Interview with Sundress Author Aaron Dylan Graham Part 2

Prior to the release of his new poetry collection, Blood Stripes (Sundress, 2019), Aaron Dylan Graham continues his interview with Sundress editorial intern Stephanie Marker as they talk about landscape, space, and language in the making of trench poetry. This is part two of the interview. Part 1 can be found here.

Blood Stripes CoverStephanie Marker: The geographic landscape also worked to shape the poetry. What was it like to recreate that landscape from memory? As a writer, can you speak to the process of weaving physical landscape into the language of your work?

Aaron Graham: Yeah, I suppose the way I conceived of this was that there is mirroring in the way warfighters experience war and the way one perceives a landscape. Like, all we know is really a set of concrete particulars. Like, this event happened at such and such a location at this time on a given patrol. While at the same moment, there were countless other events in the theater of combat, on different patrols, with other war-fighters flying air cover, or conducting reconnaissance, or interrogating an enemy combatant, or giving the last scrap of food from their only MRE to a kid whose parents had been killed by the insurgency the day before. So, a poem, or a collection of poems can only present a single blip on the radar of “the war.” I suppose the process of weaving the physical landscape into the language of the collection occurred more through the description or incorporation of the effect of the landscape on those who were in it. That’s another thing, too, about the military experience—even the landscape of a place is considered first in terms of its purposiveness. What do specific topographical features mean in terms of their ability to conceal threats or provide tactical leverage in a given situation? This results, both fortunately and unfortunately, I think, in an inability to even consider a landscape or a natural feature as an aesthetic object or from the perspective of aesthetics at all. So there was an attempt in the collection to resist that and to re-envision the place of all these events as having a vitality or an existence that animated the events that occurred within their reality.

I also remember the impression of the smallness of myself, as part of the war effort, as part of humanity, and more as part of the landscape. I mean the sand that I was walking on is the same sand that Paul was stricken blind in on the way to Damascus. There’s just a reverence and an awe that I felt when I thought about the totality of human experience that that landscape has witnessed play itself out. That was an interaction I wanted to try to capture in the sense of place the collection gave off—the smallness it made me feel, but not in a negative or insignificant way. It was in a fashion that I remember being, in some odd way, grateful for.

So maybe in that sense, there is no physical landscape in the work, I’m not sure. I started to consider this question and came to the realization that the physical landscapes I am rendering in the collection are much more the mental impressions or the affective states the natural world gave off, or created in me at the time, that remain in my memory with sufficient detail to become part of the linguistic topography of the collection.

SM: This collection also plays with psychological and emotional distance, and maybe the universal human habit of creating space for ourselves between us and the life that surrounds us. Can you speak to how you created these distances, these spaces, in your work? How you crafted your language to hold such spaces?

AG: So, one thing I realized in writing the poems that make up the collection is that being at a close proximity to death, either in your experiences literally being proximal to a lot of death, in your thinking through death a lot and trying to mentally prepare for it coming to find you, or in your thinking through death a lot to mentally prepare for putting an end to another human life, creates a psychological and emotional distance between yourself and life, in all of its forms, to the point that you cannot help but come to conceive of yourself as somehow apart from or separate from life. And this is something I’ve only come to realize in the last few years. And it really took the birth of my first daughter to bring me back into contact with life and in that moment I became aware of the gulf that had emerged in my own consciousness between myself and life in such a way that I became acutely aware of the distance, and for the first time since I enlisted in the Marines, made me feel any desire to close that chasm.

The interesting thing about the creation, or even merely the existence, of distance—whether psychological, emotional, geographic, or even temporal—entails the co-production of a border that delineates the end of that space we are capable of creating for ourselves and the beginning of the remainder of existence—what we each can control and that with which we struggle, each day of life. It’s the delineation that creates “Self” and “Other” but it’s also the delineation of order from chaos, and, no matter on what level of analysis you look at existence, these points of division arise and form a border. An attempt to delineate distinct wholes.

