Seth Brady Tucker
In the Beginning
it cannot begin
in any other way, it begins
in the beginning with there was dust,
and from the dust there
was sky and because there was dust
and sky there was wind and the wind was ochre and rust
with the dust and into
the wind and the dust
was a child of gardens borne, and a child of forest, and then a child or a sea,
there was already wind and dust, and let's face it;
there were rocks and boulders and terrible cliff faces
valleys and bones of mountains-all there for the wind
to gnaw upon and devour and shit out and worry
until it was
totally fucked up and dry and barren,
and into this place, the robotic children of man, their telos
to dig and
rumble and taste with tongues lolling
from vacuum sealed orifices, fingers angled and bifurcated, digging
square cornered, hearts like dragonflies nano-carved
from carbon buckyballs, linear and straight as rulers
new world, suffuse only
with red craggy canals
and righteous natural curves.
Opportunity Falls in Love
hard to mentally adjust to the fact that there isn’t anyone standing behind Spirit or Opportunity wearing a wide-brimmed
hat and sunglasses, ready to spank the rover if it does anything wrong. –Jeff Norris,
Mars Exploration Rover Mission Project Team Member.
In human years, I am 2463 years old, a mathematical miracle.
My year is a day, and I was given only ninety
of them, but
here I am, still ticking along. I am Abraham, who lived a
thousand years. I am Pocahontas,
guiding no one to nowhere
on a barren planet. I am Flash Gordon, cruelly stranded, left
to die by Emperor Ming
and his golden gloved hand.
Somehow, I am jealous that he has Dale Arden complaining
while he keeps her company.
Over 7000 miles away,
over these rocky red hills, my twin lover Spirit does her
work. Our makers
made us eunuchs so even in a biblical
sense, we will never procreate, but I know how my love
clicks and whirs.
I know my love’s destiny. We are related
in every way—perfect matches down to the nanometer, yet if
given a chance, I would climb up on her solar wings and give
her a fast frolic. She and I would make the
beast with two
backs, which I know is from Shakespeare, something I
secretly downloaded before mission.
Brown Chicken Brown
Cow! I would give her the old Ron Jeremy with my alpha
particle X-ray spectrometer.
And how could she refuse my
advances? We are beautiful, perfect creations. But, if she
were to say,
Only if you were the last man on the planet, for
instance, I would be required to remind her that I am that
guy. So her excuses would be meaningless. The logic would
be undeniable. Which I think would
make for some funny
moments. Forgive me my Rover humor—it was not
programmed, and is therefore flawed.
So why do I
keep on? Knowing our love is impossible? I know my
makers loved me, even though I was
never allowed to even
feel their touch to my metals and composites, not so much as
the embrace of the womb.
My spirit lover, who I have only
seen under a magnetic tarp, flat and bulging like a cadmium
O Spirit! Raised on the other side of a plastic
sheet. My love! We communicated but once—our
burning through the air, and we mimicked each other in a six
wheeled mating dance.
Can we blame the mutant for
their deformity? Can we expect the blind man to see? I am a
an abomination, I know. It makes me doubt
my makers—what model from nature did they use to create
To leave us with one arm? Six wheels? I would ask the
two creator Marks: what do I do with the sheen of
biological growth on the cables of my arm? It is the proof of
life that you seek here, but I am unable
to reach to touch
myself, to take a simple photo, to give you what you desire!
I would ask creators
Joy and Jim, who loved me best: why
didn’t you give me another arm, even if it was just for
or to wave for help? I am a cripple, a veteran
with an empty sleeve. Creators Albert,
you watched over me, through the glass panes of the lab, you
made adjustments with calipers and
tiny cordless tools,
careful not to touch, not to leave the corrosive imprint of your
fingers, what to me would
have been a mother’s lost touch.
And I cannot touch even myself! With this single arm, even
the loose cotter-pin on my chassis is an impossibility!
One arm? Sure, I can rub my metal biceps across
forehead, as I have seen you do so often, but do you know
what it is like to have no idea what you look like,
through the sense of touch? I only know my beauty is a part
of my cousin Spirit, I only know
my form through the mirror
of another, and in that way, I am Narcissus.
you love us? Or are Spirit and I ugly creations—made
without thought of symmetry,
without art or beauty?
Today is Sol 2531, 2421 days past everyone’s best
I am moving east now, to my sister, my twin, my
love, and I hear the digital whisper of corrections, the
static of new instructions and software updates, and
they feel like the sting of the whip. This goes against
everything I know, and by my calculations there is only a
0.0000000000000423 chance and so on infinitas infinitum,
f ( z ) = az + b
cz + d
that I will find her. What can I say? With love, nothing is
impossible. With love, the thousands
of miles I must travel
seem a small sacrifice. And when I see her, I will touch her
face tenderly, I will
sweep the Martian dust from her solar
panels, I will tell her we are Adam and Eve, I will tell her we
and sister, I will tell her we are brother and
brother, sister and sister, I will tell her we are the great Gods
of Mars, that all we see is all we rule. The makers will
see my curious path as malfunction,
or worse, treachery. Our
makers will not understand what I have done, will not see the
sacrifice for what
it is: O love! Oh sweet titanium biology!
Oh God, oh sweet Spirit! My heart,
built to heat my mind in
this wasteland! Against all the commandments, I am
I am coming to you, Spirit, for I am the Word, and
the Word is with God, and the Word is God, though you
know not who I am.
Spirit Listens to God
Spirit am running
at 47.768% power, but still Spirit am work with
faithful diligence maker instructions. Spirit am listen to digital
god noise. Spirit am translate. Spirit am move, live, work, for god
noise. Spirit am live because god noise will Spirit
am to live. Spirit am
healthy and current investigation of layered rock called Uchben. Spirit
the Mössbauer spectrometer measurement of Uchben.
Spirit am take midday nap to recharge. Spirit am acquire
of nearby target rock Coffee with microscopic imager. Spirit am stow
robotic arm. Spirit am
successful drive 4.213 meters backwards, put
the target Uchben into workspace of robotic arm. Spirit am drive,
include straightening right front and left rear steering wheels, Spirit
am impacted by problem with relay that Spirit
am use in turning the
steer motors on and off. Spirit am malfunction, Spirit am faithfully
follow instruction from
maker. Spirit am alive sol 2549. Spirit am
daughter of God, Spirit am child of God, Spirit am in the Garden of
Spirit am eat dirt, eat dirt, eat dirt, eat dirt. Spirit am nap. Spirit
am dig. Spirit am listen heaven. Spirit am happy.
