Greetings, BOA readers! I'm Mckayla, one of the fall interns at BOA Editions. It was my great pleasure to sit down over email with Poulin Prize-winner and Iraq War veteran Hugh Martin to ask him a few questions about his experience serving overseas as well as his newest book, In Country.
When did you write the first poem for this collection? Did you start writing any of these poems while you were serving in Iraq? How has your process changed since you started writing these poems?
While in Iraq, I did not write any poems but did keep a journal with very detailed notes and stories involving our entire deployment. I still, today, turn to these notes—some in Word documents, others in old notebooks—when writing.
Many of the poems from this book were drafted in graduate school from 2009–2012 while I lived in Arizona. The landscape in Arizona, especially in a poem like "Operation New Dawn," did play a part in conjuring memories and adding to the imagery in the book. My writing process hasn't changed much, but I do, today, tend to focus more on my memory and imagination rather than worry over the documented "lived" experience from my journals.
Many of the poems in this collection rely on my experience, of course; however, the work as a whole tries to capture the voices of Iraqis—whether it be interpreters, soldiers, or children—to add, I hope, to the overall polyphony of the book.
Language is incredibly important to In Country, as are small bits of dialogue that carry so much weight in these poems. Were these bits of conversations you wrote down while you were serving, or are they things you remembered while you were working on the collection?
It's a combination of a few things: first, much comes from my memories—there are so many—interacting with Iraqis and hearing the long process of conversations take place with, for example, an Iraqi man speaking to an interpreter, the interpreter speaking to one of us, one of us speaking back to the interpreter, then the interpreter speaking back to the Iraqi, and so on; second, yes, I did write down many snippets of conversation and used these to help re-imagine and relive those moments within the poems; third, I read a lot of work by both those on the ground during the war—Iraqis and journalists—and this also helped inform and develop some of the conversations in the book.
Longtime BOA readers might already be aware of this, but there’s a long tradition of writing poetry in Arabic across the Middle East—BOA has even published translations of Iranian poet Sohrab Sepehri and Lebanese poets Jawat Fakhreddine and Adonis. Were there any Iraqi poets who influenced you while you were writing In Country? What are some things American poets can learn from Iraqi/Arabic poetry?
Absolutely. I'll name a few: Dunya Mikhail, Sinan Anton, Goran, Amal al-Jubouri, Fadhil al-Azzawi. As an American reader, I can only speak for myself: first, I can only imagine what I miss reading these in English, in translation, and not in Arabic; however, overall, one will notice the deep sense of place, physically and historically, many of these poets—for example, Mikhail in The War Works Hard—write from.
To speak of "history" as an American means little to Iraqi poets writing within a tradition which goes back to Mesopotamia and the Epic of Gilgamesh. One might also notice a sharp, biting, dark irony and anger—which seems necessary for Iraqis dealing with war after war. In "Every Morning the War Gets Up From Sleep", al-Azzawi writes, "This is war, then: All is well. / The missiles bomb the cities, and the airplanes bid the clouds farewell." Other poets, like Anton, take on more ominous, elegiac tones as they move between past and future, even eulogizing those still alive:
when i was torn by war
i took a brush
immersed in death
and drew a window
on war's wall
i opened it
i saw another war
and a mother
weaving a shroud
for the dead man
still in her womb.
When putting the book together, what went into selecting the title and cover art? Where those decisions that were hard to make or did you have an idea all along?
Because my first book's cover used artwork by an American Marine, I wanted to attempt to find work by an Iraqi artist. After a lot of searching, emailing, looking at hundreds of images, I finally found the work of Hanaa Malallah, an artist from Iraq who now lives in England. Malallah, in some of her work, often uses what she calls "Ruins Technique," which involves, as she writes in an Artist Statement, "distressing" or "obliterating" found material. "US modern flag," which shows the American flag, from its rear-side—"backwards"—with a white linen covering, was the one I chose to use (and was fortunate to get permission from Malallah).
Although the image—which shows a deliberately "burnt" American flag—might seem overly provocative or even, to some, distasteful, I chose it for a few reasons:
First, because the work is done by an Iraqi artist, it shows how our flag—especially worn overseas on the shoulders of soldiers—might be viewed: it is "war-torn," damaged, ripped, even, I might argue, ominous in its mutilation—it is not the large, wind-whipped, shining "star-spangled banner" we see in the States or imagine.
Second, the backwards position of her flag is exactly how a soldier would wear it—now by Velcro—on their right-shoulder sleeve with the star field, as is tradition, facing forward which signals, like guide-on barriers holding up the "colors", a military movement forward (rather than in retreat).
Third, most obviously, the damaged, torn, mutilated flag—which also of course hints at blood—speaks to the "wear and tear" from the last two decades of war involving the US at the opening of the 21st century, but also, simply, the age and "wear and tear" on the country, the people—Iraqis and Americans—and even the flag's reputation to the rest of the world.
Last, the phrase used now mostly by veterans, "In Country"—a term which has been in use since the 16th century (first in Scotland) by military personnel, historians, and scientists—which signifies an individual's deployment, also speaks to the American flag's time "in country"—it is battered, burnt, bloodied, tired.
As you know, BOA is currently accepting submissions for the A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize. You won the prize back in 2012 for your first collection, The Stick Soldiers. Do you have any advice for poets who might be considering submitting a manuscript this year?
I never expected to win this prize and was shocked when I did. I think poets should be confident, keep doing the work they want to do. They should consider how their book appears as a whole, especially consider what poems specifically open and close the book—these bookends are vital, especially for readers and judges who are often inundated with hundreds and hundreds of manuscripts.
I'd tell them to go check out the work of the last few years of Poulin Prize winners; consider how the books establish themselves vocally early on and look closely at how these poets organize and order their collections.