Veterans Poetry Workshop Oxford Brookes Poems Mental Health Jo Thoenes BFBS Radio Interview
Veterans

How Poetry Is Helping To Explore What It Is Really Like To Be A Veteran

Changing the way veterans are perceived, one poem at a time

Veterans Poetry Workshop Oxford Brookes Poems Mental Health Jo Thoenes BFBS Radio Interview

British and American veterans have been exploring the complexities of what it means to be a veteran thanks to an Oxford Brookes University poetry workshop.

The legacy of these writers and their experiences have now been published in an anthology called ‘My Teeth Don’t Chew On Shrapnel’.

A collection of poems to give a broader understanding of what defines a veteran.

"There isn’t a one size fits all template you know.

"A lot of the emotions are very similar, but the cause of those emotions is very different for a lot of people.”

Sometimes, when civilians think of veterans, they imagine an elderly man paying his respect at the Cenotaph or a young amputee suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 

Former US Army Officer John Thampi took part in the workshop and explained to BFBS Radio broadcaster Jo Thoenes that how veterans feel about themselves is not always portrayed accurately in society. He said: 

“It’s either to create a myth of the veteran as someone who’s heroic above the circumstances regardless of what tragedy comes in their life, and they’re almost like iron and nothing phases them. 

“Or the other extreme is veterans are the victims. They have PTSD, they have all sorts of trauma, they need to get isolated and treated accordingly. 

“But the truth is somewhere in between and that’s the interesting part because you do see great profiles and courage.” 

AUDIO: Jo speaks to former service personnal who are exploring what being a veteran means to them

These were some of the themes being explored during the workshop as Doctor Niall Munro, Director of the Oxford Brookes Poetry Centre explains. He said: 

“What we were really interested in here was the craft. 

“How could we help veterans a bit to write poetry, focus on poetry as a medium and think about how they might best express themselves in the craft.” 

As well as encouraging and developing the veteran's own writing skills, it was a chance for tutors like Susie Campbell to get a much deeper understanding of what service life meant for those taking part from many different perspectives. She said: 

“I think one of the absolute privileges of being part of this workshop was the chance to listen to people talking and discussing and then to read their work. 

“That was such an eye opener for me because I don’t have any military experience." 

How Can Writing Help Veterans? 

Tom Laaser served with the US Army, 10th Mounted Division and is now a published writer living in Maine. He explains how he found his way on to the programme. He said: 

“By the time I got involved with Oxford Brookes I had been medically retired from the Army and I found my way back to school ... and it was there that I began writing in earnest about my experiences. 

“A great Vietnam veteran author named Mark Levy found out about this Oxford Brookes workshop and he sent me the email. He said “you’ve got to apply to this, I think it would be really beneficial to you.”

AUDIO: Discover the ways the course developed the individual writers’ talents

For retired Lieutenant Colonel Stewart Hill, the creative arts had been something he had largely left behind with his school days. That was until undergoing rehabilitation following a traumatic brain injury in Afghanistan. Rediscovering his love for poetry at a time when people were keen to learn about his time in the British Army helped Stewart condense decades of service into free verse which, he says, made the impact of what he was saying more powerful. He said: 

“I dabbled in some poetry; I’ve written probably about eight poems. The majority were around the first few years after my injury then I wrote another couple of poems later on. 

“I was intrigued by whether my poetry needed improving or needed to formally be taught how to write poems.” 

An extract from Stewart Hill’s poem ‘There But Not There’ 

I know the pain of death, my friends

Of souls and lives abbreviated 

I cannot imagine the destruction of villages, communities, Pals Battalions, defeated 

 

Operation Herrick killed four hundred and fifty-four in ten years 

Nineteen times ten times one hundred more to die 

One offensive day one First of July 

By a river near Somme. 

I cannot imagine seven hundred thousand lives obliterated in four years 

 

In the despair of individuals 

Irrespective of the cause, whatever the pain, 

War is the same 

I was there but not there 

 

I cannot imagine, 

Such monstrous anger as yours 

Our youth was affected but yours 

Was doomed 

AUDIO: Hear from some of the writers involved about their own experiences while serving their countries

Poetry As A Form Of Self Help For Veterans 

Tapping into the writer's creativity during the workshops was done in a variety of ways, with the aim being to create a body of work to publish as an anthology. Various exercises took the writers out of the realms of what would traditionally be considered poetry and helped them express what they previously might not have been able to in conversations with loved ones. 

After serving with the regular British Army and continuing her service with the Reserves, Jo Young liked the idea of shedding light on the personal challenges of forces life, including it's transient nature. She said: 

“I felt quite surprised at how the subject matter captured people's interest because really, my Army career wasn’t peppered with danger. 

“For me I was interested in relaying those minute details. And ... what it means to be a woman in that environment.

"Not in any particularly negative way, just in a way of demonstrating how being a woman and being a mother can go alongside soldiering.” 

An extract from Jo Young’s poem ‘Flaking’ 

Flaking like a desk-top memo pad, 

peeling away my kind regards, 

my thoughts for the day, 

my pub dogs of Glasgow. 

 

I’m incontinent with it - 

sheets of me floating through 

market towns, whipping over 

rifle ranges, beyond red flags. 

 

Falling in love 

with falling power stations, 

pleated concrete, air traffic towers, 

coltsfoot and cow parsley 

 

beneath iron fire escapes, 

blue tack pressing 

National Trust notelets 

to asbestos walls. 