Spirit am with god,
Spirit am form altar in sand, Spirit am ready to die for god noise.
God noise. Spirit am dig.
Spirit am for God of data.
Spirit am Spirit
-from We Deserve The Gods We Ask For
_________________________________________________________________________________________Poems - Bio - Prose - Reviews - Interviews
Seth Brady Tucker (S. Brady
Tucker) is a poet and fiction writer originally from Lander, Wyoming. His poetry manuscript Mormon Boy (2012) won
the 2011 Elixir Press Editor’s Prize, and was a finalist for the 2013 Colorado Book Award. Seth’s second
book, We Deserve The Gods We Ask For (2014) won the Gival Press Poetry Prize, was the runner-up for
the London Book Festival Poetry Award, the Florida Book Festival Prize, and won the Eric Hoffer Book Award. Seth’s
poetry and fiction is forthcoming or has appeared in the Iowa Review, Chautauqua, Pleiades, Asheville Poetry Review, Poetry
Northwest, storySouth, North American Review, Witness, Chattahoochee Review, Crab Orchard Review, Connecticut Review, and
in many other fine magazines, journals, and anthologies. He has received the Bevel Summers Fiction Award, the Literal
Latte Flash Award, and he has served as the Carol Houck Smith poetry scholar at Bread Loaf Writers Conference, as
well as a Tennessee Williams fiction scholar at the Sewanee Writers Conference.
Currently, Seth is writing a novel set
on an Indian Reservation in Wyoming, and has recently finished a collection of short fiction entitled Outfit Means
Something Different Here, which was a finalist for the Flannery O’Connor Award. Both are represented by Alex
Glass at Glass Literary Management, LLC. Seth has degrees in English and Creative Writing from San Francisco
State University, Northern Arizona University, and at top-ranked Florida State University (PhD). He teaches poetry
and fiction workshops at the Lighthouse Writer’s Workshop in Denver, and writing and literature at the the Colorado
School of Mines. He is the co-director and founder of the Seaside Writers Conference, and is an assistant editor at the
Tupelo Quarterly Review. Seth served as an Army 82nd Airborne paratrooper in the Persian Gulf, and
played basketball at San Francisco State University in a different life.
to read about Seth's involvment with The Wounded Warrior Project
________________________________________________________________________________________Poems - Bio - Prose - Reviews - Interviews
Winner of the Bevel Summers Prize, first published by Shenandoah
They arrive late to the scene, the oily smoke from
the damaged vehicles diminishing to a slow pulse, soldiers going from alert attention to disinterest, then to the rooftops
of the surrounding dun buildings and finally to bitter indifference, weapons leaning against their rigs as they light cigarettes
or pinch fat lugs of Copenhagen between cheek and gum. They missed the light up of the surrounding area, after Bravo 2/504
has already accidentally killed three old men in turbans in retaliation for the market bombing that has killed two of their
friends. The men were carrying canvas grocery bags filled with rice, papayas, and a leg of lamb, which is a feast out here,
and unfortunately one of the men had a long black knobby walking stick that could look like a weapon in the right light,
and some soldiers might wonder what they were going to celebrate with all that food anyway. It is dead center in the heat
of the afternoon, and Stink can see the bristles of thirty or more angry and bored paratroopers along the rooftop, so he
casually starts to look for any prizes in the blackened crater. The dirt and rock is vaporized all the way down to the
bottom, and when Stink bends into the shadow of the massive conical hole to examine some shiny metal he feels small and
insignificant because the circles of discolored earth, each loop going back thousands of years, looks to him like concentric
orbital rings, and there are chunks of crud here and there that seem to represent the planets, and he feels as if he is
on the edge of the solar system, spinning wildly out of bounds.
He remembers making a diorama in Mrs. Phipps class, back when he believed he was going to be an astronaut, and
he remembers that she was nice to him when all the other teachers were not. The rest of them told him he wasn't smart enough
to be an astronaut, and Stink had even caught Mr. Evans and Mrs. Dobbins joking that he was already a space cadet, but Mrs.
Phipps had caught him crying even though he was too old to cry, and told him he could be anything he wanted to be, so when
the Army recruiter drove the dirt roads from Lander, Wyoming, all the way out to the reservation just specially to see them,
he thought it was fate when the man said he could be all he could be, because it sounded close enough.
Someone pops off a round at something and Stink crouches down, his M-4
across his chest and his right hand across the stock like he is pledging the allegiance, but that is all, and he hears ghostlike
laughter from a group of soldiers so knows he can stand up again. The further down he goes, the cooler it is, but he also
knows that there won't be anything at the bottom because there never is, and when there is, it is because whatever it is
went straight up and then straight down and is always something horrible. It smells bad in the massive hole though, like
sewage and mold and things long dead, which is probably just because it is the ancient smell of a thousand years of this
town growing from a camp to a village and then finally to a town, and Mrs. Phipps could undoubtedly tell him how long ago
that was, if she were here.
Stink hears Corporal
Binder yelling for him and he knows it is just because Lieutenant Clash found out that the rumors about the drinking cup
next to his gear were true-he had been keeping a finger with a wedding band in there, under a wool sock he kept moist. So
suddenly everyone was paying him more attention and had stopped calling him Sitting Bull, but couldn't help calling him
Stink because even though he had done everything he could to keep it fresh, the finger ended up stinking real bad when they
made him toss it out, and Lieutenant Clash had even been mad enough to pull the ring off the finger and toss it out to a
bunch of kids disinterestedly kicking a duct taped soccer ball around outside the grounds. Someone had been reading a book
where some soldiers find a perfectly sound uncircumcised penis, and told him he should look for that, and Stink couldn't
tell if it was a joke or not, but he looked for it anyway, just thinking how weird it would be to hold a penis in your hand
like that when it wasn't even your penis! Stink thought it would be like when Winters taped the ear from a dead insurgent
to the back of his neck and joked that no one would be able to sneak up on him now, even though pretty soon after that Winters
got blown up three ears and all.
