Warn presents her poem "California Poppy," about losing her father. Warn is a poet, teacher, and activist; author of The Novice Insomniac and three other collections of poetry; co-founder of Poets Against the War.
Skeet Shooting: The missing hero
Inteviews with Emily Warn excerpted from
Voices in Wartime: The Movie.
Where did your poem “Skeet Shooting” come from?
My father died when I was quite young, nineteen, and I lived for many years in that same relationship to him, as someone who had failed in life. But in 1998, just a few months after my mother died, and many, many years after my father had died, we received a phone call from a veteran of World War II.
Unlike my father, he had kept in touch with other veterans who fought on D-Day and with the people of Normandy, so every year he would go back to villages in Normandy and stay in touch, and over that time he had collected much war memorabilia, and he had decided to donate all of it to a museum in a small village in Normandy. And one of the pieces of war memorabilia was the cover of Newsweek in 1944, and it showed a GI, an American GI, holding a wounded French boy.
This veteran, whose name was Tom Purcella, located the wounded French boy, who was by then a retired electrician living in Normandy, and he wanted to find the GI, who was my father.
Tom Purcella told us that the dedication of this museum would correspond with the 55th anniversary of D-Day, so my brother and I decided to go to this anniversary, and visit the wounded French boy and his family. And of course being French, we couldn’t just visit them; we stayed with them and were hosted by them. So we went to Normandy and lived with this French family for four days, and went from village to village where people would take a photograph of my brother and this magazine and have him sign it and tell us what they remembered of Normandy. So my father went from being a failure in my eyes to being a war hero who had actually liberated the very people that we were meeting and talking to.
I came to understand how important it is to remember and to commemorate. And that part of my father’s problem, and that of many veterans who returned to America, is that they came back to a place where the war had not been fought—that we as a country did not stop to remember—so they had no way of rejoining their families or communities and lived in their own private nightmares of memories.
Do you think that your father was a war hero?
I do think that my father was a war hero. I think the evil seemed clearer then than it does now, that it was essential that Hitler be defeated and that my father, along with many many thousands of men, jumped out of airplanes, jumped into the water and crawled up onto the shore, gave themselves utterly to defeat what was then the evil in the world. And going to Normandy it struck me in a way it never had before, that my father had been banished from my life and we moved into a Jewish community who closed ranks and did not recognize that he had helped to save the Jews who could be saved from Hitler.
So your father was a hero and a victim at the same time?
My father was a hero and a victim at the same time. I think he also suffered the fate of circumstance, of when he was born in history. When these men returned from Europe or Japan or the Pacific front, women like my mother fell in love with the hero, with the returning war soldier, and she suffered as many women suffered a great disappointment when she realized that who they had thought were heroes were human beings who suffered in a way they had no name for, and had no way to help, and there was no way for them to recover from their wounds. So I do think that he was a victim in that we had no way then to help the men who had suffered from the trauma that one experiences in battle.
American Voices: The poet in wartime
What about Walt Whitman?
Walt Whitman is one of my favorite war poets and one of my favorite poets just in general. And he wrote very movingly about war because of his sense of compassion for the soldier who is wounded or dying in battle.
Now compassion, of course, means suffering with, so he didn’t necessarily lionize or glamorize the soldier, but he spoke about [war] in terms that were very real. His beautiful poem “Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night” is about staying up with a very young soldier who died when he was with him. He just sat with him all night until it became light enough that he could bury him. That poem was very similar to what Jonathan Shay talked about—how soldiers have to respect the burial rights of their special comrades—so he could write in that poem about digging a grave and wrapping the soldier in a blanket and at the same time talk about the boy as someone who had felt but could no longer respond to kisses.
So what Whitman does is what the best poets do—he creates a poem which is just words, and he organizes the words in such a way that they become a felt presence. And when we read that poem we encounter ourselves in it, so in this great poem “Leaves Of Grass” when he says “I celebrate myself, I sing myself, what I shall assume you shall assume, and every atom belonging to me is good, belongs to you,” does he mean we literally have his atoms? No. What he’s saying is, he is making audible a connection between us and other human beings, between us and nature.
So in “Crossing the Brooklyn Ferry,” which is a marvelous poem about that, he says, “For me, the many long gone voices, voices of the interminable prisoners and slaves, voices of the diseased and the despairing, of the thieves and dwarves, voices of the preparation and accretion of cycles, of the threads that connect the stars.”
