The Road Back: Veterans & Literary Writing Symposium


>>Anya Creightney:
Good afternoon everyone. It’s a pleasure to see
everyone here in on such an auspicious
holiday weekend. My name is Anya Creightney. I’m the programs
manager at the Poetry and Literature Center
housed right here in the Library of Congress. The Poetry and Literature
Center is many things. In fact, we’re the home
of the US Poet Laureate, who you may have even heard
of, Ms. Tracy K. Smith. But we’re also a center devoted
to programing that engages and promotes the intrinsic
value of literary arts. We’re a place that believes
the imagination is one of our most transformative
powers, building the way for true and lasting enrichment. So, it’s no surprise
we’re elated to celebrate todays panelist,
Bill Jones, Vess Quinlan, Dave Richmond, and Bruce Weigl. And we have another
last-minute attendee who will special guest,
shortly thereafter. All poets who prove
what’s possible under poetry’s big tent. Today, each poet
will share poems from their favorite
World War I writers, as well as their own work. Afterward, we’ll have
a short discussion about the way poetry not only
relates to military experience, but enacts a full range
of creative expression. As you may have gathered by
now, throughout the course of the day, this event
is being held in tandem with the library’s new and
major exhibition titled Echoes of the Great War: American
Experiences of World War I. Last April, April
6th to be exact, marked the 100th anniversary
of the United States entry into the war and this
exhibit tells the story through correspondence, music,
film, recorded sound, diaries, posters, photographs,
scrapbooks, and so much more. If you haven’t seen the
exhibit, you’ll certainly want to spend some time examining
the library’s treasures. But of course, don’t
rush out just yet. We’ve assembled this
talented group here today as yet another way to honor
the World War I Centennial, and of course to
celebrate Veterans Day. So, just how you have a sense
of how the program will run, up first will be Bruce,
followed by the Cowboy Poets, and each poet will read
for approximately nine to ten minutes followed by a short discussion
and an audience Q&A. I know our panelists
want to hear from you, so please be thinking of your
questions, and do wait for — I’m told this has
to do with the wind, so if this happens throughout
the program it’s not a jackhammer, it’s wind. At any rate, I’m told our
panelists want to hear from you. So as the event goes on, please
be thinking of your questions and do wait for someone
to bring you a microphone so your question can be
captured for the video. Okay? So, with this all
in mind, let me dispense with the formalities and
get to our bios here, and then we’ll bring
on the poetry. Okay? Vess Quinlan began writing
after contracting polio in 1951. His grandma brought
him shoeboxes of J. R. Williams cartoons
and cowboy poems cut from years of livestock papers. Vess survived, one leg
shorter than the other, but never recovered from
the effect of those poems, cartoons, and stories. The fourth generation to
raise livestock and feed, Vess became a working
partner on a rundown outfit in Colorado’s San Luis Valley,
where he raised alfalfa, cattle, kids, dogs, and sheep. He is an American Cowboy Poet,
widely considered to be one of the most respected
poets of his genre. In fact, Vess attended the first
Cowboy gathering of Cowboy Poets in 1985, known then,
as the Elko Gathering. And continues to
perform statewide. His writing is based on
his real-life experiences as a rancher, which gives
his poetry a lifelike feel. His work has been published
in numerous books, magazines, as well as online
poetry publications. Bill Jones served
— Bill Jones served with the 3rd Marine Division as an Artillery Forward
Observer in Vietnam. He went to boot camp
at Paris Island and infantry training
and Camp Lejeune. “I ended up with the 105
Howitzer Battery is Vietnam,” Jones said. “I had it better in Nam than
some, worse than the majority. One 10-day operation I saw
more combat than any time else. I remember praying
to live one more day because it would have been
ridiculous a request even of God to ask for a week.” Since returning from Vietnam, Bill Jones received a
Master’s Degree in Psychology and has held a variety of jobs
including railroad detective, which I want to know more about. He lives in Lander, Wyoming
and his business card reads, Bill Jones, Cowboy Poet. Dave Richmond came
from a military family but had no desire to
pursue the military path. At 22 he was drafted to
the US Army where he served with the 2nd Indianhead
Division in Korea. While performing a number of different tasks during
rotation he enjoyed learning the Korean language, which
enabled him as a squad leader to communicate directly
with locals. He later served as
a mortar instructor. Upon returning from
his deployment, Dave attended graduate
school under GI Bill, where he earned a law degree and became a Deputy
District Attorney. He was later appointed to
the municipal county position as Assistant Presiding
Judge to the Superior Court of Amador County in California. He’s been a frequent visitor
of the Cowboy Poetry events. Bruce Weigl is the author
of more than a dozen books of poetry, includingThe
Abundance of Nothing
, which was nominated
for the Pulitzer Prize.The Unraveling Strangeness:
Archeology of the Circle
of New and Selected Poems. AndSong of Napalm, also
nominated for a Pulitzer. Bruce served in the Army
during the Vietnam War and was subsequently
awarded the Bronze Star. So, without further ado,
I’m going to turn it over to our distinguished panel. Bruce if going to kick it off. Thanks everyone. [ Applause ]>>Bruce Weigl: Thank you. Can you hear me? It’s an honor to be here, and
