5 Questions with Lynn Marie Houston

Editor's note: Here's the latest 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 on the military experience.

Lynn Marie Houston holds a Ph.D. in English from Arizona State University, and an MFA from Southern Connecticut State University. She has published four collections and chapbooks of poetry, the latest of which is "Unguarded" (Heartland Review Press, 2017). The 48-page work is a collection of poem-letters to a deployed soldier. After more than a decade as a college English professor, Houston now works as a technical writer in avionics. Her current poetry work focuses on the legacy of her father's service in the Vietnam War, and the challenges veterans face in reintegrating into civilian life after combat.

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

My writing has been described in seemingly contradictory ways. I recently received a personal rejection that used the word "sentimentality" in reference to my work. A week later, I found out that my book "The Mauled Keeper" (my MFA thesis) was nominated by the Eric Hoffer Award Committee for the Montaigne Medal, a prize honoring writing that "illuminates thought"—that makes readers think about a concept in a new way. I don’t mind occupying the middle ground between emotion and intellect. When you live that "contradiction" fully, it's a powerful place from which to write.

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

Death brought me to poetry. I took one bee sting too many while working a few hives I kept for honey. As I was leaving the hospital where they’d brought me back from an anaphylactic shock that had rendered me tachycardic and unresponsive, I made the decision to leave my teaching job and enroll in an MFA program. The only thing on my bucket list was that I wanted to be a poet!

I felt drawn to the practice of poetry because I believe that reading it has taught me ideas, perspectives, and feelings that could be learned nowhere else. I wanted to give back to readers in that way, by recording important things that might otherwise be missed. I’m so grateful to Southern Connecticut State University for offering a reasonably priced program that gave me an excellent education.

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

If we are awake enough and aware enough, I think most people, certainly writers, acknowledge that we occupy the liminal spaces in between constructed categories. I’m what you might call a “straddler” in terms of class and/or education—I hold a Ph.D. in American literature and taught college literature courses for many years; however, my grandfather was a coal miner, and my grandmother was a factory seamstress who dropped out of school in the 8th grade. I love my working-class family, but they don’t always get where I’m coming from (and vice versa).

I think the civilian-military divide is much like that distinction, and there are many writers now, especially women, writing from that liminal space and speaking to both sides of the divide. I’m thinking of women writers like Siobhan Fallon, Jehanne Dubrow, Lisa Houlihan Stice, Amalie Flynn, Elyse Fenton, Andria Williams, and others, many writing from their perspective as military spouses. They are "straddlers" of two worlds, who ferry messages back and forth.

I’ve never served in the military, and yet my childhood was greatly impacted by my father's service in Vietnam. There are many ways that my writing works toward a better understanding between civilians and the military. In my most recently published work, "Unguarded," which is a chapbook of poem-letters written to a deployed soldier, I feel like my writing helps to reveal how much of a burden it can be for loved ones waiting at home for military personnel to return. I’ve continued writing poem-letters as portraits of service members, to showcase the diversity of those who serve. (I work as a civilian on an Army base now where our commanding General is openly gay and married to his male partner!)

I also have another manuscript of poems about Chinook helicopters, in which I’ve interwoven excerpts from my father’s letters home from Vietnam. For me, writing war poetry takes equal parts imagination and research. At the core of these poems, though, is a deep empathy for all possible variations on the human experience.

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?

I would send "The Long Haul" from my book "The Mauled Keeper." The poem was also published in Cultural Weekly as a finalist in the Jack Grapes poetry contest. It’s a poem about how people are silly in romantic relationships, and I imagine that humans will not become any less silly about them 100 years from now. As the very first book of poems I wrote ("The Clever Dream of Man") was about male-female relationships, I felt that some writers were ready to dismiss my work as mere "relationship poetry," but I’ve said this a few times—international peace treaties fail for the same reasons we divorce.

It begins at home—listening, good communication, empathy, working toward common goals … The daily relationships we live with others have the same politics as sovereign nations trying to get along. Very few people are ever going to figure out how to have the romantic relationship they truly want, even 100 years from now. It’s just human nature to want what we don’t have. My poem "The Long Haul" can help people see the beauty of living in the moment and not holding on too tightly.

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

Even if all you ever write about is puppies, the act of writing itself is always a war. Good writing is a siege on the castle. Society builds castles out of platitudes, clich├ęs, and stereotypes. A writer's job is to ransack those castles. Tear them down. Show the rubble. Patriotism risks being the biggest platitude there is. The reason I am drawn to military writing is because the writers doing it are taking the biggest risks in the face of the biggest castle. I want to learn from them—hands pricked with battering ram splinters and a new flag being hoisted on the parapet—how to remake the truth of what it means to be proud of this country.