Prior to the release of his debut poetry collection, Blood Stripes (Sundress, 2019), Aaron Dylan Graham spoke with Sundress editorial intern Stephanie Marker about language, the untranslatable, distance, and the making of trench poetry. This is part 1 of a two-part series. The second in the series can be found here.
Stephanie Marker: Your collection examines the nature and shape of other languages—Farsi, Arabic, even the language of the military—and the ways that they are seemingly grafted onto the temporary culture of American military life overseas. Can you speak more to how those languages informed your work, your approach to your work on a language level? There is a similar grafting of local culture onto this temporary American military culture, already so separate from the culture back home. Few have experienced the creation of such a culture—how does this collection act as a study of that phenomenon?
Aaron Graham: Well, there’s this old theory that language is much more local than thought, that it’s closer to feeling and is even kind of co-determinant of feeling. I can say that, at least for my own personal experience, this has borne out. That said, each language has a feeling that is unique to it. And to feel in a foreign language is something different from thinking in it, and also not the same thing as knowing the word for an emotion in a foreign language. Of course, there is a great deal of crossover between what different languages can express or can express well. However, there are certain feelings, emotional states, that Arabic expresses very well, very specifically, that English only gets at more generally. Even within English, the sub-dialect of military jargon also expresses certain feelings, certain emotional states very well and in such a way that the feeling is much more acutely felt at the local level—by the individuals using this language daily—as it has co-developed along with their daily experience in order to describe and make sense of that experience.
This specific military language and contemporary experience in the United States military has contact with and thus is not devoid of meaning within the broader English-speaking community. However, the expressed feeling is received much more generally and much more vaguely apprehended by the civilian population, which lacks the closeness to the effects and experiences it has been shaped by or described.
So, I think they each inform my work in a different way because the objective of each language is, or at least was to me as I encountered and studied it, vastly different. For example, when I encountered the true language of the military for the first time, it was at Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego. I had just finished my first year of college and, only a month prior to landing in California had been competing in the NCAA Speech and Debate National Tournament in Morehead, KY. There, I was giving extemporaneous speeches on tenable policy solutions to the Israeli Palestinian conflict—given the (then-new) development of the U.S.’s coalition’s invasion of Iraq; or debating whether, the individual’s constitutional right to privacy should be upheld when in conflict with the federal government’s claims that limited violations of those rights are necessary for national security, given the threat of global terrorism.
So, it was rather disconcerting to suddenly, two months later, be in Marine Corps Boot Camp where I’m expressly forbidden to refer to myself in the 1st person. (for anyone not familiar with the protocol of Marine Corps Boot Camp, new marines are mandated to refer to themselves only as “This Recruit” and will face the threat of bodily harm if they dare distinguish themselves as an individual apart from the platoon by uttering “I.” While the platoon of recruits was adjusting to this new linguistic formulation, it was not uncommon to hear—reverberating from some corner of the squad bay:
I?!…I?!…You want me to poke you in your goddamned eye?!
No!? No?1 N0?! No-What, (bitch)!?
No, Sir! Senior Drill Instructor Gunnery Sergeant Corossco, sir!
The whole time I was standing there thinking we are literally deconstructing subjectivity; we’re wiping the “I” from its connection to reality…this is wild.
The process of defamiliarization did not end there, however. There was a new nomenclature for what I had considered the most mundane of everyday objects. And you don’t really think about it but that basic level of language is what really affects the way you interact with the world. A pencil is now a “lead-stick.” A pen is an “ink-stick.” Showers are now “rain-trees.” Both glasses and windows become “portholes.” The restroom is the “head.” Using it is “making a head-call.” Hence a normal utterance to hear would be:
This recruit requests permission to speak to Drill Instructor Gunnery Sargent Atkins, sir.
This recruit requests permission to make a head-call, sir.
The thing is, the Marine Corps doesn’t waste time with anything that doesn’t work, that hasn’t been proven methodologically, overwhelmingly, to accomplish the particular objective it wishes to achieve. So, it was a little insane to see how language had already totally shifted its function and application within my first week at boot camp. Not only that, but that this deconstruction and this deterioration, which is how I viewed it at the time, was in fact constructed and intentional, it was being perpetrated on and then enacted by all of the recruits.
When I arrived at DLI and began Arabic Language training, the course was eight hours a day for 72 weeks and consisted of total immersion—meaning no English was to be spoken in the schoolhouse from day one. So, at Presidio of Monterey Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center, Middle East School III (POM DLIFLC ME-III), the instructors claimed they could tell who was going to rock out of the 72-week Arabic language course by the end of the 16th week. If you had not begun to dream in Arabic by the end of week 16 of the course you likely never would, which meant you did not FEEL in Arabic, which they were clear was not the same as knowing the Arabic name for a feeling, or talking about feelings in Arabic. The marker for success was that one felt in Arabic—which is a rather impossible phenomenon to describe, in any language.