especially to share the podium with such distinguished guests. Four days ago, was
the 100th anniversary of Wilfred Owens death, and
you know, that’s significant because he died on November 4th and the Armistice was
signed on the 11th. The news just reached his
parents as the bells all over England were ringing,
celebrating the end of the war. Wildred Owen’s was only
25-years-old when he died. From a literary point of
view, I think of him a lot like John Keats, who wrote
most of his great poems that helped shape
English literature for 250 years, died
when he was 26. It’s difficult for me as
someone who has been a writer and a teacher writing for
over 30 years to know exactly where these poems come from. The depth of them. The depths of feeling. The remarkable insights
about the tiniest details. Usually don’t come to writers until they’re in
their 30s or 40s. It takes a long time. And so, here’s someone
in his 20s writing, sometimes literally
in the trenches. It’s almost a cliché
to talk about Owen’s that way, but it’s true. So, I’m going to read my
favorite poem of Owen’s. it’s calledDulce
et Decorum Est
, which is a partial quote
from a Horace poem. And I don’t think it
needs any introduction. “Bent double, like old beggars
under sacks, knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we
cursed through sludge, till on the haunting
flares we turned our backs, and towards our distant
rest began to trudge. Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
but limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all
blind; drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
of tired outstripped 59s that dropped behind.” That’s artillery. “Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! An ecstasy of fumbling
fitting the clumsy helmets just in time.” You know, like a 25-year-old
doesn’t say ‘an ecstasy of fumbling’. There’s a remarkable
image there. “An ecstasy of fumbling fitting
the clumsy helmets just in time, but someone still was
yelling out and stumbling and flound’ring like
a man in fire or lime. Dim through the misty panes
and thick green light, as under a green sea,
I saw him drowning.” So, the green is the gas mask. He’s looking through the
green glass in the gas mark. “In all my dreams
before my helpless sight, he plunges at me,
guttering, choking, drowning. As if in some smothering dream, you too could pace behind the
wagon that we flung him in, and watch the white eyes
writhing in his face, his hanging face, like a devil’s
sick of sin; if you could hear, at every jolt, the
blood come gargling from the froth-corrupted
lungs, obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud of
vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, my
friend, you would not tell with such high zest to children
ardent for some desperate glory, the old Lie: Dulce
et decorum est. Pro patria mori. When I first started trying
to think of myself as a poet, I read the World War I poets. There wasn’t a lot of
World War II poetry. There’s some great World War
II poetry, but not a lot of it. And that’s another discussion, but the World War I
poems, they sang to me. As a Vietnam Veteran,
they sang to me in a very personal
way for some reason. The kind of battles
that they’re describing, the kind of warfare they’re
describing rung a lot of bells. So, I really got next to
that whole handful of poets. Also, I wanted to say that if
you look at the body of work that came out of — just
really a half a dozen poets, they are among the very best
poems in our English language. So, this business about Veteran
poetry and soldier poetry, that’s one thing, but it’s a
way to marginalize as well. And these poems are a part — you know, when Yates put
together his Oxford anthology, he didn’t include any
Wilfred Owen poems. And he said — in response
to why he didn’t, he said, they are pitiful poems
about a pitiful war. Now, he’s sort of
paraphrasing something that Owen’s had written in a
letter, and said, Owen’s wrote, ‘the poetry is in the pity’. And that’s a very different
idea than what Yates’ said. The poetry is in the pity. So, I got stuck on that
idea for a long time as a writer myself began to
see — began to understand — began to really feel
just what that meant. Usually we would say
the pity is something that we don’t want in the poem. That we want to avoid that. That’s too easy. But these people showed a
way to isolate those moments and to bring that idea. You know, I have
one of these books where when I close it the
poems move around inside. Do you have those kind
of — so I can’t find it. I’m going to read a poem of mine
that I wrote a long time ago. It’s calledSong of Napalm. Everyone here knows
what napalm is. Right? It’s a gelatin
form of petroleum. So, imagine jelly that burns. So, when it’s dropped, it sticks on whatever its dropped
on and burned. So, I wanted to write a poem
about napalm because Mike O’Hara in his great memoir said
that the quintessential sound of the war was the whop, whop,
whop, whop of helicopters. Which I think he’s right about. I try to think about what
the quintessential smell was. What was the smell — I
remember these powerful smells, and there’s no smell to me
that’s as powerful as napalm. Just imagine gasoline burning,
but then add a human body to it and it becomes an
entirely different matter. So, the reason I
wanted to write a poem about napalm was I thought that people didn’t really
know what was going on. That people didn’t
really understand that we were using
these kinds of weapons on our fellow human beings. But I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t find a way
to make the horror of it clear to non-combatants. As a gift, a friend of
mine sent me a framed copy of a very famousNewsweek
