about the military as there are veterans. There is more than a binary. There is a broad spectrum of veterans, just like there is a broad spectrum in society as a whole.

In short, I want my fellow citizens to pay attention. I want them to feel pain, separation, loss, and boredom. Wishing pain on my countrymen is not great marketing, but there it is. A recent poll showed that 60 percent of young people wanted to send combat troops to fight ISIS, but 85 percent of the same people wouldn’t enlist to fight. We can’t go on having people who refuse to fight sending their neighbors off to bleed. Everyone in the country needs to feel like they have skin in the game. I think military storytelling can help.

Q4: If you could send one of your poems to a reader 100 years in the future, which would it be and why? Also, who do you imagine that reader might be?

Eric Chandler: If the frozen head of Ted Williams is the only person left, I’d send “Anger Management” (poem at link here) as kind of an apology. If there are still people making families, I’d send “Quid Pro Quo” (poem at link here) because I hope people will still care about big questions and their kids.

I imagine the reader would be someone cleaning out the internet equivalent of their attic and stumbled across it. But maybe it would be some earnest young person who’s studying the writers of the previous century, looking for answers. Just like every century desperately needs.

Q5: What single piece of writing or reading advice would you helpful to share with other practitioners of military-themed storytelling?

Eric Chandler: Try to become a better writer, not a better "military writer." I’m not saying that because I’ve arrived at the mountaintop. I’m saying that because it’s what motivates me now. Some prominent military writers were on a panel I attended once. What I got from them was that great stories about military life are considered great because they address universal themes. They are crafted well with good narrative arcs. They pull you in. We used to have a saying at the squadron bar when a guy started to exaggerate while he told a story. The listeners would look at each other, smile, and say, “Well, it only has to be 10 percent true.” Then, they’d turn back to listen. They could forgive the exaggeration. What nobody would forgive was a bad story. The story has to be good. It doesn’t matter what you’re writing about. My main goal in life is to be considered a good writer someday, whether I’m writing a short story, an essay, or a poem. Whether I’m writing about cross-country skiing, hiking, or combat. That goal will fill the rest of my days.