So Whitman very much writes poems in which there’s a current moving through them, and that current is one in which there is sympathetic suffering and sympathetic joy. And that is one of the functions of poetry—that poetry, unlike prose, organizes language so that it approximates music, and because it’s rhythmic, and because we then speak it in our own bodies, because we embody the voice of Whitman, we then continue on this transfer of energy. That’s what Muriel Ruckhauser called the poem, a transfer of human energy.
What do you think the role of the poet is in a war?
I think there are actually many roles a poet can play in relation to war. There are many different types of war poems: there are protest poems, poems of witness, poems of grieving. Poetry has the ability to express and evoke the full range of human emotion, so in part it’s just an expression of the range of emotion that people, men and women, feel, going to war.
But I think poetry plays a role that is very similar to the role Jonathan Shay talks about in terms of healing victims of combat trauma. Jonathan Shay talks about narrative as a means to heal. He says that trauma fractures the cohesion of consciousness and that narrative pieces that back together. But he says that in order for narrative to be healing there needs to be a trustworthy listener, and that trustworthy listener is someone who can listen with emotion, who can experience some of the emotion that the soldier is experiencing without doing harm to themselves.
So I think that good poems about war, that bear witness to the reality of war, imply a trustworthy listener, that they have organized the language in such a way both rhythmically and syntactically to evoke those emotions in such a way that one can listen and experience it. So poetry, if you’re a soldier who turns to poetry to write, could help you heal by knitting together your consciousness.
I think poetry helps a culture grieve, that if we’re going to integrate people who have suffered from war, from violence that’s so extraordinary that it fractures consciousness, if we hope to integrate those people back into our communities, then we need in some way to make the grief communal. I think poetry in some way makes grief communal.
What does [poetry] allow the people who are feeling this grief to do? Does it allow them to dissipate it?
I think that in expressing grief, in making it communal, [poetry] does create a place for it. Poetry, unlike prose, has a great deal of silence surrounding it. So there are two kinds of silence. There’s a kind of silent emptiness I felt growing up—that’s a deadness, that’s a despair that many sufferers from combat trauma feel—but there’s also a silence that’s a sense of emptiness in which all things arise and fall away. So I think poetry in giving voice to grief does allow it to rise up and fade away, but it does so in a way that allows us to re-experience it without harming ourselves, so that it doesn’t need to be something that we need to be continually fixated on.
And I think this is what sufferers of combat trauma like my father suffer from: They are continually reliving the experience of emptiness or being fractured in hopes of mastering it, but they’re continually losing because they have no way to organize something that was the absolute definition of disorder. And poetry does that. For some reason, poetry, whether it’s war poetry or poetry about anything else, creates an order out of something that was disorderly. But in creating that order, in putting together words in a certain way, you actually unlock consciousness, you can open it up then to possibility. And that is what to me is the joy of being human, that there are endless possibilities of who we might become as individuals in relation to one another.
I think poetry allows us to exist in uncertainty. To heal as a result of listening to a poem doesn’t mean that you sew everything up and it’s all rosy and you feel consoled. It’s that you somehow are then given strength to exist with the uncertainty that anything could and might happen.
So you’re saying that [poetry] doesn’t necessarily take away the grief but by articulating it, by making it concrete in a way…
I’m saying that poems about war and grieving don’t necessarily end with everyone feeling good, or they don’t redeem, or they don’t find some meaning that allows you to go on. What they do is provide you an experience of grief or uncertainty or anxiety that rises up and falls away, so that you know then, the next time something like that happens, a car backfires, OK, I’m gonna feel this but it’ll rise up and fall away.
So did you have that experience with your father, with writing about your father?
I had that experience in writing about my father in that there’s really no way to redeem my father or his life. He was a war hero, and then the rest of his life he suffered from being a war hero. So in that poem I wrote called “Skeet Shooting,” where I imagine him as vulnerable as a clay pigeon hanging in the Normandy night, I do not wrap it up in saying I redeem my father. All I do is say, “I trace your name across the sky.” It’s an emptiness. So in acknowledging in a way that his life was empty, that in fact his life was, then I can move on beyond that emptiness.
So the poetry was helpful in organizing that experience?
The poetry did help me organize my experience. Then I felt compelled to speak, because I had written about my father before as someone who had failed and had written about my own emptiness, and now I could view him differently.
Jack Warn: My father's story
Where did your poem “California Poppy” come from?
“California Poppy” is a poem about searching for the lost father. It’s also about trying to grapple with the absence of a father. When one grows up without a parent—what I felt was just emptiness, a certain sense of absence that was always present.