magazine
that has a little Vietnamese girl running
from her village which has just been bombed. Her name is Kim Phuc. And she did survive. And that cover I think
changed a lot of minds in America about the war. Her little brother is running
behind her, and he lost an eye. So, I was working
on the napalm poem and the magazine was on my desk. And then, suddenly I
realized, if I could bring her into the poem then people would
see what I’m talking about. So that’s what I tried to do. I probably never should
have said any of that, because now if it fails
then —Song of Napalm. “After the storm, after
the rain stopped pounding, we stood in the doorway
watching horses walk off lazily across the pasture’s hill. We stared through the black
screen, our vision altered by the distance so I
thought I saw a mist kicked up around their hooves
when they faded like cut-out horses
away from us. The grass was never more blue
in that light, more scarlet; beyond the pasture trees scraped
their voices into the wind, branches crisscrossed
the sky like barbed wire but you said they
were only branches. Okay. The storm stopped
pounding. I am trying to say
this straight: for once I was sane
enough to pause and breathe outside
my wild plans and after the hard rain I turned
my back on the old curses. I believed they swung
finally away from me. But still the branches are wire and thunder is the pounding
mortar, still I close my eyes and see the girl running from
her village, napalm stuck to her dress like jelly, her
hands reaching for the no one who waits in waves
of heat before her. So, I can keep on living, so
I can stay here beside you, I try to imagine she
runs down the road and wings beat inside
her until she rises above the stinking
jungle and her pain eases, and your pain, and mine. But the lie swings back again. The lie works only as
long as it takes to speak and the girl runs only as
far as the napalm allows until her burning tendons and
crackling muscles draw her up into that final position. Burning bodies so
perfectly assume. Nothing can change that;
she is burned behind my eyes and not your good love
and not the rain-swept air and not the jungle green
pasture unfolding before us can deny it.” Thank you. [ Applause ]>>Bill Jones: Well, it’s
a pleasure to be here. You know, today is the
Marine Corps birthday. Do we have any Marine’s
in the audience? I know my friend Harvey. Happy birthday. Semper Fi sir. My friend Patrick Sullivan here
was a Navy Pilot during the Vietnam War, in the Navy, and
of course the Marine’s come under the Department
of the Navy — we’re the men’s department
[laughter]. Just kidding, just kidding Pat. But it’s a pleasure to be here. And it’s been really
a great trip. I picked a poem out I’m going
to do by E. E. Cummings. He’s an American poet. And he’s a poet that
writes in small case and doesn’t use any punctuation. So that kind of appeals to me. And he was an ambulance
driver in the first world war, and he got in a little
trouble and sent home because he made the statement, “I’m having trouble
hating these Germans,” and some people thought
that was treasonous. And he was a civilian ambulance
driver, and they sent him back to the United States
where he got drafted. So, I guess — I don’t
know what you’d call that, karma or something. But anyway, this poem by
E. E. Cummings is called,My Sweet Old Etcetera. And I picked this out because
it’s almost a cowboy poem. Almost. You’ll see what
I mean a little later. “my sweet old etcetera, aunt
lucy during the recent war could and what is more did tell you
just what everybody was fighting for, my sister Isabel created
hundreds (and hundreds) of socks not to mention shirts
fleaproof earwarmers etcetera wristers etcetera,
my mother hoped that I would die etcetera
bravely of course my father used to become hoarse talking
about how it was a privilege and if only he could meanwhile
my self etcetera lay quietly in the deep mud et cetera
(dreaming, et cetera, of your smile eyes knees
and of your etcetera).” Some of you have a dirty mind. I can see that already
[laughter]. But I thought I’d talk a
little about Cowboy Poetry. A lot of folks don’t —
haven’t heard of Cowboy Poetry. It’s a big thing out West, and not many people have
heard of it back here. But Baxter Black, one of the
well-known Cowboy poets said that Cowboy Poetry is
somewhere between good taste and throwing up in your hat. Others have said that Cowboy
Poetry is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms. You know, kind of like military
intelligence, or rap music, or postal service, or my all-time favorite
oxymoron, mobile home estates. Uh-huh. Anyway, my first — my
first exposure to Cowboy Poetry, I was a police detective
for almost 20 years — one of these cities
back east here, I forget which one it was now. They’re all the same. And I got busted up
and forced to retire. I’ve always loved
the cowboy thing. The mystique, and the
mystery, and the myth of the American cowboy. I liked everything about it. The horses, the spurs,
everything. So, when I got healed up,
I packed up the family and I moved to Wyoming. The first job I got was
a cook on a wagon train, and we took people on
three and four wagon trips on the original Oregon
Trail in period wagons. And it was a neat deal really. It was just like it was 1843, except we had ice
and Coors Light. Other than that,
everything was the same. So, one night there at the
Oregon Trail a doctor friends of mine, a cowboy doctor friend
of mine rode his horse out to — in the middle of nowhere. Ten or 12 miles out in
the middle of nowhere. And he spent the night,
and round the fire that night he recited
some poetry. And I still remember to this
day which poem he recited. It was Bruce Kiskaddon’sWhen
They Finishing Shipping Cattle