But there is a great deal of truth to that statement if taken broadly. Because there is a unique feeling to a language that is not totally disconnected or disconnectable from the lived experience of those who speak it and whose daily experience it has arisen from and been transformed over time to describe. There is a basic level of the disposition and spirit of the people who speak a language that is somehow latent in the language, both in idioms and in normal translatable expressive thought. As a rough example of how the two are intertwined, the song a number of Arabic-speaking families sing on a family member’s birthday (phonetically rendered) goes, “Kool-ee sen-na woo ant-ta -tie-yib, ya-woo ell-bee car-eem woo tie-yib.”
Which means something to the effect of, “A whole year, and you’re doing all right. Your heart is noble, and you’re more or less O.K.”
This was telling, to me, because it paints a picture of the mentality and the outlook on the world individuals who would sing this song non-ironically, to mark the anniversary of a loved one’s coming into the world possess—even if in the most tertiary sort of way. And that’s both a remarkable and a beautiful thing language can and does do. Eventually, at some point, I came to realize in conjunction with my military linguistic experience, that, yes language is necessary and useful to describe reality and the objects we encounter through experience immersed in that reality, language also creates our reality and shapes it in ways I’m not sure enough people appreciate.
So, all this to say, the grafting of languages that occurs in the collection is both inevitable to a certain extent as I sift through everything and find the military jargon, for one thing, is more approximately the feeling I’m trying to communicate than either the Arabic or the standard English words will allow me to get at, or if an Arabic phrase has some relevancy to either the situation and experience that spawned the particular poem, I’m inclined to not translate it unless absolutely required to (i.e. the poem would be literally incomprehensible in the everyday sense of the word without the translation being provided in lieu of the transliteration or translation of the word or phrase).
SM: One thing that struck me particularly about the weaving of languages and language shapes was the seemingly urgent expression of the nature of these scenes, that there are elements of extreme experiences that can’t be translated, can’t be expressed fully in the language of an old life. Was this an intentional expression? If so, can you speak to the struggles of the process of writing the un-writable?
AG: I’m deeply humbled to be asked this question and suppose the discussion about the “shapes” of languages and shapes language takes may be helpful in thinking this through. The extreme elements of experience—whether hellish or ecstatic—I would argue are actually incommensurable—because the complexity of emotional intensities that accompany both the heights and depths of human experience cannot be characterized linguistically because we experience the word as embodied emotional and mental content. As such, we can communicate roughly about objects we come into contact with because we presume other folks also come into contact with them and also presume their experience of the objects to be more or less the same as our own. Yet, when we speak to someone else about their experiences, our baseline for giving meaning to the response they provide, whatever that is, must be and cannot exceed our own experiences of that emotional complexity.
So, for example, when someone says they “are more jealous than they have ever been in their entire life,” I can intellectually understand that emotion as a gradation of jealously near or at their peak capacity for jealous feelings. I can thus understand the relative severity of the state they are likely to be in—both mentally and emotionally. However, as far as my emotional understanding of what that level of jealousy feels like, or what someone else’s jealousy feels like at all, I have no ability or knowledge or experience whatsoever. Even if I know of an object by the same name, Jealously, I cannot interpersonally transmit that emotion, that deep feeling, and its specific intensity to anyone, through direct communication or even the most detailed description.
So in that sense, trying to create a negative space that can never come to be filled by any expression of any language—English or Arabic, Military or Civilian, Farsi or Dari—but that rather comes to be defined by its absence as illustrated by a network of “near misses.” A desmology of impossible spaces that comes to be defined only as a silhouette appearing in contrast to the collection’s misfires and failures to accurately define that negative space. However, the issue of language, as I came to believe, follows the notion put forward by T.S. Eliot, “the word Chimera is the beginning of the reality Chimera.” Words do more than feebly point toward an object of reference; they mark the history of our exploration of the world of concepts. And I suppose that sentiment is more or less a profession of faith of some sort. It’s a statement of a belief in a strong or non-semiotic theory of language where a word is more than an arbitrary or semi-arbitrary grouping of signs and signifiers that only have a loose relation to the reality they describe.
Poetry has the possibility to explode, decenter, and reconfigure meaning. While I know this is a vast overgeneralization, what I mean by it is that the language of poetry allows for the existence of unresolved questions, uncertain interpretations, confusion, contradiction, and outright paradox to exist within its reality. But it’s more than even that—in the conceptions of existence and experience poetry instantiates—it gives these points of ambiguity and conflict the central focus and holds them in tension. So there is this distance and this compression simultaneously occurring between the meaning given to words and reality we all inhabit. And I think the best thing about poetry as a genre is it looks at unanswered and unanswerable questions. Or, at least it doesn’t say: “thou shalt not ask unanswerable questions” or “Thou shalt not suggest that A = ~A.” Because in a poem I can be entirely serious about the validity of the statement “A = ~A” and then turn and leave it at that—with “A = ~A” just hanging in the air.
