Randy Brown AKA “Charlie Sherpa” invited me to go with him to the Association of Writers & Writing Programs Conference (AWP17) in Washington, D.C. I was on a panel that he moderated called, Citizen-Soldier-Poet: Using Poetry to Bridge the Civil-Military Gap. I felt out of my league, but seized the opportunity to run my mouth in public. (I dearly love the sound of my own voice.) But, I got more from this weekend than I could ever repay. Like any good veteran, raised on PowerPoint, I’m only allowed to learn three things from this experience.
The crowd of military writers moved from the basement of The Laughing Man Tavern and headed upstairs for some food. Peter Molin (Time Now blog) set up this party on the Friday night of the weekend and what a fun group of people it was. I sat at my table and chatted with Benjamin Busch (Dust to Dust). Earlier in the day, he and some other writers talked about turning writing into other artistic forms. Jenny Pacanowski read her poem “Combat Dick”, J. A. Moad II performed a scene from his play “Outside Paducah”, and Brian Turner (Here, Bullet) asked us all to hum. They pulled me way, way outside my own head.
“I’m so impressed with your courage. You guys are putting it all out there,” I said to Benjamin.
“What’s the point of keeping it inside?” He kind of smirked and shrugged.
It’s still echoing in my head. I’m filing it under “motivation.”
At that same party, Tessa Poppe (“The Grass”) and I stood there talking about the mind-blowing people in the room. The amoeba of a crowd spat out a National Book Award winner. Suddenly, Tessa and I were talking to Phil Klay (Redeployment, National Book Award). He was normal. I don’t know what I expected. Maybe some level of standoffishness? None of that. He asked what we were writing and we said we were on a military poetry panel together the day prior. I said I was halfway through a draft of a memoir, which is the same as saying nothing.
Recovering, I complimented him on an op-ed he wrote for the NY Times that very morning. I already shared it on Facebook. I had no idea I’d be shooting the shit with the author himself over a pint a few hours later. I said his article about morality in war reminded me of a choice I faced in Afghanistan and wrote about. He pulled out his phone and asked me the title of it. He typed it into his phone so he could look it up later.
This is the kind of thing that powers a slob like me for a year.
Now multiply that by 100. That’s how many times someone of national prominence asked me what I was writing. They were supportive, gracious, and friendly. Every. Single. Person. They all offered encouragement to me, a stranger without any real credentials.
I’m trying to put on a writing workshop about military themes in Duluth in May/June 2018 with the help of Lake Superior Writers, my local writing group. Matthew Hefti (A Hard and Heavy Thing) said he’d help if he could. Jerri Bell (Veterans Writing Project) said she’d send me notes about putting on a workshop with both civilian and military writers. J. A. Moad II, from down the road in the Twin Cities, gave me some great ideas. David Chrisinger said he had a template for a three-day workshop I could look at. And so on, and so on, and so on, like the old shampoo commercial.
I ate dinner that big Friday night with Mary Doyle, David Chrisinger, and Matthew Hefti. Later, at the very end of the last panel on the last day, Mary gave me her book The Peacekeeper’s Photograph. Just gave it to me. A gift. Her act symbolized the whole weekend for me.
My nickname is Shmo. I’m regularly called Angry Shmo, by friends who know me well. But, AWP17 caused some kind of positive shift in my chest. It felt like when you’re near a big slab of snow that settles all at once. Whoomp.
I’m still amazed by the Internet. I’ve connected with people like Charlie Sherpa (FOB Haiku). I feel like I’ve known him for years. But I met Sherpa for the first time “in real life” on the Wednesday before his poetry panel. We explained our nicknames to each other. We talked over a military poetry manuscript I have (working title: Hugging This Rock). He’s helped me get stuff published elsewhere via information on his blog. He’s just down the road in Iowa. And in an amazing coincidence, his wife’s sister is part of a couple in Duluth that I’ve known for over a decade. Parallel universes. The day after our first meeting, I sat at his right hand (symbolic?) as a panelist in Washington, D.C. So, that’s cool.
Another example. I met Matthew Komatsu for the first time at AWP17. I first read his work when he wrote about the attack on Bastion in Afghanistan. I was just down the street at Kandahar AB when that happened at Bastion in Sep 2012, so I read it with great interest. Come to find out he’s a runner. Followed his blog about running stuff. Then I learned he’s originally from Duluth, the town where I ended up after 9/11 and plan to remain. Then, recently while trying to build my writing workshop, I wrote him some emails asking about the workshop he put on. He generously (of course) sent me a bunch of notes, information, and advice. Then, I went to the panel at AWP17 when he read his piece titled “Calling Jody with the Ghost Brigade.” Words about war and loss mixed with marathons. He described landmarks in Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth, which I’ve run. I found myself nodding in recognition while he spoke, and not just about Minnesota locations.
Sherpa and Komatsu are just two examples of how small coincidences met the Internet and became real. This happened to me dozens of times at AWP17.
The world seems big sometimes. But the Internet makes it feel much, much smaller. It connects me to like-minded people, doing similar things, sprinkled all over the map. There was a tribe out there. I knew it. I could sense it, intellectually. But now, I feel it in my gut.
Thank you all.