in the Fall. It goes — it starts out,
“Well, you’re not exactly blue, but you don’t feel like you
used to do, in the summer of the long hot summer
days, because your feelings on the weather seem to go
together, and your quiet in the dreamy autumn haze.” And it goes on from there,
a long melancholy poem about a guy reflecting on
his life in the saddle. And as he was — as he
was reading this poem, I looked around the fire
there and we had some guys that handled the mules — hard
living, hard drinking guys — and as this poem was being
recited, I looked at them, at least two of them had tears
big as horse turds rolling down their cheeks [laughter]. And I’m thinking, this
is some powerful stuff. And I’d like to be part of this. So, I wrote my first poem
called,A Cooks Revenge, and I sent it toWestern
Horseman Magazine
and they published it. First poem I ever wrote. I thought this is great. A new career. I’m going to make a fortune now. And what I did — I was
too dumb to realize, this almost never happens. To get your first
poem published. So, I’ll do the poem for you. “Cookin’ ain’t no easy
thing if anyone should ask. And cookin’ for a cowboy crew’s
a downright thankless task. The grub is cold,
the boys will say, or else there’s too much salt. Any blame to pass around, you
can bet it’s all my fault. Well, the eggs get
broke, the biscuits burn, the griddle won’t get hot. Try to bake an apple
pie sometime when apple’s you ain’t got. One time I fixed
some French cuisine, served fancy wine and such. The boys all moaned
and held their guts, they didn’t like it much. The boss, he held his tin
plate high like he’d fished it from a sewer, and the boys
described my gourmet meal with a word that means manure. They hurt my pride,
them cowboys did. I almost walked away. But then again, revenge
is sweet. There’d be another day. The answer finally came to
me in the middle of a drunk. I’d make the ignorant cowboys
pay, I’d feed them boys a skunk. So, I found an old dead
polecat, a layin’ in the road, boiled him up one afternoon,
threw in a horny toad. That night I piled their
tin plates high but much to my surprise, those dad
burned heathens ate it all. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I started once to tell them
that the whole thing was a joke, but by now they’d
burped contently and reared back for a smoke. Cookie they said gleefully,
you’ve finally learned to cook. Can we have the recipe? Did you get it from a book? Well, those cowboys had no
idea, and they ain’t found out yet that they was
feasting on some critters that ought not to be ate. Yeah, cookin’ in
a real tough job. It ain’t no easy life. And well, if my food
you just can’t eat, be glad I ain’t your wife.” So anyway, that’s
kind of what — that’s kind of what
a Cowboy Poet is. [ Applause ] But anyway, Cowboy poetry,
it’s taken it a 150 years to become an overnight success. And the recent research on some
Cowboy Poetry like Anya said, happened in 1985 in Elko,
Nevada when Waddie Mitchel, a Nevada buckaroo, and Hal
Cannon, a folklorist set up a bunch of folding chairs
and invited some local cowboys and ranchers to come and
share poems and stories. They were scared to death
that nobody was going to come. Well, they did come and
they’ve been coming ever since by the thousands. I mean, the whole
town for a week turns into cowboy music,
poetry, and whatnot. I didn’t get there till
the number three Cowboy Poetry Festival. The Gathering, it’s called. And trying to think where I’m
trying to go with this thing. Anyway, it’s just
a wonderful thing. People describe it as kind
of a big family reunion, except that people like
one another [laughter]. So that’s probably — and I look
forward to going every year, and I’ve made some
wonderful friends there. In fact, on the Board of Trustees is my friend Pat
Sullivan, and Dave Richmond, and Vess Quinlan, my
long-term friend Vess. And I’m going to have to
start treating them all with a little more
respect because, you know, I knew them all when
they were nothing. That’s nothing. So anyway, about 1989 we
tried some war poetry. I think the first time Vess was
in Durango, Colorado, wasn’t it? Me and my late friend
Rod McQueary, who was a wonderful Cowboy Poet,
wrote classic Cowboy Poetry — it’ll be around as long as
there’s sagebrush on the plains. And he left us far too early. But we got together and about
1990 we published a book of our — he was another
Marine Vietnam Veteran — and we published some poems
and it was published — calledBlood Trails. And it wasn’t at least in
the Cowboy Poetry genre — I wanted to use that
word, genre — it wasn’t very well
accepted at all. People said it had no
place in Cowboy Poetry. That we need to stick to
the poems about a bull with a bugle stuck
up his behind. And they didn’t like it. But it got some pretty
good reviews.People Magazinesaid it
was ‘stunning and poignant’. I didn’t know what
poignant meant. I had to look it up. Because I had no
idea what it was. And it’s been — some poems
in there have been published in well, for the
last 30 years almost, in a lot of different
anthologies. And I said all that to say, nobody is more surprised
than me. I was very surprised. And it’s just been — in
fact, Pat’s got a copy of the book right now. You can still buy it on Amazon. It’s out of print. You can’t still buy it on
Amazon for, I don’t know, three bucks, something
like that. And anyway, here recently I just
published another book calledThe Body Burning
Detail
, based on a poem in that book 30 years ago. And it’s kind of — it’s
a memoir of my Vietnam. I was drafted in the
Marine’s in 1968. Sent to Vietnam, and
I spent 11 months, 25 days, and 13 hours there. Not that I was counting. But the book here — and I didn’t write this