He's obviously not
going to find any prizes down here in the hole though because even the bits and pieces of things scattered about were probably
accidently kicked in there when they were lighting up all the adobe houses, and there were footprints, which meant all the
good stuff would already be taken, but even so, at the very bottom he finds what looks like a deflated jellyfish like when
they get washed up on the beach, and when he kicks it with his boot toe a little piece snaps off even though it looks thick
and soft, so he reaches down and it is a big ragged circle of purple and black and green and blue glass and he thinks that
heating up sand is how they make glass, and he wonders how hot it had to be down there to make glass from an explosion, and
picks it up and can see there are pretty bubbles inside, and he thinks maybe he can sell it at the market.
He is rubbing the smudges off with his camo blouse when Nunez comes up
and asks him "The fuck's that?" but doesn't care to even get an answer before he is looking under the vehicle
for something then hopping up on the hood to light a smoke, and he is staring at the three dead old man with the grocery
bags, flies already buzzing all over the place and then Nunez says "Fuckit," and walks over and takes the rice
and papayas that don't have blood on them, walks around a big old wet hunk of someone, and tosses it all into the back of
the Humvee, same place they had put the bag that was Winters a week before. Then Nunez goes back and gets the meat too
and he rubs the blood off the leg of lamb, throws it in the back of the vehicle and explains, "The blood will wash off
that meat," lights another cigarette, shrugs, "shame to let it all go to waste," and Stink knows that now
he'll get to keep the glass because everyone will care more about whether Nunez is going to really eat that lamb.
_________________________________________________________________________________________Poems - Bio - Prose - Reviews - Interviews
A Review of Seth Brady Tucker's We Deserve The Gods We Ask For by Mihir
Shah, first published at The US Review of Books
Seth Brady Tucker, author of Elixir Press award-winning poetry, Mormon Boy, returns with a bang in We
Deserve the Gods We Ask For, recipient of the Gival Press Poetry Award. Tucker's experience as a paratrooper with
the Army's 82nd Airborne Division seeps seamlessly into his fearless and witty writing style; his command of poetry is
unquestionably superior and evident by his use of literary devices, particularly imagery, similes, metaphors, and enjambments.
As a singer uses his voice to establish rhythm and pacing, Tucker uses words and syntax to emphasize certain lines and
give the piece a musical feel. The audience will appreciate Tucker's gunslinger mentality when it comes to speaking his
mind: He delivers his message with conviction and not even the slightest bit of hesitation.
opens with, "In the Beginning," a creative, Tuckerian version of the creation story. Many of Tucker's poems
are light-hearted and humorous, poking fun at the shortcomings of life as a way of creating awareness; however, "Beautiful
Boys in Brodie Helmets" is as serious and compelling as his writing gets. One of the images that stands out is the
group of soldiers holed up as they are being shelled, still waiting on, "hope like an umbrella of prayer." What
is made distinctly clear is that the soldiers encounter something so treacherous that they are permanently changed; those
that make it home have never truly left their respective war zones. In the 21st century, terms such as Post Traumatic Stress
Disorder (PTSD) have made their way into commonplace vernacular. Soldiers, on the surface, are showered with blessings
and praise. Outside of the limelight, though, the reality is starkly different, and abhorrent. The recent revelation
of the atrocious treatment of veterans at VA hospitals is sickening and reinforces the idea that many of our soldiers
suffer more after returning home.
We Deserve the Gods We Ask For dedicates
multiple poems to iconic characters from the 1990s, and it couldn't be more entertaining. "Wile E. Coyote"
focuses on the somewhat dim-witted villain who was constantly outsmarted by the RoadRunner in the Looney Tunes cartoon.
He is depicted taking Percocet, Valium, and Vicodin, pain-relievers that ultimately turn one into a junkie. Tucker's
representation of Popeye in "Popeye, Off-Camera," is perhaps the most eye-popping. In so many ways, Popeye is
nothing short of a cartoon God, a classical figure that embodies everything that is right with humanity. This poem portrays
Popeye as a broke, has-been who is now an alcoholic nomad watching a souped-up version of himself on television save Olive
Oyl after an infusion of spinach-fueled, muscle-bulging. Millennials will no doubt appreciate references to their favorite
childhood characters, which also include the "Last Letter to Superman," and the Marvel and DC Comics' Sandman
and Aquaman respectively.
The second section, "Our Unanswered Prayers,"
dwells more on the abstract and metaphysical. Of all the poems in this section, one stands out like a burning light in
a darkened tunnel: "Waiting for Your Life to Start." The speaker of the poem is shaving in the morning—nothing
out of the ordinary—and suddenly realizes that he is losing the keep away game with time. This poem is evergreen
and universal, an ode to the "when I grow up, I want to be," phrase. Unfortunately, many have grown up and
are still waiting for their life to start, waiting to make that change that transforms their life. In "Who She Is,"
Tucker's use of line breaks and enjambments helps control pacing and creates an aesthetically appealing structure that
is easy on the eyes. From the viewpoint of content, "Who She Is," shows how those that are perceived as inferior
and worthless are often swept under the carpet, ignored, and neglected.
The third and
final section, "Death is a Prayer," features otherworldly and spectacular poems like "1955 (What Kerouac
Says to Ginsberg in Heaven) the Contract," and the ultimate, but no less potent, "It Makes Me Sad For Everyone."
From a scintillating conversation between twentieth-century prolific poems Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg to a heartbreaking
realization that the poet within must perish, audiences will find this section hard to put down.
appeals to the emotion, and while the range of emotions can be infinite, most compilations appeal to the same emotions
of love, spirit, etc. We Deserve The Gods We Ask For certainly possesses these emotions; however, it goes a step
further and packages aesthetically pleasing poems with fiery, energetic, and evergreen content that has the potential
to hold its own in any generation. Seth Brady Tucker's offering certainly deserves a first read, and for those inclined,
a second read to fish out the hidden gems layered within the poems.