Why was your father absent?
My father was a paratrooper in D-Day, in World War II, and like many men, he arrived back home after the war and was thought of as a war hero. He attended the University of Chicago, where he met my mother. He was Irish Catholic, from Cheyenne, Wyoming. He came from a family of railroad workers, and my mother came from a family of Jewish shopkeepers in Detroit. And I think each represented a ticket out of their pasts to the other.
But my father suffered from combat trauma, something that did not have a name then, so he drank a lot, fought a lot, was unable to hold down a job. The marriage ended when I was quite young. And I always thought of him as a failure, someone who had begun his life with a bright future. He was very handsome, intelligent, athletic, but that war and the effects of it caused him to drink, and basically to die young. He died at the age of 55 walking home from a tavern; he died in a snowdrift. So that’s how I always thought of my father.
How did that affect your family?
The effect was really one of emptiness. He was missing. When they divorced, my mother packed her three kids in a car—this is 1961—and drove across the country to Detroit, where we moved in with her parents, who were orthodox Jewish. He was never mentioned, he never called, we never spoke to him, so we simply thought of him as someone who was no good who couldn’t get on in life. He spent most of his life in and out of VA hospitals. He remarried, but that marriage too ended in divorce.
But at that time there was no treatment for someone like him, and we just thought of him as someone who had failed in life. So growing up in our family there was a sense that something was missing, an emptiness we couldn’t fill. There was a kind of despair and silence and loneliness in our family because of his absence.
Later on, after he left, did you ever get together with him?
I did reunite with my father. My brother was hitchhiking around the country as people did back then and he gave my mother an address: Josh Warn, General Delivery, Spokane, Washington. Well, it turned out my father’s second wife worked in the post office in Spokane, and attached a note to the letter which said, “If you’re Jack Warn’s son, contact me.” So he contacted her and we found out where my father was. But I kept my distance. My brother and my sister both went out to Cheyenne, where he had moved back in with his parents. He was on disability from the veterans, and they connected with him. But I somehow couldn’t.
But when I was 19 at the end of the summer I went hiking in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and on my way home to Detroit we passed right through Cheyenne. And I said to the friends I was traveling with, “I’m going to get out in Cheyenne.” And I got out, and they went on to Detroit.
I found a pay phone and called my father’s phone number. My grandfather answered—he was 87 at the time. I said, “Is Jack Warn there?” He said, “No, no, who’s calling?” I said, “It’s Emily. Emily! Emily!” And it was if I had never left, as if there had not been an entire childhood and life of silence. And he said, “Hold on, I’ll come get you.”
Well, my father had to sober up. So my grandfather drove the few blocks into downtown Cheyenne, and he took me to the Wrangler store and bought me cowboy boots and a hat, and then we went back to the house and I met my father. I was 19, I hadn’t seen him since I was four or five, and he burst into tears. And then all the family came over, his sister, and they were telling stories, and it was the absolute opposite of my Jewish family in Detroit where there was a kind of reserve and a quiet. And I asked him about the war, and he burst into tears again. So I spent three days in Cheyenne, he put me on a train back to Detroit, and six months later he died.
Has this had a strong effect on your poetry?
Absolutely. My father’s absence, and my missing him, and my need to connect with him…As many poets will tell you, I turn to poetry as a way to be in the world. And I’m not sure I could have survived without poetry, because poetry gave me a way to make real the emptiness, and the aloneness, and the sense of deadness I felt. So poetry is a paradox. Poetry evokes a central paradox of being human: that we’re all alone, that we’re independent and autonomous, yet we can only come to know ourselves in relation to others. So in poetry, in my thinking about my father, in the loneliness I felt, the emptiness I felt, I could actually create something that connected me to others. [Poetry] gave me a way to be on the earth.
Did your family’s experience reinforce your feelings about the invasion of Iraq?
My family’s experience did cause me to have strong feelings about invading Iraq. I grew up without a father. He left when I was quite young, because of his own combat trauma. He found it impossible to hold jobs, or to function as a father. He was, in effect, “missing in action.”
Was he ever diagnosed?
After World War II, they had not yet diagnosed post-traumatic stress syndrome, or combat trauma, but he was declared “mentally unstable” after the war. And we now know from his behavior that he was suffering from combat trauma. He had difficulty holding a job. In order to cope with his combat trauma, he drank, continuously. He was in and out of veteran’s hospitals receiving treatment. He had difficulty maintaining relationships, so he was a very difficult man to be married to, and he was divorced from my mother.