book to make any money. And so far, that parts worked
out real good [laughter]. But if you have any interest
in it, give me your address and I’ll send you
one when I get home. I’ve already given all of them
out that I brought with me. You might like it. Anyway, that’s my picture on
the front, and I didn’t — I didn’t ask them to put
my picture on the front. That was 50 years
and a 100 pounds ago. And Baxter Black, the
guy I mentioned at first, told me that there’s one group
of people worse than lawyers and that’s book publishers. And I think he’s probably right, because I’ve been
kind of disappointed. Of course, they paid — I guess
they can do whatever they want since they picked up the tab. So anyway, if I could —
do I have five minutes? Yes. I thought I’d read a
short chapter from the book. And this book is called — I
mean, this chapter is called, A Live Dog and a Dead Lion. And it’s — I put a quote
before each chapter. And this particular quote
is from Johnny Paycheck, and it says, “Take
this job and shove it. I ain’t working here no more.” 3rd Battalion 12th Marine’s, 3rd Marine Division
Headquarters, September 1968. It is not the worst place one
could choose to spend a war. The battalion headquarters at Quang Tri South
Vietnam has a mess hall where the chow is semi-edible. Barracks are plywood hooch’s with some nearby
cold-water showers. At the enlisted men’s club, a
world-class sound system pounds out Janice Joplin
and Jimmy Hendrix. While listening to Procol Harum
wailA Whiter Shade of Pale, it is sometimes possible to
forget you are even in Vietnam. The 15-cent beer also
helps quite a bit. In the rear with the
gear and the beer. Not a bad life. The proverbial flaw in this
otherwise somewhat pleasant mix is my job. As a new guy or FNG, an acronym
that is easy to decipher, my assignment is to
burn the shitters. Human waste does
not burn easily. It is necessary to pull
55-gallon drums, cut in half, and placed strategically beneath
a three holer, dose the contents with diesel fuel, and set
the unholy mess ablaze. The top layer burns
easily enough, but what remains must be stirred
like soup in a giant caldron. The smoke and noxious
smells are inescapable. Saturating clothes
and hair, and clinging to the back of your throat. To say this unpleasant — to say this task is
unpleasant is perhaps the mother of all euphemisms. A story making the rounds,
no doubt on the same level as an urban myth, relates how
a newly arrived FNG is assigned to this particular detail. Unfortunately, someone
fails in his responsibility to issue proper instructions. An inferno at the
officer’s facility ensues. Rather than pull
the barrels out, he sets the whole
building on fire. As flames leap skyward,
he patients explains that his orders were
to burn the shitters. After about a week,
a young Private shows up one morning to
be my assistant. Since I am a Private
First Class, I take this as an opportunity to showcase my leadership
potential. Apparently, this whole
assignment, shitty as it is, is merely a test the
Marines have orchestrated to determine my suitability
for much bigger and better responsibilities. I resolved to become the most
efficient shit burning Private First Class in the history
of the Marine Corps. As fate would have it though, my new charge knows
considerably more about burning shit than I do. He is not an FNG, and this
assignment is not his first shit burning rodeo. In country for over six
months, initially sent to an artillery battery
on the DMZ, wounded twice, although by his own
admission, not very seriously, he decides he has had enough. I am not going back he
informs the First Sergeant. Do whatever you want with me. Incidentally, this seems like
an act of bravery in of itself. The First Sergeant
is a 30-year man who picks his teeth with a nail. He looks like a weight
lifting bulldog with a crewcut. My assistant, a young kid
not long out of high school from somewhere in the Midwest, explains his reason
to me thusly. They are trying to
kill me, he says. Two chances is all they get. Who is trying to
kill you, I ask? He looks at me like
— he looks at me like I have a foot-long
penis growing out of my ear. Maybe even both ears. The Gooks he replies. Who do you think? The Gooks. Strangely enough, this
pronouncement is a revelation. Even after boot camp,
infantry, and artillery school, the idea that Gooks are trying
to kill us is still surprising. By us, I mean Marine’s
and by extension, me. This rear area shit burning job
is looking better all the time. At the mess hall my assistant
and I have a table all to ourselves, no doubt having to
do with our present occupation. We talk. My Private
has been busted and threatened with the brig. Even his present
job is an attempt to shame him into submission. Nothing works. An appointment with a military
shrink does not go well. Especially when he tells
the psychiatrist officer that if he felt that strongly
about returning to duty, maybe he should get his
own fat ass up on the DMZ. It seemed somewhat of a stretch to call someone twice wounded
a coward, but apparently those in position of safety have
no qualms in doing so. Suspected cowardice
is embarrassing to those in no danger. Later, I find those in actual
combat are far more reluctant to pass judgment. Everyone, they would usually
say, has a breaking point. One morning, we are
half-heartedly going about our duties when my
reluctant warrior splashes some diesel fuel on his legs. Too close to the flames,
his clothes catch on fire. As he rolls around
on the ground, we extinguish his
smoldering trousers by beating them out
with our hands. One leg is already
starting to blister. It is not a minor burn. As he hobbles toward the
battalion aid station, a bit of scripture
comes to mind. A live dog is better