SM: Much of the imagery in your work is, of course, quite upsetting. Can you discuss the process of revisiting these scenes, not as a soldier, but with a mind for craft, as a writer?
AG: Well, there were certainly uncomfortably personal or troubling moments—ones that reemerged in interesting and unexpected ways while writing this collection. These gave me great pause sometimes and made me think of the whole project—of writing at all—in kind of the same terms you’re getting at here. In those moments, I tried, from a craft practice, not to flinch or offer some moralization, or tell the reader—either directly or indirectly—how they should feel about anything. That kind of lingering ambiguity or irresolution was the most authentic manner I could ultimately recount so many of these experiences and so it became the rendering I felt compelled to give. Where/when/if I’ve succeeded, I’m probably the worst person to say.
But I think that, really, the most frustrating thing, both about the military experience writ large and my own experience, is that these sort of intense, or traumatic, or muddled experiences, by their nature, strenuously resists any easy answers. In the moment something unsettling or disturbing or downright tragic happens and in the eternity that stretches forth from that moment, there’s not really that “ah-ha” moment where everything just falls into the correct place and sense is made in its entirety. The whole damn sequence of events and any tentative resolution you arrive at is always—to a greater or lesser degree—dissatisfying.
So, to offer some sort of moral bookend to the experience, or offer some platitude about what something might mean, how I have come to comprehend its significance in the greater mosaic of my life experience, or even just tolerate the fact it happened by repeatedly justifying its necessity to myself over the years, is really kind of disingenuous and, ultimately, just bullshit.
From the perspective of an intentional craft practice, I wanted to eliminate, as much as possible, any trace of what I thought, or have come to think, about the experiences. I try to communicate the emotional intensity of an experience—as close as I could get at least—without presenting my thoughts about the experience—this, hopefully, would allow a reader to get as close to the affective intensity of the initial experience as possible. I also know this was a doomed enterprise from before it ever began and that I cannot remove my consciousness from anything I write or do. So maybe it’s cognitive dissonance, but knowing full-well its impossibility, I tried to do it anyway.
The question, however, was never in my mind like, “Hmm, how do I make X experience poetic?” or “what about X patrol to Y province was/could be rendered poetically?” It’s a lot more like I had a number of events, images, scenes, words, perceptions that have existed barely below my conscious thought that would peek into it from time to time, unexpectedly for the span of over a decade. So, I had been wrestling more with the question of if I should put any of them down on paper much more than I was pondering how to put them down.
I guess, even today, when I mentally revisit any of those scenes, I revisit them as a Marine, as a warfighter, and not really with a craft-centric mind, or as “a writer.” I don’t think I would have had any interest in revisiting the scenes just as a writer, just as a renderer of one perspective of whatever happened as kind of historiography or a still-life.
My mind for craft in revisiting the scenes, experiences, images etc. all basically revolves around the same paradigm, which is to remove the speaker of the poem, or to negate his subjective presence sufficiently to allow someone who reads the poem to inhabit its space and its presentation of a set of emotions or experience and feel or live their own way through the situation based upon whatever life experiences they bring or bear on the poem and on the situation they happen to encounter the poem in. Ultimately, I’m of the opinion that me telling you what I felt about any given situation, any rationalizations I have made or excuses that have accrued to become “reasons” or to make sense of the experiences I’ve encountered is really rather boring, whether done in verse or prose—uninteresting and not particularly helpful to anyone, save maybe for myself, and I’m not sold entirely on that either.
Aaron Graham is a veteran of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. His work has appeared in f(r)iction magazine, Scalawag: A Journal of the South, and Rising Phoenix Press, among others. He served as the editor-in-chief for the Squaw Valley Review, is an alumnus of Squaw Valley Writers Workshop and The Ashbury Home School, and the Cambridge Writer’s Workshop. Aaron is currently attending UCNG’s MFA program in poetry and finishing his Ph.D. at Emory University. He currently resides in Greensboro, NC with this wife, Alana, and their three daughters, Alexi, Nora, and Naomi.
Stephanie Marker received her MFA in fiction from Bowling Green State University in 2010, and her PhD in English from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette in 2017. Originally from Kalamazoo, Michigan, she now resides in Tuscaloosa, Alabama with her partner and their two puppies. Her work has appeared in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Third Coast, and The Collagist, among others.