It seems impossible that experiences can create such a distance between one’s self, who is alive, and life itself, including the life one inherently participates in. I guess this is also what I perceive to be the misperception of the public about the sacrifice those who serve in the military make. The real threat, the real danger, in military service which those who go to war assume so that those who remain at home will hopefully never have to, is not the risk of getting killed. The real risk those who serve endure so civilians will not be required to, is the distance between self and other, between live-self and the other of death that collapses when one invites death into the world with their own hands. The Greek word “to wound” (Tramatus), literally taken, means “To pierce or to rupture” and, as I see, it is this distance between life and death, that is the space between self and other that collapses such that you cannot rupture the space between another’s life and their death without simultaneously rupturing a necessary barrier that preserves you from the damage a psychological proximity to death entails. And this rupture in what is a natural barrier between selves (my-self should never exist at the expense of your-self) is also a rupture of one’s own life by the same death dealt to the other.

So, when Levinas says, the face of the other contains the moral imperative “don’t kill me,” there is a reflexive imperative that states, “if you sever my connection to life, yours will be cut as well” and so in the act of killing, there is always already, self-slaughter. Which, if you buy into—I think I do—really makes you think differently about Shakespeare’s characterization of poor Hamlet’s predicament.

SM: Speaking more specifically to this psychological space, the speaker in this collection serves as a witness, and although present in these scenes, feels distant from them. Can you speak to this choice? What part did it play in telling this story, in constructing these landscapes?

AG: I suppose the choice comes from my reading of other poets after I got out of the Marine Corps. I didn’t really read at all before I went into the Marines and pretty much just skimmed some of the books on the Commandant’s Reading List and news articles in Arabic while I was enlisted. I started to read about three years after I got out, I guess to just try and make sense of things at first, or try to find something to relate to. The crowd of my fellow undergrads in the pre-medical program I was in possessed a set of experiences with which I just failed to relate and, so, I suppose I turned to literature to find what some folks made of their un-relatable experiences, and so I read about authors’ accounts of war.

One issue I faced was that, partly because of a TBI I had while enlisted and some cognitive difficulties in the aftermath of that, I didn’t have the capacity to read very much prose before my attention wandered and I had to get up and do something, so I kind of defaulted poetry because it was short enough. Generally, I could get through a poem without my mind blinking off or being disinterested or distracted by whatever was at hand. What I found was that the majority of “war poetry” seemed, to me, so heavy-handed and Manichaean in their treatment of their experiences of war, which I felt and feel are deep, complex, and rooted enough in fundamental questions of the human condition and our place and duty as human beings in relation to other human beings as to resist any hasty totalization or monolithic grand narratives of good triumphing over evil. I mean, in the world wars, or even Korea and Vietnam, there was more of a rationale for that kind of account. By which I mean that I could imagine warfighters seeing it along those lines, and how the experiences based on the sort of combat operations occurring in those conflicts could similarly be considered along those essentialist lines.

Still, especially concerning the more recent conflicts we’ve actively participated in, poems that present a narrative that reifies itself in terms like: war is hell, but we had God and justice on our side, so we prevailed against the bad guys by just being extremely badass, was just not helpful to me or representative of my experience and I came to think that it’s also unhelpful concerning the broader culture’s understanding of actual difficulties, and conflicts and situations folks are put in and endure in which the costs of war are most clearly visible. Poetry to me is a way to play out these impossibly difficult scenarios and leave the tension and the irresolution that characterizes the experience fully in the writing. Like, to read poems that have the speaker as a protagonist, heroically overcoming dangers and felling foes with Pietas reminiscent of Aeneas or that present all the moral evaluations, confusions of combat operations, and chaotic cognitive thrum one experiences…intellectually trying to make sense of something going sideways during an operation assumes a perspective and a level of clarity that I certainly can say I do not possess. So to end a poem with a moralization like: So, that’s exactly how it happened, so the good guys won that day, so freedom and liberty triumphed over evil, or even sometimes you gotta roll the hard-six and let the god of war take you in their hands, or, I’m alive so that alone justifies whatever happened in the field; gives the reader the dictate: “here’s what the experience was, here’s what I, the poet, think of it, and here is what you should take away from it.” This is, I think, wrong for a poem, because it gives the reader the impression that the experience can be directly comprehended at all, and not only that, but the poet has comprehended it, made sense of it, and realized how it fits seamlessly with the warrior ethos, the national narrative of exceptionalism, and the series of events in their life both before and after their military service. Really it is forcing a specific sense-making on the reader and places the poet in a position of authority over both the experience and the limits of its presentation, in verses, meaning. I think this ultimately betrays the duty of the poet—to culture, to her work, and to society.