than a dead lion. But this is not really accurate. The kid is not a dog or a lion. Just a skinny 18-year-old
who has seen war up close and finally decides
that he has had enough. It briefly occurs to me that
I have never seen him smile. I never see him again.” Thank you very much. [ Applause ]>>Dave Richmond: Boy, you
can’t make Bill Jones up. Bill and I share
something in common. We’ve been going to the Cowboy
Poetry Gathering since 1988. At the Cowboy Poetry Gathering
we trade witticisms like, ‘Don’t squat with your spurs
on’, ‘Don’t drink downstream from the herd’, and ‘quit
yanking on the stump when you can plow around it’. The poetry gathering started
in 1985, as Bill Said. And was designed
in the wintertime when cowboys had nothing
to do but repair gear, be in a line shack and get
ready for the snow to melt. And it is a transformation
for me, 30 years now I think
it’s going to be, Bill and I’s 31st, whatever. And it is something to behold. It’s not just a poetry
gathering. It’s a cultural event. Writing workshops, copyright
workshops, cooking classes, the whole community is involved. Elementary school kids,
junior high school kids, with art contests, music,
and I very much encourage it. Elko, Nevada is the daddy
of all cowboy gatherings. Every year, the end
of January to 1st of February, Elko, Nevada. Bruce and I share a favorite
World War I poet, Wilfred Owen. Wilfred Owen was a
remarkable poet and died, as Bruce mentioned, not long
before the Armistice was signed. He wrote a poem called the
The Send-Off
, early in 1918, which I think is —
all his poems are good. If you get a chance,
if you can find it, Sir Richard Burton
reciting Wilfred Owen poems. I had that album on vinyl,
and it burnt up in a fire. Probably the most
powerful recitation of Wilfred Owen’s poems
you could ever imagine. This isThe Send-Off. Down the close, darkening
lanes they sang their way to the siding-shed and lined
the train with faces grimly gay. Their breasts were stuck
all white with wreath and spray as men are, dead. Dull porters watched them, and a
casual tramp stood staring hard, sorry to miss them
from the upland camp. Then, unmoved, signals nodded,
and a lamp winked to the guard. So secretly, like wrongs
hushed-up, they went. They were not ours:
We never heard to which front they were sent. Nor there if they yet
mock what women meant who gave them flowers. Shall they return to beatings of
great bells in wild trainloads? A few, a few, too few for drums
and yells, may creep back, silent, to still village
wells up half-known roads.” Wilfred Owen. I’m not going to do any cowboy
poetry accept a couple Rod McQueary’s from the
perspective of cowboys who come home after war. But I am going to do a
poem calledSpider Man. I was in the DMZ in South
Korea’s patrol leader in 1967, 1968. Commander Bucher and the Pueblo
were captured in the Fall of 1967, and little known
to most the American public, because LBJ and McNamara didn’t
really want the public to know. There was a second Tet
offensive in South Korean. Simultaneous Tet offensive. Thirty-one North Korean
commandos were tasked to go to Seoul, assassinate Chung-hee
Park who was then the President of South Korea, to — as a prelude to an
invasion of the south. So, what happened was a lot of
men who were wounded in Vietnam that didn’t rotate
home came to us. And we had guys from
101st Airborne, 4th Infantry Division,
you name it. And we had this one guy,
his name was Spider Man. As you well know, I remember
one full name of anybody that I met in the military. It was always a nickname. Because — I don’t
know why, maybe it — they wouldn’t be
there the next day. Who knows. Well, this guy would not answer
to anything but Spider Man, and that was his personality. And, he — I always wondered
what happened to this young guy. “Fingertips glue hooch wall,
leg cocked in flimsy anchor, head jerks, a robotic doll. Black eyes pierce
this is terror. Teeth flash, warm white smiles,
guzzles his alcoholic pin. Drowns memories, reviles, in
torpid piss pant oblivion. Now ancient soul of 19, past
his 16-year enlistment lie. Earned three stripes at 17. Wes Moreland’s Bronze Star, CIB. Third in country tour cut short
by bungee state trap laid. Midst Nam Tet offensive
a thwart, North Korean blue house raid. Quick recoup in Tachikawa,
Japan. Flew to Korean demilitarized
zone. Joined frozen, chosen,
marching men, prowling Imjin river,
gravestones. In the bush, Spidey on the hunt. Ascidian fastigiated,
eyes devoid. Chills your soul with a grunt. Pitiless stalking arachnoid. His snare spins gossamer puke,
hangs trophies in its web. Splintered visions of Gooks
entombed in copper steel mesh. Ambushes any clueless prey
like buff hunter on a stand. How will deadly aim parlay,
when all the game is canned? [Inaudible], Spider Man.” Rod McQueary and Bill
Jones collaborated in probably the best
collaboration of Vietnam poetry that anybody could read, and I’m
going to plug it again for Bill. Rod McQueary, I did
not know Rod. He was a very close
friend of Bill’s. But I met Rod and he
was a fine young guy. Grew up in Northern
Nevada cowboying and went into the Marine’s. And many of us who
came home in that era, we didn’t get the
homecoming that you do now. We — it was a terrible time. I remember — I got
drafted at 22, and I ran out of 2S deferment. And I said, well what
am I going to do now? So, VISTA, Volunteers
in Service to America. Well, I got my acceptance
papers from VISTA the day after I got my draft
notice [laughter]. And there was a lot
of us in that boat. I remember going back, and
I was asked to come back — a guy I knew, Greg Campbell,
he was a history professor and he asked me to come in
uniform and speak to his class. And I had sat in that same
