Iraq by Allen Gray
SSV is happy to announce the latest addition to our Author Interview and Review Series! The 4th addition to the series will be a little different. While the focus on SSV are mainly works of fiction, that’s not the only genre of books we read. We read a wide spectrum of books in our lives and want to share our thoughts on them.
Let’s welcome Allen Grey to Silk Screen Views and get a look behind the screens into Allen’s thoughts and a peek into his work. The book, Overwatch, is a collection of poetry based on war, soldiers, returning home and a gauntlet of emotions.
You can read the review for Overwatch. Remember to enter the Contest to win a signed copy of the book or special poem written by Allen Gray.
Describe yourself in three words and give a short explanation for each word.
Studious – After years away from the classroom, I’ve tried to come back and study the great poems with a vengeance. I don’t know if there is enough time to catch up to those who have spent a life in serious study, but I’ve realized writing emotions down is not enough. Learning from our predecessors and attempting poems and stories that are part of that tradition is an important process whether we truly succeed or not.
Disorganized – I’ve never had a clean desk, never dated my journal entries, and my world is decorated in coffee rings. Partly because of this, I’ve also been able to see some old material in a new light and make some pretty good new poems out of it.
Plainspoken – Not that I don’t attempt to stretch my vocabulary. However, I don’t believe in being unnecessarily difficult for a reader. If an idea is too complex to be understood, I hope it is because the idea is complex. If it is my writing that is causing the misunderstanding, I consider that a failure as a writer–which happens. Poetry should connect people rather than become some cosmic puzzle.
When did you start to write? Did it start with poetry or writing stories?
It took me many years to take writing and books, seriously. In high school I skated by, content to be a little better than average. My senior year I enrolled in Journalism and received a lot of positive feedback on stories I wrote. That was the first time I felt I could write something someone appreciated.
As far as creative writing, I had read Shakespeare, Frost and written the occasional rhyming poem for an assignment, but I didn’t fall in love with writing until my 2nd year of college. A professor assigned our class to find a contemporary poem and present it to class. Before the assignment, I had never read anything outside of textbooks.
I happened across a Louis Simpson poem titled “Working Late.” A son remembers walking past his father’s office at all hours, then discovers the person working past dark years later is him. The amount of emotion a person could get from plainspoken language, whether it was masculine feelings, feminine feelings, political or religious anger–that was the first time I really saw poetry (and later fiction) as an outlet.
What inspires you to write poetry?
- People who mistreat others.
- People who attempt to deceive.
- Exploitation of nature and others.
Wow, I guess the short answer there would have been everything. Although certain emotions, perhaps anger, elevate the importance of it.
What do you want to share when you write?
The message changes for me based on the subject. With war and coming home: perhaps poetry is a way to tell the kid who’s feeling self-destructive, or the leader who feels their deep emotional pit is a sign of weakness, or the buddy with survivor’s guilty – “you are not alone.” With nature and social issues, it’s the things that we miss out on by keeping ourselves insulated, or the people we never know because we don’t bother to look below the surface.
Do you think you have achieved that goal?
I don’t think I ever quite achieve it. Sometimes I brush up against what I really want to say or I nail a certain angle. But, that’s what makes a writer keep trying. The best poets kept evolving as their understanding increased. I hope I don’t get to the point where I’ve shared everything. That is a long way off at any rate.
Can you give a brief description of Overwatch for those who are not familiar with it?
Overwatch primarily deals with returning from war. Only the first poem, ‘Desert Poem,’ takes place in the desert. There is little to no combat, but there is the the experience of dust storms, of Soldier suicide, guilt, honor and lost honor, the family disconnect, the loss of faith and the enormous amount of work it takes to want to engage with the world once more.
The book does not attempt to show a one-size fits all approach to coming home but show the varied mental states in which people arrive. Some have the thousand yard stare, some have panic attacks at Walmart, some close off to their families, some self destruct, some value their families more than ever, and some break down crying on the tarmac in a little town in Maine in front of strangers.
Out of the collection of poems in Overwatch, which piece speaks the most with you?
Each poem, depending on the time. Ok, I know that was a cop out.