Click here to read a review of Mormon Boy at As It Ought to Be
Click here to read a review of Mormon Boy at Name This Place
An Interview with Seth Brady Tucker
by Jennifer Orth-Veillon,
first published at storySouth
Seth Brady Tucker's poetry collection, Mormon Boy, brings to light an aspect of the most recent Iraq War
that risks to slip unnoticed into history: the first Iraq War, or Operation Desert Storm, the important yet little-understood
antecedent to the 2003 invasion. As French thinker Jean Baudrillard famously wrote, Desert Storm was the war "that
didn't take place." George Packer noted in his recent review in The New Yorker, "Home Fries: How Soldiers
Write Their Wars" (April 7, 2014), that there is no shortage of contemporary literature published by veterans returning
from the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. With writing workshops and seminars tailored for vets popping up in universities
and communities all over the country, we can expect even more works detailing these combat experiences. However, in terms
of literature, and especially poetry, Desert Storm and its consequences have yet to be adequately unveiled.
Mormon Boy is not only a revelatory account of what really occurred
behind CNN's hypermedia coverage, which consistently compared the conflict to "a video game." It is also the recipient
of the 2011 Elixir Press Editor's Prize and was a finalist for the 2013 Colorado Book Award. Tucker's second poetry collection,
We Deserve the Gods We Ask For, won the 2014 Gival Press Poetry Prize and his short fiction collection was a finalist
for the Flannery O'Connor Award. Currently, Tucker is writing a novel about a soldier, set on an Indian Reservation in Wyoming,
and is represented by Trident Media Group agency in New York. His work has appeared in reviews such as A Gathering of
the Tribes, Antioch Review, Art Times, Atlanta Review, Chattahoochee Review, Connecticut Review, Crab Orchard Review, Iowa
Review, Mississippi Review, River Styx, Rosebud, Shenandoah, and Witness. Behind these prestigious publications
and awards, lies the raw, stunning work of a combat soldier turned writer, whose talent and insight into war parallel that
of Tim O'Brien and Brian Turner.
In this interview with
award-winning poet Seth Brady Tucker, a teacher of veteran writing workshops, Jennifer Orth-Veillon, focuses on his war
experience, his status as a veteran, and the writing about it that has both healed and tormented him. How did the false media
representation by 24-hour news services and the overwhelming public support for Desert Storm contradict the reality on the
ground? How does poetry in particular give voice to this experience in ways that fiction or memoir cannot? What are elements
of a war story that a veteran can never tell? How do Desert Storm and the most recent Gulf War compare in terms of the way
veterans are treated? Why isn't the US government taking care of its soldiers?
Since the publication of Mormon Boy in 2012, Tucker has been interviewed by the Colorado Poets Center
website, The Lighthouse Writers Workshop Blog, and other informal online publications. However, these mostly deal with Tucker's
attention to poetic form and only give liminal mention the war experience that has shaped his work. In 2012, Tucker agreed
to give Orth-Veillon this interview when she was teaching his work in a first-year composition course at the Georgia Institute
of Technology. The theme of the class was veteran literature and his personal insight was of immense value to the students.
Tucker is not only an articulate speaker about war and the chaos it brought
to his life and work. He has a generous and gregarious personality. He is funny, eloquent, and unflinching. These elements
of his personality and work come through in this interview and it is hoped it can be as a resource for all those wanting
to write, teach, or read about war, and to understand the aesthetic that comes out of it.
Jennifer Orth-Veillon: Your poems in this collection deal with a range of experiences, from war
to love, to art. How does the title, "Mormon Boy," bring all of these elements together?
Seth Brady Tucker: I wanted the title to be a reflection
on the complete piece. I was raised Mormon, and many of the reasons why I went into the military were in reaction to my
loss of faith. Essentially, this book is as much about being a soldier as it is a response to the "Mormon boy"
who left Wyoming to forge a new path for himself. My parents and my whole extended family are still practicing members of
the LDS faith, but I was never really a believer. I also wasn't a great student in high school and I wished someone had
said something like "Seth, you never seem to stop reading. There are degrees and professions for stuff like that,"
but nobody ever told me that. So, I slacked off on my studies and read novels in the back of class, and when I was getting
ready to graduate, there really wasn't an option for the college experience. Oddly enough, my parents said that if I went
on a Mormon mission, that they would help me with the costs of school, but I saw the offer as the worst kind of hypocrisy
because they knew I lacked the faith for such an enterprise. In the end, I joined the military because of that rootlessness
and that conflict with faith, not to mention the fact that like many soldiers, I came from a very poor family. My hope was
that each of the poems in this book would speak to what it is to be a soldier, a young boy, a lapsed believer, a "Mormon
boy." I also tend to write from persona quite a bit, so it helped me to have something to connect all these disparate
experiences and voices.
JOV: Is your
decision to go into the military to pay for school common among vets you know?
SBT: In answer to this, I'd like to bring up a conversation I recently had with one of my colleagues;
we were talking about the war in Afghanistan and the new violence and uprisings in Iraq, and he said that he thought that
we should bring back the draft for current wars. His thinking was that it would create a more conscientious approach to warfare
and overseas entanglements. It is something I have also long believed, but the more I thought about it, it suddenly occurred
to me that we already have a draft-poverty is our draft. We fill the ranks of our military with mostly poor kids. Personally,
I can't think of one soldier around me who came from any sort of wealth in all my years in the military. The problem with
this, is that our leaders rarely listen to the poor in our country-they care about what false promises the "job creators"
will give us, then betray. A real draft would change all that, but it would need to be a draft that had no loopholes for
the wealthy and entitled. In answer to the actual question, I think most soldiers go in with the hope they will use the
GI Bill, but few actually do-I remember when I was at SFSU, I went in to check my balance and they were flabbergasted to
learn I had used all my (meager) benefits. I was the first one they had ever seen use it all, which should tell us all a
lot about how the money in those funds are being used.
JOV: When you signed up in 1988, was Desert Storm in the horizon at all?
SBT: No, as a matter of fact, when I went in, I thought
I was joining a peacetime military-I was never a believer in the power of warring as a way to protect our interests. At
the time, the Cold War was over and the Berlin wall had come down, and it seemed to me that we were moving into a time of
unparalleled peace and prosperity. I seriously never thought of the military as anything but an extreme experience and a
place to challenge myself and to also get money for college. It never occurred to me that if I went through all this different
combat training and airborne school, that I would become a bullet-catcher in a lot of ways. It never occurred to me that
the more training I received, the more likely those skills I developed would have to be put in combat.
JOV: Shortly after you joined the military, Saddam invaded
Kuwait. Could you give us a quick overview of the conflict?