On "Poets Against the War"
How did you become involved with Poets Against the War? How did it all start?
Laura Bush invited Sam Hamill to the White House to attend a symposium on American Voices. Sam sent out an e-mail to 50 of his closest friends—other poets—to let them know, and asked them if they would like to contribute a poem in protest—to use the occasion to speak out against the administration’s policies that seemed to be leading us to war. I also received an invitation, and I also spoke out. Those 50 voices quickly became a thousand voices, then two thousand voices, and Sam was deluged. His e-mail inbox was completely full; they could no longer handle it.
At that point I was traveling across the country, and called a couple days after I received the invitation and said “How’s it going?” and Sam said, “Help! I need some help!” He asked if I would help set up a technological infrastructure on the web, so that those voices could be heard.
So, I worked in the background of Poets Against the War. I helped find people to build a website, helped them find some editors for the site, and then worked, in a way, coordinating and communicating with many people.
How did it affect Sam to get all this attention, with all this activity around him?
Sam lives out in the woods on the Olympic peninsula, and he isn’t exactly the most technologically adept person. He’s a poet, he uses his computer for word processing, so he was deluged. And he welcomed the help that we could offer.
In fact, the entire poetry website, Poets Against the War, was on a laptop that a friend of mine carried around. I think what was amazing about Poets Against the War was that it was a social network of writers, and a technological network of the internet, and when you put those together… I think it was one of the first times we saw how that amplified the voices.
Tell us about how big this grew. Did you expect this? How did you feel as all this was happening?
None of us expected the outpouring that resulted from Sam’s original e-mail. And I think there was an outpouring of such magnitude because people did feel powerless, they felt that there was nothing to do, they felt that there was nothing that could be done to stop our country from going to war. But they also felt that there was no one who could hear them, or no one who could listen—if they spoke out, they’d be categorized as anti-war activists and given a slot on the evening news.
So, when 50 became a thousand, two thousand, and then within a couple weeks became 11,000 poets who had submitted 13,000 poems to this website, it quickly became not just a voice of protest, but a voice of hope. It seemed possible again that one could speak out and be heard.
This was made possible because Laura Bush issued the initial invitation. Because it was the First Lady, and because poets spoke out against the war, the media picked up on it, and it had a momentum all of its own. It became a story.
What did you think when you started getting all this media attention?
When it was featured on NPR, and CNN, and all the major media outlets, I think it brought people hope that perhaps there was a way in which we could speak out.
I was pleased that another voice in American culture could be heard. I think what most pleased us is when we started hearing from poets and writers around the world.
What we heard from poets in Italy and Germany and Australia and Mexico and England was that they had thought America was a monoculture, that we were all marching behind Bush’s policies that would lead to war. So we found that we were not only bringing some hope to people in America, but also hope internationally, that there were people in America who didn’t agree with Bush.
The question reporters asked most often was, “Do you really [believe] that it’s going to make any difference?” And I would always answer, “Yes, I do.” We do not know the effects of our words.
We do not know what kinds of relationships we create, or who, on hearing those words, might change their lives. A politician might hear them. So, it’s important that there be a chorus of peace as well as a chorus of war. And to say that we shouldn’t speak, or that we shouldn’t act, because it’s not gonna do anything…well, then we might as well all just stop breathing, right?
What was Laura Bush’s reaction?
The symposium was going to be called “American Voices”, featuring Dickinson and Whitman, and Langston Hughes. Laura Bush, we think after hearing some news about what was happening in response to her invitation, cancelled the event. And she cancelled it very quickly. I received the invitation on a Saturday, Sam sent out his e-mail on a Sunday or a Monday, within two days we had a thousand responses, and then Laura Bush cancelled the symposium.
Now, on being asked whether she cancelled the symposium in relation, or in response, to Poets Against the War, she never actually agreed that that was the reason. But when asked what the reason was, they did not actually have an answer.
You ended up in front of the White House. What happened that day?
It just so happened that although I make my home in Seattle, I was teaching as a visiting writer in Virginia. On the day that the symposium was supposed to happen, February 12, I organized a group of poets from the Washington, DC area. I began just with one poet, who called another poet, who called another poet. We felt that it was important, because the symposium was about American voices, that we raise our voices in front of the White House, and deliver, if we could, some poems to Laura Bush. So we gathered in front of the White House to read our poems.
It was an extremely cold, windy day. Some very distinguished poets from Washington, DC joined us: Stanley Plumly and Jane Shore, Elizabeth Arnold, Joshua Weiner. They read poems of their own, and also poems of Whitman’s and Dickinson’s. In addition, many other poets came, just so that they could speak out.