“A Soldier Severs The String” was probably the most emotional. It’s about Soldier suicide. No one who has had a loved one die this way is ever the same and there is much still unwritten here.
“Bangor” filled me with the biggest sense of needing to get out of my own head and help someone else. Anyone who knows the story of these veterans who get up at O Dark Thirty to welcome Soldiers knows they likely need someone to look after them. However, they heal by helping and they are inspirational.
“Life Begins” is something that can’t really be said. Sometimes telling a spouse how you feel has to be done in an act and not words…
“Awake Now” draws on the shock of returning only to see a war zone on your home soil. After the first Gulf War, 1991, George Hennard committed the worst shooting spree, of the time, outside the gates of Fort Hood. Toward the end of the surge, in 2009, Nidal Hasan committed an even greater atrocity. There is a raw feeling that never goes away when you realize you haven’t left it behind.
Is the whole book a dedication to your brother first and then other soldiers or both?
It’s meant for all Soldiers. Steven Ambrose was right. It is a brotherhood of arms. We get divided into subgroups of fighters and support types, or the different services call each other groundpounders, squids and wingnuts. But at the end of the day each person signed a piece of paper that could have placed them in a bullet’s path. In most of the poems, I attempted to not use names. Even in places where names were necessary. I hope the acts are such that most soldiers and family members can identify.
The images that the poems evoke are startling, can be so ordinary and yet terrifying. Are some of the poems your memories and experiences?
They are all personal experiences.
Every writer has a “ritual” of sorts for writing. What’s yours?
Mine changes but waking early is the one constant. Mine is less of a ritual since retirement and becoming a student. But I do write much better in the early morning when the world is completely quiet.
If you could name the big influences on your writing, what or who would they be?
Someone I’m sure will get left off but at this point in my life I’m influence by the writers in my home state. Robert Penn Warren took the time to look far beneath the surface in his poems. His life was a continuous move from a segregated world to a world that finally took “all men are created equal” seriously. His poems and his stories deal with memories as a kind of ghost story and I think that nails the experience of carrying one’s memory with them.
Joe Bolton was another Kentucky poet who died way too soon. However in 8 years he wrote some of the most haunting lines. I also remember he could provide some of the greatest encouragement at the same time he was marking up some of my juvenile writing.
Personally, my wife, Gwendolyn Gray, has been a great sounding board for many of the ideas that have gone on to become poems.
Angela Gwynn is a very talented poet whose poetry I hope will find its way into a book soon. She is also mentioned in the thank you’s because she provided a great ear for some of the frustration with putting these experiences to paper. She provided blunt, honest feedback that made me work harder to be exact.
Did you choose the cover art on the book or was the artist found for you?
The publisher, Diane Smith, found Dru Blair’s art. We were looking through personal photographs and struggling to find one with an adequate resolution. The clouds from Blair’s painting seemed to represent what we were looking for.
What does the cover mean to you? What thoughts and feelings does it invoke in you?
There is a spiritual feeling in Overwatch that is always there. I’m not saying it is always a positive spiritual feeling. There were many times when the speaker of these poems lashed out, but even in lashing out he has to acknowledge that higher power. I think the clouds in the painting were intended to be symbolic, drawing back on Desert Storm years earlier. However it said a lot to me about the way a speaker projects their own feeling onto the landscape before them. Some might see awe, some might see anger, and the desert can be both, or something else entirely.
I really enjoyed reading what others thought of your book that is written on the back of the book as Words of Praise. Do you know them? How are they a part of your life?
Diane Smith contacted several writers she knew. I have been in touch with each writer since then and have not tired of being grateful that they gave such a positive opinion. I will say that Charlie Bondhus has been a very supportive writer since then. I’ve really gotten to appreciate his talent as a poet and his thoughtfulness.
Do you start a poem with an idea or a line that’s come to you?
D – All of the above.
I carry a small notebook. Because sometimes a line comes up. Sometimes it’s an image or metaphor. Sometimes a title without a poem. I don’t always have the time to sit down and write it out but I try to write down the seed of the idea as it happens.
Do the feelings that’s in the poems take over you while you’re writing a piece? Is it hard to disengage from that when you’re done or does it linger?
