Editor’s Note: this post is the second part of a two-part series. Please click here to read part one. This interview conducted via email has been lightly edited for length and clarity, and does not necessarily reflect the views of this website. Content notice: mention of death by hanging.
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1. You have an entire section in your book Quitting Time called “At War.” Tell me some about your decision-making process in choosing point of view and speakers for these “At War” poems.
Most of these poems are written in second person to a soldier father-to-be in battle during World War II. Yet there are other speakers in the “At War” section, too: the poem “In the Night” features some italicized stanzas that read like a soldier’s letter home. And the title says it all for the persona poem “One of His Men Speaks.”
The whole collection started as a series of poems about my father, Walter. Many of them were in second person to him. As I started thinking about putting them together into a book, I wanted to get a sense of what that experience of war was for him. For one thing, as a farm boy from North Dakota, he would have met people from all over the country, with different ideas and backgrounds. So it made sense to write from the point of view of one of the men in his unit.
As I was writing these poems, it also felt like I was in dialogue with my father, and with his life situation (that holds true for the other sections of the book, as well). I also did some research on what a GI would have experienced in those times, and talked with my siblings about what they remembered about our dad’s stories. But to be honest, I didn’t have a process to begin with. The poems kind of flowed—and of course there were other poem drafts that either didn’t make it as a poem, or didn’t make it into the book during the editing process.
2. The decision to write persona poems nowadays is a fraught one, as the poet has to consider their own social standing in relation to the persona(s) they may engage as speakers. What advice would you give to someone who is considering writing a persona poem set in war?
I would say that most of my poems are persona poems, even when I’m writing in the first person from my own experience. I imagine a speaker who is not me (and also me), and have the words flow through them. This is especially helpful when I’m writing about painful things. Specifically about writing a war poem in persona, I’ve had the privilege of knowing people who went to war. My cousin and some friends were in Viet Nam. A member of the congregation where I served was deployed to Iraq while I was there, and I have had conversation with them. In the case of the poems in this section of the book, I did not have a specific person or persons in mind, so I didn’t feel like I was appropriating anything personal from them. That point can be argued, of course.
There is a long history of writing from the point of view of a historic person, going way back to the Greeks, Mayans, etc. I’ve done a few. For example, I have a poem written to Roger Taney (the Chief Justice when the Dred Scott decision was made), written in the voice of Harriet Scott, Dred’s wife. Obviously, I never knew any of them! (Although they stayed near my hometown in Minnesota for some time). And the poem is set in heaven, so it is clearly imaginative. As a white male, I could be accused, I suppose, of appropriating her voice. But I would be—and should be—accused if I only wrote about white people. The characters in the novel I’m writing, set in the 1910’s, are from different cultures. In both cases, I’m writing about a time in the past and not a living person, which would be different.
On the other hand, I’ve written a poem about the Afghan baby born on a US Air Force Jet during the evacuation last year. I imagine her parents, without ever knowing them. If somehow I would meet them someday, I’d love to show them the poem, and talk with them!
(On a side note, the poems about immigrants in my first book The Devouring Land are based on real people in churches I’ve served. In those cases, I’ve changed details or made composite stories. That is primarily to protect them.)
3. Your first poem in the “At War” section, “Falling,” gives voice to a German soldier who “hung from his parachute…/ shouting, ‘Don’t shoot–I surrender!'” Yet the men under the father’s command shot anyway, killing the German soldier. The poem then ends with these haunting lines: “Your men did not speak. / They held their rifles across / their chests, as if bearing sick children.” This poem not only seems to denounce the horrors of war, but it also gives voice to the enemy (and not to the father’s own soldiers). Tell me more about this decision to privilege the voice of the enemy in “Falling.”
The most direct answer is that it relates to a central theme in the whole book, which is who is “one of us,” “American,” worthy, etc. In the first section of the book, my father is threatened with being hit for speaking German (the “enemy’s language”) when he goes to kindergarten during World War I. And then his German comes in handy for his country in World War II (he served in the Occupation until 1946).
There is also the sense of fate: if my grandfather had stayed in Germany and not immigrated to the US, and somehow met my grandmother there and had Walter (their son, and my father), then my father would have likely been conscripted into the German army during World War II. That didn’t happen, and he ended up fighting against Germans, maybe even cousins he did not know.
By that time (1944/early 1945), so many German soldiers had been killed that they were drafting younger teenagers to fight. My father saw the German soldier referenced in the poem “Falling” as “just a kid.” I wanted to get that sense of compassion in there.
Finally, in writing about war, I feel I have a spiritual obligation to not see “the enemy” as demonic, different from me, or “the other.” Most of the Russian soldiers who have been used by the Russian state to invade Ukraine are caught up in a war not of their own design or choosing. That doesn’t dismiss the terrible acts they may have done, but we still must see them as human beings.