classroom a year or so ago. And when I walked in, half of his students turned
their chairs to the wall. That messes with your mind. This is calledYellow
Ribbons
by Rod McQueary. “Albuquerque 1991, I wandered out of the airport
restaurant, curious, cautious. Stand by a purple pillar. Watch the noisy crowd of
people grow and grow and grow. Silver foil balloons, welcome
banners, eagles on t-shirts, lots of flags, yellow
ribbons, everywhere. Passengers scurry
through this happy mob as if embarrassed a
little, to clutter the path. Finally, returning warriors
pierce the circle, are devoured by laughing, sobbing women,
cheering, hugging men. Fierce with joy. I watch all this, ashamed
for my selfish thoughts. This is now, the
past is gone forever. Slowly, the happy mob moves left
towards the escalator to get to the parties, parades,
vacations, lives. Mine’s accepting it’s over. No one seems to see a
quiet cowboy standing by the purple pillar,
holding his hat in his hand.” This is another poem of Rod’s. And I think Rod wrote
this after he was able to reconcile a lot of things. You never reconcile them all. It’s kind of like a cancer cell. It’s always there and
it goes into remission, and then sometimes
it comes back, and sometimes it multiplies
faster than you want it. If you can control it, if you can sublimate
it, you might be okay. And this is calledFor Life. ” If life were just one
April day, and I should wake, mid-afternoon, to feel
the sunshine on my shirt, warm scattered raindrops
wet my cheek, I’d marvel with my newborn eyes
at the beauty I had never seen. If life should be one April day,
I’ll not pine for a morning, lost, nor mourn some
teenage innocence. But hand in hand, my love
and I will lift one cup for fallen friends” — Excuse me. “Then, our business done, we’ll laugh till
wrinkles frame our eyes. And in these final
precious hours, we’ll celebrate the
evening time.” Rod McQueary. Thank you. [ Applause ]>>Vess Quinlan: Thank
you all for coming. I am the only one on this
stage that is not a Veteran. And the honor of being up here
is more than I can really say. We’re short on time so
I’m going to ask Patrick to do a poem he wanted to do. He sent me — sent us all some
books from his collection. He supported this thing
from the very beginning. He sent me an email and he said, “I pray that the World War
I poem session will end with through the poemAftermath
— with theAftermathpoem. I told him that I was not
qualified nor authorized to grant prayers, but
I’d do what I could, and on his way back from Ireland
he said, he memorized the poem, and Patrick would you do that? And I’ll end this with the
reason I’m last is I’m famous for short poems. I got a whole lot
of real short ones. They go fast. And I collect them. Poems likeThe Ode to
the Jumper Cables
, “Red’s hot, black’s not.” And somebody said, that’s way
too long a poem [laughter]. I said, I know a shorter one. It’s calledThe Ode to
the Flea
, Adam had ’em. I thought, that’ll do it. And then somebody said,
that’s too long a poem. It’s got too many words.The Ode to the Miniature
Horse
, “Why?” [ Laughter ] Patrick. [ Applause ]>>Patrick Sullivan: For
those who work with Veterans, I could not recommend
this book more. And a particular poem in
there calledWhite Wall. You can probably figure
out what it’s about. But they’re fairly easy to get. I recommended a — what,
I sent three or four books with maybe 200 yellow stickies
stuck all through there that [inaudible] and
eight-hour poetry session on just World War I poetry. Starting at the beginning
of course with [inaudible] and ending with this poem
by Siegfried Sassoon. Wilfred Owen was such a
good poet [inaudible]. He got to spend months
in Craiglockhart with Siegfried Sassoon who
was quite a hero up until 1917 when he wrote a letter
to Parliament saying that he thought that the
war was desperate crime, and that too many young men were
being killed for very little. So, he was a war protester far
earlier than any of my friends. Anyway, do I have it memorized? Pretty close, but not exactly. So, this is calledAftermath. It was written in March 1919, just as the peace
conference was starting. Everybody was talking
about the Armistice. Great things going on. All these great world
leaders getting together, talking about the
future of the world. He thought people
were being forgotten. ” Have you forgotten yet? The world’s events have rumbled
on since those gagged days, like traffic checked at
the crossing of city ways: and the haunted gap in your
mind has filled with thoughts that flow like clouds in
the flit heavens of life; and you’re a man reprieved to
go, taking your peaceful share of time, with joy to spare. But the past is just the
same, and War’s a bloody game. Have you forgotten yet? Swear by the slain of the
War that you’ll never forget. Do you remember the dark months
in the sector before Mametz? The nights you watched
and wired and dug and piled sandbags on parapets? Do you remember the rats;
and the stench of the corpses in front of the front-line
trench? And dawn coming, dirty-white,
and chill, merciless rain? Did you ever stop and ask,
‘Will it ever happen again?’ Do you remember the
din before the attack? The anger, the blind compassion
that seized and shook you as you look into the doomed
and haggard faces of your men? Do you remember the
stretcher-cases lurching back with dying eyes and
lolling heads? And the grey ashen
masks of the lads who were once keen, kind, gay? Have you forgotten yet? Look up, and by the
green of this Spring, swear that you’ll never forget.”AftermathSiegfried Sassoon. I just want to say all
those people here can answer these questions. [ Applause ]>>Vess Quinlan: Now I’ll prove
that I can do short poems. The Cowboy Poetry
thing is like — covers a lot of other