For the first draft, yes. The feelings make the writing urgent, and they dictate what gets written. Having said that, writing out of strong emotions may have the same effect that others get writing while drunk. The intoxication lowers inhibitions, but it can also make the finished product into a jumbled mess. Once the rough draft is down, there’s a bigger job of carving the poem into a more polished draft. It is difficult to disengage. I’ve found that many poems need to be put in a drawer or a filing cabinet for day or weeks or months. The hardest part at looking at my own work is reading it as a reader. Reading a draft I haven’t seen for a while, and reading it out loud, and marking each spot where I stumble over the words has been helpful. It’s a practice I recommend to anyone writing poetry.
What was it like for you to get everything together for this collection?
I was on terminal leave when we pulled this book together. Which means I had, for all practical purposes, worked my last day in the Army but I was still technically in. So, many of the poems were still raw. However, working with the publisher was a big help.
Was the experience of getting your book published what you thought it would be? How was it the same? Different?
This honestly happened much sooner than expected. I did not expect to be contacted by a publisher asking for my work, but fortunately Diane and I had workshopped each other’s poetry. She was looking to publish a book whose focus was on veterans and knew from our online workshop what I wrote.
Even so, I knew how frustrating it can be just to get read by a literary journal, both as a submitter and as a slush pile reader. There is more poetry being written and submitted perhaps than any other time in history. Some of it is ambitious and there are many good poems. However, fatigue can set in. That is a detriment for an art form that requires attention to subtle meanings, images and multiple layers. Knowing that, this experience working with Grey Sparrow and having them take a chance on an unproven poet has been better than expected.
The experience shows the importance of meeting other poets, networking, attending workshops. While schools and workshops are no substitute for talent and it’s possible for great work to be written outside the institution, there is something to be said for honing your talent and soliciting blunt feedback from people who know and care about the same art that you love.
What do you have planned next? Are you working to put together another collection?
Right now I am trying to focus on craft. Some months I will focus on a theme and generate as many poems as I can. Not all of the poems will be successful. When I dive in to a subject, I consider emerging with 5-10 good poems a success.
Tell me about National Poetry month.
National Poetry Month is in the month of April and goes back to 1996 with the Academy of American Poets. In other more successful months such as Black History Month and Women’s History Month, we have always celebrated through a selection of artists like Langston Hughes or Dr. Maya Angelou. Poetry month celebrates all the artists.
No one has a definitive answer on why April, except maybe some guy named Eliot labeled it the ‘cruelest month, breeding lilacs out of dead land,’ in a poem.
Why did you decide to participate?
To me, this is the observance that reminds us of our humanity. So many have stopped reading poetry, perhaps because teachers and academics took the joy out of poetry. It is seen by many as an academic subject that we have to slog through instead of as a way of hearing the voice of an original speaker who is letting us into his or her world. Some will say it does not matter but in times of trouble, it was a way for the priest going back to Babylon to explain the unknown, for the Russian citizen to share news without being shot, for the slave and/or for the prisoners of the holocaust to send word and for the outsider to develop empathy.
What has the experience been like thus far?
It’s exhausting but fun. If we were only writing limericks it might be less exhausting. This year’s theme for me is Fathers and Sons so it involves much research into history, the Bible, Greek and other mythologies, with a few personal narratives thrown in.
Thank you, Allen, for joining us on Silk Screen Views! It’s been a pleasure to have you on our site. Allen is a friend of mine that I’ve met on Scribophile. Even though we’re friends, I’ve learned quite a bit about Allen and his work by participating in this interview. I hope you have enjoyed looking beyond silk screens and enjoyed a glimpse into Allen’s life and work.
You can find Allen Gray on Goodreads or Scribophile.
Allen does not have a website yet and it may be a little hard to find his book. You can buy a paperback copy of Overwatch on Amazon. For a hardback copy, you can buy a copy from Grey Sparrow Press or email Diane Smith: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read Soo’s Review of Overwatch and find out what she thought of the poetry collection.
ENTER THE CONTEST TO WIN:
A signed copy of Overwatch or a special poem written by Allen Gray.