Like, I don’t think I’m in a position to know or to say exactly what the ultimate impact or the deeper meaning of a certain event is. So, to circle back around to the actual question, the distance is intentional because I don’t want the speaker of the poems to be myself, to carry my own set of prejudgments, experiences, biases, values, and rationalizations. I don’t want ever to moralize or justify in a poem. So this psychological distance you aptly pick up on is precisely the space I’ve tried to vacate so the speaker in the poem can convey the emotional landscape of an experience such that can be inhabited by a reader, and its contours can mean something unique to them based on what they bring to the poem as another human being. I don’t want how I’ve rationalized and made sense of something to overdetermine and force out other readings or views of the experience. I guess, in the simplest of terms, the distance exists because I am trying to communicate that, not only do I admit, but, in fact, I find it quite likely, that I’m flat wrong about the meaning I’ve derived from many of these experiences and in my perception of how they’ve affected and continue to affect me. And I don’t know what these experiences mean, but I am certain there is something essential to the warrior ethos and human condition writ large that’s present in them, but to pretend I can pin down or totalize or even grasp in a concrete fashion what that is would be flatly untrue. So, in that sense, that psychological distance I intended as an attempt to invite the possibility of truth into the poetry and give it a place to abide where it can take on its own life by meeting whatever a reader brings to bear on a poem resonate with their humanity.

SM: There is more than one mention of Greek mythology in your collection—can you speak to this choice, and what part you see it playing in these landscapes you’ve created?

AG: The choice to use Greek Mythology, allusions, passages pulled from Greek source texts, I think one could call accidental but inevitable when trying to assess the topography of war, invasion, the psychological, sociological, political, personal, and physical costs of any war. Consider the Odyssey. The story isn’t about Odysseus, not really. The poem is about the cost of going to war for all those who are left behind by the soldiers and generals who leave to fight the war. Also, it’s about the cost the surviving warfighters pay themselves upon returning home and how they are implicated in the damage their absence has wrought. In fact, in the Greek conception of duty and social order, they cannot escape culpability for it. The story is about how, generationally, society is traumatized and deeply wounded in its perception of self, other, family, and neighbor as a result of prolonged campaigns of war. The Oikos and Polis are literally configured based on their mutual suspicion against each other, disrupting the structure of authority, productivity, and the social trust that allows such things like military campaigns, commerce, rule of law, foreign relations, and artistic production to be maximized in any society. If one believes Ann Carson in Eros the Bittersweet—which was a life-changing work for me when I read it, and thus I tend to believe her argument in it—the Greeks were incidentally involved in the conceptional innovation of thinking through how our bodies serve as the experiential containers for emotion—how embodied all emotion is—at the same time they considered by necessity how written language can be a container for speech and for the breath and the effect that can be spoken into a room, but that resists complete transposition in the written word.

I suppose, I mean, that, as a warfighter, there are very few words I experience more acutely and can bring me to tears faster than most of book IV of Odyssey. The epigraph for the poem “The Curse is a Hammer About to Drop” is taken from Book IV:

If Zeus of the far-reaching voice had allowed us to return together… I would have given him a city in Argos: I would have built him a palace, and brought him from Ithaca with all his possessions, his son and his people… Then we might have lived here together, with nothing to part us, loving, delighting in one another, until death’s black cloud covered us.