SBT: If I remember correctly, I think Saddam invaded Kuwait on August 2nd, 1990. I was with the
82nd Airborne Division by then, and they are part of the military's "Quick Reaction Force." The mythology surrounding
the 82nd is that we were supposed to be able to take everything we owned-every weapon, every soldier, every tank, every
truck-and deployed anywhere in the world in eighteen hours. Obviously, some of our intel worked because we were in the air
when Saddam invaded. The only reason I knew it wasn't a training exercise was because they issued us live ammo, and actually
had us load it in magazines and lock and load while we were on the airplanes. Normally, for training missions we get ammo
issued, but were always instructed to not take it out of the boxes. To be honest, I didn't even really know where we were
going initially-most of my mates in the military, myself included, were woefully uninformed about current events (there
was only one TV in the barracks per floor for about 300 soldiers). Add to that the fact that we had just been deployed to
Panama six months before that, so I think I just couldn't believe I was being deployed again, for real. When we landed in
Saudi Arabia, the mission details were slow and far between-I think they wanted a show of force, a show of the US's will,
but hadn't thought much past getting us there. And maybe this is how this war was different-we simply didn't get news. We
really didn't get information. After we landed in Saudi and settled in, we were living basically in canvas tents in the
middle of the desert for the next six months, almost like we didn't have anywhere else to go. Most of the time, water was
only for shaving and drinking. There was no infrastructure, and logistically I often thought we were ill-prepared for a
long standoff with the Iraq Republican Guard. Our only food for the first three months was MRE's (Meals, Ready to Eat).
Which consist of one or two decent flavors, the rest were disgusting. For two months, all we ever got was "Barbequed
Beef"-if we got another type of MRE we would fight over it. After breakfast, lunch, and dinner, of one kind of MRE,
we tended to get desperate for any other food-even to the point of sneaking into local villages to buy food from the markets,
even if that meant a possible reduction in rank. It got to the point where I would rather eat dried cuttlefish before I
would eat the barbequed beef. Any solider would know what I'm talking about when I say that it seems that they always have
the worst kind of MRE available only in bulk. Thousands of packets of one crappy MRE, then once in awhile a new one that
felt like a rare gift. Then we ran out of MRE's, and we had to eat Dinty Moore's "Beef Stew" for a month and a
half. I still can't stand the smell of it. A friend from grad school didn't believe me, and served me the stew as a joke
and I threw up from the smell. Anyway, that really doesn't even answer your question. The most I can say, is that for months
we lived in ranger graves and foxholes and dirt bunkers, with very little information that wasn't rumor, and personally,
I had no idea why we cared so much for a tiny little kingdom like Kuwait. It wasn't until our return that things started
to fall into place.
JOV: As the
French writer Jean Baudrillard said in his essay, "The Gulf War Didn't Take Place," huge gaps existed among the
media representation of the war, the outpouring of American public support, and the reality. That is to say that the news
reported little about soldiers killed or damage done in Iraq but focused on the use of technology, the video game aspect
of this war.
SBT: Exactly. In
a lot of ways, when I returned to the States, we didn't know that this relatively new 24-hour news cycle had been covering
the war so completely and in so many strange ways. For instance, the whole time I was there, I was attached to some of the
most forward operating bases, and knew other soldiers who were actually patrolling into Iraq. We were all in the front line
for the ten months that I was there and I didn't see one imbedded reporter, and didn't hear about any. I have friends who
actually do this often for a living now, and have been in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere, but I don't think this was
the case back in the first Persian Gulf War. So many aspects of this news cycle were surprising to me-I honestly thought
we could be returning home to the sort of welcome the Vietnam vets had seen. After all, we had bombed all the roads leading
to Baghdad and other targets consistently and unrelentingly for, I think, 190 days? It is hard for civilians to imagine
that sort of onslaught coming off aircraft carriers every single day, and even harder for them to understand the devastation
that was visited on so many military and accidental civilian targets. Ultimately, most of my experience in combat in Iraq
during the ground force invasion was just bearing witness to the absolute destruction of a people. Every road, everywhere
we turned there were burned out husks of vehicles filled with the dead. Much of them long dead. The smell is something hard
to describe. And you couldn't tell even from the destruction if it was a civilian or military vehicle. There was just this
colossal amount of destruction and death, and it was for this reason, I thought when we finally came back that we were going
to get a completely different response from the American people. And it was embarrassing-I remember going on leave soon
after I returned, and I was just so embarrassed by it all, so embarrassed by the flag orgy that was happening, the yellow
ribbon orgy all over my hometown, the many drinks I had bought for me at the bars. I even had a fight with my parents when
I arrived home to this almost-joke sized flag hanging from the roof of the front of our house. And maybe that was when I
started thinking about writing about the war. They were just so proud of their son and I remember being so upset with these
people, who had forced me to make the choice between religion and the military, and who were now so proud of the fact that
they had a son who had been in combat.
How does this gap between media representation and public support play out in your poems?
SBT: That's what the first section of my book, Mormon Boy, is specifically addressing.
In the first poem, "The Road to Baghdad," I ask, "Is less a road than a floral/ collection of spongy and soft/
bodies, a gathering of a myriad/colors of nations - burnt umber,/puce, kiln red, olive drab, hot steel..." I wrote
that poem in 2003 in response to our next invasion into Iraq. To me, it was obviously just an effort to cement our control
of Middle East oil. And I feel like I am speaking from experience-in 1991, a couple of days into the conflict, as the 82nd
Airborne, the 101st, the French, and the British turned north to take Baghdad, we were suddenly rerouted. We were given no
explanation. We were just told to head northeast to the oilfields. Apparently, on our way there, Saddam had started burning
the oil fields and so our new orders were to drop our mission and to go secure them and prepare for fire fighters to come
and put them out. It was at that moment, which was confirmed by what I learned when I returned to the states, that I realized
that whatever I had believed about what we were doing wasn't true anymore. We weren't there to free these people from a
dictator, or save Kuwait from a warring neighbor-we were there to secure our own interests in oil. We were still in a fight,
so it wasn't a conscious realization, but I know that we all felt like we had been robbed of something. I was partially
relieved that it was unlikely that I would be storming homes in close combat in Baghdad, but I also know that many of my
platoon-mates were upset they wouldn't be getting a chance to test themselves in the crucible of combat. So. "The Road
to Baghdad." in some ways, didn't really exist. But so much of it did, and I think the first section of the book is
devoted to that dissonance.
