Los Angeles Times Feature - Welkos

War's unlikely partner: poetry

The new documentary 'Voices in Wartime' explores the linkage of violence and verse from Homer's Troy to Iraq.

By Robert W. Welkos
Times Staff Writer

Sep 8 2004

The movie begins with grainy war footage that has become all too familiar: Battleship Row belching thick, black smoke over Pearl Harbor; bombs dropping from the bellies of warplanes; American soldiers opening up on an unseen enemy in the jungles of Vietnam.

And then comes what is perhaps the most jarring image of all: the superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Lt. Gen. William J. Lennox Jr., discussing combat … and poetry.


"For an infantryman or a soldier in combat, it's very hard for them sometimes to articulate what they experience," says Lennox, who holds a master's degree and doctorate in literature from Princeton University. "They go through a whole series of emotions: joy, elation, horror, fear. What literary genre allows you to portray that feeling but poetry? I don't know."

The Lennox interview forms part of a new documentary, "Voices in Wartime," which features poets from around the world sharing their views and experiences of war.

On Saturday, libraries and colleges in more than 100 cities across the U.S. and Canada will screen "Voices in Wartime." In the Los Angeles area, a screening is scheduled at 3 p.m. at the Redondo Beach Public Library. Other locations can be found on the www.poetryinwartime.org website.

The producers say they are in discussions with distributors in hopes of releasing the film theatrically later in the year.

The 74-minute documentary not only explores how poetry and war have been intertwined from the time of ancient Babylonia and Troy to today's conflict in Iraq, but includes the words of Homer, Tennyson, Walt Whitman, Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and other poets who have written powerfully about war and its consequences.

The film also features a number of lesser-known living poets, including:

•  Colombian-born Antonieta Villamil of Los Angeles, whose poem "My Name Is Pedro" is about her 27-year-old brother, who left home one day in 1990 in Bogota and vanished. She believes he was kidnapped by one of the warring factions in that troubled South American nation.

"It's the most horrible way to lose a loved one," Villamil said in a recent interview. "You have no place. You are left only with memories of that person. You have to create a place for mourning. There is no body. And always you have the hope that that person might come back some day."

•  Seattle poet Emily Warn, whose father was a D-day paratrooper who suffered combat trauma and numbed himself with alcohol, which led to his early death. Warn is shown on-screen reciting a poem she wrote called "California Poppy," which recalls the fragments of cherished memories she retains of her dad and a eucalyptus grove. "Come back, moment in the grass," the poem goes. "Come back, momentary father."

•  Sherman Pearl of Santa Monica recites his work "The Poem in the Time of War," which he wrote with lines in mind from William Carlos Williams' poem "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower," which reads, in part, "It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there."

"That is what my poem tries to do," Pearl said. "It's not a battlefield experience. It's an expression of how poetry responds to something as large and disturbing and painful and impacting as war."

"This is not a film about famous poets," said executive producer Andrew Himes. "It's a film about Voices in Wartime and this natural, powerful, human impulse to write poetry to express your emotions, to tell a story." The film grew out of a grass-roots protest that made headlines in early 2003, when some poets opposed to the invasion of Iraq protested First Lady Laura Bush's invitation to some noted poets to attend a White House symposium celebrating the works of Whitman, Emily Dickinson and Langston Hughes. Mrs. Bush canceled the session.

Sam Hamill, who edits the Copper Canyon Press, an influential poetry publisher, was one of those who declined the White House invitation.

"I just said, 'Wait a minute,' " Hamill recalled. "These people cannot possibly be reading the Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson and Langston Hughes that I've read all my life. These are three poets that would have despised this administration."

Hamill, who lives in Port Townsend, Wash., then asked about 50 fellow poets to "reconstitute a Poets Against the War movement like the one organized to speak out against the war in Vietnam." Within four days, 1,500 poets had responded and a website was set up to handle the influx of responses.

"Organizing poets is like herding chickens," Hamill joked. "Every one of them is a totally independent mind and everyone wants to speak from a totally independent point of view." An invitation to poets around the world to send in videos of their poetry readings led to the film.

"A lot of it was pretty badly shot," Himes recalled. "I had this huge box full of videotapes and felt somebody ought to make a film about this. There's some kind of story to be told. I couldn't find anybody else to do it."

Himes, who formerly worked at Microsoft as founding editor of Microsoft Developer Network and who also helped Microsoft pioneer the subscription software business, had never made a movie before. Through co-producer Jonathan King, a Web/communications consultant and writer for nonprofit organizations, Himes met King's brother, Hollywood filmmaker Rick King, who came on board as writer and director. Rick King's credits include numerous television documentaries and directing the feature films "Hard Choices" and "Off the Wall," as well as co-producing and sharing story credit on the 1991 film "Point Break."

"I'm not an expert on poetry and I'm not an expert on war," Rick King said. "Coming at it from the outside, I felt like I usually do in making a documentary. I felt I was the audience. I asked, 'What is the information I need and who do I go to get it?' We wanted it to be an examination of war and poetry both."

While the film contains graphic images of war's carnage, King believes the poetry gives humanity to these images. "The story we tried to tell is a challenge because it really is trying to talk about an experience more than a recitation or a series of facts."

Himes believes the conflict in Iraq, like past wars, could see its own flowering of great poetry: "There are lots of soldiers right now writing poetry because they've been through experiences that they do not know how to communicate in any other way."