things about poetry. It’s really work
poetry, life poetry, it’s occupational poetry. Sailors do it, soldiers
do it, cowboys do it, sheep herders do it,
loggers do it, miners do it. And it’s been going on since
I think the beginning of time. I never was really a cowboy. I was a ranch hand. My granddad was a cowboy. And we’d move — I’d move to
ranches all over the country and work there for
a little while and then go to another one. And I got to thinking about how
difficult that was for my wife. Little family moved way in the
middle of nowhere and living in an adobe house some place. And so, I decided I
would apologize to her. This poem is called
The Apology
. And for some odd reason,
I got in a lot of trouble for not getting my rhymes
at the end of the lines like they’re supposed to. And this poem came that way. It’s calledThe Apology. “Did you ever step
across a horse in the chill before the dawn and leave a woman wondering
how long you would be gone? She’d know you were home when
she heard you at the door. You’d not even say what
pasture you were headed for. Gave no thought that
she might worry when you stayed out way late. Maybe stay awake and listen,
trying to hear you at the gate. That she might think you hurt
from a cow wreck or a fall and wonder where to look or
which neighbor she should call. You’re grey as granite now,
no careless cowboy anymore. And decide to ask forgiveness for all the worry
you caused her. But through her puzzled laugh
you hear her say, ‘I slept right through the goofy things you
do, because when we were 20, I was immortal, just like
you.'” The other short, very short poem — and
I’ll end with this one — is calledThe Barn Cats. When we first started doing
the Cowboy Poetry Gathering, people would come up to
me, obviously successful, professional people,
what they wanted to talk about was the time they spent on
their uncle’s ranch in Wyoming or the time they spent
on their granddad’s farm. And they’d go on and on and on about this business,
what it was. And our friend Dave
Stamey made an observation. He said, there’s a lot
of doctors and lawyers that would dress
up like cowboys, but there’s hardly cowboys
that dress up like doctors and lawyers [laughter]. This is calledThe Barn Cats. “It’s funny the things you
remember, like accepting without question that it was
your solemn duty to study hard and earn big money, because
parents suffered The Depression. How on your 10th birthday
you walked to a milk with a staggering headache,
sat on the one-legged stool and pressed your head
against her silken flank. How you remember
dull ringing sounds as the first squirts hit bottom. How the sound changed
to a quiet hiss as foaming milk filled
the shiny bucket. How the smell of fresh,
warm milk rose to mingle with the clean cow smell. How the barn cats sat half
circled mewing politely, insisting there was enough
to fill their little pan. How the gentle cow responded
to strong brown hands and let down her milk. How calmness and
forbearance were transmitted through your skull. How your pain was drawn
into the patient cow. And now, years later, you look
out a city window and wonder if big money is really
better than barn cats and cow curd headaches.” [ Applause ]>>Anya Creightney: How about
another round of applause? Please, come on. [ Applause ] So, we’re very short on time and we do have a movie
that’s screening, that Monica may have
mentioned this morning. So, I want to make sure that
everyone has enough ample time to get across the street. So just by a way of closing,
instead of a conversation, because you covered so much,
you just didn’t know it here. You covered it all for me. I want to ask if one of you
wouldn’t mind closing us out? And here we are, we’ve — you all were here at the
panel earlier this morning. You heard a lot what
was covered. We shared lunch together. I want to know if there’s
one thing you want to share with our audiences here, we’re
right before Veterans Day, is there something
that we’ve missed? Is there something that
you feel needs to be said to our audiences here? Vess?>>Vess Quinlan: I don’t know. I’m pretty delighted with
the connection between — we use the Cowboy Poetry
Gathering because it was — it was like a man bites
dog advertisement. [Inaudible]. Well, that doesn’t
make any sense at all. So, the folklorist gathered
the first of us together to recite the old-time
poems [inaudible]. They didn’t know we
were still writing. And so, when we got
involved in this whole thing, all of a sudden there
was this opportunity with these huge crowds
of people coming — thousands of people came
to listen [inaudible]. They stayed a whole week in
Elko and would go from sessions to session to session
and spend money on the night shows
to hear this stuff. And we’re sitting
there thinking, we wrote this [inaudible]. So, when I first gotThe Body
Burning Detail
from Bill Jones and later got [inaudible]
from Rod McQueary we thought, there’s all these people here, why not add these
other poems in. And it worked. So, I would say that
there’s got to be a way to get people to come listen. [Inaudible]. That’s what I would say. Figure out a way and
make it — make it fun. [Inaudible]. But in the writing that we
do, [inaudible] message at war with one another [inaudible]. That’s not us. It starts with a story
and ends [inaudible].>>Anya Creightney: Yeah,
that’s so much what we think of in the Poetry and
Literature Center when we think of poetry and commonality. I like to think of
it as story anyway. And who doesn’t like story hour? Who can’t relate to story hour? So, I’m afraid we have to
shut it down, as sad as I am. So please, give our guests
another round of applause. [ Applause ]

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