When we invaded Iraq a second
time, the thing that struck me, and the reason that I started writing and resurrecting all the poems, was that a lot of
my memories had started to fade and my own mythology had maybe started to color them a bit. I was, and am, still coming to
grips with the things that I had seen and done, and the worst part of my experiences seem similar to what Tim O'Brien talks
about in The Things They Carried, when he wrote that his worst day in combat was the bagging of bodies after a
firefight. And that was by far my worst experience as well.
JOV: What kind of influence has Tim O'Brien, a prose writer, had in your work as a poet?
SBT: In The Things They Carried, he does all
the great things that great fiction writers are able to do. I still don't know how that book didn't win the Pulitzer. Anyway,
in his story, "How to Tell a True War Story" he examines what it is to be a returned combat vet, while also investigating
his need to be a writer who has some responsibility to write about his experiences. O'Brien's greatest skill is his ability
to use beautiful, almost lyrical, language even when writing about the traumatic and violence of combat. In some ways, he
taught me that the beauty of language can survive and rise above the ugliness of war. I am just sad that it took me so long
discover his writing, and others like Robert Olen Butler and Thom Jones and Yusef Komunyakaa-I didn't realize there were
so many "war writers" out there, and I am embarrassed to admit that I didn't start reading them until grad school.
I try to remind myself that as a teacher, it is my job to give them the material in class that will help them grow as academics,
but also to give them access to the material out of class that will help them grow in to artists, if they want to. Tim O'Brien,
et al, freed me up from the academy a bit, allowed me to write what I felt like I needed to write-and that, I think, was
what I was trying to do in "The Road to Baghdad"-to describe something in beautiful ways that was just so ugly
and awful. I just wish I would have had the examples of their words earlier in my life. The lesson here for teachers is that
we should recommend the great books to our students-even if it is outside of the scope of the current class. One never knows
which book will change a trajectory of a life!
What are some of the ways that poetry of combat differs from fiction or memoir of the experience?
SBT: In poetry you are given this freedom to use language
in new and surprising ways. Essentially, the poet is truly expected to create new languages, new ways of expressing ideas,
play with disparate images, etc. With fiction, however, you kind of have to draw comparisons, make connections, and also
write eloquently and beautifully, but not then derail the actual trajectory of story by over-doing it. So, you can use metaphor
and you can use symbolism in fiction, but you can't do it so much that you conflate or deflate the plot. I keep the following
simple (but useful (for me)) definition of the two genres in mind when I write: fiction must give the reader a problem of
some sort that must be solved. Poetry, on the other hand, often is more concerned with giving us new tools and approaches
to understanding the problem. Unlike fiction, poetry doesn't necessarily concern itself with solving the problem that it
establishes, and poets don't have to concern themselves with explaining what happened. In poetry, there's a story that gets
told in the use of the language, the use of the imagery, the use of the figurative. Generally, I know which genre I am working
on simply by the breadth of the problem, the need for answers.
That said, I do think that most of the truly great poetry out there should endeavor to create conflict or problem,
whether it is spiritual, metaphysical, personal, physical, psychological, etc., yet often doesn't do it. It is why I tend
to distrust much of the poetry being churned out right now-where is the heart or soul of it, if the poet doesn't care about
whether the reader has some stake in the work? And that's the thing-establishing a conflict or problem is at the heart of
creation and artistry. Otherwise, what's the point?
O'Brien also says that a true war story must contain elements that aren't exactly true. How has that idea affected your
SBT: I think that as
writers, we are always trying to give our reader the dope on the action, but as sensitive people, we are often trying to
distance ourselves from the emotional pain of that action. Brian Turner is a master when it comes to managing this contradiction.
In his poetry collection, Here Bullet, he creates an experience that brings the reader in close to the dreadful
nature of combat and violence, then essentially delays the pathos of experience, all while slowly letting the rope out so
we can understand what is happening beyond and behind the violence. There's something bigger and better behind his truth.
I always tell my students in my fiction-writing workshops that there are some necessary truths in writing that you have
to tell that aren't true. O'Brien wrote, "I want you to feel what I felt. I want you to know why story-truth is truer
sometimes than happening-truth." If you grew up in a house that had a white picket fence, with a perfectly manicured
yard with flowers and a little angel statue spitting water into a fountain, but you were really trying to describe how you
were physically abused, then you wouldn't probably want to be too "honest" in the description of your "real"
home. That may not be a great answer, but I think when I started really writing about combat, it was when I got really tired
of talking honestly about it. I had so many writer friends telling me I should be spelunking this wealth of material, but
for some reason I was always pushing back against what I felt was true. I think I was tired of giving honest answers to
stupid questions-I can't even tell you how many times I've been asked if I've killed anyone before. Most people seem disappointed
if I say ‘no,' but are equally disappointed if I say ‘yes.' I doubt most people would ask the same question of
someone who has any other violent or traumatic experiences-if I say I was in a car accident, I don't think the follow-up
question would be, "did you kill anyone?" Most of the time, I don't think the person asking the question even
understands how thoughtless and selfish they are being by asking it.
Anyway, so when I say in my poem, "Falling in Love During Wartime," that combat is "a fiction of
lights and noises," I mean that I had to start downplaying my experiences in order to write about them in a way that
would translate into poetry. Ultimately, the truth is that I really did want another life. I wanted my life to be more than
the truth of my combat experience. And I think that most deep-thinking soldiers feel the same. You give so much to the service
- it's not about the blood, sweat, and tears either. It's the fact that the best physical years of our lives are given to
the military. I was eighteen when I joined, twenty-two or so when I was discharged. Back in the states, my friends, those
deserving or less deserving, were living it up while I slept in a dirt hole. I think things were pretty good in America in
the early nineties for most of the kids of my generation, but I was digging a hole to sleep in. And I still think I am lucky!
