5 Questions with D.A. Gray

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

Dwight Allen Gray is the author of the 2011 poetry collection "Overwatch" (Grey Sparrow Press, 2011), and, more recently, the collection "Contested Terrain" (Future Cycle Press, 2017). His poetry has appeared in The Sewanee Review; Grey Sparrow Journal; Appalachian Heritage; Kentucky Review; The Good Men Project; Still: The Journal; and War, Literature and the Arts, among others. Gray completed his graduate work at the Sewanee School of Letters and at Texas A&M-Central Texas. A retired U.S. Army veteran, the author lives in Central Texas with his wife, Gwendolyn.

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

Billy Pilgrim (the protagonist of Kurt Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse-Five") has been on my mind a lot lately. I don’t think I understood the phrase "unstuck in time" until I began trying to make sense of conflict and its aftermath. It’s nearly impossible to write about the past and leave the present out of it (or to leave the past out of a piece set in the now). The two times are constantly changing each other.

For example, a single poem may change location and time from an experience in Iraq, to a memory of home, and back again. I know this can create challenges from a reader's perspective. To me the goal is to show an experience in the simplest terms possible but the word "possible" can be tricky. One has to write it honestly.

It's something I noticed when I began trying to make sense of the challenges in returning home and resuming a "normal" life. While writing from Texas my mind drifting to an something from the Middle East a year or more in the past—just as while I was over there anxiety from home was lurking in the back of the mind.

I try to pay attention to structure in a way that connects the two. Rather than try to wow the reader with a line that's self-consciously poetic I may try to create parallels—human connection between buddies in the aftermath of a mortar strike, between soldier and spouse back home, between soldier and local population in Iraq, and with the local population back in the states. And I hope the structure leaves space for the reader to see these sides of a speaker that the news or history books won’t show.

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

I wrote poetry years ago as an undergrad, but my writing slowed down after I joined the Army. And, as my responsibilities grew, I stopped writing altogether. It wasn't until halfway through a tour in Iraq that I started putting words down to make sense of experience. Though the days were busy, I was usually up alone early in the morning or late at night, and those moments became my appointments with pen and paper.

I found an on-line workshop after returning home and began sharing some of my rough drafts, taking the craft more seriously both in my own work and in helping others. I noticed many veterans, perhaps also wanting to find a family of writers, seemed to emerge in these informal workshops.

That's what poetry has become for me—a kind of dialogue. Sometimes with fellow vets, sometimes with poets who’ve walked these paths before. I'll sometimes find myself responding to the war poems of Whitman or Komunyakaa, or the anti-war poems of Lowell or Levertov. And, in person, it becomes a dialog with people from the civilian sector, as poetry provides a path that can't be explained with dates and numbers. Seeing a head nod in recognition, or the rare times I can hear a "wow" at the end of a poem. That connection is the greatest motivation.

Q3: What role(s) does your poetry potentially play in "bridging the civil-military gap"? What does that phrase mean to you?
We tend to preference news and history books over creative expression as if prose were a more objective reality. We might be touched by a song or a story, but we revert back to the hard data for something authoritative. The problem is that a certain type of experience gets written as if that were the only "real" experience of war. We end up with a picture of the haunted veteran who struggles to adjust, the young soldier who's lost innocence, the moral gray areas in dealing with the local population. The result is that we assume that the veteran belongs to one monolithic group and that we’ve fought for an abstract idea. This does the veteran and the veterans of the places we’ve occupied a disservice.

Poetry and fiction provide the story of the one—which avoids being crammed into an official narrative. The "one" may feel doubts about the idea of serving for an abstraction (such as freedom), yet does his or her work anyway for the sake of their comrade.

I hope that focusing on the individual helps me avoid twisting a narrative to fit some media-driven image, rather than shedding light on what some people went through. Perhaps telling the story of the one will expose the public to that human side.

One of our biggest battles within our own borders these days is that some argue that there's only one way to be patriotic, one way to behave as a citizen. Soldiers who've seen all manner of reactions to stress, and to each other, know that’s not really the case. The biggest gap I’ve noticed is not the knowledge of fighting wars—there’s plenty of facts on the news—but in the way that the military places people of different beliefs into a cohesive team, while our civil society seems to be pulling apart, with people refusing to find common ground. Hopefully, describing that process can help build connections.

Q4, What single piece of writing (or reading) advice would you think helpful to share with other practitioners of military-themed storytelling?

1. Read voraciously. Not only war literature but Literature. It will expose you to great characters and lead you to think about how complex the people around you can be. Classics like The Iliad, Beowulf, Shakespeare cover some of the same ground—the gap between the population and the warrior, for example, and the limits of the idea of heroism. Odysseus and Othello were as at odds with the communities they served as some find themselves today. And they did not emerge out of thin air. Also, read your peers. See what is being shared publicly. This will challenge you to consider different angles, and you will also be supporting your fellow writers. Writers, especially poets, need to support each other. I remember listening to Lorna Dee Cervantes teach that a poem is 50 percent conception and 50 percent perception. By that measure, if we’re not engaging and responding, we're leaving literature half-written.

2. Write daily. Don't worry about writing a bad first draft. Most of us are re-writers. Get it on the page. Read it aloud. Notice where you stumble in reading it and mark that passage. Fix it. Read it again.

Don’t worry about whether a subject is too trivial (on one end) or too uncomfortable (on the other end). There is no subject too small, and no one group who has ownership of the narrative. Write it. You may find after you've completed a draft that it's not a story you want to keep. But you might find you do. You may also learn something in the process. You won't know until you try.

Q5. 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?

This answer might change with time, but at this point I’d send "Retreat", which appears in "Contested Terrain." The poem takes the elements of conflict, the effect on a person's environment, the struggle to breathe, and the barriers to human contact, and shows them all to be present before, during, and after a deployment.

It's hard to explain the feeling of training to defend by lethal means oneself and one’s family, and the difficulty of turning that mindset off. We each gear up for our experiences by creating a heightened sense of awareness. That mindset doesn't immediately disappear when we take off the uniform. Much of the outrage we see in our media culture of fear brings back those feelings.

"Retreat" communicates this in a parallel structure, with each aspect (before, during and after) showing thoughts of lethal force, and the effects our presence has on our surroundings and the people around us. For example, in the use of force first during training simulations, then in the realization that danger is everywhere, and then projected onto the soldier's family upon return.