At one point a group of middle-school children who were on a tour of Washington, DC came and encircled us, and blocked the wind slightly, so we could be warm, and it was this wonderful moment where the poets were reading, and it was “Who are these people” and “What are they doing?” and “They’re reading poetry?” “Well, what’s poetry?”
And they all stopped and listened. It was quite a contrast to the White House itself, which had gates and armed guards and was silent, and white, and, of course, very cold. There was no response from the White House, ever, to the poems that the poets had written and submitted.
And you submitted the poems. What happened?
We tried to submit some poems. We went to the gate of the White House and knocked, and asked if we could deliver some mail to Laura Bush, poems that we had. They said to wait a moment, and then they got some police, and the police arrived and we repeated our request. They explained that the White House no longer receives mail and that if we wanted to send something, we would have to send it to the White House, but then we learned that even that doesn’t go to the White House. So, here we were raising our voices, but in fact had no way to write down those voices and actually deliver them to the White House.
After the reading, we walked as a group to Congress, where we had arranged to meet with Representative Jim McDermott from Seattle and Representative Marcie Cantor from Ohio. The contrast between the reception we received at the White House gates and the reception we received in their offices was remarkable. They had tea and cookies set out, and we walked in, and the first thing they said was “We’d like to hear some poems.” And so we read. It was this wonderful moment where poetry’s value of creating connection, of speaking of the most intimate feelings and ideas, one human being towards another, happened in these offices, Congressional offices. There was warmth and quiet listening to our words.
And then there were readings all over the country?
After Poets Against the War became a media story, everyone learned about it. We had a website, from which we could organize other poets. We actually didn’t do any organizing, we just simply said: “On this night, Poets Against the War is going to hold a reading, feel free to organize your own reading.” And people did.
So, Poets Against the War put out a call for readings to happen on March 5. On that same day, we planned to deliver these 13,000 poems to Congress. We had found many representatives of Congress who wanted to not only accept them, but to enter them into the Congressional Record.
So we put out the call, and hundreds of readings were organized all over the world: in little tiny towns in New Mexico, in Washington State, in Ohio. And we would keep getting e-mails from people. They felt a sense of connection that they too could join, not just by submitting poems, but by organizing readings in their communities. And these readings were very well attended.
On that same day we held a press conference. Most of the press came, and we actually handed all 13,000 poems to the Democratic Progressive Caucus.
What was significant about Poets Against the War?
It remains in our memory as a time when people were given a chance to speak their opinion. One of the Italian poets wrote to say: “What’s the big deal? The President’s wife, the First Lady invites you to the White House, and you’re going to speak out against the policies, this happens all the time in Italy, how come this is such a big story?” But in America, it is.” So I think it remains a time when people felt they were given a voice. I also think it began a debate about the relationship between poetry and politics, which I think is a very healthy and very intellectually interesting debate to have.
Now there’s criticism of what’s going on in Iraq. Do you think that Poets Against the War had a role in opening up a debate in this country?
Perhaps Poets Against the War did help open what little debate there was at that time in our country about whether it was right to invade Iraq. What the poets understood, because we work in our imaginations, is that a policy of pre-emptive strike, which is based on what might happen, is no rational policy to govern relations between our country and another country. It’s based on fantasy. It’s also very dangerous. So I think the poets, in speaking out, speak about what reality is, whether it’s the reality of losing a father, or a son, or a brother in a war, or the potential of losing a son to war, or the impacts of war on communities, or the actual experience of war.
There’ve been many wonderful war poets, such as Walt Whitman, for instance, or Wilfred Owen, or Randall Jarrell, or James Dickey. All of them wrote quite movingly about the reality of war. So, the poets were trying to make people remember what war causes in countries, in people, in families, in communities.
Did you think your poetry could help?
At the time, before we invaded Iraq, I did not think my own poetry could prevent the United States from invading Iraq. But I did think poetry spoke, and expressed, what we do need to have: a strong society, a society in which we are connected to each other, and to all the other life forms on the planet. So, I continued to write poetry about that—one of many voices that was speaking out for life, and not for death.
I was crying for you.
You brought me a California poppy
in the scented warmth
under the eucalyptus.
You knelt beside me
and let your eyes be my eyes
to the bottom of the earth.
Was that the look we held
that later was no more?
A weight settled in me
as I became the person raised
without you. Come back,
moment in the grass.
Come back momentary father.