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His eight classmates take stabs at explaining how Dillon Ely's poem goes against the prevailing notions of war debating whether it is contrary the standard teacher Maximilian Werner sets for all good art.
Tanya Robertson, a political science major, suggests the poem is contrary because it has characters of different nationalities living in the same tent.
John Gruendell, an Army veteran of the Iraq war and an English major, notes that an American, an Afghan, a Frenchman and the narrator work together and share bottles of wine in celebration not a typical war narrative.
But it dawns on Ely, an active duty sailor then just weeks from graduation and commissioning as a Navy officer, that not one of his mates in Writing on War gets his poem.
"Does anyone know, actually, what the story is about?" he asks.
Werner, a writer and lecturer at the University of Utah, uses the moment to make a point.
"My question to Dillon or to anyone who writes to obscure: What … is the value of that?" asks Werner. "What is the value of talking around it?"
Clarity matters • It's one of the frequent themes in this class, which Werner and the University Writing Program launched this spring to address an important topic war and to better serve student veterans, who now number 1,100 at Utah's largest state university.
Clarity matters, even in art, he says. "The most successful poetry is going to be the most sensual, the most concrete." The need to obscure, he says, "is an adornment of youth, of a beginning writer."
The class is unique in its dual emphasis: students are expected to write but also to analyze writing in a way more common to a rhetoric class.
Giving the students "an opportunity to memorialize their experience has been hugely important on several levels," says Werner, who has his students write fiction, nonfiction and poetry. "They gain insight into and control of their writing by writing the analyses."
He expects to teach the class next spring semester as well.
This first class has three veterans of the Iraq war and one Ely who served one deployment in Afghanistan and is still on active duty. Five are civilians, students interested in the topic for a variety of reasons.
For Dianna Herrmann, an English major, and her husband, Ben Herrmann, who plans to become a psychologist, it's a chance to better understand vets' experiences of war.
James Sawyer, a environmental and sustainability studies major in need of writing credits, is in the class on a whim.
"I just wanted to meet vets and tell stories," says Ely, a physics major who enlisted in the Navy at age 18 and deployed three times before coming to the U. on the Navy's tab. The 26-year-old graduated Friday and was commissioned as a Navy officer the next day in a ceremony at the Utah Capitol.
Ely enjoyed a previous poetry class, but Writing on War, he says, is the best class he has taken outside of his major.
"It had the most personal connections for me."
"Real conversation" • The overarching theme of the class is that writing well about war means going beyond the simplistic, red, white and blue narrative that saturates American culture.
While Americans speak proudly of the military fighting abroad to protect freedom at home, "We have demonization of the vets when things don't go as planned," such as torture at Abu Ghraib, or when photos surface of servicemen desecrating enemy corpses, Werner notes.
Before he taught the class, Werner expected those with military experience to be reticent and the rest to be indifferent.
"What ended up happening was completely the opposite," he says. The civilians' keen interest encouraged those with military experience to open up.
There was a lot of "real conversation," says Ely.
And as much as he enjoyed spending time with former soldiers and Marines not something every sailor gets to do Ely says he also learned much from the civilians' questions. "They taught me that they give a s-."
A country at war • Marine Jeff Key, an Iraq war veteran, playwright and anti-war activist who is 46 and gay, sits next to Robertson, 20, a member of the Pi Beta Phi sorority.
When it's time to analyze her poem, which begins "Red, white and blue, what do these colors mean to you?" Key shows her his marked-up copy, with the suggestion she break up the rhyming couplets "into little military units."
"This sounds like something they'd read in my hometown on the Fourth of July at the end of the parade," says Key, who is working toward a second bachelor's degree in English.
Mike Cumming, a former Marine who later enlisted in the Army and did three infantry tours in Iraq, is more blunt.
"It sounds like it could have been written for a sixth grade U.S. history class," says Cumming, 30.
Werner tells Robertson her poem is a good experiment in couplets, but falls short. "I don't feel you at all in this."
Robertson, of Boulder, Colo., ends up tossing that poem and writes another before the final class over chicken wings, chips and salsa in Werner's backyard. There, she movingly analyzes a painting of a visitor to the Vietnam War Memorial.
"Everyone in our class is so different," she says. "It's a great class. I've learned a ton."
The vets in the class are more taken with Michaela Wilkison's poem, "Valhalla." Borrowing Norse imagery, she ends the poem with the narrator challenging her lover's fascination with war.
"It becomes a little Jane Fonda," says Key, who nonetheless likes Valhalla's point: "Did you get what you want, warrior man?"
Key, because of his age and success as a playwright, ends up serving as a second teacher, a role Werner encourages.
And one thing Key stresses to his civilian classmates is that war is their business, too.
"Their job is to write about their experiences in a country at war," he says. "If Americans feel like they are on the sidelines of these wars, then the mission of this great country is failing. We're supposed to be governed by the people."
Nonetheless, Dianna Herr-mann says it's daunting to write about war when you haven't seen it.
"For me it was, civilians were the backdrop of war. We have a voice, we have a piece in it. But war is mostly about soldiers."
"It just came out" • Cumming's poem, "Well-Aimed Shot," surprises even him.
In a detached, matter-of-fact tone, the narrator tells of the time he killed an Iraqi boy who was preparing to bury an IED (improvised explosive device) that would kill American troops.
"I actually didn't even intend to write that," says the father of three. "That's something I hadn't thought about since it happened. I was going to write a poem about taking a shot. … It just came out."
Writing, it turns out, is therapeutic, says Cumming. "I'm not just thinking about him as a target anymore."
Originally from the Seattle area, Cumming went to Marine boot camp two days after high school graduation. He tried civilian life after that enlistment ended in 2004, but missed the military life and was in the Army by the end of the year (the Marines would have made him wait a few months.)
A committed infantryman "There is no other job in the military for me" Cumming was in Iraq for three deployments before getting out for good in February 2011.
He is using the Post-9/11 GI bill to work toward a parks and recreation degree and is founding a nonprofit that will take vets on adventure trips, like backpacking and rock-climbing. Children of service members who died or veterans who committed suicide will also get summer camps.
He figures he'll encourage his guests to write about their war experiences, even if only in a journal.
In his final project for the class, Cumming analyzes an essay about America's outraged reaction last winter to pictures of Marines' urinating on an enemy corpse.
"What bothers me is that people who don't have anyf clue about what it takes to do our jobs are willing to throw comments out there and think we're monsters," says Cumming.
"There is no way you can [fight] and be good at it without the dehumanizing part."
Meeting Charon • So what became of Ely's poem? As a clue for readers, he renamed it "Charon," for the character in Greek mythology who carries the dead away in a boat, taking his payment in coin.
"This character is there to take them when the sun rises," says Ely. "The wine is the payment and the other three are already dead," he explains. "They are listening to their own deaths through the radio."
Ely tries to strike a joyous mood, one he sees as befitting the dead, in his poem. "Only the dead see the end of war," he says.
When Robertson asks about the double negative in the last line, "one you wouldn't, not choose," Ely explains what it feels like after a deployment.
"When you get back, you might not choose it again … but I don't think you'd trade it."
Read poems from the class online
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