I do not know of a veteran who can read the words, meditate on what they’re actually expressing about the unique nature of the relationships between warfighters during a war and how that must be altered by the toll war takes and reevaluated after a war, and not be moved on the deepest of levels. So, I guess, to put it simply, there are some essential aspects of the effects of war on warriors and on their society the Greeks just get right and since I cannot outdo them in their perceptions of the human condition, I need to cite them for it.

SM: Is there a poem in this collection that speaks most strongly to its story as a whole? If so, in what way(s) does it encapsulate the collection’s mood or message?

AG: The Poem “Violence,” I think, best takes up the primary concern of the collection and conveys what I think is the general mood I hope the collection gives off. It tries to express the difficulty and frustration, as well as the humor and pleasure, language inevitably leaves all of us trapped in. The poem tries to laugh at the absurdity of the whole scenario and at the same time, emphasize the reverence I believe we should all pay it—merely for its (and our) existing. And by “it,” I think I mean idiom, life, love, war, anguish, and language. By which, I think I really mean humanity.

SM: Finally, there are, of course, literary traditions surrounding war. Do you see your work as a traditional telling of war, or as breaking with these traditions? Maybe a mix of both? And how?

AG: One thing I can say is that the military experience is vastly different for junior enlisted military personnel than it is for commissioned officers. The differences between experiences that exist in the military along these lines, when in garrison, compound exponentially in a theater of war. I’d certainly imagine that, as the military—and specifically, warfighting experience—of commissioned officers and enlisted marines is so divergent, their respective writings about the experience would diverge as well. So, one thought about the literary tradition surrounding war that I think is broken to some degree here is who is telling the story.

Almost every major, publicly known telling of war—especially poetic tellings, but also the vast majority the prose as well—regardless of their branch of service, was written by a commissioned officer.

This seems especially true of the poetry which has garnered national attention written in the Post-911 era. I mean, Here, Bullet by Brian Turner is likely the best known. He’s an officer with an MFA from an Ivy League. He goes into the military because he wants to write war poetry, so he’s in Iraq writing about what’s happening to the troops he is literally in command of and—maybe only theoretically—responsible for the well-being of. I think any enlisted servicemember would feel a certain kind of way about that kind of officer’s war poetry.

Redeployment, Phil Klay’s tremendous collection of short stories, which you can tell by its voice and language is DEFINITELY written by a Marine, is still the language of a Marine Corps officer. Ron Capps of the Veterans Writing Project out of Walter Reed and John’s Hopkins was Commissioned in the Army. Black Hawk Down was written by a journalist with no military affiliation. All you’ve really got to go on from the enlisted side is The Things They Carried, prose by Tim O’Brien. O’Brien was a sergeant in the Army in Vietnam, so he was at least enlisted. Still, I wonder if an NCO’s (Non-Commissioned Officer) experience of war—especially combat operations—may be drastically different from that of a Marine Lance Corporal or Private First Class.

They are the ones, at the age of 19 or 20, who are kicking all the doors in and stepping on IEDs and standing post in the middle of the desert with orders not to return fire because of political optics. So, I suppose I hope, in some small way, this collection gets the experience, the voice, the reality, of these warfighters—who make up 70–80 percent of the troops the Marine Corps fields in combat operations, into the literary side of the tradition. More than anything else, I hope if one of those warfighters picks up the collection and reads a few lines, they might think: “damn, yeah, that’s how it was….” That would be the largest break in tradition I could see these poems as perpetrating. It would also the greatest form of success I could hope for.

Aaron GrahamAaron 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.


markerStephanie 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 ReviewThird Coast, and The Collagist, among others.

Interview with Sundress Author Aaron Dylan Graham Part 1

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.

Blood Stripes CoverStephanie 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.

What, (bitch)?!

This recruit requests permission to make a head-call, sir.

Permission denied.

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 GrahamAaron 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.

markerStephanie 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 ReviewThird Coast, and The Collagist, among others.