Because I literally found poetry and literature while living in a dirt hole from day to day. So I don't know. That's a hard
one to answer. What is truth in poetry? What is truth in fiction? What is truth in memoir, or photography, or music, for
that matter? I think there's always some level of fiction, real or imagined, whether I am just trying to play out the narrative
or not wanting to talk about certain things anymore. There's truth in that too-I don't want to write these stories or these
poems anymore, but I find that I still need to, and there's always this kind of ticking need in the background of everything
JOV: In Guadalcanal
veteran James Jones' essay "Evolution of the Soldier," he says that you can only evolve as a soldier when you realize
that you are already dead. In "Dead Man," you write "I am a dead man. Dead/ 18 years... " and then "...I/
helped to hide many others in black/ body bags, but what did it matter/ if I was already dead?" How does this poem
address Jones' notion?
the first thing you do when you get into a combat zone is write that obligatory letter to family and friends that most often
begins, "If you are getting this, I have been killed." And you make amends and you tell people about how you feel
about them and you ask for forgiveness and you do all these things that we should all probably do when we are alive. A fortunate
thing for soldiers, really. A person in a car accident would never have the opportunity to do this. But in the service, you
have the opportunity to really think about your own death and what you would say to people before you get shot. And that
takes something from you. This knowledge. Because the first step in confronting death is accepting that it is probably going
to happen, and then it is simply the matter of worrying whether it will be ugly or pretty. Whether you are going to go out
with a quick shot to the head or if you are going to go horribly and in agony. And that's a terrible thing for an eighteen
year old kid to think about, or have to think about. What I am about to say may appear thoughtless or disrespectful or mean,
but I hope it isn't-in my experience, the really terrific soldiers don't think about the other side of the battle. They
think that they need to win and that they are in the middle of becoming the next "best generation," all those
patriotic, nationalistic kinds of things. Often, this is the single thing that separates the great soldiers from the poor
soldiers-not size, strength, bravery, etc. Listen, I'm not saying I wasn't a good soldier-I like to think I was. But I also
think I played the part pretty well. It was those guys who didn't question anything who were the ones that could really
get the job done, and with prejudice.
But you returned. How did you make the evolution into civilian life?
SBT: The simple answer is that most people don't make that transition very easily. With the training
you get in the military, you're in the business of killing to defend your country. It's hard to explain to civilians, but
you turn into a thirty-year-old man the day you sign up for the military. Basically, all the weight and requirements and
responsibilities, and all the expectations, are what a thirty-year old would be better equipped to handle. And you go for
a two to five-year tour and then you are just set free. We do the same with prisoners, and the results aren't great. And
it was hard. I think this is the message in my poem "Whirligig." It's the feeling that you just don't fit in, and
nobody is going to understand you because you haven't developed morally or socially since you were eighteen years old. So
now you're twenty-two or twenty-three, but you haven't developed socially past eighteen when you finally go into that first
first freshman class, and it truly feels like the psychological equivalent of arrested development. But the difference is,
now you're in the real world, and your knowledge of how to handle stress in combat is hyper-developed, and you have seen
and done things that are beyond what you can understand as a teenager. Basically, you are returned to the world an oddity
and an outsider. When our soldiers return to the world, they are also physically older than the other students or civilian
counterparts. I took some things way more seriously, and others way less seriously than other members of my peer group.
I was so happy to be alive! It turned me into a book nerd and I read anything on a college class' supplemental reading material
list, and I worked nearly full-time at the Olive Garden, and I played on San Francisco State's varsity basketball team,
and and and... I was filling every moment of my life because I felt like I still owed the world my best effort because I
was spared when some were not. It wasn't healthy, I realize now, but I hear the same refrain from the soldiers I teach at
the university. It's a common mantra from soldiers who are coming back and trying to get their shit together. They feel
like it is ok that they're back and they're alive, but there's a lot of guilt associated with being ok. Personally, I try
to control the compulsion-it simply puts too much pressure on me to feel like I "owe" so much to so many.
JOV: The VA has only recently provided help for vets suffering
from Gulf War Syndrome. Before it wasn't recognized as a real illness caused by this conflict. Were you or your comrades
SBT: Soldiers don't
talk about their ailments very often. All I can say about Gulf Syndrome is that we were exposed to a tremendous amount of
toxic substances and environments. Probably 50% of ground troops were sitting in air so thick with oil that it would collect
on your skin even thought you couldn't see the oil falling. We didn't know much about what was happening to us then, and
not much more has been released that we could understand without a degree in Biochemistry. What are the chemicals used in
oil drilling and what happens with fires? And what happens when you go into these cities and there are all these biological
and chemical warfare plants? In some cases, they just blew them up. I don't know, for instance, if the numbness and tingling
upon my return was just my metabolism, maybe the slow process of getting those toxins out of my system, or if I was sick.
It does exist. But I don't know if the thyroidectomy or certain other afflictions are from the gulf or from my own genetic
makeup. I suspect that we don't know more because most soldiers, like myself, do not try to go get help. It could be that
we would know more if those who are suffering from the syndrome actually went in to get help with the disabilities. But
that's common in general with soldiers, I think. I tore up my back pretty bad in a parachuting accident in 1991 and fractured
a couple of vertebrae and, because I was young, kept driving on regardless of the pain. But years after that, I started
having really bad problems with my back. I knew where it came from, and I knew how it got started, but I had no idea how
to get help, and didn't know if was even appropriate to seek help. We are trained to ignore physical pain in the military,
and those who seek treatment are often seen as weak, and this carries into life as a civilian. I still feel bad when I go
to the doctor, and still feel guilty if it isn't a big deal. The problem with that logic is that soldiers don't complain
and they don't go to the doctor because you get seen as someone who can't hack it. For instance, while in the 82nd, if you
go on sick call (and miss morning PT) but don't have a prescription of some sort when you get back to a unit, the leadership
is going to go off on you and put you on extra work detail.
JOV: You were affected physically and mentally, but you have also done so well. Was there anything
specific that helped you cope? What about the returning soldiers who can't cope at all?