4. Your poem “For Anna Sabastian” recalls your grandmother’s immigrant journey from Kalusz, Ukraine to the US “the year / the cemetery stopped burying.” The poem doesn’t describe your grandmother as a war refugee, but it does sound like she left in response to mounting hardships. How has the recent war in Ukraine impacted your understanding of Anna Sabastian as a person, as well as the poem “For Anna Sabastian?”
I’ve recently written a poem in second person to Anna Sebastian, or rather to her bones, asking them to rise up and call out the bones of her ancestors living in Ukraine to resist the aggression. I never met her—she died when my dad was 12. But in writing about my dad and his family, I feel like I’ve gotten to know her. She spoke four languages before learning English here, and wanted all of her children to go to college. But her early death, the Depression, and World War II didn’t allow for that. Yet many of her grandchildren have advanced degrees.
I never got a chance to talk with her about her life and struggles, but I’ve seen some of that joy and pain reflected in my father and in some of his siblings.
Her hometown of Kalush changed hands multiple times in the 20th century: it was part of the Austria-Hungary Empire when she left, was fought over in World War I, became part of Poland, invaded by Nazis and Soviets in 1941, occupied by Nazis, became part of the Soviet Union, and now is part of Ukraine. Until today, it has escaped the shelling and missiles (it’s in the Western part). My grandfather’s town was wiped out completely in World War II.
So that loss and struggle have made the war in Ukraine more present to me.
5. What role do you think the passage of time has on reading and writing poems about war? For example, what benefits and challenges are there in writing poems about World War II (which of course happened almost 80 years ago), versus trying to write about present-day war?
Well, I think that the right amount of distance is important for just about every poem. I was in El Salvador in the 80’s during the civil war, and took notes while I was there. But I couldn’t write a poem about it until I was back in the States. The first poem I wrote eight months later was an ekphrastic based on a child’s colored drawing of their village. Bright colors, lots of movement, helicopter gunships, and men hanging from trees. But it took several more years to write one about an elderly woman who was tortured.
I have started a couple of poems about the war in Ukraine right now (since both my paternal grandparents were born in what is now Ukraine). There the physical distance helps me, as a writer, craft language other than just the raw emotions of grief and rage. Those emotions may be present in the poems, but they are “translated” in a sense through metaphor, rhythm and all the other powers of poetry.
If my own family were on the firing line of a current war, I don’t know if I could write about it that well. I live in Minneapolis. I’ve written a lot of poems about the murder of George Floyd and the unrest that followed, but have not been able to write a poem about our daughter’s participation in the protests, where she did face danger. Maybe someday I will.
There are some awfully good anthologies of “war poetry,” such as The Oxford Book of War Poetry (Ed. Jon Stallworthy), Songs of Love and War: Afghan Women’s Poetry (Ed. Sayd Majrouh), and Poetry of the Spanish Civil War (Ed. Marilyn Rosenthal). These anthologies have informed my view, I think.
6. What poets do you read when you want to be in conversation about war? Why?
As noted above, I have read many excellent anthologies about war: WWI, WWII, Civil War, etc. Pablo Neruda and many Spanish, Latin American and Eastern European poets have written about war. I have been reading a lot of Somali poets lately, and almost all of them have poems that touch on war. I’ll mention Warsan Shire, a Somali Poet now living in the UK. I particularly recommend her two books Our Men Do Not Belong to Us, and Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth.
By the way, in my opinion, almost all the good poems about war are not victory poems. Even the ones written by soldiers from the winning sides tend to be about suffering. If they celebrate anything, it’s sacrifice and camaraderie, not triumph.
7. What final best practices would you recommend for writing poems about war and its effects?
Unfortunately, we don’t need to imagine what war is; we see it all the time on the news. But we can imagine ourselves and our loved ones in it, and can feel solidarity with those who are suffering.
For me, one practice that is really helpful is to look at photos or paintings about war and its aftermath: to really imagine being in that scene, or at least in that place and time as an observer.
The other practice is to talk to people who’ve experienced it. That needs to be done with care, especially if the person is suffering from PTSD or other trauma.
Thank you for your time, Patrick!
Patrick Cabello Hansel is the author of the poetry collections The Devouring Land (Main Street Rag Publishing) and Quitting Time (Atmosphere Press). He has published poems and prose in over 70 journals, including Crannog, Ilanot Review, Hawai’i Pacific Review, Ash & Bones, RiverSedge and Lunch Ticket. Twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize, he has won awards from the Loft Literary Center and MN State Arts Board. His novella Searching was serialized in 33 issues of The Alley News. He is the editor of The Phoenix of Phillips, a literary journal by and for the most diverse community in Minneapolis. His website is www.artecabellohansel.com
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