The Path To Poetry 

Each of the writers involved in the workshops had very different experiences in terms of how and where they had served and the communities they had found themselves in during this period. It was being witness to the tragedy of 9/11 that inspired New Yorker John Thampi, a former US Army officer in the Military Police Corps who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, to enlist in 2003. He said:

“While I was still in college I saw, from a distance, the towers being burned and so that had an immediate impact on my decision to join. 

“I was actually in college at the time and I went in to my International Law class and I remember seeing military veterans speaking about their service and the things they had done and I wanted to do something more and wanted to give back." 

World Trade Center Twin Towers Terror Attack Credit Andrew Stamer DVIDs Image No 445147

Image: The aftermath of the terror attacks on the World Trade Center in New York on September 11, 2001

Credit: Andrew Stamer / DVIDs Image No 445147

After John left the US Army, nine years later, he did not want to talk about his service or be reminded of it at all.  However, after joining a New York University writing group, he rediscovered his passion for poetry and was able to channel what he went through using that medium. He said: 

“I can specifically remember in Iraq asking soldiers to volunteer for our last mission into Baghdad knowing that we very well could be attacked and they didn’t have to. 

“And I could see that they were in so many ways ordinary. They were cooks, they were mechanics and they volunteered to go into a dangerous place. 

“These are profiles and courage that you can’t just dismiss and say this is routine, this is ordinary.” 

An extract from John Thampi’s ‘Signal To Fight’ 

I knew I was in trouble when the cook was my guard, the doctor my driver 

and Michael ricocheting volleys like it was 

Sunday racquetball 

the heat rising for this is all star kitchen 

the chef shouting out orders 

and the customers carrying out what remains 

but we left minstrels in the hallway 

wailing grasping at our hands 

our children breaking older 

and well-wishers who turn away at the terminals 

as if they were greeting 

sweet specters 

Where are you going? 

Back back where else but back? 

and the raucous cries like 

shattered tambourines 

holding on to my gunner 

flooding my day dreams with their songs 

and Michael in the Apache still hovering overhead 

checking me before I black 

fatigues packed 

lean right 

roar from above 

is the signal 

to fight. 

Maggs Vibo Veterans Poetry Workshop Oxford Brookes Poems Mental Health Jo Thoenes BFBS Radio Interview

Maggs Vibo while serving in Iraq

US veteran Tom Laaser recalls a more human side to the conflict in Afghanistan. Before deploying, he was chosen to spend several months learning Dari, one of the languages spoken in Afghanistan. This meant his platoon could communicate with the locals. Because of this he saw the war in Afghanistan as being more human and complex than it was portrayed in the media. He said: 

“The Afghan people have a beautiful culture that really is not portrayed accurately outside of Afghanistan I feel and also the complex relationship between the Americans, the Afghans and the other forces that are there.

"I came to question what our purpose there was. 

“It felt almost like we were these conquerors in a world that felt almost from a different time period and I wondered exactly what the end game was while we were there.” 

AUDIO: One workshop encouraged female writers to explore how their service inspired their writing

The Power Of War Poetry Written By Women 

One of the workshops was dedicated to women writers. Jane Potter is a reader of Arts at the Oxford International Centre Of Publishing and explained that women have been writing for generations about aspects of war, but they might not always have come to the fore.

Before women could fight on the frontline, they took on numerous different roles during war time. They were all too often widowed or became carers for the men who returned home injured. Roles that were traditionally only taken on by men suddenly became the responsibility of the women left at home. The female voice has a lot to tell us about war and how it’s commemorated. She said: 

“... their lives have been intimately and irrevocably touched by war whether they’ve been participants behind the lines as it were. 

“Munitions workers, medical personnel, or taking up male jobs while men were fighting, such as in the First World War when they became policewomen.” 

As both a former serving US soldier and a military spouse, Maggs Vibo from Richmond, Virginia, draws from these two perspectives and more to write about both personal and shared experiences. She said: 

“Belly Jazz was a poem I wrote about infertility and miscarriages. Mr Scratch was a poem I wrote about sleep loss and disorders. Sandpiper Man was a poem I wrote about time apart and deployments.

“It kind of finds its way into the poetry and all of that history whether it’s my history as a veteran, a female or it's my history as his spouse.” 

AUDIO: Hear how the writers hope their published poems shed some light on their stories

Image and identity were key themes that the writers explored. Claire Hughes had just turned 18 when she joined the British Army in 2008. On visits home she found she struggled to connect with the family and friends she had formally identified with which led her to writing about the experience. She said: 

“When I went on basic training, after week seven you get the chance to go home for the weekend. 

“I thought I was talking normally, and everyone was like ‘what are you on about? I have no idea what you’re saying.’ 

“And it does make you feel a bit like an outsider. You’ve got a foot in both worlds but not completely in either I don’t think.” 

An extract from Claire Hughes poem “At Home” 

I ask my mom for scoff 

Because I can’t get rid 

Of the taste of 

Biscuit browns 

From the rat packs. 

As she cooks 

She asks if I want 

Tea or coffee 

So I shout for a 

Julie Andrews, 

Then we sit and I tell her 

About how our block is 

Redders 

And we’re all 

Thredders 

With so and so because 

She’s always on the biff 

At the pub my mates ask 

What is it you do again? 

Well I’m an ODP 

In the RAMC 

So I pass the ET tube 

And refill the O2 

But over at 33 

I sort out the tentage 

The clic clac flooring 

Count the 

Cannulas 

Syringes 

Oxygen masks 

and scalpels, 

Make sure they don’t disappear. 

5, 4, 3, 2, 1, 

They’ve all gone 

When I come home 

Two weekends later 

You can read 'My Teeth Don't Chew On Shrapnel' for free here