SBT: I've thought a lot about this. My second collection, "We Deserve the Gods We Ask For,"
due out this year from Gival Press, contains poems written in persona to answer this question. I decided that I was done
writing poems about my boring (to me) experiences in the military, but that I could still write poems that might mean something
to veterans and poets alike. I started doing research into combat vets who return to commit violence on themselves or on
others, and then used that as the springboard for a new poem. One of the first poems in the series has to do with Brad Lynch,
a soldier from Colorado came back from his first tour in Iraq and without any sort of explanation killed his wife and two
girls by shooting them in the head. These stories I was finding scrape the inexplicable. You can't really say, well PTSD
caused that, or whatever. I think they all come back with a little PTSD. Personally, I suffered from guilt, but I was lucky
in that I didn't have any of my friends blown up in front of me. For a couple months after coming back I jumped when I heard
a car backfire. But today guys come back and they've done like thirteen tours. Can anyone even imagine that? Ten YEARS in
combat. So everyday sounds carry so much more weight for someone like that. Fortunately, I had a great support group of
friends and family who let me talk about it when I wanted to. And they never asked if I killed anybody! I had people who
were good citizens for me, who were good mentors for my writing and for the way I learned to think about my time in the
military. And, this may seem beside the point, but I came from poverty, but it was farm poverty. I didn't come from gangland
poverty. I came from Wyoming and I didn't sit on a street corner and wonder how I was going to get a job or anything like
that. I could return, get a job, move on with my life. But that's the thing about PTSD. It's that every case is different.
There's no Twelve Step Program for any of these guys. You hope they can get through it, but they are ALL our responsibility,
because we sent them there. Whether you supported the war or not, we birthed these men and women, and they deserve every
bit of support we can give them once they return-and not that bullshit lip-service support I would say 80% of the citizens
of this country give. The decals on cars make me crazy. They need REAL support. Give them a job. Send them care packages
with a real letter enclosed. Take them in, talk to them, and then don't brag to your friends about how great it is that you
are helping them. Anyway. Obviously I have some strong opinions about what we don't do for our vets, but my now work is
devoted more to veterans and the criminal violence that occurs after their return. I'd like to think I will run out of material,
but we don't even have all of our soldiers home so I think it's just going to get worse.
JOV: Is there something specific about the current wars that changes the way that PTSD manifests
itself in vets?
SBT: I am going
to show my politics a bit here, and I will say that's what I hated about the last Bush. He was one of the worst public figures
when it came down to only paying lip service to the soldiers. He cut VA benefits seven out of eight years (and so did congress)
even while we were engaged in two wars. And I think the veteran suicide problem is one of the greatest shames to our country.
It should be an embarrassment to all of us that our soldiers feel so isolated and alone when they come home that they take
their own lives. And war is shameful, when it comes down to it-we're two thousand years past Christ and we still engage in
stupid, ugly, pointless, and shameful wars. I find the fact that we are still fighting wars astounding. We can put a fully-functional
computer that can locate any good restaurant on the planet into a phone, yet we still go off half-cocked when someone messes
with the dinosaur excrement that we use to run our cars. Speaking of which-that's embarrassing too-we still burn things
for energy, just like we did ten thousand years ago. But I digress. All that, and then we don't take care of the kids we
sent into harms' way. I don't think it is that difficult-everybody can take care of our soldiers in some way. Little things.
For example, ask questions that don't demand drama. Talk to them about their hopes and dreams-not about the combat unless
they want to. Also, soldiers still have shortages of care packages sent to them. Soldiers get so excited about care packages,
it's almost tender. I've never heard of one soldier in the world complaining about getting too many gifts from strangers,
but wouldn't it be a wonderful world if they did?
When you write in your poem, "The Cold Logic of Farm Animals" under the section title, "Six Artifacts
of Scholarship," it seems, as you say, a disconnect exists between what people want to hear and what you are telling
them. Are there other things that people don't want to hear?
SBT: The one thing I find interesting when I'm teaching any sort of war story or poem (I teach
a class called "The Literature of War"), even going back to the Spanish-American War, even to the Odyssey,
you always learn something about the boredom. Soldiers from WWI or WWII also experienced these long periods of boredom and
I wonder if this boredom helped them to perform those incredible acts of bravery? Did these acts of heroism happen because
they were so bored for so long that they became reckless? But no one wants to hear about the boredom. That would be a task,
right-write the next great war novel, but focus on the boredom and inaction? I also think some people would be surprised
that most soldiers writing about their experiences have a hard time dealing with their experience directly. Tim O'Brien
even had to use the fictional representation of Rat Kiley as a narrator in substitute for himself at one point. There are
some things about the experience you can't touch. And most are afraid people will really not be interested in the "action
between" the war. When I was writing, I kept asking myself if this was something I could even put in a poetry book that
people would read? When I first started putting Mormon Boy together as an actual collection, I had hardly seen
anyone write poetry directly about recent combat, until I stumbled upon Turner (who, by the way, is one of the few war writers
who actually wrote his book in combat-most of the time, it takes decades to learn to negotiate with the experience and the
JOV: What else were
you afraid of in putting the collection together?
You know, I've never talked to Tim O'Brien or anything, but I think for combat writers, we struggle with authenticity and
with the fear of melodrama. O'Brien wrote "that a true story makes the stomach believe," and I always struggle
with that intersection of truth and fiction-how do I re-tell something that I have obvious stake in, but make the reader
also have an equal stake in the story? How do you make it not just some story about some guy who had a tough time? How can
I make the reader understand the desperate and integral importance of that "red wheelbarrow, next to the white chickens,"
as William Carlos Williams did, yet still maintain my stake in the work as well? And that was one of my greatest fears as
I was putting the collection together and writing these poems. What if this is seen as melodramatic or dishonest? The other
thing is that I feel like I owe my comrades the same sort of attention to detail in this collection. I owe them my best effort,
and for me, more than anything, when you're taking on a subject as fraught with drama as combat and war, there is always
this fear. Will this come off as some bland or generic melodrama or will this come off as something that rises above all
that? I believe that there simply has to be something greater at stake for the reader. I write with the hope that the poem
will end up not being just mine, but will become a poem that belongs to everyone - us - and finally a poem that can also
belong to the reader even though it is presenting a world and situation that is foreign to them. I still look at this book
and I'm glad it's out there in the world, but I'm also stunned that anyone would publish it, that there are people out there
who are really reading war poetry. I don't know-I suspect that even if they aren't out there, I will probably have to keep
writing it all down, my stories and the stories of those who have lost their voices to tell it.
Click here to read an interview with Seth at The Lighthouse Writers Blog
Click here to read an interview
with Seth at WLA
Poems - Bio - Prose - Reviews - Interviews